Thursday, September 24, 2009

Relying on the Kindness of Strangers

My now dim recollection is that back home, we felt omnipotent in the business of our daily lives. This is almost certainly a total delusion brought on by my current feelings of helplessness, but go with me here.

Back home in Brooklyn, we could order in any restaurant, and knew which ones to avoid. We could read all of the signs in all of the stores, and I frequently knew what time it was. We knew which homeless guys were harmless and which to avoid at all costs. We could type on a computer for 30 minutes or so, and then boxes of predictable groceries that I knew how to heat up in our microwave would be delivered to our kitchen 24 hours later. I didn't have to worry that they might bring me horse meat or strange kinds of mushrooms if I made a mistake.

When strangers came to our neighborhood, we could decide to be helpful or to brush on past on our Very Important Mission to Get to Connecticut Muffin. I had my peeps at the drycleaner (shout out to Simon), at the carwash on 23rd street, (Yay crazy Israeli guy) and always my girl Jessica Rose who could color and cut and dish with the best of them. As every first grader learns, Park Slope is not just a sensibly laid out grid of streets and avenues with places to spend your money, but a network of people.  There, I had earned my place. I gave help, they provided help, we helped each other, unless we were too busy getting more coffee. The total interdependence of community.

Here, all four of our family are fully dependent on the kindness of strangers, as we have hitchhiked a ride on someone else’s community. Like Blanche DuBois, alone in a strange town, we have had to use our charm to get by. Bill, the only one with reliable access to language, is therefore the only one to be able to employ his wits. The rest of us just have to trust in the goodness of other people, then hope we're adequately adorable, which is easier if you are under 35 years of age. I just make like Blanche and try to keep the lights dim.

OK, full disclosure: our MasterCards and our French bank account have probably helped, too. In 2009, wherever you go in the developed world, all you really need is a magnetized 2" by 3" piece of plastic and people become awfully helpful. Blanche would have been a lot better off with one of those babies rather than with her trunkful of rags.

But the MasterCard ad works the opposite way here in French civil society: yes, sometimes a MasterCard can solve a problem; but for everything else, we rely on people.  It's good therapy in being human, having to rely on other people. One of my particularly brilliant writerly friends, Monica, just posted on Facebook that her newborn baby is helping her to transform from a "human doing" to a "human being." Something about moving to a place where you have no purchase, no reason to belong, makes you just as helpless as a newborn. Now instead of being impressed with myself for helping people all day long, I need to learn to be grateful while letting myself be helped.

In the last few days we have had many different adventures with strangers, during which my faith in humanity was amply and fully reinforced. First, I had to drive to Draguignan (home of everything dreary, errand-like and workaday) for a doctor's appointment. This is the way I can spend a morning now that I actually have the time to do things like check in on my own health.

The nice doctor I met with in Draguignan instantly shifted out of French and into English at my first blank stare. (He was born in Greece, emigrated to Belgium, and was educated in Germany, and spoke in an almost perfect American accent.  All that and a doctor too; I wondered briefly if he had superpowers.) He asked me pertinent questions, probed where necessary, (literally and figuratively) and reassured me in full, and in English, that all is well.

Then Bill went back to his very favorite place, the town pharmacy, to prepare for his planned big hiking trips. According to Gerard, our guide to all things outdoorsy, Bill would need an epi-pen to protect himself in the event of a snakebite. Old Bill would have blown off this suggestion and gone up to the hills in his flip flops and some old cutoffs. But New and Improved Careful Bill was not taking chances.

He asked after the epi-pen, which got him a lengthy disquisition on the symptoms of anaphalactic shock, the physiology of allergic reaction, and the different sorts of snakes in the region. Turns out that according to the pharmacist, Bill was not in fact having a life-threatening allergic reaction at that moment. And also that the epi-pen would not be necessary for a standard-issue human being on a standard-issue hike. I'd like you to imagine that level of conversation unfolding with the disaffected teenager you are likely to meet stocking band-aids at your local CVS.

At the risk of inflaming an otherwise apolitical blog, I have to say that every single interaction the members of our family have had with physicians, pharmacists and insurance companies here in France has fully reassured us about the quality of even fully socialized medicine. (Much less Obama’s extremely middle-of-the road suggestion to widen access to the sorts of benefits available to federal employees, like say, himself and your own neighborhood postal worker.)

Here, a doctor’s visit costs 22 Euros (about $35.00) without a social security card, and is free for everybody else who is a citizen of the European Union. EVERYBODY. You get an appointment right away, and are seen by a qualified and efficient doctor. When you need one, you get a specialist. There were lots of older (and even elderly) people in the doctor’s office, and nobody seemed particularly eager to put them down like old horses. (As I learned at the Carrefour supermarket, the horses themselves are not so lucky.)

