The subtle differences of being in America versus being in France have become all the more pronounced since stepping off the plane on Monday evening: the nuances of the Boston accent that linger in my parents’ speech, the way that everyone has something to say to each other no matter the circumstances, the casual dress required of New Englanders during the bitter winter months. Whether driving down an ice-laden road to get an iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts or sitting on the couch listening to my parents banter while I dig my nose into a good book (my Christmas gift: Justine Picardie’s new biography of Coco Chanel – it’s amazing), I can’t help but bemuse myself at what the French would be doing in any given situation.
On Monday night, I arrived at Logan Airport tired, wearing an eye patch, and jetlagged beyond belief: I had been awake since 6:30 in the morning, when I was driven to the airport with Dmitry, my distant cousin who was flying back to Moscow to continue work. I had slept (barely) in 2 hour increments on the plane, which were interrupted by a 10 minute trip to the bathroom that involved 2 different eyedrops and an excessive amount of sanitizing. My ears, stubborn as they are, refused to adjust to the pressure changes during our descent into Boston, resulting in pain beyond belief: I could barely see, I could hardly hear, and my ability to walk in a straight line was hindered by a combination of the two. I threw myself into my parents’ arms the second I saw them – well, the second they saw me, since I couldn’t actually see them – and immediately felt a wave of relief wash over me. Ah, to be home. We continued to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts, where I literally jumped up and down at the sight of iced coffee – ICED COFFEE! – and Boston Cream Pie donuts.
Now you may be wondering: why all the hype about iced coffee? Let me explain. French people refuse to give in to this trend. Regardless of the rapid expansion of Starbucks throughout Europe – there was at least one in Heidelberg, and more than one in almost every arrondissement of Paris – the French resist the delicious combination of ice, and coffee. Even if it were your worst craving, you could walk into any Starbucks/cafe/brasserie and ask for a simple combination of ice, and coffee, and they would refuse. You would ask yourself, “You have ice, and you have coffee, so why not combine them with some sugar and milk and let your taste buds explode?” You would be met with a grim answer: “Oh, right, because you are French.” And forget donuts. They are far too inferior to other French pastries that you might otherwise enjoy.
We subsequently drove 15 minutes to the hospital, the specialized eye and ear hospital associated with Harvard Medical School that is world-renowned, where I was met with smiles/incredible service/the best medical care in the country. My very beautiful, very petite doctor explained everything I needed to know about my condition: I had an ulcer on my eye that was repairing itself in a timely fashion, and there would likely be no permanent damage. She spent about 20 minutes examining and explaining the situation, and reviewing all of my files that had been given to me in Paris. I breathed a sigh of relief for finally being able to understand what exactly was happening to me.
In Paris, I had no such attention. I was put in a hospital bed, woken up every hour for eyedrops, without the slightest explanation as to what was happening. I was told that there was “ze very virolent bacteria in ze eye”, but was scared into thinking that this “virolent bacteria” was, without a doubt, going to kill me. Each time I asked for more information, in French or English, I was met with ambiguous answers, mostly: “Eehh, I do not knooow”. The doctors, who were clearly on a major power trip, scolded me for even attempting to speak French with them, and the only thing they explained was that “ze hospitalization iz necessary for at least four dayzz”. It wasn’t until my superhero aunt came to pick me up Sunday that I was given further instruction and human-being-appropriate attention.
On Tuesday, my father and I went to BJ’s. For those of you across the pond, BJ’s is a shrine to all things capitalistic, materialistic, and soccer mom-istic. Upon walking into the gargantuan warehouse, you immediately see giant sale tags hanging from the ceiling, oversized TV sets playing 80’s movies or trashy music videos, stacks upon stacks upon stacks of vitamins/peanuts/popcorn/candy/lotion/shaving cream, you name it. The sale bin by the Verizon kiosk is an homage to all major Boston sports teams, selling hats and scarves and gloves with various logos out of a cardboard box that looks like it will disintegrate with a mere drop of water. But this, my friends, is America: here you can buy a month’s worth of everything for about 60% cheaper than your average grocery store. My parents are members, but less enthusiasts than many local soccer moms, and take advantage of the excellent customer service at the Verizon kiosk rather than hauling themselves to the mall, where white-trash teenagers oogle iPhones and waste their money on crappy pizza and ripped jeans. We are taken care of by a twenty-something guy who shows patience of steel as my father and I argue, discuss, and finally settle on a smart-phone (the guy himself admits that’s all they sell anymore, which angers my father in the silent way that makes me think he forgets it’s now 2011). They attempt to sell us a bulk package of accessories, but I resist: a case and some screen covers will do just fine, thank you.
