Some Random Things I Can’t Understand About the Places I’ve Lived: On Parisian Small Talk

Since no other areas of my life have nurtured that spark of curiosity *quite* like traveling and studying languages, I’ve let it be a focal point in my life. But for all my efforts, my attempts at cultural immersion have resulted in some of the strangest misunderstandings. I’ve decided to document a few of the random quirks I can’t seem to understand about the places I’ve lived.

First up: small talk in Paris.

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I’m a need-to-know kind of a girl. On any given Sunday you can find me curled up with my favorite language-learning apps, thinking aloud about a number of different hot topics, and following my curiosity down the black hole of internet research and conspiracy videos. For me, the thirst for knowledge is about more than just obtaining a degree or a diploma.

It’s a whole lifestyle practice.

So good thing I found myself in my early twenties living and studying in the bustling metropolis and cultural epicenter known as Paris, France.

I say this with humor and admiration, but there’s nothing French people enjoy more than arguing for the sake of arguing itself.

How can they not? They’re the descendants of the European Age of Enlightenment, where prominent thinkers met over pastries to discuss new ideas while questioning the status quo.

The literal cutthroat leaders of the guillotine Revolution itself.

Throughout the course of history, the lively debates of the salons de culture have given way to scholarly round table discussions and intimate gatherings between friends and acquaintances.

photo of person pouring wine into glass besides some cheese pairings

Photo by Ray Piedra on Pexels.com

During my year as an international student living in Paris, I had the pleasure of  attending countless dinner parties while drinking way too much wine at the request of my French host mother—a refined woman who knew, as I came to know, the importance of a good bottle of Bordeaux.

Between sips I remember thinking that the art of conversation à la française is a well-honed skill, refined over years and years of rubbing elbows with seasoned skeptics and inquisitive thinkers.

Politics, Religion, Human Rights – nothing is off limits.

But before the wine can really get to flowing there are a few inevitable moments of polite small talk between people meeting for the first time. So today I want to mention two topics of conversation that will likely come up at any French soirée.

I mean it’s not a job interview or anything, but if you know French people, you’ll know what I mean when I say it’s better to be prepared, lol.

#1: Tu fais quoi dans la vie? Which roughly translates to “What do you do in life?”

No matter how many times I hear it, I swear I’m never prepared for this one and I can barely even begin to understand it.

Maybe because my mind’s always moving a mile a minute, making little connections and pinging several new ideas for good measure. If I’m not careful I’ll send myself into an existential spiral right then and there.

Well what do I do in life?

Taken at face value I’m tempted to offer some long, drawn-out explanation of who I am as a person, what my general interests are, my hopes, dreams, side projects, philanthropic endeavors—enfin.

But after peeling back the many layers of this question I find that it’s nothing more than a beautiful way to ask what the hell you do for a living and how much social capital you hold. -_-

Go figure!

#2 Expect to discuss your living arrangements at length.

Which arrondissement do you live in? Do you prefer life on the left bank or right bank? Your answer to this line of questioning may determine how others see you and potentially says something about your personality and interests.

And then there’s the question of size.

I have to say, watching people quantify their living accommodations in terms of mètres carrés (square meters) was one of the strangest things I’ve ever witnessed. Obviously, the American in me cringes internally at having to apply spatial reasoning while using the metric system.

After months of scratching my head over this one, things began to slowly make sense as I learned more about the culture.

Georges Seurat - A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Georges Seurat – A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – Photo by xiquinhosilva on Flickr

Just for context, the concept of a backyard, front porch, and personal space are completely lost on Parisians. The vast majority live in apartment buildings with limited space for outdoor recreation. City sidewalks themselves are barely wide enough for two fully-grown Americans to pass by each other without a minor kerfuffle ensuing.

On top of that, many students and young people leaving the nest for the first time will take up residence in what are known as chambres des bonnes. Inaccessible by elevator, these tiny rooms are located on the upper level of an apartment building in a secluded hallway originally intended for household servants.

Given all this, I guess I can sorta kinda see why space is such an important topic of discussion, but I still find it bizarre to ask someone about the size of their apartment. Maybe that’s just me.

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I love talking culture and exploring all the things I cannot understand. Drop me a line and share some of the other interesting observations you’ve made about French culture.