03 July 2013

A la prochaine

From Portraits de boutiques by Lolmède, Rencontres du 9e Art, 2013
While I have been a regular biweekly customer at the local coffee roaster for almost two years (there's only one in Aix that I know of, and it's not a Starbucks), and I have learned over time how to place my order in French for two 500 gr bags of two varieties, ground coarsely for my cafetière à piston (that's what the French call a French press coffee pot), the shop owner and staff at La brulerie are strictly professional with me.  So, I was really surprised by the owner's reaction a few months ago when I discovered my wallet missing from my purse as I was about to pay for my coffee.  I tried to stammer that I was sorry, that I'd run right home and get my wallet, but the owner simply handed me the ground beans and said to me with a discreet smile, pas de soucis (no worries), I could pay on my next visit.  She didn't even make a notation of my IOU.

This gesture has been matched by many others over the past months, suggesting to us that we have become a part of the community here in centre-ville, even if transiently.  Lately, I've noticed that my regular fruit and vegetable vendors at the market now occasionally say à la prochaine (until next time) or à bientôt (see you soon) to me, instead of the customary merci, madame, au revoir.   One of the sellers at our closest bakery is sometimes a bit more personal with our family (I think it's my husband's friendly smile and goofy French), and she will slip a box of day-old sweets into our hands once in a while with subtlety and a smile, as we purchase a baguette or loaf of bread.  She once remarked on my absence after a long spell of grading and other work.  Her co-workers are generally more aloof, although one of them gave me a baguette without payment recently when all I had was a big bill instead of change, saying to me in French, Madame, won't you be coming in again tomorrow?  You can pay for this one then.  Just around the corner from this bakery is a gold and silver shop in front of which stands a security guard whom we first met outside another shop adjacent to our old apartment.  Coincidentally, he changed shops just as we moved to our current apartment nearby, and ever since, we see him nearly every day.  He and our boys regularly exchange fist bumps in passing, and he gets the latest reports about football, rugby or school activities.  Two weeks ago, in his melodious African-accented French, he complimented me on the boys' manners and upbringing when we came across each other on the street.  

How long does it take to feel like one is part of a neighborhood or a community?  In France, because people tend to have many small economic transactions and social exchanges virtually every day, at the bakery and at the produce markets, even if they live in large cities, such social exchanges can become more personalized over a relatively short period of time.  And this personalization can foster a deepening sense of community.  In our case, because we live right in the center of a small, pedestrianized city with a distinct center, we have walked the same streets for nearly 2 years, and even though we still stick out a bit, we are recognized as we cross paths with the same people every day.  Some allow that recognition to reflect a closer bond, such as the caviste (wine seller) who now comes specifically to shake our hands if we stop by for a meal or some wine at his shop/restaurant, or the more reserved husband of my regular vegetable vendor who helped me recently with some suggestions for une assiette de crudités (raw vegetable platter).  My Belorussian hairdresser greets me with bises (cheek kisses) and then we chat in French, our common language, while I have my shampoing/coupe/brushing (shampoo/cut/blowdry).  But not everyone is similarly open.  Of our neighbors across the narrow street on which we live, only the Persian rug shop owners (who appear to be brothers or cousins) regularly greet us daily, while neither the tattoo artist nor the realtor ever make eye contact.  The clerks at the nearby department store, post office, and news stands also seem to be more reserved.  It may be these latter folks that feed the stereotype that outsiders have of the 'haughty' French, but in the big picture, people here are not so different than elsewhere.  Everyone needs some sense of community but carves it out as he or she sees it.  (See Neighborhood people, August 2009 for more on the sense of community.) Who to include as part of that community is up to each person, as is how to do so.  We may not have the chatty and casual exchanges we might have with a grocery store clerk in our Seattle neighborhood, and in France we still must use the formal French vous in speaking with each other, but it deepens my sense of community to know that for the moment, 'my' French fruit vendor considers me essential to his economic and social exchanges and that he really does mean it when he says à la prochaine.

No comments: