Thursday, July 16, 2015

Manthropology in France

          “You just seem like you’re available,” a male friend of mine told me in France.
This is something that I’ve heard from two possessive ex-boyfriends as well and it always bugs the shit out of me. I have no idea what “available” means and no idea how I’m not suppose to seem “available.” After all, I’m just being me. Am I missing barriers that other people have?  Do other women act more aloof, suspicious, cautious? It’s not like I wear anything that provocative. It’s not like I throw my tits in a stranger’s face while talking. Ah, the burden of being female. Either you’re too “available” or not “available” enough.
And I think there are different behavior expectations in Europe. I remember going barhopping in NYC with a British girl who didn’t know at all that if you accept a drink from a guy, it means you’re going to at least have a conversation with him for the duration of that drink. Which means you don’t accept a drink from someone who is going to bore the hell out of you or offend you. Unless you are curious as to what makes him so moronic. I’ve been known to have drinks with white supremists and Bible thumpers just for anthropology’s sake. It’s like studying a six-legged creature with ten eyes. Really? You exist?

In Paris, I was totally not "available." My heart was still insisting on London for some annoying reason and I had no money to go out anyway. But then I had a Skype conversation with a friend one day, who chastised me for moping. I realized he was right. There are much worse things than being stranded in France. I should just enjoy it. He even lent me $200 just so I would stop worrying and learn to love the bomb.
So I picked my chin off the floor and researched where people go swing dancing in Paris. I learned 1) that swing dancing is called le Rock in France, which is weird since rock is definitely not swing, and 2) there seems to be only one place in Paris to dance le Rock and that’s Le Caveau de la Huchette. Which is even weirder since there is a huge scene in every other major city. A French friend later informed me that swing dancing is something everyone learns in middle school and it’s considered boring and bourgeois. Swing is not an alternative scene in Paris like it is in New York, London and Berlin.
            But I didn’t know this so I got a bit dolled up and went to Le Caveau. There were about a dozen people on the dance floor, most of them grey-haired, also unusual since everywhere else, the average age is around 30. A fantastic London hot jazz band was playing and I would have liked to talk to them but a small French guy who had lived in the Bronx immediately glued himself to my side. The only time I managed to escape him was when a Korean guy cut in and asked me to dance.
The French guy was a bit odd in his dance moves. He seemed to know the basic steps and swing outs, but he kept lifting me up in a way that my only possible response was to straddle his waist. Then, since there were no other physical possibilities, he would turn around and around in place. Awkward is not the word for this. And guys who are territorial totally turn me off. After about three dances with him, I was ready to split.
“Do you want a drink?” he asked.
“Okay, maybe one drink and then I’ll leave,” I said out of politeness.
We went upstairs for the drink and to my surprise, he asked the barman for a coffee. It was about 11pm. The bar didn’t have coffee so he asked if I would get a drink with him at another bar.
            “Okay,” I said, rather regretting that I’d agreed to have a drink with him, “As long as it’s on the way to the metro.”
So we walked along the pedestrian Rue de la Huchette where it seemed every other place was overflowing with packs of booze-infused 20-year olds desperate to find some fun. A few steps and he put his arm around me. It was rather perfunctory, so I wasn’t sure if he was just being friendly or if he had some other intention. Just in case, I very firmly took his arm off my shoulders and looked at him straight in the eyes: sorry buddy, no dice.
            We walked for a moment in silence and then he said, “I live in Arrondissement 10.”
            “That’s nice. I’m in Arrondissement 14 at a friend’s place.”
             We passed by an okay-looking café where two men quietly smoked at small separate tables.
            “Should we sit here?” I asked, wanting to get this drink over with. 
            “I really need woman tonight,” he replied, “We have drink at my place?”
“Sorry,” I said, rather astonished at his frankness, “I’m not interested in going to your place.”
            “No?” he asked.
            “No,” I confirmed.
            “Okay,” he shrugged.
He accompanied me a few more yards to the metro and said goodbye. It was all very cut and dry, yes or no. I’ve had a more stimulating exchange with a vendor at a market stall over a bag of green beans.

I didn't have any more blatant propositions like that in Southern France. But I did have some mystifying encounters. They all took place on the train. Maybe since I wasn't hanging out in bars. But then France doesn't really have the kind of bars or pubs that there are in London or New York. People don't just sit around drinking and do nothing else. Drinking happens at restaurants or cafes or at clubs where something else like dancing or music is going on. So even if I wanted to, it wasn't really possible to just go sit somewhere and have a drink and talk to someone. Instead, guys would approach me on the train.
The first time this happened, it was that Turkish guy who struck up a conversation as we were both waiting for the train to pull up to Nice Ville. At the end of five minutes, he had offered me a couch in his apartment in Cannes. Weird, I thought, but maybe this is how things like this happen in France? I took him up on his offer since I was too broke for a pad in Cannes and he seemed harmless enough. I also immediately offered him a bit of dough so he wouldn’t expect anything else in exchange.  But within a day, I was regretting my decision. There was nothing to say the guy. And his apartment smelled like some feral animal had peed or died in a corner.
So the second time I was on the train to Nice and some Frenchie guy started to talk to me, I was not as surprised when at the end of five minutes he offered me a couch in his apartment in Nice. This time, however, I didn’t take him up on his offer, since I realized that he was just like the Turk and would also bore the hell out of me. He was some provincial French guy who travels through Europe for a company that produces olive oil. I couldn’t discern any common interest in history or art or film or literature or language or even a scrap of curiosity about my film. It was like trying to have a conversation with a Francophone Willie Loman and he didn’t even have a pair of silk stockings to show me.  

The weirdest encounter I had on the train was when I was lugging my two suitcases from Nice to Marseille. A round little African guy came up behind me and grabbed the biggest suitcase, nodding at me a few times. I hurried after him down the platform onto one of those old-fashioned trains with compartments. He made a beeline to a compartment in the middle of the train, stuck my suitcase on a shelf, and there I was, forced to share a private little room with him.  It turned out he was a cook in one of the hotels in Cannes and originally from Senegal. I had a rather tedious conversation with him in pigeon English and French with the help of Google translate. He showed me pictures of food on his iphone and a photo of a celebrity whom I didn't recognize on the red carpet. He was way interested me being a filmmaker. “You. Me. Movie?” he kept repeating excitedly, “You! Me! Movie!!!”
Then just before the train pulled up to Cannes, he suddenly declared, “I take taxi to hotel. You give me €8.”
“Umm,” I replied, utterly mystified, “I don’t have €8 to give you.”
“You give me €8. Taxi, hotel,” he demanded and wrote down “€8” on a napkin just in case I didn’t understand.
“No €8,” I shrugged helplessly, “I don’t have.”
He seemed perplexed and a bit offended. Some cultural thing was totally lost on me. I have no idea if it was an African cultural thing or a French cultural thing.  We both lapsed into silence pondering our vast cultural divide. I was relieved when the train arrived in Cannes and he left with barely a goodbye.

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