Posted by / Category Cultural Differences /

Before I start, if you could write a review of my blog here I would love you forever. Sorry to ask you to work, everyone!

I was looking at French newspapers over the weekend when it downed on me: most French politicians and, more generally, most French citizen share a similar trait. What is it? No, it is not the clothes. You could argue that, for politicians, it is the background : most of them are graduates of the famous ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Administration), which basically allows them to lead France without having to make a single penny running a business. And, if you must ask, France does have a school for judges. Honestly. But I digress.
We French work under the unwritten assumption that we are different. The usual rules of common sense do not apply to us. Let me explain: apparently, we French are one of the worst countries in terms of fluency in English. Quizzed about this fact, a fellow Frenchman answered back with another question (a classic trick) ‘ how well do other countries speak French’. It is typical, isn’t it? We are the centre of the universe, hence the others should speak French. Of course. How come I hadn’t thought of this?
What is your first reaction when someone tells you ‘well, but this is different’? It usually drives me mad. Being different is too often an excuse not to have achieved something or not to follow the rules. France needs to reduce its debt. 56% of the GDP is spent on public spending (vs 48,5% in this country or even c. 39% in the USA) but massive cuts won’t happen any time soon because we are different. How we will reduce our deficit remains a mystery to me.
Being French has everything to do with being an exception. It is in our genes, and we will always be reluctant to follow the rules. Mind you, such a skill can be an asset when you need to persevere. But, more often than not, it is a hindrance: we just don’t want to change!
I keep being asked when I will move back to France. The sad fact if the matter is that I don’t think that I ever will. I might be French, but I am different.

Muriel – A French Yummy Mummy In London

Posted by / Category Cultural Differences /

Joan Of Arc by Rosetti, kissing her sword

I need to come clean about something. After more than 8 years now, I still haven’t cracked the right way to say hello in London.
Usually, I say “Hi” or “Hey” and it does the trick. But the responses may vary. It can be ‘Good day mate!’, ‘Are you alright?’ or ‘How do you do?’. Sometimes, I even get the silent look and I feel like a total failure. Sigh.

In short, I never get it right. However, that’s not the worst part. My real greeting nightmare is: when do you kiss?  In France, we are all serial smoochers. Depending on the region, you have to do 2, 3 or even 4 pecks on the cheeks. Here, I simply don’t know. Apparently, the rule seems to be one light kiss on the cheek for your female friends only. Don’t ask me what you do with the boys, I have no idea whatsoever. None. I have seen some do air kisses, hugs, or just handshakes. I think that there must be a hidden addendum on the Magna Carta explaining whom you can kiss. Mental note to self: I need to call the British Museum to ask them.

So what do you do over here? I sometimes wish I were a stuck-up British man who would only do handshakes. Some of my male colleagues told me that they had never kissed anyone (to say hello, obviously. Mind you, they didn’t elaborate so it is open to all interpretations). I couldn’t believe it. I have tried to kiss male friends (in a friendly way, if you must know) only to be greeted with a clumsy handshake and a funny look. OK, lesson learned.

Actually, not quite.  It took me a bit more to learn my lesson and to NEVER kiss a British guy without prior warning, explanation and a business case (all three conditions are mandatory). I hadn’t moved for a very long time to London and I made the mistake of kissing British friend/colleague to say hello. The guy slightly turned his head and I almost kissed the corner of his lips. I was very embarrassed indeed and had to apologise to make it clear that I didn’t fancy him (at all, actually). And then he said “The pleasure was all mine”.

I couldn’t believe it. Well, I don’t like British kisses but you have got to love the British sense of humour, right?

What about you? How do you deal with the kissing conundrum?

