Differences in national character were a staple of eighteenth century Enlightenment writing, with the contrast between the French and the English absorbing most of the ink. This morning, when I returned from my walk, there was an e-mail message waiting for me from a neighbor and good friend in our copropriété in Paris that perfectly illustrates the fundamental and unbridgeable gap between the French and the Anglo-Americans, a difference manifested in their philosophy as well as in their daily behavior. A few words of explanation will be necessary.
Our copropriété consists of three connected buildings. Two of them [including the one in which we have our apartment] date from the seventeenth century, the third is later. The three buildings form a hollow square with an interior garden from which one enters our tiny ground floor apartment. Our building fronts on the street, rue Mâitre Albert [i.e., Albertus Magnus, the teacher of Thomas Aquinas.] In a successful effort to maintain the look and feel of Old Paris, the city government has imposed very strict zoning regulations, one of which stipulates that periodically the owners of a building in central Paris must have the façade scraped and re-painted. This is a quite expensive procedure, requiring elaborate scaffolding to be put up. The arrangements are handled by the syndic, which is to say the building management company whom we owners collectively hire, paying them out of what would in America be called condo fees.
This year our turn came around, and when we were there in October, the scaffolding was up and two men were busy scraping and painting. Our friend, an American expatriate who has lived in Paris for more than thirty years, sits on the conseil of the copropriété, which is to say the condo board. [There are only fifteen apartments in the complex, so this is not a very big deal, but someone has to do it -- I sit on the condo board of our little 24 unit association here in Chapel Hill.] The rules governing which owners have to pay for what are quite elaborate and spelled out in the massive règlements, which I have actually plowed through in French! For example, there is an elevator that serves about two thirds of the apartments, but we in the interior courtyard do not have access to it, so when it needs repairs, we do not pay. On the other hand, the façade needing the work is our building, so only those of us who live in bâtiment A are charged for the very expensive work. Our apartment is 2.77% of the square meterage of all fifteen apartments, and therefore we are in general charged 2.77% of the cost of any work done. But we are, alas, 10% of our building, so we are being charged 10% of the façade work.
So much for background.
At a conseil meeting just held, our friend protested the sloppy oversight by the syndic. One of the things they failed to do was to make sure that the insides of all the first floor window shutters were painted as well as the outsides. She noted that the painters had done this for the other three street level windows, but had not asked us whether we wanted our shutters painted as well, whereupon the other members of the conseil made fun of her [because she is a woman!! No kidding] and smugly informed her that there are only three windows on the street level, not four.
This is the point at which national character enters. This discussion was taking place in one of the upper apartments, accessed by the elevator. IT NEVER OCCURRED TO ANYONE THERE TO TAKE THE ELEVATOR DOWN TO THE GROUND FLOOR, WALK OUT, AND LOOK TO SEE WHETHER THERE ARE THREE WINDOWS OR FOUR.
Indeed, so thoroughly assimilated is our expatriate friend that she sent me an e-mail asking me whether I have a window, rather than pausing on her way in or out of the building to look and see!
It really is not difficult to understand why the French prefer Descartes to Hume.