The French, I had heard, were a fairly snotty lot. But I am loath to make such a blanket generalization for I certainly found some Parisians helpful and pleasant to talk to just – not that many. My negative encounters stand out in relief of decency. Why? I don’t know, which leaves me at a loss to understand why people choose to be difficult when being decent seems so easy. Human nature – what to do with it?
I arrived in Paris feeling quite positive. I marveled at the beauty of high-speed rail – London to Paris in two hours. Exiting the train station was familiar enough as Paris is like most crowded major cities replete with horns blaring and people impatient with purpose. The taxi service is made up of Mercedes, Volvos and some other cars of suspect provenance. Our driver spoke not a word as he fairly snatched my suitcase from me putting it in the trunk. Only later did I learn that there is the expectation of one Euro for every bag a driver handles. I wanted to put my own bag in the trunk – beginning a 14 day adventure of unknowingly pissing off the French. The silent drive wasn’t as short as it could have been. It seems Paris traffic officials make it intentionally difficult on car drivers in an attempt to lessen the auto vs. pedestrian tumult. It was just as well, as the Paris Metro system, like London’s Tube, is one of the best (if not interesting) forms of getting around the city. Our driver remained mute until we reached our destination. Upon being given the cost of the fare and told to keep the remainder as tip he found his voice long enough to make sure we understood the one Euro per bag-touching rule. Stunned at the rudeness in the driver’s voice, I shook my head unaware that this was only the beginning. The flat, which was home base, is in the 2nd arrondissement and three blocks from the Louvre and the Seine. After dropping off the bags we strolled down to the Seine and while sitting in the shade of the plane trees, I was overcome with a visceral leftover – London calling; letting me know that the large cup of Costa coffee I drank before getting on the train was preparing to have its way with me. Feeling faint from walking in the sun I turned down an offer for more sight-seeing preferring to return to the flat. Later, feeling better and wanting to prolong the experience of a warm late-night Paris meal being served by friendly French waiters – ethnic French waiters (there’s a difference believe me), I ordered a cup of coffee. By the next morning I was completely worn out from a night of fighting with acidic European coffee and losing – the contents of my stomach and the battle with a real social drink. The next day I spent alone wandering the small flat with nothing but French magazines to entertain me. That was when I wished I had paid more attention in French class instead of talking to Lynn Spraggins.
My command of the French language is embarrassing. “Command” sounds as if I speak enough French to at least survive in this city. But no – what little I do know suddenly became non –existent in the face of need. I truly tried to engage the language, at a café in Montmartre I was prepared at the end of a very slow to arrive meal, asking for the check, “L’addition si’l vous plait.” The waiter nodded impatiently before passing my table seven times (I counted) smiling and speaking happily to his surrounding customers who spoke fluent French. So, in that universal language of the coin, I left no tip. I am sure my response simply reinforced the waiter’s rationale for his behavior. According to Howard Tomb, author of Wicked French, some French waiters see Americans as Stone Age pagans and all it takes to set this prejudice in motion is an American accent. I was doomed the minute I sat down. Later that same day, I entered a consignment shop and, piecing together my English, French and woman-speak I asked the proprietor if she had my size. The slim woman, about my age, gave me the up-and-down, withering look of disdain. “No grand,” she replied putting, it seemed, extra emphasis on “grand.” For a split second (and that is all it takes for someone from Compton) I fashioned my internal response: I’m glad I didn’t waste my time learning your throat-clearing, mucus hocking language. And you French pick your noses with impunity too! So lady, in the words of Cee Lo Green, F… you! In reality, I nodded, backing out of the door as she returned to arranging her racks of clothes for SLIM women.
I run the risk of sounding like an old crank but I’ve seen the newsreels of Nazi soldiers marching under the Arc de Triomphe and I’m aware of the liberation forces and the many Americans who died so that French people could speak their own language and not German. This begs the question, if I know this then why not French shopkeepers and waiters?
Thank you readers for letting me vent.