Last night I went to a party where the number of champagne bottles seemed to outnumber the number of guests. We were colleagues, most of us friends, toasting an end to things as they had been. Our company was “downsizing” and we were out of work.
The mood was festive (France’s great social system can almost make a layoff something to celebrate) and far be it from anyone to refuse another refill.
Though the bubbly doesn’t actually do it for me (I’m not a big drinker, in general), I’ve learned to appreciate that champagne is a drink for all occasions. Not simply for special events, it’s just as common to see people order a glass on ordinary days in pretty ordinary cafes (or is it just my friends? Hmm.)
In any case, we were having a good time (me with some tasty ice wine) when the doorbell rang. Seeing as it was past midnight, we knew it probably wasn’t good.
Our host opened the door and I saw the right half of a very tall man on the other side. I could tell he came in anger, even without seeing his face – his large hand was curled in a fist and planted firmly on his hip.
I didn’t hear any words pass between the two men, and our host closed the door.
Seconds later the doorbell rang again. And again. And againagain. In varying patterns and for differing amounts of time, angryman pressed the buzzer, playing an annoying ditty on the doorbell.
“He’ll go away,” our host said.
After a few minutes he did.
Turns out, it was the dreaded complainer of the apartment building.
Our host went into his bedroom and retrieved a letter featuring some slightly worrying handwriting as he showed it around.
“We received this from them last year.”
Reading the letter aloud to increasing outbursts of laughter, the highlights go something like this:
“We are tolerant people,” (they always are) “but this has gone beyond the beyond. You do not seem to realize you live in an apartment and the noise that you make. Last night we were unable to sleep due to your antics – and we could hear the toilet flushing very late in the night!…We are sure that we will not be forced to bring this up with the owner now that you understand your offenses. Very cordially and with our most distinguished salutations, Monsieur and Madame XYZ.”
Not to be defensive, but when flushing the toilet riles your neighbors, it’s probably not you with the problem. Despite the general growing tipsiness, we were not actually being loud. Unlike a lot of apartments in Paris, this one was well insulated and seemed to block most noise.
“They’re probably just waiting for you to flush your toilet!” a friend exclaimed.
It’s true. These are the type of people who are waiting to pounce on anything.
Now I’ve lived in apartments with paper-thin walls (the things I heard in New York could make my already-peeling paint peel more). There are ghastly noises and disrespectful people. In Paris, though, it seems blowing your nose can cause offense.
One aspect of living in ‘gay Par-ee” I find less than perfect, is, well, it’s not really all that gay.
I’ve been told and read in various books that the French don’t understand why we Americans smile so much, especially at people we don’t know. Not only don’t they understand it, they think we are stupid for doing it.
As someone who smiles a whole lot, it has caused some actual pain to train my smile muscles to stop their work (they’re atrophying as we speak).
Many times, in response to my (admittedly, full-bodied) laugh, I’ve received cutting stares enough to stop me in my tracks.
The city is gray, it rains, and yes, I understand you don’t know me. Still, life might be a little more pleasant if we didn’t regard each other as distasteful beings for showing some spirit.
Now I’m not saying everyone’s like this, but outside of people’s own social situations, the generalized mood strikes me as a little too somber. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before (again, New York – an even bigger city – displayed nowhere near the hostility towards undirected happiness I feel here. There’s a price on fun’s head if it’s caught outside of well defined borders).
I’ll stop complaining (oh no! am I one of them?) because after three years I’ve learned the solution. Seeing as the French think I’m strange anyway (the word for ‘foreigner’ – which now seems to be my main identity - is etrangere, literally “stranger”), I take it as license to just be strange. Besides reclaiming my tennis shoes, it means smiling when I want to and laughing though it disturbs the peace.
Because really, should I allow Parisians to ruin my enjoyment of Paris?
The next time I’m chastised for having a good time, I’ll yell “Bah-Humbug” into the startled French(wo/)man’s face. It will be strange. And, at least to me, really, really funny.