an unamerican in paris


Not that you asked for it or anything, but I thought I’d spew forth a few random observations from 2 1/2 weeks in Europe. Those bored by such things have my permission to surf the fetish porn of their choice, but since it’s my blogiversary (EIGHT YEARS, BABY!) we’re past such formalities, are we not?

Travelogues share the same space as “old college stories”, “other peoples’ dreams” and details about weight loss: unfathomably dull to everyone but the main participant. This is why I never write about our travels (well, that and because I don’t want to over-reinforce the obvious truth that we’re posh liberals who hate America). When I do wax peripatetic, I try to keep it short and post lots of pictures.

But here’s a few random things for those of you traveling in the near future:

1. Clothes – Actually, Caroline did ask about what the nicer-lookin’ Italians and French were wearing, and Tessa has this report:

Ballet flats are definitely still in – particularly colorful ones. Lots of short skirts (mini to knee) with short boots – mostly slouchy but all are working, including the mini-cowboys.

There’s a style I can’t really get behind, but is definitely prevalent: short skirts with black opaque stockings and flat sneakers like chucks or keds. Looks hideous but the girls love it. Scarves are still happening. Skinny or wide, but definitely long. Colors rather than black.

And the French classics are definitely still around – striped boatneck Ts, slingbacks, silk cardigans. Nothing particularly interesting going on with pant length. Skirts are on the shorter side. Haven’t seen any long skirts except on exceptionally refined older women.

Have fun!!

As for me, I bought these light hiking boots at REI because they were waterproof and had Gore-Tex lining, and I wore them every day of the trip in every kind of weather. They get an A+ recommendation from me, as long as you get some Superfeet insoles.

Also, if you have a couple of dimes to throw at one of those new breathable super-light waterproof jackets, they’re perfect for that European cold humidity that can make you hot and frozen at the same time.

Terlets – London – fine. Paris – good. But Italy’s toilets? Oh my god. I know I’m a bit of a hygienic neatnik prissypants, but I visited a couple of toilets in Rome and Florence that make Oklahoman truck stops with glory holes seem sterile. Often no toilet seat, no water, no paper products, and always no soap. Just bring your own personal cleansing wipes, OK?

Doors – I don’t know if this bears mentioning, but automatic doors in Europe open about two seconds after their American counterparts – which means if you’re an American, you’ll be smashing your face into a lot of automatic doors that haven’t opened yet.

Maybe that’s a statement about our weight, or our entitlement, but I know I got used to slowing way the fuck down before entering a building.

Hair – If you’re thinking about getting a haircut before your trip, FOR GOD’S SAKE do it. You know that day when your hair Officially Gets Too Long™ and it’s suddenly bugging the ever-livin’ crap out of you? That happened to me on the flight over. I spent 2 1/2 weeks being bothered – I mean, look at that picture of Lucy and me and imagine having hair like that everywhere you go. I mean, yes, besides my silly choice to have hair almost like that all the time.

Some Stunningly Over-Generalized Comments – The Italians are rude en masse, but amazing one-on-one. The French are the opposite. The Italians are an ice cream culture with an amazing gelato store every block; I asked a French storekeeper where I could get Lucy an ice cream, and she sent me to the frozen foods section of a market at half-mile away.

I got the most amazing Italian shirts in Paris for a pittance, the best croissants in Italy. People speak of getting Stendhal’s Syndrome in Florence (dizziness, hypertension, and hallucinations when surrounded by a magnitude of beautiful art) but if we got it anywhere, it was Paris. And there’s one thing that I can’t get over: when all is said and done, I think we belong, someday, in London.

Flying – There is no way to prepare for flying internationally in coach; like bad news, it can only be endured. I’m not sure what the answer is, especially for those of us six feet or taller – first or business class is prohibitively expensive for most mortals, which leaves the bulk of humanity sitting in a tiny seat for eleven and a half hours.

Yes, I know airplane travel is magical, and yes, I apologize to my forefathers reading this from the Great Beyond, and how they had to take a 3-month sea voyage replete with cholera to get to another continent. We’re spoiled silly, it’s true, but it’s still amazingly hard to sit in one cramped pen with room for only one of your legs, for a whole human day while fighting jet-lagged fatigue.

There is no wifi, no internet, and no power source – every piece of electronic distraction you possess will die before the flight’s half over. There is only you and your lumbar vertebrae, engaged in constant discussion.

And yet, it is so purely, absolutely, unfailingly worth it.


Jack and Lucy in Rome

0 thoughts on “an unamerican in paris

  1. LFMD

    I am not a big traveller, and when we went to Europe for our honeymoon, we played it safe and went to London and Scotland because of my fear of I-Can’t-Speak-the-Language. Which leads to my question. . . how does the language barrier work while traveling in Europe? Is English spoken universally? Is the fact that I only learned Spanish and have not spoken it fluently since 1986 mean that I will have a stressful time traveling in Europe?

  2. Anne

    Laurie, I’ve only traveled in Italy, Ireland, and Colombia, so my European language-barrier experience is very limited. But we found in Italy that shopkeepers and restaurant/cafe servers in the big tourist destinations usually spoke serviceable English. Not so much when we spent six days in the interior of Sicily… but somehow, during a two-hour cab/limo ride from the airport in Catania to our destination, my husband (speaks Spanish but not Italian) and the limo driver (no English at all) carried on a constant conversation, complete with fabulous gesticulation on both sides, occasional forays into the Italian/English travel dictionary, and facial expressions. The driver took us first to his house (this was in a little city called Canicatti) to meet his wife and younger son, age 14. We sat in their kitchen and ate almond-flavored cookies and sipped liqueur, and “talked” for at least an hour. I somehow communicated with the son about Michael Jackson! It all works out.
    I did find that in both Italy and Colombia that when I attempted to speak the native language a bit, I would slip into French (the only 2nd language I studied for any lengthy period of time). It was pretty comical!
    Also: for several months before going to Colombia I listened to Berlitz tapes in my car during my daily commute, just to get my ear used to it. Sort of a mini-immersion experience.
    Ian, I love the observations in this post. My best travel garment for the month we spent in Italy and Ireland (June/July 85) was the pair of lightweight “field pants” I bought from LL Bean… They were comfortable both in the baking sun at an archaeological dig in Sicily and in Ireland’s very cool mists and rains. Also: lots of pockets!

