Thursday, September 2, 2010

La Belle Vie...or why the French really aren't rude

The French have a reputation. You know it. I know it. They know it. Sometimes it's annoying, like when they think they invented brownies and berry cobbler just because they've started making chocolate cakes and crumbles. But what their reputation is really about in my opinion is pride; in culture, art, language, food and wine. And if you think about it, they've got a lot to be proud of.  Of course their medical exams are weird and I've yet to visit the rumored horror that is the Prefecture, but nobody's perfect. They know how to live and I'm fully on the lifestyle bandwagon.

I like the fact that most stores close for lunch and on Sundays. It took some getting used to but now I plan accordingly. At least they're thoughtful enough to post the names, addresses and times of the stores and pharmacies that are open on Sunday mornings in the weekly paper just in case you forgot some vital something, like wine which you can buy at 8:30 on a Sunday morning if you like. I have to admit that my Southern dry/wet county upbringing makes me feel a bit naughty buying it then The Sheriff or Miss Tammy Lee from the Evangelical Church are going to pop out and surprise me with an admonishment,"Girl, you may jus' be on th' road ta hell fer buyin' wiiine on a Sund'y!"

It is kind of annoying that my boulangerie closes all day on Thursdays but only because I always forget and want a delicious croissant aux amandes or a banette and feel deflated when I see the shuttered doors.
I'm happy that consumerism hasn't taken the country completely over. There are big box shops here that sell tat made in third world countries for pennies but even those close for lunch. You have to draw the line somewhere, right? And there are extravagances--parfum, lingerie, expensive and rare wines. But these are seen to improve the quality of life, not just to fill it up. The add beauty, art, and joy to life.

Their language may be one of my favorite things. It is well-known that they prefer it if you try to speak French when you're here. Americans like it when tourists and immigrants speak English too. But what I didn't understand until moving here is how much they love their language. And why. They do have a lovely turn of phrase and can make the most mundane things seem beautiful. There are many different ways to get a point across and they like subtlety, word play, and is a French word after all. This is one of the reasons French is hard to learn. For example, what do we call a tablecloth that runs the length of a table? A runner. That is what it does--runs across the table and that's kind of cute and descriptive I guess.  But the French call it (channel your inner Depardieu or Pepe Le Pew here) a 'chemin de table'. A little lane down the table. Nice, huh?

And when you taste wine, first you smell, then you swirl and the wine slowly spreads down the insides of the glass. This tells you if the wine is high or low in alcohol depending on how much and how slowly it spreads. Interesting enough on its own if you ask me. But they have a word for this coating of wine inside the glass that makes it even more lovely, 'une belle robe' or beautiful dress. If the wine is good it will wear a beautiful dress. Or then again, maybe you can't always be fooled by a beautiful dress. Works both ways I'll bet.

And as much as I was offended by Msr Fromage last May I have a better understanding of him now. He wasn't able to express himself as poetically in English as in French and that makes the point. Words are tools for creating masterpieces; beautiful, descriptive sentences. As Michele says of  her village, "C'est comme un poeme." This summer at the market a kind monsieur told Paul and me that 'our eyes together make the sea--vos yeux, ensemble, les couleurs de la mer' as a way of describing the color of the kids' eyes. Poetry.

Rude, proud, haughty--call it what you will. Aren't we all just as proud of our country and culture as the French? I'm glad I'm learning why and so far, on a good day, it feels like they have good reason.


  1. I love this! You've expressed the sentiment perfectly :-)

    My epicerie is closed on Wednesdays and it drives me batty!

  2. Excellent post, Aidan!

    You have such a generous response to the "we're closed for two hours because c'est le Midi". I remain an unorganized human being who still manages to forget it's Wednesday and what that means...

    I have been through the Prefecture experience (the paperwork, medical tests and waiting for a driver's license exchange--within the EU--took nearly two years) and I've lived to laugh (darkly) about it. Find out what your options are, if you ever find yourself needing to go: the Prefectures are known to have different degrees of efficiency, and you may be able to choose a better one.

    I do agree about the poetry inherent in so many French expressions; it's a lot of fun to discover the why behind some of the local turns of phrase.

    I'm generally quite positive about life here. If you do notice any edge here, it may be due to the fact that I've just gone 13 days without internet and have found myself on the losing end of a struggle to actually get service from Orange (France Telecom). Another rite of passage.

    Oh well, in Holland it was UPC, and it took even longer...Live and laugh!

  3. Excellent post! It's all about adapting and embracing the differences. Which at times can be annoying, but it isn't their fault that we're annoyed, it's just the way things are done in France.

  4. Beautiful post! I totally agree. I've often found that American tourist break a French rule of politesse before the French are rude, but since the Americans didn't realize they were doing something wrong, they just assume the French person was rude for no reason.

    I loved your description of the language. It's one of my favorite things out here, even if it does drive me crazy sometimes.


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