From what I gather after 10 months in Paris, understanding how to get on with Parisians — as opposed to the French generally — takes a trip in the way-back machine. Destination: seventh grade. For example, it took months before our gardien, a somber-faced aging man with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Champs-Elysées (in fairness, if I had to windex — no, Windex®! — the foyer doors for a living, I might have one too) and a tendency to leave his fly unzipped, would return my “bonjour.” This sent my slightly co-dependent ego into a state of worry and self-doubt.
This is a likeness, at least in my head, of the gardien.
"What have I done?" I asked my friend Molly one day, as we side-stepped the discarded condoms during our walk in the Bois de Boulogne.
She just shook her head as if to say, “Bless your little heart.”
Molly has been here 10 years, is married to a delightful French man (perhaps the only one in all of Paris), speaks the language fluently and is still considered an outsider in these parts. But she does know the ways of their world.
"It’s just how they are. Start being really clipped and see what happens."
So instead of smiling brightly and trying desperately to win a simple salutation from the gardien — let’s call him Sad Sack, or better, Sac Triste — I began to offer only the slightest acknowledgement. The chilly treatment warmed him right up and ushered in an era of chit-chat.
"A l’ecole?" (Going to school?) he’d ask with a smile as I unstuffed the boys from the elevator (Nicholas calls it the "Alligator") one morning. "Oui, a l’école. Bonne journée." When I saw Sac Triste with his grandson at the park, we’d exchange smiles and "Ca va"s like we were old family friends.
Until the other day.
I’d just returned from a grueling trip to school with the boys, both of them screaming, one hanging off each hand, for the entire four-block walk. This is notable because of the way Parisians regard such behavior. The French, you see, have a Victorian view of child-rearing, which is to say they believe kids should be seen, not heard. They ignore them, or beat them senseless, or both, from an early age, which creates a disincentive for small people to act up. That’s why they grow up so damn grumpy. In short, they frown on public temper tantrums. So as I walked into my apartment building, I’d already been accosted with all manner of shrugs, eye rolls, head shaking, etc.
Sac Triste was doing his Monday morning polishing and such, then stopped me to ask in French whether I was the one who’d placed a bag of beer bottles next to the glass recycling bin instead of inside it. It took asking him to repeat himself to understand what he was saying. That annoyed him, and only convinced him more that I was the culprit.
"C’est vous?" (It’s you?) he accused, as he demonstrated the placing of a bottle into the bin as though I was mentally impaired.
"Non, pas moi," I said. He rolled his eyes and told me I really needed to learn French.
Suck it, Sac Triste.
Nothing was going to convince him that he was wrong. Which is another malady of the French, an utter lack of self doubt.
Author Stephen Clarke, with whom I fear I’m desperately in love, says it better than I ever could in Talk to the Snail:
When Dealing with a Frenchman, you need to be aware that there is a voice in his head. It is constantly telling him, ‘I’m French, I’m right.’ Even when he’s doing something that is quite obviously illegal, antisocial or just plain stupid, he is sure that right is on his side….
Observe a Parisian driver when he or she comes up against a red light. ‘How dare this coloured bulb assume it knows best whether it is safe to cross this junction,’ the driver thinks. ‘It’s obviously safe to go through, there’s nothing blocking my way except a few annoying pedestrians.’ He ploughs through, certain that the universe is on his side.
My fumbled protestation wasn’t all there was to cast doubt on my guilt. There are eight chambre de bonne, or maid’s quarters, on the sixth floor, which is unfortunately the floor directly above ours. These are single rooms used less these days by domestic workers and more by students and other short-term residents who, as best I can tell, are aspiring rock and porn stars.
They party, hump and smoke copiously, which is not mere conjecture on my part. I hear the first two activities frequently, and have daily evidence in my geraniums of the third. In fact, retrieving the butts from my flowers is just part of the house-keeping routine around here, like cleaning the toilet or taking out the trash.
That’s an idea: Maybe the next time I take out the trash, I’ll leave it beside the bin.