Ten Beret Good Things to Know About France and the French.
By: Joanna Munro
When I first arrived in France with my rose-tinted spectacles firmly jammed on the end of my nose, I secretly hoped for a Doisneau world in which accordeons were played on street corners, vendors sold flowers to kissing couples on wrought iron park benches and beret-toting Frenchies cycled by with a baguette tucked under their arms. Paris rightfully rewarded me with rude drivers who suffered from colour blindness at traffic lights, pavements mined with dog poo, demonstrations and dirty tap water. I got my rear end groped by a man who was trying to pick my pockets on the Metro, and had to hide on all fours under an architecture display in the Pompidou centre to shake off the creep in a pink suit who had been stalking me since I hit the rue de Rivoli. Either Paris was just having an unusually bad day, or I’d fallen for the stereotype.
Twenty-five years later, I’m still here. France is a gobstoppingly beautiful country, with fabulous geographic and climatic diversity, a rich culture and history, and gastronomy and wine to die for. But the most fascinating thing I have discovered about this country is the French themselves. Here are ten things that I love about them.
Woe betide he or she who dares to criticise l’hexagone: the French are proud of their country and language. Their dictionary even has two different words for pride: fierté and orgueil. Whereas the word fierté describes noble pride, orgueil is defined as both the more arrogant pride that can come before a fall and “a justified feeling of pride,” thus making it defendable to be full of yourself. The French therefore unabashedly display both variations.
The emblem of France is the cockerel: the king of the farmyard. Coluche, a legendary stand-up French comedian, was unambiguous about this choice of animal: “Do you know why the French chose the cockerel as their emblem? Because it’s the only bird that still manages to sing with its feet in la merde.” Whatever happens, the French will always crow for their country.
The French medical system is one of the best in the world, and many taxpayers not only recoup their investment in the system, but enthusiastically dig a deep hole beneath the sécurité sociale. The slightest sniffle is immediately taken to be inspected by the doctor, who is generally referred to using the possessive: “My doctor…” A long list of potions and lotions is promptly drawn up, including the dreaded suppository. Minor ailments are generally described in connoisseur’s latin terms, making them sound like life-endangering diseases. Take the “rhinopharyngitis” that was responsible for a colleague taking three paid days of sick leave. The term obviously described some dangerous virus brought back to France by a wildlife specialist returning from safari in South Africa; combined with “-itis”, my colleague was sure to be a gonner. I ran to my desk and pulled out a dictionary, only to discover that my colleague had a common cold. At first I thought they did it to make themselves sound iller than they were, but it’s not that at all. For the French, health is a serious matter.
3. THE JUNK FOOD PARADOX.
The French have a touching love-hate relationship with junk food. Unbeknown to the rest of the world, who are convinced that the France is to gastronomy what George Clooney is to sex appeal, French consumers happily chuck increasing amounts of frozen meals, microwaveable chips and processed cheese into their shopping trolley along with their magret de canard and filet mignon.
They loudly deplore what they call “la mal bouffe” (junk food that has been imposed on the innocent French consumer by the unscrupulous retail Gods on the other side of the big pond), yet they can’t resist the stuff. When you catch them red-handed, they explain, “We only come here for the kids,” before tucking with gusto into a double cholesterol and fries courtesy of the scary, big-footed clown in stripy socks.
4. LA REVOLUTION
The French have an impressive revolutionary strand in their DNA. When President Sarkozy was ousted for President Hollande, le peuple filled the streets and proudly waved their fists in the air for political and social change. Then Hollande and his team started implementing their electoral promises, and France promptly set about what it does best: demonstrating. I have come to the conclusion that the French simply don’t like being told what to do, whoever they put in charge.
Striking is a tradition that goes way back. French trade unions have a lot of political clout, and strike at the drop of a hat. The spectre of the strike hangs over everyday life to such an extent that an OAP I met recently was concerned to have only electric heating in his home, because “if EDF ever go on strike, we’ll freeze to death.”
