“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” -Mark Twain

Mark Twain, buddy, I know exactly where you’re coming from. What is it about the French that makes them either unable or unwilling to comprehend Franglais, the study abroad student’s mix of classroom French, English words pronounced with a French accent, and pointing? Today at the bank, when I informed the teller that I wanted to “deposer mon argent”, he shook his head to indicate that it was just too much of a hassle to try and understand what I was saying, and then spoke to me in perfect English. I’ve spent years studying French grammar.  Don’t these people appreciate that I know the subjunctive?!

The real fun, though, begins when I’ve managed to get the correct combination of French words out of my mouth and then I have to make sense out of the reply. Somehow the words manage to fly by, eluding my grasp, but making a nice whooshing sound as they leave me behind. I like to think that at least I speak perfect French in the metro, where only two words are necessary: “merci”, if someone holds a door for you (which does happen occasionally!), and “pardon” as you shoulder people out of the way to get on and off the train.  I make sure to say “pardon”, like the French do, rather than “excusez-moi”, which is what American tourists say when they think they’re blending in perfectly.

Outside of the metro, though, comprehension is a lofty goal always just out of reach. Sometimes this can cause aggravation on the part of the poor French people who are put through the misery of listening to Franglais. For instance, last weekend in a cafe called Paul, the waitress became openly annoyed when my friends and I asked her to explain three times whether we could order sandwiches even though they were not on the menu. This was such a problem for her that she sent over another, more patient, waitress to deal with us. I was faced with a similar reaction later that same day when I asked a server at a chain cafe called Pomme de Pain to explain what was in the soupe du jour. When I didn’t understand his reply, he just glared at me.

In general, waiters and shop clerks in Paris are more likely to show the fact that they are annoyed at the customer than their American counterparts are. While part of this is impatience with Franglais, another important factor is that they just don’t live and work by the motto “the customer is always right.” They are not eager to smile at you incessantly, to apologize for taking too long, or to wait on you hand and foot. It just isn’t going to happen. I think this may be because it’s very hard to fire someone in France. According to my host-mom, a person who is to be fired must have two months advance notice as well as an interview explaining the reason for firing, which can be challenged in court. After being fired, they are guaranteed two months of full pay from their employer followed by two years of almost-full pay from the government. In a system where being fired is very unlikely, people are motivated less by profit or the need to impress their employers and more by the desire to avoid hard work as much as possible.

Let’s interrupt this rant with some unrelated sightseeing photos:

La Duree, home of word-famous macaroons. This is for you, Nicole!

Me on the Champs Elysees in front of the Arc de Triomphe (sporting an awesome leather jacket)!

Outside the Louvre--where I got in for free because my ID says I'm a student of art history!

Outside the Louvre again. This came out a bit dark because it was overcast that day. It always seems like it's about to rain in Paris but it rarely does.

Inside the Louvre

Inside the Louvre. This looks sort of futuristic to me for some reason.

The Mona Lisa. I fought hard to get this photo, as the crowd around it is ridiculous and there's a certain zoo-like atmosphere.

Super-cool upside-down pyramid inside the Louvre.

A street by the Opera.

Place Vendome, where there's a column that Napoleon had built. A revolutionary writer had it toppled but it was later rebuilt and they sent him the bill.

Decorations at Place Vendome.

As I was saying, the customer is not always right in Paris because the worker’s primary motivation is not to serve you but rather to avoid work. Everyone is far less profit-minded. Thus, when someone in my program told me that she went to a Orange, a big international cell phone store chain, and they told her they were out of SIM cards that day, I wasn’t too surprised. It reminded me of an anecdote in a book about Paris that I read before coming here, in which the author went to the bank and was told that they were out of cash that day. While stores could certainly make more money by selling more of their products, or by being open on Sundays or after 7 pm, they would rather not because it just doesn’t matter as much to them. The French value their leisure time far more than Americans do and working on Sundays is inconceivable to them. My host-mom told me that she was considering getting a job in Canada until she found out that workers get only two weeks of vacation. She said, “Two weeks?! I am French! I would go crazy!” It’s a different way of thinking about life.

America is very Darwinian. It’s all about competition, making as much money as possible and working whatever hours are necessary to do that. We think that money makes the world go around; it drives us onward. The strong survive, while the weak are let go with no warning and no health insurance. If we have followed Darwin’s principles so faithfully, have we simply evolved past the French? Have we left them behind? I don’t think so. So in a way, the fact that the French care more about leisure than work or the customer is a good thing for society as a whole. I’ll try to think about that the next time a waiter in a cafe is annoyed at me.


