More French than American? Never! But more French than I used to be!

When I was living in Israel, we used to say that our boss was “more Arab than American” because he had lived in Palestine more than 20 years. Unfortunately, we didn’t usually mean it as a compliment to his long years of missionary service; we meant that he had over time picked up certain habits or ways of thinking that were foreign to us, his own countrymen. I was thinking of this particularly on Saturday as I traveled to Marseille (yet again). I set off from home on the city bus to the train station, where I had a six hour ride to Marseille, and then a 30 minute subway trip to the Novick’s apartment. This foray into public transportation gave me a lot of interaction, not surprisingly, with the “public.” Generally, I like those types of occasions, because I like to observe people. I notice everything. I like to watch how different cultures stand in line (or don’t!), how they treat their children, etc. But on Saturday, I found myself getting really annoyed with certain people.

In France, not only do they adhere to the saying “children should be seen and not heard,” they believe it applies to everyone! It is a cardinal rule of politesse (politeness) to speak very quietly, so only your friends can hear you. One doesn’t laugh loudly in French restaurants; one doesn’t gesticulate with broad motions. One whispers, so as not to draw attention. I think this is the origin of the French expression: tête à tête (head to head) because you have to be that close to hear each other! My French colleague kind of annoyed me when I first met him, because he would lower his voice the longer he talked to me. I would end up leaning in, practically reading his lips, expecting to hear nuclear launch codes, because he was acting so secretive (or so I thought). Actually, he was just being a polite French person, not annoying others around him with his personal business. Think of that next time someone near you is gabbing loudly on their cell phone so that everyone around them knows every detail of their conversation!

I got annoyed on the train by two young men who were clearly not French. They weren’t speaking French, for one thing; it sounded like Spanish or Italian, very enthusiastic and exuberant, with a certain Latin flair. But the real clincher was that they were loud! They were so loud, everyone in the train compartment kept turning around to look at them, most with disapproval on their faces. I know this for a fact, because I was the person sitting directly in front of them, and after a while, I got the impression that people expected me to say something to them. Honestly, they were annoying me, too. The more people stared back at them (and me), the more I felt that maybe I should do something. I could ask politely for them to talk quieter. I could say that they were bothering others on the train. I could do something really dramatic, like huffily put my Ipod earphones in, right in their faces—that would show ‘em!

But then I started to wonder why it was annoying me. They seemed to be decent guys; they weren’t offensive (as far as I could tell). They were laughing and talking like good friends. Their only “fault” was being loud, which really wasn’t any louder than your average Americans would have been. And that’s when it happened: I realized that I am becoming French. I found their decibels “rude” because I have gotten used to the quiet tones of everyone else in public places. That’s the trouble with living in another culture; it sneaks in slowly and silently, until one day, you succumb to it completely. You can’t look men in the eyes (after living in Palestine for six years). You get annoyed with loud talkers (after living in France for nearly two years). You think its bad manners to slap your bratty kids in the middle of the store. Okay, that one I picked up in the States, but I think we all know what I am trying to say.

Just a few weeks ago, while I was doing laundry at a local laundromat, a teenage girl and her mother came in and they were talking back and forth to each other, “Here’s an open washer.” “Where do we pay?” “Don’t forget the detergent for that load.” All of us that were already in the laundromat just stared at them in silence. They weren’t being loud at all; their offense was that they hadn’t greeted us. Everyone says Bonjour when they walk in, as a general greeting, and everyone says Au revoir. Usually, people dip their heads in a nod of acknowledgement as well. (This rule is also required when you enter/leave a store, as well as elevators!) Just like the others in the Laundromat (French people of different genders and ages), I felt affronted by their lack of common courtesy.

I was reminded of that on Saturday on the train, as I was stewing mentally over the noisy boys behind me. When did I become so sensitive about people saying hello? Who cares? It was a laundromat, for pete’s sake, not a social event. I will never see them again, yet I was momentarily shocked by their rudeness. It can only be because I am becoming French. Yikes!
Ariel Rainey