A tale of two cities

The Expat experience is re-evaluated by D. Joyce-Ahearne as he recounts his Parisian experience and looks at the difficulties of cultural assimilation.

Originally, when I was planning this reflection on Paris while still in the city, I was going to call it “Why I hate Paris”. It was going to be an all-out assault on the Parisian way of life; their lazy and feckless attitude to work, their general contempt for foreigners, their mind-blowing bureaucracy, their endless quest to make things as difficult as possible, all the awful things that they had done as a people to me personally over the last three months.

But I found, after my two week detox and cooling down period, that much to my dismay, I couldn’t write the piece I had originally intended to. I couldn’t because hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and though at the time, looking through the bleary, bloodshot, tear-filled eyes of the present, I had been ready to spew unthought-out bile, I found that once I had flown home and caught my breath I actually began to think about the summer soberly.

On reflection, I realised that my summer had been more than just a three month pissup. It had been an experiment in race relations and assimilation. I know, yeah, I was surprised too.

I had ended the summer jaded because I had spent three months fighting French culture tooth and nail. I had lived with all Irish people, worked in a Scottish pub and I had hung out exclusively with expats. I had never assimilated into French culture and yet all I could do was talk, or rather give out, about it. But how could I be so anti-French given that I’d seen nothing of Paris?

“We would overcompensate our pub culture by doing things like snorting Cointreau. The French don’t snort Cointreau; they sip it as an aperitif, over ice.”

The simple answer was that I had done what people have done throughout history, since the idea of nationhood first came about: I had ghettoized myself. I had arrived in a foreign place with an alien culture and decided fuck this, I’m out of my comfort zone so I’m going to do my best to pretend like I’m in Ireland and rail against the culture I find myself in.

And it was so easy to act like I was at home because there was a group of expats just waiting to do the same. We were no longer Irish or Mexican or Canadian, we were all just not French. The focal point of the expat community in Paris, or at least the one I rowed in with, is that great institution, the Anglophone pub; where everybody knows your name, or at least can say it properly.

We would overcompensate our pub culture by doing things like snorting Cointreau. The French don’t snort Cointreau; they sip it as an aperitif, over ice. In McBride’s Irish Pub of Rue Saint-Denis, the de facto Irish embassy for anyone whose business is not diplomatic, we snort it. I spent many a night at the bar, my nose leaking like a coke-addled junkie laughing at the French in my safe Irish bar. “They drink Cointreau! Hahaha! Wankers.”

The Anglophone pubs in Paris follow the rules of engagement of “real” Anglophone pubs in “real” Anglophone countries. That is to say, an Irish pub in Paris is meant to be just like an Irish pub in Ireland. So that means service au bar, which is an alien notion to the French. This is a source of much woe and humour to the expats. I’ve personally had bets with people at the Scottish bar I worked in as to how long we reckoned a French couple who had just come in and sat down would wait before coming to the bar. Because there was no way I was going to bring them a menu. It was a pub, you got served at the bar.

Now in hindsight this was ridiculous on my part. Why? Because it wasn’t really a Scottish bar. It was a bar in Paris so that makes it a French bar. We could all speak Scots Gaelic for all the world to hear but ultimately we were a French pub, with a Scottish theme.

So logically, as one would expect of a pub in France, French people will come in. And for me to stand around and not give them a menu because I reckoned that they were being culturally ignorant was absurd. In France, French people get served at the table, and they pay afterwards when they’re finished drinking. And if our bar had a different policy then it was up to us to make them aware of that.

The fact that we were a pub and had a drinks menu showed that we were fully aware of the fact that we weren’t a real Scottish pub. The only place that there are real Scottish pubs is, of course, in Scotland and they don’t have drinks menus because they don’t have French customers.

Admittedly then, a large part of the reason that I found myself hating Paris was that I didn’t try and assimilate. To an extent we ostracised ourselves. But having said that, the French don’t exactly have a history of welcoming immigrants with open arms. Whether I actively tried to assimilate or not, should the French be open towards other cultures? Of course. Were they? Not particularly. Our “pub culture”, to them, was something that was seen as a somewhat savage remnant of our Celtic past.