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12 Responses to “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” -Mark Twain

  1. Pat Hansbury says:

    Hi Anna,
    Wonderful photos. It was wonderful to read your observations. First off, the weather. Don’t worry. There are many sunny days ahead. Paris in the springtime. Ahhhhhh. I loved your description of waiters, etc. I agree with your analysis; however, I have rarely personally experienced a rude service person except at the Musee d”Orsay, of all places. The sales clerk insisted she did not know what painting I was asking about (to buy a poster) even though I asked in both English and French. Anyway, I also had a number of Parisians who went out of their way to be helpful in just small ways. I was interested in what you said about the French valuing their leisure time. The American work ethic is about so much more than money, I believe. It is so tied into our history and our ideas of success and progress. What I’d love to hear you discuss is what you think of French leisure. Since I am studying Italian (not very well), I have fallen in love with how the Italians are interested not so much in their leisure time, but in how it is used. Here are two of my favorites: “Che cosa fate di bello?” (What do you do that is beautiful?) and “Il bel far niente” (the beauty of doing nothing). Sorry this is so long. Can’t wait to read your next post and see more photos. Au revoir.

    • Anna V says:

      I was exaggerating a bit about salespeople to make a point/ be interesting. I don’t think they were actually being rude, but it’s true that they weren’t very patient when I asked them to repeat the same thing over and over. Not that Americans are much more patient with foreigners (i.e. Gino’s).

  2. Big Papa Danik says:

    Funny thing is that all those hours worked by Americans do not translate to happiness, or even individual economic prosperity. There’s simply an understanding that we have to work insanely hard to get money to buy ridiculous crap we don’t actually need (or want). TREASURE THY LEISURE!!!!

    Also, the Mona Lisa being ridiculously tiny is all I remember from my one day in Paris. Thank you for reminding me!

    • Anna V says:

      Aww Dan I’m so happy that you actually read my blog! And I completely agree about buying ridiculous stuff we don’t actually need. If you ever watch the show Mad Men there’s this great line where a hippie tells a guy who works on Madison Avenue that people who work in advertising “invent want. “

  3. Mr. T says:

    Great photos as always! And nice coat 😉 That really does sound like a great time though, I’m interested to see if your profs are all the same way, being impatient during say, office hours, or if they’re more understanding considering they know the program. And I agree with Ms. Hansbury, you should invest as much time as possible in leisure 😉

  4. Elizabeth V says:

    Don’t worry about French people not understanding you. It will come gradually. And the day will come when you start to hear and understand what people are saying around you without any effort. Just be patient and everything will be OK!

  5. Dmitriy says:

    I believe impatience and kind of pride is a part of French national characters not just a money things. Hard work and some time religiously money making in America is a part of national character as well Shopping became a self-sufficient entertainment.
    In the Opra Australian show she asked Australian women about the difference between Australians and Americans. The woman sad Americans live for work and Australians work for live.
    I was in Paris in different time of the year and “I love Paris’ at any weather and I hope you will too. Pictures are very good bud if it comes too dark make it again in different time. Glass pyramids in front of Louver are the best at night.

  6. Dmitriy says:

    It looks interesting. I heard so often complains from people coming from France that French do not want to answer to them in English compare with other Europeans. Wonderful Mark Twain is not counted. Seriously talking sound in French is so different from English especially American English. Thousand times every day we can hear Geiko making fan of Royal British English. Take a time. French people will start to talk to you in French. Talking to you in English they just try to be nice and make your life easier.

  7. Claudia says:

    Anna, you are hilarious. I love the random interjection of sightseeing photos. Also, that sucks about the customer service. Sounds like Philly! hahaha As much as I appreciate leisure, I like working…leisure is ok once in a while but I like feeling that I’m living the world and not just standing by like I have been for the past two weeks with nothing to do!

    • Anna V says:

      Girl you crazy! Leisure is the best! Down with work! I’m going on strike to prove my point. Now I am officially French haha. And I’m glad you thought it was funny! That’s what I was going for!

  8. Ha says:

    Oh, that’s right I heard that the Mona Lisa is tiny in comparison to what it’s perceived to be. David, however, is MUCH grander than people think.

    You’re so lucky you have someone like your host-mom to explain these things to you. Many of my observations of the Italians will forever remain a mystery. The servers and salespeople here are also similar. I try to practice my Italian, and they just speak to me in English, as I continue to respond in Italian. The best ones are the ones who know no English. But the reason why servers here are like that is because they don’t work for tips. They get paid full wage, thus there’s no incentive for them to kiss our asses.

    Things here are often inefficient because Italians seem to play things by ear when it comes to almost everything. I wonder how their ancestors built such a beautiful city.

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