Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Bonne Année

I was not looking forward to going to work last Tuesday.

This wasn't just because it was my first day back at work after the last long holiday weekend, though that was certainly part of it. It wasn't a lack of sleep either, for once: we'd managed to get back to Paris at a reasonable hour the evening before, so we'd had a chance to unpack, organize, and even sit down to a nice improvised dinner before heading off to bed. I was well-rested, resigned and ready to start digging through a huge pile of work, but I sighed and groaned inwardly when I reached the front door of my office.

What I was dreading was the French New Years ritual that I knew waited for me: a week of overly-enthusiastic wishes of prosperity for the new year to everyone and anyone whose path I crossed. Many wouldn't know my name, or be able to identify me as anyone other than la petite américaine. Most would expect a New Years kiss on both cheeks nevertheless, because, well, tradition demands.

As usual when confronted with such foreign social rituals, I would have the vague feeling that I was doing everything wrong. Normally I shake hands with my colleagues, and when I stopped to say hello to everyone as usual on the way to my desk, I debated whether to hold out my hand. If my colleague did nothing, I went ahead and shook as usual, but a few stood up. Ah, the kiss! I thought. I'll never get used to this.

On a couple of occasions over the following days I made the mistake of offering a handshake only to realize that it wasn't what was expected. "Bonne Année," was the reply, either confused or reproachful, "So we'll shake hands?"

This handshake-or-kiss protocol flusters me sufficiently that I have trouble figuring out exactly what I'm supposed to say along with it. I manage an enthusiastic "Bonne Année", but that's about all I can muster, while my colleague wishes me prosperity, happiness, professional success, and any and all other good things that come to their mind.

The good wishes usually trail off without any logical conclusion, which I find amusing. The director of the research and development department came through our office, mumbling some vague expression of "best wishes and all the good things you may want... or whatever." He looked embarrassed, as if he were doing his New Years duty but wasn't any better at it than I am. He didn't expect a kiss from anyone, and didn't even stop to shake hands.

As last week progressed and into this week, I was increasingly confronted with the embarrassing problem of remembering exactly whom I'd already seen in 2007, and who was left on my New Years to-be-greeted list. This was fairly complicated, since people were trickling in from vacation during most of last week. The first half of January is essentially a two-week-long variant of the classic problem of remembering who you've seen in the day lest you commit the horrible error of saying Bonjour to the same person twice. By this Friday everyone will give up and assume they've already seen everyone, and start a new topic of conversation: the annual February ski vacation.

I'm just glad that New Years comes only once a year.

No comments: