The age of politeness is over.
Little girls don’t make a curtsy anymore, little boys don’t bow, men don’t kiss the hands of women or lift a hat in greeting. Maybe it all went out the door with Marie Antoinette and Louis XI and all the nobility whose heads were chopped off in the French Revolution.
Or maybe it happened during the sixties when people stormed the barricades again and little girls gave up their right to special treatment. However, this is not a French phenomenon. It’s universal. Americans are too busy to take time for old-fashioned mores of gentility and politeness; Germans are not genteel by nature.
But not all is lost in France. Here, under the heart-warming sun of the south, people have retained a degree of politeness, absent from the more northern countries. A foreigner, quietly walking through the streets of our town, is invariably greeted with “Bonjour, Monsieur (or Madame)” and a friendly smile, which tells him that he is welcome. If a couple is encountered the French take out enough time to address both: “Bonjour, M’sieur ‘dame.” They never restrict their greeting to a simple, generic “Bonjour.” No, they acknowledge both, which makes everybody feel equally appreciated and welcome.
With each other the French are quite demonstrative. When they meet on the street they kiss each other on the cheek. From our window we have a good view of the plaza where people shop, eat in the restaurant, drink coffee in the bistro or just talk. They kiss all the time: young people kiss old people, old people kiss young people, women kiss women, men kiss men. It’s a wonderful display of affection and more than once was I ready to run outside and join them.
You have to know how to kiss and for a foreigner it can be a little difficult. My exuberant husband for example had to learn the finesse of this not so French kiss (he calls it a Russian kiss in memory of Khrushchev and Brezhnev) because he tended to smack a substantial smooch on the gently proffered cheeks of our female friends. Realizing that his kiss had been too demonstrative and that, as usual, he had not shaved, he quickly apologized for his scratchy face. One of our more outspoken friends told him to just quit the kiss and shake hands instead. It’s not a real kiss, but more a peck or a breath of a kiss with the bodies kept apart at a safe distance and the heads stretched forward. While it is not easy to learn how to kiss, it’s even harder to know when to do it.
At first introductions, it seems, people shake hands. As you continue to meet these same people or even at the close of an enjoyable evening spent together the handshake should evolve into a kiss on the cheek. It’s a bad sign if the French keep on shaking your hand and never offer their cheek, and it’s a great source of unease if you go from kisses back to handshakes, as happened to me with Guillaume, the owner of the crêperie, where we like to go.
I was very flattered when he kissed me on the cheeks one evening thus elevating me from an ordinary customer to a friend of the house. But what a disappointment when on another visit a few days later I was demoted to a handshake again. Had I perhaps not ordered enough? To this day I have not quite come to terms with the fragility of the French greeting, and it’s a matter of great importance to me to establish a circle of people who are sticking by their kisses.
The French are also genteel and polite on paper. In the course of finalizing the purchase of our apartment, we became acquainted with the French style of business correspondence. We had signed the papers at the notaire’s office—a well-known man with the title Maître who had been friendly, albeit matter-of-fact and business-like. I couldn’t help but be surprised when we received a letter from him, which closed with the sentence, “Wishing you a good reception of the enclosed papers, may you wish to believe, dear Madame, dear Monsieur, in the assurance of my distinguished feelings.” Our insurance company was not any less polite. Even after several reminders to pay our outstanding bill, they closed their letter in the following way: “We beg you, dear Madame, dear Monsieur, to look favorably upon the expression of our devoted feelings.”
I especially like the fact that they mention chère Madame before cher Monsieur. And upon installing a telephone, France Telecom sent us a confirmation in which they encouraged us not to hesitate to contact them. They also said that they would be happy to be able to instruct us whenever we felt the need for it, and they closed with the ardent wish that we may receive the assurance of their distinguished esteem. It does a person good to be treated so kindly by an impersonal power such as the telephone company, and it’s reassuring to see their goodwill in writing. Never mind, that we haven’t quite been able to figure out what kind of subscription we have. I am sure if we ask them to explain it to us, they’ll invite us for a meeting, kiss us on the cheeks and show their devoted and distinguished feelings by not charging us too much.
LAW AND ORDER
The Mediterranean coast is undeniably beautiful with its blue water, brilliant sun, soft breeze and handsome, tanned people in the cafés and at the beach. The English discovered that in the 19th century, and the Americans followed in the first half of the 20th century. That’s when great fortunes were made in the United States, and the nouveau riche of the New World could afford to soak up European culture at leisure. It’s a new century now, and the world has become more democratic insofar as my dental hygienist has just been on a Martin Luther Tour in Germany and the nouveau riche are nowhere to be seen where I am. Nevertheless, tourists bring money with them, my dental hygienist as well as the hidden riche, and money attracts thieves. So it’s no wonder that everybody warns you about the voleurs—thieves—who supposedly populate the whole Mediterranean coast. My husband and I weren’t much interested in what we perceived as exaggerated stories about robberies and stolen cars until we were directly affected in the episode of the stolen telephone and credit card.
