Wherever I go, I seem to take my Frenchness with me (whatever that is, really). Like most civilized countries, France has a particular set of rules, and don’t you dare ignore them. When visiting my home country, you’d be wise to keep some of these social norms and expectations in mind. We are not as tolerant as we look. Now you are warned. Truth be told, we will actually be aghast at your breaches and blunders. But of course it goes both ways: you will find us odd from time to time. Or rude, bizarre, even arrogant maybe. We are just French, warts and all. Don’t hold it (too much) against us, we were born that way. Cultural awareness and respect goes a long way, so here are 7 things NOT to do in France or with a French friend. Oh, and the list is far from exhaustive, feel free to add to it…
We Don’t Hug, Unless We Are REALLY Close
To kiss or not to kiss, that is the question when meeting people in France. Some even call it the conundrum of the bise. It’s a cross-cultural minefield of greeting gaffes, especially if you are too familiar with someone. I once almost slapped a British colleague who kissed me a bit too close of the corner of my mouth- in my opinion. I am sure that he meant no harm, but I haven’t forgotten it (and it was, like, 10 years ago). In other countries, you might welcome someone with a hug, a peck on the cheek, a high five, a firm handshake or even a kiss on the lips (the Russian way!). Simply put: in France, don’t do it. The customary greeting between friends is to kiss both cheeks once or twice, depending on the region – PLEASE no sloppy wet ones, it’s disgusting, just light kisses. Even casual acquaintances and colleagues might greet each other this way. Just follow suit. Oh, and a hug is mostly reserved for lovers and close family.
I ‘came out’ a while ago, and most of my readers know it: I like running very long distances (See here if you don’t remember: http://frenchyummymummy.com/going-the-ultra-mile/). Come to think of it, the work ‘like’ can be misleading. Ultra marathon runners will understand. What I really mean is that running ultra marathons make me feel alive, even if after a while everything hurts. Maybe, as a friend suggested yesterday, I need a good psychiatrist. So much for thinking that running was keeping me sane. We all have our own issues, right? But I digress.
It is easy to take running for granted. As a woman runner, one thing that I know I often take as a given is the freedom to run without social persecution. It wasn’t always like that. In 1928, at the Olympic games held in Amsterdam, women were allowed to compete in running events for the very first time. After the 800-meter event, the International Olympic Committee ruled that the collapse of women at the finish meant that the distance was too difficult a strain on the female body, and banned the event until the 1960 games. As for women running marathons, it was a big no no until 1972 or so. And I have recently been told (I kid you not), that running long distances could damage women’s reproductive organs. For real, in this century. I would like to reassure everybody: everything seems to be where it should be. What can I say: as a society, we still have some way to go. Not to mention that I know a few girls who could give most men a run for their money…
If you follow me on twitter (https://twitter.com/FrenchYumMummy), you know that I have decided to stay in Sydney a little bit longer to enjoy the Aussie way of life. I had come to a point where I couldn’t take one more British winter, and a change was long overdue after close to 15 years in Blighty. Not to mention that I am a nomad at heart. In short, here I am, and loving it. So, what did I learn? Well, so far, so good. The running is amazing and it’s incredibly warm compared to Europe. But let’s not wait, here are my main findings after a few weeks:
- 1. People TALK. I know, it’s amazing, right? Over here, you say ‘Hello!’ to the bus driver, to fellow runners, to the concierge or the cashier. You might even strike a conversation. For the record, I haven’t heard anyone say ‘G’day, mate!’ just yet. It must be urban legend. That said, you might strike a conversation with somebody you don’t know. Come on, it’s shocking! In London, you shut up. It’s considered rude to talk to others, and most of the time nobody will reply if you do. Not to mention that I always took the automatic check-out anyway.
- 2. I am a control freak. I totally need to relax. That’s probably what London does for you. Things are very chilled over here, and slower than in England. Simply put, it freaks me out. When, for instance, the food is slow to come, the light remains red for too long or the shop doesn’t open bang on time, I feel like the world is coming to an end. I. Need. To. Relax.
