Friday, 11 May 2012

Perfect Gentlemen

Well, the stories in yesterday's combox about men's stupid lines were by turns hilarious and disgusting, and now that we have got all that out of our systems, it is time to think about good men.

Good men stories might not be as easy to recall as bad men stories because they don't involve adrenaline and umpteen conversations with girlfriends later. And it is one of the hallmarks of a gentleman that he is never intrusive and therefore does not make deep impressions on our memories. This seems a shame, really.

But the recent-enough memory of Father Pawel lugging my monster suitcase through Krakow reminds me of another time a man--a complete stranger--took possession of my suitcase and entertained me until his train stop in the south of France.

I was in Milan, about to get into a First Class car, and all of a sudden there was a short, slight, bespectacled, business-suited, married Frenchman saying, "Vous me permettez, Mademoiselle?" (or whatever). He took charge of my suitcase and, without any offense whatsoever, me. He sat across from my forward-facing seat and chatted gaily away about France and Quebec and Israel (which he loved), and I was rapt. And he never stopped being delightful even when he trashed American cultural imperialism (as Europeans often do to Canadians), and I pointed out that he was drinking Coca-Cola.

I realize he sounds a bit too much like Fabrice de Sauveterre in Nancy Mitford's novels to be real, but I assure you he was as real as the railway. His parents or grandparents had returned to France from Algeria and he was Jewish. No stereotype. And yet I knew that I had encountered the famous French chivalry of yore, and that the magic land where women are cherished and made much of and then suddenly forgotten was not entirely a myth.


But that was thirteen years ago, and my thoughts return to Father Pawel lugging my suitcase onto a tram and then off the tram and then onto another tram and then off that tram. Then the poor man carried my suitcase down a long flight of stairs into the Krakow Glowny train station and hauled it onto the train and, in one final act of chivalry, heaved it into the overhead rack.

We looked at it dubiously and wondered if a sudden stop of the train might not suddenly hurl it down upon my head. Father Pawel pulled it away from the space immediately over my assigned seat. But another thought troubled him.

"What will you do when you get to Warsaw?" he worried.

I had been talking about the complementarity of the sexes for two days and thought about it for three weeks.

"I will find a man," I said cheerfully.

This satisfied Father Pawel, and off he went.

No man had bought a ticket to a seat in my train compartment. So when I got to Warsaw, I stood on a seat and pulled the horrible suitcase down myself. But that's not the point.

The point is that "being a gentleman" is not about knowing what side of a woman you walk down the street beside or taking your hat off when you meet her in the street (although I think this charming) or opening every door she has to go through. It is about making the lives of the people around you a little easier. It is about making people feel safe and appreciated. It is about recognizing that nature has made life and objects just a little bit heavier for women and trying to make up for it.

The opening-the-door thing and the giving-up-the-seat-on-the-bus thing are nice although really just a token gesture when the woman involved is very young and not carrying anything. It's the real help and the very thoughtful gestures--like writing a bread-and-butter note and posting it--that are the hallmarks of gentility.

That said, the Polish ladies-hand-kissing thing I can definitely get used to. Are they, like, the last men on earth who do that? And when they do it, it is not weird. Like the Frenchman with my suitcase, they carry it off.

Okay, now your stories about gentlemen, ladies, plz. Comments moderation is off.


K said...

There was this one time I was waiting for service from a shop assistant. When the said assistant served the more elderly gentleman before me, he turned to me and said, perfectly good-naturedly, 'Sorry dear, age before beauty!' Which could have been completely creepy in another situation, but his manner was so free of any ulterior motives that awkward-looking-16-year-old-me felt really gratified.

Eowyn said...

This story of a gentleman involved a less-than-gentleman as well. 19-year-old me was at a small party, something very low-key, when a friend decided to experiment with far too much vodka. Quite drunk, he proceeded to quietly insult me, calling me cold and unfeeling...not new themes for him...and I, not knowing better at 19, sat there and just took it. An older, big brother figure DID know better however, and he brusquely informed the drunk guy that they were going for a walk. They were gone for awhile while vodka boy sobered up and I was left to enjoy the party in peace. The experience has stuck in my memory because it set a new standard for me in terms of what I need to put up with and what I don' gentlemanly "older brother" friend valued me more than I valued myself in that moment.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, Seraphic. I think that it is a shame that we do not acknowledge and celebrate gentlemanly moments as much as we reel from ungentlemanly moments. But this may be explained, among other reasons, by the fact that the gentlemanly moments are usually not isolated moments, but rather the constant expressions of virtues that have been quietly been cultivated in the souls of wonderful men, for months and years and decades. The moments do not stand out, then, because the character they stand for is what shines.

Sheila said...

