Monday, June 2, 2008
Smile, You're in Paris
As I was listening to a song on the radio the other day whose refrain went “I don’t like going to sleep at night because I’m afraid I’ll wake up dead,” it occurred to me that one thing I like about living in France is that while in the US I’ve often been scolded for being too gloomy, here I am considered a cockeyed optimist. As a child living in southern California, I was regularly assaulted in the street by strangers who ordered me to smile. Looking pensive in Laguna Beach was a crime on a par with spitting on the flag or making fun of the high school pep squad. Things improved when I left town, but while my outlook on life has brightened considerably, I have never been accused of being intensely upbeat.
That is, until I moved to Paris. Here, the fact that I smile at all pegs me as happy-go-lucky and possibly missing a few synapses. The American tendency to grin from ear-to-ear when at a loss for something to say has long been interpreted here as an indication of mental deficiency—which in turn is used as an explanation for odd behavior and questionable foreign policy choices. While I can’t be sure of my neighbors’ assessment of my mental capacities, I can say that they seem to find me a little giddy and strangely cheerful. Even small children think I am unusually silly, which may be true, but I wonder if it isn’t because French parents pay a lot more attention to decorum when hanging out in the park with their kids. I would hazard to guess that I am one of the only parents on my block willing to play monster and chase my 6-year-old son and his friend back to school after lunch. This doesn’t seem like a very big deal to me, but my son’s friends seem to think its license to play me for a fool whenever the opportunity arises.
Have I turned into a goof-ball since I’ve moved to France, or have I just fallen into another cultural reality gap? Am I now rebelling against the norm by being stubbornly smiley in a place where outward expressions of joy and enthusiasm are usually reserved for weddings and soccer victories? I have to admit, I’m generally pretty happy about living here, which might be making me unduly jovial. I’ll bet that would make the Smile Nazis back in Laguna happy. Or would it?