Thursday, March 20, 2014

La Politesse

Monday afternoon, Max and I were in line to buy two baguettes from the bakery near his school that we like when I realized that the folks in front of us were American.

They were immediately recognizable by the guy's baseball cap and battered athletic shoes (ie: worn for comfort not style), the woman's loud nasal voice and, most crucially, the fact that they were talking in American to the woman behind the counter. No chance of anyone mistaking these two for anything other than my countryfolk. They did not modify their speech in any way (ie: slowing it down, attempting to throw in a French word here or there as a token gesture at communicating in the language of the place where they happened to be visitors, ie: France). They were also taking an extremely long time to place their order, deliberating over pastries (in American, naturally, to each other, all but ignoring the cashier and the line that gathered behind them, then adding a few diet cokes (coca light, they should've said) at the last minute. Their total came to over 20 euros. The dude pulled out a credit card. In French, he was told that they only take cash. He looked at the woman blankly.

"Monnaie," she said. The couple shook their heads, apparently unable to understand the homonym. The cashier exhaled noisily. I hate to make cultural generalizations (ok, that's not true) but the French have the most expressive exhales of any nationality. Outside the human species, only horses use their nostrils with such gusto and flare. No need to speak a word of their language to understand that this woman was beyond annoyed.

At this point, the couple became flustered. If they'd done any research, they would have known that lots of small businesses here are still cash-only. Maybe they'd spent it all at the Eiffel Tower. They began counting out their change. It took a long time, probably because their hands were shaking as they suffered the cashier's withering stare. Together, they had less than 8 euros.

Now I could have been nice. I had the difference in my wallet, and then some. I could have loaned it to them, accompanied them to an ATM machine. But that would've been a massive hassle, I had formed a powerful dislike of them, and--more importantly--seized the opportunity to be a better kind of American, brown-noser than I am. I didn't go so far as to shake my head in apparent disbelief along with everyone else, as they slowly deliberated over which items the woman should put back. But once our turn came in line, I made a point of treating the cashier with great politesse, following the rules of the civil shop exchange in my best possible French, aware that my accent, though pretty good for an American, still betrayed me as such. I was glad. She'd see that I was a different kind of tourist, or rather not a tourist at all.

"Bonjour madame. Nous voudrons..."

If this couple had done any reading whatsoever on the etiquette of the land they were visiting, they should've known that it's considered rude here not to greet a shopkeeper with a polite hello, good morning or good evening, before placing an order. It's not that hard to pronounce these words, and effort is always appreciated. Max, after three months, has become fluent in politesse, and I must say it's taking him far. He always greets the people who sell him his beloved pain au chocolat before he requests one, and then he says, "Merci beaucoup. Bonne journee." I can't always get him to say please and thank you in English, but the difference is that he knows few other words in French, so he likes showing off where he can. He also likes the clear smile of approval that his politesse inevitably earns him. He's a bit of a brown-noser too, I guess. (Oh, and sometimes he gets an extra little treat shoved in his bag, a custardy tart at Du Pain et Des Idees, or a chouquette, these delicious eggy puffs, like profiteroles minus the cream, sprinkled with nubs of sugar).

Not long after we first got to France, I had coffee with an American woman who has been living here for years, and who wrote a guide book on moving to France. She mentioned that some of the things that had initially drawn her to Paris were growing wearisome, among them "the famous politesse." She pronounced this sarcastically. We didn't have long to talk and I didn't really get a chance to ask what she meant, but I remember thinking that I hadn't heard of this as a French quality before, that more often French people get stereotyped as rude--at least by Americans who return from visits with stories of "terrible customer service," no doubt having been about as charming as that couple in front of me at the patisserie, who all but courted rudeness in return.

After having been here for a few months, it's starting to become clearer to me that there's a thin line between politesse and rudeness--or rather it's easy to violate the rules of politesse and slip into rudeness--and to be treated in kind.

