The Ordinary Kindness of Paris

parisI took four years of French in high school.

I’m telling you that and if you know me, you know I have a tin ear for languages. At my best I spoke some restaurant kitchen insult-Spanish and a little reporter Arabic, brokenly, though I worked in Spanish- and Arabic-speaking communities for years. Encountering speakers of other tongues, I relied heavily on hand gestures and hoped that my utter haplessness would seem charming. I tried books, tapes, flash cards; never got any better.

It was only exacerbated by marrying a linguistic savant: Mr. A went to Brazil for a week and came back speaking passable Portuguese. I took four years of French in high school and a semester in college and the minute I opened my mouth in the café the man behind the bar just shook his head.

“Je voudrais un café au lait,” I said, haltingly.

“Would you like sugar?” he asked in perfect English.

Thank God my high school French teacher isn’t here to witness this, I thought, and pleaded with him. “Was I really that bad?”

“Yes,” he replied, smiling. He gave me my small, strong coffee with milk and pointed me towards the sugar bowl. “Enjoy your time in Paris.”

I went to Paris two years ago almost to the day. I was seven and a half months pregnant, and most people thought I was crazy. But I’d never been to Europe, and we had the days coming, and it felt like now or in a decade, so we went. We rented a tiny apartment in Montmartre, two rooms and unreliably heated, with a weird bathroom and a stove smaller than my suitcase. It had four oil paintings in it, and three balconies, and after a day I wanted to live there forever. The rotisserie across the street sold chicken sausages with rosemary, and every morning we went to a bakery and bought fresh pain au chocolat.

People always say Parisians are rude, but as I lumbered my ungainly self from the Metro to the various museums and tourist spots, I didn’t find rudeness. Parisians were direct. Go here. Do this. It’s this way. Their city was swift and wild and there was no time to hem and haw, but they were kind to me. A young man gave me his seat on a train. The owner of a shop, who spoke no English, pointed at things until we agreed on them, no sign of disgust or impatience in her eyes.

I couldn’t have blamed them if they had been rude; we are not so long removed from the days when Americans showily poured French wine down sewers and broke the windows of French-themed shops in protest for France’s lack of support for the Iraq war. I could barely forgive my country for that, for impugning the courage of the people who lost so much in World War I. As if you would ever choose a war, once you made it out of the trenches of the Somme.

Not to mention: Tourists took selfies in front of the altar at Notre Dame, in direct contravention of the sign in seven languages that asked them not to do that. Tourists posed in front of the tomb of the unknowns, posed for pictures. Still, people were kind to me.

I am thinking of that kindness tonight. Of the men and women I met during a talk I gave there, who ran literature programs and loved the same authors I did. Of the people who smiled at me on the street on the fourth day we passed each other, because we were neighbors now. Of the selfless givers of directions and drivers of taxis and counters-out of change I was unsure of. We underestimate ordinary kindness, those of us who don’t live in cities crammed floor to ceiling with people and cars and refuse and noise. We don’t consider how much we depend on it until we are the size of a house, as I was, just wanting a cup of coffee.

We don’t think about how often we hold a door, lift a package, smile and give a warm word. We don’t think about how we hold each other up, until everything falls down.



5 thoughts on “The Ordinary Kindness of Paris

  1. I thought the same as you about the French. My language skills are somewhat better than yours, and the people were helpful and kind, though,as you say, direct. One day, when I was searching for the entrance to the Musée de Cluny, a woman did not simply point the way, but she walked me halfway around the block to show me. I encountered one rude person in my several visits to France, an immigration agent, and, after he let me through, I told him he was rude in French. Now that I look back, that was foolish. When the French learned I was from Louisiana, they treated me like a cousin. Je suis désolé.

  2. Thank you Athenae…this was perfect for me. I have been following twitter and BBC for hours, numb, cringing, dulled. Not sure what I needed to read to be able to just stop and try to sleep. And I was so happy to see you posted, and this was perfect. After reading it (twice) I was reminded of Prince Myskin, and how Beauty will Save the World.

  3. I did not find the French rude at all. Maybe a couple of people weren’t that happy I needed communication assistance, but rude is the wrong word. I fuckin’ love the city of Paris. A week was too short, as I’m sure a month or a year would not be enough time.

  4. I never noticed anyone in Paris being particularly rude. Parisians are urban. Paris is full of helpful people. Obviously, having a bit of French makes it a bit easier, but people there do try to help, lack of language notwithstanding. I think the people who find them rude are the same people who find New Yorkers rude, perhaps suburbanites?

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