Bonjour, Madame

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Paris, the City of Light (and art, and history, and cheese. So much cheese.)

Bonjour, Madame

There is a myth in the world that French people are unfriendly.

It’s a gross generalization, an insult, and it drives me up the wall when I hear it. No one in France has ever been unfriendly to me. As a matter of fact, in my experience, French people are welcoming—enthusiastic about their culture, their language, and most of all their food.

I bought some Roquefort at a cheese shop near our apartment this morning. The woman who waited on me was nothing but charming. I attempted to order in French, but when I began to struggle for words, she switched over to English, much to my relief. After I paid for my purchase, she kept chatting, wanting to know where I was from, how long I’m staying, whether I like Paris. “I’m so happy to see you,” she said, while the next customer waited her turn.

A few hours later, Lee had a completely different experience—he had a long work call, and used the time to go for a walk. He’s nothing if not efficient. Anyway, he stopped at a cafe for an aperitif; it was that time of day, and he was thirsty. When the waitress came to take his order, he was more focused on his call than on her. She perceived his behavior as rude, which, in this country, it was. Recounting his experience, he said it was clear that she didn’t like him. I wonder—perhaps she just didn’t like the way he treated her?

Note: This is in no way meant to be critical of Lee—actually, he’s generally much better at restaurant behavior than I am. I get too impatient with the pace of meals in Europe, and it makes me snippy. But I did think his experience was an interesting example of how the cultural differences that we might not even be aware of can color our impressions of each other.

This is a big city, and sure, sometimes people in big cities (looking at you, NYC) are a bit brusque if you take up too much room on the sidewalk—life in a big city can be exhausting. The solution to that is situational awareness, which you should have in any city. And sure, Paris is a huge tourist draw—one of the biggest in the world. I’m guessing that gets old, for the people who work in that industry. But like anywhere else,  if you go just a few blocks away from the tourist zones, the atmosphere changes completely.

On the bus a couple of days ago, I didn’t grab a seat quickly enough as the bus lurched away from the curb, and I sort of fell-stumbled backward ungracefully. Several people reached out to catch me (even though I landed on an empty seat in the back row). One woman patted the empty seat across from her and insisted I sit there. That was not a gesture of unfriendliness.

There are unfriendly people everywhere. As a matter of fact, there’s probably someone in your neighborhood who is known for complaining to the homeowner’s association or skipping the annual potluck or yelling at the cats who dig up her peonies. Does that mean your entire neighborhood—or nation—is unfriendly? Probably not.

(A similarly infuriating stereotype I hear is that British food is terrible. This also makes me crazy, especially when it comes from people who’ve never been there. I used to have a grocery bag that I bought at a Whole Foods in London; I once got into a bit of an argument with a cashier at the Raleigh Whole Foods, when he expressed shock that there was a Whole Foods in London, saying he’d never be able to go there, because he’d heard that there wasn’t anything good to eat in the UK. London is one of the world’s great food cities—diversity and wealth tend to have that effect. If you don’t believe me, book a flight. Feel free to hit me up for restaurant recommendations.)

Take care,

Lisa

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