For example, how easy it
proved to adapt to a country where ther is no pressure to join
groups. The famous French spirit of individualism crops up everywhere,
and nowhere more than in the attitude "I do what I want
to do". This has its definite good points : nobody will
bug you if you are a parent and don't want to join the PTA (my
kids are 9 and 14, and I have not yet got the courage to join
and probably never will). Not to mention book clubs or garden
clubs or block parties, which don't exist here to my knowledge.
20 Years in France, Still Part of the Foreign Legion
|| When people learn that I have lived in France for
nineteen years, there inevitable comment is "Then you must
have become French." My spontaneous answer to that question
is, "No." But upon deeper reflection, I have to say
that, while in many circumstances the cultural gap is, if anything,
only greater, in others I feel that, yes, I have become "almost"
I have also come to accept -
and love - other customs that seemed strange to me at first.
For example I thought that you had to invite your husband's
boss to dinner. I turns out that there is no iron-clad rule,
and most of the time there is no pressure to do so.
I love, and am slowly getting
used to, planning for a minimum of five weeks vacation a year
and sometimes as many as eight. I am still not French, though,
in the sense that I haven't quite got it down to barely finishing
one vacation and then immediately planning the next.
I like the fact that "no"
does not mean "no" in the way it does in Anglo-Saxon
or Germanic countries. "No" invariably means that the
person in question doesn't want to bother. However if you stand
there long enough and wait him or her out, you generally get
what you want.
This freedom to do (more or less)
what you want has its good and bad sides. Like most foreigner,
I take the goods for myself and look at the bads as a necessary
evil I have to live with. Smoking, for example. The good side
is that the French are finally starting to figure out that tobacco
is somehow wrong, or at least disagreeable, and in some places,
they are starting to put up no-smoking signs (the bad side is
that this not widespread yet and that in most public places you'll
invariably end up with someone smoking in your face - and the
French smoke a lot). "But " says an American
friend of mine who has also been here twenty years "at least
they aren't puritanical about it. In the United States, they
treat you like a leper." This confirms a particularly attractive
Latin characteristic of the French - little or no moralizing.
In this vein, most French people think Jim an Tammy Bakker and
their public confessions of sin on TV are just plain grotesque
and that Richard Nixon's downfall was a downright shame. After
all, it's a well-known fact that all politicians cheat,
isn't it? And as far a fads are cncerned, whether it is the nosmoking
fad or the jogging fad, the French just won' go for it. They're
too busy fighting among themselves to agree on anything.
As for fighting, I am far too
Anglo-Saxon to actually enjoy a dispute, and I certainly
could go without a fight a day to keep me in shape. On the other
hand, I have grown to appreciate the fact that you can "have
it out" with people without getting violent. As my French
husband pointed out, verbal fighting is merely jousting, not
to be taken too seriously. "It's no fun to pick fights with
Americans," he says. "There is no intermediate level
of aggression. It's either a big smile and be nice, or pick up
Indeed, it does seem like everyone
is always fighting over something (the language lends itself
to this - my American family has often been convinced that everything
was going up in smoke when all my husband and I were debating
was what wine to have with dinner). I walk out the door in the
morning and get into my car...which is blocked by someone who
has chosen to double-park rather than look for a space, because
it's much more convenient to leave the car smack in the middle
of the street. So then the hooting begins, and I search each
store for the culprit. Then there's a little verbal skirmish
as he or she slips into his or her car (sometimes guiltily with
apologies, sometimes with none at all). I might, at any time
thereafter, step in a large load of dog droppings because the
citizens of Paris are notably unhindered by any kind of civic
sense, and, as I drove (like a slowpoke) down the street, I am
passed by irate drivers who race me to the next red light. Even
before the light has turned, they are off.
When in France, you have to know
how to râler, gronder, enguirlander,
engueuler (this list is long). In other words, you have
to know how to spend time dealing with others on a confrontational
basis (this can be over simple things such as getting cheated
on change or bigger ones like having it out with a taxi driver
who is free but just isn't in the mlood to take you to where
you want to go). If you are a self-respecting Frenchman, you
get mad. As a phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon, even after twenty years
here, I fume inwardly but just can't seem to externalize it the
way the French do so admirably. "Tête de veau
(calf head)," my husband yells at another driver as we slalom
around a traffic jam. Cowering in the seat beside him, I'm sure
I have just seen my final moments. Mais non. The other
driver shouts something even worse.
