Friday evenings usually find me migrating to the neighborhood cafe (quelle surprise!) and enjoying a break in the action.
The Usual Suspects who join me include a melange of academics, entertainers (aspiring and established), members of the French bureaucracy (high and low), a left-leaning–which is really saying something in France–political activist, his wife (member of another country’s royal family) and a couple of guys whose occupations are either non-existent or so immaterial that they’ve never arisen in three years of weekly conversation.
At the bar, the group congeals and splinters, morphs and molds, drifts and drapes, together, then apart, into champagne bubbles of conversation, at a speed you might expect from mercury…if it were mud. Interruptions are frequent, as is laughter. The cafe staff swing in and out of discussions, taking beverage orders, commenting on a subject, then getting pulled away by, you know, actual customers sitting at tables.
It won’t be long before the smokers among us need a fix, and, with a grab of a pack and a nod of the head, several of us will meander outside. In defiance of some rarely-if-ever-enforced obscure French law, drink our beers on the sidewalk. Others partake in that time-honored, life-shortening French pastime of smoking a cigarette. I will be left to simply pray for a breeze and breathe what oxygen I can find.
It was during one of these sojourns last weekend that I watched well-dressed Frenchman after well-dressed Frenchman enter the cafe’s front door. They would open the door and stroll confidently in, leaving the elegant and effervescent ladies to trail in behind them.
I shook my head at this apparent breach of common courtesy, mumbling my disgust to myself and looking at a friend with disbelief. I explained that a gentleman opens the door for the lady. What was these Frenchmen’s problem? (Actually, I’d had a beer and a half, so the question was laced with expletives. What can I say? I’m passionate about manners, have a low tolerance for alcohol, and am blessed with an abundant, colorful vocabulary.)
My learned friend then explained to me that the French tradition is for the gentleman to enter an establishment first, and the lady to follow. This began when establishments were not always as safe as they are today. The man would enter and make sure everything was hunky-dory, protecting the woman from rascals, vagabonds, or dangerous, out-of-work writers who often frequented the taverns, restaurants, and inns of (I’m guessing) 14th century France.
I scoffed, pointing out a huge fallacy in logic: why are you taking a woman to an establishment that might not be safe? “But it’s a tradition,” replied my friend, who, I must reluctantly admit, knows this stuff, and a lot of other stuff.
“We (meaning the Frenchies) invented gallantry and etiquette. I’m sorry, but you were still discovering and trying to settle your country when we had all this, already in place, in writing, in books, being taught to the upper classes and nobility.”
I have the capacity to disregard facts and history as completely as the next person, and I exercised my option to do so. It’s not just a river in Egypt.
I have, in the past few years, availed myself to the intricacies of French table manners. The French keep their hands in view, on the table, during meals, the knife and fork are held a little differently than what is dictated in the Continental rules of etiquette. There is even a correct way to slice cheese.
So I was fine with a little adjustment, a little learning curve, here and there, but not this. An international incident was averted, I’m happy to relay. The cigarettes had performed their duty, the Conclave of the Learned and Influential adjourned back into the cafe, and other issues of global importance needed to be addressed.
I returned to the apartment that same evening and relayed the etiquette discussion to my wife. I described the French custom I’d witnessed, and pondered what would happen if I didn’t hold the door open for her and, instead, entered an establishment in front of her, leaving her to…what, follow me in…?
“I would not be there when you turned around,” was her response.
This, I know in my heart of hearts, is the truth. And I love her for it.
So cultural differences continue, some resolved, some not. I try to remain…what’s that French word…? Nonchalant.