Paris is a good place to learn how to be an asshole. You can do many things on the streets here without courting overt social disapproval which, if you did them in the United States, would earn you at least a few ugly looks, if not a punch in the nose. Ganging up with people walking in the same direction as you to mow down lone pedestrians coming the other way is just one example. Encouraging your dog to lay the Alaska Pipeline in the middle of a heavily trafficked sidewalk is another. Extra points if it winds up crossing a doorway.
The Parisian game of inconveniencing others without actually breaking any rules has endless maneuvers. Many of them involve cell phones. For instance, the other day at the gym, I watched a man take a cell-phone call while working out on the Gravitron, the assisted chin-up machine. The cell phone wasn’t all that unusual. A lot of French gym rats chat with one hand while they work out with the other. Still, I assumed there were limits, and further assumed the Gravitron was one of them, requiring, as it does, two hands. I thought wrong.
Here’s what happens. The Frenchman climbs aboard and races through the first four minutes of his six-minute routine, as if he’s genuinely concerned about holding up the many people waiting behind him. At the top of a chin-up his excessively tight gym shorts begin to beep hysterically. Dangling from the bar with one hand, Wallenda-like, he reaches into his right pocket with the other. It’s a small miracle of spacial relations. The Frenchman then eases himself into the resting position and takes the call.
The Gravitron timer clocks his conversation at 6.3 minutes. It seems like four hours. And what do the French people do? They wait! They couldn’t possibly be happy about it, but you wouldn’t know it to look at them. They don’t even kibitz among themselves, or exchange the knowing glances that people generally do when they find themselves trapped on the insufferable end of a jerk. After 6.3 minutes the man squeezes his phone back into his butt-huggers, and finishes his chin-ups.
I spent an hour chewing over this man’s behavior before I realized: I was the problem! I was the only one who let myself feel inconvenienced. And I’m on vacation! The French people who had been forced to wait, and who presumably had jobs to go to every morning, couldn’t have cared less. They were just playing their own weird game, according to its rules. Ce n’est pas grave!
Upon reflection I could see that the Frenchman on the Gravitron had two rules going for him. Rule 1: The most trivial French cell-phone call is more urgent than the most dire French real-world activity. Rule 2: A French person at the head of a line is permitted to delay those behind him for as long as he likes. Once you have arrived at the head of even the longest queues in Paris, you hold many man hours in the palm of your hand. If you are in an overflowing shop, with people lined up out into the street, you can chat about the weather for 20 minutes with the cashier without the slightest fear of retribution. No one behind you dares utter a peep. The cashier does not glance over your shoulder anxiously at the other customers. He is wholly focused on you.
My wife insists that this rule of Parisian street life is less a lack of consideration for others than an absence of cold, American-style economic calculation. An American at the head of a line engages, or is expected to engage, in some rough cost-benefit analysis. He weighs whatever pleasure he gets from his dilly-dallying against the cost, in minutes lost, to all those behind him. He may not value other people’s minutes as he does his own, but he takes them into account. Plus he himself is probably in a hurry. Americans are constantly in a hurry because being in a hurry suggests high status. That’s why the most important people in America are always in the biggest rush. For a Parisian, the dilly-dallying is the whole point. For him, the concept of being in a rush simply does not exist. Or, if it does exist, it is low class, and therefore not worthy of being acknowledged. Or so we hope. Otherwise, they are all assholes.