The Secret to Europe
The smell of fresh baked bread. Is there anything on earth so glorious as that smell on a Paris morning? It was Friday and the perfectly round fruit-topped tarts were glistening with sugar and the muffins with their floured plumpness were the first part of an equation whose answer was a comfortable chair, cup of tea, and a good book. But it was the freshly baked baguettes that drew me in.
The mademoiselle behind the counter was chatting with the dignified madame l’customer ahead of me, their words lilting about in that frolicsome French that seems always on the verge of a loving tut-tut.
When it was my turn I stepped forward, gave a friendly smile and nod, and said in my very best French “Un baguette si vous plait.” I was killing it. An integrated part of this morning in the boulangerie.
Except maybe not. The mademoiselle seemed annoyed by my presence. She wasn’t rude, but nor was she nice. She was curt and briskly businesslike with my bread, so different from the affectionate glow of moments before, and barely looked at me as she handed over the bag and greeted the next person in line with a friendly hello.
Maybe the old stereotypes were right. Maybe the French (or Parisians at least) really were still rude to foreigners. Maybe my inevitable accent was just not good enough for their demanding sensibilities. How terribly disappointing!
Good thing it wasn’t true. It took me some time to figure out. Countless more small interactions across the continent, but eventually I noticed the missing piece. And what a difference it made.
So when I watched three young Americans make the same mistake I had, ordering their sandwiches on the Rue Cler last time I was in Paris, and receiving the same terse Parisian response, I was ready to share what I’d learned.
“It helps a lot if you say hello first.” I told them (not bothering to say hello first because we’re Americans). “It took me awhile to notice it, since back home we smile and get straight to the point, but over here they really like it if you greet them before saying what you want.”
Being Americans, they were guarded about this stranger speaking to them, their defensive caution struggling against the desire to learn and enjoy their vacation.
“So if you just start with a quick ‘Bon jour madame’ in France, ‘Buon giorno signore’ in Italy, whatever, you usually get a much better reaction.” They kind of mumbled a response, still wondering when I’d demand their wallets, so I let them be and stepped up to the counter.
“Bon jour madame” I said to the mistress of sandwiches, who chirped back the answering greeting. “Un sandwich au jambon et fromage, si vous plait.” And we were best buddies by the time she passed across my lunch.
The Americanas were immersed in their guide book when I turned around, but perhaps somewhere down the road they’ll speak from experience when they whisper to someone “It helps if you greet them first.”