I define it as hell.
I hate it when people se bousculer — bump and push one another (yes, it’s a verb too!) — and I have never gotten used to it, even after three-plus years. For solace I remind myself that this behavior doesn’t exist in the provinces, and that Parisians hate it as much as I do.
When I asked those I interviewed for my Parisians on Parisians project what they disliked most about their city, nearly everyone said “le comportement des gens” — the behavior of people. They described their fellow city dwellers as "désagréables" and "impolis," and they couldn’t stand it when people pushed in the street.
This left me to ponder: if everyone hates la bousculade so much, why, then, do they participate in it?
I found the answer in myself, on a trip to London.
I hadn’t been off the Eurostar ten minutes before the first Londoner said, “Sorry,” because his elbow came within an inch of mine. “Sorry?” I wondered. Whatever for? His elbow hadn’t collided with mine, I couldn’t feel his breath on my neck, I hadn’t been pushed off balance. In Paris, these are the only reasons one might say, “Ah, pardon” or “Excusez-moi.”
I was told “Sorry” a few more times before I realized what was happening; I was stepping too close to the locals, who were trying to fend me off with polite apologies. It was then that I knew my perceptions of personal proximity had changed.
Growing up in the United States, I learned to leave a large gap between others and myself because, in America, coming too close to a stranger — especially on the street — is a sign of aggression. And bumping into someone without apologizing is an act that is certain to result in an unpleasant verbal, if not physical, exchange. I knew this instinctively and never gave it a thought until I came to Paris and felt instantly harassed by those who veered toward me on the street, glanced their shoulders off of mine in the métro stations, and pressed their shopping baskets into my kidneys at the supermarket.
And then, little by little and without realizing it, I began to do the same. I may not have gone so far as to have actually stepped on someone’s toes, but I did brush past Londoners without giving it a thought or apologizing. My American idea of giving everyone their space had morphed into a more communal, Parisian point of view: this world (or sidewalk) is tiny and we are all crammed together on it, so of course we’re going to bump into one another. No big deal. Apologize if it’s necessary and then move on.
Just like those I interviewed, I claim to detest la bousculade. But now I, too, bouscule.
In a thousand small ways, Paris, for better or for worse, has cast her influence on me.