Never could I have guessed that so many of the preconceptions I had cautiously made about the French would have turned out to be, for the most part, true. Yes, Parisians bundle up in shades of black and grey (or any other muted color for that matter) to shield themselves from the cold. Yes, beautiful men wrapped in scarves shuffle through the busy streets with a bottle of wine in one arm and a warm baguette tucked under the other. There are pastry shops that smell of butter and sugar on every corner. They smoke like there is no tomorrow, couples embrace and kiss on the metro, the Eiffel Tower is as magical as photos paint it out to be, and, above all things, the French language is an outsider’s key to absolutely everything.
One of my very first lectures at ESCP during orientation week gave me quite the laugh. It was a comical and surprising lesson explaining the French’s relationship with their revered language. And although most Parisians speak a good level of English too, I learned right off the bat that while they are fully capable, that does not mean by any circumstances that they will.
During my first week in Paris, I had a frustrating encounter that demonstrated exactly this. I had run down to a little marché across the street to grab a few groceries, and as it was my first time, I was struggling to understand the pricing and labels of a few products in the produce area. Naturally, I approached a store worker, and asked her if she spoke English (in English) so that I could better explain my confusion. I was met with the blankest of stares. I then asked her in French if she spoke English, but was met again with a stoic glare only this time, she had the slightest of smirks beginning to spread across her face. I ignored this, and simply began to ask my original question about the grapefruit. After about 10 seconds, she still had not spoken a word and now had her arms crossed in front of her before she spit out in perfect English: “This is France and we speak French–not English. Learn it.” She then proceeded to walk away. I was stunned, and quite frankly, a bit hurt. I still bought the grapefruit.
Now, not all the people I have met here in Paris are like this, of course. I have met many very kind, understanding strangers who sympathize with us tourists and our terribly imperfect French and loud, obnoxious English. But, this dilemma is one that I as an American had to evolve to understand. The French language is so important to its people no matter how international English may be, and that is a cultural fact I learned to love. During this lecture, another problem with the way I had approached the store worker was pointed out: I had not greeted her and said, “Bonjour madame,” before beginning my inquiry. Here in France, customer service is as far as it gets from the United States. The undisclosed rule is that neither party owes the other anything, regardless of the situation, until each have acknowledged the other person as a human being and not simply as worker and customer.
The list of cultural idiosyncrasies goes on, and I am already finding myself adapting and learning how to make the best of each one. Perhaps I will return more of a Parisian than American when I return! À la prochaine, UT.