It’s a revelation that cuts through all of the anxiety and stress of becoming settled in a different culture. And one day, like the proverbial light bulb going on overhead, you say it out loud and you realize that it’s true. It happened almost simultaneously for Karen and me.
People in France are just nicer. Civility is simply part of the culture, a part that, sadly, has dissolved into nothingness back in the US. And grasping that is potent. It brings things into focus and clarity. People in France are just more civil, and life here has an overriding pleasantness to it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are as many annoyances here as there are back home, but as is the case with so many things in life, we make trade-offs. Here in Luche we trade the inconveniences of life in Maryland for the inconveniences of life in France. There are plenty, and woe unto anyone who has to deal with French bureaucracy; ‘tis a fearful thing. But the difference is that in all the interactions we will have here in France there is an underlying civility, a niceness that is missing in 21st century America.
Sometimes it’s almost comical. There have been these well publicized demonstrations going on in France since November 2018, where people wearing those yellow safety vests, called gilet jaunes, have been blocking road traffic in protest against the Macron government. If you watch TV you will see huge protests in major cities like Paris, Lyon, Nantes, and so on. The gilet jaunes set up blockages, disrupt traffic, and in the worst cases they set fire to buses and police cars.
Here in the provinces, in La Fleche, the largest town in the region, it is all a bit different. Like clockwork, the gilet jaunes show up every Saturday at the roundabout entering town. They will have, in advance, posted signs informing you exactly what time the protest and blockage will begin and when it will end, so you can plan accordingly. How civil!
And it has the feel of a community get together more than a protest. They have a bonfire going, and they cook over it, it’s one big social gathering. And when they block cars for a minute or two they hold up their signs and you hold up your yellow vest (required to be in the car by French law) as a sign of solidarity, they give you a big cheer and wave you through. One time when they had us stopped and wanted us to sign a petition of some sort, we told them we were Americans, in response they started to cheer, “Americans, Americans! And they waved us through with a cheer. It was the most convivial protest either of us had ever seen.
For two people who grew up in the 1950s there is a quality of life here in France that harkins back to our childhood, a simpler time. People are nicer. They are more civil to one another, and it makes you want to be nicer in return.
Walking down the street, an oncoming pedestrian will make eye contact and offer a bonjour as they pass. And you are expected to do the same.
Enter a shop with a line of customers waiting to be served, and you offer bonjours to the entire line as well as the proprietor. And when you leave, give an au revoir to everyone and expect to get au revoired right back atcha. Everything, every transaction and interaction begins and ends with a pleasantry.
You might be sitting at a restaurant having lunch, and another customer who is leaving and passing your table might give you a bon appetite as he passes.
Karen left the dome light on in our car one day when we left the car at the Place by the church, and the patron of the boulangerie that looks out on to the square spotted it. Concerned that the light would drain the battery, she left her shop unattended, walked across the Place and knocked on the door of the home in front of where we parked the car, to ask the owner if he knew whose car it was. He told her it wasn’t his car but he knew whose it was after trying unsuccessfully to get into the car to turn the light off. In the interim Karen had remembered the light and returned to the car to turn it off. Next day when we went to the car the owner of the house came dashing out to tell us the whole story, saying that he tried to get into the car to turn off the light because he was worried it would drain the battery, and he was so relieved that Karen had come back to turn it off.
A couple of nights ago I was in a contemplative mood, it was a beautiful night, and I went for a walk along the river. On the little bridge over the Loir I stood in the quiet and darkness, watching the moonlight on the water, deep in thought, enjoying the star lit sky and the quiet ripple of the water below. I was deep in thought and didn’t notice the approach of a lady whose house is just on the other side of the bridge. She startled me a bit, and asked me, clearly concerned, if I was OK? I assured her I was just fine, but she asked again to be sure, was I OK? Again, I thanked her and assured her I was. And with a look that said she wasn’t 100 per cent convinced, she walked somewhat reluctantly back to her house, leaving me alone, in the dark, on the bridge.
We think we have become the village’s pet Americans. In any case it was yet another instance of an inherent niceness that has us so often saying, “Can you imagine that happening back home?”