My Parisian phone was a model from about 2003, a red Samsung flip phone without even a camera. I was forced to stand in line for about an hour just to be helped by a snobby Parisian woman dressed, of course, in all black. The costs for this phone are absurd: since I am living in Paris for under 6 months (just under, mind you), I can’t get a contract, so I am forced to pay about 50 Euro for a card that will last me about a month, 10 cents per text message, and 20 Euro for the actual phone. My smart-phone plan is cheaper, I promise.
Wednesday, I am back in the Emergency Room at Mass Eye and Ear yet again: this time, I’ve been experiencing pain, and I just want to know what is going on. I arrive in the morning, far too early to be heading to the hospital, prepared for a potential hospital stay -sweatshirt, slippers, and book in hand. We arrive and are almost immediately seen, by a lovely doctor with a good sense of humor and undoubtedly not much older than I am. She takes one look at me and says, “Oh, that’s not bad at all, I’ve seen waaaay worse!” I am relieved – I’m recovering! She promptly examines me, with the patience of a saint as I cringe/cry involuntarily/blink incessantly, and informs me that the eye drops I was given in Paris are actually making my eye more irritated and red, and that once I taper off them my condition will improve drastically. She says I’ll be fine, there will be no permanent damage, but that I will be left with a little scar on my eye that people might see when they look at me. I smile: scars are one of my favorite things in the world. And to have one on my eye? How intriguing! How unique! The perfect souvenir from Paris! I will forever will the scar game (at camp, one of the activities we’re encouraged to play with campers as a get-to-know-you game is to go around in a circle and point out our favorite scar, explaining the story behind it – I think mine will always beat the average I-fell-off-my-bike-onto-pavement-and-was-left-with-this-badge-of-courage story).
After I receive the good news, my dad and I head to Five Guys, the best burger joint this side of paradise. A chain that started in the Mid-Atlantic, it has slowly made its way north and into my list of addictions. The burgers are double-patties, sloppy and delicious, with sinfully good fries that I bathe in salt and vinegar. For less than 10 USD, you get a regular drink, regular fries, and the most amazing burger you’ve ever had. In Paris, the closest thing was McDonald’s, a 6 Euro (about 10 USD) investment that leaves you feeling disgusting, and hungry 20 minutes later. They just don’t know how to do burgers.
Today, I woke up to a dead phone, and upon trying to press the power button, was unable to get it to function. I shower, get ready, and head out for a day of errands and chauffeuring my sister around. I begin back at BJ’s, where I am made to look like a fool when the Verizon worker turns the phone on without a problem. It’s like going to the doctor: the second you get there, all your symptoms stop. Embarrassing. I walk away blushing, and head to the DMV to renew my license. In a surprising gesture of efficiency that I haven’t seen at a DMV ever, I am called almost immediately and turn in my single form to the worker. I sit down for my picture. I groan. I am tired, haven’t washed my hair, which is thrown into an incredibly un-glamorous messy ponytail, I look drunk due to one of my eyes being half shut, I am wearing a smudged pair of glasses and an oversized American Apparel sweatshirt that does not at all flatter my curvy body. In short, I look horrible. I sit down for my picture reluctantly, the thought racing through my mind that this will be the picture I present at every bar, club, and restaurant for the next ten years (at least). I died inside.
In France, paperwork is the backbone of society. Literally. The theory goes that each form one fills out, feeds about 10 families. Because of this, every administrative task requires several forms that are confusing and designed to divide society into those who know how to fill out forms, and will therefore succeed, and those who do not. The hour-or-less process of renewing a license after turning 21 would take about 2-5 weeks in France, where often times one must fill out forms, send them away, and wait for them to be returned. My advice: just don’t do it.
I then return to Dunkin’ Donuts, where for 3 USD I get a little snack and a medium iced coffee. And you wonder why I’m happy to be back in America….