The Visible Woman

When I was a kid, I used to think that there were times when I was invisible to others, when I was so wrapped up in my own imagination, so focused on inward daydreams, that the external world didn’t matter. Of course I wasn’t invisible, just oblivious, but it was a pleasant illusion.

It was pleasant because I don’t enjoy being the center of attention, and would rather be the observer than the observed. Of course there are moments when it’s nice to be recognized for some accomplishment or on a special occasion, but for the most part, I prefer to blend into the background.

It’s easy to accomplish this in a big city like Paris; anonymity is thrust upon you, whether you want it or not. And Parisians in particular like to maintain that impersonal façade, rejecting my sociable smiles when I forget that friendliness will get me nowhere. However, after living here for more than three years, I think I’ve finally found the chink in this anti-social armor, one I wouldn’t have found without the help of my son.

It all started during the last months of my pregnancy, as I found it harder and harder to navigate my way through daily life. All of a sudden, my growing belly became a source of fascination, and attention, and I reaped the benefits. Cashiers waved me to the front of lines, strangers gave up their seats on the Métro, and waitresses gave me extra-courteous service, smiling at me like we shared some special secret. Who were these people? Where had they been for the past two years?

As much as I truly enjoyed the pampering, I did find it disconcerting to be the recipient of such overt attention. Grown accustomed to strangers’ scowls, I now found it strange to be smiled at; I’d thoroughly absorbed the Parisian suspicion of friendliness, and it was hard to shake. I wasn’t used to seeing someone’s public mask slip so quickly, and it astonished me. It reminded me of the time I witnessed a smartly dressed madame on the bus helping a stranger’s child blow his nose—judging by her stern expression the minute before, she seemed the least likely person to make such a helpful gesture.

But I now knew the key to the phenomenon I was witnessing: I discovered that children (and by extension, pregnant women) are exempted from the code of anonymity that seems to underlie Parisian public life. And this has been proven time and again now that my little one is on the outside.

Every time I go out in public with my son, it is impossible for stony-faced Parisians to survive the onslaught of his charm. On the Métro he stares them down until they dissolve into fits of baby talk and goofy grins. Before he was born, I wondered if he would be an introvert like his father and me, but for now it seems he can’t get enough of the attention of strangers. It’s put me in a funny position; I’m suddenly forced into more social interactions than ever before because of my son’s sociability, but I’m also more invisible next to his overwhelming cuteness. Plus ça change, I guess!

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5 Responses to “The Visible Woman”

  1. Morgen said:

    hello morgen,

    i’m not sure if you check or maintain your “Truffles for Breakfast” blog anymore (your “contact” forms don’t seem to work there). i found it when searching on how to move a cat to France and i’ve found your information to be quite valuable. thank you for documenting your experiences.

    my boyfriend and i live in Los Angeles. i’m a computer programmer who works for a company here in LA. i also have some 1099 income, but only about of 1/3 of my income is 1099, so i’m only partially “self employed.”

    can you tell me what the consulate needed from you to show proof of “self employment?” did they need to see a history of income or a voucher from your clients, or anything along those lines?

    i’m asking this question now because we are trying to move to Paris in summer of next year and i need to determine if i should convert my employment status with my main employer to be an independent contractor (and how soon i should do that).

    unfortunately, its time for open enrollment, and i’m expected to make decisions about insurance coverage for me and my partner for the following year. i might be faced with having to buy my own insurance here in the US, just so i can be an independent contractor and show that history of income, if that’s what the French government requires. but i’m hoping they won’t require that and that i can continue to be a salaried employee for the remainder of my time in the US.

    of course, i need to get an appointment at the consulate. i wasn’t expecting to need to do that until at least January, but the open enrollment has me concerned.

    i have one more question. as independent contractors (i assume that is what you are), do you pay French taxes, US taxes, or both?

    we are leaving on a research trip to Paris this Saturday and are super excited!

    thank you so much!

    randy

  2. Randy said:

    Sorry, i meant to type my name in the “From box!”

    thanks.

    Randy

  3. Joe Kissell said:

    Hi Randy,

    Morgen asked if I’d jump in and reply. The answers to your questions are a bit involved, and it would be much easier to answer them in person. Care to meet up with us for coffee when you’re in town? (If you need to deal with the insurance issue before you leave, then I understand you can’t wait for a response, in which case drop us a note, and I’ll see what I can do to explain things in a private email.)

    Either way, you can reach us using the contact form, which I think I’ve repaired now!

    Joe

  4. Harald Walker said:

    I’ve experienced anonymity mostly as a cross cultural big city phenomenon. I’ve lived in villages, grew up in small city and have been living and working in large cities. I’ve enjoyed the cultural and commercial benefits of a large city but after 20 years of city life you’ve seen and done it all and to be honest, it doesn’t interest me any longer. In contrary, I am fed up with the anonymity (and isolation along with it), over stimulation, noise and lack of space and nature. We are now looking for something out on the countryside with a bit of land.

    BTW, I’ve been enjoying your blogs.

    Cheers,

    Harald

  5. Morgen Jahnke said:

    Harald,

    Although I’m currently loving living in a big city, I can also identify with your need for something quite different. Good luck with your search! And I’m glad you’re enjoying the blogs!