Wednesday, December 01, 2010

She got a "Ce n'est pas grave"!

When you don't speak the language you miss a lot of cues and can encounter baffling surprises.

Like at the grocery store the first time we bought produce. Even though there are large signs all over saying "Weigh First!" and helpful, cheery announcements from the store loudspeaker saying things like, "[bing, bing, bing] Customers, please be so kind as to weigh your produce before proceeding to the register [bong, bong, bong]," you can still easily get to the register with unweighed produce.

Thank goodness Greg was with me the first time and actually understood that "peser" meant to weigh.

So when that happens you (or "one," or actually, "I") go and quickly weigh it and sheepishly return and feel like you are from Mars (but you prefer to pronounce it America).

And of course you are desolated to have deranged everyone.

So you become a little wary.

And if someone says something to you, you get that doe-in-headlights look and pray you somehow manage to understand them.

So I was a little uneasy when the older woman in front of me kept sort of checking me out and staring at what I was doing. Was I doing something wrong? Was I in the express? The cash only? The no carts? What?

No, I doubled checked everything and it was all in order, nothing I hadn't done before.

When it was her turn, she asked the clerk something about an item and a coupon and then decided not to buy that item. Then the clerk held up her bananas. Unweighed. She didn't understand. The clerk says it again. Being very familiar with this drill, I blurt out, in English, "you need to weigh them." And it turns out the woman is also American and didn't grasp all the instructions.

So she was watching me carefully to see what I was doing RIGHT, not what I was doing wrong...

She looked kind of catatonic at the idea of weighing her bananas, and since I had been in her position many a time, I simply took her bananas to the produce aisle and weighed them myself. The clerk, a little surprised, thanked me and of course so did the woman.

And today, again the same experience, but with what I think is a French twist. Maybe the difference was the nice, fresh clerk or maybe it was a good time of day, but I think there's more to it. The attitude is key.

This time the woman in front of me was French. She doesn't have a fidelity card and she didn't weigh her tangerines. But she understood and, no matter, she elegantly and easily, no hurry in her steps, takes them back to weigh them. When she returns (while we've been waiting) she presents her tangerines (now sporting a fresh pink sticker) with a lovely, enthusiastic "Voila!" as if she is actually doing US a favor.

And what does the clerk say? That she should be embarrassed for being so thoughtless and clueless and she should be desolated to have deranged us? That would be the American (and even more so, English) response.

No, the clerk smiles and says, "Ce n'est pas grave" which sounds like "it's not the end of the world" or something, but when calibrated correctly in French seems to mean "it's no big deal." (It's music to my ears when people say this to me because it means I'm off the hook! And I've found people here love to let you off the hook if you give them half a chance.) And it really is what you make it. This woman with her poise and grace just conjured up a "Ce n'est pas grave"! I want a "Ce n'est pas grave"!

I am going to have to cultivate a little more of this "Voila!" stuff.


Dais said...

Desolated to have deranged everyone. I love that. And yay you, Jen, for having saved the poor woman with the bananas. I want you with me next time I'm in France! I plan to "ce n'est pas grave" you to bits while you are here!

Newly Acquired White said...

LOVE IT! I need the german equivalent of "Voila!" Although I did witness an Austrian lady do the same thing, but she apologized multiple times for not having weighed her fruits while the register attendant went to weigh them. That's how I learned to say the german equivalent of "pardon me".

jeninco said...

I think I either imagined people were upset when I was clueless or, if they were uncomfortable, it could have been BECAUSE I apologized. People here seem to shy away from humiliation. They prefer dignity and really will cut you some slack. This sort of habitual apologizing is seen as odd and annoying, I think. Boy is that good for me! Complete opposite to England and partly why French are seen as having big heads.

Ambika said...


This is the best. You have totally summed up the French,and many "C'est ne pas grave"s in your future!
Miss you all,