On one recent day, I was driving
down a small one-way street, and what did I see in front of me
but a small white Peugeot whose driver has left the car, with
lights flashing - in the middle of the street. When the owner
of the Peugeot finally showed up ten minutes later, instead of
apologizing for the inconvenience, he deigned to look me in the
eye and ask, "What's the matter, are you in a hurry?"
The most extaordinary discovery
I made, after ttwenty years of living here, is that not only
is "being nice" not high on the list of values, but,
very frankly, if you are always "nice," you are seen
as one big poire (sucker). Hence, since "being nice"
is not something people set out to do, getting treated nicely
is a totally unpredictable occurrence. As one observer noted,
"Americans are nice to people they don't know yet;the French
are nice to the people they know." Hence, you see dogs in
butcher shops (or worse, restaurants) and smokers all ov er the
place because no one feels any deep obligation to not bother
people one doesn't know.
"The Frenchman," wrote
Henry Miller, "protects the vessel which contains the spirit."
And the French have a wonderful expression for the way they deal
with life. Ils se défendent. They defend themselves
against the unknown, against others. If you get a crowd of French
people who don't know each other, the results can be excruciating
or hilarious. An American friend of mine, who didn't know any
better, threw a big party composed entirely of French neighbors
who didn't know one another, at her apartment - by the end of
the evening, no one had said a word. The basic suspicion of others,
which govern social life, is very French, and so, if you live
here long enough, you soon learn to be on your guard and defend
yourself. Where else but in Frence could you hear someone remark
to a new acquaintance who is getting too familiar "On
n'a pas gardé les cochons ensemble" ("We
didn't keep the pigs together"). Or "Est-ce que
je vous demande si votre grand-mère fait du vélo."
("Did I ask you if your grand-mother rides a bike?").
Private life is really private life.
The French love to challenge
authority. If it is there, it is to be contested. I used to be
shocked that the only sign of national unity I could see in France
was the solidarity against authority. I'll never forget
the first time I was driving down the highway with my husband
and a driver in the other lane flashed his lights at us. "Something
must be wrong", I said, "No," he replied serenely,"that
means there is a police car up ahead." which there was.
Since that first episode, I have had repeated experiences of
this type. The general rule of thumb seems to be "solidarity
against the state" - and very frankly when you see the way
many French cops act, (snotty as if they'd love to throw you
in jail if they could only think up a way), you've got to hand
it to the French for warning each other against them. One day
I was in a car with a French friend who had run a red light she
hadn't seen. When the policeman drew up alongside the car, instead
of getting small and humble, she started bawling him out. Having
got out of the situation without a ticket, she turned to me and
laughted. "You've always got to be on the offensive, otherwise,
it's all over."
The problem with all of this
is that it starts to rubb off after a while. An American friend
who has been working in Paris for the past fifteen years admits
that the glorious feeling of doing exactly the opposite of what
you are supposed to do has finally gotten to him. "When
I go back to Montana to visit", he says, "I find myself
speeding on the highway and breaking the law just to show that
In spite of all the things that
I appreciate about the French and even the ways in which I myself
feel "almost" French, there are still a number of things
that daily prove to me that I will never, ever be French.
The French will never get me
to abandon my perhaps naive belief that the customer is always
right. I'm always shocked when a haughty salesperson drives me
out of a store. However, after twenty years of experience, I
still don't know how to deal with this. My French friends do,
though. The other day, one of them went to buy a steam cooker
for fish in a grand magasin. After finally locating the
department, he told the saleslady that he was interested in buying
an aluminium steam cooker, not the stainless steel one she was
showing him. "I don't talk to people who eat in aluminium!"
she replied. My reaction would probably have been to slink away,
muttering to myself. My French friend drew himself up and glacially
ordered her to get her boss. Moral of the story : always go to
I know I'm not French because
I like to laugh loudly and have fun. I like to let myself go.
