It’s funny when you consider the subtleties that make you stand out in any foreign culture. The simple moments of social awkwardness in which the common grounds of global etiquette are no longer found leave you thoroughly exposed. I’m not even talking about the language barrier; somehow our gestures and mannerisms reveal more than our ability to command a language.
For instance, the greeting in itself serves as a marker to signify as to who belongs in this city riddled with 19th century monuments and facades. We reach out to one another in North America with a “hey,” and perhaps with a hug. Such doesn’t suffice here – we come into closer contact by pecking the other’s cheek with a light kiss so as to lightly whisper “hello” with our puckered lips. And instead of our eyes cast downward when we pass a neighbor in the elevator or when strolling into a boutique, it is customary to say “hello” and “goodbye.” This acknowledgment of existence seems to, in a sense, fortify the presence of the other, as well as relinquish the significance that these opening and closing words seem to hold in the North American context – reserved solely for our familiar acquaintances.
And in returning here, there are the times in which I still find myself unsure of how to proceed and blend in with the customary. Something as simple as seating myself at the local café/brasserie puzzled me for quite some time (I quite never got the hang of it until now); should plop myself down into one of the wicker chairs or should wait for someone to show me to an empty seat. Observation lends itself to showing me the way (and the answer is, just pull up a chair) and understanding what is considered appropriate.
What seems to be obvious to the French (or any “other” for that matter) is obscure in our imagination as to how one would conduct oneself in public (and vice-versa when they find themselves somewhere foreign). The lenses with which we examine the specifics of behavior can present many similarities but can leave our differences greatly magnified.
The Deux Moulins in Montmartre (photo taken two years ago), which was featured in Amélie