Diary of a Frenchwoman in Dublin

Hapenny Bridge, Dublin, Ireland
Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin,by Dave Walsh Photography

As every French person knows, Paris is a woman, impudent and provocative. Paris the beautiful, the magical, the enchanting. Predictably, as soon as I returned there a few weeks ago, her magic enveloped me again – from her lights to her majestic buildings and bridges, her magnificent cathedral, her many different quartiers, each with their own charm, her immense Louvre, sheltering one of the greatest art collections in the world, and of course her twinkling Eiffel tower. Nothing compares to Paris.

“I don’t understand; why aren’t you living there?” an Irish friend asked me the other day. A fair question. Why am I not living in my own city when it happens to be one of the most beautiful of all cities? (I’m not biased!)
The fact is, for more than five years now I have been living in Dublin. Dublin the hectic, the unpredictable, the messy. Dublin is a teenager. Dublin does not charm and seduce you as Paris does. Dublin smiles at you, plays with you like a cheerful but careless young puppy before turning his back on you attracted to a brighter toy.
It is true that there’s a lot about Dublin that infuriates me – like street clocks that show random times, pedestrian traffic lights that take ages or street name signs that you can never find. So many things do not work that sometimes it makes you wonder how it is that anything works at all. And astonishingly from a French point of view, nobody really cares (or at least they don’t seem to, even though some would say they do). Whereas in France similar situations would undoubtedly be the cause of serious disturbances, here you often come across placid friendly faces which betray no signs of animosity.
However, I came to realise that things do work eventually; they just take longer. Waiting is part of the Irish way of life. I know you can wait in Paris for important things, like bread at a particular boulangerie, if it is famously good, but as a general rule queues there are mostly an exotic sight (if you want to drive a Parisian crazy, get him to queue). In Dublin, queues seem to be the norm. These long lines at some cash machines were one of my first shocks, from which I haven’t totally recovered. Then I soon realised you also wait at the bank, the post office, bus-stops, not to mention these huge waiting lists to get into public hospitals. Sometimes it makes me wonder how such a small country manages to have so many people waiting at the same time.
Time is money. And just as with time, money is being wasted. I got used to waiting, but I find it more difficult to get used to the ambient greed. Not only were prices increasing sharply with nobody really doing anything about it, but they are also highly unpredictable, varying hugely from one shop to the other, from one day to the next, and even from one salesman to his colleague (that happened to me to go out of a shop to get some cash for an item, and come back to find another salesman asking a completely different price). This means that if you want to avoid being ripped off, you’d better take time to shop around. So you’re left with the challenging choice between wasting your time or your money; in fact you usually end up wasting both.
Well, I must admit that Paris is expensive as well. But at least it’s more predictable. Nobody living in Paris would go to the Champs-Elysées, or to the 7th or 16th arrondissement to get good value, and conversely it’s great to know there are lots of places such as on the Boulevard de Rochechouard or the Boulevard Barbès with small shops, market stalls and street sellers where you can be pretty sure to find a bargain.
So, going back to my original question, why am I still living in Dublin? Well, I’d say there are areas where the balance goes the other way… in particular at a human level. As I mentioned before, Parisians tend to be unashamedly open and direct when things are not right, which undoubtedly has its good side. However, I realised that sometimes they get a bit carried away. I had a culture shock the first time I arrived in Paris as a visitor from Dublin and no longer as a citizen of the city of my birth.
I was still on the airport bus when I discovered I was surrounded by people complaining. It was too hot. Admittedly being too hot is seldom a concern here, but still no Irish person would ever make such a song and dance about it. The Parisians surrounding me complained very loudly that the temperature was unbearable in the overcrowded bus; sighing, mimicking intense suffering, they very successfully got the message across of how unhappy they were. Note that they didn’t complain to their fellow commuters – people in Paris usually complain to the wide open, because they do not really talk to each other.
This, however, may not apply to everybody. If you’re a woman, and if you’re reasonably young and attractive, people, particularly men, will definitely talk to you. Even more so if you if you start with the sentence “je suis irlandaise”. That’s because being Irish sounds great, at least compared to being English or American, but also being a woman in Paris is very different from being a woman in Dublin. While in Dublin you are just another person, in Paris you are very soon made aware that you belong to a totally different species.
Men don’t talk to you the same way, don’t look at you the same way. Compared to Dublin, Paris swarms with predatory males and seduction is the name of the game. You learn to play according to the rules, which can be fun, but at times you might find it not so much fun or even dangerous so you learn to protect yourself. That might be why Parisian women often end up being cold and defensive.
This leads us to another famous characteristic of Parisians, which is their arrogance. Apart from when they are in a seducing mode, one has to admit that generally Parisians are not spontaneously friendly. And of course their arrogance contrasts dramatically with the world famous Irish friendliness. One of the most obvious differences between a Parisian and a Dubliner lies in their attitude to strangers.
Before I came here I thought the image of the friendly Irish, spending most of their time talking and drinking in pubs was more of a caricature – a bit like the French cycling alone with a beret, a baguette and a string of onions. In fact it is more of an understatement. The importance of the pubs in Ireland could never been overestimated, and Irish friendliness to strangers is rightly famous. Here, you’re worthy of consideration, respect and kindness until you prove you don’t deserve it. In Paris, you’re worth nothing until you prove you deserve consideration, respect and kindness. That makes the world of difference in everyday life. Under its elegant and sophisticated female facade, Paris is cold and tough. Just like her women.
The other day in France I went into a bar to ask if I could use their toilets. “As you surely know, that is out of question, unless you are buying something” was the sharp answer. “My apologies”, I said, “I guess I forgot; I live in Dublin, where it is still possible to do that if you ask politely”. “I see, go back there then”. She didn’t say that in a mean way, rather in a casual and matter of fact voice; so typically French it was funny. “Don’t worry, I will”.
But I know I will come back. I love Paris. Maybe all the more for its darker sides.


1 comment

  1. Yes Paris is more vast than Dublin in many ways. It’s transport system is incredible, but the violence in the suburbs can be terrifying. It has to be said, that stretch from the Eiffel tower to the cathedral of Notre Dame is the most beautiful concentration of architecture in the world. But just as you’re about to say to yourself, this is the most amazing city, a homeless guy – one of the many 1,000s who live in those rows of tents along the banks of the canals in St. Martin – takes out his lad and pisses on the grass right in front of you (and not against a tree). Vive la droit pour pisser dans les rues! At least we have that in common.

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