Faux Pas Friday: Misunderstanding on the Metro (or Save the Children)

Mid-afternoon, mid-week. Dark and wet like many a December day in the City of Light. I descend into metro Colonel Fabien and try to shake off the cold.

When the train arrives, I spy through the window the one free seat. It will be mine. The man behind me has the same idea. He rushes past me as soon as the doors open, nearly sprinting to get to the seat. He plops down and puts on that blank city face: I don’t see you even though you’re right in front of me.

No matter. I gave up expecting chivalry a long time ago. Plus, you never really know what’s going on for people. Maybe he really did need that seat more. It may just be a trick to tell myself that, but it makes me feel better anyway.

I stand and think about whatever I think about on the train.

Then another seat becomes available, but it’s facing backward. I can’t sit backwards. (Well, I can, but I feel nauseous.)

I sit sideways on the seat so I’m not opposite the train’s movement.

We pull up to the next stop and a group of young elementary school children are lined up. Whole groups of kids pouring into the metro sometimes make me nervous, but as soon as this group enters, the other possibility presents itself: delight.

One advantage of miserable weather is the plethora of tiny tots in puffy coats, adorable mittens, cute little hats. The kids are bubbly and happy, but well-behaved. The girls right next to me (we’re at eye level, me sitting, them standing) are caught up in playing a little girl game, but they give me a smile when they glance my way and I smile back. I want to take a picture of the whole lot of them. This is grand! Another one of those small moments for which I’m grateful.

Then one of their guardians – Alexandre, I overhear – pulls the girls nearest me away.

“Don’t you see you’re crushing the dame!”

The three are lined up now, a beautiful white-black-Asian rainbow, looking as if they’re in front of a firing squad. Reprimands in French sound at a frequency that send shivers down the spine.

Je ne suis pas content!” Alexandre says. “This calls for punishment. As soon as I see your mothers, I’m telling them what you did!”

I see in their little faces they have no idea what they’ve done. I don’t either!

Wait, Monsieur! I’m the dame?!

Alexandre is going on about how he’s told them to pay attention. “Apologize to the lady,” he says motioning at me. He thinks I was being prevented from sitting in the seat properly because they were there!

The other guardian, a woman, echoes something Alexandre says but then softens. “C’est pas grave,” she whispers at them.

I catch her eye and enthusiastically confirm. Yes, yes, it’s not serious! She smiles wanly at me.

We all get off at the next stop – the entire episode took place between only one metro stop to the next.

“I was already in that position. They didn’t do anything wrong,” I tell Alexandre as we pile out of the car.

At least that’s what I think I say. My French often fails me under pressure.

“They have to learn to pay attention and be polite,” he tells me in that same stern teacher tone.

I feebly try again. “But they weren’t crushing me.” They are polite! They are amazing!

It’s awkward. He’s trying to get a group of little kids safely off the train, but this is also the only moment to tell him he misread the situation. Save the children!

As the whole bustling group reassembles on the platform, I’m left not knowing if I made my point. Do I insist? Does it matter?

I climb the stairs back out into the cold, Paris rain, deriding myself. Down. Why couldn’t I say anything better? Why can I still not speak French well? Is it ok to contradict what a child’s caretaker is saying? How could I not?

I open my umbrella and wrap my coat tighter around me, trying to stay warm. I offer a silent wish that the incident will quickly be forgotten, that no mamans of those sweet kids will be told. And I also wish to be what I know I’m capable of, but only sometimes am: bold.

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16 Responses to “Faux Pas Friday: Misunderstanding on the Metro (or Save the Children)”


  1. 1 Jennifer December 7, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Wonderful post, Sion. I can relate on so many levels. :) Sharing on fb …

  2. 3 shan December 7, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    Typical ego-trip. Kids will be kids, I’m all for politeness and consideration but disciplining when no harm is done sends the wrong message entirely :P Love the post, you perfectly capture my exact feelings when I see cute LO’s on the metro in their berets!

  3. 5 patoudit December 7, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    You know, I’m not sure the guy would’ve understood your point if you had spoken a “better French”. It seems he was in a weird state-of-mind, or in a “caporal chef champion” state-of-mind (I don’t know how to translate that in English). But I understand the feeling. I even have some days where I wish I didn’t have to think before I speak in Paris, and I am a francophone (but not a French). Thank you for your post, it’s a nice way to start the day (I am writing from the other side of the pond).

    • 6 paris (im)perfect December 7, 2012 at 3:20 pm

      Oh, I agree. It wasn’t just the language. There were two different perspectives going on. But trying to figure out quickly what to say in delicate situations is more challenging for me in French!

      I’m not sure what exactly I should have said or if it would have made a difference, but I definitely didn’t feel I was as clear as I wanted to be. But not to totally make the guy the villain. He walked onto the train very nice and the kids seemed to like him. It was just withering how it changed. I’m an adult and I still cringe when scolded, so I can only imagine what it’s like for a little kid when they’ve been mistakenly reprimanded!

  4. 7 Amy Kortuem December 7, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    I’m glad you said something. It sounds like that guy’s mood wouldn’t have allowed him to let up on the kids even if you’d have spoken it in textbook French.

    • 8 paris (im)perfect December 7, 2012 at 3:58 pm

      I’m glad I said something, too. But the thing is, it all happened so fast and I could understand why the guy thought the kids were crowding me. There were a lot of kids to keep track of and he just looked and must have thought, hey, they’re not giving that woman enough room! It was just that strange moment when someone is scolding the children in his charge and it’s weird to step in on that authority. But I also needed him to know he misread the situation. But how to do that without it becoming this complicated mess in front of the kids, too?
      Hard to come up with the right thing to say in any language, I guess. It makes me feel more vulnerable in French, though.

  5. 9 Tracy Carlton December 7, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    What you did is so bold! Hurrah! Speaking up for children in a foreign tongue. Thank you. The children thank you too I’m sure. Perhaps this post resonates deep within. So just wanted to acknowledge how wonderful it is that you spoke up.

  6. 11 Karin P December 9, 2012 at 1:28 am

    Such a weird situation, but you described it beautifully. I know: it is so hard to find the boldness that would come so naturally if it were happening in your mother tongue. But then, if you were doing it in your mother tongue, the situation would likely have not been like that, eh?

    I think that part of the French system of politesse is designed to suck the life out of kids in many ways. It’s weird, because I also respect the politesse and how it can lead people to respecting one another through manners. It leads to tensions like you experienced and wrote about here, though, for sure. I don’t like to think about small spirits being crushed for the sake of a lesson and a power trip on the part of an adult.

    I’m glad you spoke up.

    • 12 paris (im)perfect December 10, 2012 at 3:44 pm

      Thanks, Karin. Yeah, blanket statements are dangerous, but here I go anyway: I respect the politesse, too, but I do think it can crush genuine joy and different ways of expression, too. I’ve felt that a lot of the ways I see the French interacting with children can be much colder than I’m comfortable with. But, I know I’ve picked up some of the rules of politesse, too!

  7. 13 Claire 'Word by Word' December 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    Perceptions of politeness seem to be what it is all about – something that can stifle the genuine enthusiasm, excitement and curiosity out of kids. Sure they go overboard sometimes, but a little more tolerance and even enjoyment of the brightness they bring to a day, wouldn’t be a bad thing. Good on you for saying something, it’s good for the kids to hear that not all grown-ups have this stern attitude.

  8. 15 ecochic1001 February 3, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Funny universal transit story. Small, silent battles are waged across the globe for that perfect seat. You could start a whole blog about encounters between stops. Worry not about the children, it was the tenseness that comes with being responsible for small children on transit. Have you ever gotten tense, momentarily, while a flight you’re on takes off and lands? It’s like that feeling prolonged when traveling on transit with children. It wasn’t you, it wasn’t the children, it was the adult releasing stress.


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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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