Posted: Friday, June 19, 2009 | |

(photos of paris and parisians by Philippe & I)

I suppose I understand the roots of the generalization that the french are not, by nature, helpful to outsiders; simplistically speaking, the french culture is one full of social mannerisms and rituals that precede every human interaction. Every conversation, every situation. I hazard to guess that when these mannerisms are not followed, it is disrespectful- and the result is usually a blank stare, annoyance. Coming from the states, where the everyday interactions are casual precisely to create a feeling of comraderie or informality, and where the social culture is extremely homogenous and the introduction to other culture limited, understading the french can be difficult. They equate formality with snobbishness. But I find that the formality in french stems from a different idea of what 'respect' means...a basic cultural difference. To converse with people, you show them respect by using specific forms. If you don't use them, you come off as stupid, egocentric, and unwilling to adapt to a culture and enjoy it on anyone's terms but your own.

I am confronted to this divide often, when I see Americans attempt to ask french people for help, questions...the american informality takes them by (the bad sort) surprise. So much so that they truly can't understand the question, because when the rules of a social culture aren't obeyed the energy expended trying to determine the actual question takes the place of the energy taken to give an answer...and one isn't entitled to anything, entitled to an answer simply because you asked, especially if you bulldoze through the nuances of asking. Please and thank you, etc. In America, I believe the equivalent would be a foreigner barking out orders and standing there invading your personal space. There is also the fact that parisians like to imagine themselves possessing a certain social standard, because it reaffirms their identity as french, and as parisian. As people of standards and culture. To respect you by holding you capable of certain standards.

Anyhow, this post was supposed to be a post about my experience with french people in times of need, short & sweet, but as usual, the tangents took over. Main idea of this post; the french have saved my ass too many times to count. They have defended my 'honor' (hehe), gotten me back home after getting lost, and have been present during their time with me in a way I am unused to in America. This post is for them. Below list of french people from all different walks of life who have saved this girl from 5 shades of trouble;

The French Family, 2008

first time in Paris, visiting a friend studying at the Sorbonne. It was my 20th birthday and also New Years Eve; we celebrated by drinking way, way too much champagne. I was absolutely ridiculous. This doesn't happen often, but when it happens it really. fricken. happens. My friend had gotten me a bottle of champagne as a birthday present, and I ended up drinking the entire bottle alone, after having too many aperitifs (kirs) anyway. It wasn't me being a lush, at least only that...none of my friends there liked chamoagne (they had an aversion to carbonated things in general, soda, etc) and well hell! I had just gotten a bottle of CHAMPAGNE for my birthday and that was AWESOME.

I look back on the pictures taken of us on the metro later on, on our way to the Eiffel Tower, and everyone else looks normal and I am a hot mess. Leaning on everyone. Glazed, smiling, hair afuzz. Explains how I ended up making out with an asian lesbian under the eiffel tower at midnight for about 10 minutes, then getting separated from everyone and getting on the metro back to the dorms only to end up in Versaille. An hour plus away from Paris, mind you. Then! The metro closed (at 2 or 3 a.m) and ha ha ha, I was stuck in Versailles and about to be mauled by a group of trashy suburban kids...not just trashy but known for assaulting women, fights, guns, etc. I spotted a french family getting off/ looking at bus schedules, so I tried to stealthily follow them back to Paris. I got on a night bus and tentatively asked them how to get back to where I needed to go, and they took one look at me (disheveled, lost, confused) and took it upon themselves without a word to bring me back themselves. No big deal, no talking needed, no false conversation, just this reliable stoicism. So they went out of their way, a mother and her two children in their 30s, on New Years Eve at 4 a.m, to make sure I got back safely, way out of their way and into Paris. I got back to the dorm, locked myself in a toilet, and weeped with relief, I was back, didn't die, and it could have gone so. damn. bad.

