Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Yesterday, while standing in line at Whole Foods, the one by GW Hospital, the woman behind me started talking - loudly - on her phone about her nephew's diagnosis of brain cancer and how freaky is it to have a brain biopsy and the tumor in the skull bone, etc. She went on and on. I couldn't help but turn around to look. I'm sure my facial expression conveyed that I was aghast - a horrible diagnosis indeed but I was also aghast that she would announce it to everyone in line at Whole Foods. Whoa. 

She was young. She started yelling at me and I saw it, that she was in shock and not in a place to behave appropriately - whatever that means. I didn't get into it with her. I said, "Why are you shouting at me?" My voice was so kind when I asked her. In a situation like that, no one knows how to behave - including me, probably. The question defused the situation. She went back to her phone call while I turned around and waited for the next available cashier.

I've been thinking about it ever since, thinking about boundaries and appropriate behavior and the uselessness of the rules of etiquette when your nephew has just been diagnosed with brain cancer. When in shock, the rules of etiquette can not help. Can they?

One thing I missed in Paris is the casual banter we Americans have with strangers all the time, while standing in line, for instance. We don't always talk to the people next to us, and we don't usually talk about anything personal, but we chat about the weather, for instance. It's a light connection that I enjoy. 

In Paris, as far as I could tell, no one in line ever spoke or even acknowledged others. But many people seemed to get in long, involved conversations with the cashier. Buying a bottle of water could take a half hour if there was someone in front of me in line. I didn't understand what they were saying. It didn't seem to be the kind of light-hearted banter we Americans engage in. Were they negotiating? I guess I'll never know. This is one of the things I loved about being with my aunt in Paris. I could say to her, "What is going on?" and she would explain. Without her, I was confused almost all the time.

Except for bizarre exchanges like the one at Whole Foods yesterday, I love American friendliness, even if it's just a style and has nothing to do with the sincere wishes each of us might have to connect with other human beings. We talk to each other to pass the time, or because we've had too much coffee, or are hyped up for other reasons. 

Sometimes we lash out at strangers like that woman did to me yesterday. It had nothing to do with me. Still, I've been thinking about it ever since. I wonder if anything like that happens in Paris?

1 comment:

  1. I'm SURE things like that happen in Paris, though personally I almost never talk to other people in line or even on the street. I just keep to myself. I think it's a big-city thing; I just can't afford to be interested in everyone around me!

    I'm sure that woman yelled just because she was in pain. She needed to let it out somewhere, and you were there.