The Seven Deadly Sins of new Expats in France
By: Vince EverettUn Not saying ‘Bonjour’. Politeness in interactions with just about anybody is probably the most vital part of moving here. Nowhere is this more obvious than in shops, where you can spend seemingly hours locked in an exchange of formal banter which can easily turn into a polite dispute as to who exactly needs thanking (eg. You: ‘Je vous remercie’ and the shopkeeper retorts with ‘Ah non, c’est moi qui vous remercie’). Meanwhile a queue is building so you just have to make a run for it. This can be quite a jar for those used to a nothing more than a grunt from the shop assistants back home. While the French are the kings and queens of polite etiquette (brushing over the well publicized gripes about their customer service skills), they are unlikely to chat about why you’re buying three packs of Nappies, as France is a very formal culture. So regard the ‘Bonjour’ and the accompanying handshake or kiss on both cheeks as the lynchpin to being accepted by the natives. If you meet a friend who happens to be out and about with thirty or so pals, then it’s not unthinkable to say the B-word to every last one of them, which can leave the head spinning. If you miss someone they might never speak to you again. Attending an office party a while ago was more akin to an audience with the Queen, as I made my way down the long line of colleagues and then joined the end of said line which pretty much stretched to the other side of the restaurant. There’s no let up even in the doctor’s waiting room, where a ‘bonjour’ as you enter is required, although thankfully not the Full Monty of kissing and shaking hands.
Deux Not learning French. Even as I write that it seems too obvious as a deadly sin but I suppose that if you’re moving to Copenhagen, Stockholm or even Vladivostock then no one in their right mind is going to expect you to start waxing lyrical in the local language. But English is very far from being the lingua franca of France. The French have swallowed the pill of English becoming the international language in the same way that one might swallow a small melon. ie. with great difficulty. Not only are we talking about an immensely proud nation, somewhat akin to the fervour you might find the other side of the big pond, but a French person doesn’t feel comfortable conversing in (as they call it) ‘the language of Shakespeare’. I think they call it that because for them the English spoken today is as incomprehensible as that of Billy S. himself. The shift from sounding cultured and romantic to stammering over seemingly impossible hurdles like the th phoneme is just too much to bear. During the Olympics in London I noticed that the announcements were made in French first, and to this nation this is exactly how the pecking order should sound. And when Anglo-Saxon celebrities appear on French TV, they only really score points with anyone if they converse in French. Even then they don’t like their language to be butchered, as much as they are repelled by an overdone steak. When Bradley Cooper appeared on the TF1 news channel and chatted merrily in the language of Molière (again, their words not mine), he won many more fans although there were a few critics grumbling that he had missed a couple of subjunctives. So, in short, dust down the old grammar books and get stuck in.
Trois Not respecting French time-off. Contrary to the ideas championed in the media, I can attest that in general French people work hard. Yes I can understand you coughing and choking at that point, but as a nation they keep their Gallic noses to the grindstone like the best of us, notwithstanding their undeniably profound respect for time off. Midday has an almost religious significance, and at that precise moment millions will down tools and forget about it for a couple of hours. You could literally set your clock by the workman drilling outside my flat a few years ago; when the silence fell I knew it was exactly that revered hour – 12pm. Getting it into your head that you can achieve zip during the hours of 12 and 2pm takes some getting used to.
The French have a seemingly inordinate number of public holidays which seem so numerous because they fall invariably (or so it appears) on a Thursday so they predictably do le pont (take Friday off), which to you and me means you won’t see hide nor hair of them till the following Monday. So if you’re new to France and fancy getting some work done on the new dilapidated farmhouse in Provence during the month of May, you should be aware that there are usually about six Public Holidays in May and when you’ve counted the pont days and the long lunches most French builders don’t bother going to work at all. The same rule of thumb applies to August, when actually the entire country is on holiday, not forgetting July when most are already winding down quite noticeably. So while the quality of workmanship (or workwomanship as this is the 21st century) is generally high, the inhabitants of Gaul have an unbreakable bond to slacking.
