I realized recently I don’t need a watch in Paris. Nobody does actually. A quick bonjour can get you just the same. It might not give you the exact hour, but it’ll get you a bonne fin de matinée, a bonne après midi, a bonsoir even a bonne nuit in return, and for me, that’s close enough.
Nobody tells you this when you arrive in France. They just assume you know the days here are broken into organized and workable blocks, each with its own role, each with its own greeting, and each seamlessly ebbing and flowing into the other like rising and descending tides. It’s practical I guess, and comforting I’m sure, especially for children who can count on their goûter at 16:00 and their l’heure du bain at 18:00, and for old people who need to be reminded where they are and who they are at all times.
But for someone like me, an outsider raised in a culture where hello works 24/7, seven days a week, France’s system can be complicated. Here, bonjour starts in the morning, and somewhere towards the latter part of the day (I still don’t know when), bonjour goes behind the counter, changes the apron, and returns as bonsoir. I’ve lived here five years now, and I’ve never yet caught Bonjour changing. He’s like superman. Just when you’re not looking, he reappears, with folded arms and a cape. Bonjour says, John. Bonsoir he responds.
At the beginning, whenever my friendly neighborhood merchants responded in bonsoir to my bonjour, I just assumed they hadn’t heard me correctly. But soon I realized it wasn’t an audible thing it was a temporal thing. No matter how good your accent is, nor how polite you are – not knowing when to say bonjour, bonsoir, bonne fin de matinée, at the right time in the right context, makes you destined for ridicule. Basically, if you’re born without a French biological clock, you’re fucked.
And don’t think I haven’t tried to adapt. I have. But just when I think I’ve got it down, something like winter arrives, with its nights starting at 15:00, and I screw up by saying bonsoir to someone over lunch. Now I’ve just decided to stumble through my days, sprinkling bonjour anywhere and anytime I choose. Just last week, I had a run in with my locale boulangère over the whole thing.
“Bonjour Madame,” I said upon entering the boulangerie. “Bonsoir” she quickly responded, with that rigorous correctional tone, as if she was hitting my hands with a ruler. Whack!
“How rude of her!” I thought to myself. “Couldn’t she just have responded with a bonjour as well, and let me go on my touristy American way?”I wasn’t going to let it slide, not anymore, so I quickly retorted, with a second bonjour, a bit louder, his time, a bit more affirmative. “Bonsoir,” she responded with another whack of the ruler. Who knew bonjour could end up so hostile? It’s then I pointed to my watch.
“Well I’m reading 16:45 on my watch, and since it’s still light outside, I think everyone here would agree (I was trying to sway the crowd, but nobody was biting. Bread’s too important here for that.) It’s more bonne fin de l’après midi, non?” I grinned back winningly.
“If you like monsieur,” and she then responded with a curt bonne fin de l’après midi but more in an au revoir tone, at which point she moved down the line to other customers, and I walked out in shame, baguette-less.
It was later I learned from my wife and daughter that bonne fin d’après midi is more of a going away line, sort of like a goodie bag you get when leaving a party. Oh. So some are intros, some are outros huh? What I thought was already complicated, had just gotten more confusing. And we haven’t even touched on the part of the day they call le présent, and my personal favorite…. bonne continuation, whom I first met, at, of all places, the gym.
There I was on the Stairmaster, when I was greeted by a fellow member. “Bonne continuation,” he said. “Merci,” I replied with sort of a grimace. The Stairmaster you know. Those things aren’t made for chit-chat. He walked away, and I worried the rest of the work out, perhaps he’d taken offense that I hadn’t responded politely enough. So I approached him afterwards, and this time it was he who was suffering through what seemed to be a very heavy leg press. “Merci,” I said, “pour la bonne continuation à tout à l’heure.” My gallant friend winced as had I, “Bonne continuation à vous également,” he screeched, but I saw it wasn’t easy. Gym politesse never is.
As an American I can’t help but be jealous of the average French person, he with the luxury of looking back on the fresque of his life, knowing he had a bon arrivée, a bon marriage, bon divorce, and a bon retraite, before he met bon fin à ses jours. I used to think Americans were the optimistic ones. But now I realize that’s all just hot air. Once you peel back the skin of all those perky emails like “Thanks John, it’s awesome !!!!!! and Don’t have a good day, have a great day!!!” each with their eight exclamation points per line, you realize Americans don’t mean any of that shit. At least with the French and their bons (+ whatever comes afterwards), the tone you get seems genuine.
So my new year’s resolution this year (starting with a bonne année), was to call every moment bon, the idea being that the forced optimism would eventually trickle down into positive energy. Bons école is now followed by bons déjeuners, bons siestes, bons weekends, bonnes semaines, and so on and so forth. And it’s worked. My days are much better now, or “Plus bon” as I say.
There’s only one downside, I’m getting paranoid. Seriously, are all these bonsoirs, bonjours, bonnes fin des matinées simply benchmarks to get us through the day, or are they something more sinister? Sure it’s handy to have your entire day unfurl like one big address book, powered by an ever-optimistic bonne continuing present. But what are we giving up in return? I mean who needs big brother when you have Bonne fin de l’après midi? I’m starting to understand the real reason you don’t need a watch in France. Everybody here has an imbedded GPS system.
So now I’m back to using my watch again. And if he anybody approaches me and says Bonjour, I politely smile back and tell them to fuck off.