Monday, June 9, 2014


I just received a note in my mailbox that translates as follows:

“Ladies and Gentlemen,
We have the honor of informing you that a team from our company will proceed to clean the parking garage on the morning of Thursday, June 12.  We thank you in advance for kindly removing your vehicles.”

It is not at all unusual here to receive official letters from banks, plumbers, or other service industries that sound like an invitation to a fancy dress ball.  However rude a clerk may seem at the post office in person, in writing that same institution will sign off with “je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, l’assurance de ma consideration distinguée,” which roughly translates as “I beg you to accept, Madam, the guarantee of my distinguished regards.” 

It is difficult for an American (particularly one that lived a long time in New York) to understand why the note in my box didn’t just say “Garage cleaning June 12, please move your car before that date,” or something more menacing like “garage cleaning June 12, all cars must be removed by sundown.” I’m used to taking orders from faceless authorities, but apparently, the French are not.  Maybe it’s a leftover sentiment from the French Revolution, when outrage over being subject to the oppressive whims of the aristocracy led to a summary chopping off of its collective head. Maybe that’s why my husband gets furious when I ask him to do something in my direct, American way, like “can you take out the trash?” instead of “my, but the trash bin is full, do you think you might be able to take it out?”

It might a stretch to take a historic view of marital squabbles, but there has got to be some explanation for the overblown importance of politesse in certain French circumstances.  After all, in neighboring Spain, perfect strangers use the familiar form of “you” (tu). In nearby Italy, locals will enthusiastically throw themselves at your baby and ask if they can take pictures. Maybe it’s a question of personal space. In France, you must wait to be invited into someone’s personal space, and politeness creates a neutral territory where the two sides can check each other out.  Maybe the French just need more time to connect, unlike Americans, who hurl themselves at each other like overexcited puppies.

That still doesn’t explain the letters, however, or why my health insurance center keeps thanking me for confidence that I have in them.  Or why the sign on the bus about ticket prices “thanks me for my understanding.” Or, for that matter, why a subway strike is described as a “social movement” on the monitors in the metro station. Oh well, I guess some things just can’t be explained.  And so, in closing, I beg you to accept my most cordial regards.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Another Velib' Update


It’s time to count our Velib’ blessings.  It’s been almost seven years since the mayor's office set up this low-cost rent-a-bike program, and today those funky looking bikes are part of the cityscape.  Similar systems have been set up are in cities all around France. 

For years, the futuristic city cycles were almost entirely out of reach of your average North American tourist, as they required a chip-enabled credit card, preferably of European origin.  Now there are options:  you can either buy your 1-day or 7-day subscription on line, or you can use a refillable cash card, like Travelex.  You an also find out how it works on the extensive English-language page on the Velib’ website, and even call an English-speaking customer service person.

So let’s say you actually got yourself a bike and are ready to take off into traffic.  Here are a few do’s and don’ts:

1)   Check your bike before you check it out.  Are the tires flat? Do the brakes work? Is a pedal missing?  (I once tried to pedal away and to my surprise…)
2)   Wear a helmet.  If you don’t want to bring one, you get a casque (helmet) for 10€ at a Decathalon store .  Once you take to the streets, you will understand why.
3)   Get a map, preferably a handy-dandy “Paris par Arrondissement” that lists Velib’ stations, so you won’t go nuts trying to find one when you want to check in.  For the smartphone inclined, there is also an app that you can download from thewebsite.
4)   Take a deep breath.  What you are about to do requires courage, patience and a certain amount of derring-do.

Actually, while the traffic looks crazy, it’s not as bad as it looks.  As long as you pay attention, most drivers will pay attention to you.  There are also an increasing number of dedicated bike lanes (though they often abandon you just when you were starting to relax).  The bike lanes should be on those maps I mentioned, but don’t count on it.  Look for the theoretically bike-friendly bus lanes (and then look out for buses and taxis).  Watch out for motor scooters—whose drivers seem to have little regard for human life, including their own—and other cyclists, some of whom appear to be trying out for the Evil Knievel Award for Stupidest Death-Defying Risk. 

Now that I’ve made you nervous, I’d like to point out that riding around on a Velib’ is a truly delightful way to see the city. As long as you stay off the big boulevards, you can glide around with relative ease, humming the theme to the movie “Amélie” as you take in Mansart-roofed vistas and quaint neighborhoods you never knew existed. You’ll cover plenty of territory in a short distance (this is a relatively small city, after all) and avoid plunging into the Métro on a nice sunny day.  If it’s not a nice day, well that’s another matter.  It’s up to you how much cold, rain and wind you can handle.  And remember, while you are having fun on your bike, you’ll be working off all those pastries and croissants—and making room for more.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Just Say "Non"

I went to the covered market this morning, and like every Sunday, the Communist Party was out there campaigning, in this case, for the European Union elections next week.  Or maybe I should say against, since the prominent word on their posters was the word NON (i.e., “no”).  As in say “no” to the uncaring European Union, who doesn’t give a damn about the workers.  OK, I can see their point, but isn’t it just a wee bit negative to use the word “no” as a campaign slogan?  How can you tell people to go out and vote (this was indeed a “get out the vote” campaign) for an institution that you are simultaneously declaring isn’t worth a hill of beans?

European Union elections are historically ill attended.  Apathy or downright animosity keeps people away from the ballot box, as does the generalized fuzziness about what exactly one is voting for.  For if everyone regularly complains that the “bureaucrats in Brussels” make undemocratic decisions that filter down and muck up the life of the common man and woman, they also are allergic to electing the deputies who at least give a semblance of democratic process.

But in France, this seeming contradiction bothers no one, since complaining is an age-old tradition and saying non is often the only honorable way to respond to a question.  For example, let’s say you ask a store clerk if they have bananas.  They will not equivocate like an American shopkeeper, who might say with a sad smile, “oh no, I’m sorry we don’t but we should have some tomorrow,” or  “gee, I just sold the last one, and boy were they tasty” (both comments geared to getting you come back another day).  No, they will look you squarely in the eye and say: non, or even more emphatically:  pas du tout (not at all).   Because in France, equivocating and unnecessary smiling are considered signs of weakness.  That shopkeeper may have lost a sale, but she has saved her honor, and what’s more, she has defended La Gloire, that is, the glory of France.

The general rule here is when in doubt, say no.  It may be clothed in other words, however, like “maybe.”  It took me years to figure out that when my sister-in-law responded to a question with pourquoi pas? (“why not?”) she in fact meant “no, anything but that.”  Being direct is also frowned upon (unless you are a shopkeeper or the Communist Party), so “maybe” or “why not” sometimes have to do the job of “no.”  If all this sounds complicated, it is, at least for a foreigner.   

Fortunately for me, the elections aren't an issue, since I don’t have the right to vote.  Because after 14 years country I still don’t have the nerve to face the red tape involved in getting dual citizenship. And perhaps this is where I must admit I’m turning a little bit French: when I think of going to the Préfecture and facing that bureaucratic madness, my instinctive response is: non, non, and pas du tout.