Kind to les étrangers

June 22, 2011

This is a real store. Photo taken in France, where I used to get so lost and confused.

Not long ago, I took the girls shopping at Macy’s because, as preadolescent girls, they both “needed” new clothes.  We undertook this trip in alignment with my new parenting philosophy — to say Yes more than No.  And by and large, the trip was successful.  Because I keep more Yeses in my pocket, they seem to understand more when I yank out a No.  So if a top was too skimpy, too see-through, or too encrusted with glitter or sequins, they would humor me and see my reasoning.

I thought I was taking them shopping to be a nice mom.  But I quickly realized that the real reason I was on this shopping trip was to assist lost and miserable French people visiting New York.  There they were, lost on the Union Street subway platform, unfolding and pouring over an MTA map, and arguing quietly amongst themselves, French hissing out of the sides of their mouths.  Later, we stumbled across a knot of four twenty-somethings who were looking for Chinatown, and wished to be directed to its absolute center.  These days, I run into these poor lost Gallic souls nearly every time I leave the house.

In the disorganized and deeply unfriendly line in the Juniors section at Macy’s, the girls and I stood gleefully watching the discounts rack up on our purchases.  We seemed to be saving more money than we spent, although I know this idea is irrational and imaginary.

Only inches behind us was a stylish, but bewildered looking older woman.  She kept pressing her purchase forward towards the counter in that useless sort of mime used by toddlers and other folks who can’t use language properly.  I recognized her futile gesture because I myself used so much mime in France.

The cashier was not remotely friendly to her. “Ma’am, you have to stand in the line.”

The older woman stood, gazing blankly and gesturing forward again.

The cashier’s voice grew sharper.  “I said, Ma’am, go wait in that line.”

I flashed back to my days in line at the Monoprix in Aix or Avignon, recalling the vague panic that would rise in me as I would stand in line at stores, anticipating disaster.  I was always certain that there would be someway or another that I would be out of order.

At first I thought the older woman at Macy’s might have been Russian, but then I recognized la grand-mère as French, and as needing my help. I still have only pidgin French, but when I said the word “français,” she looked exceptionally relieved and excited.  She had not a word of English at her disposal, so I felt even more benevolent and necessary when I taught her about les lines we have here in New York city, and how she would need to stand in one  (I should have, but did not, call this faire la queue) in order to make her purchases, (which I correctly called les achats.) Merci, Madame” she said to me, again and again.  “Bonne Journeé, Madame,” I said, which I knew would make me sound like a friendly country bumpkin, totally on her side.

French people seem to be everywhere now, needing my aid. Being me, the wonderer, I have of course wondered about the reasons this is the case.  At first I assumed that God had run out of extra new ideas for ways to test my kindness skills, and just kept sending French people into my airspace.

(I prefer to come up with the least likely explanation first.)

Then I realized that New York — even, or particularly, our neighborhood in Brooklyn — is crawling with French people. It’s just that I never noticed all the French tourists before I myself was so long an outsider in their nation.  French people who actually live here don’t look all that different from the rest of us, and they’ve learned plenty of English and more than adequate navigation skills.  But the ones who are just visiting strike me as particularly clueless.

Of course they are clueless — this is a challenging city for all but the hardiest travelers, and all tourists get lost here.  I guess these lost French people stand out to me personally because 1.) I now immediately recognize their characteristic outfits and French faces 2.) After a year of sort of speaking it, the sound of French now draws me in and 3.)  I really like to be helpful and friendly to people. I am not only oversocial, but also pretty bossy, so this role works well for me.

Like many New Yorkers, I like to belie our city’s undeserved reputation and welcome visitors as warmly and aggressively as I can.  Are you a tourist from Boise carrying shopping bags from H&M and Strawberries?  I can help you find Canal Street!  I live here!  I will probably even speak with exclamation points at the ends of my sentences to make you realize how glad I am you are here!  Wow!  Welcome!  Have some pizza!

I have now become a spontaneous tour guide for French people as well.  I adopt a more subtle approach, as sentences with exclamation points really scare French people until you know them well. I am the tourist whisperer français.

When I first moved to France, the famous French reserve and confidence really pissed me off.  But gradually I came to understand their guardedness with tourists as just a part of the larger picture.  They weren’t being rude and standoffish, from their own perspective.  They were just being Frenchly private and self-contained, and my self-consciousness was my own issue.

Just as it is now my own choice to greet their French distress with good old American friendliess.

There is, of course, an underside to my apparent benevolence. I think that I particularly relish helping French people find their way because I’m not used to seeing them look anything but smug and confident.  Flipping the tables on my own helplessness — and then being so aggressively nice about it — is my way of re-asserting myself.

So are you a French person lost on the corner of Union Street and 4th avenue?  Completement Perdu in Soho, near Sephora?  Are you there on the Brooklyn Bridge, walking in the middle of the bike lane, or lounging on the grass of the High Line, wondering where to buy Galoises?

Can’t find the line, les toilettes, or a cup of espresso?  Not to worry.  I’m here for you.  You can count on me.

Kristen @ Motherese June 22, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Your description of the “vague panic” you felt while waiting in line at the store in France made my heart sink – such a visceral memory for me of uncomfortable moments spent overseas. (I actually feel more nervous in countries where I supposedly know the language. It’s somehow easier to thrust a small can of deodorant and a few Euros at a cashier than to carry on a halting conversation.)

I was in New York last week and I was struck by the number of French tourists. None of them seemed lost, luckily, because my own French doesn’t even reach the level of “pidgin.”

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