Muriel – A French Yummy Mummy In London

Posted by / Category Cultural Differences /

We had a few quiet months but right now it is coming back with a vengeance: I keep reading articles about ‘the French’ and how extramarital affairs are not that big a deal on the continent. It is not making my life any easier.
Some British men still blush when I talk to them, because of my accent. I don’t know what they are thinking. Maybe that I am hitting on them? That I ooze sensuality? That I fancy them? Next time, I will pretend that I am German. Or Swiss. Most middle-aged British men are not listening to what I say for the first five minutes (sometimes even longer). Then, usually, I get a comment like ‘you look very French’. I retaliate ‘you sound very British’. Or I just smile. Most of the time, I give up and try to work with women. Much easier. I used to find the whole thing flattering. Now, I am just tired of it.
Give me a break. Being French and a woman is a double whammy: you have got to fight against the sexist clichés AND the stereotypes against the French. You need a good dose of patience and it is important to keep things into perspective: it is a cultural thing, nothing personal. I have learned to ignore the winks and the smiles after an allusion to the behaviour of DSK and the likes.
In London, they make it sound like the French have invented extramarital affairs. All the articles usually paint an idyllic picture of open marriages and glorify women who swallow their pride while their husbands have a roving eye. Apparently, being unfaithful is not that big a deal in France.
What a load of rubbish!
Come on, the aristocracy in this country has had affairs for ages (just look at the Royal Family!), and it doesn’t have much to do with the French, does it? They did it all by themselves. Affairs are not the privilege of the French. Over here, there are plenty of website for married people who want to cheat on their partner. Such sites might exist in France but apparently it is not as big a business as over here.
I sometimes wonder whether such articles are written by frustrated journalists who would like to have the opportunity to stray but are too afraid to do so. Admiring the French for their perceived promiscuity is an easy way to forget their own frustrations.
What would we do without stereotypes? I once was offered an ashtray despite the fact that I don’t smoke. As I am French, people assume I smoke. Well, I don’t. I gave the ashtray to my then British boss, who was a smoker. Maybe I should have kept it to throw it against the wall when I get a silly and inappropriate question about whether my husband has a mistress -because, apparently, all French men do. Instead, I play it cool. I say ‘oh yeah, the three of us had lunch on Sunday, it was great. Actually, she is waiting for me in the car right now, she is giving me a lift to the spa. Must go’. Or I take the moral high ground: you don’t cheat on a woman like me!
And here is why I feel angry this morning: while I was writing this post during my morning coffee, a British guy wearing the mandatory stripey suit came to me and asked me whether I knew him from somewhere. I didn’t –I can’t even have my coffee without anyone bothering me, can you believe it? He even wrote his number on a napkin. I won’t post it (I hesitated). Great, on top of everything else, I need to change coffee shop.

Muriel – A French Yummy Mummy In London

Posted by / Category Cultural Differences /

How pushy exactly is too pushy? Who takes the initiative? To make matters even worse, what’s considered good practice in London might be unacceptable in France. Life can be difficult. It feels a bit like driving in the dark with only your clearance lights sometimes.

Let me take an example. A few years ago, Stefanie (NOT her real name), a lovely French trainee, came to work with us, in London. She was funny, cute and very bright. She was also very French and chain smoked. All the male colleagues of the office used to rush outside whenever she was having a cigarette. She started liking this English guy and, eventually, he took her on a date. She was obviously very excited about the whole thing. Except that, the following morning, she explained to me that he behaved like a perfect gentleman and didn’t even try to kiss her. He drove her home and even waited for her to open her entrance door to make sure that she was safe, but nothing else happened. How odd.

She was confused. So was I. As I have never dated a British guy, I couldn’t really offer any advice. So we did our research (how did we manage before Google?) and asked around. Apparently, some guys wait a bit before making a move. “Ok”, she said, “I can wait”.

And wait she did. 5 more dates down the road, nothing had happened. (This couldn’t happen in France). She didn’t know what to do. I suggested dating continental guys, because I (used to) find it a lot easier to know where to stand with them –better the devil you know…-. But she wanted to persevere. We had a quick brainstorm. At the time, I was trying to get my daughter into a local Catholic school and found out that I needed a priest reference. So I told her that, maybe, in this country, you need a priest reference before starting a relationship? We asked around but no, apparently it was not necessary. Some Church of England priests are even openly gay over here, and nobody has a problem with it, which I actually find great. Well, back to square one then: how does it work over here?

We tried to find other explanations. If he didn’t fancy her, why would he keep inviting her to nice restaurants? Stefanie, who was not a quitter, decided that he was simply too shy to make a move (maybe it was because of his boarding school education?) and, one evening, after two months of lovely but uneventful dates, she invited him to the pub. After a few drinks, she took him to a dark corner of a beautiful mews and tried to kiss him.
Fatal mistake. He didn’t respond well to her initiative (that’s actually an euphemism) and she felt very ashamed. So ashamed, in fact, that she cut her work placement short a couple of weeks later, after profusely apologising to the guy (she argued that she was drunk).
I bumped into my former English colleague approximately a year ago. He was still single and living with his dog. To this date, she doesn’t understand what has happened -but she moved on. As for me, I understand that I suck at the role of confidante, but I am still struggling to get what went wrong. Any advice/insights?
Muriel – A French Yummy Mummy In London

