Parisian Codes: Observed and Unobserved

By: Katie Petersen

When I woke up groggy for my last day in Paris, I knew I was late. The sun streamed through the white curtains to warm my face; no blaring alarm greeted my ears; and my roommate was nowhere to be seen. I jumped out of bed and ran to check my phone, afraid of the missed calls and messages I was sure to see from the friend I was supposed to meet early that morning. Instead, I was relieved to see she had just woken as well. “Breakfast in our pajamas?” she asked.

When we met minutes later in the modern-chic hotel lobby, where fresh croissants and orange juice awaited us and Parisians in black strolled past the wide windows, something didn’t seem right. Maybe it was the perfectly put-together passersby outside, or the buttoned-up manager who greeted us, but we didn’t quite feel at ease in our pink and blue, baguette- and beret-dotted pajamas.

We would have done well to remember the words of our professor from the other night, who had said, “You’d never put your sneakers on and teach a class [in France]; we’re kind of conservative in this way, and Americans tend to be much more relaxed.”

The manager was smiling, but tongue-in-cheek, as he complimented our attire. We ate our croissants quickly, then returned to our rooms (where the pajamas belonged).

We learned this lesson, about the governing codes or convenances in France, throughout our week in Paris. Later that day, I (a dog-lover) was delighted to see a dog accompany its owner onto the metro. But the man next to whom the owner sat was not as thrilled. He threw a questioning look down, eyebrows furrowed, when he noticed the new four-legged transit rider, a look which grew to distaste and impatience when the dog began exploratorily sniffing the man’s shoes and pant legs. In short order, he rose from his seat and shifted to stand by the door instead. It seemed this rule was about personal space. There may also be another, official rule about pets on the metro.

But whether related to dress or interactions, all decisions in France appear to be dictated by these convenances about what is appropriate and what is not. Princeton Dean Rebecca Graves-Bayazitoglu, who lived in France after graduating college, SAID that here, “there is a much greater distinction between public spaces and private space.”

Pajamas, for instance, are private and should not be worn to a public breakfast. Puppies, even cute ones, should not be brought on the metro because they might intrude on someone’s personal space. When I saw the dog, I thought of my other professor’s admonition earlier in the week because I had brought a to-go cappuccino onto the metro. “It could spill,” she had said, relating an incident when she had spilled her own cup of coffee on the floor of the metro. The disapproving stares of several other riders had met her. “I cleaned it up,” she said, an unnecessary assurance.

In America, I consider myself a relatively private person. I don’t wear pajamas to school; I’ve only woken up late and run to class in my slippers a handful of times. But the French taught me new lessons about private life and with those lessons, gave me a greater appreciation for the experiences I had in Paris. I am grateful for every smile I received, knowing now that smiles are not for the general public in France. I understand, now, how much of an honor it was to be quietly invited to enter the kitchen of our Saturday-night bistro and taste-test the sauces being prepared for our group.

The convenances of Paris certainly took some getting used to. But because I am familiar with them, the eight days I spent in France now feel like a treasured opportunity to break them: to see the behind-the-scenes, the private life, of Paris.

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