5. WONDEURE WOOMANE
I am in awe of the average French woman, who is the hostess with the mostest. Turn up at the door to say hello, and will you see her assemble enough seating for an army battalion, pull a meal out of nowhere and serve up dinner for twenty in the bat of an eyelid. French women appear to be born pre-programmed with a Paul Bocuse recipe database and Martha Stewart’s organisational skills, and are never flapped by the surprise arrival of visitors. They just whisk a tart as big as a tennis court out of a bottomless fridge, and defrost a boeuf bourgignon that they’d cooked up in their spare time - “just in case.”
6. LE FRANGLAIS
The French have a fabulous capacity to invent words that sound and look English, but bear no resemblance whatsoever to the things they are describing. When an English speaker asks for an explanation, he or she is looked at with furrowed brows and told with an injured or amused expression that “eet eez Eengleesh”. My favourites are le lifting (a facelift) le relooking (a makeover), le sweat (pronounced “sweet”: a sweatshirt), le jogging (either a tracksuit or a jog), and “les warnings” (pronounced “varnings”: hazard warning lights).
7. WHEN POLITE IS RUDE
The use of the French language in heated exchanges is fascinating. I am not talking about “excuse my French” French here, although I do enjoy swearing in French, because when it’s not your language it somehow makes it less reprehensible.
Here, I am talking about the dexterous use of overtly polite French. Recently, I watched as a civil servant refused to accept Mr Taxpayer’s application on the grounds that a document was missing. Mr T explained that he has just queued for hours, then rolled his eyes and checked his watch. Big mistake. His linguistic sparring partner unsheathed her fatal weapon: the overuse of deferential language. She drew herself up to her full height, tapped her fingernails on the desk and proceeded to pepper her rhetoric with “Môôôôsieur must do this,” and “Môôôsieur must do that.” As you can see, the most qualified users of this technique can actually speak to people in the third person, hence implying that as far as they are concerned, the other person simply isn’t there. All this over-the-top politeness actually results in a infuriatingly condescending attitude that puts you in a position of inferiority, but you can’t complain: they are being polite.
8. BODY LANGUAGE
Going to the market in our village is a sensorial fiesta. It’s not just the smell of the roast meat and cheese, the winter sun bathing the cheerful colours of the market, and the bubbling sound of conversation and laughter. It’s also the physical proximity and contact. Every time I arrive home, I feel like I have been to a massage parlour - once the obligatory handshake or noisy cheek-kissing has been accomplished, all conversation is punctuated by poking, prodding and squeezing the other person as if they were an overripe piece of fruit.
9. ANGLOSAXON MUSIQUE
Some French singers give themselves English stage names, pronounced with a heavy French accent. It took me a while to work out that Johnny Halliday (pronounced Djonny Alliday) and Eddy Murphy were as anglosaxon as I am French. I am always amused to hear the French singing along to English songs. Particularly when they don’t know that the lyrics are highly inappropriate and are sung by teenagers wearing headphones in the bus as the granny across the aisle grins and taps along in time with her feet.
10. SENSE OF HUMOUR
Last but not least, I love their sense of humour and their ability not to take this kind of article too personally, with what they call “le flegme britannique” (this has nothing to do with phlegm, but designates stoic British composure). At least, I hope so…
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Contest Comments » There are 40 comments
Please introduce me to a wondeure woooman!! I want somewhere I can go when I'm too lazy to cook! :) Especially that big tart she's got lurking in the fridge, and she probably has bags of crisps and peanuts in the cupboard too! I always wondered why the French called training shoes 'baskets' as I couldn't see the connection with something made of wicker. Then I (vaguely) understood the basketball reference. Great line up you've got, but I do believe our Eddie is a Mitchell, not a Murphy... :)
Well spotted, Sarah. Health warning: proof-reading at 2am is bad for your document's health. Oh well, time for some humble pie and custard :-)
This post is but one example of a superb blog which is so on the nail each and every time about real life in France. I too remember the highly inappropriate anglo saxon lyrics to something pumped out in a supermarket...and a well endowed female performer (though in which genre escapes me now)named Lova More..... And being refered to as a 'contribuable' in the tax office and replying that that had yet to be determined... This post brings it all back years after leaving the Hexagon. You want real France? Then forget the macaroons, the Eiffel Tower and the ooh la la.... Read this blog.
A wonderful insight into the French psyche. I think I could become a trainee Wondeure Woomane, now that I know it's ok to eat in McDonalds 'just for the children', I can visit the doctor every time I sneeze and giving random strangers a good poking is positively encouraged!
Rhinopharyngitis - I'm going to adopt that one :D As for how English names are pronounced, how about that American film-maker Vooodi-Alain? You don't know im? But e's famousse!
A perfect post that makes me laugh all the way through - I feel so much better knowing that French supermarket trollies are just as full of junk food as ours.
I'm not french, but I am French Canadian, and I could hear my mom's voice ringing out loudly as I read "Djonny Alliday"! Vive le MacDonald's! Real entertaining read.
I admit I love all things French. That might be why I married a Frenchman. Paris is my favourite city in the world and every visit to France feels like a visit home. Perhaps I might have been French in another lifetime :) I love this post. It nailed all the peculiarities of the French that I find so very endearing. Seriously - I really need to know how the WONDEURE WOOMANE do it!!
I have never wanted to go to France, but now I do. I want to experience that particular "flavor" of the country that you so aptly and lovingly describe (along with a healthy dose of acerbic humor). After reading your article, I feel that I understand, a little, the French national personality and want to mix and mingle with that culture.
This should go into the packs that go with students for their year abroad in France. Loved it and made me chuckle!
I loved this! I've only spent a short amount of time in France but I've met many a French person whilst traveling and they always have several things in common-- which I can now identify from this post as being "orgueil," haha. Wish I had that French woman hostess thing going on though.... if someone showed up at my door they would be lucky if I could find some crackers in the cupboard for them to snack on ;)
Having been raised by a father who hated all things French, I am delighted to refill my mental cupboard with your wonderful comments!
I have to admit to being a Francophile. One of my good friends is a French chef, and he tolerates my American tackiness. I have never had the rude French experience I've always heard about, and I have visited France multiple times. It is a lovely place, with lovely people. And, of course, lovely food. I like eggs because of the French.
I really enjoyed this post. I am already a fan of France, having spent many, many happy holidays there over the years, but obviously not enough for the virtues of a Wondeure Woomane rubbing off on me - I will need to visit more often! :)
Well, it looks like Joanna is my mirror image: I am a French woman living in London. All what you said is true, Joanna, and you said it very well. Maybe you have been a bit too kind: when I go back to France, I can't stand the fact that people keep complaining...How do you keep so positive? Way to go!
This is a wonderful exposé into the true French culture, lifestyle and people. Having travelled through France many times and studied the language, your writing makes me feel as though I'm there again!
All this writing simply is your cup of tea, or must I say "cup of wine" now? You really pin down French characteristics precisely, with your usual wink... Funny, hilarious, very good taste! I want more of that!
This is brilliant and funny! Even with all their quirkiness, Joanna still manages to humourously will you to take a trip to France. Being stalked round Paris by a man in a pink suit just adds to the allure as far as I'm concerned. At least he dressed for the occasion!!
This is the sort of thing one doesn't get as a tourist - the nitty gritty, the daily 'beingness', of a people - and yet it's part of what we travel for. Fascinating and fun.
I love the way that this blog encapsulates all those things which frustrate us about our neighbours on the other side of "the sleeve" as they cheekily call our English channel. It also reminds us about the things we admire about them and all done in a frog friendly fashion...
