I’ve been thinking about Stockholm Syndrome, the psychological process whereby hostages begin to sympathize with their captors. Although I have never been subjugated by violent aggressors and forcibly held under horrifying conditions, except of course for high school P.E. class, I think that living in Paris has given me an insight into the phenomenon.
As I explained in part one of this series, there are quite a few things that I found strange about France when I first moved here but that I now dismiss as commonplace. Like a victim in a hostage standoff, I gradually began to accept and even embrace what first seemed intrusive and unthinkable. This is what makes life in Paris different from high school P.E. class. Well, that and the approach to fashion.
Of course, like a bisexual ferryboat crewman, this principle goes both ways: with prolonged absence, I have started to find certain aspects of life in my country of birth, the United States, peculiar. This whole line of thought was originally triggered by a pseudonymous post on tickld.com by a foreign resident of the US, listing “20 Weird Things About America That Americans Don’t Realize Are Weird.”
I share the author’s sentiments on some points, like sales tax not being included in price tags and the unannounced-but-inviolable tipping rules (both of which I discussed in a previous C’est Ironique). When I lived in the States, I never thought twice about sales tax or tipping, but now, after 30 years in France, I too find these practices weird. In other words, I have started to think like my unwitting “captors,” the French. And since, as a hostage, I have so much time on my hands, I decided to compile my own list of:
The Weirdest Things About the U.S. That I Only Now Realize Are Weird:
1) The state of the law from state to state
As every patriotic American knows, any legal matters not covered in the U.S. Constitution are regulated by the individual states. This can lead to some bewildering absurdities.
And when the topic of bewildering absurdities comes up, the first thing I think of is alcohol. This is partly because I was already thinking of alcohol before that topic, or any topic, came up, but it does provide some good illustrations of the inconsistencies in state laws.
For example, in the conservative Midwestern state where I grew up, it was (and possibly still is) illegal for the inside of a bar to be visible from the street. The idea was that children passing by shouldn’t be able to see all the depraved, nefarious activities going on in there. For this reason, all bars either had their windows painted over or were built with no windows in the first place, like a black ops detention center with Michelob signs.
Later I lived in Connecticut, where it was (and possibly still is) illegal for the inside of a bar not to be visible from the street. The idea was that policemen passing by should be able to see all the depraved, nefarious activities going on in there. For this reason, bars that were not on the ground floor of their building had to install a closed circuit TV system with a monitor at street level. If there had been a state with that same degree of police protection for lingerie shops and fitness center locker rooms, I would have moved there.
I have also lived in a place where it was illegal for even the outside of a bar to be visible (a “dry county” in Texas) and, in New Jersey, been yelled at with startling vehemence for taking my gin and tonic from my table to the bar to ask for more ice. As I very quickly learned, it was illegal in the great Garden State for anyone but a waiter to carry alcohol in a public space. Laws like that are no doubt the source of Bruce Springsteen’s disaffected angst.
It’s enough to give you a hangover. Which brings us to…
2) The staggering range of coffee choices
This, obviously, is due to the powerful influence of one well-known coffeehouse chain, the one known in Opposite World as Extradoes. Although I do not patronize this company, I do not begrudge its founders their success. In fact, I admire them for exploiting a huge, gaping niche on the American beverages market — one that nobody had even attempted to fill before, namely: coffee that is actually worth putting in your mouth.
However, the chain has spawned countless imitators, all offering every conceivable medium for transferring caffeine to the bloodstream: brewed or espresso, pure or blended, hot or cold, with or without a little or a lot of sugar, milk (whole or skim, dairy or soy), cocoa, cinnamon, caramel, vanilla, Valium, etc., etc.
In San Francisco a few years ago, I saw a customer coming out of one of those places carrying an enormous cup whose lid was marked (no kidding) “LoMoNoFo.” That should be the name of a neighborhood, not a drink.
And speaking of staggering ranges of choices…
3) The menu maze
I used to like this when I was a child, but now I find it oppressive. In many American restaurants, after you order your main dish, the waiter is then obliged to wade with you through a labyrinthine flow chart of side dish options that make you feel like O.J. on the witness stand:
Soup or salad? Ranch, blue cheese, thousand island, French, Italian, Russian or Ukrainian? Rice or potatoes? Baked, mashed, roasted, scalloped, French-fried or freedom-fried? Bread or dinner roll? White, off-white, whole wheat, half wheat, rye, corn, short or sweet? Overdose or bullet to the temple? Glock, Ruger, Beretta…
And then, when it comes time to pay for all that booze and coffee and salad and bread…
4) Greenbacks are, well, green
This point was suggested to me on Facebook by reader and food maven Alec Lobrano. Many Americans arriving for the first time in France comment that the banknotes here look like “Monopoly money” because they come in bright colors and different sizes depending on the denomination. But actually there’s a good reason for this: French people play Monopoly for real money. In fact, it’s the basis of the economy.
And there’s another, even better reason: it not only makes the bills recognizable at a glance, but the size differences also make them recognizable without a glance — even a totally blind person can easily distinguish a 10 from a 20 from a 200-euro note.
This boosts the employment rate by making an additional segment of the population qualified to hold down jobs that require the handling of cash: bank teller, bookmaker, casino skimmer, owner of the Short Line Railroad, etc.
And speaking of cash…
5) Coughing up huge wads every time you get sick
I have no intention or desire to initiate a serious debate about the staggering cost of healthcare in the United States. So let me illustrate this one with a sort of parable:
In February 2006, there was an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker about a homeless alcoholic named Murray in Reno, Nevada, whose drinking habit kept him in and out of the local hospitals, where he ran up huge unpaid bills — upwards of $100,000 per year for 10 years. For this reason, he was put forward as an example of the indigents’ burden on society and referred to as “Million Dollar Murray.” It occurred to me after reading the article that in France (or essentially any European country) he would have been referred to as “Murray.”
But, as I said, I’m not trying to spark a dispute about this. Why? Because I’m not French…
6) Not arguing with authorities
I am a non-argumentative person by nature, so this does not seem aberrant to me, but several of my French friends returning from the United States have expressed their astonishment at seeing an American get a traffic ticket, for example, and not put up a fuss. In these situations, it’s apparently considered proper form in France to go down fighting.
I see this ideology in action most often underground. The Paris Métro has teams of ticket checkers who roam the corridors weeding out the turnstile jumpers. And indeed, I often see them deep in conversation with some obvious fare-beater who’s trying desperately to talk his way out of a fine.
What amazes me is this: not only do the deadbeats seem to think that they can pay their fare retroactively in hot air, but the patrollers seem perfectly content to stand there getting their ears bent for minutes on end, instead of just issuing the citation and getting back to work. It’s as though listening to fatuous rationalizations were a key part of their job.
And of course, this being France, the language used in these exchanges is always very pointedly formal, with all parties addressing each other as “Monsieur” or “Madame” in every single sentence. Unlike in the United States, where you can expect to hear…
7) Everyone calling everyone by their first names
Well stew me in vin and call me Coco, because I have definitely become French on this issue: I now find it off-puttingly familiar when I’m in the States and people I don’t know address me as “David” — like bartenders, pole dancers, bouncers, police officers, detox ward orderlies, etc.
Special note to American hospital personnel:
I have never actually been a patient in a detoxification ward, but should the occasion ever arise, I wish to be referred to as “Monsieur Jaggard du Million d’Euros.” In Monopoly money, of course.
© 2014 Paris Update
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
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