Sunday, May 01, 2011

Bonjour, Bonsoir, Bonne soirée

It is rude in Paris, as it apparently is in Real America, not to say hello and goodbye in all manner of contexts that, in NY, could go either way. Entering a store, fine, fair enough, mostly true in NY as well, if not a major issue in my life as the main store I frequent in Paris is Monoprix, which is not a "bonjour" kind of environment. You can - and I do - say "bonjour" to the cashier ringing you up, but whether you get one back depends, presumably, on how annoying it was to work in Monoprix ringing people up on that particular day.

Where it's more of a complicating factor is in the dorm. Every time one crosses paths with someone else, there must be a greeting. This, I realize, sounds like a complaint from a "Seinfeld" monologue - Jerry describes having worked in an office and not known how many times/ways to say hello - as well as a "Seinfeld" episode (Leo! Helllllooo!!!). What's different in the dorm is that it's 24/7 (unlike the office) and involves perfect strangers (unlike Uncle Leo, R.I.P.). Anyone in your hall for all you know might be a neighbor, and the rule appears to be that you greet when in your own hall - other halls, it depends.

The difference between this and, for example, saying hi in a normal apartment building (another episode, the polaroids in the lobby...) is that we do not have our own kitchens or bathrooms, which means a whole lot of time coming and going from our rooms. So whether it's 9am and you're off to the kitchen or midnight and the bathroom has beckoned, bonjour, salut, bonsoir, bonne soirée.

Let's say you're cooking the following: an artichoke (they're so cheap and delicious here! not like the major-investment and inevitable-disappointment California imports at Whole Foods back home!), pasta, and pasta sauce. Using one pot only, this means several trips back and forth, to and from the kitchen. Bonbonbonbonjoursoirwhoknows. Sometimes, you just want to get the pile of awkwardly-arranged, hot, potentially messy food items back to your room - which is locked because otherwise people will, apparently, steal everything in the minutes it takes to cook something - and unlock the door, while somehow still balancing the saucepan, etc., before the timer-set hall light goes off at precisely the moment you've gotten out your key, and you're not feeling especially bon-.

Sometimes you're returning to your room from the shower in a precarious wrapped-in-towel, carrying-shampoo-and-soap situation (after refusing, at 27, to buy one of those shower caddies, and thus admit to one's self that one really does live in a dorm), and are... once again, hoping to make it into your room before the lights go out. You will say it, but you won't mean it.

Other times, the greeting culture is friendly and delightful. It depends.

The only time, as a rule, one is excused from the bon- is when one has assessed that all nearby bathrooms are out of toilet paper, and one has returned to one's room for tissues. Then, I think - and I don't know the official French regulations on this - you're allowed to pretend you didn't see the person getting the tissues or, if you're the one getting the tissues, that you were not seen doing so.

The high level of civility functions, I suppose, to mask the fact that the living conditions are... location-location-location. Short of being a servant at a palace, you're not going to find too many greater discrepancies between standard of living and standard of surroundings. Everyone's in a tiny room a paper-thin wall away from somebody else, and if not somebody else, from a construction site complete with welding, drilling, the works. Everyone's sharing far too few toilets and more tragically, far too little toilet paper. For a variety of reasons having to do with labor disputes I'm semi-following and the general tendency of college students, even nerdy ones, to be not the most tidy people ever, the kitchens are in a permanent state of garbage-heap. But! Center of Paris! Center of Paris! Proximity not only to necessary microforms, but also the Seine, the pastries, the wine, and the cheese.

Despite Paris being Paris, and none of us having exactly the right to complain, the dorm lifestyle has a way of making people, especially the pushing-30 sorts who are the substantial grad-student population, a touch on-edge. Dorm life works for those excited just to be living away from home for the first time - less so for those for whom that's no novelty. But the bonjour/bonsoir/bonne soirée gives the impression that everyone up and decided to live communally voluntarily, out of camaraderie, and not because a free room in Paris (or close, for the French undergrads) is a free room in Paris.

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