Saturday, December 18, 2010

À Paris

I would like to thank all the service people who are on the front lines: all the clerks, waiters, and other professionals who have borne with my mangled French and helped me to improve it. Now that I know a little bit more, I see how tough your job is and how much further I need to go! Thank you for your courtesy and patience while I learn.

I did finally make a spontaneous, last minute trip to Paris for a day. It was great. I hunted beads and ate at a wonderful gluten-free restaurant.

I was struck by how much English there was all around me in Paris. There is much less in Grenoble. And also struck, surprisingly, by how polite and helpful the Parisiens were.

From my kind of in-between state, I can see how easily misunderstandings and resentments can develop.

Case #1: I’m in line at an urban grocery store buying a pear and some almonds. Behind me are two older American gentlemen buying a bottle of wine. They are clearly on vacation, talking about how good the bread is and what their wives are doing back at the hotel. They are well dressed and look like the golf-club type, relaxed and in tourist mode. In front of me is a local and a regular. She is buying a huge amount of groceries---probably her weekly Saturday morning shop. She is chatting with the clerk and the two guys who are packing her stuff in crates for free delivery (a common service in the city if you buy a huge amount). It is taking a while. But we are all waiting patiently.

After a few minutes, the clerk calls out to someone and then tells me to go to another line as it is about to open. It takes me a little while (as usual) to realize she is talking to me and to understand what her plan is. But it makes sense. There should be an express lane. So I go to the new line and wait for the new clerk.

The first clerk is now trying to get the attention of the men who were behind me. She is telling them to get into the new line. They have no idea she is talking to them. By about the fifth repetition, once she is yelling, they finally realize this woman is saying something to them.

From their point of view, the first they are aware of it, someone is yelling at them. They have no idea what she wants, just that she is yelling. So I tell them to come over to this line, it will be opening shortly.

“Huh? Why?”

I forget what the express lane is called in English, so say something about a “Rapid check out.” They shrug, and move over, a bit jarred, their peace and tranquility upset. They just want a bottle of wine to share with their wives, they don’t want to be yelled at and moved about. The clerk, for the life of her, can’t understand how anyone can be that dense.

Case #2: I’m in a small vendor’s stall at the puces, a conglomeration of antique vendors on the outskirts of the city. There is an American guy buying 8 of some small, funky French antique. He is happy with his find, but also seems slightly nervous, like he might be getting ripped off.

From my perspective, he does everything wrong. He doesn’t start with politeness, he is sarcastic, talks loudly, he is not good with the numbers thing as the numbers thing is always a problem, his French is minimal, his accent terrible. He’ll repeat the numbers the older female proprietor says and say, “Oh, you mean huit.” Acting like he is correcting her.

The saleswoman, meanwhile, is happy to make the sale, is being very polite, and is muttering to herself in French while she packages up his items, “oh, this is a pretty one, and [[crash!!]] don’t worry, it’s not serious, there are lots of things in this shop, things fall, it’s not a problem, I’ll just find a bag,” etc. etc. He understands none of this, is not sure what is going on.

So he tries some small talk. It is unusually cold out, so he chimes in with what he thinks is the old standard weather-related conversation starter: "C'est froid." Just like her, he gets no response. The correct construction is “Il fait froid.” What he said doesn’t make sense. It might sound to her like something about liver or faith, but not the temperature. So she ignores his odd non-sequitor.

Both are trying, but neither is being understood by the other. He is coming across as rude and she is coming across as shifty.

Overall, I came away extremely impressed by how the Parisians actually manage to be polite 99% of the time, given how exhausting it must be to constantly not be understood and to constantly hear your language mangled. I think they have the patience of Job.

And then I noticed the deferential/pseudo shy/apologetic demeanor of Americans trying to be polite---I do this all the time myself. At the gluten-free restaurant I could tell the nationality of who was coming in the door by whether they entered with confidence (French) or sort of apologetically: “I’m sorry, but do you have a table? You wouldn’t happen to have a table, would you?” That would be the Anglophone way. Seeing it with fresh eyes, I think it comes across as cloying. I could see how that too could get tiring.

And during my Sunday lunch at the restaurant, I witnessed an amazing thing. An American couple came in, in that sort of hesitant, American way. By this time, the restaurant was full. I felt bad for the couple because (1) it was freezing out and (2) this was the only gluten-free restaurant in Paris and if you need to be gluten free, it is very difficult to just eat anywhere.

The hostess kindly tells them it is full. They tip their heads to one side and look sort of distressed and pathetic. Full? Yes, full. Their eyes narrow, their mouths hang open with their bottom teeth showing. Then the two women next to me say they are just leaving. The Americans sort of bow and look down and thank them, awkwardly standing to the side as the women leave.

Soon a Canadian couple comes in. The hostess again informs them the restaurant is full. They sigh and leave.

Then, a French family walks in: a mother, father, and three young children. They too are told it is full. The mother, a very stylish, happy blond smiles and explains they have no other options as they need to eat gluten free. The hostess again repeats that they are full.

I’m not sure what all happened next and what the exchange was, but the mother never apologized, never complained, never whined, just held her ground, confidently smiled and made some suggestions and before I knew it, the furniture was being rearranged, a table was being rolled out, and the family of 5 was being seated. A real voila! moment. Everyone was smiling then.


james w. keyes said...

I am sure that the service men and women really appreciated your effort, patience and respect towards them and their culture.

A true reminder of how important communication can be in our everyday scenarios.

Arc de triomphe hotels said...

It is very kind of you to care for other people's culture. Foreing culture experience is precious.
Compliments from:Arc de triomphe hotels