Ahead of me last week in the queue for bread at the Boulangerie du Parc Monceau, a “dame d’un certain âge” asked for a baguette that was “bien cuite,” or well done. The young man at the counter showed her a nicely bronzed baguette but she told him that it wouldn’t do at all. He went to the back and found another, darker baguette, but she clucked and waved a disdainful left arm at the young man as if this were the last straw and he would no longer be employed in her service.
She must have wanted bread that was almost burned. Rather than wait 10 minutes for the next batch of bread to come out of the oven, so that her taste for une baguette bien cuite would be satisfied, she went without, sneering, “Je ne prends rien.”
“Désolé, madame,” the cashier said, glancing at the arrogant back of the departing woman before resuming her business with politer customers.
I was particularly taken by the woman’s gesture – her left-armed imperiousness – that signified so much scorn for someone who was merely trying to help her. “C’était une grande bourgeoise,” my friend Pierre told me when I recounted the incident. That is, according to him, she expected everyone to cater to her merest whim, and she probably treated most retail staff (and undoubtedly waiters too) with contempt. Or she could just have been rude and insufferable regardless of her social class.
I thought of that the other night when, at the tiny Salle Cortot, before a charity concert, the president of the nonprofit that was hosting the event spoke a few anodyne comments about her organization and the evening’s musicians.
“Je n’entends rien!” shouted an elderly woman in a loge box right next to the stage. She could have been the older, equally mean, sister of the sneering boulangerie client. I looked over at her, her snooty expression similar, in fact, to that of the bien-cuite woman. I couldn’t hear very well myself what the woman onstage was saying, but neither could anyone else. But it didn’t matter – the important part was the music to come a few minutes later. These remarks were just a formality.
The old woman – I overheard someone later refer to her as une vieille bique, which was certainly unkind (it means a crone), but I could understand the frustration of having to listen to this kind of outburst – wasn’t satisfied with disturbing the introductory comments just once. She shouted again that she couldn’t hear a thing, casting a haughty look over the other spectators, as if she were the only one in the auditorium who deserved to hear what was being said. This time, more than a few of the proletariat laughed at her indignation, which the woman probably hadn’t anticipated, more accustomed to being obeyed than mocked.
“You can’t hear?” the woman onstage then said, obviously used to this kind of entitled insolence from some of her patrons. She moved forward a step, raised an eyebrow and said, “Ça va,” which could mean any number of things, but was perhaps a diplomatic way of saying, “Too bad.”
Perhaps she was hard of hearing, this older woman, and perhaps the other woman at the boulangerie was having a bad day that wasn’t improved by waiting a full two minutes in line for a burnt baguette. Or perhaps their actions really were indicative of certain behaviors among “la grande bourgeoisie.”
Understanding the subtleties between different social classes in any country is difficult – they’re part of the fabric of the local culture, and yet they’re somewhat shifting, depending on the age. For someone like me, relatively new to the country and hoping to learn its socio-cultural byways, it’s an endlessly fascinating exercise in half-understanding. You can really only understand a society you grow up in. But as an American with a love of French culture, I do want to try to comprehend certain aspects of some of the people I see in my daily life in Paris. For some Parisians of my acquaintance, entitlement and dismissiveness are defining characteristics of “la grande bourgeoisie,” while for others it’s not the unattractive comportment of certain selfish individuals, but more a perspective that comes from an older way of thinking about one’s place in society. In the United States, bourgeois means, generally, middle class, and sometimes a certain complacence, a sort of middlebrow smugness. In France, it’s much more involved.
There are the petite bourgeoisie, the moyenne bourgeoisie, the grande bourgeoisie (such as, perhaps, the impolite women at the bakery and the concert hall) and the haute bourgeoisie. Or, in another, older system of designation that my French tutor Bernard mentioned to me: le clergé, la noblesse et le tiers-état (this last one signifying the people, i.e., everyone else). (In many of his novels, Georges Simenon deals with clashing social classes in small villages, and the lingering resentments between them, resentments that often lead to murders that Inspector Maigret comes to solve as he confronts and untangles intricate webs among entrenched and upended social mores.)
A country that for a long while was a monarchy, with an aristocracy, still keeps elements of that thinking in a more outwardly republican age. “You’ve got someone from a noble family here,” Pierre said to me once, on seeing a “de” before a name on one of the letter boxes in the lobby of my building. That simple sign conveyed a lot more to Pierre – a system of upbringing, attitude and even, perhaps, entitlement – than it did to me.
None of us is immune to the allure of privilege, of course, or at least I’m not, even if for me it signifies something that’s more of folkloric interest than an innate understanding of a social order for someone who was raised in France, whether or not he believes in the validity of aristocratic privilege.
In the end, of course, it all comes down to whether you’re kind to others or not, which is more important than any claim to patrician legacy. The woman who was rude to the staff at the bakery was not someone you’d ever want to spend time with, regardless of her place in society. The other woman who was rude at the theater was perhaps the kind of elderly relation you’d visit once in a while despite her unpleasant demeanor, in the hope you’d be remembered in her will, so that she might bequeath you the vintage Chanel suit – probably bought from Coco herself in the 1950s – that she’d worn to the concert that she’d so self-centeredly disrupted.