Parisians-Don’t Scowl at Me!

Parisians –  Don’t Scowl at Me!

Recently I’ve heard many tourists, mainly Americans, comment on how “nice” the French have become.  “I heard they were arrogant and mean but they couldn’t have been kinder,” one remarked.  “I was afraid to come to Paris because of the French reputation for being snotty,” remarked another, “but they weren’t at all like that. I can’t wait to come back.”

I preface this post with those comments lest my readers think I am  “dumping on the French”.  While I’m at it, I should also point out that I have never subscribed to the “all the French are arrogant” theory although I always thought and still do that SOME of the French are arrogant just as SOME of the Americans are loud.

Now that I’ve taken the necessary precautions, I can get to the heart of the matter which is a question:  Why do the Parisians scowl so much?  Note I say “Parisians” and not “the French”.  The minute you get on a train and get yourself to a provincial French town, you’ll encounter people who actually do smile and say BonjourMais oui!   But the Parisians….. It’s a well-known fact that the Parisians do not smile. Oh, they may smile at their children or their mother or their best friend but they do not walk around with the Universal Smile that is drummed into Americans  from childhood.

Yet although I know this fact, having lived here for 44 years with a French husband and two Franco-American children, none of whom practice the Universal Smile, I still am shocked by The Scowl. (It’s one thing not to smile, another to frown, glare and look positively malevolent).

The Scowl is usually because the person is on the metro and it’s crowded and smelly and it’s not a smiley experience.  The Scowl is because the person is engaged in his or her own thoughts and sees no reason to communicate with a total stranger. A Parisian waiter without a scowl would not be a Parisian waiter.  You’re supposed to smile at him, not the other way around.

The Scowl is NOT, as many Americans would have it, because you are not French. No, French people scowl at other French people, believe me.

In recent days, the Parisians have had more to glower and groan about than usual: a weak and vacillating government,  garbage, plane, train, and metro strikes, and even the flooding of the Seine after  a triste month of grey rainy weather.  Even I, the perpetually smiling American, am down at the mouth.

The garbage strike exacerbated my bad humor. On a recent day I decided to take a walk from my apartment near the Place Gambetta in the east of Paris to the lovely verdant, hilly Parc des Buttes Chaumont.  To my horror, the promenade consisted of avoiding the mounds of garbage piled up and all around the green city garbage bins parked on the sidewalks while trying not to smell the offensive odors that had collected after said garbage had rested there for more than a week. I refused to think about rats.

As I write this, the garbage strike is winding down, but the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail, the Communist trade union) is  still in a fight to the death battle with the Socialist government which it accuses of being too far on the right. (Imagine that in the U.S.!)  Metros, planes and trains are still running – but not all of them as many workers are still on strike. (Why the strikes? Oh, I almost forgot: they are over a proposed labor reform law the unions rejected and which the government, weak as it is, promptly watered down – but not enough for the unions).

The last stand, a huge demonstration on June 14, and continued strikes, is taking place in the midst of the Euro Cup which started on June 10 and has brought millions of tourists to France.  The unions could have called a halt to the strikes during this period but that would have been so un-French.  Best to let the visitors see what it’s like to live in a nation where “democracy” is equated with street protests.

The admirable solidarity of a nation united by the shocking and shameful terrorist attacks in January has unravelled, giving way to this public struggle against the government and the bosses.  Union members say they are defending the rights of all workers.    My butcher begs to differ:  “They’re not fighting for MY rights,” she told me, as she deftly sliced a cut of tender veal.  She and her husband work long hours and have no special rates at holiday camps or bonuses or other perks.   “They’re fighting for the special privileges that they don’t want to lose.”

So there we are: plenty of reason to be grumpy.  But, please, Parisians:  it’s not my fault so don’t scowl at me!

Jan in front of poubelles

A Canadian friend and longtime resident of France holding her nose.

6 thoughts on “Parisians-Don’t Scowl at Me!”

  1. Parisians have really changed since I lived on the Rue des Belles Feuilles in the mid 60s and even in the last few years. The other day, an elderly woman on the bus (63) looked over and smiled. I was so surprised I forgot to smile back! Then we got off at Cluny and were contemplating which way to “flanker” as we had no place in mind, when another elderly woman who had also been on the o. 63 smiled and asked if she could be of help! Where did that scowling Parisian go? Well not to worry the next day as I struggled to get off an over crowded metro car and almost didn”t make it as the doors were beginning to close, a very dour elderly woman pushed in, elbowed me and I started to fall , catching myself on the door handle to get my balance. People gasped but that SOB little dowager kept her head and shoulders straight and got past me. Maybe her garbage didn’t get picked up but believe me if the doors hadn’t closed, she might have found herself onn the other end of a lot of choice French words.
    You need to write a post on how to deal with the obnoxious cutting in line 🙂
    PS As you can see, I don’t alway praise and/or defend the French 🙂

    1. The metro is one of the worst places for old codgers who push you around. Sometimes I feel like carrying a baseball bat (ok, ok, I said “feel like” – I wouldn’t actually do it). Big cities everywhere have their smilers and their scowlers – it’s just that, as I’ve always said, the French do the latter so much better than everyone else. Thanks for your comment, Jacqueline.

    1. Merci! It’s good to be back and I hope to post again before I go off on one of those mammoth French vacations.

  2. Harriett, I always enjoy your writings. This last one came at a good time; you know, took my mind off other things for a bit! It’s been a long time since we’ve been in France, but I do remember people were not as grumpy as I had heard they were. What a nice surprise!
    Thanks and keep writing!

    1. Mary, Great to hear from you. You are right: the French are not as grumpy as their reputation would have them be. Still, Parisians don’t walk around with a big smile on their face but once you get used to that idea, it’s ok. My next post is on the behavior of homeowners at annual meetings. They really get aggressive but I’ve been told that they’re not all that different from homeowners in the States! Thanks for writing! (Can’t seem to see whether you’re subscribed or not, if not, just register on the right hand side of the home page and you’ll get my prose automatically – if such is your desire!)

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