Jennifer Yee

A Visitor in the Land of the Enlightenment (and elsewhere)
Part 5: Obeying the Rules

I have just come back from ten days in Spain with two French people. I'm not going to write about Spain -- ten days isn't enough to say anything remotely interesting about a country -- except to say that if you haven't already done so, Go There. What I'm interested in here -- you may have gathered by now -- is Frenchness and its complement or opposite, whatever identity I may have that makes it possible for me to identify Frenchness as other. Got that? Here goes then for Spain.

Many of you are more experienced travellers than I am, so you will not be surprised by some important aspects of travelling that I have (re)discovered. Firstly, as a tourist one finds oneself identified with, and one is more or less forced to identify with, one's linguistic community. And secondly, since one feels foreign, one's national identity suddenly appears in surprising ways. In any case, as a result of the above, and despite the fact that this almost never happens to me in France, for ten days I was French. People assumed I was French, and I got into museums free as a European citizen, but that is the least of it: for ten days I made the mistakes French people make; I half-understood Spanish the way French people do; I was shocked by the things that shock the French and I started talking in terms of "Us" and "Them" when making comparisons. This all seemed remarkably easy and natural... Except at one particular moment... when the ghost of some non-existent pommy ancestor raised its head and the social programming of my early years took over with a vengeance.

But before I get round to that, note one point that Australians, the English and the French have in common. We say we are sorry. When, in a crowded street, we accidentally brush against someone, we turn around and throw a distracted, fairly hypocritical "pardon" or "sorry" over our shoulders. Spaniards, at least in the South, do not; neither, some shocked French friends have assured me, do Germans. (The French, of course, can put a thousand different nuances into the word "pardon". Parisians are particularly good at this: a real Parisian waiter, for example, can look down his/her Gallic nose and say "pardon" in such an expressive way that one instantly realises that one should 1) speak clearer 2) go somewhere else immediately and 3) get a new haircut. This is very hard to reproduce with a nose as short as mine, but after several years of work I have developed a compensatory technique which aims to add the requisite centimetres of arrogance by raising the level of my eyebrows, with reasonable success. But in this case we are dealing with a fairly elementary, unsophisticated use of the word "pardon" which any Spaniard could reproduce instantly, so it is all the more interesting that they do not do so.) Do Australians use the word "sorry" more than the English? Or vice versa? I will get back to you on this in due course...

To come back to the theme of crowded streets, my French friends and I recently spent a good three-quarters of an hour squashed against the wall of a narrow street just opposite the main gate of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, waiting for the arrival of a procession of penitents. The crowd was mostly made up of good-humoured locals, with relatively few non-Spanish tourists, but towards the end a group of English girls started to wind their way through the masses towards us. It was obvious they were English from fifty metres off -- I'm sure you see what I mean -- but this fact was rather hilariously confirmed when, just a metre from me, the first girl reached an obstacle: a young Spaniard with his back turned to her, chatting with his friends. She tried saying "perdona" and "pardon" several times, with faultless politeness, but he didn't hear, which is not surprising as there was a lot of noise and the word was highly inappropriate. The correct thing to do was to push, gently and firmly, and get past him. The poor girl actually remained stuck with her "perdona" until a Spanish woman, beside me, literally reached forward and hauled her to safety, and the others were able to follow in the space created by her movement. The same kindly woman then tried to tell the girls to stand on tiptoes in order to look into the depths of the courtyard where the door of the Mosquita had just opened, revealing a glimpse of arches receding one after the other as far as the eye could see. Being English, they didn't understand a word she said, and as I translated for them (they were so startled they thanked me in Spanish) the English words themselves seemed precise but oddly distant to me, like the door at the back of the dark courtyard. I thought then that I had a long way to come back. But miles can be covered in seconds, and it was not that far at all...