Whenever I travel by plane, there's always some guy around to help me with my carryon. I don't know if it's my helpless appearance ('m short, slight, and look frail although I'm not), or the way I kind of size up the suitcase first to figure out how I'm going to get it up there, but someone always jumps in and grabs it. They really light up when I thank them profusely ... perhaps they were afraid of offending me with their offer. I find, actually, that 90% of people are really, really polite when traveling. Something about the inconvenience we're all going through together seems to bond us and make us try to spare each other further grief.

One time, at a party in college, a guy shoved me to get to the CD player and change the music. Four guys immediately took him aside and told him where to get off. I became close friends with three of them, and married the fourth!

I'm very lucky in the men I know.

Shiraz said...

I have SO many examples of this sort of thing, but here is the first one that sprang to mind: a few years ago, I was in Germany for the summer. I had received some distressing news, and was silently in tears in the metro. I sat there quietly, sad, for a few stops. A man sitting across from me stood up just before a stop and passed me a piece of paper. On it he had drawn a scene with a smiling bunny holding out a flower. Then he just hopped off the train.

RMVB said...

so this one was a "date", but I still was really impressed, but not until I thought about it later - beacuse, like you said Seraphic, it was so non-intrusive that I hardly had time to notice.
Anyway, my "friend" came to visit me from long distance and we wanted to go out and do something. He had found a groupon for a fun event, but it was only for one ticket - so he went online, set up an account for me (pausing only to let me type in my info, and then snatched the computer away), found the deal and signed up for it for me. Then as we went out he made sure he knew exactly where we were going and navigated the (to him) foreign metro so that I could keep my hands in my pockets (it was freezing) and laugh at his jokes appropriately. I NEVER don't know where I am, but I was able to rely on him completely for finding our way that night (and for him having gotten the tickets), and didn't have a clue where the metro entrance was because of it. It was really nice to be able to trust someone like that and not have to be the "mother" of the situation.

Tess said...

I've had the pleasure of meeting Michael Novak twice and both times he kissed my hand at parting. It was the most lovely, graceful gesture from a very old man. I was incredibly touched both times and absolutely loved it. I agree that I could definitely get used to that!

On the other hand, a week or two ago I was on a crowded metro car with no empty seats and a young man about my age (early 20s) stood up to give me his seat. For some reason I felt horribly awkward and embarrassed when he did so. The only reason I accepted his seat was because I've been given decades of training in "being a lady," an education which compelled me to do the polite thing, thank him and sit down (my upbringing was unusual, as that description shows). But the whole rest of the metro ride, as he stood a little ways away from me, I couldn't help feeling really embarrassed and wishing he hadn't given me his seat. He was dressed in a very old-fashioned way (wearing a newsboy cap and waistcoat) which may have contributed to my discomfort. It was so odd because I've always been taught to feel honored and pleased when a man gives up his seat for me, but in this case I felt embarrassed and displeased. It has bothered me ever since that I felt this way. Am I just being ungrateful? Or is pride preventing me from appreciating a kind gesture? Has anyone else experienced something like this?

fifi said...

The thing I love about Jane Austen's books is that the "good guys" in them, the ones who the heroines end up marrying, are all the thoughtful kind of gentlemen who ask Harriet Smith to dance at the party. They are not the Frank Churchills who are full of themselves and burden their secret fiances with extravagant presents, forcing them to fib about it because they can't explain them to other people.

In this vein, I wonder about Tess's story. I think the key to being a gentleman is not doing things just because they are "polite" and not drawing attention to yourself in doing them. I've known guys who did this too, and you just sort of had to stand by and let them do their thing, even though they were doing it for themselves, not for you. It is uncomfortable. A true gentleman won't act in a "gentlemanly" way if that action will be a burden on someone. It's the thought(fulness) that counts. I wonder whether Tess's discomfort stemmed from feeling like she was singled out or embarrassed.

Young Canadian RC Male said...

Hi Seraphic. Just want to say as one of your young male readers of said minority or non-targeted audience, I like this post especially near the end saying what being a "gentleman" is.

In fact it reminds me of how Christ washed the feet of the disciples which we re-cant on holy Thursday liturgies (or don't if the parish/pastor took the cowardly way out of the "Vir problem") and also how Jesus stood up for the Samaritan woman.

Jesus himself was the perfect gentleman in these actions of servitude and standing up for women (especially a Samaritan woman!). And in He, Himself, telling us to be perfect as His Father was perfect, gave us earthly, doable examples for us men to emulate Him in being a perfect gentleman.

Agree with this correlation everyone?

Anna said...

I have known far too many gentlemen! A couple stories:

1) When I traveled to World Youth Day with my church's high school youth group as a teenager, another guy on the trip frequently helped me carry my luggage... which was a huge blessing because we walked for miles and miles! Seven years later, we're engaged. So arguably he had ulterior motives, but he never tried to make me feel like I owed him anything for his help.