More importantly, people are not making the awful choice between paying massive percentages of their salary for medical care and health insurance and going without. It’s just there: a community.

We heard on French NPR today that Nicolas Sarkozy was in Pittsburg at the G-20 yesterday trying his darndest to get Americans to understand what they are missing in their insistence on holding capitalism as the highest possible value. It reminded me of my friend Monica's comment about humans doing rather than being human, but taken to a cultural and political level.

It was the top story here, and got extended press. Apparently the French are done being all irrationally angry at us about the second Gulf war, and would now like to share a few of the things they have learned. Sarkozy, never one to shy away from the drama, was nearly on the verge of tears trying to explain the lessons of enlightened socialist societies. I wasn't sure whether to feel sorry for him or sorry for Americans when I looked at today's American newspapers and realized that this top story in France was buried deep in the back pages that only get used to line bird cages and wrap fish. Because it was buried so deep in the Times, I'm quite sure that this is the kind of story that would never make it out of Metropolitan papers and into the small town dailies. The article I found wasn't so much about Sarkozy himself as the hero (that was the story here) but rather about a more fundamental question: what is the proper measure of a nation's strength: its GDP, or the quality and strength of its communities? 

He (and the French people) invite us to ask not how much political and economic freedom we have, but how much "bonheur" (happiness) is enjoyed by the members of our communities? And by communities, he means all the people who live in that community, and not just the ones lucky enough to have a Master-Card currently and recently topped up with yet another home equity loan.

To quote today's Times: "Instead of centering assessments on the goods and services an economy produces, policy makers would do better to focus on the material well-being of typical people by measuring income and consumption, along with the availability of health care and education."

If you're curious, here is the NYT article on his Pittsburg Rant.

OK, back to the apolitical. My sincere apologies to anyone out there who is allergic to socialism. I'll need to pick up an epi-pen for when you visit, because everything here that is wonderful is also bound up in high taxes, an affection for bureaucracy, and relatively reasonable restrictions on personal freedom.

When we were last at the pharmacy, we not only got great assistance, but I also got a recommendation for where to finally get a haircut. When you have (bad) hair like mine, the prospect of making it worse sometimes induces a sort of anxious avoidance. I knew that my roots had grown out to a ridiculous sort of four inch-wide anti-skunk stripe over the top of my head, but I was even more fearful of saying the wrong thing and ending up with frosted tips or a reverse Mohawk or a military buzz cut. But when I saw a pharmacist with a particularly excellent dye job, I gave Bill the difficult task of chatting her up, and flirting with her to get the name of her salon.

She was duly flattered to have the tall American asking her how she got so damn beautiful, and gave me the card for Pascale Coiffure. Today after the doctor’s visit, I used my trusty iphone to find her shop, and got an appointment on the spot.

It’s one thing to rely on strangers who speak your language, which is essentially what you do everytime you go to a new hair salon. It’s yet another thing when you don’t know the words for “blonde but not so blonde that it looks white or super-trashy, but not so subtle that I feel cheated when I walk out of your shop” or “short but not like puffy on top or too layered, with little wisps by the ears but none at the nape.”

Pascale turned out to be extremely kind, and we weren't strangers for long.  She and I communicated through the language of those weird books of hair photographs and franglais(“comme ça, mais not comme ça exactement here on the haut of la tête.”) I was relieved when whatever I said caused her to bring out the highlighting foils and a purpley-blue sort of mush that looks just like what Jessica Rose paints on my head back home.

We chatted, and she filled in words I didn’t get. She was French, rarely leaves the Var, but was born and lived in California until she was seven. (Apparently I am only to have lengthy conversations in French with people in the beauty business who were not actually born here.) She could follow my English when my French broke down. We got on famously, laughing knowingly about the provençal accent when a man came in and asked if he could get his hair cut “demang,” rather than demain. We talked about French homonyms (verre for glass, vert for green, and vers for something else I couldn’t quite follow.  All are pronounced "vare" but with a little attitude in the r.)  And I ended up with a perfectly serviceable cut.

For tomorrow’s entry, look forward to yet another interview with Mr. Bill Lienhard, who will fill us in on the entire process of finding, buying, registering and insuring a cute little blue car without losing his chemise in the process.

To do so, he had to do his share of relying on the kindness of strangers, but (cue ominous dramatic music) but soon realized that some strangers are stranger than others...

No comments:

Post a Comment