When I vacation in Paris, I’m like everyone else, transported by the beauty, the history, the food. A lot of ooh-ing and aah-ing with an occasional ooh-la-la.
Living there for ten months was different, though. More than museums, monuments, and meals, what interested me then was getting a glimpse into French-ness. Not exactly, “What makes French people tick?” More like, “What makes French people French?”
The Louvre can’t tell you about that. La Joconda looks the same whether it’s in Paris or London or New York. The painting is the point, not the venue. Real life, on the other hand, changes from one venue to another. And that’s what I was interested in. Real life. Nitty gritty.
Since people were more interesting to me than paintings, I loved going on the metro, or to the supermarket, the florist, the gym, the post office. But my favorite observation-deck for reality was the laundromat. The people-watching was easy, interesting, and fun while I sat quietly, read a little, observed a lot.
Most of my fellow-washers didn’t do anything while they waited. They didn’t read. They didn’t talk to each other. They stared at their laundry. Were they wondering if the socks were really getting clean? Or whether they were getting along with the undershirts? Were they thinking deep thoughts? Meditating? Stoned? Even the young ones only occasionally listened to music. Mostly they stared, too.
One day, an oldish woman in nunnish glasses, plaid skirt and sensible shoes, with thin hair pulled into a bun smack in the middle of her head, was there at the same time as me. It’s true: not all French women are young, tall, svelte, fashionable!
She stared at the instructions on the wall: Load washer. Close door. Add soap. Pay. Didn’t she know those already? She found Le Parisien (like the Daily News) on a washing machine next to her and riffled through it. She tried unsuccessfully to take her sheets out of the dryer without spilling the underwear and socks that were still rotating. She went to the folding table in the middle of the room. Then she did something unusual. She talked to me!
Unfortunately, I was sitting next to the noisy spin cycle of the largest washer in the place, 16 kilos. (Why did they measure the capacity in terms of weight? Couldn’t some things take up the same amount of room but weigh different amounts? Do American laundromats do it that way, too? I digress.)
I put my finger to my ear and shook my head, indicating I couldn’t hear her. And then she did what French people always do – she said the same thing at the same speed and the same volume. I semi-shouted that I didn’t speak French fluently. She did what French people always do. (See above.) So I did what I always do in that case: watched her body language and mimicked. She smiled, I smiled. She furrowed her brow, I furrowed mine. A nod here and there. She was satisfied with that, so I was too, though I had no idea what she’d said.
Then I noticed my reaction to not understanding her and realized that, somewhere along the way, I’d absorbed some Frenchness. I’d mentally used that very French phrase, “C’est comme ca, voila.” (“It’s just the way things are, oh well.”) It’s about accepting something you can’t change or don’t want to be bothered trying to change. A sort of Froggy Buddhism. It felt great.
Have you ever tried to penetrate another culture? What happened?