And that would seem consistent, for I am an American. It has
often been explained to me that Americans (according to the French)
are les grands enfants. We aren't cynical or jaded, so
we can have fun and see the world in naive terms. Aren't we lucky
? I still have a hard time picturing Euro-Disneyland in the land
of cynicism- but who knows?
Language, ironically enough,
is another thing that separates me from the French, for in spite
of fluency, I am plagued with an accent. And your accent follows
you everywhere... For the past twenty years, every time I open
my mouth and say more than two words, people say "Are you
American or English?" In France, you can have an accent,
and of cours be French (many naturalized French have accents!),
but you know in your heart of hearts that, until you speak French
without an accent, you can never really be French.
Another language difference is
the highly developed art of understatement. When you drink a
glass of the most fantastic Bordeaux you have ever had in your
life, you don't raise the glass and exclaim "Wonderful!"
You sniff it, sip it, and then say, with a considered frown,
"Ca se laisse boire(it's palatable)". The French
speak in negatives rather than positives, so rather than saying
the weather is nice, they say it is "pas mauvais".
If a French person sees a newborn baby, he will say "Il
n'est pas vieux, hein?". If you're really guted, you
learn to combine understatement with the negative form. For example,
the orther day, my son got 19,5 points out of 20 on a math test.
His teacher wrote "Pas mal... (not bad)". You
have to be French to understand this "second-degree"
humor. That is to say that in any case the teacher might have
put "Not bad" but since the grade was so good, it was
funnier and more creative to put "Not bad" rather than
just "Great." Get it?
But on to something more subtle
still. Even if you have the language down pat, as many people
do, accent and all, there is the whole othe problem of codes.
For example, you should known that when someone is calling you
"Cher ami" it doesn't necessarily mean "Dear
friend", - it may mean "Drop dead, sonny", depending
on the intonation of the speaker and his accompanying facial
gestures. All of this is, of course, exquisitely polite. The
French have unwritten codes that are extremely strong and persuasive.
Like the Japanese, the French have developed these codes so that
no one loses face. If, for example, someone calls you while you
are in the middle of dinner, you don't say anything so gross
as, "I'm eating. Can I call you back?" You let the
person talk, and at some moment in the conversatiobn you say
something like "Oh yes, I just saying to so-and-so at the
dinner table", and hope that the caller will get the hint
(which he will if he is French).
Okay, so I'm not French and never
will be. Even small differences underscore this fact. If I open
two windows to create a cross breeze, I'm accused of causing
a "draft" (the open and closed window controversy extends
to public transportation - if there is a dispute, the closed
window will always win, even in stifling heat!). At cocktail
parties, I invariably find myself backing into plants or the
nearest wall because, as an American, I need more space. If I
cut a leek, I just hack it any old way, whereas my French mother-in-law
maintains that it must be decapitated and then sliced lengthwise
into four. I I still squirm at conversations that take a Rabelaisian
turn. I'll never forget the dinner conversation in which
the sizes of the sexual organs of two newborn babies were being
compared just as if we were discussing the weather.
Las but not least, I'll never
be French because malheureusement I have never been able
to find the Frenchwomen's secret for looking sexy even when they're
standing around in old blue jeans and T-shirts. Is it because
the old jeans are just tight enough without being vulgar and
the T-shirts have just the right cut? I remeber the awe with
which I watched my friend Chantal, who lived next to me in a
chambre de bonne in our student days, as she waltzed up
eight flights of stairs in a navy pea jacket she had transformed
from a former long coat, with a scarf tied just so. She could
have stepped just out of the pages of Vogue. Not to mention
Sandrine who, although pushing her middle 50s, is the sexiest
woman I know - bu if you dissect what she has on, you cannot
figure out how she has arrived at the total effect - and you
certainly would never ask. So just what is that little
je ne sais quoi that elevates simplicity into style? After almost
twenty years, I'm still trying to figure it out. It should keep
me going for another twenty, at least.
(European Travel & Life -
November 1990 by Harriet Welty Rochefort)