“Soo… you are my girlfriend now?” asked the 33 year old, man-bunned Basque man sitting next to me in the cab after our third date.
I laughed. I didn’t mean to, but what the hell was he talking about? We had probably spent a total of six hours together.
“No, Gaston (not his real name). I am not your girlfriend.”
He looked confused. Genuinely confused “But I like you!” he exclaimed.
There was a bit of an awkward pause. Our Uber driver glanced at us quickly from the rear view mirror.
We’d been out on three dates in two weeks. Drinks, dinner, movie. I knew that I didn’t dislike him. I knew that I found him attractive, that I really liked his laugh, that he was smart and had lived a fascinating life. But did I “like” him? To the point of admittance?
“Where I come from,” I began, as if explaining modern human interaction to an indigenous jungle tribe, “we don’t work that way. We don’t use those words – labels – until we are sure we want to be together.”
Where I come from is Manhattan, one of the best places on Earth, and, just as poignantly, where functional dating goes to die. My experience with New York men is they are either eternal bachelors, or they’re dating/proposing to/impregnating my friends. The third date in New York is when you contemplate whether or not you should sleep with the guy, if you haven’t already. It is not when you wonder if he is now going to commit himself indefinitely to you and vice-versa. I mean, Jesus Christ, that is called the “Um, So What Is This?” conversation, and it usually happens around month 2-3, after someone drinks one too many vodka-sodas and gets emotional after sex. That is how you start a relationship. (Full disclosure: I am single.)
In Paris, there is no talk. There is no moment when you are expected to spell out the status of your relationship. To the French, and many other Latin countries, the idea of “the talk” is crass. It is unromantic and unbecoming. You should just know. But who the hell “just knows”!? No one has any idea what they’re doing! Our evolution from neanderthals has gotten us to the point where our wisdom teeth need to be surgically removed; let’s not pretend we’ve reached the point where we can “accurately read behavior” and follow it with “logical conclusions” and “totally appropriate reactions.” Sure, there is probably a more efficient Scandinavian method of dating, but they don’t give lessons on how to actually keep the queen-sized Hemnes bed filled at IKEA, so.. I don’t know what to tell you.
Meanwhile, Gaston was looking at me with incredulity. “But how you know if you wanna be togezzer if you are seeing wiss ozzer people?!” he demanded.
“I’m not saying I want to see other people at the same time as you,” I said, not really knowing what I wanted because I didn’t really know him yet, “I’m saying I need there to not be pressure behind us getting to know each other. We just met last week!”
“So you don’t like me,” he said, dramatically averting his gaze out the window.
I sighed. I do not do moping (which puts me in many an exasperating situation in this country.) But I also understood that my way of doing things was in stark contrast to his: I was putting the guy through culture shock in his own city. I told him that in New York we wait to find out if we have strong feelings and a desire for monogamy prior to the label-game. He countered me with the philosophy that one should have enough respect for the person they’ve decided to get to know to not see anyone else while that is happening.
That idea is a really endearing notion, and would be even more so if indiscretion wasn’t such a normal part of life here. A 2014 poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre reported that only 47% of the French population finds infidelity morally wrong. Which means that, when asked if cheating was okay, 53% of French people basically winked at the interviewer. The French will cry foul – and I am not shitting on them, I love them, I’ve been in love with them – but there is a nonchalance towards infidelity in the City of Love(s), and it is palpable. That being said, there is also obviously a decent amount of cheating going on in New York, but at least there are no false illusions of early onset commitment. You retain your freedom for a long enough time period to actually decide what you want, and then it either turns into a relationship or it doesn’t. And then you can fuck it up.
Back in the car, Gaston was grappling with my world view. It felt like were in an anthropological cultural study: ‘Watch how the Basque man attempts to come to terms with the American woman’s endearing autonomy!’
We never did really see eye to eye. After another 20 minutes of us throwing out metaphors and hypotheticals to each other (I get that you want the cow, Gaston, and that you’re willing to wait for the milk, but the cow is willing to give up the milk before deciding if you’re the farmer of her dreams!), I finally gave up. A couple of weeks later, I allowed him his premature label, and for the next three months, when people asked me about the guy in my pictures I would say, “In New York, he’s the guy I’m seeing, In Paris, he’s my boyfriend.”
The biggest adjustment I’ve had to make moving to Paris, is to come to terms with how people date here. Forget socialism, fashion sneakers and the fact that Parisians inexplicably say “tac, tac, tac” out loud while counting things; dating in Paris is fundamentally different than dating in New York. And it is one aspect of the culture to which I doubt I will ever voluntarily, or involuntarily, assimilate.