The Parisians are naturally a discreet bunch; my French friends have more than once made fun of my American naiveté and openness. They say Americans small-talk freely about money; ask total strangers their salary (a taboo subject at French parties); mention their psychiatrist; describe their abortion experience, etc. etc. In summary, Americans are not at all reserved and, consequently, not as elegant as the French who keep their personal lives to themselves. That may have been the case in the past – but things have changed here in Paris and I’m guessing, all over France. Just take the bus.
I prefer taking the public buses to the Metro since you get to see Paris in all its splendor. It’s true that the buses are slower but you have so much more fun and they don’t have that urine-tinged aroma that the subway cars have. In the B.C. era (Before Cell phones), the French passengers were silent, book-reading, shy people who looked right through you if you tried to strike up a conversation (their version of transparency).
However, now, everyone, literally everyone, is equipped with a cell phone and is turning them into a broadcasting service for their private lives. They can provide some pretty spicy entertainment. All you have to do is listen up.
Age does not seem to matter in this significant shift in French social behavior. I have overheard conversations of teen-agers, middle-aged people and senior citizens. Everyone is willfully exposing bits of their dirty laundry for whomever is curious enough to listen. I am that curious.
Here are just a few examples of modern French life unveiled to the general public. I overheard a 30-something woman explain that she would never use Facebook since it was an invasion of her privacy. She then went on the say that yes, she did get that loan from the bank and will soon be buying her first apartment in Paris in the 19th district – not
too far from Belleville metro station (she even announced the name of the street). It ended up only costing about 200,000 Euros. Her parents were co-signing the loan next Wednesday at Mr. X’s office, their notary public. I don’t think her Facebook account would have been half as much an invasion of her privacy as this public litany turned out to be.
I once sat across from an elderly gentleman who held one of those slap-shut old-fashioned cell phones to his ear for at least five minutes. In all that time, he didn’t say a word. I suspected he was pretending to use the phone, as a pre-schooler might do. I knew for sure when, for the second five minutes of non-stop fake listening, he actually turned the phone upside down; put it back close to his ear; and kept pretend-listening. It might be funny when a young child imitates his parents but this role reversal was a bit sad.
I have witnessed lover’s quarrels on public buses – one-sided ones. It’s worth noting that the fights I have heard are mostly from women speaking. Men tend to talk about money (a lot of it and often); business-related deals and what a horrible time they had visiting their mother for Sunday dinner. Sometimes I have heard men working out an obvious extra-marital rendezvous on their way home. But, that’s when they turn discreet on me; actually lowering their voices; covering their mouths and furtively looking around to see if they know anyone who might be on the same bus. At least talk of adultery gets special treatment on Parisian buses.
A couple of years ago, the French were not so loud and indiscreet on public transportation. The RATP (the French public bus company)
has signs on the buses which encourage people to be quiet when they are speaking on their cell phones and to limit their conversations time-wise. But that just isn’t happening. Instead, everyone is chiming in; using their bus time to call and be called by their dentist, lover, wife, banker, lawyer, child, mother, etc. and (sometimes) their imaginary friends. But, at least the French are talking – and perfect strangers are listening. Now that’s up close and personal – Parisian style.