Celine Dion is piping through the speakers at the McDonald’s on the Rue de la Convention, and I am so relieved. It is the first bit of English I’ve heard in two days, since I landed in Paris with a gaudy rolling suitcase and a very weak grasp of the pluperfect tense. I had convinced my college to fund a month-long stay in Paris for the sake of my “literary research.”
“I want to follow in the footsteps of French naturalist pioneer Émile Zola," I told them. “I want to see if experiencing the setting of his novels first-hand will influence my reading of his works.” And, for good measure: “Improving my French will be a periphery benefit.” They bought it.
And now, I’m at a McDonald’s on Rue de la Convention, cursing myself for ordering “des frites français.” They’re just “des frites” here, idiot. Same with French onion soup. It’s just ONION soup to the good people of Paris.
For many visitors, "authentic" is really code for "idealized." They want the city to be the Paris they’ve always imagined, not the Paris that it really is. Yes, Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, but people there still eat at McDonald’s and shop at big chain grocery stores.
I stumble into this McDonald’s as a much-needed refuge from the unfamiliar. It is my first time out of the country, completely alone with zero contacts besides the phone number for the U.S. Embassy, whose acquaintance I’m praying I never have to make. I’m navigating a city roughly eight times the size of my hometown, all the while thoroughly convinced that gauche means right (it does not). The golden arches are supposed to be my sanctuary. But here, the familiar is still just unfamiliar enough — I can’t even order French fries correctly.
Curiously, Celine is the only other person, pop diva or otherwise, who is speaking English in that McDonald’s on Convention. Popping into a packed McDonald’s on a Monday afternoon is a routine for all of these Parisians, as French now as the macaron. (Speaking of — at the back of McDonald’s was a separate counter selling classic French sweets, macarons included.) Lined up like little bright buttons, I can't resist. My first macaron is at a McDonald’s. (Verdict: not bad.)
After that first visit, the McDo on Convention became my unofficial home base for my month in Paris — hey, the wifi was gratuit — and I think I’m better for it.
I first stopped into that McDonald's because I knew exactly how a McDonald's worked; place my order, pay for it, wait, and then eat. Every meal I had had in Paris so far was rife with cultural missteps — Do I seat myself? How do I ask for the check? When do I ask for the check? Will they box up my leftovers or is that totally passé? — and, overwhelmed, I just wanted to stuff my face once without wondering how to. Eating at McDonald's was a dining experience devoid of foreign ritual. Or, so I thought. The McDo on Convention, it turns out, was the most authentically Parisian place in Paris.
Squeezed together at long, low tables on two floors, businessmen in suits and ties knocked elbows with red-cheeked children chaperoned by stylish, svelte nannies, all dipping their fries in mayonnaise. Despite the crowd, the lunch time noise level never rose above a buzzy murmur. I certainly heard more softly spoken, rapid-fire French there than I ever did in the Louvre.
The guy most often manning the McDo macaron counter whenever I came in was the prototypical McDonald’s employee: a young teen with gelled hair who’d serve your macaron with a brief smile and a major air of “whatever.” He let loose his bonjour lazily as I breezed past him toward the full-menu counter at the front of the store to place my order for a taste of home in the form of a hamburger.
Over the weeks, our greetings grew warmer, until the special day my bonjour was met with a “salut.” I stumbled on my way to the front counter, thinking, did he just “salut” me? If “bonjour” is the polite, proper French greeting, then “salut” is it’s easy-going, less formal cousin. “Salut” is how you’d greet friends, or at least casual acquaintances. And casual acquaintance I would take.
Our saluts soon led to little chit-chat sessions in franglish. When business was slow, he’d educate me on the different macaron flavors, and I would moan about how much I missed ketchup, all beneath the warm glow of a neon McDonald’s sign.
Everyone wants to experience those “authentic” Parisian moments — licking up Berthillon ice cream before it drips onto the Ile de la Cité’s cobblestone streets, snapping a pic of Satre’s regular table at the Deux Magots , whiling away an afternoon with a croissant and café au lait at a charming café. But that’s the Paris of history books and Instagram feeds. (For one thing, café au lait is only drunk in the morning. Now you know.)
