Chez Soi

Adventures of a Year Abroad

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As my family looks ahead to our “repatriation”, we have been discussing what we will bring back with us after 2 years in Paris.  One thing for me will be an altered perspective on patience.  For the French have a different perspective, probably different from most Americans, and surely different from most Silicon Valley residents like me.  This reality has soaked in slowly during our Paris time, through various experiences that suggest something that you can’t quite put your finger on. A few recent events have brought it forward in my mind, hence this post.  Cultural differences often show up in vocabulary, and this is no exception.  Train that never came 20160322_074140French has a verb “to be patient”, which appears in the imperative (i.e. command) form on ATMs or ticket machines when you must wait. “Patientez, s’il vous plait”, literally, “be patient, if it pleases you.”  What if it doesn’t please me? Well, that just shows you the limits of literal translation.

I recently went to seaside town near Nice for the weekend to visit Nilofer, who was 3 weeks into a 4 week immersion course.  On Saturday, we took a 2 hour hike to hilltop village called Eze, where we enjoyed a pleasant outdoor lunch. On the way back, we figured we would save time – and wear-and-tear on our feet – by catching a train for the last 3 miles.  We arrived the station just as the train pulled in, but by the time we bought our ticket (photo), it had left.  The posted schedule indicated that the trains run every 30 mins on Saturday. Ah, well, life in the small city… and the March weather wise fine.  But then the next train didn’t come…  The train we had seen had been on schedule, so the tracks were clearly not blocked.  We killed time surfing the web on our smartphones.

After waiting over an hour, past when yet another train should have come, we gave up and ran/walked back to our hotel.  As we approached it, the next train finally pulled into what would have been our destination station. Three trains in succession had just not happened.  We scuttled our plans to take the train to Antibes for dinner.  Nilofer mentioned that her classmates had complained that the trains were highly unreliable, especially on weekends.  It struck me as crazy making, and Cote d’Azur dropped several pegs in my barely-conscious ranking of ideal retirement spots.  I saved the unused train ticket as a reminder to write this post.  That was before the next day’s crazy making…

On Sunday, I kissed Nilofer goodbye and took the taxi to Nice airport, where I learned that my flight was delayed 90 minutes.  It turned out that Nice was experiencing an air traffic controller strike. Delightful. I texted our gardienne in Paris, who had been looking after Kiddo. No problem, she would make sure he got dinner.  The Nice airport was less pleasant than the Eze train station. The 90 min delay grew slowly to a 4.5 hour delay (but, on the bright side, the flight was not cancelled like several others were), and I arrived home near midnight.  But the remarkable side of this experience was how the parents of the numerous kids had handled it all.  (Apparently, a weekend in Nice is a popular family trip.) After hours in the airport, the mothers and fathers all seemed remarkably calm.  My head was near exploding, but they took it all in stride, with the slightest hint of Gallic resignation. Their calmness muted their kids’ reactions and mitigated what could have been a lot worse.

So that’s the upside to French patience / resignation. Like the serenity prayer: accept what you cannot change and have the wisdom to know the difference.  And yet, unreliable trains and ATC strikes seem to be at the edge of what we can control.  Which side of the line?  Is it something the French have control over?  After all, those annoyances don’t exist everywhere. That is, if the French, collectively, saw them as unacceptable, they would not be so commonplace.  It’s about expectations, right?  They could just “say no.” I say all that rather blithely, aware that some aspects of Silicon Valley life are similarly at the edge of what I can control.  Have I come to accept things that I might somehow be capable of changing?  We do wonder how smoothly our readjustment to life in Silicon Valley will go.  Will I experience some kind of homesickness because I can’t buy fresh zucchini and cilantro at the 7-Eleven, like I can at the mini-epicerie down the block in Paris?  Will I be more patient, or just impatient for different things?

I saved the train ticket after our extra-long (20km) walk that Saturday, then got another reminder at the airport on Sunday.  Then, on Tuesday morning, suicide bombers attacked Brussels.  Now, Brussels is not French in the way that Cote-d’Azur is French… but there is a Frenchness.  This was the 3rd deadly terrorist attack in Francophone land in just over a year, and clearly Brussels was connected to the second Paris attack in November.  Security lapses had been identified in the earlier attacks. Despite assurances that they had been addressed, news quickly came out of yet more security breakdowns.

I would expect that even Gallic patience must wear thin by now. The upcoming elections will no doubt speak volumes.  Closing borders or other forms of ultra-nationalism will not solve the problem.  The French nationalist party had a glimmer of success in (still-mysterious) December elections, only to be thwarted the next weekend by coordinated effort of the two mainstream parties. Trust and coordination between nations will be required, but that won’t be easy.  Is it within the span of control of the voters?  The optimist in me says yes.  What other option is there?

Perhaps a bit of wise impatience is in order?