Top 10 Life Lessons I’ve Learned from the French
By: Aidan Larson
- Always be polite, even when you’re being insulted and especially when you’re being insulting.
This works in any situation where tension may be in danger of escalating or if you are trying to get a civil servant to do something for you and you’ve been waiting in line for what seems like an eternity. What you do is take the blame for how busy they are, how hard they have to work and then, add a whopping dose of ingratiation. If you put it in writing it’s even better. Then you can really pump it full of grandiose prostration with words like ‘mon entire devouement’ and they have it on record to take out and read whenever they like and can remember just how deftly insulting and talented you are. It is an art well worth learning.
- Laisse-tomber. C’est la vie. Que sera, sera. Pffft!
You have to let it go. So what? Expel some air from your mouth, let your lips feel loose, feel them flapping and vibrating as they make a tickly, spitty raspberry, shrug your shoulders and take a drag of your hand-rolled cigarette. Sip some Pastis, eat some lunch, take a nap, play some boules. You can’t change things, they just are. That’s life. Let it (the weird plumbing smells, the insurance papers, the price of fuel, etc.) go.
- Sundays are not for shopping. Unless you want some gardening supplies or have a local market to support.
It’s like going back in time, here in France on a Sunday afternoon. Nothing is open. We like to call it ‘lock-down’ in our family. Are you old enough (like me) to remember the days of closed malls and shopping centers? Remember how peaceful it was not to be able to go shopping on a Sunday afternoon? No? When I feel the itch to spend some money on a French Sunday, I head to the garden center and buy some lavender or some dog food. There is one weird consolation; some grocery stores are open for three hours on Sunday mornings and you can buy wine or beer or hard liquor even! That always freaks out my southern American small town, dry county sensibilities. What would the church ladies of the Bible belt say about that?
- You have years, you are the day.
This is a language thing, one of my favorite differences to contemplate and philosophize over, so bear with me. In French, when you talk about how old you are, you use the verb avoir, to have. Those years belong to you. You have them. You’ve earned them. It is a nice way to think of it, isn’t it? Now, the next thing. When you talk about today, what day it is, the date, and so on, you use the verb être, to be. For example, what day are we? We are the 25th of March. We are. It’s so in the moment! This IS it! Live it and then collect it, pack it up into your suitcase filled with all the other days you’ve earned, adding to the varied collection that belongs to you.
- Bonjours all around, even in waiting rooms.
Any time you enter a shop you must say bonjour. It’s the American equivalent of ‘have a nice day’. So far, so normal. The French take this to the next level, and it is one of my favorite things. When you enter anyplace, the pharmacy, the doctor’s office waiting room, or the boulangerie, you must say hello; not only to the pharmacist, doctor’s secretary or baker, but to every other person already inside. If there are multiple women, you say, ‘Bonjour Mesdames.’, multiple men, ‘Bonjour Messieurs.’, one or more of each, ‘Bonjour Mesdames et Messieurs.’ And if you are already inside, waiting or being served, it’s on you to turn and reply with a bonjour in kind to the person who just entered and said it to you. It is very important. Don’t even get me started on the rules of kissed greetings.
- Never pour your own wine.
At first I found this to be rather sexist because it’s mostly a rule for women, but it is not polite for anyone, man or woman, to pour their own wine at someone else’s house. You wait for the host to pour it for you. It makes sense, good manners from times past and all that. Drinking is not something you do on your own, another good rule. It is an integral part of sharing a meal; a communal and measured thing.
- Only eat at certain times. And lunch is one of those times.
In France there is what they call the cadre of life. Or the frame. And it’s no joke. They live inside it. There are frames for school and work, family life and even vacation time. One of the most noticeable is the daily meal time cadre. You eat breakfast at a certain time, then you eat lunch. After that you have an afternoon snack or gouter around 4 o’clock. This is usually something sweet or chocolaty. Or if you’re a proper French woman, a small handful of nuts or sweet-enough-on-their-own, dried apricots. Then you wait for an apéro and light dinner. This eating time thing is ingrained. It is why we Americans and other visitors to France, looking for a bite to eat at 3 in the afternoon after sight-seeing away our lunchtime, are always disappointed when door after restaurant door is shuttered. You do not eat at that time of day. Of course, things are changing and more and more, places are open. You can get a snack or McDo anytime you like, but look around and you will notice that not many people are there, eating their full-on lunch. The French would rather tack on one to two hours of work at the end of the day than go without their long lunch in the middle. We Americans usually plough through, eating at desks or in the car on the way somewhere. This is something the average French person would never do. It makes sense to have the bulk of your calories mid-day rather than at night time. Eat some lunch, and then if it makes you sleepy, take a quick nap. Those reports and emails will still be there when you get back to your desk.
- Never speak louder than necessary unless you want to be taken for a gyspsy, or worse, an étranger.
I am so used to this quiet talking thing after three years of living here that I forget how loud we used to be. (Of course they probably still think we’re super loud but everything’s relative.) The other day at the grocery store I was minding my own business standing in line at the cheese counter when I heard loud voices. Everyone, including me, turned to look. We were shocked out of our quiet cheese contemplation and curious to find the source of such an unseemly racket. It was a gypsy couple with a few kids, pushing their cart and yelling (not really) at each other to get this thing or the other from a neighboring aisle. This used to happen to me and my kids in the grocery store all the time. Until I stopped taking them with me.
