Cultural Caviar

Off Guard

February 24, 2018

Then we went to the post office, where the old lady had a bank account with a credit card that she needed to block. There were long lines of disgruntled customers, almost all of immigrant origin, some of them making their displeasure known quite loudly, others telephoning all the time, the atmosphere one of chaos and incipient rebellion. Some of the staff, worn out no doubt by the constant demands made on them, had slab-like Politburo faces. One of them told the old lady she was the fifth such complainant today, it was always like that on Fridays when the street was crowded.

Astonishingly, we were then attended to by a man of the most pleasing kindness. He went out of his way to help, and did far more than could possibly have been his duty to do. He helped her, for example, block a credit card at a different bank. He gave her advice about what to do next. But it was his attitude, sympathetic without unction, that soothed her distress and reassured her that the world was not inhabited only by unscrupulous thieves and stony bureaucrats (how much we are at the mercy of our last experience, as some people are at the mercy of the last opinion they have heard!). If this man could have seen himself as others saw him, he would justifiably have had a good opinion of himself.

The next morning, in the local Métro station, I saw several youths, one of them with horrible French rap music emanating loudly from somewhere about his person, climb over the barriers to avoid paying for a ticket. They did so with complete impunity, in full view of many people, and even in view of staff. No one stopped them or even said anything to them; it wasn’t worth the trouble. They were even proud or pleased with what they had done, an expression of the power of the powerless. I would imagine that they would have turned angry if anyone had said anything to them, as if their human rights were being infringed.

That evening, my wife and I took the old lady out for dinner. The restaurant was pleasant and not too expensive. I had a glass of Chablis. All was right with the world.

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