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.”