2) The first week of my freshman year of college, I was playing ultimate frisbee with some of my new friends and some older students. A freshman guy swore at some point after messing something up... and an upperclassman chewed him out for swearing in front of ladies! Corny and old-fashioned, yes (and it's not like I've never sworn myself), but I appreciated his effort to keep the atmosphere free of vulgarity. In other situations, this same upperclassman also went out of his way to make us poor awkward freshmen feel welcome to the college.

n.panchancha said...

I love the stories! And I'm happy that at least one man snuck in here and read said stories... Take note, gents!

I was very blessed to grow up among gentlemanly men, and I wish for the sake of all the gents who've been considerate towards me that I could remember everything they've done... You know, perhaps compile a "Good Job, Men" biennial review, to be circulated at all major Home Depots, etc. A few that stand out:

1. On a visit to my old undergrad town: I was walking home from downtown with some friends, and was feeling badly for one of my friends who was walking up ahead of us, by herself, on account of being really upset about a bad work situation she'd have to return to the next day. One of my male friends was walking beside me and being very lovely and funny, but I think he could tell I wasn't completely enjoying myself. He asked what was up, and I admitted I wished there were something I could do to make solo-walker-friend feel better. Said male friend somehow smoothly handed me off into a conversation with a couple of our other friends, and when I next looked up ahead, he was walking with no-longer-solo-friend, and he had somehow got her laughing, too. It struck me as a very gentlemanly response to the situation, in that it seemed he was genuinely concerned about everyone's comfort. (Ten points, friend!)

2. A fellow held a door open for me a few weeks ago (don't worry, not in itself unusual, even in darkest Vancouver), and when I thanked him he smiled and said, "No problem! Keep being lovely," and walked off. Now, I know compliments from strangers can sometimes come across as creepy, but the fact that it wasn't in any way sexual, and seemed completely un-self-interested (he didn't try to follow me or get my attention or anything afterwards), made it perfectly pleasant for me. I got the sense that he just enjoyed brightening my day, which he did.

Men: Do not throw rocks at them; most of them are trying really hard. :)

Urszula said...

Shiraz, what a lovely story! The fact that he left the metro right afterwards makes his gesture really selfless.

I've been really lucky in the men I've known. Arguably the most stellar example are Polish male friends who always walked me and other girls back to our dorms at night, even though it was out of their way, when we were spending a semester abroad in France. They had a certain fame of being chivalrous amongst the females of the university. I didn't care much either way about them opening doors for us or not (they always did), but it was lovely to always feel safe and feel like an older brother was looking out for me.

Once I got stranded at JFK airport for a night in December, and a lovely young man in the same situation struck up a conversation and kept watch over my suitcases as well as offered me his travel pillow to make the hard airport bench I was trying to sleep on more tolerable. We parted at our respective boarding gates; never saw or heard from him again, but that night, he seemed like an angel!

Seraphic said...

These are lovely stories! Thank you for sharing. It's wonderful when men are helpful instead of, you know, intrusive and creepy.

NY girl said...

I love the theme! I'm a big fan of good men . . . having a great dad and a slew of good brothers helps! Last week, I was moving internationally and wasn't quite sure how I was going to manage 4 suitcases, a carry-on and a pocketbook when I had a layover. My bags weighed over 30kg each and I needed 2 carts. When I went to collect my bags at my layover airport my "guardian angel" was there. He helped with all 4. Funnily his never came off . . . When I got to customs, the agent insisted on taking one of my baggage carts and brought me to the bag transfer counter. It wasn't a "big" deal but it made a hard move just a little easier. Thank you good men!

Jaclyn said...

My father has always been the perfect example of a gentlemen...standing when a woman walks into the room, opening doors, carrying heavy items, but he also taught me to change a tire, haul hay bales, and take care of myself. That said, I am always surprised when the men in my life open the door for me, pay for dinner, offer to help me carry stuff.

There are two stories that come to mind: About 9 years ago when I was driving down the back roads in MN and my car broke down...I had no cell phone and my sister started to panic. The nearest farm was about a mile away. After saying a quite prayer two men drove up with a derby car on a trailer and they fixed my car and gave me instruction to relay to my dad and left before I had a chance to ask their names...I call them my guardian angels.

The other was more recent. I went on a ski trip with a young adult group this past winter and I discovered after a few slopes that my boots were too loose and so every time I had to put them on all weekend long the one gentleman I was skiing with had to buckle them on me to get them tight enough -- I felt like a princess :) He also bought be coffee, got all the doors for me, and took care of me every time I lost a ski so I always felt safe.

There are so many men out there who want to be called to be a gentleman...we just had to be ladies and let them.