I consider my wine man a good friend; I think he considers me a good customer. It’s cultural.
Let me explain.
We see each other 2 or 3 times a week. When he passes the boulangerie where I have my morning coffee, he comes inside and we chat. He asks if we’ve gone to Bordeaux yet (Answer: No. Thursday). If my Philadelphia-based son, Ryan, liked the Super Bowl (Answer: Yes). Our conversation is short. Cognisant of time. Yet it’s fulfilling. He wishes me a good day; I wish him the same.
Some days I stop by his shop. He knows my taste and my budget. He offers suggestions on pairings or options for an aperitif at a dinner party I’m having. Last week, I dropped off an article I had read about wine. Once, he asked me if I like chocolate (Answer: I love it) and gave me a bag of chocolate samples.
In the early days of our relationship, we always spoke French. Now he speaks to me in English. (Something that I take as an evolution in our relationship rather than his exasperation with my French.)
If we were both American’s, I might suggest we are friends. But we live in Paris, and consequently the laws of France dictate our status. Suffice it to say, it’s complicated.
Here’s my assessment of the phases of a relationship with a French merchant:
From day one, we exchange hellos. And goodbyes. Always. And always with madame or monsieur appended.
After a few weeks, we lapse into a simple “Ca va?” (how’s it going?) to which the only required response is a smile and “oui.”
After a month or so, chit-chat commences. The most common question I receive is “Are you British?” When they find out I’m an American, the follow-up ranges from “How do you like France?” to “Do you have children in the US?” (Thankfully, I’ve never had a merchant engage in politics.)
My fruit man once shared that his back ached. Until it got better, I always remembered to ask how he felt. These simple pleasantries enhance my life here. But merchant relationships, I realize, will go no further.
None of my vendors tutoyer.
Tutoyer is a French verb which means to switch from the formal version of you (vous) to the familiar version (tu). A person will say, “Is it OK if we tutoyer?” It’s a big step that means the relationship has changed: A true friendship has been forged.
To all my vendors, I am still madame, and they are still vous.
Yet my relationship with my wine man feels different. I know he was born in Versailles. Worked across Africa. Lives on Richard Lenoir in a flat that can see the top of the Eiffel Tower. One day I blurted out, “By the way, my name is Julie.”
He looked at me. Smiled. Replied, “Yes.”
Our relationship remained anonymous.
A few months later, I met his partner who he introduced as “my partner.”
In France, relationships have meaning and structure. They are governed by a set of rules which I don’t understand and likely never will. Friendship is defined. Perhaps it implies a willingness to donate a non-vital organ. Or that I would do his shopping if he had the flu.
Any self-respecting wine man would ensure no dinner goes ill-paired.
He takes his role seriously. I quite like him, and I’m sure he feels the same about me. But we will never tutoyer. And I may never know his name.
Categories: Life in Paris