Greetings from snowy Vermont! I hope you all are having a lovely holiday season. I’m just starting the intense residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts (if anyone wants to follow along with just how intense, here’s the daily schedule.)
As I won’t have a lot of time to update the blog, I’m delighted to have a guest today. You may remember I interviewed Aurelia d’Andrea when her Moon Living Abroad in France guidebook was published. When I noticed Aurelia making funny comments on Facebook about her faux pas one day I said, tiens! Why don’t I invite her to contribute to Faux Pas Friday? I’m glad she accepted the invitation! And so, without further ado…
“Newcomer’s Follies” by Aurelia d’Andrea
If faux pas were an Olympic sport, I would be a gold medalist. The main difference between me and a true Olympian, though, is that I don’t have to train for my sport. Being a Socially Inept Expat just comes naturally, without even the slightest modicum of effort.
Since moving to Paris two-and-a-half years ago, this innate “gift” has flowered like an out-of-control weed. France, it seems, offers nearly ideal conditions for social awkwardness to flourish. I would’ve liked to have nipped this problem in the bud, but it’s too late for that now, and how do you nip when you don’t even know where to begin?
Some of my transgressions are textbook new-kid-in-town maneuvers; smiling in public, for example, and vouvoyer-ing children and dogs. I do this every day. So why, then, did I use the informal tutoyer to greet my building’s gardienne last week? (She insisted it was no big deal, but the way she crams the mail under the door now indicates otherwise.)
Many other missteps I’ve made are of the “French insider-knowledge” variety. I mean, how could I possibly know that my stomach growling loudly in public is an act as unpardonable as audibly passing gas in a quiet roomful of strangers? Or that wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day or after 3pm is considered “bizarre”? Along with verb conjugation and grammar, every French course should offer, at the very least, a brief lesson titled something like “Avoiding Self-Humiliation in L’Hexagone.” I’m nearly qualified to teach this class!
Possibly the most profound mistake I’ve made is the one I’m reminded of every day, since it happened just downstairs at the little halal butcher shop/greengrocer’s below my apartment. The week we moved in coincided with the start of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and I popped into the store one night just as the owner and his staff were about to break bread.
“Here, a little savory treat for you,” said the man behind the corner, passing me a triangle of deep-fried pastry stuffed with something indiscernible but vaguely meaty-smelling. “It’s our tradition to share food at Ramadan.”
“Merci! C’est tres gentil!” I replied earnestly, hoping he’d hurry and ring up my tomatoes so I could get out of there before things got awkward. As a vegetarian, I dread moments like these; how do you say “No, thank you” without offending? I didn’t even want to attempt it in a language I hadn’t yet mastered.
“Well, go on, try it!” he said.
“I’m so, so sorry,” I mumbled in fractured French, “but I’m vegetarian. I’d love to accept your gift, however. I’ll take it upstairs and give it to my husband!”
By “husband,” I meant “dog.” My husband is vegetarian, too.
“There’s no meat inside, just chicken,” he responded cheerfully. “Here, look,” he said, pointing to something indiscernible printed on a package pulled from the refrigerator. “See? It’s kosher. Don’t worry!”
“Oh, I’m not vegetarian for religious reasons,” came my defensive reply. “It’s purely ethical!”
The conversation was beginning to get unwieldy and uncomfortable. The kind man who’d reached out with a neighborly gesture was now extending his hand to take it back. Waves of shame and anxiety washed over me as I hurried out the door in a flurry of mercis and desolées.
Nearly three years later, the marchand downstairs still greets me with a warm bonjour each time we meet, with nary the faintest hint of a lingering grudge. I’ve even noticed my gardienne has gotten back into the groove of gently sliding the mail under the door. Which makes me wonder: Could it be that my faux pas are really just my own baggage, lugged across continents and unpacked here in my adopted hometown? Are these missteps really just baby steps on my journey toward an exciting new life?
I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but there’s one thing I know for sure: I’m definitely never going to be an Olympic gold medalist in any category. But in this tricky game called Life in France, I feel lucky to be a player.
Aurelia d’Andrea is a freelance writer and former managing editor of VegNews. She is the author of Moon Living Abroad in France (Avalon Travel, 2012) and the forthcoming Moon Metro Paris (Avalon Travel, 2013). She chronicles some of her less awkward Parisian moments at My Vegan Parisian Adventure.