There was also the street artist named Igor who I met on the stairs at Montmartre. He bought me an aperitif and began to eulogize our time together about twenty minutes in…”
by becca hall
Paris is a romantic city. Obviously. But I point this out because I came to Paris from Seattle, and Seattle is not romantic. Both cities are beautiful. Both have accordion players on street corners and lots of guys in skinny jeans. But everybody notices each other in Paris. They say bonjour. They want the conversation to go somewhere. Chez moi, for instance. It’s hard to feel invisible in Paris.
Men in Seattle don’t seem to notice women much, even when we aren’t wearing head-to-toe raingear. Probably they are busy thinking about the carbon footprint of two-percent versus non-fat lattes and if it’s a bad idea to go hiking in skinny jeans.
If you pass a guy on the street in Seattle, he passes you. If you smile at him, he might smile back, he might mutter hey and keep walking, or he might look startled and worried, like statistically you’re probably a sociopath. He will not try to kiss you. Actually, one guy did try to kiss me on the street once, but I’m pretty sure he was on drugs.
In Paris, even sober guys kiss you. One day on my bike I smiled at a hot guy in electric blue skinny jeans. He promptly wove through traffic on his scooter to pull up at my side. When I didn’t give him my telephone number, not having a telephone, he flung off his helmet and asked me to kiss him on the spot.
There was also the street artist named Igor who I met on the stairs at Montmartre. He bought me an aperitif and began to eulogize our time together about twenty minutes in. “I may not remember your face,” he told me, “but I will always remember this,” he swept his arm around the café, “this beautiful moment.” Then he waxed poetic about spontanéité, told me “aaaart is my religion,” and kissed me dramatically outside the Metro before disappearing into its hole.
There was the tortured Swiss playwright who took me to the park. There were swans. There were flowers. There was tinny classical music on his phone and his endless stinking cigarettes. He wanted to kiss me. I told him he smelled like my grandfather. Don’t tell people who want to kiss you that they smell like your grandfather. It hurts their feelings irreparably. On the other hand, they don’t kiss you.
There was the Turkish man at the café with his beautiful, shy-yet-flirtatious eyes and his immensely tacky, possibly-made-from-paper suit. His friend had to translate my broken French into Turkish for him, so mostly he smiled at me like I was a unicorn and he’d found me in a miracle. I may have accidentally told him I was a lesbian, but he still bought my drink.
Seattle is one of the most promiscuous cities in the U.S., according to my mother. But it’s hard to get far enough with anyone you meet there to misinform them you are a lesbian. Most people are too cool or depressed or faux-Scandinavian to say hi. So this all this promiscuity my mom knows about is kind of a mystery. Maybe everyone meets each other online instead of out in public space. Maybe they sleep with everyone they actually talk to, so they don’t have to talk to that many people to get laid. Maybe that’s why they don’t say hi – they’d feel obligated to put out. But in Paris, people don’t let you slip by. Even a three year old checked me out. “C’est magnifique, la dame,” he told his grandmother. We all laughed.
“I was taught that looking at girls made them uncomfortable,” my new boyfriend told me when I was back in Seattle. Which can be true, but in Paris I felt seen and I felt beautiful. Feeling invisible to everyone but the crazies is scary; feeling noticed and appreciated is nice.
And that’s the sweet spot between acting like every woman you meet is a probable sociopath and acting like a creep. Which is not to say that Parisians have all nailed this. For instance, the Parisian comic book artist who told me on the street that he wanted to draw my breasts.
“I’m a very direct man,” he told me after a short conversation on the sidewalk. “You know, when I first saw you, I immediately got hard. Does that flatter you?”
“Not really,” I told him.
But I got to thinking that guys in Paris and in Seattle might want to have some kind of convention and trade techniques and come to a happy, effective medium between grunting “hey” while hurrying off, and telling strangers about their erections. This would be the middle ground where they would actually have real conversations with women.
Think how many more sweet, shy men would get laid, like that poor man in Seattle who told me I was wearing “very interesting leggings,” and then ran away when I thanked him with a friendly smile.
Think how many fewer guys would stand in marketplaces yelling “My-baby-how-are-you-fine!” as women passed. These guys make me feel as invisible as the shy guys do; they answer their own questions, as if I don’t even exist.
Ironically, the Parisian/Seattleite How to Talk to Women Convention wouldn’t even be necessary if all those guys could just talk to me. I would tell them that it all comes down to one simple principle: Creepy attention overrides signals. Flattering attention responds to them. Lack of attention pretends they aren’t there.
It’s really that easy, no matter where you’re from.
Becca Hall’s work has appeared in Contrary Magazine, the Bellingham Review, Quick Fictions, Grist, High Country News, and elsewhere. She studied writing at Stanford and the University of Montana and is currently working on a novel. She is the director of Frog Hollow School, a writing program for children. More of Becca’s writing can be found at her blog thefriendlymoth.wordpress.com and her thoughts about teaching writing are found at https://froghollowschool.com/blog/