Sometimes the smallest thing, a spat for example, leads you into a larger examination of cultural values and belief systems.
Us versus them.
Is there an ultimate right and wrong when it comes to the way things are done in different countries? Liberal-minded and open, you want to say “no”, habits and manners are culturally relative. But then the moment of truth comes when the understanding and tolerant nature that has been such an essential key to your surviving well in someone else’s land wears out. And you want to defend some greater truth. Snottiness is not a defendable cultural difference. You look in the mirror and proclaim “I’m not an ignorant and pushy tourist. I’m a Parisian now and I have the right to complain.”
It’s often a tiny encounter that sets off the spark and drives you back into your self-righteous, indignant posture. And Anglo Parisians – especially when its a matter of service – are particularly vulnerable to these short-fused portentous encounters.
Take the following little rien de tout for example. Your automobile falls en panne and you absolutely need a car to make a delivery. You look across the street and are happy to spot a car dealership with a big sign proclaiming European Car Rental. Carte Bleue in hand and Avis on the brain, you walk in, ready to be on your way in three minutes. (Note: this isn’t bitchiness; it could transpire in any of a number of situations.) The following pursues:
So far so good. You proceed like all good customers in France who’d like a spot of decent service, apologetically.
“Excuse me, may I ask a question?”
If only all encounters would just stop here!
“Well, actually, I’d like to rent a car.” The man hesitates before speaking, taking on a serious air. You’ve asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
“Je suis trés desolé. We don’t have any cars to rent here.” Sarcasm springs to the fore. Of course, it was silly of me to expect to rent a car from a place with a billboard for Car Rentals. You keep down the spring of indignancy.
“But the sign says….” you enquire imploringly.
“Oui, mais that’s at our other location in the banlieue”
“Oh.” Silence fills up the crowded showroom. It’s your responsibility now to develop the conversation, to brainstorm without overstepping protocol. This is chez lui and it’s his metier. So, fait gaffe.
“Then, do you think you could you possibly call them and have a car sent over. I really need a car.” That was a fair approach.
His lips purse and a little quiver is perceived in his cheeks. “Non, non, this is not possible, hors question, you’ll have to go there.” And then to further simplify the transaction, he adds, “Maybe they don’t have any cars left. Il faut voir.”
You begin to want to say, Communicate, man. Get on the horn and orchestrate this. But you don’t. Don’t be so impatient, take the time to live. Maybe you should propose a petit café.
“Oh.” Silence again. This is clearly the customer’s problem. You decide to look disappointed when you really want to ring his neck. “Excuse me again, could you, would you, might you, give me a lift over there to get the car, you see, my car is en panne and I don’t have transportation.” The customer must be made to feel like a victim. Please take my money. You remember what a jolly Greek merchant in your quartier told you once: “There are not many Parisians who deserve to keep the money they make.”
“On ne fait pas taxi, monsieur.” You hear the words but don’t really want to take seriously the implications. This is why we live here, to enjoy the art of abuse. The “on ne fait pas” syntactical combo grates on your nerves like chalk on a blackboard.
You can feel the line of civility passing by and you veer dangerously into No Man’s Land where battles and juicy engueulades roam like street gangs. How Parisian are you really and how Parisian are you willing to be? you ask yourself. Should you remain within the realm of indigenous habits or react honestly? Deep in the pit of your spleen you want to scream “I’m from New York and this is bullshit.” You keep the outer face cool. Maybe it’ll take another decade or two to field these little exchanges without a rise in blood pressure. It’s not like you asked for ketchup at la Tour d’Argent, you rationalize, or insisted that the American medical system is superior to the Securité Sociale. You just want to rent a lousy little car for the day and get on with life. Is his a snide attitude or just the quaintness of local expectations? The public self takes over.
“Excusez-moi, I don’t want to be indiscreet or malpoli, MAIS… how do you expect your customers to pick up your cars?” Oh, if Jack Nicholson would just stop by for a minute and give me a hand; “Five Easy Pieces” lovingly comes to mind.
“C’est simple, prenez le bus.” He looks straight at you like you’re crazy. What do they they do in Californie, he asks. Not this, you tell him, and he replies that this isn’t Californie. Logic is cultural too.
The American in you cringes. This car rental place expects its customers to take the bus across town to find its cars. Is there not a translation for We Try Harder? As your mask of politeness cracks, you watch the salesperson think scornful thoughts about your exigeante façon.
“Do you really expect customers to take the bus?” you ask and the guy in front of you thinks you’re a complete snob.
“Pourquoi pas?. It’s not far.” He picks up the phone and dials:
“Gilles, salut, c’est Yves. T’as encore une 205 a louer? Non?”
You gesture that it’ll be okay, you’ll manage without, and you stand, eager for the door. He slams down the receiver.
“Merde. I was calling for you and you get up to leave. Trés bien, ce n’est plus la peine.” And he motions you off with the back of his hand. “C’est la France ici. ” Ah, the surface has been scratched. The national ego bruised. Now you have to repair the diplomatic fissure that has marked the encounter. You bathe him in apology. You were wrong; you violated the form. It has nothing to do with the car. You’re sorry; you’ll walk. Actually, you’ll take a taxi and get grondé for offering a 200-franc note on a 40-franc fare. Anger and sarcasm spews vehemently from his lips. But you can tell that a few more self-debasing remarks and you will have won him back. You catch sight of his thin white socks and think nasty, ethnocentric things, remarks that belong to your cool suburban junior high.
You apologize again and agree to take the bus, which is a lie, but it works. He calms down and you shake hands.