Eye contact is something we all do. There’s something special, or distinct or something about looking into someone’s eyes. The only adjective that keeps popping up when thinking of the subject is the word ‘mutual’, and it seems like the most appropriate. Maybe it’s knowing that the other person knows that you’re looking at him/her, or vice versa. Or maybe it’s the fact that our eyes are part of us literally and physically. It’s a shared activity, we do it with our own bodies; much like holding hands, kissing, or sex.
Eye contact, like every other activity in Paris, is bound by a set of unspoken rules, especially when you’re talking about its casual everyday practice. You see, it’s the light from the City of Light that renders everything observable, scrutinizable and well, quite obviously visible. Paris is a city based on looking.
The way Baron Haussmann layed down his boulevards is meant to catch your eye, and stir something up in that region of your body you thought was reserved for feeling hunger. How people dress is meant to be visually dissected and either disparaged or lauded.
Oh! And those bus windows! Has anyone else noticed how abnormally large they are? Seriously! In America buses have windows the size of a human head and they are made to let sunlight in. Wheareas, Parisians take for granted the fact that they basically make up the vehicle’s walls.
“Look at me! Look at me!” screams everything Parisian from the wobbling homeless man around Les Halles, whose huge dirty feet have swallowed his flip flops, to the Eiffel Tower (it’ll even light up every hour just in case), to all the impossible women walking down St-Germain-des-Près. Being a non-Parisian (is there a word for this?) and especially a newly arrived one is hard.
One cannot help but look at everything. All its tiny corners are either beautiful, stunning and thought provoking, or dirty, rusty, moche and again, thought provoking. But beware, not every gaze is a well received one. Luckily, here are a few simple rules for the lutecian neophite concerning eye contact and its various whens and hows.
For Parisians eye contact is a personal matter, much like your choice of wine, or infidelity in relationships. As a general rule, you have to avoid looking strangers in the eye; it’s slightly offensive. Remember, personal space reigns. Of course, France being the land of suave wiggle room (soyons raisonables!), general rules have several exceptions:
1) When there is alcohol around and it is evidently a social gathering it is totally permissible to dart a couple of looks. However, don’t expect to just do it and leave it at that! If you make eye contact with the same person more than once you have to commit to it. Go up to him/her and introduce yourself. If not, said person will think that you are weird. “Why was that guy looking at me if he didn’t want to come talk to me?” they’ll slyly comment, “there’s something a bit off about him”. Maybe you can follow up the eye contact by asking for either a cigarette or a lighter (an activity I will discuss further in another article). It won’t be long before you start noticing the pattern: 1) Eyes 2) Cigarettes 3) “Where do you live?”.
Gallery openings are a tricky situation. They are in fact social gatherings and there is usually at least some wine but they are also meant to be cultural. At these events (remember to always refer to them as vernissages) French people will dislike it if you disrupt their contemplative and cultural state of mind, or their sophisticated conversation with their likely cultured friends.
Feel free to look but remember not to strike up a conversation until you’re standing outside the gallery. Don’t worry, sooner or later that person will come out to have a smoke and then you can talk about how what you saw was good, but lacked something, in other words, it was simply ok. Never liking something too much is also quite Parisian.
2) If ever the eye contact is initiated by the other person e.g. that cute one in the metro, then you are given a laissez-passer. You get to look back once. After this, it gets tricky. You don’t want to seem stalkery by sitting next to the person or even worse, getting off at the same station. What comes next is a mixture of chance and fast social skills.
Since this is a game of turns and you have made the last move, all you can do is hope that the other person chooses to exit the train by the door nearest you. You also have to hope that he or she is getting off before you. If not, it wasn’t meant to be. Once close to the door wait for eye contact once more but don’t make it too obvious. Look around you and make it seem like your eyes casually passed by his/hers. If this happens then it is your turn again! Ask a question concerning the metro or the next station. You don’t want it to be too obvious because one never wants to appear a Tourist. At the same time, it has to be something that is not answered by a simple yes or no. Be discreet, and gauging by the reaction, strike up a conversation or say merci and sit back down.
3) There is one type of person you definitely don’t want to make eye contact with. Actually, there’s more than one, but they all have one thing in common, they are disconcerting, curiously striking and yes, scary. Be it the city’s various homeless (remember, there was such a thing as commiting the crime of vagabondage in yesteryear’s Paris); its petty criminals and tourist scammers; metro musicians and beggars; or lastly, what I can only refer to as Jersey Shore style tough guys.
Most will detect the eye contact automatically and then ask you for money. I know it’s tempting. Especially when it comes to that guy leaning on the pole, listening to music on his cellphone, with ear bling and an Ed Hardy-esque shirt that reads something like “Do or Die” or “Hardcore Dreams and Fire” (unintelligible English on shirts is a staple. Just saw a good one yesterday “Who The Fuck Is Mick Jagger?”). “How can we not look at such an unfamiliarly morbid sight?” you say. Don’t! These last won’t ask for money, they will pick a fight. On Noctilien (the night bus network), they have a field day.
So, to recap, looking is good and it should be done. But for your own wellbeing, you have to remember who to do it with, and whom to avoid. As always, keep it subtle and, if need be, keep it sexy. Don’t worry too much because, as I discussed earlier, feeling anything too much (or at least outwardly showing it), is a no no. In no time these movements will come naturally. You might mess up a couple of times and have to give away some sous, but in the end you will be at a major advantage over your fellow expats if you are aware of the eye contact situation. Allez! Bon courage!