back Our second choice entry for the Welcome2France 2007 Essay Contest

They Think we're Nuts ... by Jean Arnevick

Our friends and family think we are nuts.

We have visited Paris three times since 2001, leasing four different apartments during the stays and "living" there for a total of twenty glorious weeks.

"Why not visit other grand cities in Europe?" "What's so great about Paris that keeps you going back each trip?"

Logical questions, no doubt. But, they just seem silly to us.

We are a retired couple in our early 60's.gray-haired, a bit overweight, not well-traveled by most standards, not at all wealthy, but totally open to exploration.

From the moment we emerged out of the Metro upon our first arrival in the city, we were completely unprepared for the sheer beauty of the buildings and avenues.

Over our morning café cremes, we decide what to see and do each day. And, without fail, our plans are completely altered by a sudden discovery of something else to investigate.

Of course, we hit the major sights and all the wonders Paris is so famous for in our days there.

But, it is those surprise discoveries that struck our hearts and have compelled us to return over and over again. We loved getting lost. It was never frightening, always thrilling.

While going through the famous Passages (world's first shopping malls) near our apartment in the Second Arrondissement, we bumped into the Hotel des Ventes Drouot Richelieu just as they were setting up the famous antique auction house for the sale that day. We were allowed to wander through the goods and marvel.

Coming out of the building, strolling down the street, we saw the Folies Bergere. Not as famous as the Moulin Rouge, but it thrilled us to see an institution we'd read and heard about all our just accidentally bumping into it while on a jaunt.

While staying in our apartment on rue de Sevres in the Seventh Arrondissement one year, we immediately noticed a huge, old department store right across the rue. It turned out to be Au Bon Marche, the oldest grand magasin in Paris and designed by Gustave Eiffel, himself. We entered the doorway to discover the most magnificent array of gourmet foods, vegetables, meats, coffees, confections, pastries and fruits we had ever laid eyes on. The French can display goods in ways no one else could dream of.

On another day, we accidentally got off the bus at a wrong stop and found ourselves on rue de la Pompe in the 16th Arrondissement, where lined up on both sides of the rue were nine second-hand clothing and accessory stores, all filled with designer labels, gently worn and reasonably priced.

It is impossible to name favorite neighborhoods. Each one has its own flavor and personality, just like the Parisians. We were never uncomfortable even among the 'working' ladies along rue St-Denis or among the pickpockets at the Marche aux Puces de St-Ouen (oldest flea market in the world).

Parisians are not unfriendly. They are respectful of one's personal space. They do not stare at you, nor do they return smiles on the streets or in the busses. This would be invading your private moment in their eyes. When approached in polite ways, they respond in kind.

The waiters will not place your bill on your table until you request it (they consider it rude to impose it upon you). Bus drivers and shop owners appreciate your greeting them upon entering their vehicle, or store. And, your saying 'Au revoir' when leaving. The shop owners consider their establishments an extension of their homes and you are to play the role of a guest once inside. Once you understand the French mentality, it makes perfect sense that a waiter will not hover over you to anticipate your needs (an intrusion to him) - he will be only too happy to help, once asked.

We do not speak French, other than simple basics. We always approach Parisians with quiet voices and say, "Parlez-vous, Anglais?". The immediate answer is usually "a bit" or "non". When we continue in our broken French, they suddenly not only understand us very well, but answer us in very passable English! Works every time! We always remember to compliment them on their great English.

They demand the highest quality (we witnessed a woman in a grocery store giving the produce manager a hearty lecture because his apples were bruised- she was insulted that he'd display those in her favorite store).

Since most Parisians live in cramped quarters, they entertain in the local restaurants, rather than in their homes. When you dine out, be prepared to be at the table for the entire evening. Each meal is prepared from scratch and lovingly presented. The French have learned to linger and savor like no other people on Earth. It is unique to Americans.

We would never consider living in a hotel in Paris. Apartment dwelling gives us the chance to shop in their fresh markets, amongst the locals, and to experience their grocery stores (quite small with very little variety of goods compared to what we are used to in the U.S.).

We love learning to use their kitchen appliances, their mysterious washers that also dry clothing. They have instant water heaters that supply hot water only on demand. We've made several Parisian friends among those in our apartment buildings - this is not something that would happen in a hotel. We settle in and live among them, see them going through their daily routines and enjoy the differences in our lives.

We share bus stops with elderly ladies (always carrying a bag with a tiny dog inside), the blue-collar workers from the suburbs, the high school students in their teenaged fashions and the professional men and women going to their office for the day.

How can we not return to Paris each year? There are too many surprises yet to find. Too many places in which to get "lost". We begin planning our return to Paris while on the Roissybus to CDG Aeroport!

Jean Arnevick - Olympia Washington, United States