They had us at “bonjour”
Growing up, I remember the days when there would be a knock on the door at least once a week from someone trying to convince my mother to buy something, be it encyclopedias, cosmetics, household cleaners, burial plots, or brushes of all kinds. When I met Bill he had already purchased from one of these salesmen a powerful vacuum cleaner that a friend said would “suck the drapes right off the windows” if you got too close to the wall, and he was right! But then as we moved around the country the knocking stopped. The houses we lived in were all set well back from the street so it was going to take quite an effort just to get to our front door but not everyone was deterred. We could generally recognize members of religious organizations as they approached but a simple shake of the head through our partially-opened door would always send them away. In France, our street isn’t a lot wider than the cars that pass down it so our front door is easily accessible to everyone with a product to sell, a magazine to subscribe to, or a quick way to heaven.
When we first got our landline connected in the house where we now live, it only took 2 hours before the first telemarketer called. The ringer on our phone was soon silenced but not long after that we heard another ring, the doorbell. Standing outside were a well-dressed woman and man who introduced themselves, asked me some kind of question of which I didn’t understand a word, heard me say “No” with a shake of the head, and then politely left. Exactly one week later we were visited again by another similar couple only this time the exchange was entirely in English. They too went away after my “No” leaving me awestruck at the efficiency of their organization. We still get frequent visits but now the couples typically leave the religious tracts, in English, in our mailbox without any face-to-face contact.
Most of the houses in our neighborhood were built about 100 years ago so we see roofers, tilers, plasterers, and painters all explaining why we need their services. Real estate agents frequent our street as well trying to beef up their inventories since, as friends visiting from Canada and the US recently discovered, there apparently aren’t a lot of properties for sale. Those agents always have some kind of “prize” like a calendar, pen, or refrigerator magnet to keep their name in front of you.
But not everyone we see has something to sell. Once a year firefighters walk the neighborhood seeking donations for projects that aren’t covered by their regular budget. We’re happy to support them especially since they are also trained as emergency medical technicians and are typically the first responders to all types of emergencies.
The most recent people to appear at our house were trainees for a home-delivery frozen food service. I listened attentively to the young man’s sales pitch, replied “Non, merci”, and then he did exactly what happens most of the time; he started speaking English. It doesn’t matter how few words we utter in French because native speakers seem to instantly pick up that we have said “non” with an accent and then switch to English, especially if they are trying to close a sale. In reality they probably know the moment our interaction begins when we greet them with “Bonjour”—just as Dorothy says to Jerry Maguire in the 1996 film of that name, “You had me at hello.”