It was a glorious spring afternoon on Monday. After buying our baguettes, Max and I met up with Matt at the library where he'd been working all day, and the three of us decided to walk home. On the way, we took an unfamiliar path and stumbled upon a new bakery advertising in its window that they'd won the gold prize for the best baguette in Paris in 2013.

"The current baguette laureate!" Matt said.

Even though I already had 2 (okay, 1.25 by that point) baguettes in my bag, we decided that we couldn't possibly pass up the chance to try the reigning champion, so I popped in to buy a third baguette of the day, pleased as always by how inexpensive it was. 120 euros! Just a dollar fifty! I love the fact that baguettes have a standardized price, that the baguette laureate costs the same as a crappy baguette at Carrefour, that everyone should have the same access to bread, regardless of means. Max wanted to tear into it right away, but we overruled him (it's not actually polite to walk around eating, although people do violate this rule, earning scowls) and decided to bring it home to do a blind taste test between baguettes.

On our walk home, we passed Notre Dame and took the road next to it that cuts across a bridge between flower vendors, which was tres picturesque. We were almost at the end of the bridge when I overheard an increasingly heated exchange, in French, between a man and two flower vendors. Apparently he'd just asked them for directions somewhere.

"You're welcome!" she yelled.

"Excuse me?" he called back over his shoulder, having walked away.

"You're welcome for the directions!"

"I said thank you! I said it twice!"

"Well, there are two of us standing here, and neither of us heard you!"

"Thank you!"  He was yelling too now. "Thank you so much, madame."

"It's only polite to thank someone when they give you directions!"

I translated this for Matt, and we both found it quite funny. I don't think that French people "are rude," as Americans sometimes say. But often strengths and weaknesses are linked. It's frequently the case in writing, I've noticed, that a good thing can become too much of a good thing pretty fast. And maybe this is the case with politesse, too. Or maybe it's just that the French love a good excuse to tell someone off. Again, far be it from me to make a cultural generalization, but it's something I've noticed both when I lived here as a teenager and again on this stay.

Max and I were at a farmer's market last Wednesday, right when the vendors were closing up shop, and I happened to set my backpack on a bare wooden table to try and consolidate the things we'd bought before we headed to the Metro. A woman came at that moment to pack up the table, and man was I inconveniencing her with my backpack! "Mais c'est pas vrai!" It can't be possible! She yelled as I scrambled to shove my things in it. "Some of us have work to do! This isn't your table to use like that!" I was the ugly American that time, although her voluble irritation was so close to the surface, I almost had the feeling that I was doing her a favor, giving her someone to lash out on and scratch that itch.

I'm still trying to figure out the rules. Some rules, like greeting shopkeepers and saying goodbye before leaving the store, are clear and easy to follow. Yesterday, a man on the Metro seized the chance, as the doors opened, to drop a wrapper down in the gap onto the tracks. And another man seized the chance to tell him off. OK-don't litter. Others are murkier. Is it rude to ride your bike on the sidewalk, when the streets are crowded with traffic? I've been testing it out, and no one has told me off yet. According to a French friend, traffic laws here are "suggestions." Maybe that applies to bikes too.

Last week, I was shopping at the cluttered and grimy Franprix, carrying a ridiculously overburdened basket of food, when I happened to knock into a poorly placed display of chocolate easter eggs, one of which fell to the ground. Thinking myself unobserved (frankly, not thinking much at all) I sort of toed it back in the general vicinity of the pile. A moment later, a cashier literally came running from the registers at the front of the store (was she watching me in a mirror?), and told me off for not having picked it up.

"It's not done!" she yelled. "If you drop something, you put it back where it was!"

Fair enough, but I felt my blood begin to boil in spite of myself. "I think you can see that my hands are full," I replied in French.

"So you set your basket down," she said.

"Well excuse me," I said. "But if your store were less cluttered, that would be easier to do!"