Posted by / Category Cultural Differences /

Today, I had another reminder of how different the Brits can be. I was nicely queuing at my local coffee shop when the lady right before me made a big fuss about her croissant being too brown and, according to her, over baked. The placid and polite shop assistant swapped it for a white, flat croissant that, for some unknown reason, she was a lot happier with.  There and then it dawned on me: she didn’t know what a good croissant was. I should have tried to educate her but, frankly, I didn’t really feel up for it, especially before my morning’s coffee.
Me being me, I ended up talking to the baker, who explained to me that most British people like their bread or their croissant whitish, flat, and under cooked. You see, he explained, they are so used to the soft, white industrial bread that they can’t cope with the crusty French bread.
This can’t be right! Real bread must be dark gold, with a hard crust that makes a lovely, squishy sound when you press it (needless to say, such a sound is music to my ears). As for the inside, it must be light and melt in the mouth. Nothing to do with the taste of plaster and plastic that you get with the carefully wrapped industrial bread. It is a completely different feeling.
Croissants are the same. They mustn’t be white and flat. The crust needs to be, well, crusty and round. As for the inside you must have thin layers of buttery pate feuilletee, with a lot of air between then. Simply delicious.
Isn’t it sad that, because most British people don’t know good bread, they simply don’t recognise it? They even WANT bad bread instead of the real thing. I hadn’t realised that being French came with such a knowledge of good bread. It is probably part of the silent education there. I do realise that, in the grand scheme of things, this is probably a minor issue. But, you see, I am a great believer of quality as opposed to quantity. Having said that, good bread is easy to find in France. No need to be rich, you can find it at every local boulangerie. As for the woman this morning, well, she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. What a shame!
Muriel – A French Yummy Mummy In London

Posted by / Category Cultural Differences /

View From the Highline, Meat Packing District

Before starting, I have to tell you that travel is in my blood. I don’t know why, but I am never happier than with a suitcase and a plane ticket.
I happen to be French. My birth country is therefore France. I live in London and the UK is becoming my adoptive country.
That said, right now I am enjoying New York and, despite the jet lag it feels really good.

I am watching my adoptive country doing well in the Olympics. But it doesn’t seem to go down very well with my birth country. They believe that the British have bent the rules and even used ‘magic wheels’ for some cycling competitions -the magic wheels in question are, ironically, manufactured in France.
As a results, the anti-Olympic mentality is quickly gaining momentum in France, which is a shame.

I will say it out loud: what is wrong with the French? They seem to forget that, when the rules play in their favour, they don’t say anything ( do you remember Thierry Henry’s hand during the France/Ireland match?). And when the French swimmers kept winning medals they didn’t seem to have any afterthoughts! Our newly elected president even joked that the British had paved the way for the French to win medals. What a difference a week makes!

They simply can’t accept that they lost. It is probably because they believe that they are the best. How can you progress if you don’t accept that there is room for improvement?

I hope that, in time, they will learn their lessons and thrive to become the best. You see, I have a bit of a loyalty issue here: I have therefore decided to support whoever wins, French or English.

Somehow travelling has made me become more open-minded. I know that we are all humans and there is nothing like a healthy competition to push us a bit!

Muriel – A French Yummy Mummy In London

Posted by / Category Cultural Differences, London /

We all had, at some point, to see our GP (General Practitioner – that’s how we call our doctor over here). It is a very peculiar experience. My daughter had been suffering from a bad cough for what seemed to be a very, very long time (especially when you wake up every other hour. I had to send my other daughter to the guest room as she was in the middle of her 11+ exams so that she could sleep -more about that in a few weeks- ).

But we just talked. He didn’t examine her.  He didn’t even look at her, or take her measurements. You know: weight, height, blood pressure…he explained to me that there is a virus out here, the cough lasts 4 to 5 weeks and there is nothing to do. Tough luck, dear lady. The consultation didn’t last more than 5 minutes. I insisted that he should take a look at her, listen to her lungs, look at her throat, or simply do something but no, he didn’t do anything. He didn’t give in. He just didn’t see the point.  But he was really, really nice.  And polite too. The next thing I did was to get a prescription for antibiotics from a French friend who happened to be a doctor and I am pleased to say that the cough has gone in less than 3 days, which means that the whole household was able to get some much-needed sleep at last.

