Monday, January 30, 2012

L'américain in the china shop

I've been living here for over eight years, and it still happens to me.  It's like my accent: I can't shake it, and perhaps I shouldn't even try anymore.  Yes, folks, l'américaine has stumbled and shattered a few metaphorical plates.

Maybe my transition to expatriate life was easier for me because I never felt like I "got" all the social rules, even when I lived back home.  I was painfully shy as a child, but sometime in high school I embraced the fact that I never fit it. I found my voice, and then decided to be loud, with a unsubtle sense of humor.  I was the kid whose constant commentary in English class was smart and just this side of impertinent.  Then I became a geek, and geeks can get away with ignoring most social niceties.  I wasn't... comfortable, exactly, but I mostly avoided embarrassing myself.

Then I moved to France, and the social script got a whole lot more complicated.  I didn't know when to insist, when to flatter, when to speak up (I still hesitate), when to be discreet (never my forte), or when to cheat, just a little bit.  You see, the French love rules.  They love making them, and they love breaking them.  They love making exceptions, and more than just about anything else, they love benefiting from exceptions.  The more exclusive, the better.  But breaking rules and making exceptions can't be done willy-nilly, no; there are rules for breaking rules, a sort of savoir faire.  Anyone who has ever stared down a French public servant and eventually obtained what they needed knows that there's a dance: be self-deprecating, but make your request seem important; show you understand, but don't grovel; show you care, but not too much.  Last, seal the deal with a sort of fraternal understanding between deal-maker and rule-bender. Wink, wink.

At work every day, a caterer brings freshly made hot meals and salads for lunch.  The food is delicious, and so by ten to noon there's usually a line already forming in the lunch room.  The woman who works for the caterer arrives at noon on the dot, already harried and rushed from a trip in and out of Paris to pick up the merchandise.  She unpacks as fast as she can and then faces alone a crowd of hungry, bored computer geeks.  No small feat.  She's very friendly, and knows us all by name.  She knows that many of us workout at lunch, and will put our meals aside in the fridge if we discreetly pass her a meal check.  I take advantage of this three days a week when I'm rushing off to yoga class or going out for a run.

The problem is, how to slip a meal check discreetly to someone in front a line of fidgety colleagues all craning their necks to see what's on the menu.  My American sensibilities cry out that no, I can't possibly cheat.  Look at all those people!  They're just as hungry as I am!  The least I can do is play by the rules; cheat, yes, but do it with finesse.

Today all finesse fled me.  I walked into the lunchroom, which was unusually quiet.  Twenty people were waiting, but silently.  I knew it, of course: they were looking at me, watching for my next illicit move.  I hesitated in the corner, nervously opened my purse and pretended to consult my cell phone.  The caterer caught my eye and nodded.  Nothing left but to pull off the hand off.

It seemed so blatant to me that I was cheating, so painfully obvious, that I decided I needed to mask my misdeed by saying something completely off topic.  So I brought up a do-it-yourself project I did over the weekend.  "Yeah, uh, the kitchen faucet?  I did replace it myself!"  When I said it, it came out loud and ridiculous in front of twenty people who didn't care and wanted me to just quit distracting the caterer, who of course was obliged to reply as I carried on, and who might otherwise be getting them their food.  I felt them stare at me, as they seemed to say, so you're friends, so you get special treatment? The least you can do is keep it on the low-down, you American oaf.

I tend to speak first, reflect later.  And -- and this is why I'm a blogger, of course -- I feel a great need to talk, about anything, everything; when I'm nervous, when I'm sad, when I'm laughing to myself and no one else can possibly get the joke.  Despite eight years of language immersion and a vocabulary good enough to read Proust, I'm still opening my mouth and finding something all wrong comes out.  Ce n'est pas ce que je voulais dire... but wait, that's not what I wanted to say.  Did I want to say anything at all?

French interaction is heavy with context, and the unsaid weighs as much as what is actually said out loud.  Often I've had to read between the lines in my boss' requests in order to understand that something was delicate or important.  I'm not always good at this.  I'm currently reading Balzac and despairing of my ability to ever grasp French social interaction (at least in the 19th century upper crust -- I guess I'm off the hook in real life).  In Le père Goriot, Rastignac receives a letter which ostensibly invites his mistress and her husband to a ball.  Except that when he reads it, he understands that the husband isn't actually invited.  I read the passage in the book three times in a vain attempt to understand the same thing.

Yet the French also relish being startling blunt.  They yell, they insult, they ostentatiously ignore.  Perhaps the fact that no one did this when I cut in line today means I can assume that perhaps, maybe, no one actually cared that much?

"They're all just jealous.  They know you've got a good deal.  They're just not willing to go for a ten kilometer run in the cold for the same thing," my husband said simply, and shrugged.  He's always been one to ignore etiquette.  He's an iconoclast.  Or maybe he's just not a born Parisian.  Anyway, he always does know how to make me feel better, whenever I manage to drop some china on my feet once again.

Note: I could have written "le français in the china shop" about my husband (for example) in the US.  Stomping around breaking someone else's cherished cultural rules is part of the universal expat experience.  So don't think I'm trying to paint Americans as particularly inept or anything (even if I do feel particularly inept today myself).


antropologa said...

Oh, I was hoping after a few years I would stop making these kinds of expat mistakes, but I guess not!

hush said...

Is it bad that I can't tell what you did "wrong" in your story? That being said, I'm pretty clueless in any culture, even my own!

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@anthropologa - well, I may just be particularly socially inept myself personally, so others may very well get this figured out more quickly...

@hush - just by saying that you made me feel a whole lot better!