Even though I have no doubt that she could tell by my accent exactly who--and what--I was, I didn't feel particularly American right then. We are (I think) pretty conflict adverse, gritting our teeth and smiling falsely even when we're seriously annoyed. And I have to say, it felt good to lash back at her.

We haven't been here long enough for me to tire of politesse, and I enjoy the street drama of the little fights that break out and then dissipate just as fast. It's great people watching. I also haven't tired of the baguettes. After our blind taste test, we reached the unanimous consensus that the baguette laureate was indeed and clearly superior to our former favorite baguette. So apparently these distinctions do mean something, and we're French enough to be able to tell the difference.

Friday, March 14, 2014


I just rented a Velib to go and grab a baguette.

Now that spring is here and the sun is out, I'm seizing every chance I get to bike around Paris. The bike I selected this afternoon had about 30% brake functionality. That's a good Velib, too good to risk returning at a kiosk that might then malfunction and not register that you returned your bike, as happened to me earlier this week. I'm terrified by the prospect of having to call the Velib office (I shudder even to imagine the place) and explain to someone in my halting and accented French that I did, I truly did, return the bike as per the rules. I could already hear the sigh of disbelief. I also couldn't risk returning the bike and trying to find another one when I had just half an hour before Max got home from school to bike 1.7 kilometers and back. I had promised get him a "religieuse" or double chocolate eclair, for an end of the week treat today. There are closer bakeries to our apartment. There's at least one bakery per block, sometimes two. But I wanted to visit this particular bakery, in the 9th arrondissement, because I'd learned that it won the "best baguette in Paris" contest in 2007. Having already frequented the bakeries that won the "best baguette in Paris" contests in 2003 and in 2011, I'm eager to keep going, to find out which deserves the grand prix d'or for the city.

I found the bakery in question, bought Max his eclair, a small lemon tart (because those need sampling too) and one baguette, stashed it all in the Velib's handy front basket, and biked home, making good time due to those faulty brakes, feeling damn Parisian as I watched my bread bounce around. It's a Parisian cliche matched only by the beret. But I'm not wearing "hobo headgear," as Max calls it.

Before we came to France, I went through a few dark months where the hassles of dealing with uprooting our life and plunking it down over here seemed so overwhelming that I questioned whether the move was even worth it. Everything was hard, and everything was hard twice. We had to find a subletter for our apartment back home, and find a sublet to rent over here, figure out how to pull Max out of school for a year without losing his spot, and find a school that would accept him for that long over here, convince my work that I could do my job okay from here, and convince the French government that I wasn't going to be working at all, so that we could get our long term stay visas.

My early encounters with French bureaucracy at the embassy in San Francisco were daunting, accurately foreshadowing the joys of dealing with a massive and often ineffective government. You should've seen how the woman at the embassy coquettishly laughed when we handed her our visa applications over which we'd labored for weeks, turning us away because we hadn't copied and properly collated every document into three piles and had instead created one pile for the whole family. Given that it was a family application, the mistake seemed understandable to me, but she didn't have the time to make piles! She was extremely busy! And how crazy we were not to realize that we clearly needed a third copy of our notarized promise not to seek employment in France, and our Parisian apartment's rental contract, for six-year-old Max! (Where did she think he'd be living? In a pied a terre of his own?)

I'd be lying if I said that I kept my cool either during or after that appointment, ranting about how I highly doubted we'd ever get this visa, and even if we did, were we sure we wanted to live in the country that had produced this beastly woman who seemed to derive great pleasure from showing us the error of our ways rather than helping us? Sick of listening to me complain, Matt finally said in exasperation, "To make all of this hassle feel worth it, you'd better figure out something about France that you're looking forward to, something you're really excited to discover there, even if it's only the bread."

I remember this comment because it took me by surprise. The bread? That was supposed to be the big pay off? Now Matt is not a "foodie," and bread was pretty low on his list of things he was looking forward to discovering in France. As long as the food is decent, he seems perfectly content eating more or less the same thing every day--the dietary version of his white shirt/dark jeans or black pants uniform--leaving him more time to focus on other, presumably more important things. Plus, bread had earned a bad name in our house. For about a year, we'd been trying to eat as little of it (and other starches) as possible, on the "Dukkan diet," which originated over here of all places. Well, no wonder. The results were hard to ignore. Bread does indeed make you fat, even if it's simply because it tastes so good that you can't stop eating it, whereas few people reach for yet another chicken breast.

Matt wasn't the only person who cited bread as a major plus of living in Paris. My friend Maria, who'd lived here for many years with her family, happened to be visiting San Francisco right when we were dealing with the visa nightmare, and she too mentioned that the bread here was better than anyplace else. "Or so they say," she added (herself a carb avoider).

I considered abstaining from carbs here in France. Or at least limiting them. But life is short, and our time here is shorter. Also, life in Paris is expensive, and the baguette is one notable exception to that rule (along with wine, government subsidized to keep the vintners going).

It turns out that baguettes are required to follow certain rules in order to earn the name. A law from 1933 decrees that a "baguette tradition," the beautifully irregular ones with pointy ends, can contain just 4 ingredients: flour, leavening, water and salt. They rarely cost more than 1.40 (or about $2) and usually they're just 1.20. The best way to get rid of pocket change that I know of. Max likes a pain au chocolat after school (who doesn't?) and there's a decent bakery (though no awards have come its way) halfway between the library where I work in the day and his school. On the way to pick him up, I'll often grab a baguette (or two) along with his pain au chocolat. Inevitably, we end up tearing into it long before we make it home. Sometimes finishing it.

Different people look for different things in a baguette. You can request one that's "bien cuite" (well done) or "pas trop cuite" (on the pale side). We like the one from that bakery near his school because the crust is fairly pale without being underdone, a light caramel color, and the insides are springy and moist, almost like the chewiness of a bagel but less dense. (There are bagel stores in Paris now too, but the bagels taste wrong, apparently because the French are highly reluctant to boil bread). All of this talk about something so seemingly uniform, reminds me of living in Japan, where people endlessly discussed and debated which prefecture had the best rice. I mean rice, baguettes, we're talking about the plainest, whitest foods imaginable. But Matt should understand. He of the self-imposed uniform, who derives much pleasure from noticing the distinctions between white button-down shirts that others with a less trained eye would find identical.

He knows me well, and he was characteristically prescient when he suggested that bread might just become my raison d'etre here. I mean I do think about other things, I really do, but it's fun to have a reason to take a long bike ride through Paris on a sunny afternoon, and judging by the fact that the baguette I brought home today is already gone (and it's not 5 pm yet) that bakery deserved its award.

Amusingly, I was researching baguettes when I came across two interesting facts.

1. The baguette as we know it took shape (quite literally) thanks to one of the government's many laws designed to protect workers. In October of 1919, a law was passed forbidding bakers of bread and pastry from working between ten in the evening and four in the morning. Due to its thinness, the baguette could be prepared and baked in less time than more traditional loaves.

2. Just today, the paper included a front page article about an 80 page report that came out critiquing the French government for upholding 400,000 "norms," rules that public bodies and private businesses must uphold, going to "absurd and costly" lengths and hurting the economy. They say, "The last time a French norm was scrapped was in 1789."

According to this article, one of these "norms" is the rule dictating the width of a baguette.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Good To Be Home

I'm back in Paris, after a trip to the US that was so short that I'm not convinced I ever fully got over the jetlag, waking up so many times each night that I felt fuzzy every day. My first night back here, I fell into a deep and uninterrupted sleep and woke up when Max came into our room at 6:30. It's almost like I never left, except that things seem more normal now, less foreign.

For the first two months that we were here, I got hopelessly lost covering the four blocks from the Strasbourg Saint-Denis metro stop to our apartment's red front door on Rue de l'Echiquier. I mean, I got out of that metro at least once a day--so sixty times, minimum--and every single time, I managed to get turned around on the way home. In my defense, the metro station has half a dozen different exits that spit you out onto different sides of streets that seem to have been planned by a blind sadist. All of the neighborhood landmarks--the KFC's, the Carrefours, the cafes with hammered brass tables, the Turkish sandwich shops, Muslim butchers, and countless African beauty salons--repeat so often that they don't really help you get oriented.

When you're lost, windows full of go-go wigs on styrofoam heads are the stuff of nightmares.

Still, sometimes I feel like the blind person.

So I couldn't believe it when I got off a ten hour flight (scrunched in the middle seat), successfully navigated the RER from the airport, transfered to the right metro without consulting the map, and then found the way to our apartment--for the first time ever--without getting lost. The good thing about being as directionally challenged as I am is that it gives you the right to celebrate small victories.

It may have taken me 2 months, but I did it!

In my absence, Max and Matt fared just fine, although poor Matt got saddled with a lot of solo childcare as I happened to leave for my trip right when Max was on one of his "vacances scolaires." Again in my defense, when I booked these dates, it didn't cross my mind that Max might have a 2 week vacation just a month and a half after the end of the winter holidays. I wasn't yet aware that he'd be getting 2 weeks off every 6 weeks. Given this fact, the odds were good that my trip might overlap with one of these vacations. But Freud says that there are no accidents, and he might be right in this case. (I mean I could have checked the school calendar...) While I missed both Matt and Max a lot, a week away from your 6 year old is definitely a vacation, even when you're on a work trip. And a school vacation counts as hard work for the parent left behind to entertain him.

Paris is notoriously dreary in February. Most of the families in Max's class left France for the break, in pursuit of sun or snow. Since the rain made playgrounds impossible many days, Matt and Max spent a lot of time at museums. Max took a 2 hour perfume-making class ("I'm not sure why there weren't more boys in it," he said afterwards, sounding genuinely baffled), and another 2 hour class at the Louvre called "mimer la sculpture," that I'd signed him up for weeks earlier. Max loves making art, and was excited to get to work with clay, but apparently my translation skills need some work. I thought it would be a sculpture class, but it turned out to be a class in which the kids wandered around the museum and "mimed" the sculpture--posing like statues.  How French.

The boys fared just fine without me, with one exception. On a trip to a kids' science museum, Max fell over backwards in his chair and hit his head on the marble floor, which necessitated a visit to the French ER resulting in three stitches.

Note to self: never make the mistake of callously suggesting that head wounds bleed a lot, so maybe these three stitches weren't necessary. Never laugh (nervously) at the righteous indignation of the parent who had to experience the trauma of all that bloodshed and sit through the interminable ER visit. Never suggest that said visit was probably so long because they had to attend to serious injuries first.

Max, over Skype, in a wobbly little voice: "Are you laughing at my wound, Mommy?")

I grew up with a doctor in the house. All injuries were minor compared to whatever gory surgery my father had performed that day, and his attitude rubbed off. I also couldn't help thinking back to when Max was 4, and he became frantically convinced that a bug had flown into his ear, that he could still hear it "clicking around" in there. We spent three hours at St. Luke's, after which an attending shone a light in his ear and charged us $800 for the insight that a bug might have flown in and out. Or maybe he'd imagined it.

Later this week, we arre supposed to go to the doctor to have Max's stitches removed, but I've done a little research on the internet and it seems pretty easy to snip each loop and pull them out. Only scissors and a pair of tweezers needed! I'm frankly a little offended that Max, who hates going to the doctor with a passion, told me that he'd rather see a professional.

"I am a professional," I said.

"A professional what?" he asked.

Instead of answering, I told him that our friend Danielle (also a doctor's daughter) actually removed her own cast with a saw.

He didn't seem reassured, but he said, "If you think you can do it, then Mommy I'll let you try."

It's good to be home.