Thursday, January 29, 2009

The wrong sort of silence

Silence comes in many colors. We get a lot of the good kind of silence, the one that comes from being in the countryside, away from crowds and cars and major airline routes. But there’s another kind, that peculiar silence that falls over a conversation when someone has said or done something inappropriate. The silence of the faux pas. At Sebastian’s soccer practice last week, the silence was deafening.

It all started when I made the mistake of saying hello.

You would think, in the interest of social harmony, that saying hello should be encouraged by being made easy. It is where I come from. American greetings come only in a few varieties. Hello, hi, yo, hey, what’s up – even the intensely annoying “hey there” will rarely cause much consternation. But for the French, who for centuries were the uncontested leaders of European civilization simply by being really really complicated, life is not so easy. Here, saying hello is a series of signs and countersigns, like in spy films, during which you are given the opportunity to establish whether or not you are civilized, i.e. French.

My hello to Jean-Pierre, one of the soccer coaches, was just plain wrong. It may seem easy in French class. Bonjour. Good day. Ça va. How are you, or literally, how goes it. But dear old Mr. Welch, my high school French teacher, never mentioned the unwritten rule. Maybe it’s a leftover from the hard times during the war, but the use of bonjour is strictly rationed to one per person per day. If you’ve said it to someone, you are expected to remember that fact and not say it to the same person again. To forget is presumably inattentive and therefore rude.

Jean-Pierre’s a real stickler for not double-bonjouring. I secretly suspect he takes a playful pleasure in catching me out. His eyes twinkle as he flashes that puzzled, almost professorial smile and reminds me that we have already said bonjour. And then he leaves that silence, the one I tend nervously to fill with some particularly flagrant piece of bad grammar. Jean-Pierre is a kind and honest man – his silence is never scathing, and at least he never looks at me, like some others have, as if I were a patient in a psych ward - but he sure doesn’t make it easy.

Moving on from Jean-Pierre, I almost immediately stumbled into the next trap. The kids were all doing their practice drills, kicking the ball around cones with varying degrees of success, and on the sidelines stood two of the mothers. One of them I’ve gotten to know by now, but the other I’d never seen before. And as I walked up to say hello – an easy bonjour, I thought, having not seen them yet today - I suddenly found myself faced with the big question. Do I or don’t I? I’m talking about the bisou.

Bisous are those little kisses the French give each other when they meet, and they can be a real pain. Technique is easy enough once you know it. They are air kisses, not big wet smackers, and typically you lightly touch cheeks while doing it. Here in the Quercy one gives two of them, one per cheek. In Paris, I’m told that some people give up to four. In the city of love, even a single hello seems to border on making out. 

But the hard part is knowing whom to kiss. Even the French don’t run around smooching just anyone. The gender rules are easy and obvious: women give bisous to both women and men, whereas men give them only to women. Children are treated as unisex but otherwise are not exempted. It takes a little time getting used to letting near-strangers giving your kid a kiss on the check, I can tell you.

The hard part is deciding if you know someone well enough to have been accepted into their bisou circle. My understanding is that you only bisous friends and some acquaintances, so it involves some judgment calls. That’s where it got tricky at football. Having previously crossed the bisou threshold with Soccer Mom #1, we said bonjour and air kissed. So far so good, but that left Soccer Mom #2. Bonjour, we say, then panic sets in. I feel rude if I don’t kiss, but kind of lecherous, or at the minimum presumptuous, about cuddling up to this total stranger. She too seems uncertain and fearful. We look nervously at each other and them it comes. Silence. This kids play on. We watch. The conversation is over before it has even begun.

I guess these things take time to unravel. David explained to me the proper behavior if you have already said bonjour to someone and then see them again later in the day: you either ignore them, jump into conversation without any greeting as if they’ve been standing next to you the whole time, or you say “re-bonjour.” The bisous thing just takes practice, as does the similarly vexing question of when to use “tu” or “vous,” the informal and formal forms for “you.” Other mysteries have proven harder to solve. Saying ça va, for example, is usually treated as perfectly normal and polite, but every once in a while someone responds to this casual “how are you” as if you just asked them about their favorite sexual positions. It’s stuff like this that can make you want your kids to take up chess.

It’s all turned out alright so far. Jean-Pierre is as friendly as ever, and I don’t think Soccer Mom #2 was actually offended. Although I have no genuine excuse for not remembering when I have said bonjour on a given day, the people here seem pretty forgiving when I get it wrong. Nobody in the village has turned hostile after I inadvertently said tu instead of vous, and I have yet to be slapped for an inappropriate bisou. We are foreigners, after all, and the good people of Montcabrier have cut us a good deal of slack.

And the silence never lasts too long. If you want real silence, real awkwardness, try spilling an entire cup of hot coffee in the lap of a fellow passenger on a transatlantic flight, as I just did.

Sometimes, pleading cultural differences only gets you so far. 


aisha said...

Ah ha! Ca, c'est les francaise pour toi. oops (vu)?? That's too funny!!!

Jess McCue said...

My Dad told me you're coming to the states soon. Seeing as I missed your other trip out, I wish I could be there for this one!