Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Big fat black pen revisited

I had one more trip back to the Mairie to pay Kadin’s school lunch bill. I had recently received the bill for September and October, but needed to pay for November and December as well. They would normally bill me for this in March, but
we’d have no French bank (banque) account then. So I went to visit Mrs. Black Pen.

Maybe I had been too harsh on her before. She really had done nothing wrong. She was not rude, she got the job done, she was just a bit abrupt.

So, with a new “voila!” attitude, I arrived right when they opened. This time I was second in line and there was even free coffee, tea, and juice available. It really was a nice looking place.

When it was my turn, I explained that I needed to pay for November and December at the school cafeteria. She looked at the bill and immediately said that was not her, I needed to pay elsewhere. “Ce n’est pas moi.” Yes, I understand, but could she give me the bill for November and December? I am leaving Grenoble permanently on Monday. On Monday? On Monday.

So she said yes, I could pay for November and December and she would print out my bill. Okay, so I was in the right place. See. No passing the buck.

She had this air of entitlement and efficiency. The entitlement part is normal here. The efficiency, not so much, but it caused her to speak (unconsciously) very quickly in a clipped way that I couldn’t readily understand. She was the opposite of deliberate and patient. Not inclined to repeat herself. Once she saw I didn’t understand, she wasn't going waste any time trying to explain.

Finally, after many a mouse click, she prints out my bill. I have a cheque book and ask her if she can help me write the cheque (French cheques are different and you have to spell out the words for the numbers correctly and always cross your 7s, etc.).

She, of course, took the opportunity to write the cheque for me in her lovely script. Which was fine and actually very helpful. And then she even offered to write the cheque for the other place for September and October for me too. All fine.

But still, it was weird and strangely degrading. She was helpful, yes, but very patronizing. I felt like a child. I was sitting there thinking, “I am a competent person.” And she was treating my like an imbecile. Kindly, but not with any respect. She held the power.

At one point I almost tried to make a joke, and that might have lightened things up considerably, but it was a risky maneuver since it could also easily fall flat and confirm the divide between us, so I didn’t in the end.

I really did feel misunderstood on a fundamental level. I got a small taste of what it would be like to be colonized, I thought, to have another culture and another system come with their mysterious ways and confidently impose them on you as THE ONLY WAY. Of course you write the day first in a date, of course you cross your 7s, isn't that obvious? I was not treated meanly, not rudely, but paternally. It was bizarre.

Still, I left feeling triumphant, amazed at how much you can get done and how you can achieve relatively complicated explanations and transactions with very few words. I stuck to my few prepared phrases, my voila! attitude, and it worked. Phenomenal. Bye bye big fat black pen!

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