It’s no secret that, despite Bloombergian laws banning smoking in bars and restaurants, cigarettes are still everywhere in Paris in a way they just aren’t in New York anymore (go to a private party in Paris and prepare to take your jacket to the dry cleaner the next day). Café terraces are often wreathed in smoke. I can’t count the number of times a Parisian has casually flicked a cigarette over their shoulder and into my café crème.
That said, there’s one Parisian sight that elicits a special level of shock from visiting Americans: Fashionable, slim young parents (and they often are quite young, under 30, supported generously by the French government in their parenting) smoking outdoors in the presence of their babies or children. Ask Parisians about this and they’ll think you’re exaggerating. “That’s a myth,” said one (childless) friend. “French parents hide their smoking from their kids.” Another said, “French parents only do that outside in cafés, leaning away from their kids. Or on their balconies.” They miss the point that most yuppie American parents now think it’s a disservice to their health, and by extension, their families, to smoke at all, or even risk the guilt of watching their kids take up smoking in their teens (as a huge number of French kids do), knowing that they set the bad example.
New Yorkers new to Paris are also regularly startled to find that:
Parisians do not walk around in gym clothes or sweatpants unless they are actually exercising. After a few days in Paris, you will notice a far higher percentage of Parisians, male and female, who rock a nice scarf, a smart blazer, pressed pants, and formal shoes than you see in New York. Parisians find Americans who “hang out” in their sweats, even to run an errand, a little disgusting. "When I first moved here, I disliked having to get dressed up to go anywhere," says Pamela Druckerman, an American who has been raising her children in Paris for nearly a decade and is the author of the bestselling Bringing Up Bébé, a shrewd comparison of New York-versus-Paris parenting styles. "Now," she admits, "I'm slightly snobbish about people who walk around in sweatpants."
Parisian bobo (yuppie) parents have no problem lecturing, yelling at, or even occasionally smacking their kids in public. Though a free-to-be-you-and-me Montessori vibe has been creeping in in recent years, the traditional French teaching style — didactic, scolding, and "color the sky blue and the grass green or be publicly shamed" — has deeply influenced French parenting, even among the younger generation. A Parisian bobo mother has no issue with humiliating her bratty kid on a crowded sidewalk. That can elicit cringes from the kind of New York parents who try to have a reasonable conversation with their children even as they gleefully upend a cart of organic mangoes at the Tribeca Whole Foods.
Parisians do not talk to strangers. This can be profoundly disconcerting to a New Yorker who’s used to freely bitching about life’s daily indignities with whoever happens to be in line with them at Duane Reade. If you comment to a Parisian in the métro that the un-air-conditioned car is particularly smelly today, they will give you a frightened look like you are a crazy person and turn away.
"When I arrived in Paris, I was mostly bothered by the indifference," says Druckerman. "No one seemed to care that I was there. I walked around feeling snubbed. The aggressiveness of New York suddenly seemed almost friendly, or at least appealingly interactive. I couldn’t seem to make any French friends. By the time someone finally warmed up to me, I resented them for having been so cold for so long. I longed to banter with strangers."
But there's a flip side. Vanessa's a New Yorker who's been living in Paris for seven years. "This is a refined, elegant culture," she says. "It transforms Americans who live here. You learn to speak in a lower voice and react more slowly. Now when I go back to New York, I find people so reactive, both in happiness and in anger. And they shout! In Paris, you learn how to be discreet."
"Ten years on," adds Druckerman, "none of this really bothers me anymore. I can sit next to someone in the playground for hours without even hoping to speak to them. And I have somehow, improbably, managed to acquire some lovely French friends. I’m not sure whether I’ve evolved, or sold out, or both. But mostly, it works."
Meanwhile, Parisians new to New York are often aghast that:
New Yorkers are so plump. This may come as a surprise to New Yorkers proud that they are among America’s thinnest, but on the whole, New Yorkers are heavier than Parisians. Part of this is a certain pride in body diversity in New York that doesn’t exist in Paris, where a good friend will quickly tell you if you look like you’ve gained five pounds. Case in point: French TV writers, who adore Girls, routinely call Lena Dunham une boulotte. That’s French for a female meatball.
New Yorkers carry around their coffee. In Paris, the very point of coffee is that you sit down and take a break. You don’t walk around with a giant vat, fueling yourself throughout the day. Parisians find this amusing and horrifying, as they do the fact that everything in America, even baby strollers, comes equipped with a huge cupholder.
New York parents talk to their kids as though they are their peers. “Jonah, did you think last night’s Arcade Fire show was as good as last year’s?” is not something you will ever hear a Parisian parent say to his or her 6-year-old.
New Yorkers are hyperfriendly up front and then forget about you later (unless they need you). What we New Yorkers take for normal interaction when meeting new people — smiling, opening up, asking them where they live and what they do — Parisians find a terrifying blast of fakeness. "In Paris, people are quite cold at first sight and don't see the point in making particular efforts with strangers," explains Anna Polonsky, U.S. director for the French food blog Le Fooding, which has become synonymous in France with global foodie culture.
"However," she continues, "as soon as you get past that, they'll immediately invite you home for dinner or take you to their favorite bar for apéro. New Yorkers are the opposite. They're extremely warm at first and will call you honey, boo, or my dear in less than a second, but it takes years to actually become intimate with them. That cultural gap is very tough for a lot of Frenchies. They feel at first like they're in heaven compared to Paris, only to be let down and find out that they won't be contacted until they're worth the interest, or if they have cool things to offer at night."
Says Pier Fichefeux, a French art director and illustrator living in New York, "I had to get used to the fact that if somebody asks me 'How are you doing?' I don't necessarily need to answer." He also had to learn a few other things: One was which NYC subway stops you could get out at and turn back around without having to pay. The other was that "YMCA" was not only a song but an actual place.