Wednesday, October 19, 2011
THE FRENCH PARADOX
In the past week or so that I’ve been in France I’ve encountered what I am considering the new French paradox. It has nothing to do with why French women, who eat cheese and fois gras and beef steak, are thin and American women who diet all the time are fat. This paradox is about giving and receiving directions. It has to do with the fact that when you are in a place where you are unfamiliar, people give you directions as if you are supposed to know where you are.
This is perhaps more prevalent for me in France because, for better or for worse, my French is quite good or at least my accent is - good enough so that when I ask for directions people assume that I actually know more or less where I am going and I am only asking for a little boost to my confidance. Or so that I can practice my French by asking needless directions regarding just where the Rue du Parc Royal or the nearest ATM or the Sorbonne really is.
The French think I just need a bit of encouragement. Oh it’s only two feet away. You could walk there in your slippers. Just go straight; you can’t miss it. You know where the Rue de Perle is, right? So just keep climbing, then at the top of the street, turn right. You can see our terrace from there. But in fact you can miss it. You can’t get there in your slippers. Unless you have escaped from an insane asylum. And as to the terrace you can see it if you know what you are looking for.
Then they rattle off numbers of streets addresses and codes you need to get inside a building and whatever else and tell you, “but there is nothing simpler.” They might as well as be talking about brain surgery or solid state physics. Just make an incision along the base of the skull. Il y a rien plus simple.
Really the problem is that I speak with such confidence. I rarely stammer or appear to hesitate. I don’t even seem lost. I nod my head and smile and say “bien sur” seven or eight times. Or on the phone until it is just assumed that I understand exactly where I am going and what I am supposed to do to get there.
Here is a case in point...The other night we were going to have dinner with Jean-Michel (my French “brother”). Four decades ago I lived with Jean-Mi and his mother, Joelle, and we have seen them often over the years. Every few years we go to his place in the Marais and so it makes sense that I'd remember more or less where he is. And this year in fact we have rented an apartment "just two feet" from his place.
On the phone he rattled off his address which I understood as #6 and the code to his building which I understood as 2087. After many missteps and stopping and asking at least two people who used their SmartPhones to help us find his street, we finally arrived at #6 and I punched in the code and bingo we were in the courtyard, but nothingn looked familiar. In fact I had the sense that I’d never been here before.
Now #16 had looked quite familiar, but the code didn’t work there. And, after several more queries on the street and a phone call from a drunk Frenchman's phone it turned out that I had the wrong address, but, by a strange twist of fate, I had the correct building code. It was like something out of some weird film noir.
When we finally arrived for dinner, an hour late, Jean-Michel laughed. Oh, you know, there was no rush. You could have taken your time.
And so it goes. We missed the start of a film when the gendarme told us to just keep going, then make a left. You can't miss it, he said. Or when we found ourselves hopelessly lost in a subway maze. Oh just go back the way you came, then climb the stairs to the left, not the right. The bank? It is just down there. All these helpful directions left us wandering, bewildered, through charming neighborhoods, down many winding streets.
The next time a person in New York seems lost I will take him by the hand and lead him there myself. If he tries to repay me in some way for my trouble, I will explain that this is my contribution to karma. The next time I am in your country perhaps someone will not listen to my voice but to the pleading in my eyes, perhaps that person will take me by the hand and show me the way so that I do not find myself meandering, lost, hopelessly, down all those winding, not to mention charming little streets.
Or I will send Larry out to do ask the way next time because his French is not that good and perhaps the French will speak slowly and maybe even show him the way.