Monday, April 30, 2007

Peut-on se vouvoyer?

"That you should so soon have succumbed to this assault upon your senses, so easily have been carried captive by the mere delights of eating and drinking and dressing, I should not have believed…Indeed I see it all now, to be merely the effect of a little cerebral derangement produced by the supernatural effort you made in crossing the Channel." Mary Walsh James to her daughter Alice James (who had moved to Paris)

When I moved across the Channel from London to Paris just over four years ago, rather than a supernatural effort, it was more like:
Monday: Work,
Tuesday: Boozing and snoozing,
Wednesday: Nothing much going on, might move to Paris,
rather than the culmination of a lifelong dream or even a five year plan.

In fact, I was a little bit scared of the French: their language (I purposely studied German at school), the way they dressed (Emmanuelle Seigneur's tight red dress in Polanski's Frantic) and their men (my French boyfriend scared the bats out of me).

Growing up I had this notion that the French were just a little bit too fancy for me. A little bit too formal. Here's an extract from my old blog where I talk about this:

The French weren't very prominent in my part of Sydney. There were no French bistros where you could walk in for a casual bifteck and frites. Dinner at a French restaurant meant project management. Everything needed to be assembled for the occasion. You had to make a reservation, sculpt your hair into a chignon, wear a spankingly well-cut dress. The French restaurants were all about ducks with fancy quacks and you were trapped inside rigid courses, broken up by digestive sorbets.

I didn't know any French people (except for the ghosts of my family who floated over to England with the Norman conquests) so my only real insight into French culture was through French restaurants. And the formality of the French restaurants where my family ate, with their subdued lighting and onion soup so clear and still you could see your reflection, contrasted greatly with the Italian places where you could go for a quick pizza or spag bowl, sans reservation, or the local Chinese place where you had to bellow over the clang of trolleys and the clonk of chopsticks in order to be heard.

The following diary entry which I squiggled on the Eurostar on my way over to Paris doesn't give much indication of my feelings. I seemed to be sitting backwards, looking at what I was leaving rather than where I was heading:

"1 February, 2003

So I’m leaving England and all its promise.

After a book swap with a ginger man on a late night train which landed me in Canada Water, followed by goodbye noodles which dripped down my face with L and L at the local Vietnamese restaurant, I find myself en route to Paris, with a few more enemies then when I arrived in London, and maybe a couple of new friends."

French was waiting for me at Gare Du Nord, snow flakes on his coat like melting dandruff, ready to show me the food market in our new quartier. We walked around the streets where over the next year I would smile, and lose my hair, and become every shade of pink from the cold and sadness and from the sun and from falling off a vespa and kissing someone tightly.

Within a week I'd been assaulted by Paris, or rather, I assaulted Paris. I took it in my arms and for about six months I gave it a long, sleazy grope. I was a vegetarian but I ate blood and drank guts for dinner, spearing dead animals on a regular basis and downing pints of calvados. I shopped and dimmed my colours. I started using little spoons to spread my jam. The baguette became the greatest thing since sliced bread.

But I was reluctant to embrace the social niceties of every day life in France. Those endless bonjours, bon après midis and bonsoirs for all the unknown madames and messieurs. These were formalities that tried to mask the fact that everyone was littering the ground with clutter (there will be no tidy towns award for Paris), and that you could hold the door open for someone while that someone turned into everyone, and the door could rust in your hand as no one felt socially nice enough to take it from you.

At first I used the informal tu for everyone, that casual Australian way of being friends with someone after one minute (and then having to keep your eyes down and avert your step whenever you see them again, until the end of your life).

But lately I’ve really learned to love the formal vous. I like the way you can control a relationship with a word. Presumptuous boys on the street start to tu you up and down and you can just pull up the drawbridge and dig a moat by responding with vous.

I now like to start things with a vous, in any context. It's like waiting for someone to say "I love you". The day you tutoyer is something to look forward to - best not to rush these things.

Vous is a way of saying: respect man. I like what you do.

I’ve lately just been vous-ing everyone. Even people I used to tu.

The song Lady Marmalade and its line "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?" would lose its thrill as a potential proposition from a stranger if it was "Veux-tu coucher avec moi (ce soir)?" And I like the ambiguity in this vous, perhaps the proposition is directed at more than one person.