Coast Chronicles: An American in America

Zoli and Julietta on rue de Rivoli. Zoli's sign says, "I'm hungry. Thanks for helping."

Flying 5,005 miles backwards in time at 528 mph, followed by four hours of driving brought me home sweet home, just in time for manic worries about the impending tsunami on this past super-full-moon Saturday. I did not notice a tsunami; but — up at 4 a.m. in true jet-laggy fashion — I did notice an extremely big, bright, beautiful moon face lighting up the garden sufficient for a walk-about.

Traveling so far, so fast, is both a modern day miracle and a type of physical violence. Yesterday I was spending Euros at Bazaar de l’Hotel de Ville (BHV, the grand and second oldest department store in Paris; Le Bon Marché is generally considered to be the first in the world) and today I’m digging for dollars at Jack’s. 

My mind is reeling — was I really in Paris?

Yes! My head is still full of the beautiful melody of French, which rises and falls in mellifluous tones often octaves apart. (English by contrast is very monotonal.) The natural timbre of a French woman’s speech, which at first seems childlike then becomes charming, is much higher than a woman’s voice in the U.S. Even French speakers of English retain this upsy-downsy delivery. My French teacher in junior high, Mademoiselle Helen Haskins, was always sternly singing out to us during recitations, “Monter, tomber, monter tomber” — rise and fall.

Cultural Comparisons

So, what impressions linger in my mind after swimming in the French culture for two weeks, and what jumps out at me arriving again in our American village?

First, the French are so polite. Discourse has its traditions and, especially in writing, the conventions are staid and flowery. The formality has a certain gravitas and conformity that is comforting. It’s what is expected and when you hear what you expect you know that all is right with the world.

One extreme example of this (though not unique to French) is the so-called “tutoyer vouvoyer” distinction. If you address someone with “tu” (you, singular) in French, this means you are more or less of the same class and stature culturally or are very good friends. Addressing someone as “vous” (you, plural) is a formal way of indicating that either you don’t know the person very well, or they have a higher standing in society than you do, or both.

Elders address all kids as “tu.” Kids address all elders as “vous.” And you can never assume the change over from “vous” to “tu” even if you know someone quite well. You must always wait until “tutoyer” is suggested by the one of higher status. 

This formal usage of second person plural for a single individual is somewhat comparable to the idea in English of the Royal “we” used for potentates and those in power.

Though this linguistic distinction crystallized in French between the 12th and 14th centuries, it is still in force today. For me, it’s a good example of the orderliness of France, where, even reflected in how you are addressed, you know your place in the world.

Another instance of the politesse of the French occurs on public transportation, which is the great equalizer. Everybody scrambles on the bus or the metro and, at peak times, stands shoulder to shoulder; but pregnant women and those older than 75 are always offered (or can request) a seat from someone who may have gotten on earlier and grabbed a seat first. And, no mater who you are, the heavy doors at the metro exits are always held open for the person just behind you, even if you have to wait for them.

On Our Shores

Arriving into the U.S. at the customs in Seattle was a bit of a shock. The U.S. passport line was horrendously long while the EU passport line was mercifully short.

We waited in line to have our passports and import declaration forms stamped. Then we waited in line for our luggage to arrive; then we waited in line to pass customs with our luggage. Then just when we thought we could finally get on our way, they snagged our bags again and we had to wait a second time in another part of the terminal to be reunited with our checked bags. (It might be noted that there was no such rigmarole in France: you get your passport stamped, you get your bag and you get the heck out of the airport.) 

Furthermore, the U.S. baggage carts now cost $4. In European airports and train terminals they are free. It’s that good ‘ole American supply and demand principle in action, I suppose. We complained jovially to each other about the idiotic American system.

On the other hand, both relieved to be freed from my metal sardine can and glad to be on American turf, I immediately stopped for a chocolate milkshake to go — extra chocolate, please — at Dick’s Diner. “You can’t get this in Paris!” I gleefully told the guy behind the counter.

Then, the price of gas hit me — it’s gone up nearly 20 cents since I’ve been gone. But, believe me, we should be counting our blessings. In France and other European Union countries, “petrol” costs 1.5 euros per liter which translates into roughly $8 a gallon. That kind of a price hike would surely change American consumer habits, auto design and probably also our attitude toward alternative energy.

Zoli and Julietta 

One’s brain can hardly take in the book-end experiences of walking the streets of Paris and walking the shores of Willapa Bay. 

In the City of Light, I took my camera everywhere and found a fascination with the dogs of Paris (and their people). Every person I asked was delighted to be captured digitally with their beloved pets. In France, dogs go everywhere with their guardians: into restaurants (they lay politely under the tables); to the post office; the bank and the bars. Parisians love their dogs, which are in most cases as dandily dressed as their owners.

On the rue de Rivoli, the bustling shopping street that runs parallel with the Seine, I even met a street rabbit — Julietta. She and her companion Zoli were Italian and had set up a temporary street-side home just behind La Samaritaine near Pont-Neuf.

Zoli spoke no English or French and I spoke no Italian, but still we sat together for 20 minutes talking with gestures, Franglish and whatever else we could come up with. He is a carpenter and said he takes Julietta with him everywhere. If a big scary dog comes by, she quickly hops up onto his shoulder; and, of course, approaching the street with busses, cars and motorcycles zooming by is strictly forbidden. She jumped in my lap and nibbled a few endive leaves while we chatted.

Zoli said, in mime, “She’s my family.” I suggested that if ever they came to the U.S., Julietta would be welcome to visit Mimo — but Zoli indicated that he could not grow wings and that plane tickets were expensive.

Beloved Willapa Bay

Yesterday with a friend, I walked the shores of Willapa Bay at Leadbetter Point. The juxtaposition of the City of Light and the illuminated shades of grey over the bay created a pleasant counterpoint in my mind — so different, yet so beautiful.

I don’t think it was just lack of sleep or the psychological disruption of losing nine hours that gave me an elevated sense of elation at the marvels of our world. Our imagination and the creation of wonders like La Tour Eiffel, le Louvre, and Notre-Dame de Reims with its incredible Marc Chagall windows or the story of champagne-making told in stained glass are only one side of the coin.

The other is the splendor of the natural world, still so evident and vibrant where we live. Just in front of us, a Great Blue Heron walked gracefully through the shallows like a dancer en pointe. A pair of ducks persisted, heads down, to search for lunch. And I, captivated by both the wonders of the city and the country, counted my blessings in full measure.

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