mardi, août 15, 2006

The Good People of Paris

Despite happy earlier visits to Paris and many years of pleasant occasional interaction with the French, I came to Paris terrified of Parisians. Several excellent guidebooks I consulted in preparation for this trip prepared me for the worst. Parisians don’t smile, and they think Americans who smile at the drop of a hat (especially at strangers) are idiots. Parisians are formal, businesslike and brusque; do not expect much social interaction from them beyond a polite “Bonjour,” and mind your manners! I wondered how many faux pas I had committed over the years, how many Parisians I had offended. I vowed not to smile, not to invade anybody’s space, to use all the right social formulas, to keep my voice down, and to withhold all unnecessary information from every conversation or personal interaction. Then almost immediately upon settling into my apartment, I violated nearly every one of these rules.

Off on the Wrong Foot

Overtaken with the urge to make this “home,” and to lay in a few provisions as well, I dropped by my local wine market. The plan was to get to know my local merchants, to frequent the same boulangerie, patisserie, charcuterie, fromagerie, marché, and so on, and over the months to move to that stage, also advertised in the guidebooks, where madame would recognize me and toss a “ca va, monsieur? my way. I popped into the wine store and in my best French just about told the merchant my life story. I just arrived here from America, I’ll be spending the summer here, I have an apartment just around the corner, I’d like to get to know the local wines, can you recommend some good but not expensive bottles to start with, and on and on. Absolutely non-plussed, the man looked at me and said, “What price, monsieur?” If I ever heard someone say I-couldn’t-be-less-interested-in-why-you-came-into-this-store-or-if-you-ever-return-and-let’s-try-to-make-this-transaction-quick-and- painless, this was it.

Not a good start.

Bad Hair Day with Silver Lining

And let’s not forget that my luggage had been lost, my ceiling leaked from the neighbor above, and I locked myself out—all on that same first day. But in fact each of these incidents was an occasion not only for me to develop my language ability in trying circumstances, but also to see good people in action. The Air France luggage people, from the agent who took my report and understood my need to conduct our conversation in French despite her better English, to the man at the “found lost luggage staging place,” to the poor guy who lugged my enormous duffel bag up to the fourth floor at 11:00 p.m. the following night, were impressively concerned and polite. My upstairs neighbor turned out to be Italian, married I believe to an Englishman, and we’re joined in a common struggle with the French language, so her warmth and friendliness don’t particularly speak to the French, but she’s been a great neighbor. Then the real estate agent who had to contend with my locking myself out of my apartment just as she was hurrying off to her next appointment could not have responded to this contretemps more graciously. In fact we found a solution rather quickly, for the previous tenant had left another key in the mailbox and I was able to fish it out with some makeshift tool. But Madame’s humor and willingness to jump into action to get us both past this set-back, rather than to screw up her face and make me the idiot, really helped me find the frame of mind to figure out how to retrieve the other key.

But this is history. Has anything happened since then to show me the good side of Paris? You bet.

Excusez-moi de Vous Déranger

And here I start by giving credit to some advice found the book “French or Foe,” by Polly Platt. One of her six codes for succeeding in France is “Use the Ten Magic Words.” The magic lies in this powerful stem phrase, Excusez-moi de vous déranger, Monsieur/Madame, to which you can add a predicate suited to your needs, mais j’ai un probléme, or je suis perdu or est-ce bien le chemin…? Not always, but most of the time, the experiences I’ve had that have proven to be most pleasant and rewarding have been preceded by this magic phrase.

Early on, while still leery of Paris strangers, I was on the RER, the regional rail line, and, unsure whether or not the train I was on took the rail fork that led to my stop, I asked the gentleman sitting across the aisle from me if this train did indeed go to Saint Michel. Of course, I prefaced the question with a polite, Excusez moi de vous déranger, monsieur. This fellow very kindly consulted the rail map, then looked out the window at the sign of a passing station, then assured me that the train did go my way. After that he checked the next station sign, not just the name of the station but the board that indicates which train goes where on that line, and, satisfied, looked over at me and gave a confirmatory nod. As he left he wished me a pleasant day and then he nodded to me again from outside the car. Not too much to expect from anyone, one might say, but it felt to me like a great service, a victory for politesse, and a guarantee of peace of mind ahead. Chalk one up for the magic phrase!

(Incidentally, in the many times I have used this phrase since, I have noticed a curious and pleasing thing. People don’t just respond to you, take note of you and address your need. They visibly open up to you. All the reserve, all the formality, all the brusqueness just ebb away in a palpable physical response of readiness, solicitude, service. Invariably your addressee will reply with a Je vous en prie? And you sense that any reasonable need will be met with the most helpful possible response.)

Helpful Tabac Lady

On another occasion, having in my possession a cell phone loaned by a friend (who deserves her own blog posting), I entered a Tabac to get the phone reloaded with some local phone time. I laid out my tale, hoping it was not too odd that someone had a phone he hadn’t the slightest notion how to use. No problem. Maybe the good tabaconniste sees guys like me all day long. She asked me a few judicious questions to ascertain my telephone needs, decided what I needed and sold it to me. Then, appraising me a bit longer, she asked if I wanted her to enter the data in the phone and activate the service. Well, of course, upon which she made the connecting call, scratched off my code, entered a few numbers, and then wrote out in long-hand a set of steps and numbers to ensure that I would know what to do for my first call on my own. I’m here tomorrow between 11h00 and 17h00, she added, if you should need any more help.

The Parisian Smile

Not all my encounters with the news kiosk people have been more than brusque exchanges, but one stands out for what it says about the Parisian sense of self. I bought a magazine and asked for directions to an area address. In paying, I dug in my pocket for the correct change. A little too slow, he had the change back to me just as I was proffering the one centime piece I’d found. Keep it as a souvenir of Paris, he said. And worth more than a $10.00 souvenir of New York, I tried to extend the play. He looked at me stone-faced. Then he pointed at his mouth, set like a board across his face. What’s this, he asked, a slight twinkle in his eye. I looked at him unsure of what to say. He dragged it out just another second or two and then cracked triumphantly, “The Parisian smile!” With which he, I, and his sales assistant broke into laughter.


Blogger Leslie said...

one of your best entries yet

2:07 AM  

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