Things are slowly starting to pick up after the Christmas break. In Australia, nobody has commented on my French accent, and it’s pure bliss. In London, I keep being reminded that I am ‘different’. What I particularly hate is when my interlocutor pretends he (Let’s face it: it’s usually a he) doesn’t understand what I am saying. It hasn’t happened in Sydney, which makes me wonder what is wrong with British men (selective hearing maybe?). Obviously, according to them, we French women are supposed to ‘have it all’. We must look like a trophy wife, but we must also be strong-minded and financially independent. What a load of codswallop!
Come to think of it, this ‘having-it-all’ concept is really getting on my nerves right now. It must have something to do with middle-age. In no particular order, I am supposed to be beautiful, stylish, thin, independent, intelligent and healthy of course. Not to mention a good mother/wife/friend/cook/coach/taxi/business woman, etc. Here is a newsflash for everybody: I only have 24 hours a day. My life is already pretty full-on. And I am far from perfect.
As we were working long hours on a new project the other day, one of the (British) assistants cracked a joke:
‘But Muriel, you are French! With the hours you are working you wouldn’t be able to have a torrid love affair.’
Here we go again, I thought. How very un-French…
It’s this time of the year I suppose. But fear not: I will not patronise anyone (I am too old for that anyway). I just wanted to share with you my New Year’s resolutions. As I never keep them, I thought that I should make a lot of them -some big, some small- to make sure that I keep at least some of them. That’s just me: I always have a fallback plan. At my ripe age, you have to be pragmatic, right?
The problem is that we often only follow through with good intentions for a week or so. The more strong-minded among us may last a month, but sooner or later we all end up falling back into the same old ways which we tried so hard to change. (Let’s come clean: when I say ‘we’, I mean, well, ‘me’).
Why does this happen? And how can we improve our goal-setting strategies?
I have read somewhere that often our goals transform into failures because they’re not solid enough to maintain our motivation, or because they’re perhaps too hard to reach. According to psychologists, if we want to welcome a change and make New Year’s resolutions for real, we must use a strategy called SMART Goals, which outlines the criteria of successful goal-setting (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, relevant, Timely). Seriously? Again, fear not: I won’t bore you with this corporate BS (Excuse my French). Again, been there, done it, and I am sick and tired of having to agree with Powerpoint slides and so-called experts anyway. I have pretended to do so for far too long. My new mantra is more real life, less theory. Call it MindLessNess if you want. I have just made it up as well. I think I am on to something…
If this year was any indication of where things are heading, then I am hungry for you, 2018. What a year! It has been a steep learning curve for me, but I feel like things are nicely taking shape. So what were the main takeaways for me?
Apparently, I am glamorous. I still don’t understand why. Especially now that I am a year older (but aren’t we all?)
Being French, people seems to believe that I have a natural sense of style. In fact, I don’t. I happen to be a Signalling Engineer turned lawyer (for the record it’s even worse than it sounds). But if it makes them happy, it can’t be that bad, right?…So what’s the secret? Well, listen carefully: the secret is that there is no secret. Naively, I thought that things would get easier as I got older. But no, I am still getting a lot more attention that I should/would like to. Yep, even at my ripe age (I feel 24 anyway).
In 2017 (just like the other years, really), I received inappropriate pictures on Twitter, a few love declarations, and was also asked for an ID when I bought some Nurofen at my local supermarket. Same old, same old, really. Some things will never change. Frankly, I have given up understanding them. Onwards and upwards and all that.
