06:01:23 pmCategories: Fieldwork

Seasonal sensations

The summer heat has come to Paris. For some days no, it’s been so hot in the afternoon that the boulevards are almost empty. Only in the shade under the trees are there a few pedestrians strolling slowly. However the Jehovah’s Witness people with their Watchtower are as usual in place by the metro Père Lachaise: A black man and a blonde woman, both decently dressed – in shirt and trousers, blouse and skirt – as usual with these missionaries. Metro Père Lachaise is about as far as I get up the deserted boulevard. This is not the time to be outside. Only some sweaty tourists defy the climatic condition and walk in the sun. I return home, and wait a couple of hours in front of my laptop, with all the windows wide open, mixing the music from my trashy little ghetto blaster with voices and other people’s music in the courtyard. (All these open windows facing the yard are great now during the Championship; the neighbourhood is reverberating when the right team scores – which unfortunately for the moment is not France…).

But in the evening, the streets and parks and public spaces buzz with life. It was such a pleasure cycling through the city last evening, that I just kept on lazily watching the people drinking beer and wine along the canal, a whiff of cannabis coming my way once in a while, children of all colours were playing in the playgrounds, watched by chatting parents equally of all colours and in the costumes of the world (though the West African women are definitely the best at keeping up their proud dress traditions, with their brightly coloured and neatly cut dresses, and perhaps a intricately tied headscarf in the same fabric and maybe a child at the back – by the way, many here, mostly women but also men, have taken up this tradition of tying their child to the back or front without more equipment than a large scarf. When I see someone with a complicated baby carrying-equipment, I always suppose it’s a tourist). In Parc de la Villette, I can hear drums, someone is playing football, people are training, some men are showing off, but most are just lazily hanging around. It’s in the middle of the week, but it feels like the end of it… As I write now, I realise that the ever-present summer-in-the-park odour in Norway, is absent here. By googling barbecue jetable I get confirmed my suspicion that this is a very Norwegian phenomenon, indeed. One of the first hits on “barbecue jetable” was a blog by a French in Norway: "My Norwegian Wood".

About two months ago, late April, I had another strong sensation that the season was about to change. It was Friday and afternoon, and standing on the crossroad of the boulevard up the street here, in the sun and busy monde, I suddenly felt like coming out into the world after a long hibernation. I don’t know exactly what gave me that feeling; the unfamiliar heat of the afternoon sun, the expressions in people’s faces and in their movements – a regained enthusiasm, energy, excitement, I don’t know – or just the atmosphere of the street-life… or perhaps even all the sirens? As it was in the middle of the anti-CPE mobilisations, the sirens that afternoon caught my attention. In a few hours, Chirac was going to make his long anticipated speech where he possibly would abrogate the CPE… The sensation that something was about to happen increased as all the passengers were thrown off the bus at Bastille because there was supposed to be a demo somewhere around. (Most passengers don’t seem to be very surprised by such changing bus itineraries, as a demonstration now and then is quite an ordinary happening).

The sound of sirens continued at Bastille. As I had an hour or two before I was supposed to be on a conference on France and slavery at Centre Pompidou, I walked around for a while around La Sorbonne and the Latin Quarter, trying to get at the heart of all this spring-like police activity. However, it just seemed to be everywhere so I gave up and went to the conference. (It was interesting, despite that Edouard Glissant didn’t show up in person).

