Blood, Sweat and Sneers in the Parisian Metro

Summer in This City

A mini-heat wave slapped Paris this week and one would think that would make the Parisians happy.  The sun had been hiding for at least four weeks and it was reassuring to see it finally make an appearance.  However, the transition was “quick and dirty” and the citizens of this beautiful city were just not psychologically ready for it.  How do I know?  I take the “Metro”.  There, in the underbelly of this beautiful capital, you see the real Paris.  And this week, with 90 degree temperatures and high humidity, the real Paris was not a pretty place.

As soon as I walked into the passenger car on Line 1 of the Metro and smelled the overwhelming scent of summer sweat, I knew this would not be a pleasant ride.  The train was packed – people were impolitely pushing to get on and to get off – it was chaotic to say the least, but that’s not new.  The new thing I noticed is that the fellow passengers, who usually have indifference written on their faces, now looked nasty.  They wore snarls instead of smiles – as if they were angry at everyone present because it was hot and they were uncomfortable.  I had a premonition that something bad was going to happen.  And I was right.

Mistaken Phone Identity

The train stopped at Concorde, a particularly busy station, and in the hustle and bustle of entrances and exits, someone dropped their iphone without even realizing it.  A happy, helpful tourist who was coming on the train picked it up and gave it to a man who was leaving the train.  The tourist innocently thought it belonged to that guy.  It didn’t.  The real owner of the iphone, who was standing near the door, finally woke up and acknowledged that it was his.  He snapped it back with a quick flick of his wrist and looked at the tourist with that snarly, nasty look I had mentioned earlier.  He did manage to whisper an unconvincing “merci” to the tourist who saved his phone; then plugged himself into it and turned on his indifference.

Here is the scene of the Blood, Sweat And Sneers in the Parisian Metro.


Then, the real show started.  The tourist was from southern France (I could tell by the accent) and he was with four other friends.  One of them started a monologue about how the man who recovered his phone was practically yelling at the tourist when he should have been showing a little more gratitude.

“You do someone a favor and they treat you like scum”, the man said.  “He should be happy he got his phone back, the ungrateful jerk.”

At that point, the “jerk” unplugged himself.

“What’s your problem?” he asked the friend of the tourist, “I said thank you.”

“It was the way you said it, you thought that my friend was trying to steal your phone instead of giving it back to you.”  The steamy metro car just got steamier.

Fight to the Finish

They shot insults back and forth – the usual angry talk about going outside to finish this off, wherever, whenever.  People stepped back to give them room; there were a couple of passengers taking out their iphone to film the scene.  When the Metro reached the next stop, they were both sneering at each other with red faces – who was going to throw the first punch?

Fortunately, the iphone jerk was with a girlfriend.  She had been standing right behind him in stoic silence all this time.  Anyway, she touched his arm and told him it wasn’t worth it.  It seems they were already late for wherever they were going.  (I wonder if they were going to be late for an Anger Management class – at least that would be funny.)

So, the incident was over; there was a little less steam on the subway train and people went back to sneering.  I hope the heat wave ends soon.  I don’t know if I can handle the drama.


Just When Will French Male Politicians Grow Up?

Macho Macho Men

Male chauvinism roared its ugly head here in Paris this week and this time it showed up in the National Assembly, the political home of France’s elected officials.  Here, in the gold and red sumptuously decorated meeting room, these guys (and a few women) are supposed to handle serious debates about the present and future of the French citizens who respected them enough to choose them as representatives.  Well, this week, they really blew it. With just one whistle (literally) they blew all that respect out the National Assembly window.

The scene that inspired this macho manifestation was a simple one; it was really business-as-usual.  The Minister of Housing Equality, Mme Cecile Duflot, rose to address the Assembly.  As she approached the microphone and tried to speak, she was greeted with whistles and jeers from masculine members of the Assembly, from the right and left alike (but mostly from the right).  It seems Mme Duflot was wearing a dress – yes, that’s correct.

Adolescent Angst

Here is the outfit that rocked the National Assembly in Paris

The Minister was fully clothed in a modest dress that covered everything that needed to be covered.  So why all the fuss?   Well, my own personal opinion is that, in their childhood, when French politicians hit puberty, their growth was stunted.  By growth I mean the part of their brain that governs dignity, respect and honor.  That part stayed in the seventh grade.  They manage to hide it most of the time, but once in a while, when you least expect it, the 13-year-old stupid adolescent they thought they used to be, shows up and embarrasses the entire country (not them remember, they’re 13 – they don’t care).

And the Point Is…?

What’s the use of France putting more women in office (half of the country’s ministers are female) if the rest of the Assembly members are going to treat them like children?   Does it fill some kind of entertainment quota?  Are the men listening or laughing when the female ministers speak?  How can they possibly get down to matters at hand and rule the country if something as commonplace as a flowered dress tickles their funny bones?

There was even a deputy who defended the hisses by saying that there were “admirative” ones.  He added that if the Mme Duflot was that sensitive and couldn’t handle it, then she should stay out of politics.  Wow!  Let’s just add a bit of macho arrogance to their adolescent behavior – the true colors of French male politicians are not pretty.