Have you heard of Paris Syndrome? Let me explain: it’s a surprising phenomenon whereby Chinese or Japanese tourists arrive in Paris and seem to undergo some sort of mental breakdown. I was told that they experience raised anxiety levels, delusions, irrational feelings of persecution and hostility, hallucinations, or even collapsing. Some tourists had to be sent back to their home country in a medicalised plane. I kid you not. So what went wrong ? Well, the main theory as to what’s happening here is that they have an incredibly romanticised belief in what Paris is like thanks to countless media and film portrayals. Paris is the city of love, everything is beautiful there. All women are polite and look like they come straight from a French New Wave film. I hate to break it to you, but the reality is quite different. To cut a long story short, Paris is mostly a normal city, coupled with some tangible differences in behaviour and manners between Asiatic and Parisian culture. So for instance, our waiters are not always nice. Our drivers might accelerate when you want to cross the street, and don’t expect apologies when you are shoved on the street. This can induce an intense and debilitating form of culture shock. Dear oh dear. It’s hard to see the reality without any filter sometimes. But maybe, just maybe, it is a necessary part of growing up? Just a thought.
Do you know what the three secret ingredients of French cuisine are?
Well, here it is: butter, butter and butter.
And guess what: as a result of soaring popularity of the dairy product and pastries abroad, my home country faces a massive butter shortage. Dipping your croissant in your cup of coffee might become the ultimate luxury pretty soon. What happened? How did we get there? Is it the end of the world as we know it?
Well, let me tell you something first: if you are familiar with this blog, you know that I am from Provence. In short, I am more into olive oil than butter. That’s just me. I am told that, if I were from Brittany, I would see things in a different light and become very depressed. But fear not: I am fine. Our olive trees seem to be in good shape, and my father even told me that we would get more olive oil than last year. All is well and we will survive.
There is a darker side to London than meets the eye. What am I talking about? Well, here it is: the pattern of anti-female bias across my adoptive city is, in my view and despite many well-meaning speeches and initiatives, disturbingly insidious and still going strong.
Look: I’m baking! I am such a good girl, right?
Obviously, there is an unwritten rule forbidding any self-respecting female saying that we live in a sexist world because it makes you at best a difficult women, a feminist, or even worse, a feminazi. Enough is enough. The proportion of female senior executives remains ridiculously low, and the same can be said for management boards and for non-executives. As for excuses, well, I have heard them all before: ‘There is nothing stopping women from getting these jobs. Why do they complain all the time?’ Well, darling, first try juggling a household and childcare with a career involving responsibilities and long hours. Add into the equation, in my case, a husband who travels all the time. Maybe then you’ll understand what I am talking about. That said, you probably won’t, because apparently the right way to deal with these things is to brush them under the carpet. Dear oh dear, what are you on about? The wife/mother/girlfriend in the family is the glue that holds everything together, right? She is there to put up or shut up. Preferably shut up. Calm down, dear.
This expression, as I am sure you know, is borrowed from French. Literally, it means ‘Long live the difference!’. In truth, we French don’t use it that much (if at all). In fact, once again, I think of ‘Vive la difference’ as a British idiom, even if the words are French. What can I say? Life is incredibly complicated.
Let’s go back to the definition, shall we? ‘Vive la difference!’ is an expression of approval of difference, especially between the sexes. When I hear it reminds me to appreciate the uniqueness of everyone and everything. Of course variety is great!! Embrace it. Don’t be afraid of it.
Well, that’s the theory, right? The reality is, indeed, different (pun intended!). Why is is so hard to be different, even if it’s just a little bit? I really wonder. But let’s face it, it’s bloody hard.
For instance, what is it with this obsession with the French First lady, Brigitte Macron? I read yet another article on how her dress was matching her husband’s. Seriously? What can I say? Unlike in France, women in the UK seem to become invisible after a certain age. We French still value mature women, and have timeless icons such as Catherine Deneuve (73 years old), but the British have difficulties in accepting an older French lady. Maybe it is her sense of style? It is more likely her Frenchness, and, let’s face it, there isn’t much she can do about it. She is not going to apologise for who she is anyway. Can’t we just leave her alone?