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!