In Paris I was trying to buy a ticket for the fast train to Angers. Interrupting, the lady at the desk rattled off something, then laughed haughtily. In fractured French, I apologized for not having understood, and the lady blurted something even more loudly with hands flying up and slapping the black metal bars between us. At which my daughter shoved me aside and stepped into my place: “You witch. He just asked for information that it’s your job to give. He didn’t insult you!”
Calmly, the lady slammed two blue wooden shutters across the inside of her station, closing it, leaving us at the head of a line of six people queued up—for nothing. My daughter shouted an English obscenity, then the alliterative word it modified: “Fonctionnaire!”
This word occurred often enough in my presence with such dramatic anger or contempt that I recognized it as a French insult of the highest quality. Its sound alone conveyed one’s position clearly. “Fonctionnaire!” I began to say it confronting any human snag while traipsing along: each syllable exploding with my negative feelings, detonating like a chain reaction, cathartically freeing me to go on my way in a good mood.
I didn’t throw the word like a grenade at the indigenous obstacle causing my frustration. I was a stranger in a strange land, as polite and careful as my manners allowed. I was so trapped inside woeful ignorance and my desire to fit in, I had no desire to insult anyone. “Fonctionnaire!” was private, an escape mechanism for someone who felt helpless.
The word for me was internalized. I might blurt “Bureaucrat!” back in Ohio, but while the two words balanced with three syllables each, their impacts were unequal. “Bureaucrat” brought up images of a petty-minded pipsqueak not worthy of more than derisive dismissal. No English equivalent could satisfy my need for instant gratification the way “Fonctionnaire!” did. It was a useful tool, a calorie-free sedative for being in France.
Maybe the origins of the French rancor it conveyed arose in the dark ages, arriving in the present democratic republic through a complicated history of despotism and nepotism; or perhaps, it arose because of incompetence.
The Pink Panther movies had years before suggested I look for that performance level in French public officials. I looked for but didn’t find that. Persistent American criticism of French socialism also suggested incompetence, but my several encounters with the French health system, overall, impressed me. Friendly French doctors cured my flu, ear and nasal infections, quickly with very low cost. My daughter’s three children received extraordinary care, including week-long stays in the hospital at birth. Nursery care for children was also basically free and well done.
Therefore, incompetence didn’t describe the negatives I saw, such as the train ticket agent’s. Indifferent, self-protective assertion of power seemed the problem.
A good example is what happened when my granddaughter Lea hit her head on concrete when falling at school (kids start school at age three in France). The principal refused to call for an ambulance because no blood was running, as a government manual prescribed. When we forced her to call, the ambulance people refused service for the same reason. When we rushed her to the hospital in our car, the doctors at first refused to examine her until their lunch hour ended. All this negative reaction occurred despite the fact that Lea’s forehead was noticeably indented and bruised.
I encountered similar rigidity not only in government-run services such as post offices, but also banks, restaurants, and grocery stores. There were protocols for everything, and once they were codified, meaning once they became the law or practice, they were nearly impossible to break even when an emergency required it. “Fonctionnaire!” seemed to be appropriate usage to describe both recalcitrant government and privately employed workers.
Surprisingly, what I remembered clearly about my encounter with the train woman were the closed blue shutters, not the lady. The shutters were the official (as fonctionnaire literally translates to) notice that communication was over, that one side of the conversation had withdrawn contact. Those shutters made me aware that shutters traditionally adorned the outside of French buildings.
True, exterior shutters are popular in America, but most of ours don’t work. They are decorative, adding beauty to the exterior of plain buildings, like delicious sauce poured over otherwise not-very-tasty food. The production, sales, and maintenance of shutters are bigger business in France than in the USA. Strong traditions and historic zoning often require them.
French shutters are also not just adornments. Everywhere I stayed, I was instructed to close them at night and during absences from the premises, even in rooms several stories up, maybe as protection against cat burglars. The shutters I touched, from Paris to Angers to La Rochelle, were heavy, locked-on-the-inside metal protection from flying stones, bottles, debris from trees, and the intrusion of drunkards.
Those same shutters in daytime, though, were usually open, letting in the sun, fresh air, occasional insects and birds, very relaxed and natural. I envied the French buildings’ lack of screens and air conditioners until the abnormal temperature of 90-some degrees occurred. At night, in the darkness, the French maybe expected the worst from people outside. Closed shutters forestalled temptations to do evil provided by convenience and easy opportunity.
One evening under the influence of Beaujolais nouveau, I mentally connected my windows’ shutters to the stone walls surrounding Carcassonne and the old towns in medieval centers of some present-day cities. This thought flowed into embellishment: shutters were a relic from a time when sudden invasion could happen and one could lose all, when roving bands of highwaymen might dismount their steeds, break into the nearest boudoir, cave, ou place d’affaires, and do their worst…
Shuttering suggested a deep-seated fear that made withdrawal from contact a good alternative, shutting out something before an excruciating ordeal developed. It was a habit of thought. A remnant from a past residing in their “inherited” unconsciousness. This idea then became a winey certainty.
“Fonctionnaire!” I smiled closing the sliding glass doors, unreeling the cumbersome gray shutters by hand, lowering the steel shield completely down over the pretty view of the River Maine, Le Chateau d’Angers, and the sleeping but glowing Old Town. Locking out those mythical lurkers out there was foolish, nine stories up in a condo, but oddly comforting too.
Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in many magazines and anthologies. Recent publications include stories in THE EKPHRASTIC REVIEW; BULL; CHA: AN ASIAN LITERARY JOURNAL; AS YOU WERE: THE MILITARY REVIEW; THE WILD MUSETTE JOURNAL; FICTION ON THE WEB; ADELAIDE; and GOOD WORKS REVIEW.