Personal Update from Paris

A lot of you in the US are writing me and asking “How is it in our beloved Paris?” Somewhat different and somewhat the same as what you are reading in the papers. Last Thursday, President Macron spent 26 minutes on national tv outlining what has happened so far and what will happen. He was very serious and didn’t try to make this pandemic sound less than it is. At that point, only four days ago, he urged all people seventy and over to stay home unless absolutely necessary. He said transportation would stay the same but hoped that work and people would work from home. As of Monday, he closed all schools and universities. He said this was up to each and every one of us. The virus knew no borders and didn’t carry a passport. That was Thursday.

I’m discovering that the French are very stubborn and obstinent people. They proclaimed that nothing was going to stop them from living their lives. So they were out and about. The metros were a bit less crowded but not by much. So on Saturday, the French administration announced that as of Saturday at midnight, all public places that weren’t necessary for our survival were to be shut down, closed, fermé. That got some people’s attention. By Sunday noon, the markets caught up with the US and all the toilet paper and such were gone. However, the municipal elections were not postponed. On websites, times were posted when best to go vote. A friend went back and forth about whether she would vote or not. Finally she decided to. She went at the last moment, waited till everyone was gone then went in to vote. Everyone was wearing masks and keeping all the voting paraphenalia as antiseptically clean as possible. I went out for about forty-five minutes just to walk, and the streets in the 16th arrondissement were full of people walking with children, with dogs and, since it was a lovely day, filling up the parks and green spaces. That was yesterday.

This morning at 8:45am, I received a notice from the administration that since the French were not doing as asked, we had forty-eight hours to decide where we wanted to spend the next forty-five days. As of tomorrow, there will be a 6pm curfew and the police will be in the streets urging people to go home. I dropped everything and headed out. I was prepared to be homebound for two weeks but not for forty-five days. I first went to the grocery store. Still no toilet paper. Then I headed for Picard which only sells frozen food, absolutely delicious frozen food. They were almost out of food and not taking any loyalty cards for discounts. I then headed for Marks and Spencer who sells my favourite yogurt. They looked like they had plenty of food though the yogurt was in short supply. When I asked, I was told they would be staying open. Picard, on the other hand, said they had no idea. On the way to M&S, I passed a florist. It wasn’t really open but the door was open. I asked if I could buy. They gave me 3 beautiful bouquets for about a third of the normal price. That will be the last of my fresh flowers I’m afraid. Finally, I went to the pharmacy. Not my normal pharmacy on Av. Mozart which had a long line snaking out the door and winding to the corner. I stopped at the one near M&S. I was the third person in line. We’ve been told pharmacies will stay open but…. I had no trouble getting what I needed.

Forty-Eight hours to decide where I want to spend the next 45 days. I knew my friends in Normandy and in Brittany would probably love to have me and my crazy cat come join them. I would love to go to Le Gers where I think my heart resides. But…..I have here, in my small apartment in Paris, everything I need to survive the next 45 days if I never go out. I have Netflix, I have enough books to read for at least a year. I have the expanded tv that has HBO series, Showtime and Canal+. I have the wonderful Zoom. Which allows me to have video conversations one on one or in large groups. I have my work which I do at home anyway. I just learned yesterday that ten of the world’s best museum’s are totally on-line and I can tour it visually. I was even given a jig-saw puzzle with 1000 pieces. That would take some time!

Yesterday, I defrosted my freezer. Something I should have done months ago And thank goodness I did. After shopping at what was left in Picard, I was able to fit for more things in the freezer. I have plenty of ‘projects’ to do. So as long as I talk to friends at least three or four times a day, I think I can do this! And that’s whats happening in Paris.

A bientôt,

Sara

PS As I was about to hit ‘publish’, I received an e-mail saying all non-essential travel to EU is to be banned for 30 days.

La Politesse

After I had been in Paris for about 6 months, I started listening carefully to how my friend, Barbara, addressed everyone. Her friends, the shopkeeper, the man on the street for directions. She always said to people she didn’t know “Bonjour, je suis désolée de vous déranger….”. I figured out that she was saying “Good morning, I’m so sorry to disturb you but…….” Barbara has excellent manners so I decided just to copy her.

Then one day, I was looking for a bus and felt completely lost. The wrong bus came along and stopped in front of me, As the doors opened, I leaned inside and asked the driver if he knew where #37 was. He looked at me slowly, then said “Bon…Jour Ma..dame” long and drawn out. I knew immediately I’d made a curtesy mistake, a big one. I apologised and started over again. I said “Bonjour, that I had juste une petite question..” and could he help me find my bus. He gave me directions without blinking an eye or giving a smile. I was just doing what I should have done in the first place. I felt about two inches high. The last time I was scolded like that, I was probably twelve years old. I’ll say one thing, once it’s happened to you, you never forget to say “Bonjour” again. It doesn’t matter who it is. It’s la politesse. I always say “Bonjour Madame or Monsieur”. When leaving, I always say ‘Au Revoir’ and ‘Bonne Journée’. Even if someone stepped in the elevator and you rode only three floors with them.

Most of us ride by public transportation. We spend a fair amount of time out on the street or in public places. One can always tell if there is an American new to the country near by. Their voice is at least three decibals louder than anyone else’s. After awhile, I find myself hoping I look french when I hear Americans talking so loudly and not caring whose space they are invading. French, in general, speak quite softly. They text all their messages. They are constantly with their phones as is most everyone but the French do it more quietly. It was strange to me when I first arrived that so few people used their phones as phones. Then I figured it out–the noise factor.

Yesterday, I was shopping at Picard ( best frozen food store in the world. Another blog!!) A woman speaking Spanish spent her entire time at the store on the phone, walking around, talking very loudly. Everyone was looking at her. It wasn’t a mean look, it was a look to say “You might consider speaking softer.” When she got to the cash register, the fellow taking her money was so kind. He tried to speak Spanish with her. She just glared at him. He asked if she spoke English, she nodded her head. Then he told her how much she owed in Spanish. She looked at him like she had no idea what he was saying. Here he was, a young french boy, trying to make this woman less wrong by joining in on her language but she wasn’t having any of it. I felt bad for him. She left without a goodbye, a thank you or any indication that he had been helpful. So it’s not just Americans.

I have two friends, both named Sylvie, who I meet with each once a week to practice my conversational french. When I was confirming a date with Sylvie #1, I started my text by saying “Salut, Sylvie.” When I arrived at her home two days later, the first thing she said to me was one never, ever, ever uses ‘Salut’ in writing. “We, the french, only use it if you see a friend on the street and wave Hi/Salut!”. Well yes and no. Sylvie is my age, old school, and it probably was a strict rule at one time. My younger french friends say people do use it among close friends in writing. However, I hate breaking these rules of politesse especially when I’m not even sure I know many of them. So to be on the safe side, I’m sticking to Bonjour or Bonsoir.

La Politesse is no small thing. Children are taught it from a very young age. If children seem ‘bien élevé’ (well brought up) when you see them out on the street or on the metro, that is why. There are rules. If you as the visitor or the Ex-Pat living here or the tourist passing through, respect these rules you will find the French very easy to get along with. However, if you just blunder your way around in English not attempting to be polite, you will find yourself getting some strange looks. It would be easy to misinterpret those looks as the French looking down their noses at you. In fact, they will just be wondering why you are not ‘bien élevé”!

While I was finishing up this blog, my friend Janet Hulstrand, sent me a copy of her brand new book: Demystifying the French: How to Love Them and Make Them Love you. It is an extension of everything I’ve written here. I will be interviewing her and putting it in my next blog.

A bientôt,

Sara