The problem is in fact a cultural one. Whereas in France we talk and then we do something, here we talk, and talk, and talk again. Then, eventually, only when absolutely necessary, something is done about the issue. Not always.  A (British) friend of mine managed to talk about how tea is made the proper way for more than 25 minutes (I timed him.). Given that it must take a couple of minutes to actually make a cup of tea, it took him twelve times longer to talk about it.  Amazing.  I just can’t imagine the time it must take to tackle a real issue over here. I think that I would have time to die of boredom 10 times before it happens. I am still unsure as to how you would solve the issue though. Maybe that ‘s the reason why we can’t get our dishwasher repaired: a week of talking would be required.

Mind you, this love of words also has its upsides.  A defining moment of my life in this country was when I had my second daughter in London. When in France I immediately got an epidural when things got rough, here I was asked to talk through my pain. I ended up doing so much more than talking: I shouted, insulted, begged and threatened (I can’t remember the exact order)…but in the end no epidural was needed. That’s what’s called efficiency!

On the bright side, I have learned to trust my instincts here. In France, people will actually do something (and sometimes they will actually do too much. I still resent the science teacher who gave me a 0% to make me understand that grades were not important). Here, finally, I don’t care any more about all the talks and unwanted advice. And we are going to change the dishwasher.
Muriel – A French Yummy Mummy In London

Posted by / Category Cultural Differences, London /

In my quest to understand what British people really think, I have a secret weapon: my 11-year old daughter.  She understands how I think and can explain to me what her friends are really saying with words that I can actually relate to. She attends a British school, which allows me to see how they are trained. It is simply fascinating. Children are taught to say things in a certain way from a very young age, and it makes it impossible for anyone who wasn’t brought up the same way to get what it is they really think.

When my daughter was seven (yes, seven), she bumped into an older girl from school. When you are in the senior school apparently you don’t have to wear a uniform, so this girl was wearing a mini-skirt with a very large red belt. Let’s just say that, if there is a fine line between originality and bad taste, this girl had clearly crossed that line, and the whole arrangement was of bad taste. In short, she looked like a pre-teen prostitute. My daughter just smiled and said “Hi! How are you? Nice belt ”. The older girl was clearly delighted and she beamed. As soon as the girl couldn’t hear us my daughter told me “ What a horrible outfit!”.  I was amazed.

From then on, I started to question everything I was told. Is this school any good? I asked one of my friends. Oh  yes, it is a good school, she said, very sporty. What she meant was that they were not very good academically.  How could I have guessed it? Another example: anyone who has been in London for a while will also know that every kid has a tutor. But it is a complete taboo. No-one says anything about it but most teachers are finding it an easy way to earn some side money while at the same time denying they are doing it.  I once asked another mum about it and she said “No, of course not, I wouldn’t take a tutor except if my daughter had specific difficulties in one subject” I later found out that the daughter in question had a tutor every day and trying to set up a play date with her is a little bit like asking for a papal audience.
In short, I am progressing but I still have a long way to go. More often than not, I still get a response that I don’t understand. I have come to the conclusion that, in some instances, maybe British people actually don’t have an opinion.

Muriel – A French Yummy Mummy In London

Posted by / Category Cultural Differences, London /

Before I start, I have to admit that I love London. I love it so much that I have applied for Permanent Residence and maybe one day we will have a British passport.

That said, I keep wondering what makes British people that extra bit special. After the best part of 7 years I don’t have the answer yet, but I might be getting closer as I had an epiphany the other day during the school run.

I am always in advance -big mistake- and I had managed to park my Chelsea tractor just in front of the school for once. I was pleased with myself as I hate parallel parking. We were waiting and nicely listening to the radio, and my 5-year old was probably telling me something about Tinkerbell that, I must admit shamefully, I can’t remember.
Then, this woman parked her car just in front of mine. She went out of the car. She was still waking up, she didn’t have any make-up and was wearing an ample track suit bottom with what looked like Uggs shoes. She was middle-aged, very normal and I would normally have forgotten her immediately. But she decided to open her trunk and when she did, her trousers collapsed, showing her bottom. I am talking about the whole thing here, not just the start of the bum cheeks at the end of the back. For some funny reason -and this proves that the law of gravity can be deceptive sometimes, she ended up with her track suit on her knees.

Suffice to say that if it had been me, I would have been mortified. Not that her bottom was an awful one -it was average – not a star’s bottom, but just the normal, average wobbly thing…but, being French, I would have been so ashamed and embarrassed that I would have dyed my hair blonde, change car and basically entered the local equivalent of the Witness Protection Programme.

She did none of this. She didn’t even look around to check that anyone had seen her. She just pulled up her pants, closed the trunk, got her kid and brought him to school.
I was amazed. That is the essence of Britishness. Never complain, Never explain, Get on with your life whatever.
Muriel – A French Yummy Mummy In London