By the way, these men, these same men, are the ones who are deliberating and voting on the sexual harassment legislation that will soon become effective in France.  This is a pretty scary thought, scary because it’s true.  If they can treat a Minister so lightly and laugh right in her face, then I’m guessing they are not highly motivated to come up with a fair and just sexual harassment law.  What 13-year-old thinks everyone is created equal?

Order in the House

The President of the Assembly had to use his gavel to call the legislative body to order.  He hammered it on the table saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, actually gentlemen, silence please.”  Mme Duflot was astonished, but kept her cool.  She spoke but I’m sure no one was listening.  (They were probably already tweeting their mistresses about the incident.)  One critic said that a high percentage of male French politicians are still living in the 19th century.  I disagree.  Like I said, they didn’t stay in the 19th century, they stayed in 7th grade.


Worshiping Woody – Ten Reasons Why the French Love Woody Allen

Everyone Loves a Mystery

Woody Allen was on French television this week promoting his new film “To Rome with Love.”  The journalist who was interviewing him, and who obviously felt blessed in his presence, asked the filmmaker if he knew why the French loved him so much.  Woody was honest.

“It’s a mystery”, he said.

Woody Allen, the French’s favorite foreign filmmaker

The “mystery” description inspired me and I wanted to solve it.  So I asked every French person I knew why they liked Woody Allen and I made a list of the Top Ten Reasons.  I must be honest too – not every French person I asked liked this famous New Yorker and his movies.  But the positive reactions heavily outweighed the negative ones and here they are in a cinematographic French-influenced nutshell.

Top Ten Reasons for Woody Worship

1.  By far the major reason for Woody’s popularity was his intelligence.  (Remember, France is home to the philosopher Descartes, the renowned “I think therefore I am” man.)

2.  His films are cultural and intellectual at the same time.  They make people think.  (There we go again.)

3.  He laughs at himself constantly in almost all of his films.  (I was surprised at this reason since the French do not practice the Art of Self-Derision at all.  I guess they can appreciate it in others though.)

4.  Woody Allen is an American who understands more than one culture, which, according to quite a few Frenchmen who answered my survey, is a rarity.  (I so wish that wasn’t true – the “rarity” part I mean) but what can I say?

5.  He is inspired by European literature and cinema.  Woody likes Europe and passes that idea along in his movies – at least the most recent ones which take place in London, Barcelona, Paris and now Rome.

6.  Woody’s Women – he loves women and does a brilliant job of portraying the never-ending problems and awkward situations that happen in relationships.

7.  Woody is funny and sad at the same time.  (Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship can certainly identify with that).

8.  Woody’s love affair with jazz music and the use of it in most of his films is right up France’s alley.  They love jazz here too and have a profound respect for American jazz musicians.

9.  Woody Allen is a good marketer, actually an exceptional marketer.  Just look at the opening of “Midnight in Paris”.  It resembles an ad for the Parisian Office of Tourism with its picture-perfect postcard shots of famous monuments.  “Midnight in Paris” is Allen’s biggest monetary success ever.

10.  He’s complicated and so are the French.  Many American fans stopped going to Woody’s movies when he started a romantic relationship with his partner Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, who is 34 years his junior.  Ronan Farrow, Woody’s only biological child, has said, “He’s my father married to my sister.  That makes me his son and his brother-in-law.  That is such a moral transgression.”   Woody’s is estranged from his son and the other two children that he and Mia had adopted.

Woody’s Heart-Management

Woody’s personal situation upset many ex-Woody Allen fans in the United States but the French do not care about famous people’s personal lives and they do not judge.  They believe what Woody believes, summed up in a famous quote from Woody himself, “The heart wants what it wants.  There’s no logic to those things.”

Well, judging by the answers to my Worshiping Woody survey, France’s heart wants Woody – as illogical as that may be.


Euro 2012 – A Champion Conversation with a Parisian Waiter

 What’s in a Stereotype Anyway?

I had promised myself I would stop stereotyping French waiters as arrogant, nasty and oh-so-not-helpful pillars of Parisian culture.  It had been years since I was verbally insulted by one and I was convinced that that era was gone, over, fini.  Then it happened.    A waiter, a perfect stranger (or should I say an “imperfect stranger”), wearing a white shirt and a black vest decided to teach me a lesson.  I decided to teach him one too.  I challenged myself and him to a verbal duel; I would not leave the restaurant until I could get him to talk to me — nicely.  The night was young; I had time.

Championship League
Here's the symbol of a great conversation starter in Europe (for the next 3 weeks that is)

It was a sunny, warm evening and I thought I would stop for an “aperitif” at a corner café.  I was near the rue de Bac when a very pleasant older man (probably the owner of the bar) suggested that I stop and have a drink there.  He was smiling so of course I said yes.

I nestled myself in a corner and started to watch the world go by.

Capital “S” for Service

“Have you decided?” a young gruff voice sprung on me from behind.  He sounded like he was in a hurry (afterwards I understood he was in a hurry to get rid of me).

“What kind of red wine do you have?” I asked this question in perfect French since I have had a lot of practice in ordering wine in Paris.  He threw the menu at me – really, honestly, truly – he threw it.   Its fake leather cracked as it hit the table.

