All too often, I’m put in the position of being an ambassador between several cultures, spending a fair amount of time explaining and defending the practices of each one to the other. For me it’s become part of life, since there’s a certain amount of stereotypes that people make about foreigners that are, or aren’t, true
I had no idea, for example, that Americans were well-known for uttering the words “Oh my God!” at each and every opportunity possible. I never really thought about it until French friends started saying it to me, half-jokingly in English. (And a waiter in Lisbon said it to me as well…it was the only phrase he could recite in perfect English.) I don’t think I ever uttered those words all that much before I moved here. But now, unfortunately, because of all my French friends saying it to me (in English), I’ve picked it up and now I find myself saying it all the time too.
On the flip side, people have an image that French people aren’t particularly clean and are, in fact, smelly. Having lived on both sides of the Atlantic, I wouldn’t say that the French are any more- or less-washed than their overseas counterparts.
Sure, I’ve gotten stuck on the métro with some dude’s hairy, rank armpit dangling centimeters from my face. And I have noticed people avoiding seats next to certain riders as well. (And when I dive in quickly to get one of the vacant seats, self-satisfied, I realize my victory is short-lived as my nose quickly discerns why all the nearby seats are empty.)
Closer to home, just few weeks ago I’m waiting for the elevator to arrive outside my apartment door. Since I live on the top floor, seven flights up, the elevator is a necessity. When the elevator arrives and door opens, two young men come springing out.
Oh my God!
What the hell was that?
A horrible, vile, gut-wrenching stench trailed them out. And when I get in the elevator, push the button and the door closes behind me, I realize too late that I’d made a mistake by getting in after them and had no choice but to quickly exhale and hold my nose until I get to the bottom where it was safe to inhale again. Fortunately no one waiting down there at the bottom since I didn’t want anyone thinking it was me that was so foul-smelling.
But I was thinking, if I was with a friend who reeked of bo, I would certainly tell them. Just like the tag on the back of someones shirt that’s sticking up, of course you’d tell a friend that, wouldn’t you?
And this wasn’t just the smell of someone not taking a shower that day, or coming back from a vigorous jog around the park, but a full-on odiferous assault—nostril-burning, eyeball-piercing, throat-closing, bile-building, deeply-ingrained in-his-pores kinda body odor. Even if he doesn’t have a shower his apartment, which some people don’t, the city of Paris kindly provides les bains-douches publiques in various neighborhoods. So there’s no reason not to get in touch with at least a little bit of savon and water at least every couple of days for God’s sake.
A few days ago, I was just inside my apartment entryway, when I started to smell something wafting through the door. A fetid mix of smells, like wild mushrooms that’d been left to rot in the cat litter box mixed with decaying chicken carcasses, all wrapped up in soiled baby diapers. And left to sit for three-and-a-half weeks in the trunk of a hot car. I opened my door, and Oh my God!, the hallway reeked of that vile stench. I quickly closed my door, sealing off the aromatic assault, and threw open every window I could. Good God!…can you imagine having body odor so bad that it has the ability to pass through walls? So I decide, hmm, maybe I outta wait a little bit longer before heading out.
Then just the other day, I’ve left my apartment and am waiting absentmindedly for the elevator, minding my own business.
I’ve pressed the little black plastic button and someone’s on their way up. But since a lot of people live in the building, I don’t really give much thought to who it might be. Then the elevator arrives and as the red metal door creaks open, this fellow comes out and…holy-mother-of-God!…the smell of him wafting out of the elevator is enough to almost knock me over. Like he smeared camembert all over himself and sat basking in the sun for a couple of days. Then got dressed. It was just God-awful. I considered walking down the stairs but since I just had leg surgery there was no way I’d be able to navigate all those stairs. So in I go, fingers deeply plugging-up my nostrils, realizing that I’d have to take one last stink-filled inhalation if I was to make it to the bottom without my senses recoiling and me passing out.
So I’m finding that sometimes stereotypes are indeed based in reality.
And I definitely do find myself saying Oh my God! all-too-often these days.
But I think you’ll agree—I have good reason to.