It happened when we were out enjoying a lovely dinner across the street from our hotel. They were considerate thieves and only took what directly fit their expertise, namely the credit card that they needed to return the telephone and get the money for it. Otherwise they left my wallet intact which contained valuable documents: my green card, driver’s license, another bank card, scribbles from my children when they were toddlers, telephone card, insurance card etc. The night clerk at the reception desk maintained that the incident did not happen because nobody had passed by his desk. When I insisted that we wanted to go to the police he advised against it because by then it was eleven o’clock and the streets weren’t safe anymore. A Russian gang might do us harm, he said; and besides, the police office would be closed anyway. I was furious and didn’t care. So I dragged my hesitant husband out into the street in search of the police. We found the police station without running into Russian gangs, but the man at the hotel was right: it was closed. Didn’t the police work at night? Maybe not. After all, there is the thirty-five hour workweek in France, which is greatly respected by everybody, including policemen. The evening is reserved for eating and relaxing; and, as everybody knows, at night l’amour is more interesting than work. We reported the burglary to the police the next day and never heard about it again.
That doesn’t mean, though, that there is no law and order in France. On the contrary: during the day the police and security men are in attendance and vigilant as we had the good fortune to find out first hand. We had just arrived from the U.S. and decided to stay overnight in a hotel in Nice. This way we would have a good night’s sleep and shake some of the unavoidable jet lag before heading to our little town. At the train station we deposited our luggage in a locker with the intention of retrieving it the next morning. It seemed a sensible plan and worked out well until we got to the train station to get our luggage. A young, pretty girl was leaning against the locker right next to ours. It turned out she was American, traveling with her girlfriend through Europe. She told us that the lockers didn’t open and that people had not been able to get their luggage. She didn’t speak any French and asked us if we could help her. Even though our French isn’t great we thought that we could easily assist these inexperienced girls. We felt that we definitely had some superior knowledge compared to them. After all, we had been here before and by now considered ourselves seasoned travelers in France.
We weren’t the only ones waiting for assistance with the intractable lockers. There were several French couples also. Lo and behold, they managed to get hold of a young man in a bright blue jacket who pulled out a sliding contraption between the lockers, fumbled around among intricate locking devices, slid the apparatus back—and their lockers sprang open. The American girl watched the procedure in disbelief because she had been here a lot longer and had tried to communicate her desperation to that same young man. Before we had sorted out what we should tell him in French so he would perform the same service for us, he vanished. I decided to go to the information desk to make an official report while the young girl went off in search of the bright blue jacket. When I got back to the lockers my husband in the meantime had done the American thing which is unheard of in Europe: you take matters into your own hands and creatively solve the problem at hand in a self-reliant manner. After all, that’s what made America great; and my husband thinks it should work to some degree in Europe. He had managed to pull out that sliding contraption and was looking to unlock the lock manually just as the bluecoat had done.
All of a sudden three policemen and three security men surrounded him and were talking to him in loud voices. My husband doesn’t like to be yelled at. It makes him yell back. While this went on, the two American girls pulled their luggage out of their locker, which the young man in the meantime had unlocked for them (The pretty one had dragged him there non-verbally by the sleeve of his blue jacket.), shot us a sympathetic glance and walked away. One of the policemen turned to me and told me in an excited voice that he wouldn’t speak to my husband anymore. As long as the latter was yelling he would only speak to me. My French really isn’t very good, but strangely enough I could understand him perfectly. I wonder if one’s language ability increases if one is under duress. By now, I was getting frantic and worried that they would take my husband away and lock him up for breaking the locks and the law.
When another policemen turned to me and yelled: “Il l’a cassée,” I vigorously nodded my head. Yes, I had just been to the Kasse, (German for cashier. I was getting my languages mixed up and thought he asked me if I had been to the cashier’s which I thought to mean: Had I been to the information desk?) The policemen then turned to the others and shouted in a triumphant voice: “Il l’a cassée. Il l’a cassée.” Only then did I remember that casser means to break. I had actually told him that my husband had indeed broken the lock.
All is lost now, I thought, and I was close to tears as I raised my voice: “Non, non, il ne l’a pas cassée!” I am still proud of the fact that I was able to flawlessly negate the French sentence. After all, the French negation consists of two words ne…pas and that requires some thinking. In the meantime, an older security man had joined the fracas. He fumbled at the sliding contraption and opened the locker while my husband continued to defend himself in beautiful, albeit furious, French. As soon as we saw our luggage, we rushed to pull it out. All of a sudden, everybody seemed to lose interest in us. The policemen turned away from us and began talking to each other in normal voices. The security men slid the contraption back into place and acted as if we weren’t there.
Could we go? I wanted to badly but didn’t want to become a fugitive with three pieces of luggage in case the police wasn’t done with my husband. Helplessly, I looked at the group of uniformed men who were chatting with each other. I caught the eye of one of them who had leisurely folded his arms over his chest listening to his companions who no doubt complained about the dumb Americans. Unobtrusively, he motioned with his fingers to me to go quickly and quietly before his more excitable colleagues changed their minds—and we did.
What’s the morale of the story? Law and Order exists in France. Even if the police aren’t there when you need them, they come in force when you don’t need them. I don’t know how the French police deal with matters of life and death, but I do know that they handle night and day differently.