Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Notes from Paris: Plain kindness

By Morris Dean

Maybe we were too used to the sort of insincere Southerner who smiles big and speaks gushily in your presence and then, after you’ve left, eviscerates you, but we were gratefully surprised in Paris this April how often people there (who do not smile big or gush) came to our aid – by giving directions, helping with translations, offering physical assistance, or volunteering information.

We had just handed the no-nonsense clerk at Royer's hardware store on Rue du Poteau two TSA-approved luggage locks for purchase, and he immediately took one of them out and demonstrated how to set the combination. He didn’t speak English, and our knowledge of French helped us little with his vocabulary and brevity, but we understood him, perhaps owing to the fact that the locks were similar to ones we already owned (we needed two more for the extra bags we planned to check for our return flight rather than carry them on).
    I found myself utterly delighted by the man, whose store we had visited numerous times because we passed it whenever we went down Rue du Poteau to the Monoprix supermarket, and we enjoyed looking around inside it. I blurted, “Merci, merci! Nous vous aimons!
    I had just effusively told this Parisian that we loved him, but he remained merely pleasant in responding – if I understood his French – that he didn’t love us. Plainly, without effusion – no big smiles (like the one I’m sure I was displaying), no gush – he was simply being kind. I did love him for his humanity.

Our friend whose apartment we used had recommended the local Monoprix supermarket, and I was sold on it in part because it carried a store-brand 5-liter bottle of spring water for 0.85 Euro (about $0.95 at the time we were there).
    I went shopping there one day for another bottle of spring water and some sliced ham (jambon) for our dinner. The assistant behind the deli counter wasn’t understanding my attempts to tell her what kind of sliced ham my wife wanted, but a woman standing near me at the counter asked me sympathetically, in English, what kind I wanted. I told her, and she translated it into French for the assistant. Voilà! Merci beaucoup!
    End of encounter – no friendly chat ensuing, no trivia about where I was from, how long she had lived in Paris, etc. The stranger was simply being kind…and perhaps shortening the amount of time she would have to wait for her turn to be served.

On our first Wednesday in Paris, we headed out to visit the Albert Kahn Garden, using the connections suggested by a wonderful app named RATP, provided by the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, a state-owned public transport operator headquartered in Paris. Our first transfer point, after boarding an 80 bus a mere two hundred meters from the apartment, was at Place de Clichy.
    We hadn’t been in Paris long enough to tell immediately that something was wrong. Throngs of people were waiting at the stop prescribed by the RATP app for our next bus, a 30. After we had watched in amazement for ten or fifteen minutes as two or three buses pulled up so jam-packed already that only two or three more riders could get on, a young woman standing behind us volunteered the information that everyone was riding the bus this morning because someone had thrown himself onto the Metro tracks and several Metro lines had been shut down while they cleaned up the mess.
    “It’s not the first time someone used this way to kill himself,” she said. “It always slows things down a while.” She herself, she said, was on her way to work.
    We told her, in that case, she should get in front of us in line.
    “Oh, no problem,” she said. “We get to work when we get there.” She even gave one of those shrugs that say, “C’est la vie.”
    The next 30 that stopped, she wedged herself in the door and helped us follow her on, and  then she helped make standing room for us in the aisle. It was the tightest bus ride we had our entire time in Paris.

My delight in the plain kindness of Parisians might have been conditioned by a false expectation that had been planted by a friend who told me that the French don’t like foreigners. “They don’t even like each other,” he had said.
    He told me that he hoped I would enjoy Paris more than he did. He said, “I always tell people, ‘If you go to Paris, take 24 hours to see all the sights and get the hell out of town and you will have a lovely time’.”
    At the time he told me that, my wife and I had already worked up a detailed itinerary for our 21-day sojourn, so the idea that we or anyone else could “see all the sights” in 24 hours seemed a little….
    He had also advised me, “Don’t forget to tip, even if you just use their toilet to pee. I had a waiter in Paris chase me out on to the street demanding his tip just for a coffee. A gratuity is included in the bill, but the tip is a personal thank you they all expect.”
    I wondered whether gratuities were generally included, so I checked with the friend whose Montmartre apartment we would be staying in. As he usually did when we corresponded, he replied in some detail:

It’s sort of the custom, if one has received good service in a cafe or restaurant, to leave a token sum in addition to the 15% that has already been extracted.
    The amount can vary from, say, 10 centimes [0.10 Euro] for a coffee drunk standing up at a bar (assuming that the coffee was properly made, and served), to a Euro or so in connection with a more than satisfactory restaurant meal.
    Actually I was puzzling about this the other day, when I had a lunch in a small bistro staffed by its owners – husband and wife. In the States my understanding was that you tipped employees, but not owners...but these days everyone seems hard-pressed, and to be grubbing about for every sou, so such refinements may be pitched overboard.
    As George Ade put it so well, “It all depends.”
    Waiters and waitresses, too, avoided familiarity and gush. Virtually everyone who served us during our 19 days in Paris and two in La Rochelle was simply intent on doing his or her job well and, for the most part, quickly. I fell into generally (and with pleasure) leaving either a 1- or a 2-Euro coin, in addition to the “15% that had already been extracted.”
    Simple professional proficiency isn’t per se an act of kindness, but slow, inefficient service in a restaurant can seem negligent…and unkind. We just didn’t experience any of that in Paris (or La Rochelle).
    The French may, in their serious intent, look as though they don’t like anyone, but it’s a false front.

After we landed in Charlotte, back from Paris, not many miles along the road going home from the airport, we needed to make a pit stop at a convenience store. My wife went in first, and came out with a snack to justify her use of their toilet.
    I didn’t want anything when I came out, but I left a quarter on the counter, and told the clerk, “Many thanks!”

Copyright © 2016 by Morris Dean


  1. Love your account of the 'true' Parisians so glad you tasted the French flavour!

  2. Good account, Morris. Thanks. Although from my Aussie mind I find the tipping a little one sided. No one tips here, but then again the minimum wage is $17.50/hr and most wait staff get well over $20 and even higher on weekends. The down side to the 'Aussie way' is that customer service can be a joke. It is up to the owner or manager that good service and wait staff are efficient and friendly. But I'm glad you got with their protocol and enjoyed yourselves.
    I was only 9 when my family was in Paris waking, on Christmas day. I only remember lots of statues with water coming out of them. ha!

  3. Morris, I've spent time in France twice, and went to Paris both times, and have ALWAYS been impressed by how helpful they were. I do not speak a word of French (save "merci" and the like) but this didn't matter a whit. It's my feeling that many Americans are predisposed to expect rudeness or trouble because of that old "the French hate us" attitude, therefore they're already on the defensive when they approach the French. Methinks it's a self-fulfilling prophecy, in other words. -mjh

  4. I just saw this post. I'm glad you had a good time in France. Traveling to other countries is one of my favorite things.

    1. Thank you, Don! And may you very soon have another trip like your recent one to India and other countries in that region of the world. Good times!

    2. This is the second time I happened upon this post and it only gets better with repetition. We love Paris and hope to find somewhere for a few week stay sometime. We always found help there when we needed it. I hope U.S. people are as helpful.

  5. Love the picture at the top of your blog.