I Was Screwed

“I am screwed”, I’m thinking.

Ok, I’ve been living here for a few years now, and I should know better, but I fell for the oldest trick in the book.

A week or so ago, I invited a few friends and acquaintances over for dinner. One of them, who is French, has always been a bit scornful of me, from my lack of complete fluency in The World’s Most Complicated Language to thinking it’s funny to ask me if I’m going to take out ketchup for my dinner. At my house. Which was supposed to be some kind of joke. I guess.

Anyhow. So I get asked a question, and I should have seen this coming. But really, it just seemed so innocent at the time, he asks“What do you think of France?”

The moment I opened my mouth, to give my opinion, I said to myself, “Merde!…there is no way out of this.” I should have shut my mouth right there and not even bothered. What was I thinking? When I moved to France, I purposely avoided political or cultural confrontations. Not only was my French not up-to-snuff, but there never seems to be any way to win an argument. But I’ve lived here long enough, talked to a lot of people, and have opinions just like any normal-ish person.

So if someone asks,

“What do you think of the Marais?”

If you say…

“It’s beautiful and historic. The buildings are lovely and it’s a wonderful testament to the magnificent history of France.”

…they’ll respond,

“Ugh! It is a horrible place. It is full of tourists and very trendy now.”

But on the other hand, if you say…

“Oh, I used to like the Marais but it’s become so trendy.”

…they’ll say,

“What?! The Marais is the most beautiful part of Paris. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

You basically can’t win.
As I attempted to answer his question, remarking what I loved about Paris, touching on subjects like the fabulous food, French history and culture, the beauty of Paris, and the expressiveness of the French, I also started alluding to the problems here; unemployment, the ailing social state, immigration woes, and the fear of globalization that are plaguing the country (and before any folks start in on the US, I certainly have a few things to say about that as well, but you’ll have to visit my top-secret other blog to read that.)
Well, so all of the sudden I’m defending both sides at once in my argument, kicking myself for being such a stupid boy for falling for one of the oldest tricks in the book around here.

In France, the worse thing you can do is not have an opinion, which was something I learned early on, and that it’s okay to be critical (except in my Comments, so don’t get any ideas…) Unless you’re Tucker Carlson, most Americans think it’s really bad to get into a heated discussion (which was certainly true in poor Tucker’s case, which got his bow-tied ass fired.) But in France, there’s nothing worse than being phony, and saying what you want or expressing yourself is far more acceptable than walking around with a big, dopey grin on your face regardless of how you actually feel.

Well, I guess I should backtrack and say that it’s only acceptable it seems to express yourself as long as you’re in agreement with them.

But the lack of unprovoked smiling is why a lot of people think French people aren’t very friendly, when in fact, that’s not true in most of my experiences. In Polly Platt’s book, French or Foe, she explains that French people wear a mine d’enterrement or funeral expression, and reserve smiling for times when they are truly, actually happy, rather than just slapping a silly grin on their face (…remember the old picture I had on my site here? See how French I am now?) It’s not that French people aren’t happy, it’s just they’re not happy all the time, just like David. In fact, I now refuse to smile anymore unless I absolutely, positively have to. It’s made my life so much easier not having to act happy all the time.
Try it.

So I’ve come up with a solution to this dilemma: Only get into arguments that I can win.

Which leaves 2 things that are absolutely inarguable (well, 3 if you count the political state of America): Dog doo on the streets and retirement at age 50.

I’ve heard some rather ridiculous arguments things around here, such as this choice nugget against the proposed anti-smoking laws…“You have to respect the rights of others,” said Valerie, 29, a smoker since the age of 20.

I think I’ll let Valerie’s comments speak for itself (and maybe cut the poor dear a little slack, since she’s only 29), but no one can seem to defend leaving dog doo on the street, and no one seems to be in the “Pro-dog doo” camp. Are people going on strike to preserve the ‘rights’ of dog owners not to clean up after their dogs?
Likewise with the generous retirement age. I can’t imagine retiring in 2 1/2 years…and with full benefits (well, I don’t get any benefits, so I can’t imagine that anyways.) But letting people retire at 50 seems awfully young to me. I mean, what does one do for the next 40-50 years? (Unless, you’re a smoker. Then you can probably shave a few years off that.)
So I’ve come up with a solution for both problems; instead of those people retiring, voila!: why not hire them to clean up after the dogs in Paris?

Or better yet, teach some of the young people a few lessons in logic.

Who can argue with that?

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  • October 7, 2006 4:32pm

    David! Top secret OTHER blog?? Email me if I’m worthy to read it. I’ll keep it hush hush. ;o)

  • a dear, dear friend
    October 7, 2006 5:02pm

    And you STILL want to continue living in France?

    I think you may be a masochist.

