Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Becoming truly Parisian?

When Parisians are rude (which, let's face it, is common in all big cities) or just disrespectful of the rules (a favorite French pastime is the making and subsequent breaking of arbitrary regulations) and are called on it, they seem to have a standard response.

They don't deny wrongdoing, and they certainly don't apologize. They simply haughtily point out something else that is wrong with the situation.

The killer statement, usually only tangentially related to the perceived fault, is not an excuse. If it undermines the whistle blower in some way, tant mieux, but even that isn't necessary. It is simply the verbal equivalent of a disdainful shrug, a way of saying with a flourish that if everything's gone merdique anyway, why criticize little old me?

For example, a woman cuts in line at the produce stand at the local market. The vendor or another customer calls her on it. She either obstinately holds her place or shuffles to the back of the line, but in either case, she complains loudly about the poor quality of the tomatoes.

Or a car speedily rounds the corner at an intersection, narrowly missing an old lady's dog. The old lady yells out "Assassin!" and the driver calls back through an open window, "There are too goddamn many mutts in this city, anyway."

I'm thoroughly fed up with my driving school. I asked to be scheduled to take the written exam back in March. They found a free date in May, which was subsequently canceled by a strike. Now, they've finally managed to find me a new date, in two weeks. It's August now, and given that after I pass the written exam I have to fit in twenty hours of practice driving before taking the driving exam, I'll be lucky if I get my license by the new year. I understand that this isn't entirely or even primarily the school's fault -- the wait at the préfecture is unacceptable, and everyone knows it. But still, I can't help but feel I'm getting the runaround.

I'll finally be taking the written test on August 17, if all goes as planned, so last Wednesday I went down to the school for a few last in-person practice sessions. The ambiance in the exam room is very high school: people regularly make comments out loud, answer cell phones, or slink in late, despite prominently posted signs reminding them of the rules (see paragraph 1).

Sessions start hourly at five past, and I arrived ten minutes ahead of schedule. Usually by then the previous practice video is over, and the participants are sitting bored in their chairs. I went to open the door, and noticed at the last second that a new sign had been added: "Entering during a session is strictly prohibited." I noticed a second later that the video was still on question 39 of the 40-question test. I was already holding the door half open, so I shrugged and started to walk in anyway.

"Madame!" The secretary sternly called after me. "Madame! You can't do that. You can't enter while a session is in progress. You must wait outside." She had a voice like a hall monitor. A former me would have been embarrassed or something, but I was indignant: at thirty-three years old it was already irritating enough to be back in Driver's Ed, but to be treated like an unruly teenager was too much.

So I responded like a Parisian.

"Oh, so you're behind schedule today?" I said with just the right note of annoyance. Then I stonily sat down on the couch to wait.

She didn't care of course. But my husband was impressed.


Sylvie said...

Thanks for this. When in Paris, I remember returning a carton of eggs that I had started to use before noticing an odd smell. Turns out they were spoiled and when I checked the box, I noticed that it was a day or so past the pull date. At the store, I complained that the eggs were rotten and past their pull date. To which the clerk responded accusingly, "You should check the date before you buy." To which I responded, "You shouldn't sell rotten eggs!" Guess I was becoming Parisian....

Aubergine kenobi said...

Bravo! I think it is a great milestone when one is confortable enough in another language to be able to retort in these kind of situations! Besides, you are pregnant, you should be able to wait confortably in the couch ;)

caramama said...

Ha! What a great story! You are indeed sounding more Parisian!

Gentian said...

This made me laugh. So true, and I had never put my finger on it before!

hush said...

Do they still say "Je mon fou?" ;) Great comeback! I unfortunately never think of the right thing to say until the situation is long over.