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.

No comments: