Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Paris, or Musings on Stereotypes of the French

Would it be a cliche to gush about how romantic Paris is? Because if it's wrong, I don't want to be right. Less frenzied than Spain, and sporting a much appreciated cooling breeze, Paris is brimming with fantastic sights, sounds, food and people. That's right, despite a somewhat tired national opinion that the French are stand-offish or snobby, we discovered firsthand that the French are *gasp* people, some certainly can be rude, but far more are nice, considerate, and very willing to help. If you just put in a little legwork, and learn how to say "Hello, two coffees and two croissants, please" and "I'm sorry, my French is terrible", first of all you will be eating the best damn croissants you have ever had the pleasure of melting in your mouth and secondly, the people will be charmed and eager to help you with whatever you need and are generally willing and able to split the conversation between French and English. ( By the way, those handy phrases go something like "Bonjour, deux cafes et deux croissants, s'il vous plait" and "Desolee, mon francais est tres mal.")

The next awesome fact about Paris? You can, nay, you are practically encouraged to walk down the street with an open bottle of wine in hand. One late evening, Robert stopped in a convenience store for some bedtime wine and cheese (not to be confused with breakfast beer and cheese) and asked the cashier for a corkscrew. Corkscrew was produced and the young man began to open the bottle, as his manager watched carefully from behind the counter. The way Robert tells it, the corkscrew was almost completely inserted into the cork when suddenly the manager leapt forward with a "Bah!" and a steady stream of irritated-sounding French, waving off his employee like a pesky fly and seizing the bottle from him. Apparently, it was a quarter turn too many and the shopkeeper would not stand for such heinous misuses of wine, going so far as to uncork the bottle himself, all the while apologizing to Robert and shooting dirty looks at the young man who had failed him so.

We arrived in Paris just in time to catch the last stage of the Tour de France, watched a herd of bicycles whiz by before an endless procession of sponsors parade up and down the Champs Elysees. It grew tiresome, and after purchasing a commemorative Tour de France umbrella (bright yellow, very smart) for my dad, we decided to saunter down to le Arc de Triomphe, whose grand scale and lavish carvings really gave a feeling for just how much Napoleon thought of himself. (Unfortunately, the umbrella was confiscated by airport security in Nepal, who seemed to be the under impression that they were running some kind of actual operation instead of standing around in Cub Scout uniforms in a building whose facilities had last been serviced when Nepal had a monarchy.)

Paris is filled with grand, beautiful buildings, immense in size and rich in history, and at every grand historical building (Notre Dame, the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, etc) we saw, there was a bum taking a leak on it. The combination if the highbrow and lowbrow sort of encapsulates the Parisian experience, the city is grand and romantic, but ultimately tangible and real.

But if I can return to the previously touched upon subject of "French People: Are They Actually Assholes?" for a moment...we were hopelessly lost and confused in the Gage De Lyon train station, arguing over what our timetable booklet said versus what the station boards said when we were approached by a very tall man with a kindly face. The kindly face is mentioned because people almost always wear their intentions in their countenances, and when this man walked up to us, I immediately felt relieved. He introduced himself as Victor and asked where we were trying to go. We said that eventually we were trying to get to Omaha Beach and he smiled broadly, extolling the beauty of the Normandy beaches and informed us that we would want to go to Bayeux. Okay, sure, Bayeux, bring it on. Victor put on a pair of half-rimmed glasses, the sort your favorite literature teacher probably favored, and glanced through our timetable booklet that had been provided to us along with the Eurail passes we had purchased the week before. He frowned and clucked his tongue,

"This is wrong, this is very out of date." He shook his head and then told us to follow him before striding off on impossibly long legs, leaving the two of us scampering in his wake like children. I fought the urge to shout, "Papa!" in my best childish French accent several times when it seemed like he might outpace us. Instead, we redoubled our efforts to keep up as he led us first to one counter, and when that teller had nothing useful for us, to another, more well-informed station.

All in all, Victor, who looked like he had somewhere to be in his navy pinstriped suit and black leather briefcase, took about a solid forty-five minutes out of his day to ensure that some scruffy little American backpackers would, in fact, reach their destination. Out of all the kind and helpful people we have encountered this summer (and there have been legion), Victor was the very soul of compassion, staying by our side until we reached the correct platform, tickets in hand, confirmed the train's destination with a conductor, wished us a "Bon journee" and then turned and disappeared into the crowd as abruptly as he had appeared.

I'm sure there are assholes who are French, just as there are assholes of every nationality. But people are more or less the same everywhere you go, most willing to extend a helping hand or return a smile. All in all, you get out what you put in.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure it was super gratifying to finally use those French phrases, bien sur!