Friday, May 23, 2008

Etiquette, shop and cafe division

By comparison to most of the places we've traveled, Europe is not very foreign. Most of the habits and practices are fairly familiar, not least because France once served as a kind of cynosure of correct social practice for Americans. This is no longer as true as it once was, but still, the upshot is that language is more of a barrier than etiquette to getting along smoothly. But one notices occasional differences, and often the small ones are the most noticeable. Many of the more traditional shops (boulangeries, fromageries, etc. -- as opposed to, say, the Apple Store) have a tray by the cash register in which you are supposed to put your money when you pay for your purchases. The person behind the counter will pick up the money, count out your change, and put it in the tray for you to retrieve. There seems to be a slight sense that handing money directly to another person is a bit off, except when the boulangerie is crowded at lunchtime and you're craning over the shoulder of another person. Similarly, in cafes there is always a little tray or a cup (or, yesterday, a shot glass) in which the bill comes, and into which you can put your money. So far this exchange has always gone smoothly, but once when I was here five years ago I tried to buy cheese from a fromagerie in which the woman refused to take my money unless I put it in the tray. Since I speak next to no French, it took a while and some very sharp language from her before I clued in. Ultimately it seemed for the best that I couldn't understand what she was saying.

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