I've been struggling over how to write about our experience with Paris. I approach anything I put out in the electronic yonder as something that can come back to bite you. I know myself. I will mess up the "to" line in an email. I know facebook wants us to all be openly connected all the time. I know that someday my children will google me. I try to be mindful. I also know that I am but a tourist. We may be staying in Ireland longer than the average visitor but European cultures span millennia. I can talk about contrasts and similarities between the cultures but I'm kidding myself if I think I really have a complete picture. We spent 3 days in Disneyland Paris and less than 48 hours in Paris proper. And, I got the strong impression that Parisians are distinct from the rest of the French. So, you'll have to filter my perceptions through the knowledge that my experience was brief but vivid.
The architecture really was just as stunning as I expected and this was what I got to see while wandering the sidewalks, somewhat lost, in the rain, in temperatures just above freezing with 3 rather worn out and hungry children and everyone had some degree of a cold, cough and fever. But, you looked around and it was worth it. You saw beauty. You saw hopes You saw dreams. You saw ideals carved from the stones of the human earth placed into the heavens.
The food really was quite good and we were eating from vending carts, Metro sandwich shops, and hotel breakfast bars. You could tell that someone cared about what you experienced when you ate that ham and cheese sandwich. Someone actually took a moment to see if the lettuce was crisp and if the ham was marbled. The children are pretty sure that heaven is a crepe maker who uses a generous hand with the nutella. I was shocked by the amount of french you can apparently pick up through the immersive experience of having all of your food products bear labels in english, spanish, and french. Thanks, NAFTA!
The Parisians were actually quite pleasant and friendly to the children pretty much uniformly but as their mother, I was their buffer. I got the nasty looks if they stumbled and blocked the sidewalk. I got the curses when they spread out too far in the crosswalk. I got the sighs as they spent too long examining the miniature Eifel towers. I got the talking to when Megan was struggling with her coat (I was helping Noah with his at that moment). I got the repeated chastisement when Noah's stuffed animal dragged (I was carrying dinner at the time). Allen didn't figure into the equation. It was all on me.
In addition there was a general attitude that could best be summed up as "look out for number 1." I can see how this would have easily developed. You base a culture on beauty (with a heavy leaning toward external rather than internal), throw in the social contract, give a twist of secular humanism, see your country continually decimated in various wars, watch your population plummet and your culture therefore suffer some serious hits, and then, as a capper, have a good hunk of your children experience Nazi occupation. I can see how you would easily wind up with a culture where the only one you could really count on was yourself. I can even see how this would extend to the phenomenal level of social programs offered by the French government. If you can't count on anyone else to help you, you would want a guarantee of government assistance and if it benefits someone else, so be it. That's a happy accident. The greater effect on the economy or budget isn't really your concern. You need to take care of you. It sort of spreads out in ripples until you get to "France looks out for France."
When we interacted with people through their jobs, they were all friendly, kind, and generally quite competent. There was something of a key difference between other places, though, especially in Ireland. While you sometimes do get the impression that this person is simply doing their job and doing it well, you will often get the impression that there is also an element of this person just generally likes interacting with the masses. There is something motivating them beyond $12.50/hr. In Paris (and even more so in Disneyland), I got the distinct impression that it was all about the money. They will school you in how service with a smile is done but only because that is what they are paid for and also, because they are Parisian and obviously better than pretty much everyone. After all, if you are the only one looking out for you, you better be pretty damn competent.
Paris wasn't my favorite place. It had a lot to do with not liking what I became after about 12 hours of exposure. I did step up. I did get assertive. I did throw elbows and get in profanity laced shouting matches and, by golly, I did wish I had gotten me some acrylics. It's sort of comforting to know that somewhere, deep inside, under the chocolate chip cookie recipes, breastfeeding experience, children's book knowledge and perfect for cuddles on the couch squishy belly there is mama grizzly but I don't really want to visit with her on a regular basis.