Demystifying the French

As I told you in my last blog about la politesse, while finishing it up, my friend, Janet Hulstrand, asked me if I would read and review her latest book: Demystifying the French. How to Love Them and Make them Love You (What you’ve heard about them is not entirely true….).  I love reading most anything and, as it turned out, this was a very special read. I learned a lot. The book is small and can be read quickly. You can earmark pages you want to return to and give more thought to it. I highly recommend that anyone visiting France for the first or the twentieth time, read this book. I think that means I give it five stars!

The book is broken down into two parts. The first part is made up of what she calls: Essential Tips for Even Very Brief Encounters. Saying Bonjour is Tip #1!! Only five of them but five that will make a huge difference in how you perceive the French while you are here. The second part: Understanding the French Mentality solved some real issues for me. Ah ha moments, oh that’s why so and so did that.

The following is an interview that I did with Janet. Warning: this is longer than a four minute read. If you have the time, it is well worth it.

When I think of you, Janet, and your writing, writing a “primer” for us étrangers is not the first thing that comes to mind.  Why did you write Demystifying the French, and when did you start? 

I wrote this book because it really makes me sad to hear people from the U.S. and other countries talk about the bad experiences they have had in France, with its “unfriendly” people. The students who come from New York to study literature in Paris with me each summer are often warned by friends and family that the French are “rude, arrogant, and they hate Americans.” This is just sonot true! But it is true that Americans (and other foreigners) often get off to a bad start in their interactions with French people because there are a few simple rules of etiquette that they simply don’t know about; and knowing them can make all the difference in the world. 

I wanted to write a book that would explain what those rules are, and show how easy they are to follow, so that the experience of traveling (or living) in France can be a really good one, even if you don’t speak a lot of French. 

I actually started the book a few years ago, as a few posts on my blog, though I wasn’t thinking of it as a book then. I was teaching a class at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington DC, called “Demystifying the French.” Last year I realized that this topic could be expanded into a very useful and fun book, and have a wider audience. And so now here it is! 

I love the subtitle of your book (“What you’ve heard about them is not entirely true”).  I love the French, and I have discarded so many preconceived notions that I had before moving here.  How much damage do we inflict on ourselves by not making French culture as important as sightseeing when we are planning a visit?

For me the richest part of a travel experience is always human interaction, much more than sightseeing. I added that second subtitle because as I was working on the book and I told friends and family the subtitle (“How to Love Them and Make Them Love You”), a few people said, “Why should I want to love them, and why do I care if they love me?” I realized these people were a bit resistant to my main message, and were not necessarily natural francophiles. So the added subtitle was an attempt to intrigue those people who weren’t necessarily inclined to care about pleasing the French, and to let them know that I do realize that sometimes the French can “require special handling.” This is NOT the same thing saying that they are rude, or arrogant, nor is it an indication that someone is unfriendly. It’s just that they’re operating according to a different code of behavior. We alloperate according to a particular code of behavior. Often we’re not really aware of this until our code of behavior collides with someone else’s. Which often happens when Americans find themselves in France.

When I finished reading Part 1: Essential Tips for Even Very Brief Encounters, I thought to myself “If everyone read this, they’d have a course in Basic Diplomacy 101!!”  We Americans get away with so much these days, but the French don’t let us slide at all.  How did you pick these five basic tips?

I tried to pick five things that seem to me to be of truly fundamental importance to the French, and also things that, if you don’t know them it can cause unpleasant misunderstandings, or at least uncomfortable interactions. The first tip is one that almost everyone who writes about this topic stresses: that is, the importance of remembering to greet someone properly before launching into conversation. This is really hard for Americans to remember, because we have a tendency to go straight to the business at hand, and we don’t necessarily give a lot of thought to social niceties like saying “Bonjour” first. But in France, you can’t skip over that without being considered rude. So it’s important to know! 

Part 2 is a deeper, more complex look into how, as you say, the French “tick.”  I found it rich and thorough.  You must be quite pleased with how you have presented the French as interesting human beings worthy of being known as they are, not as we think they are. Are you getting a favourable response from expats and from your French friends?

The book has just been released so I haven’t had a chance to get very much feedback yet. The few expat friends I have heard from have been very favorable in their responses, and that makes me happy. I am anxious to hear what my French friends think too, because of course they are coming from an entirely different perspective. I hope they will like the book, though it’s not really written for them; and I hope that it will indirectly help them understand Americans a bit better too, though that is not the purpose of the book. 

