Pardon me for breathing

When I first started to teach in a Lycée in Lyon, it took me several weeks to work out how to get from street level up to my classroom. My sense of direction was not at fault. No, the problem for me was the mass of teenagers congregated immediately in front of the door to the school. Nearing the periphery of the group, I would grind to a complete halt in the face of the seemingly impenetrable hormonal barrier that lay across my path.

Excusez-moi, I would murmur politely. Nobody budged. Some of their number would stare blankly at me as I made subtle little gestures indicating my desire to propel myself gently forwards. One or two would blow smoke in my face as they made their way through their tenth fag of the school day. Others would continue to snog each other’s faces off, or giggle over photos on their mobile phones as I looked helplessly on, having progressed not even a millimetre from my starting point.

After a few weeks of this, I observed other teachers in action. None of them hung about waiting for somebody to let them through. Oh no. They strode purposefully into the middle of the throng, shouted loudly and, if necessary, shoved and barged their way past the human obstacles.

When I finally plucked up the courage to try this new tactic, I approached the adolescent throng much as a machete-wielding explorer might approach a particularly dense section of jungle foliage. It worked: I made it through in a matter of seconds. As I exited the throng, I looked surreptitiously over my shoulder. To my great relief it seemed that nobody was shocked, offended or in the least bit perturbed by my modest acts of violence.

This experience gave me pause. Back in the UK, I had spent my life anticipating and avoiding other people: ducking in audiences for example, just in case there was somebody shorter sitting behind me (as if that were even physically possible); or swerving to accommodate an oncoming pedestrian by stepping off the pavement, only to discover that he had followed precisely the same impulse, and that we had now both come to a halt, and were balefully regarding each other in the gutter.

In the UK having a sense of not quite meriting one’s own air space is not particularly unusual. This “oh I really am most terribly sorry” phenomenon is not something that I find replicated in France, however. Here, I have seen a blind person carefully tap-tap-tapping along a narrow pavement with a white stick, only to be practically mown down by a very middle-class sighted lady with a smart handbag who was charging headlong in the opposite direction and presumably couldn’t be bothered to sidestep.

At the end of my younger daughter’s weekly ballet lesson, I watch a succession of mothers arrive and literally wrestle with one another for a spot directly in front of one of the glass panels through which the dancing can be viewed. It would be pointless to explain to them that everyone would be able to catch a glimpse of their tiny vision in pink if only they all just stood back a bit.

To photograph your child doing any sort of extra-curricular activity you need sharp elbows and a thick skin.

In Lyon there is absolutely no point in trying to catch drivers’ eyes when waiting on the pavement to cross the road. No, terrifying though it might be, the only thing to do is to step out into the road. Forced to choose between cold-blooded murder and a thirty-second delay, everyone apart from Madame Lipstick will grudgingly give way to a pedestrian who is prepared to put their life in danger in order to cross the thoroughfare. If you’re not willing to risk life and limb, you are clearly not worth the trouble.

Vietnam: the only place where I have risked more crossing the road than in Lyon
Vietnam: where road crossing looks perilous but is surprisingly courteous compared to Lyon.

In London, the only time when I witnessed anything approaching this degree of insouciance about other people’s right of way was during rush hour on public transport. Yet, even amidst the cattle-truck conditions on the tube, there were tacit rules that were usually adhered to. If, for example, you made eye contact with a woman sporting a “Baby on Board” badge, it was understood that you would abandon your seat for her without complaint. If you had to hold onto a bar above your head, it was a given that you would apologise profusely to anyone who found themselves beneath your armpit. And if, heaven forbid, someone shoved you out the way, everyone agreed that you would be perfectly entitled to court conspiratorial glances and sympathetic tuttings by saying “thank you” loudly and rather tartly in the hope of seeing the offender flush beetroot with shame.

By comparison, the metro in Lyon is lawless. A friend of mine once witnessed a man who had the use of only one leg boarding a crowded carriage. As there were no seats available, he had to stand clinging onto a pole in the centre of the carriage. Each time the train rocked, he rotated precariously around the pole on his only leg. The seated passengers gawped openly at him from their sedentary positions. Far from giving up his seat, the man closest to him even shifted his position to avoid being struck by the one-legged passenger as he wobbled crazily around his post.

Whilst it is patently absurd that in the UK I spent half of my existence politely dodging out of other people’s way, I am not sure that they have got it right in France, where an old lady will think nothing of elbowing a pregnant woman in the face in order to get ahead of her in a supermarket queue. I find this assertiveness, often at the expense of others, quite surprising in a country which wears its socialist ideology as a badge of immense pride. How can a system that is designed to create equality breed such aggressive individualism? (Now, there’s a subject for a future post…)

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