The orange hand was already flashing. I sighed and slowed down, waiting for the pedestrian signal to show a white walking symbol again.
I was tapping my foot, perfectly aware that my childish impatience wouldn’t make the light turn green any faster, when I saw her. Woman, mid-thirties, professional attire, her skirt accidentally tucked into her underwear.
Traffic stopped, people started crossing.
“Sorry, you may need to check your skirt, have a good day!”
I heard “oh, shit!” as I breezed past without looking back to avoid further embarrassment because this is the kind of comment that can save a day but doesn’t require any follow up or a lengthy explanation. Wardrobe malfunction happens. “Your butt looks very toned” or “nice choice of underwear” just can’t be uttered in this case.
I smiled to myself, secretly glad I said something.
Then I remembered the time I didn’t speak out.
It was a hot and humid summer day and I had taken Mark to the neighbourhood’s playground. We arrived at prime Canadian dinnertime, around 5 p.m., so it was empty but for a woman and two kids. If the toddlers hadn’t been her spitting image, I could have assumed she was the nanny. She looked both careless and energetic, two adjectives that hardly describe most mothers of toddlers at the end of a long summer day.
Mark, who was two at the time, went straight for one of the giant trucks the kids had brought. Of course, since they were all around the “you will not, under any circumstance, share your toys” milestone, one of the toddlers started protesting. The mother said something in a language I didn’t understand and, obediently, the toddler let go of the four trucks he was hoarding.
“Your son can play,” she said. “We have very nice trucks. We are Germans, Germans make good trucks!”
Indeed, the toy trucks looked sturdy and had the VW logo. And indeed, she looked like a National Geography poster for Germany—long, braided blond hair, blue eyes, fair skin, square shoulders, slender limbs.
Still, I’m French. I can’t possibly acknowledge the superiority of German automotive engineering, so I just nodded and smiled politely.
Her two kids were busy inspecting Mark, touching his hair. Once again, she said something in German and the kids backed off. Suddenly, I wished I spoke German—this language seemed to be a very effective discipline tool.
“They look at your son’s hair because it’s so black!” she explained.
“How old are your kids?” I asked.
“18 months and 3 years old.”
“You must have your hands full!” I joked.
She looked at her hands then at me, confused.
“I mean, you must be very busy.”
“Oh, yes. Sorry, I need to practise my English.”
She sounded like the usual German villain in French movies—and yes, many French movies have German villains—but again, maybe I sound like the typical French chick in Hollywood movies.
“Are you new to Canada?”
“My husband takes a course at university here, we joined him for the summer.”
The kids politely respected each other’s personal space for another ten minutes, then one of them crossed the Maginot line and I decided it was time to go home.
Mark’s tantrums were bad enough, I didn’t want to witness German toddlers’ emotional outbursts. Nein.
“Maybe we see each other in the park again,” she said when we left.
“I’m sure we will!” I replied.
A week later, on yet another unbearably hot and humid evening, I took Mark to the playground again. He ran toward the splash pad, and in the distance, I spotted two blonde-hair blue-eyed boys playing with a bucket. The Germans. But where was the mother?
It’s only when I was a few feet from the boys that I saw her. She was lying flat on her back on the grass, reading a German novel.
She was also topless.
Her older kid said something in German. She lowered her book and squinted.
“Oh, you came back! It’s so hot today,” she sighed, sitting up. “So, I pretend I’m at the beach.”
“Ah, yes, I see,” I acknowledged.
What else could I say?
There are signs for a lot of things in Canada—no loitering, no smoking, no idling, no skateboard, no littering, don’t feed the bird, etc., but I have yet to see a “no visible nipples” sign. The closest I can think of is a “no shirt, no service” sign in stores. So yes, I guess going topless in a small residential neighbourhood park is technically allowed but it’s still a major culture faux pas—or at least, it will be seen as such.
I don’t know much about German culture but in France, “les pays du nord,” a term encompassing Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and Scandinavia, are said to be more casual about nudity, body and sex issues. French go topless too at the beach… or at least, I do. Meanwhile, North Americans can’t seem to see the difference between nudity and sex and enforce a much lower threshold for what’s considered “indecent behaviour.” I’m not even getting into the US laws where urinating in public (admittedly, not classy and gross) can make you a sex offender.
My German friend, still topless, got up and broke up a fight between her toddlers, then she sat beside me on the grass.
“I was hoping to get tan before going home,” she said. “But no, white skin, white skin, white skin!”
“Oh, you’re going back?” I asked.
“Yes, on Sunday.”
It was Friday. I looked at her two kids playing, I looked at her, then I decided it wasn’t my place to tell her that going topless was very much frowned upon here. Canadian public moral could survive two more days of German sunbathing, after all.
I’ve never been in a position where I had to warn someone of a faux pas being committed. I do give advice, on this blog, based on my own cultural trials and error, but it feels different because by definition, advice is preemptive. For instance, I write, “don’t forget to tip!” but I wouldn’t shame a foreigner who doesn’t master the rule.
Cultural norms are weird and are best learned over time, observing people.
Who knows, maybe the German could have started a trend if she had stayed longer.