To see or not to see…
The question is why do people come to Paris? Tourists, I mean. I started pondering this question after an encounter at the Westin hotel bar in Paris‘ 1st arrondissement. I stopped in there with a friend for a “nightcap” because I love the setting and décor which is cozy, warm and intimate. We are two Americans who have known Paris intimately both as tourists and as residents, and we both have a great appreciation for this city and the French culture, and do our best to integrate into the culture and adapt the the country. This obviously does not mean that we try to be French. That would be silly. We are not French. But we can modify our behavior, customs, norms, to better adapt to the society in which we live out of respect for this host culture, and in order to grow as world citizens.
This is what I feel is an appropriate mentality when visiting any culture foreign to your own.
Imagine, that you are invited to someone’s house for dinner. You wouldn’t have them make you a separate dish for dinner because you don’t like green beans and baked sole fish would you? You wouldn’t refuse to take off your shoes at the door if that was their custom, would you? You wouldn’t insist on playing a game of Monopoly after dinner if they wanted to play Trivial Pursuit, would you?
Well it’s a similar mentality when you are a
tourist GUEST in another country. This doesn’t mean you have to stop being yourself, but you should try to accommodate your hosts in a polite, and gracious manner.
SO, back to the bar at the Westin. We stepped into the red velvet and dark wooden bar/club area, which was full of a group of men, business looking men all anglophone yapping away like a bunch of hens. We chose a cozy table far away from them after signaling our presence at the bar. We could still hear their loud conversations, but were better able to ignore the noise tucked in the back of the lounge area. But honestly those guys were not what drove me to write this post.
As we sat sipping our drinks and having a quiet conversation, we were brutally interrupted by a loud obnoxious voice saying in our direction : “Aw yeah, English speakers! Thank god! We’ve heard nothing all day but French.” My back was to them. I slowly turned around, with a smoldering gleam in my eye, looked that person up and down, he was dressed from head to toe in ignorance, and I said to him : “Well you just happen to be in France where French is the national language”. And I turned back away. I heard his girlfriend chime in in a thick accent : “Well peeeple have just been so mean tuh us awwll day“. I had to be stopped from contributing to the “mean” people she had encounter all day. The party of four un-tourists proceeded to blabber on about how they just couldn’t get what the problem was. I tried to ignore them. It was hard. They were loud. they were conspicious, and gravely lacking in cultural awareness. The waiter went over and handed them menus. the menus at this place had both English and french on them, and listed all the things that were offered to drink and eat at the establsihment. Regardless of that convenience, one of the women piped up up to ask the (very patient) waiter : “Do y’all got any fewwwd here?” He affirmed that and pointed out several items on the menu to which she giggled and then gasped in delight when she saw written on the menu ‘Pizza USA’. I cringed. “Oh it saaays USA pizza, look! USA pizza! Isn’t that wonderful! Whuht’s on thaayt?”
I wanted to tell these people what their problem was and why they thought people were so mean to them, but they would not have understood. But, why on earth, do these kinds of people travel to foreign places? They are not there to discover a foreign culture, obviously by their lack of interest in the language and the food of the culture that they were visiting. These are just the most basic and simple ways to experience a different culture, and they couldn’t even take part in those!
What ARE they here to see? They spent the rest of their evening chumming it up with some other compatriots that they overheard on the otherside of their table. So they have probably not encountered many of the “natives” other than those who serve them in restaurants or wait on them in boutiques. Those people who either must retain a certain level of customer service politeness, or probably just flat out ignore these types of people. Paris isn’t historically know to be overly warm in customer service situations, in fact Parisians are stereotyped as rude. Now, this doesn’t apply to all Parisians, because a stereotype is a generalization and cannot be slapped on every individual, but I don’t find it difficult to see why they may be rude to such a type of “tourist” as those that were polluting our conversation space.
I guess in a perfect world, people would travel with a real interest in seeing, understanding and learning from a foreign culture, and not just for the pictures that they can then post onto facebook to make their friends think they are so cool. But then the world is not perfect, and neither are humans… If we could all just at least travel with a little more grace, it might make a slight difference.