Tea, panda cookies, and the Bibliothèque Nationale

My family is weird, and I love it, and most of what you’ve heard about French bureaucrats is false.

When I show up at my father’s house for a visit, it’s a quick kiss, an exchange of pleasantries, and before I have a chance to poke my head into the fridge, he has his coat on and he’s ready to be chauffeured about town on our bookstore rounds. It’s one of the great things about being with my family–with anyone else, I’m hesitant to ask to, say, go on a tour of the local libraries, but with my family, it’s not a problem. C’est normal, as we say in French–a very short expression that means something like that’s the wOn a recent visit to my baby brother, I knew that (a) he wouldn’t think that it was weird that I wanted to spend my free day in Shanghai visiting bookstores, and (b) he would be happy to get lost in a series of bookstores and would enjoy practicing his Mandarin while asking for books for me–and that’s exactly what we did.

The Bibliothèque Nationale, or National Library. Picture source: me.

I felt the need to get away from Internet access  today so that I could focus on setting up an experiment (yes, linguists do experiments), and I needed a specific book to look something up, so I headed to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, never having been inside and feeling that that was something that was missing from my life. A pet project of the former Socialist president François Mitterrand, it’s a huge multi-building complex on the east side of town.  The picture to the left shows one of the towers–the windows are beautiful, but apparently no one thought in advance about the fact that sunlight would damage the priceless book collection, and they had to be retrofitted with something to block said light at some outrageous expense.  (See Adam Gopnik’s wonderful description of expat life in Paris, From Paris to the moon, for details.)

The nice ladies who I approached to ask how to navigate the aforementioned complex pointedly ignored me until they heard the word book come out of my mouth, at which point I got friendly smiles and careful directions to the right building and the correct entrance. (On the down side, I realized that I really must do something about my trousseau–it’s incidents like this that remind me that I look way too much like an SDF (sans domicile fixe, or homeless person). On the up side, apparently it’s the case that for very short conversations I can pass for a French SDF.  We second-language speakers have to take our little linguistic triumphs where we can find them.)

The box of tea that I brought back from China for a visit did not survive its visit to the BNF. Picture source: me.

Security is tight at the BNF–like, the security guard made me rip open a box of tea that I had in my bag to give to a friend this evening.  (He was otherwise very nice–he also made me open a metal box of cookies that I had brought back from China for said friend, and we had a fun conversation about the pandas that they’re shaped as.)

Having put away my poor, bedraggled box of tea and resisted the urge to eat one of the cookies, I cooled my heels for a bit while waiting for what turned out to be an appointment to get a library pass.  No problem–I got to find out what accréditation means (see pictures).

The nice guy who I finally got to talk to asked what book I wanted, kindly offered to speak English when I told him that it was Laurence Horn’s The natural history of negation, and then kindly continued speaking French when I told him that French would be great.  Then he gave me some options:

My number for an appointment with the guy who finds books for you and sells you a pass to the research library.  Why it’s upside-down: I don’t know.  Picture source: me.
  1. Pay for a pass to use the library–getting into the “research library” costs a small fee, which you can pay for one day at a time, or a year at a time.
  2. Walk a few blocks to the Paris-Diderot library, where I could use it for free to my heart’s content.

(2) sounded as much fun as anything else that I could think of at the moment, and when I indicated as much, the guy printed out for me:

  1. The card catalogue information for the book
  2. A map to the Paris-Diderot library
  3. A set of walking directions to same

I was pretty blown away by this wonderful level of service.  When I expressed my thanks, he gave me a smile and said c’est mon travail–“it’s my job.”


img_8300English notes

Actually, I don’t see anything particularly obscure in this post, as far as the English is concerned.  If you have questions about anything, please feel free to put them in the Comments section.

Oh–the Paris-Diderot library turned out to have a fantastic selection of books in the area that I needed to read about, in both English and French.  It’s a real find.

12 thoughts on “Tea, panda cookies, and the Bibliothèque Nationale”

  1. I got a bit jetlagged reading this 🙂 Lots of Shangai bookstores with English books? I tried figuring what tea you brought back but gave up. The Bibliothèque Nationale making you pay sounds very undemocratic, but I guess it’s probably ok to limit users.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As it happened, I was looking for books in Chinese for a Mandarin-speaking friend–so, plenty of options in Shanghai. The highlight of any trip to China is definitely listening to my baby brother bartering in Mandarin, though. It’s funny, because like me, he has no stomach for bartering whatsoever. However, he gets sucked into the linguistic challenge and digs his heels in. In the best-case scenario, this happens in a back room in a cloud of cigarette smoke–nothing illegal, of course, but the nervousness that I feel in such circumstances (I stay focussed on the door, hoping that no one armed walks in) adds a delicious frisson to the ongoings.

      I don’t know what the story is on the BNF and the fees. Are there free reading rooms, maybe? No clue, really.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The French have what for me has always felt like a bizarre obsession with making people pay for things. I suppose it is quite fair to have users pay for what they consume, but as we’re taxed up the gazoo already in this country paying for library access seems a little extreme. Yet you capture so well the astounding level of service that you received when you finally get to the right person. Go figure!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hem … In my first trips to England I was stunned when I had to pay for entring little churches of small villages and even for parking my car in the same tiny villages . This and the behaviour of several charming old ladys who owned B&Bs made me think English people were really greedy for money . ( And I didn’t lknow Napoleon’s “nation of shopkeepers” yet) .

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Zip baby, how could you pass your exam the other day ? “c’est mon travailLE” ? Incredible mistake from a high skilled student, unless some more booze played a part in this . If it is so, forget my comment .

    Liked by 1 person

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