Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Two Faces of Paris

Let's face it, Paris has a reputation for it's rudeness. In fact, in a recently published collection of personal memoirs, Paris Was Ours, rudeness is a common, sometimes underlying, sometimes overt theme, in a wonderful expression of an irresistible city. I think the incivility of Parisians makes such an impression because it is incongruent with our expectations. We view Paris through a romantic veil and associate it with the very essence of civility: arts, history, liberalness, style, and culture.

As someone who spent a fair amount of time in Paris over the years, I have like many of the writers in the book, come to a place of understanding and acceptance regarding the abrupt nature of the people despite the initial shock. In order to survive I even embraced their harshness when necessary - especially when it came to parking spots. During one visit, my friends and I spent an hour touring the neighbourhood of our tiny hotel looking for a parking space. While they toured in the car, I was on foot patrol. As luck would have it, I saw someone pull out and I ran ungracefully up the street and stood in the space, waiting for my friends to circle back around with the car. A local got there before my friends, but they were right behind him. He gestured for me to move out of the way. I refused, and politely told him, in french, that this space was now taken. He started laying on his horn. I refused to budge. Then he tried to pull into the space, assuming that I would jump out of the way to avoid being run over. I did not move. He jumped out of his car and screamed at me in broken english to go home to America. I politely, and calmly, informed him that I was Canadian. He drove away. My friends pulled into the space and we didn't move the car for a week.

As I don't often (ever) highlight behaviour that isn't kind, you might be wondering where this is leading. It's shocking really. My husband, son and I, just returned from a week in Paris, and not once, but twice, we were confronted with deliberate acts of kindness. Deliberate. The first time occurred when we took the regional rail system (RER) from the airport into Paris, where we had to transfer to the subway (Métro). Looking dazed and confused with our suitcases and an exhausted 5 year old, a gentleman voluntarily approached us and offered to direct us. Did you get that, voluntarily, we didn't ask for help he just came up and told us the simplest route to our hotel. Wow.

Similarly, we were walking through the neighbourhood of our tiny hotel (sense a theme?), map in hand, but nontheless a little lost. A young woman pushing her daughter in a stroller approached us and asked if we needed directions. Once we found the café (with her simple to follow directions), we toasted the kindness of Parisians with a beer, wine and Perrier, while marveling at the civility and beauty of this magical, alluring city.

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