Americans in Paris: Do Not Act Like This Lady

So late this afternoon I trundled off to BHV, my favorite department store in Paris and not only because it is a five-minute walk from my apartment. Two minutes into that walk, I realized I had made a serious error in not stopping to use my own bathroom (sorry if that’s too much TMI but this is a crucial plot point). I continued on, despite knowing that not turning around would mean using the bathrooms at BHV, which are always crowded, and would be circus-like on a Saturday afternoon. BHV has escalators, and my fifth-floor apartment does not, and so my decision was made.

I went up to the bathroom. The line moved quickly, and suddenly I was at the head of it. I took the headphones out of my ears to project an attitude of total attentiveness (an important quality when you are at the front of a very long line). Out of nowhere, the woman behind me started bumping into me, pushing me forward. Why, you ask? “Line,” she said. “**Line**.” I looked up and realized this middle-aged American woman was saying this to an elderly French woman, who had appeared out of nowhere and was wandering in the direction of the suddenly open door to a stall.

Now, elderly French women do not need me to protect them: I once watched as one beat a bike messenger over the head with her cane in the middle of the street, after she thought he biked too closely to her. If this elderly French woman had been paying the American woman any attention, she might have hit her with her cane and been done with it. She did not, though, and so I was left with the decision of allowing her to proceed, unimpeded, or challenging her. (“Line!!!!!“)

My conclusion: Anyone who thinks she’s here to teach an 80-year-old woman something she doesn’t already know: Unless you are a university professor, and the 80-year-old is heroically working toward her much-delayed degree in astrophysics, you are doing life wrong. Anyone who thinks she’s here to teach something an 80-year-old woman on a cane making a beeline for a bathroom—I can’t even. And I cannot even, even *more*, get into the absurdity of an American woman trying to school a French woman on appropriate behaviors by hissing the English word for “line” at her, while waiting in one at a department store in Paris.

“It’s fine,” I said, to the crowd, and let the elderly woman, and her cane, take the open stall.

“What are you doing?” I said to the American. “She’s an old woman.”

I wouldn’t have said that if I’d had a moment to think about it, because I would basically die if, in 50/40 years, someone says that about me. But times must. The American looked sheepish, but not sheepish enough, and when the next stall opened — which by all rights was obviously mine — she took it.

If I see that American again I’m going to kick her very hard in the shin.

People often ask me about how to act in Paris. Have low expectations, I tell them, and be quiet and polite. People expect us to be loud, and boorish, and dressed in athleisure, and I tell them that if they must, to pick one (I always go with C). But I worry about a society which produces the behavior I witnessed today, in which we are so triggered by the idea that someone — even an 80-year-old woman on a cane — might get an “unfair” advantage over us, even if that advantage is getting into a bathroom 30 seconds earlier than you otherwise might. This is a product of a culture of corruption and greed, and one without a social safety net: one that convinces us that we are our only advocates, and one in which kindness and empathy are luxuries we can no longer afford.

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