Quatre Expecting to see other people or do anything productive on a Sunday. This is a quite different phenomena to Trois as of course, barring absolute necessity, you would have to be a few baguettes short of the old pique-nique to think that Sunday in France had fallen the way of the 24/7 culture you may well be used to back home. This deadly sin is the undeniable shock to the system as you shuffle onto the streets of France on a Sunday to find that the millions of people who normally inhabit your locality have been abducted and / or developed an allergy to light. As a student in Grenoble in 1991, the endless sight of closed shutters and dusty streets with accompanying tumbleweed made me think initially that my dear neighbours had fallen victim to some deadly virus. But years later it dawned on me that Sunday is when the French spend time en famille. Now don’t expect me to know why they need to do this in absolute silence and darkness but they do. It is practically unheard of to see a Frenchman proudly mowing his lawn on a Sunday, that most Sunday of activities, and there are laws against it. The government occasionally wheels out the idea of Sunday trading but then it is duly returned to a cupboard somewhere so everyone can forget about it for a while. So if you want to drive anywhere in France, or cycle around a normally busy city, do it on a Sunday.
Cinq Imagining that the same road-use rules as back home apply in France. Now this one is quite literally deadly. Firstly as a pedestrian you can’t hope for a second that those white lines across the road indicate that you have any priority whatsoever, and if you do then your impending hospitalization will be a testament to this deadly sin. For the French the pedestrian or piéton is the lowest of the low and has to wait by these lines growing old and grey before someone will let him or her cross. Cyclists are held in much higher regard and if you are wearing a Tour de France type outfit then you can expect a hearty Bonjour! from similarly-clad enthusiasts passing the other way (see Deadly Sin number one). Generally cars will not try to shave your ankles with their bumpers but I wouldn’t put money on it. Bad driving is happily tolerated in France so if you find someone very close on your tail it is perfectly normal behaviour and not something to warrant a rude gesture or angry words at the next traffic lights. Road rage is a very rare phenomenon as expectations of skill and consideration for others are pretty much nil. It’s very much every man for himself, so lower your expectations and remove any self-righteousness you may possess as a road user.
Six Underestimating the French love of drugs. No, not that sort. I’m talking about the legal kind, which are guzzled to a breathtaking quantity by the majority of the population. In ten years of surviving various ailments in this country I am proud to say that I have never inserted anything in my bottom and have no intention of starting. This is not without considerable efforts on the part of the medical profession to convince me otherwise. If you visit the doctors for having a cold, you can quite easily find yourself taking twelve different pills and potions, being strapped up to an ECG, probably with a couple of x-rays and why not a blood test thrown in just to err on the side of caution. Call me cynical but it seems to me a given that doctors must get some pretty seriously worthwhile backhanders from the Pharmaceutical industry. That said, the medical set up in France, while bankrupt, is excellent. The Carte Vitale medical card takes care of most of your expenditure so you’re left ruminating about who is picking up the tab for all this needless medication.
Sept Santé! The French love drinking as much as the next person although it tends to be on a dinner party basis rather than singing in the street and abusing passers-by. Quite often the so-called apéritif can last the entire evening so don’t be fooled by the apparent culture when someone uses this word to invite you round as the translation might be almighty binge. Having fallen innocently into this trap, I can advise strongly against drinking Pastis in any great quantity, or at all if you can help it. The deadly sin here is quite subtle, and is something I have only been informed of recently which means that I have been convincing people for years that I am a rude ignoramus. Cutting to the chase, at the moment the glasses clink and you utter the immortal word Santé!, you should without fail look the other person directly in the eye, in a moment of perfect social synchronicity. In the UK we look at the glass because presumably we fear (having had a few already) that if we look elsewhere then we risk smashing our host’s glass and covering him in beer. The French drinker is seemingly oblivious to this contingency.
It should be said that once you have correctly surfed the little cultural adjustments outlined above you should discover a quality of life, somewhere in between the wine, cheese, and beautiful scenery that makes you think that God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world.
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