For the first two weeks of this trip, I have been fortunate enough that the bosses on my day job at AOL have kindly let me, a contractor there, take a few weeks off of work. As a contractor, I didn’t get paid for that time, but I’ve been able to sort of take a break, and focus on touring around and seeing these cities rather than also working all day long. But that time is over — I need money just as much as everyone else, and so for the next two weeks, I’ll essentially be working from the road, putting up blog posts and working with our remote staffs from wherever I happen to be.

To get back into the swing of things, I took this day off from traveling, so for most of the day, I stayed inside my hotel room here in the Paris suburb of Bry Sur Marne, writing up blog posts and catching up on the news. It’s a weird feeling, going back to work while so far away. In some ways, I sunk right back down into the old routine like a comfy sofa, checking my regular news feeds, and catching up with my co-workers. But on the other hand, it was a little sad to realize just how far away from home I am. Working like this makes me think of home, and going out and driving around, visiting friends and chatting (in English) in bars, and actually knowing the streets around me and knowing what’s around the next corner. Oh, and the Internet — I don’t know if it’s just my hotel or the continent in general, but the Internet in Europe seems universally slow. I miss my bandwidth back home, too.

Not wanting to waste the day entirely, I decided to see if there was anything out here in the surburb that I could see, something I could walk to in the evening to check out. And sure enough, Google Maps showed me something called the Centre commercial les Arcades that was about a 30 minute walk away, so in the evening I set out to see what that was. Turns out that “Centre Commercial” means (duh) “Commercial Center” in French, which actually means “mall.” I’m from Los Angeles, so I know a mall when I see one.

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But it turns out that even in the most banal of settings over here, there’s enough difference from what we have in America that it’s still pretty fascinating to me. Ever since I got here, it’s been slightly colder than I would have liked, so I’ve been on the hunt for some cheap long sleeve shirts to beef up my mostly t-shirt mobile wardrobe. I wandered the hallways of the mall, stopping in various retail stores and trying on a few shirts, but I didn’t really find anything that was in my price range, or (and this was the bigger issue), in my size. I can confirm that French sizes are generally smaller than American sizes — I’ve lately been wearing XL clothes, and in America, that usually works just fine. In France, though, it wasn’t always the case.

Of course, that could be because I’ve been eating a lot of food since I got here — I can’t help it, their bread is just so terrific. And I thought it was because I kept picking up clothes that said “taille” on them. “Oh, these are all ‘tall’,” I thought. “Maybe they’re meant for more narrow people.” The jeans said “taille”, the shirts said “taille,” all of the clothes I saw said “taille” on them. The French must be really tall, I figured. Then I happened to stop in another store, and picked up a package of little cones that looked interesting — it turned out they were cones meant to be used to water plants, little sponge things that you could put on top of a bottle and let water seep out into a flower pot. And on the back of that package, it said the cones came in three “tailles.” “Taille” in French, I realized at that point, means “size.”

Other than the fact that everything was in French, the mall itself was pretty normal — there were not one but two video game stores in there, and an FNAC (the French version of Best Buy, I’ve learned), as well as a few other big department stores. It was refreshing, really — most of the places I’ve been have been very tourist-y, so to wander around an actual French environment was kind of satisfying. And there were quite a few times where people walked up to me and just spoke French, as if I fit in.

Most of the times, I faked it, but usually I’d accidentally say “Oh” (I guess French people don’t say “oh” when they’re surprised) or say some English, and then the French person would kind of give a little smile, and either speak to me in pretty solid English or drop into a sort of pointing/hand language communication. To be honest, it hasn’t ever been that awkward, and while I did have a few eyerolls in the middle of Paris when I revealed that I was a dumb American who didn’t speak French, most people in the country have been very nice. I think the French are just as aware of the stereotype going around that they’re annoyed by Americans, and they’re kind of grateful to have the opportunity to help squash it.

On the other hand, I have been asked directions a few times by Americans as well — at least a couple of people have come up to me, and asked in very stilted French where the bus stop or where the train station is. They are nicely surprised when I turn, point, and say in my midwestern accent, “The train station is over there.” I don’t know if they think I’m French or if they realize that I’m American, but I relish their dumbfounded looks as well.

Finally, I found a store in the mall called Carrefour, and this was the store I’ve been looking for since I got here — it’s the equivalent of Target or Wal-Mart in the United States. Almost anything you need at super cheap prices. Usually, I avoid these places, because I would rather support local shops (and in America, I know where the best prices are anyway). But in France, it just seems easier to follow the big blue signs and pay the cheapest price I can find. I did indeed pick up a sweater (though I didn’t find a good hat to wear — obviously I’ve got a few at home, but I didn’t bring any on the trip at all), and hauled it up to the front right before the store closed.

Checking out in France is very different as well, and maybe this is where Americans get their idea that the French don’t like them. In America, checking out of a retail store has a weird formal pattern — there’s a lot of courtesy involved, even though it’s usually just forced or faked (“Did you find everything today? Great, have a wonderful afternoon!” and so on). In France, though, I have found that there is no such courtesy. In the grocery stores, you need to bag your own food as you leave, and all I’ve ever heard from the clerks is the price I need to pay. Same deal in this Carrefour — the woman (who honestly looked like she hadn’t had that great a day anyway) sat behind the counter, scanned my sweater, and asked for my money. I gave it to her, got back no change (the sweater cost 10 euros, and while in America we’d have to pay sales tax on top of that, in Europe the price listed already includes all that, so the price is what you pay), and she passed me back the sweater. That’s it. No bag, no price tags off, no folding. She didn’t even remove the hangar the sweater came on. I walked out of the store with the sweater looking exactly as it did coming off the shelf.

Now, I’m sure some of this has been the places I’ve shopped at — if I went to a nicer retail store (and if I knew the language better), I’m sure the clerks would be a little more helpful. But the sense I’ve gotten here is that the clerks aren’t there to deal with you — they’re just there to run the store. That’s a slightly different mindset from America, I think, having worked in retail there for a few years. I don’t know if it helps or not, but I do know that the next time I buy something in America, I will be so happy for that courtesy, and I’ll probably spend a few minutes talking to the clerk for the heck of it, just because we both share a language I already know so well.

The last thing I saw on my little excursion in this Paris suburb (I didn’t bring my camera along, so no pictures, I’m sorry to say) I am hesitant to talk about, because I’m pretty sure I’m making assumptions about it that are wrong. But I will tell you what I saw anyway: As I left the mall, there was a small park across the street, and looking into the park, I saw what looked to me like a makeshift village — a few different “houses” put together with cardboard, blue plastic tarps, and other makeshift materials. There must have been at least four or five buildings in there, and I even saw a few kids running around, so it was a fairly significant setup. There was also a fire in the middle that I could see smoke coming off of, but obviously I didn’t walk right in or get too close.

I don’t know — is this a thing that happens in France? “Gypsies” is a racist term, at this point, I believe, and I don’t mean to offend anyone by saying it, but is that what I saw? I don’t know. It seemed strange to me that they could just live there, in the middle of a park sandwiched between a mall parking garage (the mall wasn’t the highest end mall — it did have a Target in it — but it wasn’t really terrible) and what looked like an office complex and a nice apartment building, without someone stepping in to see what was up. But from what I could see wandering around the outside without being too invasive, it was a pretty solid setup.

It was very interesting, and I wish I knew more about it. I walked home, surprised that even going to the mall, something I’ve done so much in my life, can be both the same and so different over here.

Posted on Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 at 2:59 am. Filed under general.
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