In Paris, I live near a bakery that is widely considered to be one of the best in the city. Late in the day, a line of people spills out its door. If you don’t come early or order ahead of time, it is possible that the best goods will be sold out.
The question people always ask me about living in Paris is: “Paris is nice, but how is dealing with Parisians?” It’s somewhat of a stereotype that Parisians are cranky or rude, and that is certainly not true of, say, the people I meet through Eliot’s pre-K school, or our neighbors, or shopkeepers who coo at Eliot’s baby brother. But…there is a reason for this stereotype.
The people in this bakery were just not very nice to me. They were busy. They were brusque. And it’s not quite true, what people say, that as long as you speak French Parisians are nice to you. Not at all. My French is good. These people were not. Not to me, anyway. And it did not matter that I came several times a week to buy their bread. The way they acted, I might as well have been spitting on their floor.
And I noticed that they gave me the burned bread. Or the bread that was perfectly fine, but disappointing next to a version of the same kind that had just come out of the oven. Why didn’t they give me the fresh, hot bread? What was wrong with them?
After a couple of months of this, something happened (in a different bakery) that changed the way I understood things. I heard a Frenchman order his bread in a very specific way, sort of like how one orders steak. “A baguette,” he said, “well baked.” He said this not as if he was being fussy, but as if his request was normal, even expected. I began noticing similar requests in my bakery: for bread with lots of crust, or an end piece, or a middle piece, well baked, or “lightly golden.” I realized that the bakers foisted subpar bread on me because, well, I gave no sign that I cared what kind of bread I got— and anyway, some people like burned bread.
I began being a bit of a Sally Albright. “No, not that piece. The one without crust.” “Hot, please. Yes, one that just came out of the oven.”
I’m not sure if the fact that I was playing the cultural game of ordering properly in the bakery helped, or if it was just that I figured it out around the time that the bakers decided that I lived in the neighborhood and was there to stay (more or less). They began being friendly. Now they say, “See you soon.” They address me by name.
It only took six months.