Monday Morning Musings in Paris: Which part of the elephant are you touching?

G. Renee Guzlas, artist

Living in Paris, I'm quite often reminded of the tale of the six blind men who were instructed to touch one part of an elephant. The man who felt its tusk described it as a spear, the one who stroked its side believed it to be a wall and the blindman who touched its trunk was sure that it was a snake. While each one argued that his description of the elephant was correct and that the others were wrong, each of the blindmen's descriptions were accurate for that specific part of the elephant.

Still wondering what this tale has to do with Paris? Let me tell you a story.

When Stephane, Sara and I went to Chez l'Ami Jean for Thanksgiving dinner, we arrived around 7:30 p.m. because that's when we're used to eating in the evening. Walking into the crowded restaurant, I felt a bit disappointed when I noticed that almost all of the guests were speaking English. Based on the reviews, I had expected more of a local restaurant. But an interesting thing happened while we made our way through course after course of food. Slowly but surely, the English-speaking people were replaced by Francophones. Which makes sense because they usually like to dine later in the evening. When we finished our dessert around 10:30 p.m., there wasn't an Anglophone left. So, of course, if you ask one of the people who dined at 7:30 to describe Chez l'Ami they would probably tell you that it's full of tourists, while if you asked someone who arrived at 10:00 p.m., they would say that it's a hidden gem known only by the French. Both would be correct according to their experiences.

Likewise, my descriptions of Paris are going to differ from that of a French person, an illegal immigrant, a tourist or even another American expat, especially if it's their first time living abroad. But more than any of the other places where I've lived, I've noticed that people seem to feel as if their experience is the only "real" or valid one. Perhaps it's because we want to feel that Paris belongs to us, that we have a special relationship with her. We don't. She's like a capricious woman with many admirers who knows how to seduce us with her myriad of charms. Some of us are entranced by her architecture and museums, while others are passionate about her food and cafés.

One of my goals for 2012 is to interview some of the other residents of Paris and visitors because I want to understand more about the elephant than the small part that I'm touching as an American expat. Thoughts, comments, ideas?

Eiffel Tower in the fog. If you only saw it on this particular evening and hadn't ever seen a photo of it, your description would be quite different than if you saw it on a clear day.


  1. I love this post, MK. It's so true, we all have such different experiences. I love hearing other people's take on our little "village". ;)

    I had a girlfriend who moved here around the same time I did and didn't bother to learn French (poor thing) and her experiences were terrible. She thought (and maybe still does) Paris was the meanest place in the world. I know another person who comes here with her million dollar boyfriend and only knows the boutiques and restos in the 8th and 16th who thinks that Paris is a dreamland (wouldn't you if you got to have the entire Chanel cruise 2012 collection shipped home where the staff are paid to kiss your pilates toned ass? I'm not bitter...) and then there's me; a girl who got dumped, hates her job, lives in a 6 story walk up and think is Paris can be a real pain in the ass, saying that....

    Paris is like that guy you are trying to pin down in a relationship and just when you're ready to throw the towel in because you can't take pain anymore, you get charmed and pulled back in. For me, these moments come in the shape hanging off the back of a Vespa while passing the Eiffel Tower or having a noisette with new friends on the terrace of a cafe in the Marais or realizing that winter really does end in March (not in May like in NY!)!

    These little things make everything (the misunderstanding, the paperwork, Frenchmen antics) worth it where I feel like Paris is my own little secret.

  2. Ah, I love the insightful comparison, and I love your idea/plan for 2012.

  3. What a fascinating story and how well documented with the elephant sketch.... I've never heard about the blind men's tale and I am deeply impressed - as I am with your tale about eating in a French restaurant....
    But since we are all strangers in most places on this earth - we should take note and digest this information! I am a Swiss citizen, married to a Swiss man and have lived in several countries on two continents. My overall impression was and is always that if we ‘Do as the Romans do when being in Rome’ life is interesting, people are mostly open, and we can learn a new thing every day. It is true that we all have a tendency to judge before knowing the full story and thus walk through life blind-folded; NOT to do that was one of the great and important lessons my life has taught me and for that alone I’m thankful for all experiences made so far.
    As to ‘reception’ in restaurants in Paris: Hero Husband and I speak French fluently (my husband being French spoken anyway, he’s from the ‘Romandie’ in Switzerland) and yet, after a short while we’re always ‘outed’ by the serving staff – because we ARE different, we talk differently, we engage differently…. But we also adapt to the French ways when living in France.
    Thank you – I am really glad I stumbled over your blog although I have no idea how this happened. You probably commented (wisely) on one of the blogs I follow and I then linked your comment back to you – this happens occasionally!
    Have a merry and blessed Christmas! Bisous

  4. I think it's a fantastic idea for 2012! Reading other blogs and other's experiences have made moving here so much easier for me and I love when new people and their take on France is introduced to me via blogging! I'm looking forward to reading in the new year :)

  5. Mlle Ella, Your girlfriend with the Chanel cruise collection certainly lives in a completely different universe than most of us! That's why I'm hooked on your blog - it gives me an insight into what it's like to be you in Paris. You're living such a different life than me. I've never even come close to being on a Vespa, although I am thinking about trying out one of the motorcycle taxis for a post.

    And I could google it - but other than a hazelnut, what's a "noisette". I asked French speaking hubby and he doesn't have a clue either.

    Joseph, Glad to hear that you're on board with the plan! :-)

    Kiki, I just took a look at your beautiful photos and can't believe that you're from (?) Lenk im Simmental! Stephane and I used to live in Montreux and have wonderful memories of taking the Golden Pass to Lenk last year. We splurged and were at the very front of the train where you see the train tracks because the conductor sits above the car. It was gorgeous! We had lunch in Lenk and wandered around town before returning home in the evening.

    And I know exactly what you mean about the Swiss talking and engaging differently than the French. I'm so happy that you stumbled over my blog. It's a great pleasure to "meet" you.

    Warmest wishes for a very merry Christmas! And bisous - 2 like in France or 3 like in the French part of Switzerland, although I guess that it's 2 in Lenk, as well.

    kbh, I only started reading blogs right before we moved to Paris, and you're right - they're such a great way to learn about life in a new city. They also prompt me to consider trying to do things that I wouldn't normally do, like tackling Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon. Kudos for being so brave!

  6. Isn't a noisette the tip of a baguette or the end of a croissant?

  7. I hadn't come across 'touching the elephant' before. Very thought-provoking.
    I shall certainly look forward to reading any interviews you do. They'd be very eye-opening. I had thought about interviewing some elderly Nouzerinois before now, but their Creusois accents are so strong, even my bilingual kids can't always understand them! No hope for me.

  8. A noisette is a caffè macchiato. An shot of espresso with a dallop of steamed milk. Go to La Perle and order one from Eric...he'll make it nice for you. Tell him la petite américaine sent you. :)

  9. Joseph, I'm not sure what the French word is for the end of a baguette. Stephane says "crouton" but thinks that may be the Swiss word for it. I just did a google search and found a website saying that it's a "Quignon – The end bit of the baguette. Often torn off and eaten upon exiting a bakery" I'll ask the next time that I buy one.

    Steph, I'm sure that the elderly Nouzerinois would have some interesting stories but can understand that the accent would make it difficult to interview them.

    Mlle Ella, Should I wear my black trench coat and dark sunglasses when I order the noisette? It sounds like a mission! I may have to break the ban on my "no coffee" rule and try one of Eric's creations.


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