Saturday, August 4, 2012

Paris Syndrome

     To be clear, I’m addressing Parisian hospitality, not the national hospitality of France.

     France is my favorite place to visit, and Paris was high on my France list…until now.  I just returned from 6 nights in Paris.  Unfortunately, the Parisians—their rudeness, loudness, condescension, and lack of culinary effort—consistently disappointed me on my trip last week. 

     OK, I’m not saying I had “Paris Syndrome,” which is described by Wikipedia as follows:

Paris syndrome (FrenchSyndrome de ParisJapaneseパリ症候群Pari shōkōgun) is a transient psychological disorder encountered by some individuals visiting or vacationing in ParisFrance. It's characterized by a number of psychiatric symptoms such as acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution (perceptions of being a victim of prejudiceaggression, or hostility from others), derealizationdepersonalizationanxiety, and alsopsychosomatic manifestations such as dizzinesstachycardiasweating, and others.[1]
I discovered this entry when I Google searched “Paris disappointment.”  Although I didn’t suffer from any of these psychiatric symptoms, I did suffer colossal disappointment by the way Parisians treated me, including the meals they prepared.  After I illustrate my disappointment with two quick anecdotes (and believe me, there are many from which to choose), I’d like to consider this issue more broadly.   
     Chez Jenny:  We were seated outside and given an English menu.  Thereafter our waiter arrived only to dramatically refuse to serve us because we don’t speak French well enough (and evidently, he didn’t speak English well enough) although he didn’t give us a chance to try and we didn’t try because we already had English menus.  Another waiter replaced the first, we ordered, and the food arrived.  The presentations of 2 of the 4 plates was so bland as to be disgusting—a series of white blobs—which was duplicated by the bland taste.  More than the food though, we were flustered that a waiter would create such a scene about our language inadequacy even though the restaurant clearly compensated for us with its English menu. Day 5 and once again, we were disappointed with our Parisian meal experience.  Understandably, we complained to each other.  Then, we stopped when one of us wondered why we’d contribute to the restaurant’s negativity.  I think it was my son who delivered this much needed hospitality wakeup call.  After all, why should we allow the carelessly prepared food and the condescending service to override our joy at being together while eating outside on a beautiful Parisian street as the daylight begin to wane? Inspired, we all mustered our courage to change focus.  We managed to marvel at the one great meal served by Chez Jenny.  From there, we started to recall the many great meals from our previous travels.
     Pickpocketed:  My husband got pickpocketed in a Paris metro by 3 young girls.  That’s bad enough.  But then, when we tried to report the crime to 2 station attendants, we were rebuffed by their measured disconcern (“unconcern” suggests passivity whereas they were deliberate). No wonder pickpockets thrive.  We were all outraged—as much by the hardhearted officials as by the adolescent criminals .  Our spirits were more than dampened.  Then I called AmEx who helped us with every cancellation and replacement detail.  Pleasantly and efficiently, the representative wiped away our problems and with them, our worries.  Moreover, she renewed our spirits. I tell this story in particular--out of our many Parisian disappointments--to highlight that it’s easier to recover from mistreatment with just a little kindness from someone else. No man is an island after all.
     Toward the middle of our 7 days together, one of us suggested that we “take the high road":  keep greeting shop owners with a fearless “Bon jour!” and exiting with “Merci” despite their surliness; keep tolerating our loud neighbors who yelled out their windows at 3 AM; and keep searching for a bakery that miraculously managed to open by 9 AM and actually have baked bread to sell even to non-French speaking tourists.
     For the most part, we succeeded in taking the high road.  But we are not super humans.  I confess that we were continually downtrodden by one daily Parisian offense. We never graciously accepted that the damn rotisserie chicken place, which  was so elusively open our first day, never bothered to be open again.  Day after day, we checked but our dreams were crushed.  Finally, on our last day, we succumbed to the Thursday food market street vendor.              Yes, rotisserie chicken it was.  But the “roasted” potatoes were cold and the chicken skin lacked its signature crispiness.  We departed Paris early Friday morning, in the dark, without ever devouring our perfect Paris rotisserie poultry. I’m home now, writing this, anticipating tomorrow’s Harris Teeter rotisserie chicken special. Or maybe I’ll cook one myself.  I have some great French cookbooks.
     All anecdotes behind me (and I do feel exonerated by narrating them), I’d like to more broadly address the ethics of these situations.  I wonder that if it’s necessary that we encounter others’ hospitality in order to support our own, then how can we disregard others’ inhospitality?  That is, if hospitality supports us, why shouldn’t inhospitality crush us?
     Isn’t that the question of living ethically.  How do we avoid responding in kind to others’ unethical behavior?  Just yesterday, I read a perfect example of how to be ethical when others may not be.  One of the travelers in Margaret Drabble’s The Seven Sisters recounts a life-changing experience.  On a crowded train, she approached a crying passenger who reported that she’d just had her wallet stolen.  Gone were her identification, money, and credit cards.  Deciding to be a good Samaritan, our storyteller loaned the victim more money than she could afford to—with the promise that it would be returned.  Well aware that her fellow travelers probably judged her to be a gullible fool because she’d never see her money again, this Samaritan arrived at her next hotel and tried to plan how to continue her travels on a much tighter budget.  To her surprise, a brown envelope with the replacement money and opera tickets arrived two days later.  It seems that this victim was honest not only about repaying the money but also, about auditioning for La Scala.  But the moral of the story, explains our storyteller, is not that believing in people pays off because your kindness will be rewarded, but because your character will be rewarded.  She chose not be a cynical person.  Instead, she chose to be magnanimous when all reason supported her disregard.  She chose to risk being generous and hospitable with no guarantees because she wanted to be a person who believes in others and cares for others.  She resolved for herself the two most plaguing hospitality dilemmas. Should we expect any reciprocity for our hospitality?  No.  Should we take all the risks when we perform our duties as hosts and guests?  Yes. 
     My son continually reminded me that I should limit my complaining about “the French” to Parisians.  He’s right. I encourage you to travel to Normandy where they still remain grateful to US WWII soldiers; to the Cote d’Azur where the best of the Italians meshes with the best of the French; to the north where you still cherish their beloved Joan of Arc; and definitely, to Provence where good food, good wine, and friendly folks will enthrall you.  OK, and go to Paris.  Maybe I just had a bad trip.

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"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." - from A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf