Last year, I had the amazing good fortune to win an all expense paid trip to Paris. I never really had Paris on my radar before, in spite of having visited other large European cities: London, Oslo, Amsterdam, Brussels.
My “first day” impressions centered mostly around how clean Paris seemed to be for such a large city. The air smelled fresh, even at the airport -- I didn’t notice any buses and transport vans spewing black smoke. I wondered if this might be due to the use of biofuels. I also had the equivalent of a “private tour” of Paris on the way to the hotel, thanks to a generous and good-natured Paris Shuttle driver, Kareem. He delighted in pointing out every landmark on the way to the hotel: the Ritz Hotel, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Opera House, the Invalides Musuem, and Napoleon’s statue. I told him that I was jealous of him, for living in such a beautiful city. He laughed, pleased at how happy I was to view the majesty of his native city.
There were other wonderful memories – a sumptuous breakfast served every morning, side trips to Normandy and Giverney, daily walks to the Luxembourg Gardens, (only a 10 minute walk from my hotel), magnificent apartment houses with flowers cascading down wrought iron balconies, bakeries, boutiques, and flower shops, and the ever-constant flow of traffic and pedestrians.
One would think that Paris, being one of the world’s largest cities, would be one of the most impatient, filled with rude shop keepers anxious to cash in on American dollars, and natives too preoccupied to be concerned about foreigners’ impressions of them.
However, nothing could be further from the truth. There is a reason Paris is the number one tourist destination in the world – it’s the hospitality that is shown to visitors. Back in the 1970’s and early 80’s, Paris did have a bit of a rep for being rude. However, President Mitterand changed all that with a massive campaign to make Paris more “Tourist Friendly.”
There is one other quality that stood out in my experience, and that was the empathy and nice manners of the French. For example, I noticed a group of French business colleagues in the dining area of my hotel. Turned out they worked for the same insurance agency in Brittany. Meeting for breakfast, the women joining the group greeted each other with a kiss on each cheek, and the men shook hands. Mind you, they probably see each other every day at work, but the fact that they took the time to greet each other this way was very pleasing to see. I imagined that a group of American colleagues would offer cheery “good mornings”, “hi ya’s” and high five’s, and not this more formal type of greeting.
I noticed the same thing at the Paris airport. Passing co-workers would take a few seconds to acknowledge one another with handshakes. How very nice!
But even more impressive than the nice manners, was the quality of empathy that I experienced directly. When I had trouble negotiating some steps at one of the D-Day sights in Normandy, there appeared a kind gentleman who noticed my hesitation. He graciously offered his arm, while his understanding wife waited patiently for a moment.
Then there was the kind woman who helped me in a boutique as I struggled to get out the right change. She smiled, understandingly, then said, “it’s difficult, no?” She sensed my appreciation of her kindness, remarking, “that’s how we are – it’s the French compassion.”
I thought about these experiences the other morning when I was at a Starbucks enjoying a coffee. A group of the employees started complaining about how the cleaning crew had failed to properly tidy up the night before. Their comments were audible to the 3 or 4 other customers trying to enjoy their food. I finally got up and discreetly said something to the person I thought was the manager, but it didn’t do any good. Oh well, I could just as well enjoy my coffee on the trip back to Tarboro.
And then I thought about my Paris trip, and what we can learn from the French, just simple good manners, and empathy.
I hope to go back to Paris some day, but I probably won’t be visiting that Starbucks any time soon.