Friday, July 31, 2009
Finding "Doucement" in America
Today I left France. For travelers, the hard part about coming home (aside from the depressing “mundacity” of unpacking) is deciding what all of this life upheaval means. Some of the answers are so obvious. New friendships are the best souvenirs to bring home. I discovered that a cheese board and a loaf of bread did more to cultivate friendships than a common language. No “French for Travelers” book included the phrase that started conversations flowing faster than anything – “Do you have pictures of your grandchildren?” You always have so much more in common with the people who populate the landscapes you explore than you have differences. In a village so small it has no street names you can spend an evening sharing a love of needlework and the children from Russia and Belarus we’ve each brought into our families.
Travel also helps you identify your limits and why you’re glad to return home. The entire country of France could be a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its efforts to preserve their whole history and culture. However, for reasons I’ll never understand they are satisfied to have toilets in public places that could have been designed in the Paleolithic age. The same way that I think all Americans should spend a week riding the local, express, and high-speed trains and metro systems of France to understand the bliss of well-funded public transportation, I think all French should spend a week just visiting public toilets in every restaurant, shopping mall, service station, and rest stop in my country. I’m sure that any culture that can design and manufacture an engineering wonder like the TGV train or a train to travel under the English Channel can come up with a better restaurant bathroom than a unisex one in which you are greeted by a urinal right inside the door (is that the restaurant floor show every time the door opens?) and two toilet stalls without actual toilet seats. At least I was spared from ever opening the door and experiencing my own private viewing.
I know that one element of French culture I would like to understand better and perhaps even have transform me can be summed up in the word doucement. In my Oxford French Mini Dictionary the word is defined as “gently, quietly, slowly.” It seems so much more, though. As I wove my way through crowded sidewalks I heard it. I heard it directed at dogs more eager to play than walk on the leash. A brief, murmured repetition of the word, perhaps with a slight touch on the arm or finger to the lip for emphasis. I heard it almost every day directed toward children in restaurants, on airplanes, on buses and the street. This is what made it seem so much more than a simple parental command. During all my visits to France many words and phrases have popped up on a regular basis – voilá, comme ça, la ba and more. All were familiar from Berlitz language lesson CDs. All had such distinct uses. Doucement was a word I had no inkling existed, yet I couldn’t escape it in any corner of that country.
To have old and young reminding each other so often “gently, quietly, slowly” imparts a cultural norm rather than makes a request. And I saw it practiced everywhere I went. Rarely did I hear a raised voice. No one sat at a restaurant making sure that everyone overheard a phone conversation about what a jerk his boss was. It would take fewer than my ten available fingers to count the number of times I heard a cell phone ring, even in a town as huge and bustling as Paris. Bus rides (even at rush hour) were relaxing for it. I want to live in a world moving at the speed of café life, where there is always time in the afternoon to eat an ice cream cone and window shop for a bit. I want to reduce the stress so that being gentle with one another requires so much less effort. It requires strolling through streets with an armload of sunflowers. It means taking breaks that shift the course of a day or a mood. I want to start my morning a little later because today is market day and the local strawberries are in season. One must have priorities, you know.
I can’t bring all of France here to the States. Nor would I necessarily want to. They seem to have an inexplicable belief that each individual is exempt from random laws of government or courtesy – where they drive their motor scooters, where they let dogs do their business and whether they clean up, smoking . They are oblivious to the benefits of standing in a line. None of their shoes fit wide feet. But they have internalized how to live in a world steeped in doucement. The trick for this returning traveler to find the adapter that lets me plug it in to an American world operating on its own extreme high voltage. Perhaps I’ll take up yoga and make “gently, quietly, slowly” my mantra.
Say it to yourself several times. Doucement . . . doucement . . . doucement. It slides over the tongue. The hard “t” at the end is swallowed in that very French way, so that it is almost all lips, no teeth, in its pronunciation. The word is as soft as its meaning. If you want to know what France is like, but don’t have time or money right now to explore it own your own, just say the word and practice a life lived gently, quietly, slowly. It’s possible to have that world over here.