“Everything’s in there,” he said.  And then he added, “That’s what menus are for.”

He disappeared and gave me at least ten minutes to find the red wine page and decide between Bordeaux, Brouilly or Cotes de Rhone.  I chose the Cotes de Rhone in the first minute and then thought about how I could get him to be nice to me in the next nine minutes while I waited.

He plopped the glass down in front of me with a little saucer full of peanuts.  I smiled a great big “Merci” but got a snarl in return.  He was a tough egg to crack.  However, I had been an English teacher to French adults for years; I could get a stone to talk if I had to and tonight I had to.

Very Small Talk

“There are a lot of tourists in Paris,” I said, a lame attempt at small talk, even I can admit that.  I could have thrown in some comments about the nice weather we have been having in Paris but an ad on a  passing bus gave me a great idea.

“Euro 2012 starts tomorrow – who are you for?”

There, he stopped in his tracks and actually looked at me for the first time.

“I’m Polish”, he said, “I’m for Poland of course, and you, who are you for?”

We All Need Somebody to Love

           His question threw me for a loop since I had no idea of who was actually playing in the 16 nation soccer tournament.  But I had to answer quickly; wouldn’t want to lose this conversational door he just opened for me.  A blonde lady walked by.

“Sweden, I’m for Sweden this time,” I answered, crossing my fingers that they were actually in the tournament.  They were.

“Good choice,” he answered.  And then went on and on with a detailed summary of each team and why they would or would not win.  I finished my glass and asked for another.

This was going to be a long night.  We had lots of stuff to talk about and he suddenly forgot he was an unhappy waiter.

To tell you the truth, I don’t like soccer.  But I certainly like what it can do to people – actually get them talking to each other.  Too bad the big tournaments only happen every four years.

Here are the sixteen finalists who are participating in the Euro 2012 are (just in case you want to impress your waiter when you come to France):

The French Bus Whisperer Gets Angry

I have changed myself into a bus commuter these days.  I realized that the French public RATP bus system is really quite good – a bit slower but much less stressful than the Parisian metro – and I get to see Paris unfold before me on my way to work.  I always take the same line at about the same time so I have started to run into the same faces.  Some of these familiar faces even share a polite nod of acknowledgement with me.  Some of them don’t.  The Bus Whisperer is one of them.

A Self-Appointed Chastiser
The Bus Whisperer is a 60-ish ordinary-looking, French lady who I suspect is retired and doesn’t want to admit it.  She rides the “92” bus around 8:30 AM Monday through Friday and has taken it upon herself to enforce cell phone etiquette (as if such a thing existed).  She chastises offenders with a sharp whisper like a parochial school nun would use on her students light years ago. I bowed to her self-imposed authority the first time she got me.
“Psstt, Madame,” she whispered.  “Vous n’etes pas toute seule ici!”  Basically, she was telling me that I wasn’t alone on the bus, which is French for “Shut the hell up!”  Her comment surprised me in the way it made me think of my third grade teacher Sister Mary Humilitas.  I hung up on my boss immediately and texted him an apology.  I also put my phone on “silent”.  The Bus Whisperer was satisfied, grinning smug, righteous satisfaction.  I had made her day.

Her Daily Yell
Since then, I have witnessed her whispering technique on several occasions.  She’s pretty good at what she does.  I have even come to enjoy it since it helps pass the time on the way to work (now that I don’t dare to talk on my cell phone).  She gets to yell at someone almost daily.  I watch her closely and can almost predict, to the second, when she will jump in.  Some people give her dirty mind-your-own-business looks but that doesn’t stop her at all. She continues to harass them, her whispers increasing in sound and intensity.  The Bus Whisperer ultimately wins.

When Whispers Come to Blows
The Bus Whisperer met her match one day in the form of an arrogant French teen-age girl who would not bow to her authority.  The girl was talking quite loudly that morning so this time I was on the Bus Whisperer’s side.  She ignored about four of the lady’s searing whispers and then interrupted her conversation (but not ending it) to tell the Whisperer to go do you-know-what to herself.

RATP bus 92
Here is Parisian RATP bus 92 - the Scene of the Crime

The Bus Whisperer got out of her seat. All the passengers (about 20 or so) turned their heads to watch how this conflict would play out.
And play out it did.  When she realized that the girl would not yield to her whispery warnings, the Bus Whisperer got louder.  She made a bee-line for the offender and pushed her towards the door.  She yelled about the teen-ager not respecting her fellow passengers.  The teen-ager yelled back – calling her a crazy old lady who should leave her alone; mind her own business.  The fiery exchange lasted about two minutes.  The driver kept driving; the passengers kept watching and the ladies kept yelling.

And the Whisperer Wins!
The Bus Whisperer pushed the girl harder and harder.  No one stepped in to stop her.  When we came to the next stop, the adolescent hopped off quicker than an Easter bunny.  I’m sure it wasn’t her stop, but, to her credit, she could not push the Bus Whisperer back.  She took the high road and left, cursing all the while.  The Bus Whisperer put a snarly grin on her face.  Someone’s cell phone rang.  No one answered.