The footpaths of Paris can be narrow, in places barely wide enough to accommodate one person, let alone two abreast. Two-way traffic requires constant negotiation – do I give way, wait, squeeze past? In walking in tandem, you and your co-traveller must engage in similar trade-offs – who goes first, how fast, who decides when to pass the slow-walker in front of you? And forget loved-up strolls. It’s exhausting and pretty much the polar opposite of what newbies and tourists expect of a ramble around “the most romantic city in the world”. God knows how Kirsten Stewart and Soko managed to pull it off, especially with a bank of paps no doubt running backwards in front of them.
Luckily, most of my wandering is done toute seule, head down, bent on maximizing speed and efficiency.
At first, the codes of conduct on the streets drove me crazy. It seemed as if I was always the one to cede right of way, and no one ever thanked me for my trouble. I became quite good at the pointed, Merci, Madame! Non, allez-y, Monsieur!
Later, I came to suspect that the Anglo habit of deference – “After you”, “No, please, you go first” – was seen as a sign a weakness. I would need to toughen up. Forget my manners. I often wondered what would happen if I didn’t get out of the way of an oncoming fellow pedestrian on rue de Rivoli or boulevard Haussmann. One Saturday, I found out. I collided shoulder-to-shoulder with another shopper moving faster than I was – and I was sent flying. My assailant didn’t even break stride. I was picked up and dusted off by a trio of lovely young men who were concerned that one of them had accidentally knocked me to the pavement. I assured them they had not and, my faith in humanity somewhat restored, continued on my way.
My theory now is that Paris requires a level of assertiveness and sense of purpose I never needed in Sydney. It’s crowded, people are busy. Ducking and weaving wastes time and hesitation is not polite but confusing. If you pick a line and commit to it, other pedestrians will move around you, like a river flows around a stone, and the whole system functions more or less efficiently. (One trick to holding your ground is to avoid eye contact, although, in truth, this is more survival tactic that politesse.)
That said, Parisians take courtesy very seriously. Yes, they have a reputation for being aloof, arrogant and rude, but that’s because they expect you to follow the rules. In the street, stick to the right. In the Métro system and at busy thoroughfares (the entrance at Galeries Lafayette, for example), hold the door for the person behind you. Always say “Bonjour” when entering a shop, addressing a ticket seller or approaching a person for directions. The English-speaker’s habit of beginning with “Excuse me, but…” is simply too direct. Don’t use the fold-down seats in the Métro vestibule if it is crowded (so, pretty much never on line 13 or line 4 nor line 9 during the oh-so-pleasant peak-hour crush).
Don’t cancel appointments without an ironclad excuse, and apologise profusely if such treason is unavoidable. A few bridges were burnt in the course of my learning this one. Being a touch late is socially acceptable but business self-sabotage.
Other rules, according to a few websites I consulted, talk about such complications as the number of flowers to offer as a gift, whether or not to take wine to a dinner party, and if so, what type (chilled Champagne or grand cru, apparently, says Connexion France). Shaking hands v air kissing. How to cut cheese. Where to put your hands when you’re not eating.
I’m sure I commit daily faux pas (above and beyond mangling the tu/vous thing, often in the same breath). Thankfully, many of the conversational taboos are universal – sex, politics, religion and money.
Like the Code du Travail, currently undergoing fraught debate before the reform bill is presented to the National Assembly next month, the French codes of social behaviour are long-evolved and deeply ingrained. And, perhaps, as with the traffic code, the strictures of etiquette invoke the spirit of revolution that seems, to this rank outsider, to underpin the national psyche. The more rigid the rules, the more fun they are to break.
Over the past week or so, as I’ve tinkered with this post, I have been looking for signs that the recent attacks had melted any of the Parisian reserve. I can’t say I’ve seen much change, but I’m oddly reassured by the physical closeness of the whole exercise of moving around the city. Perhaps for a brief moment last November the tiny distance that exists between bodies here shrank a little further. Certainly at the huge march in January 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the sense of community and unified defiance were palpable. Now, in the wake of yet more violence, daily life seems subdued yet largely the same. Wandering these lovely streets on the weekend with a friend, navigating the throngs at the market near Nation or shuffling through the Marais, it was the same mutual game of duck-and-weave. In times of hideous division, and divisive public discourse, perhaps there is some comfort in the rules that allow us to live cheek-by-jowl in terse harmony.