Strangers Along the Way

(16 November 2010)


Being far from home(s), from people I know well, who know me back, whose couches I can put my bare feet on and whose refrigerators I can open without feeling rude, makes me nostalgic, definitely, but also makes me conscious of the unspoken rules of French propriety that in America I don’t constantly have to think about. Like. For example. A dinner party. If you make dinner for people, someone might bring something, a dessert, a bottle of wine, but you are the host, you cook, you serve, you clean up, you take help from no one. Adversely, if you are invited, you are expected to do nothing but eat and drink, and even offering to help do the dishes is considered strange.  Of course, I love doing nothing, and so being invited to someone else’s house for dinner is a relaxing and indulgent treat. But after hours of making formal conversation with people I don’t know very well, I miss making dinners with home-friends, where no formalities exist, where we start washing each other’s dishes without asking and help ourselves to glasses of water and wine without waiting to be served.

With the other teaching assistants it’s not so formal—whether this has to do with all of us being peers, being used to each other now, or being non-French (except the halfsie Lucien) I’m not sure, but I feel comfortable enough now to help myself to a glass of water at Nicoletta’s apartment or to start doing the dishes after a bread-and-Nutella binge at Lucien’s. Jon, the other American, has no qualms about asking me to cut vegetables or clear the table, and unlike with the others it’s been this way between us since the beginning, something I think is the result of our mutual Americanism. I never considered that Americans were so informal, but now several sources have confirmed for me that we are, and I’m beginning to see it. We’re not rude…we’re casual. I usually hate making generalizations, but in an experience like this I can’t help it, they’re all over the place, and though individuals remain individuals, groups of people united by region, language, diet, etc. definitely share traits that can be summarized. I found myself complaining one night to a Frenchie named Xavier, who spent two years living on the Texas-Mexico border (I know, right?) that I was still struggling to address people older and wiser than me with the formal “vous” form, which takes more time for my brain to conjugate than with the informal “tu.”

“I can’t tell,” I complained, “who is deserving of a ‘vous’ and who is deserving of a ‘tu.’ The teachers at my school are all older than me but we work together, so I feel like they should be tus. Everyone older than me tus me, but who can I tell who to tu back, and who to vous? I know that normally you’re invited by the person you’re vous-ing to tu them, but so far nobody that I know here in La Ciotat who I vous has invited me to tu them. WTF?”

“Ah, you are Americans are so fucking casual all the time!” Xavier exclaimed, his profanity ringing in with a slight Texas twang. “Don’t get me wrong, I like this, but you have to realize that in most other cultures there is a social distinction that exists between people, and that formalities are still greatly valued.”

I thought about this, my first instinct being that I wanted to roll my eyes at and flaunt the social formality—we’re all the same! No one’s better than me and I’m better than no one! But then I considered Xavier’s stance, the value of social formality, and realized that what I was missing wasn’t informality with strangers—because in America formality with strangers certainly exists, even if we don’t thou each other these days—what I was missing was the familiarity of friends.

Last week I found myself in Marseille to retrieve my long-stay visa from the Office of Immigration. Afterward, I wandered around the city, glad to be out of La Ciotat for a few hours, and settled into a café called Cup of Tea for a cup of, well, coffee. I’d spent a week in La Ciotat English-less, no Skype calls, no English conversations with Jon (the assistants all speak French when we’re together), only the baby talk I engage in with my students (Do. You. Like. Cats???). I didn’t realize how badly I was craving an English conversation until I heard the man at the table next to me addressing the waitress with a thick accent.

“American?” I asked him.

“No,” he said smiling, clearly relieved to return to his native tongue. “English.”

I never fancied myself (“fancied” is a word my new British friend used quite a lot that day; so is “quite”) a person who goes to foreign countries to seek the comfort of their homeland, but the Brit and I spoke for three hours, with an ease I didn’t realize I’d been missing. Whether it was a personality click or a language click or both I think we both found, for a few hours, something we’d been similarly lacking in the South of France: informality. Lingering on a street corner, saying our good-byes, I thought it funny that we’d spent three hours getting to know each other and would probably never see each other again—he was headed back to London in a week, I was headed to La Ciotat. But strangers, I decided, as we bised good-bye, can sometimes be as comforting as friends.


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