Saturday, 1 January 2011

When in France do as the French do: Don't!

Boulevard des Batignolles, Paris
As an avowed and unashamed people watcher, I once observed a Japanese tourist in a Paris bookshop, his hand clutching a book, his face twisted with confusion and misery, as he struggled in desperation to understand the fiendishly foreign system operated in the bookshop to allow him to make his purchase.

The French have a mania for bureaucracy, a legacy of the Napoleonic era, and this bookshop seemed to embrace it with a patriotic fervour. To make your purchase, you took the book to a assistant standing at a pod. She kept the book and gave you a receipt which you took to the cashier. You paid the money, the cashier stamped your receipt, and you took it back to the assistant to exchange for your book. 

My poor hapless Japanese tourist was completely at sea. He wandered first to the cashier who waved him away, then to a floor assistant, who pointed in the direction of the pod, then to another customer, and so on in ever decreasing circles, until finally, I have no reason to disbelieve, disappearing up his own fundament.

Back in Japan, in his own culture and with a language that he’s fluent in, he may well have been a fierce protagonist, not the kind of man you’d want to get into an argument with. But take a man out of the milieu in which he’s at home, drop him down in a new one, surround him with a language that he doesn’t understand, and he’s about as imposing as a broiler chicken in a battery farm, wired-up, de-beaked, gazing blankly at the world through infra-red spectacles. 

So why didn’t I do something to help my poor brother in humanity? What a low, sneaky question to ask. But the reason I did nothing is because I believe in respecting the cultures and practices of the country that I happen to be in. And as the French customers in the shop did nothing I simply did as they did: I didn’t! 

Et voilà tout !

1 comment:

  1. Ever visit Foyles bookshop in London until around 10 years ago???