Because autumn is when I arrived in Paris as a permanent resident, autumn is always an intoxicating swirl of sense-memories: The fragrance of the fall air, the luster of the September-October light, the sweetness of the season’s first fresh figs, the toots of the swelling traffic, the feel of that infamous feast that Paris will always be. Every year, any one of these (and often all at the same sacred moment) catapults me back to those initial days decades ago. With no more than just the right mix of shrinking daylight and encroaching gray, “back then…” immediately becomes “right now!”
I came to France knowing the language, the literature, the history, even-per Charles de Gaulle’s legendary quote*-a respectable number of cheese names. Here’s a very abbreviated list of what I did not know:
I did not know that you have to say Bonjour! before any type of interaction about anything whatsoever no matter how desperately urgent what you want or need to say-or you’ll be branded an ill-mannered brute. (The French Revolutionaries introduced this ritual to counter the king’s practice of acknowledging only members and guests of his court.)
I did not know that you should not ask indiscrete questions. (Whereas Anglos feel ignored if conversations don’t turn personal, the French feel invaded if they do. What’s an indiscrete question? There are circles where even something as seemingly innocent as “So, how did you two meet?” is considered a line-crosser.)
I did not know that a woman’s impromptu “The reviews say this is Depardieu’s best film!” tossed out to her neighbor in the ticket-counter line to pass the time is received as “I want you to cheat on your wife by sleeping with me immediately.” (Nor is a casual smile in the métro just because you happen to be looking in the guy’s direction received as a casual smile in the métro just because you happen to be looking in the guy’s direction.)
I did not know that at most restaurants, and even some cafés, food is usually served at only designated petit-déjeuner, déjeuner and/or dîner times, not throughout the entire day and often not at what many Anglos think of as “lunchtime” (no, it doesn’t start at noon) and “dinnertime” (no, at 5:30 establishments are still recovering from the lunch crowd). And while the whole point of ordering a pizza is supposed to be its convenient availability, most chains deliver within a restricted mid-day or evening window of hours. (This is a good thing: have you noticed that, although their waistlines have begun to spread a bit lately, the French have nowhere near the obesity problem saddling many of their Anglo cousins? [Déjeuner, by the way, comes from jeuner, which means “to fast.” To déjeuner is to unfast, which is what Anglos do when they “break” their overnight fasts with “breakfast.”])
You: “Bonjour! I really love this dress. Would you happen to have it in size 34?”… Store clerk (wagging her finger reprimandingly in your face): “NON!” I did not know that the concept and practice of customer service was not a universal, innate human fact of existence. (In predominantly Protestant countries, money-the kind you earn by being nice to customers-means a well deserved reward for strictly embracing the Work Ethic, and is thus a source of unabashed pride. In traditionally Catholic France, money-the kind you would earn were you nice to customers-meant that you weren’t otherwise occupied transcribing illuminated manuscripts by candlelight, tending to lepers, or chanting psalms in tattered burlap robes at dawn on sub-freezing Breton wastelands. Or it meant that, since you’re touching it, you’re obviously not the king. Although it’s disappearing rapidly, there remain vestiges of the belief that money-and, by extension, those who too ardently pursue it-equates with embarrassing lowliness.)
I did not know that bookstores were such islands of shared joy. The reputedly reserved, supposedly suspicious, self-avowedly arrogant French explode out of their carapaces in bookstores. Heirs to Old World veneration of knowledge and rightly proud of their language, the French sincerely love to read! The best times to be in bookstores are right after the fall flurry of French literary prizes, which are part of la rentrée littéraire (for this definition of rentrée see page 28 of FUSAC 498 or page 17 of FUSAC 508, and for a list of these prizes see Wikipedia Category:French literary awards), and right before summer vacation. During the former, readers devour the fruits of the newly celebrated superauthors; during the latter, they stock up on the works they’ve longed to read all year and will finally have time for. At these moments, and to an only slightly lesser degree throughout the year, the atmosphere around the display tables and racks feels palpably…well…happy-not bad for a population that often defines itself as morose.
I did not know that a washing-machine cycle takes anywhere from an hour to an hour and forty-five minutes! (This is neither a plot by the electric company nor one to keep housewives occupied in the laundry room [while their husbands are standing in movie-theater lines-see above]. Supposedly this is because the machines have their own, integrated, painfully sluggish water-heating systems-as opposed to their drawing on the hot water instantaneously available in the abode.)
I did not know that the “little black dress” and the chignon are not French myths and that if you wear and are coiffed with anything else at a fancy event you risk standing out as a combination of Dolly Parton (ridiculous ruffles) and Angela Davis (huge hair).
I did not know that the French word préservatif does not mean a chemical put into food to protect against spoilage. It means “condom.” (I had not been here more than several weeks when I invited a male friend to dinner. Proudly removing the main dish from the oven, I announced, Je fais toujours la cuisine sans préservatifs!, which translated to “I always cook without condoms!” It took me a month to realize why he’d looked so baffled at my declaration.)
Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.