I had an epiphany crossing the street today:
I like it here.
The preamble to this piece of profundity is that my sociology professor is on sick leave and so today’s class was devoted to a film showcasing the French lifestyle of the 1950’s, with a significantly exaggerated emphasis on bourgeois materialism. (I sound like a textbook, but when you only get 500 words per post, you have to be concise.) The film was nearly devoid of dialogue and the plot extremely hazy, and we were all sick of the last two octaves of the piano by the end. However, it did an excellent job of highlighting the politeness to the point of dainty perfection that pervades this society – and not only on the part of the ladies! There is a collective gallantry that you can be sure of no matter where you are in Nantes.
You get on the bus, for instance, and the only seats open are window seats. You stop, you make polite eye contact with the inhabitant of an aisle seat, you begin by “Excusez-moi…” You get no farther than that: the passenger is already descending into the aisle so you don’t have to crawl past them to get to the window seat.
As a guest, you are forbidden to help wash the dishes after a dinner. (I believe I touched on this theme last time. My American family doesn’t have a dishwasher and there are ten of us, whence one of my greatest joys overseas.)
At first I found myself annoyed and mightily embarrassed by this constant délicatesse – when there is a spill in the IES kitchen and the assistant program director to whom you presented yourself with cleaning spray in hand, wanting to know if the product was food-safe, tells you “No, no, don’t worry about it, leave it to me,” and comes with paper towels and a sponge to efface the traces of half a pear which has begun to take Nature’s course – standing by, don’t you feel a little helpless?
Yet in the end, you feel much more engaged in a society than you did stateside.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no intention of embarking on the long rant of self-deprecating culture-bashing that you can read in Voyage en Orient. There are days when I like to open the door for myself. Nor am I suggesting that kind and altruistic people do not exist in the USA, because I know too many to count. The matter in hand is rather that I am finally getting used to this polite social machine –
And I find myself liking it.
It’s November. Here is what Sally Adamson Taylor’s Culture Shock: France has to say about the third month abroad:
“Attitudes: Discouraged, irritable, hypercritical. Negative cultural value judgements [sic] predominate. Conversations turn into long strings of complaints… Depressed, discouraged, and suspicious of strangers. Very lonely. Culture shock in extreme.”
Read my lips, Sally: I like it here.