If you ever go to see the Alhambra in Granada, try to book ahead for tickets. The day we arrived, it was too late to book any until the following Tuesday, when we were supposed to be in Barcelona, so the only way to get in (and believe me, it is worth it) was to queue in the morning. T. and I climbed the hill in the dark and joined the queue, already some 200 strong, just after six in the morning. Most of the other people queueing were Spanish, not locals, but people from the North travelling in Andalusia for Easter. We were surprised at how disciplined the queue was, with people being friendly but clearly keeping their places -- very un-French behaviour, as T. himself pointed out, since the French tend naturally towards the anarcho-individualistic mass at the ticket counter rather than the winding, fluctuating, but orderly line formation the Spaniards seemed to have adopted spontaneously. The ticket office was due to open at 8:30, but by that time officials had arrived to dissuade the later arrivals from waiting, as only 2000 non-reserved tickets would be sold that day. At 8:15 T.'s mother arrived with the first bus, as planned, bringing breakfast and a packed lunch. And at the same time a young French couple turned up, stood next to T. and struck up a conversation: he was from Paris, she was from Bordeaux, they had tried to get in the day before but there were no tickets left, and they had arrived at 8:00 today, too late to get in. They had heard us speaking French. Could we buy tickets for them, or let them join us in the queue? And T... T. said yes. I was so shocked it took me a good thirty minutes to get my sense of humour back. I did eventually remember all those jokes Australians (and everyone else) tell about the English and their sense of how sacred a queue is. But surely you agree with me? Ca ne se fait pas, one just doesn't do that, it is not fair play. Two people who had stood in the queue, in the dark and cold, in the first morning mists, for maybe an hour, didn't get their tickets because T. let in a couple who meant nothing at all to him. (For his mother the case is quite different: we had planned it that way, we needed our breakfast, and she would have had trouble climbing the hill). When I asked him why he let them in he said sheepishly that 1) he didn't know 2) he didn't want to be unpleasant by refusing and 3) they were French. ...Which I, rather suddenly, but most emphatically, remembered I was not. I accused him of being nationalistic, of course, but I was missing the point completely.

The important thing is that I myself was so profoundly shocked at the idea of queue-jumping, and T. (being French) was not. This reminds me of another occasion, when T. and I were waiting to pay for some books in a Parisian bookshop. A young man carrying a big bag went out, the alarm bells started ringing, and he bolted; the bookshop assistant started running after him, but she had to get around the counter first whereas we were just next to the door. My first instinct was to run after the thief and my second was to push T. after him (all that athletics training has to be good for something). T. had absolutely no such reaction. Why, he asked me afterwards, should he be on the side of the bookshop assistant rather than on that of the thief?

Don't go thinking that I am living with a lout; he is a perfectly normal Frenchman. In support of this statement, bear this in mind: when a French group goes on a school excursion to London, the teachers warn the pupils not to try shoplifting because in England, apparently, you have to watch out not only for the shopkeeper but also for the other customers, who will dob you in. Naturally, this is not the case in France.

Alas, it seems clear to me that even if I had not worked in a bookshop for three years, I would still be on the side of the bookshop assistant, just as I will keep my place in a queue and respect other people's places in that queue: I can't help it. I am not telling you this out of pride; on the contrary. The fact is that I am an orderly citizen, I have taken my number in the Great Queue and I instinctively obey the laws set down by Those Above and respect the fact that certain things (a place in the queue, property, capital) belong to certain people and not to others. For the French, it doesn't seem to be that clear. They do not just buckle under and obey. Nor are they willing to serve you with submission, as you will observe next time you go into a French shop and try to buy something from a shop assistant who makes it quite clear that your presence is not welcome. McDonalds has a lot of trouble training its French workers to say "Have a nice day" with the requisite toothy smile. These people guillotined their monarch, remember? And we have just voted to keep ours...

A reaction to this text
from a friend who is an Australian citizen with a Chinese background, but who has also lived in France and is now living in England.

This last episode, she says, "is exactly this kind of thing that makes me feel at home in Paris, the French are very much like the Chinese in that respect. We have little public moral, but a lot of private moral (e.g. to our friends and family). At the same time, the government bodies in France and China trust their people less than the English and Australian governments do (e.g. driver's licences here still do not carry photos). Well it's smart of them not to I suppose. France and China have the most elaborate bureaucracy in the world, so to get anywhere people have to be "smart" and learn how to jump the queue. One thing that frustrated me when I was in Australia was exactly this kind of puritanical, inflexible attitude to laws and fair play which I did not share and worst of all I had to hide such views lest people think I was deceitful and immoral.

It's true that the Chinese are into revolutions just like the French are, and Chinese dynasties are often changed by peasant revolutions (revolution of the people unlike the ones in Britain).

Now here is a test for your friends:  What would they do if, say, their mother had committed a terrible crime? Would they turn her in or hide/help her escape the law?

For most Chinese the answer would be to help her; but it seems that for many Australians and English people it is more important to have fair play and so they'd send her to the police..."

(Incidentally, when I protested vehemently against this last statement, my friend suggested that I would hide my mother if she were guilty only because I was Jewish.  Of course I'm not really Jewish, and of course you would all hide your guilty mothers... wouldn't you?)

Jennifer Yee