OK, I’ve been here for more than 5 days, but in my first 5 days, some really nice things happened. This might surprise those of you who read about my cell-phone-shopping experience, but indeed, people have mostly been super-nice—not at all the stereotype about French people that we have in the US. Here are three examples. No vocabulary this time—just cultural observations.
Nice thing #1
The nicest thing that happened to me was the day that I arrived, and it makes for the longest story. I made it from the airport to the hotel, shleped my bags to the door of the apartment building, put in the code on the numeric pad, and…nothing. I tried it every possible way: nothing. I had the phone number of a contact person, but no cell phone service on my American phone. What to do? Find a payphone. Everyone knows that there are no payphones any more, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. So, I try up the street, and I try the other way down the street, and what do you know? There’s a payphone, maybe half a block from my apartment.
So, I try to squeeze into the phone booth with my two suitcases and my back pack. Two young men at the cafe right next to the phone booth watch–hard to tell if they’re amused, or what. Whoops: the pay phone requires a phone card–not unusual at all, in countries other than the US. Where to get a phone card? Everyone will tell you how unfriendly the French are, and indeed I’ve read a reputable anthropologist and others talking about the French distaste for dealing with strangers, but what the heck, I don’t see a lot of options: I squeeze myself, my two suitcases, and my back pack out of the phone booth, go over to the two young men, and ask them where I can buy a phone card. One of them looks around: “There’s a tabac (tobacco store) across the street.” (In France, as in many countries, many small things are sold at tobacco stores, phone cards often being one of them.) So, I shlep across the street, buy a phone card, shlep back across the street, and squeeze myself, my two suitcases, and my back pack into the phone booth. By now, the two young men have become a table full of young folks. Everyone watches me as I put the phone card into the phone…and discover that the phone is broken.
So, what the heck: I squeeze myself, my two suitcases, and my back pack out of the phone booth and go up to the table full of young people. “I’m sorry to bother you.” (The most useful words in the French language, as far as I know: Je suis désolé de vous déranger.) “May I borrow your phone? My phone doesn’t work (holding it out to them).” One of them hands me his phone. I dial my contact person’s number: call doesn’t go through. Now what? I show one of the young folks the number, and he kindly points out that it’s written wrong–there’s an extra zero. So, I dial again, and this time the call goes through. I get voice mail, and leave a message saying that I’ll wait for her at the cafe on the corner by the apartment. I thank the young folks profusely, and head down to the cafe, where I take a seat, not knowing if my contact will show up in an hour, or eight hours, or not at all.
So, I’m sitting there in the cafe having a bite to eat, when the guy who had lent me his phone rides up to me on a bicycle and hands me a cell phone! My contact person had called his number back, and he left wherever he was and drove back to find me! My contact person gave me the right number for the key pad, I thanked the young guy profusely, and he nodded and rode off. How incredibly nice was that?
Nice thing #2
To get to work in the morning, I have to walk from a valley to what we call “the plateau” at the top of the hill. The hill starts out with a slope, which becomes a steep slope, which becomes a really steep slope, which becomes a slope that’s so steep that I not only struggle to get up it in the morning, but I struggle to get down it in the evening. After that last part, it lowers to a really steep slope, and then a steep slope, and then a slope—so, after the worst part, you’re definitely not done.
My first day walking to work alone, I’m struggling up the slope when a car pulls up next to me. “You want a ride?” The guy takes me to the plateau. Very nice.
Nice thing #3
After a long day at work, I want wine with my dinner–more or less necessary when you’re living on bread, cheese, and fruit. I find an open grocery store, find a bottle of wine, and get in line at the cash register. In front of me: a woman with a huge pile of stuff. She smiles and tells me to go first. Totally kind.
So, despite everything you’ve heard: lots of nice people in France!