Between the Laughter and the Silence

-Olivia Weiner

Weine_La Une-1

Aside from the obvious passion for stinky cheese and fine wine, there is another great undeniable French love: good, lively conversation. And while I can’t really attest to it firsthand (seeing as my French language skills are more attuned to medieval history lectures than to normal social functions), there is no questioning the lively chatter and constant chorus of «je blague» that ensues when you throw French friends together. My host throws dinner parties where the conversation flows freely until two in the morning, where they die laughing–this is a point of pride, this joyful verbal repartee. Of course, I am still on the periphery of all this, catching pieces like listening from underwater.

However, wandering through the streets of Toulouse, I am coming to understand that this vivacity has its time and place–which is generally to say, among good friends in a social setting. As much as they love talking, Toulousains seem to have no problem with silence and solitude. In an American scene that generally involves everybody thumbing nervously through their smart phones and glancing at each other to avoid the silence of public transportation, I look around the metro in Toulouse and the people around me all look at the floor or at their laps. The cafés are dotted with people alone, at ease, having an afternoon glass. It’s an admirable ease, but it may also be testament to a greater reliance on a safe distance between strangers.

I notice that the houses here often have high walls and gates and series of doors, and office doors and shutters are closed. Socialization has too its architecture. In my classes at the University of Toulouse, I have to introduce myself in shaky French to the quiet student sitting next to me. I’ve been told a couple of times already by people I’ve met going out that we Americans are so open and talkative, eager to share stories with strangers. And I think back to my classes in the United States where on the first day we all introduce ourselves to the room, and I think it has to do with somehow always feeling new and like we’ve all just arrived. Where the English language becomes a sort of common denominator, the base communication for myriad people to connect.

After my initial effort, I find that the quiet French students respond with genuine kindness and interest, an easy smile right behind. But there is a tangible sense of belonging, sense of place, that explains the ease in both solitude and conversation. Even if at this point I’m just listening with an ear to a door, the murmur of laughter on the other side promises something beautiful.

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