French manners: One word that makes the whole world kin

December 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

On my first visit to Paris in 1989, French shop-assistants initially disconcerted me by saying Bonjour when I entered shops. They further surprised me by saying Au Revoir when I left without buying anything. It soon became clear that this greeting was nothing more than an acknowledgement of my presence in the shop: not a preliminary to forcing a sale.

Why was I so disconcerted by a greeting? Because I was used to something else. In Dublin, it was not customary for shop assistants to call out Good Morning or Hello. Assistants, in a clothes shop, might ask if they could help you but in a newsagents shop assistants were unlikely to proffer any help. There was no occasion to speak until you went to the counter to pay. So it was awkward, if I browsed but did not buy. Then, and the same applies today, I felt furtive leaving the shop. The shop assistant might have thought I had stolen something whereas if we had exchanged a greeting, we could have been at ease with each other.

Bonjour said the shop assistant, and Bonjour I said in reply.  And later: Au Revoir said the shop assistant: Au Revoir, I said in reply

These words defined our relation. We both acknowledged each other but did not impose on each other. Going back to Irish shops, I missed this politeness.

The English and the Irish have not formulated a way of behaving towards strangers. For most of the time, strangers are merely strangers. But in lifts (elevators), strangers are uncomfortably close. We try not to catch their eye; we don’t know what to do: we wish the lift were empty.

One word is all it would take to dispel the tension.

Back in Autumn 1989, Marx Dormoy was where I lived. Marx Dormoy was no tourist’s idea of Paris. (I have recently seen it described as: Marx Dormoy, the real Paris of the people.) Did any native French people live there? I recollect mostly immigrants or Afro-French, hanging out in the streets, wearing casual clothes, more cool than chic, and life played out to the sound of Ghetto blasters. I might have been in a poor suburb of New York, so far did I seem from the world of the Sacré Coeur Basilica.

The flat I occupied was on the sixth, or perhaps the eight, floor of a block-like building without any beauty. One October day, I stepped into the lift, and wished straight away that I had not.  I had been in bigger more crowded lifts (Covent Garden, London) but never in one where I was the only white female.  An only female shut up, in a private lift in an obscure building in Paris, surrounded by tall African men.

So tall and similar did the men look to me that I wondered if they were as much strangers to each other as I was to them. Anything could have happened to me, and no one would have known. I hadn’t a friend in Paris. Who would have missed me?

The doors closed behind me. There was no getting out then. Had my apprehensions communicated themselves to those young men that loomed around me?

One or perhaps more of the young men said, Bonjour. Bonjour was not what I had expected, but it was what I wanted to hear more than anything else in the world. Bonjour in the lift meant the same as Bonjour in Paris shops: it was a golden word.

When the tall young man said Bonjour, he aligned himself with civilised members of society. He had acknowledged me but would trespass no further. Bonjour was a beginning and an end. No signed agreement, nor written guarantee could have given me the same sense of security as that greeting. I said Bonjour in reply. We all knew then where we stood. A world of civilisation was contained in one word: Bonjour.

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