In this season of generosity and gratitude, I sometimes reflect upon people behaving badly.
When living in or even just briefly visiting a country not your own, bad behavior often involves words. Or sometimes, the lack of them.
Over the course of the adult gap year I took with my husband to explore Europe, we frequently witnessed what we considered people behaving badly. There’s no excuse for being in a country without learning the basics of its culture and at least a modicum of words for pleasantries. To do otherwise selfishly places you and your mother tongue at the center of the language universe and disrespects the country and the people you’ve chosen to visit.
Our 365 days of travel began with a month in Paris. In the space of two evenings, we observed very different, yet equally disappointing, back-to-back dining experiences. The food was terrific but our neighbors were not. Both incidents involved Americans in the City of Light for long stays. The first took place in a bright busy bistro where we were seated next to a retired married couple from Reno, Nevada. They had been coming to Paris for six weeks at the end of every summer for several years. The second was in a dim crêperie where we sat across from a middle-aged man and woman from U.S. parts unknown (although her accent gave her away as coming from the deep south). He taught something somewhere to students in Paris and she stated indignantly as we ordered our drinks that she, “could not take another year over here – twelve months was more than enough.” Everyone has a story.
Some of the two couples’ background they shared with us and other bits we overheard. What absolutely amazed me — in fact made me wince — was that none of these four Americans even attempted to speak French to the wait staff. I completely identify with not knowing a language; we traveled through multiple countries whose languages eluded me, yet we always learned to say hello, please, thank you and you’re welcome. But all four of these people had spent significant time in France. Would it have been so difficult to read off the menu and say, “la salade” and ”le poulet” instead of “the salad” and “the chicken?” Could the guy who’s been teaching here for a year at least have learned to say, “l’addition, s’il vous plaît” instead of “the check, please?” Might they all have been able replace, “Thank you — goodbye,” with “Merci — au revoir?” I’m sympathetic towards tourists who travel for brief visits, but after six weeks every year and a full twelve months in Paris, there’s simply no excuse. That’s behaving badly in my book.
Well into our sabbatical year having traveled through 20 additional countries, we were back in the pleasures of France. And yet again, we found ourselves observing a more blatant brand of bad behavior.
We had settled in the stylish university town of Aix-en-Provence at the height and in the heat of a south of France summer. One of our favorite pastimes was sitting for long mornings under the dense shade of sycamores — les platanes — their green canopies arching over appealing squares filled with tiny bistro tables. The unique mosaic of the sycamores’ peeling bark intrigued us — uneven patterns of pastel yellows, tawny russets, avocado greens and dull grays – and we never tired of studying the colors. But on one morning, our idyllic interlude under royal sycamores was marred by the manners of plebeians.
Enjoying cafés au lait, croissants, and the daily chatter of French summer school students in the outdoor shade, we were startled when an Eastern European quartet of two tanned Moms and their Mini-Me daughters, each one more rude than the other, unceremoniously marched onto the terrace. There were no “bonjours” and no smiles in response to the sweet greetings of the waitress. The women’s bravado more than upset the drowsy morning ambience. All were similarly clad in skinny jeans, patent leather stilettos and Jackie-O shades with “spoiled” plastered across heavily made-up faces. Distressed that the cafe served no food for breakfast and when politely urged, as we had been, to run up the street to the local boulangerie for croissants, the most vocal of the four retorted brusquely and loudly in accented English, “What, the French don’t eat breakfast? Ridiculous.” We so wanted to see her wobble up the cobblestoned hill in search of pastries in those heels.
Rather than rebuke the vocal twenty-something for bad behavior and creating a scene, however, her mother barked an order for orange juice – “freshly squeezed.” The OJ not forthcoming, they settled loudly for espressos, plopped down in their chairs and insolently picked up their Blackberries with identical pouts.
Bad mannered people come from all corners of the world and unfortunately, they sometimes chose to sit next to us.