One of the first new terms I learned in French when I moved to Paris in August was “bouvier bernois,” or Bernese Mountain Dog. I was staying with family friends and walked their dog frequently. It was the least I could do considering they were literally feeding and sheltering me until I found an apartment of my own.
French people, especially Parisians, really do not speak to strangers. You do not smile at strangers on the metro or ask people how their day is going. With the exception of the mandatory “Bonjour” to greet shopkeepers, small talk does not exist.
Dog parks, however, are a different case. For some reason, these unwritten social rules disappear when people are standing around on a sparse patch of grass and watching their dogs play. Maybe ignoring the laws and letting their dogs off the leash also makes Parisians feel a bit freer.
Whatever the reason, people began talking to me almost as soon as I arrived with my friend’s dog each time.
Conversation start frequently with the question, “C’est quel type de chien?” (That’s what type of dog?).
Though there are many dogs in Paris, Bailey stands out. Tiny Parisian apartments are really not built for housedogs the stature of Bernese Mountain Dogs. Bailey’s family even specifically searched for a first floor apartment to make it easier to take her out.
There are terriers, spaniels, Bijon Frises, Havenese, and Golden Retrievers aplenty, but few city dwellers would be foux enough to try to fit a dog that weighs more than I do into a nine-square-meter chambre de bonne attic apartment.
So Bailey is a bit of a celebrity, especially since she came from the U.S. and is not a French dog. It doesn’t hurt that she loves children and being pet. With Bailey as a conversation opener, I’ve actually been able to talk to Parisians I don’t know, if only in the dog park at the Champ de Mars.
As a foreigner, dogs can also help expand your French vocabulary. I learned the names for Bernese Mountain Dog and Golden Retriever (also Golden Retriever in French, but with an emphasis on the guttural “Rs”). One of Bailey’s owners learned even more the other day.
He moved to France with no knowledge of the French language, but has recently been taking language classes and progressing quickly. Still, Parisian accents are hard. Recently, a woman asked him the name of his dog. Thinking that she asked how old Bailey is, he responded “quatre.”
In perfect English, she replied, “Your dog’s name is ‘Cat?’” Classic mix-up.
I’m glad that Paris is a city of dog owners. As a student in a small apartment, I cannot have a dog myself. I really do miss the company of an animal. I even briefly entertained the idea of getting a cat before my best friend reminded me that I don’t like cats. Fortunately, though, dogs abound. Parisians walk miles every day, and their dogs accompany them, whether along the Seine or in the heart of Saint Germain des Près.
Unlike in the United States, dogs are allowed almost everywhere. One night in Paris, I went out to dinner with Bailey’s family at an upscale restaurant in the Marais. We were seated on an indoor balcony above the kitchen, and the people at the table next to us had their French bulldog with them. Not only was the bulldog welcomed, but the sommelier actually asked if he should bring a bowl of water for the dog along with the bottle of wine. And this was at a restaurant that served a chef’s tasting menu at dinner.
Never smile at people when passing by them on the streets, but smiling at a dog and stopping the owner to pet said dog is usually accepted and encouraged. You can even take dogs on the metro, as long as you buy them a metro ticket and they can fit through the turnstile. Bailey, unfortunately, does not fit through the turnstile. She would probably require a taxi to be taken anywhere, so for now we’ll stick to the dog parks.
Another reason I like walking Bailey is I automatically get identified as a local resident. Very few tourists would bring a 100-pound dog on vacation, especially considering the customs procedure for dogs coming from outside the EU. And watch out, if there’s no Brexit deal between the UK and the EU, dogs travelling between the two regions will need a new health certificate and have to pass through border inspection. Quel horreur.
For me, volunteering to walk my friends’ dog gave me an easier entry into French society, and an opportunity to talk to more people. I became recognized at the dog park as a regular and get to practice my conversational French with Parisians of all ages and backgrounds.
And at the end of day, it’s always nice to remember that dogs don’t care what language you speak. They’re happy with anyone who will walk them, pet them and feed them.