“One night I had a knife pulled on me and the abuse that came with it was directed at me as a “white boy”. I had never identified as “white” before. Twice in my life, I had been told ‘You’re not white, you’re Irish’”

So often, we would get Parisians coming into our bar and see our happy Irish/British pub as a place where the usual Parisian decorum wasn’t required. They saw them as places where they could tap into their Gaulish id and drink heavily and be obnoxious.

The idea that we didn’t do table service was to them a barbarous practice. Pay before I drink my drink? Why don’t I just fucking drink it out of my cupped hands? Drinking a full pint and not a demi was a slovenly Gaelic custom that led to depraved island antics. So though we were guilty of railing against French practises, the Parisians were already coming from the point of view that our culture was inferior anyway.

However, it couldn’t be said that we were “institutionally discriminated against” because had we, the Expats, abided by French bar norms then there probably wouldn’t have been any problems. Because we were Western and white.

The other immigrant group of note that we had the most interaction with was the North African Muslim community. Anyone who has half an idea about French politics knows that immigration, particularly from Islamic North African countries, is a growing concern for the French, and that views we would consider quite right wing are not looked upon as being too far out for many French people.

We could relate to the Maghrebiens because the idea of the Parisians looking upon our pub culture as savage is, unfortunately, a parallel that can be drawn with the views held by many of Muslim North African culture.

But our commonality was one of kind, but not degree. It’s generally accepted that the French are more hostile towards North African Muslim immigrants than they are towards Anglophone bartenders. But we had a common link with the North Africans. We were both immigrant communities, whose culture wasn’t valued by the natives. We both were reluctant to assimilate because of this and we both received hostility as a result.

As I’ve said, the extent of the “hardship” we faced was that we found the French difficult and contrary and differentiated ourselves from the natives along the lines that we knew how to use a pub and could work more than three hours in a row without a half-hour break.But the situation for North African immigrants is a very hostile one, and it was no surprise to us that we, as “whites” were often on the receiving end of their individual acts of retaliation against systemised oppression.

We had some bad experiences with Maghrebiens. One night I had a knife pulled on me and the abuse that came with it was directed at me as a “white boy”. I had never identified as “white” before. Twice in my life, I had been told “You’re not white, you’re Irish”, the message being that white had colonialist implications and that though I was white, I was also from a historically oppressed race and that preceded skin colour. But to this angry Maghrebian I was just white, the same as the French society that institutionally discriminated against his culture.

Could we or the French be surprised then when we were regularly hassled by groups of young North Africans? Living in a city where they are systemically culturally neglected, are we surprised that they hassle white people? How, and indeed why would they even think to, differentiate a group of white Irish from white French?

Both groups found ourselves in a place where because of our culture, we were being looked upon as not as good as the French. Now, for us, a group of assorted pan-First-Worlders (France excluded naturally), this didn’t go very far and wasn’t endemic. We had some Parisian customers who got thick with us when we told them that they had to order at the bar. They would cry that we were in France, we do it the French way and we would have to try and tell them that in this Scottish bar, we do things this way. But that was the extent of it.

Now obviously this isn’t the same as introducing a culture of the burqa, but we experienced, to some degree, what it was like to feel somewhat ostracised because we weren’t native and came from another culture. The plight of the Maghrebien immigrants in Paris is a severe one and having spent a summer on the receiving end of French chauvinism (to however limited an extent) I empathise with the difficulty of their situation.

While I was in Paris I was too busy giving out about the French to recognise the factors at play that were contributing to my disdain for Paris and my general aura of jadedness. Much of it was self-induced. So instead of “Why I hate Paris” I’m going to call this “A Reflection on the difficulties of assimilating one culture into another and the importance of stepping back from the situation and recognising that maybe I, myself, am partly at fault and that perhaps when cultures collide problems arise that can’t be solved easily and need dialogue.” But that was too long so I went with “A Tale of Two Cities”.

D. Joyce-Ahearne

D is former Contributing Editor of Trinity News and Trinity Graduate.