I’ve never been especially drawn to France. I mean, apart from Paris – which I saw for the first time back in 2011 – France has never been on my bucket list.
Apparently this is strange. Most North Americans absolutely drool over all things French, there are more English expats in France than in any other country, and France has one of the highest rates of immigration worldwide.
But I’m more drawn to places that are as different as possible to my native Canadian culture. I like places that speak kooky-sounding languages, seemingly have no rules of the road, have dirty and chaotic local markets, and have as different of a climate as you can to a cold, harsh Canadian winter.
So when I found myself married to a Frenchman and inheriting co-ownership of a house in the south of France, it was, like, not that exciting. And when I found myself settling into said house on the French Mediterranean for a few months this spring, I didn’t even stop to think that it could be as interesting of a cultural experience as my time living in Senegal, Nepal, Thailand, Zimbabwe, or Uganda.
In hindsight, this was a bit lazy of me. Any country – even one’s own – can provide unique perspectives and interesting experiences that shed light on one’s perspective, habits, and assumptions. Just because I blend in with the French population, can speak the language, and can do my shopping in grocery stores rather than along roadsides, that doesn’t mean that my time here is devoid of cultural education. Though I haven’t experienced blatant culture shock here, the subtle differences between my own culture and that of the French have led to a fair share of strange, uncomfortable, and noteworthy cultural moments that I now wish to share tongue-in-cheek. Belle-famille and French friends, do not feel insulted.
The French Language
I thought I spoke French fluently… until I married into a French family. I went to a French school for ten years during my childhood, and later obtained a Bachelor of Education in French to teach French as a Second Language. My mother is half French-Canadian, and my parents live in a francophone community in New Brunswick. Bruno – my Frenchman – and I communicate entirely in French every single day.
Without tooting my own horn, I basically speak French as well as possible without it being my native language.
Yet, the moment I open my mouth in France, people know I’m not French. They can’t quite place my accent – I don’t speak like a Québécois, so that automatically removes Canada from their radar – but they know I’m from nowhere in France. I couldn’t be Swiss – I don’t use words like septante (seventy) or nonante (ninety), but I don’t quite have a Belgian accent, either. I’m an anomaly, really. At my zumba class last week, I was asked if I was Russian. Russian! Really?
As time has passed, I’ve become slightly self-conscious of the way I speak. Not enough not to speak, of course, but just enough that, as I speak, I’m hyperaware of the moment where the other person will realize I’m not French and begin to mentally ponder my origins.
More challenging (and surprising) than this aspect of my foreignness, however, is the way my language skills come up short in social situations with Bruno’s friends and family. I realize now that my French vocabulary is seriously lacking. Not only did I stop enhancing it at the age of fourteen (because we moved to the US and thereafter I went to English schools), but I’ve let myself off the hook ever since. In Canada – and especially the Acadian East Coast region of Canada – if you can’t think of the French word for something, you just say the English word. Everyone understands. It’s totally socially-acceptable. Heck, it’s even cool.
When I do this in France, however, I draw blank looks. Only Bruno understands what I’m trying to express, and the poor guy is then charged with the duty of translating his inept wife’s crazy ideas into comprehensible, beautiful, civilized French.
More surprising still is the fact that, often enough, I lose track of the conversation of my French family and friends. Southerners speak with their own brand of French, involving a particular accent (an actual twang, if French can be twung) and lots of flowery expressions. I’ll be following a conversation just fine, and then, suddenly, I’m out. I’ve totally lost track of the nuances, and have to nod (or shake) my head, feign comprehension, and hope no one is asking me a direct question.
Forget about having a sense of humour in French. Not a single one of Bruno’s relations think I’m funny, except when I say things like “ça goute bon” (which, to us Canadians, means “it tastes good,” but is laughably incorrect here in France). In France, I’m simply the polite, wee-bit-slow, humourless foreigner.
The French have a reputation for being cold and superior, of loving to complain, and of being traditional and incredibly nationalistic. I’ve found this stereotype to be only partly true, at least here in the south.
Here, people greet one another in passing just about as often as in Canada, and that greeting occasionally turns into a bit of small-talk (especially when Bruno’s around).
What I find interesting is that the French will announce their arrival when they enter a place by saying a general “bonjour.” I’ve experienced this countless times – at the zumba studio, dentist office, post office, small shop, you name it. This took me by surprise at first, and I always forgot to announce my own arrival, but eventually I remembered to manage a slightly uncomfortable, non-committal hello.
La bise is even more uncomfortable to me. French people don’t greet one another with handshakes or hugs – they kiss one another on the cheeks. In most of the France, la bise is two kisses (one on each cheek), but in this region of France, people give one another three fast kisses (going back and forth from cheek to cheek). I’ve even received four kisses a few times, but admittedly they were administered by old men who just wanted to take in my nectar of youth.
La bise has become perfectly natural when I greet our friends and family – it’s just uncomfortable when I meet someone new. I’m never sure if the new acquaintance is bise-worthy, or if a handshake will suffice (the French do handshakes in formal occasions, and Bruno does them more often than most, which just confuses me more). I remember before meeting Bruno’s niece in Kenya several years ago I worried profusely about how we would greet one another and how many kisses we would give; and just today I worried about whether I would do la bise with my yoga teacher, who bised me last week (for the first time) because another Frenchwoman was saying goodbye that way and I was next in line. Are we on bise-terms now, or was that a one-time thing?