The commuters on the train from chantilly to Paris

When I was an au pair, I lived in Chantilly, a town about 20 minutes north of Paris by train. I took the train to get to Paris every weekend to see Philippe, and this ride was one such occasion. Now, the Paris metro system is relatively straightforward, but the many trains running from suburb to paris and back are really insanely confusing the first 100 times you take them. Especially if your french was, at that point, nonexistent. It's not surprising then that I was not aware than you had to punch your ticket through a machine before getting on (to make the ticket void). When the conductor came around to check the tickets, he became angry with me for not doing so; first of all, couldn't understand why he was mad, and secondly, apparently its a trick people use to reuse a ticket...get reimbursed, keep using the same ticket the whole week, etc. I had no clue what I did wrong and wanted to melt into the seat....and then, I was rescued by about 10 french commuters sitting around us. They yelled at the conductor to leave me alone, I was a poor girl who got confused and that he was a huge bully and should be ashamed. This from 10 business people, who could have minded their own business, but decided to stand up for me. He huffed and walked away, giving me 'warning'. The commuters smiled softly and went back to their newspapers, and I felt ridiculously sappy and wanted to kiss them all.

The neighborhood auto shop man who defended my honor in Pigalle;

I live in Pigalle, an area of Paris known for its sex shops, clubs, and red lights. It's not the place you would casually stroll around in as a woman alone at night; but most of the time, it's bright and loud but there are no big problems. However, I once found myself in the unlucky situation of being out of cigarettes and pissed as hell with Philippe, and as a result, stalking my way to the late night Tabac. And then it happened. Two guys walking behind me...and then suddenly, someone grabbed me from behind. Grabbed my vagina. I was taken so completely by surprise by the fact that they just grabbed my fricken vagina, not my ass, for the actual idea of grabbing a girl's groin was the absolute last instance of assault I would have considered, that I was momentarily rooted to the pavement. Then, I was seeing red, murderous red, rage so hot and quick you wouldn't believe it. I swung around and promptly delivered a right hook to the friend who grabbed me. Their smiles turned to ones of fear, and embarassment...and then, suddenly a short squat figure came out of nowhere yielding a giant broom and spewing angry french, chasing the two boys away and out of sight. He returned, and it was none other than a neighborhoos mechanic who I say hello to on occasion when I pass, smiling and apologizing on behalf of men and Pigalle, broom in hand. I gave him a hug and decided that I would always, always love the french. No matter what. Walked back with my head held high, assured that Parisians took care of their own damnit no matter the origin.

The half homeless woman who always sits near P's office area

Women are never very friendly to me as a rule; not sure if it's because I'm blonde and tall (and therefore look like I should be stupid, or vapid?), but in Paris women seem to revel in speaking about me in french while right near me, never very nice things. So it wasn't exactly surprising (or upsetting, its completely a bad reflection on them, not me) when I hear two women behind me caling me an au pair, oh hahaha, look at this little au pair bitch, etc. (blonde hair= swedish au pair reference?) There are not many blondes in Paris, and even less plantinum blondes, so I get noticed. With women I usually look behind me and raise my eyebrow, subtly telling them 'heh, bitch, je parle francais.' Usually gets them to shut up. When I was in the processing of giving my evil eyebrow, a homeless woman gets up and starts wagging her finger at the two girls, saying that she saw me coming to work every day, elle parle francais, and that I was a nice girl and that they were only making themselves look like cows. And she really went at it, in a way only an offended parisian woman can, standing up rod straight, eyes wide, vowels spit out with vigor. Completely unexpected...and so sweet. Later on, after the dinner party I went to, she was still sitting on her ledge. I stopped and thanked her and spoke briefly, and to thank her I gave her a bunch of cigarettes/a lighter, and a sincere thank you. I now stop by and talk to her for a good 15 minutes a day about everything, old Paris, her life, etc. She has become a pleasant stop on my everyday itinerary. Another example of how french people come to my rescue, especially in regards to my 'honor', which makes me smile because I couldn't care too much about defending it as it isn't that important to me to say, be respected by two trashy girls. But the French? By god, it's a duel! And if they dare assault my honor? Seems as if I have a whole brigade behind me.

And so, in conclusion, I love my city and its people. They always seem to say; yeah, we're complicated, but we take care of each other. All of you have saved my ass more times than I can count and I will never, ever forget that. And maybe, just maybe, one day back in America I can do you the same honor.

ma chere ville, j'aime toujours!


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