Friday, May 25, 2007

The Ears Have Eyes

I dressed like a lady today and wore wedged sandals to work. I can’t stand heels, evidenced by the Aerosoles label on the insoles. But it's getting muggy and my office is turning into a sauna. The air conditioning apparatus attached to the ceiling refuses to pump out any cool air. I’d call maintenance, but they speak French. Wearing my only pair of sandals for ventilation seemed like the more comfortable option.

My feet were stepped on twice in the crowded metro car a mere 10 minutes into my commute. I was already regretting my decision. But then the cute Frenchmen started joking with me telling me it was my fault because my feet were too big. They were really sweet and endured my horrible French for the remainder of the ride. By the time I reached my stop, I really felt as if I were walking on air. My sandals had made me two new friends. I guess I didn’t hate heels after all, or the French . . . until 3:30 p.m.

I was enjoying a coffee in the break room with a French colleague when a woman entered the tiny space. While she was waiting for the vending machine to prepare her drink, I felt that familiar stare (please refer to the following entry) - a stare which again was returned by me with a little smile saying “please stop before I do something we’ll both regret”. Body language apparently doesn’t translate well because she continued and even added a hovering lurk outside the doorway for good measure.

I feel that I’m considerate when speaking in public places because I know that Americans have a reputation amongst the French for being loud talkers. Something I’ve witnessed while out and about in Paris. And a few months after my arrival my drunk American girlfriends and I were in a café when we were told to “Shut the F*ck Up” by an angry French woman. Needless to say, I’ve been berated into a state of self-consciousness which responds in the form of disproportionate and uncontrollable defensiveness.

I told my coffee buddy that I was sick of being stared at like an animal in a zoo when speaking English. Given the diversity of Paris, I’m shocked when people continue to gawk as if I was speaking an ancient dialect of a West African tribe. She must have been wearing a Miracle Ear because she was up in my face in no time.

She was staring, she said, because she wanted to know if I was British or American. I understand curiosity and would have happily told her had she just asked me. I sometimes ask Fred if he can distinguish between Nordic languages. And I occasionally listen to French conversations to see if I’ve made any progress. But what I don’t do is bore holes into peoples faces while I’m listening to their conversations because I don’t hear with my eyes!

Having missed the opportunity to hand the man my flash cards the other day, I stupidly failed to let this moment pass. I told her that I was American. She said she was compelled to come explain herself because I was "so shocked". Impressive recitation skills. I told her it is shocking when a stranger stares at you for two minutes and that if she does that she shouldn’t be shocked when people are offended.

She further “explained” that her husband is American so that’s why she wanted to know. Really? My husband is French and I don't stare at French people. Further, if her husband is American then she shouldn’t have to engage in hardcore eavesdropping to identify said accent. Two weeks ago Fred and I were in London and he could barely understand the Brits. Moreover, other Europeans and Asians working with Fred in English can detect within seconds that he speaks with an American accent. Unless her husband is from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, she should have been able to recognize my accent with ease. Perhaps her glasses distorted her hearing.

When I quit my telecommuting job for the company in San Francisco, it was to get myself out of the house so I could interact with people and, hopefully, make some new friends. But my big mouth has gotten me into trouble again. Not only did I miss the opportunity to strike up a friendship with a French woman who is open to fraternizing with Americans, but I have created an uncomfortable working environment. It would have been nice to have her as a friend to call maintenance for me!

By 6:30 it was finally time to go home. I exited the lobby into the central atrium to find a crowd of eager commuters looking up at the sky. A massive lightening storm was beating down on La Defense.

And there I stood in my high-heeled sandals.


Anonymous said...

I find that people in many parts of Europe don't seem to have the same consideration when it comes to staring. My ex (he's German) said in Germany, it is considered rude to stare at someone...but the people stared at me anyway...VERY OPENLY.

He said he thought it was because the people weren't used to seeing brown Americans and since I'm clearly not from Africa or the Caribbean, maybe they were trying to figure out "what" exactly I am.

But then, I have other friends in Germany that are Irish and they said they're stared at as well...OPENLY. I haven't a clue what the staring thing is about, but the people did it in Denmark when I visited, too.

Aralena said...

I can totally relate. It's nice to know that I'm not alone in being irritated by blatant starers. not sure if you've already tried this tactic, but i've taken to staring back, expressionless, until the discomfort forces the other person to turn away, usually embarassed. it's weird and aggressive, but it works!

phillippa said...

People do tend to stare here. And when you smile to break the ice, they continue to stare, so I've learned to stop smiling, and just stare back, punctuating this by shaking my head slowly as if they're pathetic. I learned something new from BBC language yesteray: "Tu veux un photo?"

Fred said...

You finally have French people admiring Americans and now you are complaining :)

Anonymous said...

I found I was only stared at in Paris when I was alone. It was so uncomfortable though, I kept thinking, shit do I look weird or something? Do I look stupid? I remember once when I wanted to go out alone I ended up just going back home after walking to the metro because the staring was making me feel so insecure. It was strange, sometimes it felt kind of nice, like I was noticed when back home I was always so ignored, but after awhile it definetly became a source of insecurity. I found though when I was with my partner women and men simply stopped staring.

David said...

Your story reminds me of when people used to stare at me and then ask, "Where are you from?" When I would say, "Montebello, California",they'd look disappointed. I guess they expected me to say I was from China. Of course, that was a long time ago before the Chinese and other Asians took over California! :-)

Anonymous said...

you are so funny! I was rolling on the ground laughing so work!...Glad to see you are posting again...I miss these posts with my morning coffee.. -Gil

MadameK said...

It's one of the cultural things I barely notice anymore. Plus I'm a Black girl who grew up in Iowa so I'm used to being "heavily looked at".

From what I can gather, staring just isn't considered rude in Europe. I see French women stare down other French women all the damn time. Now that I can distinguish between a mean stare and a curious stare it's totally tolerable.

Once while in Crete I listened to a group of Germans discuss my possible nationality for over 20 minutes. All the while looking and gesturing toward me, but never just asking me. They finally decided I was Cuban.

*rolling eyes*