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Ça n’existe pas!

Every now and then one has a “French experience” — it’s when you have an encounter with a cultural difference that hits you right between the eyes.

In 1994, the furnished rental apartment we leased appointed its beds with a “traversin,” two large square pillows and a “duvet” placed in a “housse de couette” … all that were very foreign to me.

30-1-12traversinA traversin30-1-12taiedetraversinA taie de traversin30-1-12bhvTHE BHV

A traversin is what we might call a “bolster” that is long like a hot dog and rests at the head of the bed. It has a washable case around it and it’s very convenient as it acts as a back rest, also protecting the wall behind the bed — if you don’t have a head board — or even if you do. The square pillows aren’t all that ergonomically comfortable, but over the years, I’ve become accustomed to them. The duvet is a comforter that becomes encased in the housse to protect it — two top sheets that are sewn together to sandwich the comforter, eliminating the need for a top sheet and a bed spread. It’s a very European way of making a bed.

The traversins have become out of fashion, but who cares? I still like them and outfit every bed in every apartment I personally own. When an apartment has twin beds that come together to make a queen-size bed, I use two traversins of 90 cm each. If the bed is made up as one queen, the two traversins can be encased in one taie de traversin (casing) of 185 cm length (or there about) to make one long roll. But, if the beds are separated, each traversin must have its own casing of a shorter length. Are you following me here?

For “Le Matisse,” the Nice apartment [Rent Le Matisse], I ordered the traversins from an online merchant along with the taies de traversins of 185 cm length. I scoured the Net for the shorter taies, but couldn’t find them. It was puzzling since the others I have had easily been purchased at the Marché Saint-Pierre in Montmartre. (If you don’t already know about this wonderland of fabrics and linens, take note!)

Saturday I set out to find them, first checking a textiles outlet store on rue du Temple across from the BHV called Texaffaires Linge de Maison, at number 7. They had a small selection, but nothing worthy of the Matissien apartment, so my friend, Geraldine Kaylor (The Travel Oyster), and I crossed the street to the store that “has everything but the kitchen sink” (the BHV) where the linens are bountiful, but expensive.

This is the period of “Les Soldes” — those few weeks a year when the merchants are ‘allowed’ to mark down their wares to make room for the new collections. The BHV was packed, as it always is on a Saturday, but doubly so because of the sales. We fought our way to find an available sales person and asked, “Bonjour Madame. Excusez-moi de vous déranger, mais où se trouve les taies de traversins?” To which she replied La bàs (over there) as she pointed to an area nearby.

We had already been there only to find the long ones, not the short ones, so I further explained. “Oui madame. Merci, mais je n’ai pas trouvé les taies de 120 cm — seulement les taies de 185 cm.”

In the split of a second, she retorted, “Madame, ça n’existe pas.”

We both must have smiled, since clearly she was wrong, but we knew in the blink of our eyes that we were having a French cultural experience when, because it didn’t fit into her little world, it couldn’t possibly exist in any other. In unison, we declared, “Madame, bien sûr il existe. J’ai plusieurs a la maison et ils sont en vente dans une boutique a coté.”

Again, she insisted, “Ça n’existe pas.” By this time it was getting pretty funny. We each could barely keep a straight face as we both argued further with her and in the end, I simply said (in my bad French), “Madame, it does exist. Perhaps not at the BHV.” To this, she agreed and once we were of like minds, asked how other people manage to put a casing on the 90 cm traversins that are so easy to find and purchase. She explained that they use the long ones and tie knots at the end!

As we were leaving the BHV empty-handed and laughing, I related a story to Geraldine about once upon a time going to France Telecom to purchase a two-line phone. It was exactly the same argument. “Ça n’existe pas.” No matter how much I argued with the young gentleman, he stood his ground that it would be impossible to purchase one phone that accepted two different phone lines. Of course, he was proven wrong when I returned from a trip to the States with my GE brand two-line phone that cost about $20 and has a whole slew of features including conference calling.

All these years I’ve been trying to understand what in the French culture instills the idea that if they don’t have knowledge of something, then it simply doesn’t exist…not that they could possibly simply not know? But look at it from their perspective — to us, in our usual black and white way, it means it doesn’t exist, but to the French, in their more subtle tones, it means they are “not familiar with it” — even if it’s quite common elsewhere.

Get it?

A la prochaine…

adrian st-tropezAdrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris

Respond to Adrian

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Matisse style 2P.S. I am once again in Nice. This is the week Le Matisse will be readied, lock, stock and barrel! Wednesday I’ll have much to report about the latest adventure on the Riviera. Stay tuned, but meanwhile, book your stay in Le Matisse by emailing adrianleeds.com.

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