Dancing the Apology Dance

Even though I've been living in France for some time, some things don't stop to amaze me. One of those things is the "Apology Dance".

A couple of days ago we had to go to Paris and back by train, on a strike day. Originally the "perl strike" was supposed to end in June, but Jupiter remained firm in his wish to privatise the SNCF and rip off their employees special status, so the (some of the) unions announced they'll keep on going, and last Friday and Saturday were chosen days.

We had to go to Paris and booked our tickets online, and the information read that when you can reserve a seat that train will be going for sure.

Not unexpected, both trains we booked were cancelled. The first thing you learn in France as a German. Announcements like this come with a warranty to not apply.

But the French unions are nice and well-organised, and around 5 o'clock (p.m.) you can check which trains will go the next day. They are also very timid in this particular strike, because at the train station you wouldn't see any strike post or alike. An unwitting bystander would only wonder why there are so many people waiting at the train stations for so few trains going out and, possibly, smell a business opportunity: great demand, little supply.

The realms of the main train stations in Paris, artwork by Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

So, when going back, we found ourselves in the only train leaving Paris for the South/South-West (brown area above) around midday with a lot of other people. And we happened to end up in the carriage where a lot of seats we reserved.

Modern times. Fun thing is that although you can purchase tickets online (till pretty much the last minute, hail the Smartphone, our All-Saviour) and reservation usually comes at no extra price, most French trains are not equipped with automatic displays informing a passenger whether the seat is reserved or not. And stopped putting up the tiny little papers quite a time ago that in the pre-digital days informed you that the seat is taken (in contrast to the SNCF's German pseudo-privatised counterpart, Die Bahn).

And this is where you can observe a major cultural difference between Germany and France. How to deal with somebody sitting in your seat.

In Germany, you take the seat, you are booked for. So, don't be surprised sitting in a near-empty carriage and being asked by a nice old lady helping her to find her seat.

And if somebody is already sitting there (ignoring the info that the seat is reserved), firmly so:
I'm sorry, this is my seat. [Or just: You're sitting on my seat, the polite "sorry" is facultative.]
A striking difference to France.

When there are empty seats, you just take another place and let your right (and reservation) go. Should you be asked to move in a rather empty carriage, it may be a semi-naturalised German (like me) or tourist.

When the carriage is full, like it was this time, you can enjoy what I call the Apology Dance.

Timidly, the booked passenger approaches the reserved seat, checking several times that it is the right one to approach (the numbering system is odd, France is a country of words, not numbers).

Very politely, usually using several times an apologetic phrase/expression, the illegal occupant is addressed.
So sorry, what seat number do you have? — Well, we live in a computerised world: when you have the number 20 on your ticket, no-one else has.
Please apologise disturbing you, but is it possible that maybe you are sitting in the wrong place? — Not only in the wrong place, but also in the wrong train, it's a strike day. Took whatever train was going to get home again.
The seat's occupant answers naturally by apologising for having taken the seat, tickets are not rarely exchanged/showed to confirm claims, followed by an apology by the rightful owner to shoo you away.

Because it was a special situation, the very entertaining Apology Dances ended up in a Apology Frenzy (in course of which also we changed our seats twice, but in the end were lucky to still sit, likely on somebody else's reserved place).

Remember: when there are empty seats, you just take those, and don't bother somebody occupying yours (avoiding the Apology Dance interaction and having to shoo somebody). So quite a bit people had reservations for a seat in our carriage, but settled down on somebody else's. And people did not stop pouring in.

These are the moments when you have to love France.

PS I was told that France has become less polite than it used to be (la politesse could easily replace  fraternité in the three-word motto of the French Republic), but it has to go still a long way.
In Germany, such a situation would have been much more of hack-and-slash, and some nasty words might have been exchanged.

When you duckduck for "French politeness" you can find some helpful pages like this one at ThoughtCo introducing the most necessary phrases for the Apology Dance. 

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