Saturday, September 13, 2008

That famous Parisian politesse

As my RER commuter train pulled into the station on Thursday morning, I caught a glimpse of a number 21 bus still parked on a nearby street.

I was quite late, and the morning had already seemed far too long. My husband had left at five a.m. for a business trip to Switzerland so getting the grumpy and stuffy-nosed le Petit ready and out the door was all my responsibility. After wrestling him into clean diapers and clothes and unsuccessfully trying to feed him his blueberry yogurt for breakfast (I gave up and he ate chunks of swiss cheese and brioche instead), I left him in tears with the nanny (where he has suddenly decided he no longer wants to be) and headed for work, a half an hour behind schedule.

After nine o'clock, buses are rare and I often end up trudging the fifteen minutes from the train station to my office on foot. So I was thankful to have something finally go right that morning as I ran up the stairs to the bus stop and hopped on board.

"Bonjour!" I said to the driver with as much cheerfulness as I could manage. "What time are you leaving?" Since the train station is the first and last stop on the line, the driver could be on break and the bus wasn't necessarily leaving immediately, so I thought it best to check.

"You don't know what time I'm leaving? You haven't looked at the schedule?" he growled. It was so unexpected that I was unsure that I'd understood and made him repeat himself.

For a second, I had no idea what to say. I've had too many buses pull away right under my nose to have risked taking the extra moment to glance at the scheduled taped to the bus shelter. And even if I had spare neurons for memorizing such things, the schedule changes quarterly.

"Well, um, I'm running late today, so no, I don't know what the schedule is."

"Well, then," he said as if explaining the consequences to a recalcitrant schoolchild, "You are going to be even later, then, because I don't leave until 10:03."

"10:03?" I murmured and glanced at my watch. It was 9:45.

"Yes, madame." As I quickly did an about face and stepped out of the bus he added, sneering, as if someone as clueless as I couldn't possible know the day of the week, "And it's Thursday today!"

Americans sometimes ask me why Parisians are so rude to foreigners. They asked for help at a department store, or made a small request in a restaurant, or simply tried to get some information from a bus driver and they got brushed off or insulted. I always answer that Parisians are rude to everyone, even and especially other Parisians. A certain aggressiveness is part and parcel of daily interaction. That veneer of niceness so familiar back home, that "how can I help you today?" and the smiles, genuine or not, that we distribute right and left, is simply absent.

That doesn't mean that Parisians can't be helpful or kind, or go out of their way to assist you. But it isn't automatic. It is more common to let everyone suffer your bad mood, to loudly remark upon those who have affronted you, to cut in line, to shove for a place in the Métro, and to pretend not to notice when your dog is busy decorating the sidewalk.

I think it is a symptom of urban living and not unique to the French, who as I've mentioned before, take politeness seriously. And things are different outside of Paris. Yet there is a very French tendency to express oneself with no fear of what others may think especially if it means getting the last word, and that makes it worse.

I've always been bad at getting the last word. Even in English I craft the perfect comeback ten minutes too late, so in French I don't stand a chance. So for now, I grumble and stew as I walk to work and come up with the perfect blog entry instead.


Ksam said...

You know what's funny? After five years of living in Bretagne, I actually find the parisians to be refreshingly nice & polite!! LOL

Isabelle said...

It really makes me angry to see how some people who have jobs in contact with the public can be so rude. I feel so ashamed when I see a rude waiter or store clerk or whoever being impolite with tourists. But as you said they are rude to everybody, even the French.
But I was relieved in a certain way that this is not a French particularity after all when I took the metro in Boston and was confronted to an employee who was everything but helpful!

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

Oh, yeah, Boston definitely has a bad reputation about that, too. Just ask anyone in the States about Boston drivers. And New Yorkers seem on average to be about as polite as Parisians, although I've only visited, never lived there.

In Seattle, where I'm from, we're known for nice. Sometimes ridiculously outgoing, with outpourings of welcome and helpfulness that evaporate just as quickly, but anyway!

I haven't experienced the welcome in Bretagne, though, as I still have never been there... of course, in many parts of France I think it is better to be a foreigner than a Parisian. Or presque. :)

Isabelle said...

It is true that there is also some animosity against the parisians in some French regions. There is almost a war between the South-East part of France and the parisians, as if they were 2 different countries!!

caramama said...

I agree that the rudeness seems to be a problem with cities around the world, not just Paris. I didn't have problems in Paris the times I was there, but I've certainly encountered rude people all over the world. The US included. Oh, and there was a man in Germany who yelled at me and made me cry. And I don't even speak German!

It's just everywhere, and mean people suck.