26 August 2011
Une femme d'un certain âge
One really lovely custom here that I've come to appreciate is the daily greeting, at a shop, at a cafe, at the market. I hear Bonjour Madame countless times a day, and then Merci, Madame, Au revoir. (And I'm expected to reciprocate.) Even in the hallway of our building, we are greeted multiple times daily by the burly contractors working on the facade of our ancient building. Our favorite guy even wished me a Bon appetit, Madame when we returned home from errands at noon yesterday in time for dejeuner (lunch).
I've been thinking about what it is that I like about the greeting. First, I like that one's presence is intentionally acknowledged. I'll never forget one Saturday in Helsinki, when I was in my 20's living abroad for the year, where I went through an entire day in the center of the city, doing errands, and not one single person said hello or made eye contact with me until the end of the day when a woman yelled at me for getting in her way at the grocery store. I remember feeling subhuman and invisible, and lonely. (I'm not suggesting that Helsinki is an unfriendly place then or now, but on that day in 1989, this is what I experienced.) From that time on, I have always tried to keep in mind how important is to acknowledge people, particularly those who serve us or who are most likely to be overlooked. By acknowledging their presence, even simply, we acknowledge their humanity. Isn't that what makes civilization?
The other reason I like the daily greetings must be related to my age and circumstances. Today, more than any other day perhaps, as I am becoming une femme d'un certain age (a woman of a certain age), I ACTUALLY like being called Madame! I'm not sure that I felt this way even last summer when we vacationed here, but now that I have completed my 44th year, and because I actually am trying to make a life for our family here, interacting with shopkeepers, sales people, market vendors, and post office clerks daily, being called Madame makes me feel confident, appreciated, and even a little empowered, like I am someone who must be acknowledged and who has business here. The greeting also helps counteract the language barrier as well as the frumpiness I am feeling due to my limited wardrobe and the persistent sweaty sheen on my face from the unrelenting heat. (We are surrounded by cute, young college students as we live among several universities, but even the Aixoise women of my age who do live in town all look remarkably cool and classy; they all seem to wear fabulous clothes, jewelry, and shoes, like those in the shop window shown above.) Alas, my marginally fabulous shoes are all still in transit, in the shipping container, so I wear the 3 pairs of sensible sandals I managed to squeeze into two suitcases, day in and day out. The upside is that my feet don't hurt at all.)
In the U.S. we are also big on greetings, it's true, but we don't have a very good equivalent for the particularly personal part of the greeting that is so important in France. It's not just hello, but hello TO YOU. Ma'am makes me feel really old, Miss and Mrs. don't work that well either, and I really don't like to be called 'You guys'. But, I do like the social interaction and respect that come with the American 'hello' and that is probably why Bonjour Madame works for me here.
ps. You'll notice that I've tried a new design template on this blog, to match my personal transition to a new age, I suppose. I do think the text is a little hard to read on the dark background, and I will fiddle more with the template.