As always Joanna's insights into French life and the French character get right to the heart of the matter. My husband and I spend every summer in France, but during the rest of the year I rely on her wonderful blog and others for my fix of all things French. Her clear-sighted affection for her adopted country and its people, warts and all, shines though her addictively witty writing which always leaves me chuckling and knowing just a little more about France and the French.
Great blog, I enjoy reading about your life in France with smelly dog and the gang. Keep blogging :)
Ha, ha great read MM! I am envious enough of French women for their effortless elegance and those legs. They are wondeuer woomane too? How unfair is that? :-)
I have to confess: Joanna is our second child out of five. Had she been the first, she would have been the last! As a baby and toddler she was a 24 carat diamond-encrusted grade A nightmare. As a teenager, the same but much multiplied. Let us pass over the next quarter of a century plus......... Milady and I were with her and PF and the kids and the dog and the cat and the snakes last autumn - absolute bliss (mostly!). She remains a 24 carat diamond-encrusted grade A something or other, though no longer a nightmare. As a blogger, she is something else......
This is a wonderful commentary on a country that I have been saving to visit as a destination with a love my life. I was once head over heels for a Frenchman. It was ultimately just the accent but now you have enticed me to travel to your beloved France sooner than later !
Another great post Joanna & all so very true!! No 7 is my Bête Noir...it's the one thing I simply can't come to terms with at all, especially at the Carrefour customer services desk! Never noticed this trait when we used to holiday here though. A brilliant and witty insight into the real France!!
What an enjoyable read. You had me at the title as I know so little about France and with the "berry" I knew this would be a somewhat tongue in cheek lesson, always the best kind. I can safely say I know an awful lot more now about the french, from someone on the inside. Such a well written piece. I loved the mix of fact and humour. My favourite was your trip to the market. Well done.
As always, I identify with so much of this. Last summer I was at the end of year "Fête de l'école" to see 8 year olds dancing to Rihanna's S &M - check out the words, highly inappropriate. My mother nearly fell off her chair!
An exceptional post by a very talented author who always succeeds in making me think and evoking a chuckle. I too had the rose tinted glasses when I first visited Paris, they were swiftly knocked from my astonished face when I was mistaken for a prostitute and asked to leave a cafe. Happy times! :)
Brilliant and so true in my limited experience. Love the French markets but have missed out on the massage experience. Must come back and try harder. And lastly "iller?" Did you make that up?
You nailed it! and I am guilty as charged.This is exactly how we are, my people and I.
We, my BH (Better Half)and I, always love Joanna's blogs, and often end up giggling uncontrollably. This exposé of French life and manners is no exception - and rings bells for me from many moons ago when I used to visit my 'correspondante' as a teenager. She writes with such insight and wit, but without any malice, and is an absolute joy to read.
As always, another great post - well written, informative, and entertaining Only one criticism - not enough information on the pink creep! That story surely deserves a post all of its own :lol:
Another wonderful post from MM! I always really look forward to reading her blogs, she's a remarkably talented writer and never fails to make me laugh.
Joanna is a fantastic writer whose words are able to put you right along with her so that you experience all that she does! Simply fabulous!
My Hubby, Pecora Nera read your post to me and I think it is great. Scooby Doo also liked it. Best regards Mrs Sensible
Makes you glad to be British (not English)or more especially Cornish as everything Joanna says happens in Brittany with spades and we have great links with them. No wonder we get along so well. Quite reminisecent of what life used to be like here. Dont ever lose it. Keep up the good work Joanna and we will all be over to live bfore we can drop un chapeau.
Dear MM, I read your blog while I was sat in the garage with Gilda, we love the way you write. Please have a word with PN regarding my food. Best regards Sdoo (meow)
I enjoyed your writing. I am tempted to visit France, but I don't know French. Will be looking up your blog.
I love the French markets so much! I love your blog and your posts really gives the reader a taste of life in France!