At some point in the not-to-be-finely-pinpointed past, I was in Paris with a small group of writers, and we took a tour of the Printemps department store. It’s a lot like any department store in the U.S., with the exception of its 6th floor Brasserie, which is beneath an incredible Art Nouveau cupola of 3,185 pieces of stained glass. As I ate steak tartare and frites with the store’s representatives, I learned that the dome was taken apart, tile by tile, during World War II, and then reinstalled afterwards, by the same company.
Anyway, one of our group was a true fashion maven, and earlier that day, she’d disparaged Printemps, vigorously. It was, it seemed, not a place that she thought that anyone with an ounce of fashion sense would shop. But during the tour, those sentiments had not only vanished , but were entirely replaced. “I think you’re doing a deeper buy of the fashion lines than all the other stores,” she said, as we toured the second floor, packed with hyper-expensive apparel by international designers. And of the hotel we were staying out, the InterContinental Le Grand, she said “I was thrill-ed to be staying there, not because it was near the Louvre, or not far from views of the Eiffel Tower, no no, it’s because it was so near to Printemps!” She had an appointment and left the tour early, but she vowed she’d be back before they closed to do some shopping on her own. As she dashed out the door, I knew she’d not be setting foot in there again on our trip, and she didn’t.
Whatever you want to call it — hypocrisy, a social fib, a white lie — for better or worse, they’re a part of travel. We’re guests, by definition, when we’re in another city, state, country, if not in someone’s home. (True, we’re often paying guests, which gives us a little more latitude, but paying a bill doesn’t relieve you of the obligation to be polite.) So what’s the right thing for a traveler to do when when you really don’t like something? Most etiquette books that I’ve seen over the years counsel against being untruthful, but I’m not sure I have the savoir faire to tell an unpleasant truth without seriously derailing the social dynamic. Once, when I was in Nome, Alaska, I was served a delicacy called mukduk, which is hunks of whale skin and blubber tinged pink with blood, frozen, and then hacked into small pieces with an ulu. To me, it tasted like a cold, chewy piece of a frozen dirty aquarium. I didn’t say that, though. I said “mmmm”.
So yes, I’ll lie and say I like something when I don’t. I tend to keep it brief — one of my regular travel companions has said that he can tell when I haven’t enjoyed something if I say “it was lovely”, and no more. “It’s lovely” is actually my standard, and sincere, compliment, and I didn’t really think about it until he pointed out, but when I’ve actually enjoyed something I want to say more and more and more about it. When I haven’t, I want to say very little, if that.* I think that’s why my Parisian colleagues’s lies stood out to me — they were so detailed.
Still, I can understand the damage that’s done even with the small social lies I tend to tell. Someone you’re with probably knows what you’re up to, and it can’t help but damage your credibility in their eyes. “I guess it’s a dance we all do,” I wrote in my notes about Madame Printemps. “But when [she] left to go to the airport and said, “it was like traveling with friends, really,” I had to wonder.”
And when she hugged me goodbye, we clunked heads.
*You’ll earn my (sincere) admiration if you can identify the movie that I’m quoting.
Alison J. Stein
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