Learning to Love / Hate the French

My French classes are slowly working bits and pieces of the language into my brain, lodging a word here and a phrase there.

I’ll be at the laundromat waiting for my towels to dry or sitting at a cafe and “now” or “tomorrow” will jump out at me from a stream of someone else’s otherwise unintelligible conversation.

It’s not much. I have just barely mastered ordering a glass of rose and a salad sans le Jambon (everything seems to come with le jambon here), but it’s something.

I feel I have glimpsed the promised land of knowing what’s going on around me.

But “knowing French” I am realizing, is much more than understanding the language, it’s about understating the people and all of the bizarre cultural rules and norms they live by.

The French are, of course, proceeded by their well-worn reputation of being rude. But I never really accepted this to be true, brushing it off as an outdated stereotype.

But then again, I had never been in France for more than a week or so at a time until now.

On the face of it, French people are the opposite of rude, at least in the South. You can’t walk down the street without being wished a bonjour or bon soir. And if you walk into a shop, it’s a deluge of Madame this and Monsieur that.

The French are so effusive with their greetings and goodbyes I feel like I am constantly trapped inside a French conversation on cassette from my fourth grade French class:

“Bonjour Madeline comment allez vous?”

“Bonjour Pierre! Je suis tres bien merci. Et vous?”

“Je suis tres bien Merci! Au voir Madeline.”

“Au voir Pierre.”

But scratch that surface politeness and something else lies beneath.

“Customer service” doesn’t seem to exist.

Walk into a cell phone shop for example, like I did the other day with a couple of friends visiting from California, and you are out of your mind if you think someone is going to offer to help you.

We stood in what I thought was the line for a few minutes before realizing that rather than the people working behind the counter asking if we needed help, it was our job to get their attention — as if we may have just been standing in there for our amusement.

And even then, it was clear that our presence was beyond an inconvenience to them. My lack of French, from the looks on their faces, was an offense punishable by death.

There is a sharp divide between the politeness offered to tourists forking out too much money for a meal, and to English speaking idiots who need help resetting the password for their wireless cards.

In a way though, I respect the French for their priorities. Most people aren’t rich here, but you never get the feeling that they are desperate to make a buck.

Whether they work at the post office or run a restaurant, or a shop, the French allocate certain times for working, and the rest of the time they just live their lives.

Most of the country shuts down completely for the entire month of August and goes on vacation. It makes sense, its hot and unpleasant in the cities, and the civilized thing to do its to close up shop and just relax for a few weeks, and wait out the heat.

But can you imagine if America tried to do this? I start to feel a little uncomfortable if the nearest drugstore isn’t open 24. Hours. It would be pandemonium.

It became a running joke while my friends were visiting that we could not for the life of us figure out the appropriate times to eat lunch or dinner. We seemed to be in a parallel universe to everyone else.

“Three for lunch at 2:00 pm?”

“Absolutely not. We are closed until dinner.”

If you miss the elusive mealtime window, you are pretty much screwed for the next six hours, and even then chances of getting a table are slim to none.

“Three for dinner at 8:00 pm?”

“Ha ha ha. No. We are fully booked.”

“Even all of those empty tables?”

“Yes fully booked inside and out. All night.”

As Americans we are born with the intrinsic knowledge that we can pretty much do whatever we want whenever we want to do it, so its difficult to get on board with rigid rules and time constraints the French adhere to.

I am reserving judgment on whether “rude” is the correct adjective for the French. For the moment, I think “misunderstood” is more accurate.

We were in a hurry to buy tickets for the tram as it was arriving one afternoon, and a woman with a stroller at the machine in front of us seemed to be taking forever. All the while she was hurling rapid-fire French words at me, compounding my stress and annoyance.

But then I realized she was asking if I wanted her to buy our tickets too so we wouldn’t miss the tram.

Just when I think I am starting to figure things out here, I realize I don’t know the first thing.

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