One interesting thing about moving to a new country has been deducing the customs and norms for interacting with people by watching them. There’s probably a book on this, probably more than one, but I haven’t read any. I understand Americans, I understand Germans from having lived there, and I understand a bit about middle eastern customs from having worked there. But it’s hard to get to know a new culture really well when you’re just passing through, which is essentially all that I’ve done with France in the past. And the French are definitely different — not like either Americans or Germans.
A good example is the norm about speaking to someone when you meet them. In France, when you pass someone you know, certainly when walking but even if you’re in the car and they’re by the road, you have to stop and have a conversation lasting between 30 seconds and two minutes, usually about the weather. People that you know well also get bisous (the kiss on each cheek thing). People even say hello and goodbye to strangers at the tables next to them at a restaurant. I know this is somewhat different in cities like Paris, but in our corner of the world, it’s clear that these norms are set deep. In contrast, depending on where you live in the U.S., speaking to passers-by is not only unnecessary, it may be considered strange. I know that’s a broad generalization because I’m from the South where it’s normal to speak to strangers in line at the grocery store or Starbucks. And there’s the one-finger wave from the top of the steering wheel that is required in rural areas, to all passing cars, not just ones you recognize. In the D.C. area though, speaking to strangers is a good sign of mental illness, or at least recent arrival.
One of the more subtle customs that we’ve figured out over time is the quid pro quo. I could also call it one-upsmanship, which might be more accurate, or indebtitude, which I’m not sure is a word. The philosophy is generally to try to keep everyone else always in your debt. At first, as the recipient, it looks like simple generosity, and we have been flattered and warmed by the welcome that we have received, but with time it has become obvious that it’s more complicated than that. It starts with a simple act, like giving a discount on steak dinners to the man we bought our house from (Serge) and his two guests at our restaurant, as we did a few weeks ago. Steak isn’t on the menu so I make this as a special order for him and his friends, and we charge less than it would otherwise be. It seems appropriate, given the custom of comping regulars or special guests at restaurants in the U.S., and it hasn’t prompted any unusual reaction from Serge. But a few weeks later, Serge came to dinner again and told us that he had something for us. We followed him out to his car, and he pulled out two large, framed needlepoints of a man and a woman. Nellie, who had come to dinner with Serge, had stitched them herself many years ago, using her grandmother’s patterns. Because they depicted a couple engaged in traditional mountain activities, she thought they would be perfect in our restaurant (given that the name of the restaurant means “little mountain people”). We hung them in the restaurant, of course, and we love them. They are amazing. But how do you top that?
So we’ve noticed a pattern over time that when someone gives something as a gift, even a small gift, there’s always a reciprocation, just a little bit bigger. It can’t be money either; it’s clear that trying to pay someone for something is an insult. By the same token, telling someone that something is on the house is also a faux pas. The line seems to be that you can give someone a discount, but you can’t give it for free, with the possible exception of a shot of génépi after a meal. I’ve even seen our wine distributor get upset when given a generous pour of what he was drinking. And the reciprocation of a gift is usually something homemade or on hand, yet thoughtful. You can’t just go out and buy them a bottle of wine.
With Serge, we’ll never be able to pay off our metaphorical debts to him, so I consider our indebtitude a permanent condition. With our neighbor Odeille, though, I’m determined to stay on top of this. Out of genuine concern, we’ve offered in the past to do what we could to help out since she’s old and her husband is even older, but she has always declined. We did weed eat her front yard — I’m not sure that counted, though, because we didn’t offer and she didn’t accept, and I’m not sure she even noticed. But then came the plums. Maybe they were in response to the weed eating; maybe that was the opener. Of course we made the marmalade from her plums, and this morning I asked Dominik take two jars over to her in thanks. Of course he came back with an even bigger jar of homemade terrine.
Copyright 2018, Rachel Howard