Thursday, 14 July 2011

Happy Bastille Day

Back when I was a whippersnapper, I lived in Paris for a year. I even kept a blog about it, which I repeatedly referred to as a “web-log”. How quaint the early 2000s were.

As it was the early 2000s, my "web-log" didn't have any photos. So I did a Google image search on "early 2000s Paris" and got this.

One thing I learned from living in Paris is that you can’t ever complain about living in Paris. 

Say, for example, you express mild disappointment that, en route to the airport, you rolled your wheelie suitcase through a mountainous dog turd on the train platform. Your friends “back home” will respond “But you’re IN PARIS! At least you’re rolling your suitcase through a mountainous dog turd IN PARIS and not stuck in your boring office LIKE ME!!!!!” 

They always used a lot of exclamation marks.

This doesn’t happen when you live in Hanoi. I don’t think many of our friends “back home” are queuing up to swap places with us.  I don’t know why, since I always make it sound so awesome here, what with my constant references to rats and sewerage. But the funny thing is, I often find myself reflecting on how much happier I am here in stinky old Hanoi than I was IN PARIS!!!!!

Paris has rats too. They call them "les rats".

There’s a very pervasive misconception held by Francophiles that if they move to France, wear silk scarves and buy artichokes from the local market, they’ll be just like the French. But a foreigner living in Paris stands out just as much as a Tay in Hanoi. I had studied French for close to ten years when I moved there. I had read Proust in the original. I figured I was going to fit in just fine.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Instead, I discovered there were all these little social mores that were so ingrained in the French culture and so subtly executed that I couldn’t even work out what they were. All I knew was, I was doing them wrong. Wherever I went, whatever I did, you could hear a chorus of little tut-tuts in my wake.

 Sure, this is nice, but it would be better if it spelled out "Chúc mừng năm mới" in potted colour.

My finest hour was when I was invited to have a coffee by a French girl in my class. Excited by the possibility of securing a real, live French friend, I was on my best behaviour. I probably wore a silk scarf. And maybe, thanks to my excellent conjugation and knowledge of the classics of French literature, she thought, for a moment, that I might be worthy of her company. Just for a moment. Right up until the point when I got my little finger stuck in the handle of my espresso cup. 

That is correct. I got my little finger stuck in the handle of my espresso cup.

First, I had to ask her if she had any hand-cream in her bag. She didn’t, so I had to put my hand, with cup attached, into my coat pocket and take it to the bathroom, to work it off using soap.

I didn’t hear from that girl again.

This is Nathan in France a couple of years ago. He is gripping the pain au chocolat so tightly in case he slips and gets that cup stuck on his finger.

French people don’t get their fingers stuck in the handles of their espresso cups. And they don’t think it’s very funny when other people do, either.

And that, right there, is why I am happier in Hanoi. Here, every waking moment I am massively and spectacularly inappropriate. When I try my absolute hardest, I am at best ham-fistedly inept. It’s not so much like I have my pinkie stuck in the espresso cup; it’s more like I have shoved the whole thing up my nostril. And the Vietnamese don’t get embarrassed for me, or cringe, or tut-tut. No, they point and say, very loudly, to anyone that’s listening, “That fat Tay has such an enormous nose it can fit a cup inside”.

Because you can say whatever you like about being a foreigner in Vietnam, but at least you always know where you stand.
Coming from a different culture, without the weight of Vietnam’s traditions and long history behind me, I’m never going to fit in here, just like I was never going to understand How Things Are Done in France, even if I bought the whole market out of artichokes. So if I’m going to be floundering in a foreign culture, forever putting my foot wrong, I’d rather do it in a country that can laugh about it. A lot. If I’m going to look ridiculous, which I do, all the time, then I want to own it.

I probably should mention that France is actually my favourite country in the world, and the site of some of my happiest moments in life. I have been back many times since living there, and find myself physically yearning to return all the time. And yet the chances of me coming back to Hanoi after we leave: pretty much less than zero. Go figure!

I remember, in Paris, a fellow-Australian expressing exhaustion at trying to constantly maintain composure, second-guessing her every move lest she attract the dreaded tut-tuts. We compared notes on how many parties we had left in tears, and realised that “faux-pas” ain’t a French word for nothing. “They look at me” she said, “like I’ve just FARTED”.

I’m yet to fart in any Vietnamese social settings, but if I did, I know exactly what would happen: we would all laugh, and laugh, and laugh.


  1. I don't believe for one second that you haven't farted in a social setting. You just haven't been caught farting. Different. Very different. Carolyn x

  2. I will be attending a wedding in France later this year. Where I had been quietly excited, I now cower in fear. Going by what you say, I can almost guarantee that I will also wedge some part of myself in something inappropriate in front of tut-tutting Frenchies. Probably at the wedding.

    On the upside, I want to hear why you physically yearn for the place. It makes me hopeful. Also, does being a French speaker come in handy in anyway at all in Vietnam? xx

  3. I am LOLing at your web-log like never before. Spectacular :-)

  4. Carolyn: You're so right. I've pretty much farted my way across Vietnam.

    Wendy: Paris is an unbeatable place to visit, I just wouldn't necessarily recommend living there. Especially if you're poor (like I was) and in your emotionally vulnerable early 20s (like I was).

    I think I still yearn for France because there's no country I know of which believes so wholeheartedly in beauty. A French doorknob can take your breath away. Even the light there is somehow more beautiful. You will absolutely love it.

    It doesn't really come in handy speaking French in Vietnam, except with extremely old people, and funnily enough, French people. Vietnam is nowhere near as French as I thought it would be. Luang Prabang in Laos is actually more French than Hanoi.

    Karen: Thank you! I'm extremely pleased to be LOL-worthy.

  5. Here's a handy phrase to use, courtesy of Grounds Keeper Willie, the next time a snob nosed French 'tut-tut' ya.

  6. Great!

  7. I would really, really like it if you took a trip to Paris with a Vietnamese colleague and then wrote about those experiences. Oh the hijinks and lost crockery!

    Love your work as always lady.

  8. Hey, I heard about your blog through a friend at AsiaLife down here in Saigon. Absolutely love it! One of the funniest travel/daily life blogs I've read in a while. Also nice to see what's what in that part of the country, since most Saigonese claim everyone in Hanoi is evil and unfriendly and horrifically boring.

    P.S. In the interest of whorish self-promotion, if you want to check out a blog about Saigon, try to have a look at mine:

  9. Robert: Very funny. But then I started reading the youtube comments and thought WHY DO I EVER READ THE YOUTUBE COMMENTS. Sigh.

    Aladar: Amazing! Why have I not heard of this before?! I totally understand why it happens. I was bowled over by all the France-related products and fashion and shops and restaurants in Japan (I didn't know they were massive Francophiles until I went there... Is this a well-known thing?) and I distinctly recall saying to Nathan "God help these poor Japanese people if they ever actually go to France".

    Edyta: That WOULD be awesome. We'd probably get arrested for crimes against appropriateness.

    Michael: Thanks for your comment! I'll have to check out your blog, even though you're from the south, which, as we Hanoians say, is... umm... too hot...? And you put too much condensed milk in your iced coffee. So there.

  10. Prompted by your sorrowful reminder, I read the Youtube comments and was about to launch into a diatribe against the demoralizing decorums of our fellow 'netizens', when I realized that I too, used to deal with unresolved chilhood issues by leaving obnoxiously obscene anonymous messages on Youtube and elsewhere the world wide web, and thus, felt very sorry for myself. : (

  11. And no, those childhood issues haven't entirely resolved themselves.

  12. I took my Vietnamese parent's in law to Paris. Five minutes in my father in law turns to me with an exasperated and sweaty face,

    "Why are we in Saigon?"

    Tabitha, have you not tried singing in french here yet? 1920s nostalgic cafe songs will result in much awe and love from innocent bystanders.

  13. I was on the receiving end of the dreaded "tut tut" - by my own brother! We were in Lafayette Dept Store during my very first trip to Paris and I must say, I was a little over excited and no doubt shrieking due to the fabulousness of it all!

    He's not even French but can be a prat sometimes. I reckon he should have cut me some slack!

    BTW he was purchasing an article of clothing and he had five staff assisting him!

    Only in Paris!

  14. Bonjour! i'm french and i do live in Paris. Aaand... What's with the silk scarves? Where does that legend come from? i've never seen any parisian wearing one, and the only ones i got, i bought them in Hanoi, haha!
    But i know what you mean with all these silly "secret codes" on how to behave, what to say / do / pretend we have here. I get pretty upset by them sometimes. The worst, to me, is THAT exasperating typical parisian rule: never ever look surprised / happy / enthousiastic. It makes me want to punch people in the face. I sometimes do, and with a smile (it's the smile that's the worst part of it)!
    Still, i've been in love with Paris since ever, and i guess i'll keep it that way. Plus i've been enthousiastic since ever tto, no way i'm gonna shut that smile down!

  15. We're all laughing at your web-log, but when I first lived abroad, I'm pretty sure I'd never heard of a blog or web-log (in the earlyish 2000s no less.) Thanks for reminding me of some of my incredibly awkward "you'll never fit in, but keep trying" experiences.

  16. Patrick: Thanks for the French singing tip. I'll do anything for love and awe from strangers.

    Annie: Sounds like your brother might have gone native. There is absolutely nothing wrong with shrieking in Galeries Lafayette.

    Juliette: Bonjour (look, I've still got it!) and thanks for commenting as a real, live French person! There was definitely much scarf-wearing action in Paris in the early noughties (not those little tied, neck ones, but large, elegantly draped ones). I never did work out how to wear one properly. I heartily encourage to keep punching and smiling your way through Paris.

    Grace: Glad to hear my web-log was cutting edge, even if it was published using dial-up internet. And remember, not fitting in leads to the funniest stories. :)


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