  • Jeff
    October 7, 2006 6:33pm

    Living with a bit of doo-doo on the street (watch where you walk) and a bit of smoke in the air (not half as bad as summer in L.A.) is fair trade for real cheese, un-preserved foods, wonderful salt, amorous sales clerks, and culture only imitated in the U.S. (at Disneyland).

    If I had an acquaintance who had the nerve to scorn me (and I know what you mean, D.) in my home, I would “accidentally” spill hot coffee down the back of their shirt necessitating their early departure. Let their sense of inferiority be complicated by a burn scar. No, I’m too chicken to do that, but they wouldn’t be welcome in my home again.

  • Jeff again
    October 7, 2006 7:02pm

    Oh, and thanks so much for linking to Expatica. I hadn’t any idea its existence and it’s wonderful!

  • Judith in Umbria
    October 8, 2006 4:10am

    Really! I admit I have an acquaintance like that, and if he were not married to my closest Italian friend, he would never be invited here.
    When asked something like that, my response to someone like him is “We both know you don’t really want to know my opinion on that.”
    With husband-guy it is usually about Moroccans, as he calls any Arab or North African, because he is a bigoted pig who even refuses to eat Moroccan food. So I tell him it is Greek.
    So why aren’t you giving him a one word closer, like “Merde!” or leaving him off the list of guests?

  • October 8, 2006 9:09am

    I always deal with this kind of situation according to how well I know a person. If this person does not know me or is not a friend of a trusted friend, they won’t be graced with my in depth opinions. So the love/hate trap questions posed by meddling strangers never really get answered. I suppose that’s very Lyonnais isn’t it.

    This morning hearing the announcement of the exceptions to the smoking ban in public places that will go into effect in January made me laugh. Exceptions to this rule include: Restaurants, cafes, bar/tabacs, blah blah blah. In other words… No change! In other words, the “ban” means there is now a warning in place to say that eventually smoking may be banned in public places at some later date.

  • October 8, 2006 10:15am

    Hi Lucy:
    I love those list of exceptions! Viva la France!

    Well, I noticed a bit of back-pedalling in the last few weeks about the non-smoking thing, and recently they were saying “well…maybe in the summer of 07…or 2008”, which was far cry from January 1, 2007.

    Personally, I don’t mind smoking that much (although I do have a problem with stupidity), but I do mind when I’m eating & the smoke is wafting in my face because the idiot at the next table is holding it away from her dining companions so they don’t have to smell it, but when I read some of the things that people say (like the woman I quoted), I’m…like,huh?

    People always say, “It’s going to hurt businesses,” but all of the good restaurants here (and everywhere I go, in fact) are always booked, so I seriously doubt anyone’s gonna cancel their dinner reservations and stay home and eat chez Picard if they can’t smoke.

  • October 8, 2006 10:55am

    The descendents of the Gauls still have the attitude they had 2000 years ago: “Nobody is right but me”. You could find this in the warring village of Roman Gaul and you can find it now in the cafes of Paris. There’s only one thing that upon which the French can really seem to agree: they are morally and culturally superior to everyone else. And this is not just my opinion but also that of my French fiance. His own countrymen and women drive him insane sometimes. I guess that’s why he lives in Canada now. LOL, but he does still think the French way of eating is superior to all other cultures… Hey, he couldn’t stop be entirely French, eh? ;-)

  • Alphonse the Noble
    October 8, 2006 6:29pm

    David: It is too easy and a cheap sport to “knock” the inhabitants of a country you have chosen to live in. Clearly and for the present you prefer to live and work in Paris (which is not France, as New York or San Francisco are not the USA)rather than elsewhere. So, rather than moaning about the Parisians and Parisiennes as you do from time to time, just get on with living and be happy that you are doing so well and that the French are so tolerant and helpful to you – by your own admission. Incidentally, you did “Valerie” an injustice: what she had to say was fair and reasonable and wentlike this:… “Smokers at the Louis D’Or bar in central Paris appeared resigned to the coming change.

    “You have to respect the rights of others,” said Valerie, 29, a smoker since the age of 20. “I will have to go to smoke outside, I suppose. In the winter it will be harder though. Then I will have to smoke at home.”

    But in the northern city of Lille a bar that blazed the trail by voluntarily banning smoking last November reversed its policy earlier this month after losing 40 percent of its customers…”

  • October 9, 2006 12:49am

    John (aka: ddf and ATN): Hmm, quite few contradictions you’ve got going on around here.

    Alicat: I can dream, can’t I?

    Jeff: Yes, Expatica is a great resource. Glad to point you in their direction.

    Nerissa: It’s a funny culture, full of contradictions. That’s why it can be infuriating to have a ‘discussion’ since you often need to toss logic out the window. Still, we gotta love ’em, don’t we?

  • Steve
    October 10, 2006 7:07pm

    Clearly there are boorish people (and idealogues) in France. We have them here, too. (What’s French for “My way or the highway”?)We’re hoping that some of the American idealogues will be losing their jobs on November 7th.