In ancient cultures, according to sociologist Lyn H. Lofland, strangers were routinely viewed with suspicion–in the extreme executed for the “crime” of being unknown. Parisians, it seems, haven’t come far since then. They are excessively polite, but they aren’t interested in outsiders. I didn’t want to believe that–but my stay last Christmas certainly reinforced the stereotype. I couldn’t wait to leave and did so after sixteen days, muttering under my breath, They’re right about the French.
I was determined that this trip would be different. Haven’t I written advice about raising your social IQ? I can’t say I’ve been totally successful in breaking through the French resolve, but people do seem “nicer” now And since they probably haven’t changed, I must be doing something different. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Bring a dog with you. This is the only guarantee of starting a conversation with a stranger. In fact, I’ve learned to let my six-pound poodle walk in first. If all of Paris is Studio 54, Bogey is on “the list,” not me. Seeing him, every waiter, every shopkeeper brightens and coos, “Ooooh. Qu’est-ce qu’il est mignon! [Isn’t he sweet?] Entrez! Entrez!” and then finally looks in my direction, tolerating the human. In Paris, dogs rule–even visiting dogs sense it. Bogey trots down the street here as if he’s returned to his homeland.
Speak their language. I’m relying on my meager and long forgotten high school French, but it helps to at least try. Then again, my word retrieval is poor, my grammar poorer. I know how David Sedaris felt when he wrote about his struggle to master even rudimentary French in Me Talk Pretty One Day. Case in point, yesterday when I accidentally bumped into someone on the street–“bumped into” as in “collided with,” not “ran into an old acquaintance”–I put on my most contrite face and blurted out, “I’m sorry to me.” Or at least I think that’s what “Je me desoler” means!
Don’t try to catch someone’s attention by smiling or making eye contact. Tightly squeezed as diners often are here, the temptation is understandable. A few nights ago, I was practically at the same table with an interesting older couple, she on the banquet next to me with barely six inches between us. Both spoke English. Her accent was British and his sounded like my Grandpa Hymie who had emigrated from Russia. I would glance across the table in his direction every few minutes, smile–social signals that inevitably get a conversation going in the U.S. He would have none of it. He was a master at what Erving Goffman called civil inattention–a kind of ritual ignoring of others (more on this in Chapter 5). Undaunted by this experience, however, I have since tried to start conversation with others in this way. Young, old, rich, not so rich, they all ignore me–unless they happen not to be French (or their eyes meet Bogey’s).
Drink–and if you don’t, try not to draw attention to yourself. Alone at a cafe, I order a bottle of l’eau mineral with my lunch. “Et vin?” the waitress inquires matter-of-factly. “Non, merci,” I reply politely. That would have been enough, but nooooo, I had to explain myself: “Il est trop tôt”–it’s too early–I say cheerfully (again, that irrepressible American smile). The moment the words slip out, I want to run away. Mercifully, another waiter returns with my lunch, which is well worth the humiliation.
Put plain brown wrappers around guidebooks, maps, and dictionaries. For all the reasons stated above, it’s hardest to befriend the French when one is so obviously a tourist/foreigner–unless your dog is reading them.