Passer inaperçu is a French expression meaning “to go unnoticed” or “to be inconspicuous.” Even though we dress all in black, trying our best to blend in as native-born Parisians, we are often pegged as English speakers right away. Just the other day my husband came home from the marché and announced that, while he hadn’t yet said a word, the seller said “hello” to him in English! The same thing has happened to me buying fish at the poissonnerie. My question is: how do they know? Is it the cut of our clothing? The way we wear our hats or tie our scarves? Our glasses? Is there an American facial expression? Anyway, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it can lead to interesting conversations.
About a week ago at the fromagerie at Alésia, I had a friendly exchange with the young clerk. After he complimented me on my French, he wanted to know where I was from. I always feel obliged to say that I was born in Arkansas so that I can correct the assumption by the French that the final “s” is pronounced. (Just doing my part for the home state!) Then there’s that whole New York State versus la ville de New York thing, which is even true at times back home. We talked about his background, too; all the while another customer was waiting patiently next to me to be served! It was a nice moment of connection in a place, like any big city, where people are often rushed.
Because we live near the Montparnasse cemetery, we sometimes cut through it, casually observing the headstones or looking for one in particular, like Susan Sontag. One day we decided to ask for a map of the graveyard so that we might find our way around a little better. The attendant, who politely asked if we were French, made a special point of coming out of his guardhouse to speak to us. After noting that there are two separate parts to the cemetery, he spent about ten minutes circling important graves on the map: authors Guy de Maupassant, Samuel Beckett, and Eugène Ionesco; the poet Baudelaire; actor Philippe Noiret. We really didn’t expect anyone to take the time to do that.
Yesterday in our stroll around the second arrondissement, we came upon la Bourse de Paris. This imposing structure, the equivalent of our Wall Street, had dozens of people pouring in, so we decided to take a look, hoping to get a tour of the place. The guard inside the front door seemed taken aback by our request to visit the building. He said simply that everything is done by computers and that there was nothing there! No traders on the floor, no CAC 40 (their version of the Dow), nothing. We teased him a bit by saying, "well, there’s you!" And, we pointed out, two large pictures above his head showing how business used to be conducted at la Bourse! He told us that if we got the chance we should go to Wall Street, which he believes is the only place in the world where trading still goes on in that fashion.
I'm beginning to believe that being correctly judged as American works in our favor in terms of meeting people!