The French do la bise when saying goodbye to one another, which I find slightly less confusing, since at least you’ve had a chance to warm up to the person and situation before determining whether to go in for the kill or not. Overall however, I prefer the Canadian casual goodbye for purely practical reasons – it takes a hell of a long time to bise a roomful of guests you barely spoke to at the end of a birthday party for thirty.
What with the general “hellos” and the bises, it seems obvious to me that the French are not nearly as unfriendly as the reputation that precedes them. They are, however, just as critical of their country just as and nationalistic.
Whenever we get together with a group of French people, the conversation is guaranteed, sooner or later, to turn toward the greed and untrustworthiness of French politicians, the frustration of French bureaucracy, the ridiculousness of French laws, and the atrocious quality of life for the average Frenchman. After a glass of wine, the French appear to absolutely love to complain about their country.
They love almost as much to manifest (strike). There’s actually a nationwide strike on right now affecting trains, airlines, gas stations, and probably lots of other services that I’m not aware of. The strike is in regards to a recent labour reform bill which threatens the French’s beloved 35-hour workweek (yes, the stereotype that French people don’t work much is true – except for in Bruno’s family, in which his 84 year-old father refuses to retire!) When I exclaim how lucky the French are to work so little, to have so many bank holidays (in May there were five!) and to have four weeks of paid holiday every year, it’s almost as though I were threatening to take away their right to breathe. No, the French love to hate their government, laws, and state of the nation.
Yet, paradoxically, the French are some of the most patriotic citizens I’ve ever met. They’re not traditionally patriotic – they don’t tear up when they hear the first few notes of La Marseillaise, for example. It’s more that the French live in their own cultural bubble – of food, music, film – and they truly believe – nay, know – theirs is the best of the best.
I never realized how French Bruno was until we came back here and he started tuning into the television every evening. There’s always some sort of documentary on this French musician or that French actor, and Bruno laps it all up, singing alone to songs, providing a running commentary for my behalf, and nudging me every thirty seconds to tell me to pay attention to an interesting fact. I don’t have a clue who most of the stars are – and am, quite frankly, more into my book – and this shocks Bruno. You mean you don’t know so-and-so? He’s only, like, the most important blah blah blah. Where have you beeeeeeeeen?
The French cultural bubble is even more evident any time I eat with French people. I want to save most of my food details for a separate blog post (stay tuned for France by Food Part 3!) but I cannot blog about culture shock in France – or the French superiority complex – without talking about food. The French just know the right way to eat every single food item that exists, and if they don’t have a way to prepare it, it’s not worth eating (note my sarcasm). There are rules about when to eat the salad and cheese and how to prepare and serve each and every vegetable or cut of meat. Food must be served with French – and only French – wine, and the only cheese worth eating is a really stinky French camembert.
Last fall when my best friend and her boyfriend came from Singapore to visit Bruno and me in France, we immediately whisked them off to a boulangerie for a quintessential French dining experience. Alex and Ian went for sandwiches and coffee. As the lady prepared their meal, Alex asked, in broken French, whether the sandwiches could be warmed up. The lady glanced sideways at Bruno, incredulous. Then Alex asked whether she could make the coffee iced, and the lady’s eyes bulged. Bruno had to pipe in, they’re just poor Singaporeans, as though that would explain away this incomprehensible behaviour.
A year earlier, when my parents and I first visited the south of France, we held a big American-style barbecue for the family. When we served cheese and crackers as part of our pre-meal snacks, everyone laughed indulgently at this bizarre custom. Interestingly, though, no one but us touched the cheese.
Admittedly, the French do deserve the reputation for excellent cuisine, and they do have a quirky film scene and a lot of talented musicians. But break one of their eating rituals or admit to not knowing Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine and you’ll be met with slight headshakes and looks of smug indulgence at your poor-ignorant-foreigner faux-pas.
The French Landscape
One of my favourite aspects of France (and of Europe in general) is its long and rich history, exemplified in its architecture. Every North American arrives in Europe wide-eyed at the charm of its old towns.
And it’s not that the charm wears off, per se; it’s more that the aesthetic aspect of the architecture takes the backseat to its utter impracticality. It is nearly impossible to drive through towns in France. Even though the French have much smaller vehicles than we do in North America, I always have the nagging feeling that I’m about to side-scrape an oncoming vehicle or façade as I drive 10km/h on a road where I should be driving 70. Seriously, how do the French drive so fast on such narrow roads? How do they park in such tiny spaces? And why are there so freaking many one-way streets?
I get that towns – and their roads – were created long before motorized transport, but their age doesn’t necessitate the design of roundabouts. Why the hell are there so many? And how the hell do you drive in them? If the French have enough time to sit at the lunch table for two leisurely hours, certainly they have enough time to wait their turn at a set of traffic lights, no?
French houses are no less strange than their roads. The French are used to having tiny homes, squeezed together between neighbours, and with gardens the size of American bathrooms. The first time I saw our house on the Mediterranean, I forgot to notice the unimpeded view of the Mediterranean Sea at my doorsteps because I was so busy thinking about the proximity of all our neighbours. Thank goodness we were all fenced and gated in to protect ourselves.
I may have slowly adjusted to French toilets being in a different room than the sink and shower, or the fact that you have to pull up door handles before you can lock them, but the space-greedy Canadian in me will never adjust to the claustrophobic nature of the French landscape. I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to master French enough to avert disaster, and it’ll take a lot of self-assuredness for me to bise willy-nilly. I could quite easily be persuaded to hop on the love-to-hate-the-government bandwagon, but no matter how much I try to perfect the ritual of French dining, I’ll simply never be a French diner.
I’ll always be a Canadian in France, with all the awkward cultural blunders that entails.