In the Square Armand Trousseau, a toddler in a blue jacket charges at a flock of pigeons with his arms outstretched, yelling YA, YA, YA, YA, YA over and over until long after the birds have fled. He is at once the universal child, and deeply French. I grin at him with so much love that his nanny positions herself a little closer, surveilling me.
It is 9:59am on a Wednesday. I am in the park because for the second time in three days I’ve had an argument with a postal worker that has left me in tears of frustration. The first time was after I sent a lettre suivie, a tracked letter, only to discover it had no tracking (bah en fait, the post office employee says, with complete confidence in his logic, you shouldn’t have sent it tracked if you wanted tracking.) Today’s iteration has involved my new bank card – without which I am relying on Australian credit and 20-euro notes loaned by kind friends – which is waiting for me, clearly addressed, at the post office. The staff refuse to look for it on their shelves because look at all those people behind you, they will shout at me if I stop to look for it.
This is why I am sitting in the park, soothing myself with a croissant and a café crème before braving the office, where further arguments await.
I am two years deep now. I have waded 24 months out from the shoreline of my expatriation and next week (inshAllah, as the French are fond of saying) I will collect a little rectangle of plastic that entitles me to four more years, should I want them. I have worked and played with locals. I have been fed and housed and cared for and, in many cases, genuinely accepted by them.
And yet it seems that with each passing day the cultural divide gapes wider instead of narrowing. The better I get to know this country, the more alien it (or I?) becomes.
There are a hundred little things, a midge-cloud of strangenesses that bite at my Australian brain: the flowery formality with which one must communicate with strangers and acquaintances; the bloody-minded inefficiency of all forms of administration; the smoking.
But it’s the arguing, oh the arguing, that gets me. When I eventually come home (yes, home, to my sunburnt country) I will be either entirely broken or a Jedi master of spirited debate before which all antipodean opposition will crumble.
I used to have a theory that the French weren’t rude, that they were perceived that way because if you ask them how they are, they tend to tell you the truth, rather than hiding behind a comfortable British stiff-upper-lip “fine, thanks”. I’ve now thrown out that overly limited and simplistic hypothesis and replaced it with a new one: the French are perceived as rude because arguing – although to them I think it’s just debating, or even conversing – is such a fundamental part of everyday life.
I relay to my colleague my thwarted attempts to collect my letter from the post office and how I’ll go back later today, armed with new information, to yell at my newfound enemy.
You’re becoming French! she says, beaming with pride.
Mais non, because I don’t enjoy it, I argue. You have to argue to get anything done here, but I still hate it.
My preferred form of debating is the kind where you know the questions and the arguments beforehand, and you can refer to neatly-written palm cards throughout. Arguing, as far as I’m concerned, is reserved for things that really, really, really matter.
Here, it seems, everything matters.
– – – – – – – – – –
A week after the the Post Office Incident, and several days after I manage to acquire my bank card (the “tracked” letter, however, is lost forever), I pass through a metal detector and am herded into Room 5 at the police station, where I wait in line, hand over my papers which are stamped and scribbled on, take back my papers, receive a number, sit and wait, am finally called forward to desk 9. I’m here to collect my new long-stay visa, I tell the woman, trying to sound charming but not desperate.
Everything is in order. The card has been produced and is waiting for me behind the desk. But, my new foe squints at her computer, I can’t give it to you. You are here too early, you need to come back in two weeks.
I take a very deep breath. Madame, I say very calmly. You summoned me here, today, at this exact time. Would you like to see the email?
She shakes her head. Come back on the 30th.
I go to a nearby cafe for another consolatory hot drink and add a new hypothesis to my theory on arguing. Perhaps the French have developed, or at least allowed to develop, bureaucratic systems of such staggering inefficiency and famous complexity, because deep down – very, subterraneanly unconsciously – they know that without them they would lose innumerable opportunities to argue.