- When someone says they don’t want to create a ‘histoire’ it means they really, really do.
I learned this from my elderly French neighbor. When we first moved in she came over to meet me. She began her welcome with the words, ‘I don’t want to create a histoire’ and finished with a list of complaints; about the hedges, the overly enthusiastic swimming pool splashing my children engage in, lunch and nap times (theirs, not ours) and the overgrown fig tree in the back garden.
- Speak French, no matter how horribly, and you will be treated with kindness.
Try, just try. Say whatever words you know. Accent similar sounding English words in a French way, seriously there are so many similarities that you’d be surprised at how well this works. Smile, smile, smile and say bonjour, merci, merci beaucoup, au revoir and Madame or Monsieur. It truly makes all the difference. I have never failed to win someone over when using even these few (heavily Texas accented) words and a smile. (Except the neighbor in #9, but that’s not my problem.)
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Contest Comments » There are 26 comments
Totally agree with all of these!
Aidan, this is a fantastic piece, you have totally captured the French ways, it is so much fun reading someone else's perspective and I especially appreciate this given the fact that I am FRENCH married to an AMERICAN. This is one great helpful piece that anyone traveling or moving to France MUST read. As a French person, I thank you for appreciating our culture the way you have, c'est fantastique!!!! :)
Having just moved here a few months ago, I learned some key lessons through this entry, thanks!
What a great list Aidan. I have probably been offending French people by pouring my own wine for years. I think #10 should probably be #1 for visitors to France. I love your blog too in case you didn't know.
So well captured. I agree with everything and I've learnt a few things too! #10 definitely works - even in Paris. Although I've found sometimes you have to let someone who is trying desperately hard to practice their English on you have their way. It works both ways!
Thank you everyone for all the great comments. I love France, love living here, and I hope that came through. You're all welcome over at my blog. I'd love to have you. Gros bisous from the South of France, Aidan
Aidan - I loved reading your list. I laughed out loud, nodded in agreement and shrugged and flapped my lips at #9. You made me remember what I find so charming and quaint about this country we've chosen to make home. Love your words!
I love #4!
Aidan, what a lovely read. You have captured these French tics so well. I especially like no 2 and I am sure I shrug and do the lip thing. I hear a lot people criticizing the French, how they do things like this, like that, but in reading your Top ten I can only think how lucky we are ( most of the time!) to live in a country where these lessons still rule.
Wonderfully written and incredibly accurate to our expat in France experience too - your writing produced many a rue smile. C'est la vie francaise, to be sure!
Great observations Aidan. I totally agree with number 10 and have been surprised how kind and patient people are when listening to my (often slow) French.
This post makes me long for France... We've moved to the US, and it's funny how things that irked me (such as "lock down" on Sundays) I sort of miss being back in the States. You've hit the nail on the head with your list, Aidan!
Love it. I wish some folks here would incorporate #8 into their daily lives. Big fan of #7. Great job!!
Great views Aidan! Totally agree with so many of them No1 is SO important!! Will get you many places!!
I'm having the hardest time with not creating a "histoire". I know that the person bringing up the subject wants me to do something about it but the rebel in me thinks that if they can't get up the guts to just ask me directly, I am going to keep on playing dumb. All the subtle, try-and-read-between-the-line hints drive me crazy.
Love this and you! #4 is quite beautiful!
I don't think our family could do the quiet thing...they would be considered gypsies...the lot of them. This was fantastic!
Absolutely brilliantly rendered and all of them so very true. Bravo, Aidan and thank you for your amazing blog.
Fabulous piece- you've got it in a nutshell! I particularly identify with number nine : I live in a small village in the Hérault valley, and people are always starting conversations with this little gem, eyes shifting sideways as they say it. I'm still no good at number six, and I manage number one for a while but generally get cross with pandering to civil servants who work 35 hours and get all the advantages of number seven. Thanks for a great read!
Magnifique Aiden! Love the humour and accuracy.
Really great and useful post. Even though I've been to France many times, the part of #5 about saying "bonjour" to everyone in a shop is something I wasn't aware of. Good to know for my upcoming trip to the Dordogne. Regarding #8, I was in Trader Joe's yesterday and was amazed at how loudly the employees speak to each other. I had to get out of there, as I was close to making a loud comment about it. I did, however, experience a strange experience in a Paris restaurant, where a man with a group of people speaking French was commenting how loud Americans are, yet I could easily hear everything he said (in quite a loud voice) from across the room!
Great post! I love your blog.
I only live part time in France, but I'm already familiar with all of the things you listed. Sometimes in the US I wish we learn a Sunday "lock down" a little better. The French do leisure well. On the other hand, on my last trip over I found that the garden center is opened on Sunday. Can't wait to decorate my balconies next time I'm over there.
Oh, the memories this brings back! Love it Aidan, you're spot on.
Super list Aidan - so nice to read some positive aspects of life in France. We are contemplating moving over from the States and your insights might just tip the scales in France's favor!
Aidan, this is hilarious as always. Some of your Life Lessons are the same in Italy, just in case you wish to move over!