Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Plans of Attack

Perhaps it’s the entire country’s history of war that demands one to develop Napoleonic strategies for living in Paris. If one accepts this, it’s indeed possible (most of the time) to live la vie en rose. If one doesn’t, it’s probable that one will find themselves, as the French would say, dans la merde – and they’re not referring to the little souvenirs the dogs leave on the sidewalks.

To those living in less concentrated locales, the methods that Parisians apply to conducting the ordinary tasks of daily life can seem a bit neurotic. But for a population reputed for its tendency to throw tantrums, a little stress management can go a long way.

Among the survival skills most practiced by veteran Parisians is that of crowd control. This has nothing to do with keeping rioting Sorbonne students from burning books; rather, it involves a strategic combination of time and location to achieve a rather mundane result – doing one’s errands. Venture out onto the narrow streets at six o’clock in the evening, and you are sure to find yourself elbowing through throngs of harried shoppers as they rush from store to store in search of ingredients for dinner. This is when one learns that the most dangerous pedestrians are those pushing baby strollers – they often double as a sort of shin-paralyzing weapon – and that the little old dog-loving ladies aren’t as frail as they may appear.

While France may be criticized for its 35-hour workweek, it must be said that the French are whizzes at time management. They must be, because to anyone who is accustomed to societies that are open 24 hours, seven days a week, getting something done here requires a well thought-out plan of attack. The reason six o’clock shoppers (who are usually nine-to-fivers in the professional world) are so stressed out is because the stores start to close at seven. Doing errands at noon, unless you’re near a large chain, is challenging in a culture that closes its doors for lunch. One woman complained that for the longest time, her bank didn’t allow her to make deposits during the afternoon, period.

During the summer, one of the most important strategies for navigating through the Parisian jungle is related to tourists. As one of the most visited cities in the world, Paris attracts tourists by the planeload, and the dollars that burst out of their wallets are definitely welcome in an economic climate that, as the French would say, is rather merdique. But the crowds can be vast, and maneuvering through them in order to complete one’s daily duties can grow a bit tiring around, say, mid-July. The trick is to avoid the city’s attractions – a difficult goal in a place where practically every street corner boasts an historic monument.

Not all Parisians wish to avoid the tourists, however. Women traveling alone can attest to the flirtatious Frenchmen that prey upon them around the Louvre, in the chic streets of St-Germain, and throughout Montmartre’s winding cobblestone passageways. Want to get a true taste of the French approach to chatting you up, ladies? Just open your map and try to look a little lost.

“It’s widely known that Montmartre is a great place to pick up tourists,” declared one such chasseur de filles, as he proudly recounted the story of a group of 12 Irish girls who had asked he and a friend for directions to the quartier’s famed Sacré Coeur. Instead, the entire entourage wound up drinking cheap Bordeaux in a neighborhood bar.

“Did the bar at least have a view of the church?” asked his interviewer.

“Non,” was the nonchalant response, “but I’m sure they got to see it eventually.”

Frenchmen don’t reserve their amorous tactics exclusively for tourists, however. Such is the case for one such Parisian, who is said to employ an elaborate strategy for quiet nights in: he invites a girl over to watch a movie (late enough so that she is sure to miss the last Metro), informs her that he just polished the floor (ensuring her removal of footwear – eliminating the need for its removal later on), cranks up the heat (possibly motivating her to do away with her sweater as well), and shows her a sad film (inspiring her, hopefully, to fall into his arms when she cries at the end, begging for his comfort).

Back in the day, rumor has it that he referred to this strategy as “le coup de videocassette.” One assumes this moniker has been modernized: these days, it’s probably “le coup de DVD.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor. Contact her directly at, or through her agent, Rebecca Friedman, Sterling Lord Literistic, (212) 780-6050 or