For many visitors, “authentic” is really code for "idealized." They want the city to be the Paris they’ve always imagined, not the Paris that it really is, the one where art and history coexist with less Instagrammable practicalities. Yes, Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but people there still eat and work at McDonald’s and shop at big chain grocery stores.
I spent a good part of my month in Paris in such a store. My little rented room was right across from a Monoprix, whose most closely related American counterpart would be a Super Target.
Monoprix was split into two levels. When you walk in from ground level you’re greeted with racks and racks of cheap-ish dresses and slacks and socks, plus a cafeteria area we you can dine in or grab a sandwich au jambon to go. Below was the grocery store, a very tightly packed grocery store. The carts down there were square-shaped and tiny; my purse barely fit in them. But really, when shopping at Monoprix, it’s better to forego the cart altogether, lest you cause a major traffic jam while speculating over which jar of Speculoos to buy in aisle trois.
The downstairs of the Monoprix might seem like a bad place to seek authentically Parisian experiences since, in many ways, it’s just like any typical American grocery store: well-sanitized and well-stocked — both with food stuffs and surly cashiers. But different cart sizes were just the beginning.
On my first visit, I watched as a tall, thin woman at the butcher’s counter orders a pig’s head and lamb’s hindquarters; in America, both would more often be used as props in a horror movie. The butcher skillfully sliced up the cuts to her specifications, wrapped them in waxy paper, and scooted them across the counter toward her. I shivered as she glided her cart past me, the outline of a snout poking through the packaging. I regrouped in the dairy aisle, dazzled by the butter selection.
And all this time I thought there were only two choices: salted and unsalted. I grabbed a big block of bright yellow, emblazoned with the words “fleur de sel.” Flower of the sea butter? Is there, like, seaweed in this? Braving the pushy lines near the front of the store, I silently congratulated myself on my adventurous choice.
Back in my apartment, I was more hesitant, afraid to find bright yellow tinged with briny green. I peeled back a corner and took a nibble. Sweet creaminess studded with salty flakes of crystal. Sea salt. "Sel" means "salt," not "sea," another reminder that I slept through the food unit during high school French. Every morning for the next week, I spread my Monoprix butter on a slice of crusty baguette that I picked up from — yes — a quaint corner bakery. A Parisian breakfast born of convenience and tradition.
Had I hung out in that quaint corner bakery all day, though, I suspect I would have beed overwhelmed by its “Parisian-ness.” But hang out in a Monoprix, and you notice unexpected details about French life. Like the fact that it's not an unreasonable business decision to carry approximately 247 different flavors of butter (none of them non-fat).
I never saw the Arc du Triomphe, never even sauntered down the Champs Elysée. I didn’t see the inside of Notre Dome. I only glimpsed the top of the Eiffel Tower in flashes down side streets while making my way up the main thoroughfare of the 14th arrondissement. Part of me regrets this — all those people must be queuing up outside that big cathedral for something good — but I know the greater regret would’ve been making my trip a list of tourist sites and to-do’s.
Because seeking out the un-romantic gets to the heart of what’s truly Parisian. Being in Paris isn't necessarily about red wine and baguettes (although they’re definitely still a thing) — it’s about the exchanging of “saluts.” It’s the contradiction (at least to my American sensibilities) of dipping fries in mayo because ketchup is gastronomically overpowering — but being totally okay with whipping up pig’s ear for dinner. I’ll admit, I didn’t learn all that much about Emilé Zola on this trip, but (as I tried to convince my college upon return) I learned something of much greater value: culture thrives in the mundane, not the picturesque.
Like so many drunk on the City of Light, I’ve been plotting my return to Paris ever since I left. This next time, I will make a point to see the inside of Notre Dame. But I’ll also be making a beeline for that Monoprix in the 14th, to relive my moments of cultural confusion and to stock up on speculoos . Maybe I’ll stop for a burger and a macaron afterwards.
Call me an ignorant American, but I really miss that McDonald’s.
Images: Emily Matras (3); K Hardy/Flickr