  3. Joanna

    Tessa, are women our age wearing mini skirts? I still wear them, but would do so more confidently if it weren’t for a sign at the commercial break on What Not To Wear which reads “No mini-skirts after 35.” Thanks for being our fashion scout!
    LFMD, I think you’re really safe with a language barrier in Italy. Italians will adore you for trying to speak Italian and engage in laughter filled rounds of charades with you when they don’t speak English.

  4. Piglet

    BOOKS, Ian! Bring some paperback novels with you on a long flight. Preferably a five-volume sci-fi/fantasy trilogy or some cheap whodunnits that will keep your brain occupied. You’ll be at your destination before you know it.

  5. kent

    I don’t think lacking the local language is a deal breaker in western europe. It behooves you to learn ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and the world gets miles easier if you can understand the numbers in the local language.
    Nearly everyplace really worth visiting will have pockets lacking English speakers. We went randomly to a seaside resort town on the Brittany coast, and not only was there no English spoken, we were so obviously so un-French in the Frenchiest of location, we were gawked at as though we were giraffes grazing their trees.
    Smiles always translate, and if you don’t start TALKING IN ENGLISH LOUDER to overcome the language barrier, people seem willing to play pantomime guess-what-the-tourist-wants. As David Sedaris has observed, to the French, foreigners who can’t speak French seem like brain damaged babies to them; your best bet is to try somehow to be adorable about it.
    It pays to read up on Wikipedia about local customs and manners. In my anecdotal experience, the Italians are hard to offend, so long as you’re not actually trying to offend them. The French expect you to be a moron, and seem pleasantly surprised if you get a social interaction correct. Some Germans will get upset if you transgress their unwritten social rules, which are numerous and byzantine in their complexity.

  6. michelle

    I’m so glad you all had such a wonderful time, that Lucy got to play with friends in far-flung lands, and that you are home safely.

  7. Rebecca

    Friends, I’m home! I had an amazing 3 days in Florence and 5 in Rome. The art/food/people were generally amazing. I’m incredibly tired after the 24 hour trip home, and if I could just share one travel experience: try not to change planes in the USA after an international flight. I flew from Rome to Chicago (10 hours) then missed my connection to LAX because I got held up in customs (by the sheer volume of people, not me personally) and so 20 of us were forced to fly standby. It was only because I was traveling alone that I got home last night. At least 10 people were booked on a flight leaving CHI at 1:20 this afternoon.
    More later via Facebook. I almost cannot think right now because I’m so exhausted!

  8. Ian

    Ditto on the changing planes – it’s rough on either leg of the trip.
    LFMD – it’s true that everyone, at least everyone who is selling some goods or services, speaks English. However, the thrill of speaking to people in their tongue is too much for us to pass up… Tessa took a year of Italian and KICKED ASS on this trip. She managed to talk to an Italian computer guy about the SIM card I needed for the Express Port adapter on my Macbook for internet.
    My French, which I was lucky to learn early as a kid, came back by about the fourth day in Paris, and the gentleman at Le Maison du Whisky gave me a bottle of 1995 Glenfarclas after I’d talked to him for a half hour.
    The person hardest to understand? The cockney cab driver who drove us from St. Pancras station to our digs… he had the kind of accent you thought had surely died out by now.

  9. Salem's Little Sister

    I found a southern accent gets you pretty far no matter what country you’re in, y’all.

  10. Caroline

    Ian/Tessa – Were women in their 30s wearing short skirts or just the young girls? Eek. I feel nekkid in minis. Thanks for the help. I have some cute little sneakers so that is handy that I can wear those and not look like a Crazy American.
    LFMD – don’t ever let lack of language deter you. I happen to speak a few Romance languages so that makes Europe easy. But if you don’t, if you can pick up 5 local words, smile and not yell at people you’ll be fine (not that you would yell at anyone). At least they have the same alphabet. I was in Asia last fall and holy $%&* – it was just weird being somewhere where I had No Clue. But again, I learned hello and thank you in Cantonese, Vietnamese and Khmer and they all about died when Big Roundeye Lady could even speak a word. They all spoke English (which is so amazing) but they were completely tickled I could say one single word. People just want to see you try.
    Speaking of – want a good story? I was in France and I spoke a tiny bit of French but I was fluent in Spanish so I could sort of wing it. I was in the middle of nowhere so no one spoke English. I was in desperate need of earplugs so I went to the drugstore. I wandered the aisles and couldn’t find any. I had no idea how to say earplug so I mustered all my pride and went up to the pharmacist and said (in French) that I was looking for something but I had no idea how to say it. So we started playing charades, she still didn’t get it so I braced myself and said (in French) ‘it’s like a tampon for your ear, so you can sleep’ and then I put my finger over my mouth and made the ‘quiet/shh’ charade. She laughed, clapped with glee and took me by the hand to show me where they were. When I picked the ones I wanted and went to pay, all the people who overheard me clapped and said ‘Bravo!’. It was mortifying and utterly hilarious and sweet at the same time.
    My advice to anyone who will listen is to travel far and wide, as often and to as many places as you are able. Get out of your comfort zone – it’s the best education you could ever ask for.


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