Baguettes and Bureaucracy
“Oh, pardon madame… pardon monsieur,” I repeated as I bumped through the crowd of people contemplating the camembert selection.
I was anticipating accusatory glares. Adrenalin was pumping through my body. The threat of a sudden need for negotiation in a language I didn’t fully have a grasp on loomed over my heart, and my shopping list.
As an Anglophone in France, you come to realise pretty quickly that every day, with every conversation you attempt in French, with every sip of red wine, with every slice of cheese, with every baguette ordered, you are perpetually at risk of committing the dreaded faux pas.
Translated literally, faux pas means “a false step”. A stumble. Losing your footing. And you know what can happen when you lose your footing? You might accidentally land on the toes of a disgruntled French person. And this, in France, you do not want to do.
The faux pas is elusive. There is no logical way of telling whether what you’re about to do will reveal you as the resident foreigner or piss off the French people around you. While French teenagers can dry hump each other and pash on a bus for 15 minutes straight without even copping a sideways glance from the other patrons, quietly snacking on some salted cashews on the same bus is likely to elicit an amused “Bon appétit!” from the middle-aged man walking up the aisle, or an “Arrêtez de manger!” (“Stop eating”) from the elderly woman next to you.
The French do not snack. They do, however, fall in love passionately.
So, naturally, after having shuffled my way through a crowded cheese aisle in a French supermarket, I was on edge when I found myself alone at the bakery counter. I was thinking the same thing as you are. Alone? In a bakery? In France!? Impossible. But it happened. I smiled at the employee behind the counter.
“Hello, may I please have a sliced nut loaf?” I asked in my clearest French.
She raised her eyebrows at me. I looked around, afraid I had pushed in front of somebody. There was nobody else around.
I tried again.
“A sliced nut loaf, s’il vous plaît?”
She raised her eyebrows again.
“Have you taken a ticket?” she asked, unimpressed and knowing very well that I had not taken said ticket.
I looked around, searching for a ticket dispenser. She watched me, eyebrows still raised. I finally laid eyes on a small electronic screen at the far end of the bakery, pointed to it and asked if this was what she meant.
I walked over, pressed the screen and a ticket with a number on it shot out. 84. I walked back over to the woman, only to find her serving another man. I was sure he hadn’t been at the ticket machine.
When she was finished handing the man his dozen baguettes, I shuffled up to the counter.
“I have my ticket,” I said as I passed it to her.
She looked at the ticket. She looked over my head and around the bakery, which was empty again.
“NUMBER 84!” She yelled across the vacant space.
“Um, that’s me,” I said, quietly.
“Oh, bonjour mademoiselle, what would you like?”
“Um, a sliced nut loaf please.”
“Well, of course,” she responded.
She turned around, sliced a nut loaf, put it in a paper bag and handed it to me across the counter along with the warmest of French smiles I’ve ever received.
As I sat down on my bus home, baffled and reflecting on what had just happened and where it had all gone wrong, I felt a bit peckish. I reached into my bag and tried to avoid rustling the paper around nut loaf. As I slipped out a slice of nut bread and took a little bite, the man next to me gave a chuckle.
“Bon appétit,” he whispered with a smirk.
Cover by Michał Parzuchowski