The nonverbal communications embedded in French culture are a never-ending source of fascination for me here in Paris. Because I’m not fluent enough in French to catch certain subtle, revealing turns of phrase, I miss that part of the ‘delivery’ that might carry double entendres or hidden gems of humor in conversation.
I do, however, catch a few of the visual clues that Parisians nonchalantly drop to establish their individualism, to communicate status, or otherwise to set themselves apart from the hoi polloi.
Let me set the scene for one example: at a neighborhood cafe, the regular clientele covers the full spectrum, coming and going at fluid yet routine waves and intervals. Earliest in the morning, standing at the bar, the lime-green clad sanitation workers taking a break from picking up the trash or cleaning the streets.
Coming a few minutes later, and brushing shoulders with them, the suit-clad professionals grabbing a morning cup of ambition (Dolly Parton’s phrase, not mine) prior to heading into the office.
A little later, at the bar or at a table near a side door, the local boutique owners complain about the rain and its effects on their businesses, which they’ll open in a half hour or so. Then, a half hour later, tourists pack the tables and fuel themselves for a day of sightseeing, their excitement at being in Paris defying the weight of any jet lag.
The footwear of each group is telling: the municipal workers in their clunky and mud-splattered black work boots. The male office workers in their black lace-up dress shoes. The boutique owners in functional dress and casual shoes, often with rubber soles for comfort. The tourists almost always in sneakers.
Sprinkled among these various groups, often in a corner or wedged into a window seat at the end of the counter, is an aging member of the fading French nobility. He may or may not be a (formally, or formerly) titled aristocrat, but there is no doubt of his position in the community.
He has lived here all his life. And by ‘here’ I mean within spitting distance of where he lives now and mostly likely in the same residence in which he was born and raised, and in which his ancestors were born and raised, for centuries. His family probably owns several apartments in the immediate area and lives in them, or rents them out, or lets them sit empty, depending on the circumstances and their mood. (They’re French and by definition very arbitrary.)
His hair is white or silver. His expression is stoic: if he hasn’t seen it all, he’s seen a lot. His dress shirt is expensive, but not obviously so. His sweater is cashmere or wool, and has seen its better days, but he doesn’t give a damn. His sport coat is tweed, usually an earth-tone. He is layered and wrapped like a cashmere and wool turtle in the winter, with at least one scarf cocooning him against the cold. His baggy corduroy pants, often in eye-popping reds and lime greens, are the first class marker: he doesn’t dress for the office or for business. He doesn’t have a boss. He doesn’t have clients who need to approve or think well of him.
In a country where the majority of working men habitually opt for the slim cut black or navy business suit, white shirt, black or navy tie, and black shoes, these expensive, generous, and colorful cords are the French version of ‘go-to-hell’ pants.
But the most telling sartorial signal is most often left for last as we survey the monsignor from head to toe: the unbuckled monk strap dress shoes. (Less frequent but equally telling is the velvet slipper, usually in black or burgundy.)
The unbuckled shoe sends a couple of important messages to the observant: first, ‘I didn’t walk very far to get here,’ and ‘I certainly didn’t walk very fast.’ And, one might add, ‘I won’t be in a hurry whenever I choose to leave.’ For me, the sound conjures an image of an outlaw entering a saloon in an old western movie, spurs chiming with each step, halting conversation and card-playing by the other patrons.
There’s little notice here, in a modern day Parisian cafe. Tourists are generally oblivious to the local real estate prices (a 1500 square foot apartment recently sold for 2.3 million euros in our neighborhood). They don’t notice the steely, proud bearing of the blue-blooded denizens of our little village. Maybe because the traditional status symbols are absent, well-hidden, or simply fall on deaf ears with many Parisians.
If you’re listening, however, the flapping, jingling monk straps softly speak volumes.