Learning to Make a Dream

As I did my most Baudelaire flâner up the tree-lined Avenue Kléber through the sixteenth arrondissement in Paris, the Eiffel

As I did my most Baudelaire flâner up the tree-lined Avenue Kléber through the sixteenth arrondissement in Paris, the Eiffel Tower at my back did little to deaden the pangs of hunger in my stomach. Fresh off my flight from home, I had been promptly abandoned by my numbingly French host family and had bravely ventured out in search of my first French meal. Unfortunately, in this astronomically expensive and quite residential quartier, baguette sandwiches with camembert or jambon simply do not abound.

After an inordinate number of blocks, I could sense the blisters begin to burgeon on my heels. There I was in the City of Lights, which I had always planned to eat my way through, without a boulangerie, patisserie, or marché in sight. But I quickly forgot why I ever believed such joints were necessary when I discovered Mecca itself: La Maison du Chocolat. Too hungry to focus on row after row of ganache, truffle, or caramel, I proceeded directly to the macaron counter and promptly ordered an individual-size framboise from behind the glass.

This coaster-size sandwich of chocolate-raspberry filling squeezed between two rose-colored raspberry meringue wafers should be illegal. But it’s not, especially not in France where the likes of master macaron-makers Pierre Hermé and Ladurée have raised this confection to the nationally emblematic status it deserves. That jumbo macaron was all I ate that day, but it didn’t matter—I was officially obsessed with any way of life that facilitated consumption of these suckers on a regular basis.

The true Italian in me was determined to dislike the French from the moment I stepped into the living museum that is Paris. After a week of spontaneous picnics in the Jardin du Luxembourg, afternoon jogs beneath the Eiffel Tower and walks at dusk across the Pont Neuf, I told my dad over Skype that Paris would be the most amazing place in the world if we could just get rid of the French. He suggested that such negativity was perhaps not the key to optimizing my experience, so I tried hard to change my tune. Yet, amidst the riddling systems that structure quotidian life in Paris, my American sensibility and logic left me wondering what this cultural mentality was really all about.

Mon exemple préféré: working out. In response to my obligation to morning croissants, I resolved to break a sweat each day by running. My scenic jog took me from my apartment in the sixth arrondissement past dead Napoleon I and the golden dome of Invalides, around mounted policemen practicing at École Militaire, and up and back the Champs du Mars. I quickly noticed that, by and large, I was alone in my athletic pursuits on the streets of Paris until I reached some form of organized green: the French would not be caught dead running in the street, not to mention sporting conspicuously American gym shorts and sneakers in the metro. This was not New York. People do laps of the Jardins day and night, but where the hell were they en route to the park? How else was I supposed to get there? I couldn’t very well teleport myself or something when everyone else seemed to arrive dressed to be sportif.

When the weather turned too gray and rainy to rationalize running outside, I joined a gym. It was inconspicuously nestled at the back of a Hausmannian building on the rue de Rennes. This ex-pat in search of a good ol’ American gym complete with sweat and bad pop music found herself in a bastion of French regimentation reminiscent of both the public university system and local fromagerie. It was monitored by conseillers du sport—workout counselors—who suggested suitable speed, weight, and water consumption to gym goers. The gym enforced strict rules: two minute showers, no personal belongings in the workout room, and shorts on men only (not an official rule, but I was the only girl in shorts).

As with my gym, there’s an awful lot of structuring that goes on within both French culture and language. Understanding lingual differences through translation is a direct clue to a culture’s mentality. For example, in French, one fait un rêve—makes or does a dream—in English, you simply have one. The expression faire un rêve provides the quintessential example of the active nature of the French cultural mentality: in the French mindset, you invent, design, and construct your own dream in all its organized and aesthetic beauty. We, as Anglophones, experience dreams passively: visions appear to us in spontaneous splendor. In attempting to deconstruct the mystery behind the fickleness of French, I came to appreciate Paris not an aesthetic marvel better off without its inhabitants but as a physical manifestation of French culture itself. Paris is the French.

Various aspects of Parisian life continue to baffle me (namely the absurd Laundromat prices and taxing public library system.) But one’s first macaron à la rose at Pierre Hermé, a sunny afternoon at Sainte Chapelle, or the escargot at Robert et Louise in the Marais are absolutely and singularly French. And I’m happy to sit back and dream on.