When I got out on the street again I understood that something had happened, but unfortunately I didn’t find out what exactly it was before the day after when I read euphoric reports on Paris.Indymedia. After Chirac had said very little indeed in his speech, a so-called manif sauvage had set off from Bastille (where the speech had been broadcasted on a screen). All anthropologists who has read Levi-Strauss, La pensée sauvage (The savage mind, Den ville tanke), are familiar with the concept sauvage (it’s neither the equivalent of English “savage” nor “primitive, nor the Norwegian “vill”, I don’t know how to translate it), thus they would understand that a manif sauvage ought to be pretty cool. The un-cultivated demo had moved from Bastille, to the Presidential Palace where they got dispersed by the police, in order to meet again in front of La Sorbonne, and finally cross the whole city up to Sacre Coeur… thus crossing the city from east to west, and from south to north, and finishing in the early hours. It seemed to have been a little bit for everybody; a good street-party, a little fighting with the police, and a little wreckage of an office belonging to a depute from the ruling party. Thus, a real Parisian spring experience &#59;)

However, I shouldn’t perhaps joke too much about the recurrent sound of sirens. I’ve never seen so much police in my life before, as in the last 6 months. I even wonder if the reason for the town-hall to not put up the usual giant screen for the World Cup has anything to do with fear of public law and order… I watched almost every match in front of the town-hall here four years ago and it was so very, very nice that I just cannot understand why they’re not doing the same thing this year. (Another less romantic reason might be that the French team doesn’t really deserve a giant screen this year, as they’re really playing le foot de spleen as a Norwegian friend and Baudelaire fan suggested).

It’s amazing how much street-life here has changed with the season. I’ve always thought that there can’t be any place on earth where the seasons change more than in Norway. After endless months with ice, snow, sleet, darkness and the question why on earth have the human kind settled on this god-deserted place nagging my mind, spring in Norway just comes as a divine revelation (almost) every year. It’s a really strong experience, and of course the habitants change with it. So it came as a surprise to me that Parisians change perhaps even more. They speak even more to each other in public spaces.

- I’m starting to realise that Norwegians tend to smile to each other in situations where Parisians rather would express themselves with words. The smile is not a valid form of communication among strangers in public spaces. Only suggesting the shadow of a smile to any male above the age of, I don’t know… somewhere before adolescence I guess, is sheer country bumpkin stupidity. However, neither women seem to understand exactly how to respond if I try a little Norwegian smile in order to say, for instance, “sorry for being in the way” or any other fleeting bit of communication. When I think of it, it’s obvious; why not use words when you can? Because that’s exactly the point; a smile among strangers here occurs only when it’s impossible to speak: Amongst other occasions, I’ve got smiles from a man inside a car trying to get out of my bike’s way, a teacher whose pupils stared at my little bike with awe, and who understood it was my bike but was too far away to say something to me, and from a surprisingly large number of CRS and other police at the end of demos who noticed that I was looking at them. Well, that was today’s digression, on the incomprehension of the Scandinavian smile. -

The final and probably most important seasonal change is, again, the intensification of la drague (“picking up someone…”). It should be said that Parisians don’t only find their future partners in the streets, but they find friends there as well. I suspect that this sounds completely natural to people around the world – and Brazilians for instance, or French from the province, tend to find Parisians cold, inward-looking and non-communicative – however, for a Norwegian, all this street interaction is not an everyday experience. Just after spring had set in for real, I noticed that quite a lot of the male Parisians seemed to be so moved by the seasonal change that they couldn’t avoid expressing it, and not at all necessarily in order to chat me up. For instance, the number of people who jokingly tried to hitchhike with my tiny little bike in one single springy day was quite surprising. (And apropos the meaning of smiles; at such occasions I think I communicated correctly by responding with a smile).

As I had a strong impression that people – or rather, men – were in a hurry to find une femme, it was quite funny to hear a friend mention how he observed people in a bar he passes every day: According to his perspective, it started with the women wearing lighter and lighter clothes, and then more and more couples were formed, and soon all the opportunities will be gone, so if you hadn’t found someone before the end of June, you’re in trouble…

Studying French masculinities wasn’t my intention at the outset, but I’m starting to find certain differences between how (certain) men behave here and how they behave in Norway (and Britain), striking enough to be worth a study. And, well… as I have an inquisitive nature, I guess it goes without saying that I don’t mind very much the prospect of finding out more about it :D

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