I think they will probably be intrigued. The French tend to be very interested in analysis, and in human psychology; and I think they will be interested to see themselves from a different point of view. I hope it will be clear to them how much I love French people and their culture, even though I make a few jokes at their expense. I make plenty of jokes about myself and about Americans in general too, though. Hopefully it’s pretty well balanced in that way. 

When I finished your book, I found myself wishing someone had either handed me a book like this or taken me aside to explain to me the really important social aspects of living here in France before I came. Do you have any suggestions that might encourage prospective visitors to pick up a book like this as well as their sightseeing books on France and Paris?

I actually require the American students in my literature classes who come here each summer to read up on this topic before they come, and I tell them there will be a quiz! And the reason I do this is because I reallywant them to have the best possible chance to have a good time while they’re here, and to have not only positive experiences with the French people they encounter, but experiences that will show them that all the negative things they’ve heard about the French are just simply not true. I guess from now on I will require them to read my book! J

After five and a half years of living here, I have learned much of what is in your book —usually by trial and error and much embarrassment.  Chapter 4 was an eye opener: “The Importance of Stability, Order and Being Correct.” As your friend, Ellen Hampton says, “Because the French are so socially progressive and liberal about relationships, they are often mistaken for liberals.”  I now understand much better why the French administration drove me crazy in the first couple of years I was here.  Do you think there is any way around the frustration of that emphasis on “correctness?” Or is that one of the important parts of our education of living here?

Well I think one of the most important things that can be learned in living in any foreign environment is patience for the fact that things are often not done the way you feel instinctively they should be. This is in the nature of experiencing a different culture. And I think that patience is probably the best cure for frustration with those other ways we encounter when we’re not living in our own culture. It’s certainly better, and more effective, than wishing others were more like us, or trying to change them. 

Your chapter on “The Importance of Food” is so true.  Because I follow a strict medical regime that excludes alcohol and bread, the French have a hard time relating to me and how I eat.  I’ve been invited to four French dinner parties and never invited back a second time!  Your chapter helped me understand them better, and not make it personal to me.  But I constantly wonder if there is a way to explain my regime that would allow me to have more encounters of eating with the French.  Do you think it’s possible? 

Well, I think things are slowly changing in France in this regard. I was surprised to read just the other day about the number of vegan restaurants in Paris, which was apparently one of the factors that pushed it to the top of someone’s “healthiest cities” list. I think I also just heard something about a Meatless Monday effort in France, which is aimed at improving planetary health. So I think things are slowly but surely changing. It’s certainly a lot different now than when I was first bringing student groups here back in the 1990s and asking if they could make some accommodation for vegetarian students. “Oh, yes, we have a lovely quiche lorraine,” my contact at one restaurant said, very enthusiastically and kindly. When I gently reminded her that quiche lorraine does have meat in it, she said, “Well, just a little bit! They won’t mind that,will they?” And when I said, mmm, yes, they probably will, she sighed and said. “Well, okay…We can make it without meat, but that will be so sad!!!”  

I think today things are getting better for people who have particular dietary restrictions, whatever the reasons may be. If you can find a way to explain briefly what your restrictions are, and assure them that this situation is not “sad” for you, maybe that will help. Because the French really do want you to enjoy your meals! 

Is there anything else you want to add? 

Well, maybe just one thing. I hope people will read the glossary of Demystifying the French through from beginning to end. Unlike most glossaries, it’s really part of the book, and it’s one of my favorite parts.

When will your book be available for purchase? In the US? in France? The book is available for purchase now, and this link to my blog will let readers know where they can purchase it.  Thank you so much, Sara, for letting people know about it! 

If by any chance, the above link did not work, try this: https://wingedword.wordpress.com/demystifying-the-french/

Let both Janet and I know how you like the book. Welcome to enjoying the French!!!

A bientôt,

Sara

La Politesse

After I had been in Paris for about 6 months, I started listening carefully to how my friend, Barbara, addressed everyone. Her friends, the shopkeeper, the man on the street for directions. She always said to people she didn’t know “Bonjour, je suis désolée de vous déranger….”. I figured out that she was saying “Good morning, I’m so sorry to disturb you but…….” Barbara has excellent manners so I decided just to copy her.

Then one day, I was looking for a bus and felt completely lost. The wrong bus came along and stopped in front of me, As the doors opened, I leaned inside and asked the driver if he knew where #37 was. He looked at me slowly, then said “Bon…Jour Ma..dame” long and drawn out. I knew immediately I’d made a curtesy mistake, a big one. I apologised and started over again. I said “Bonjour, that I had juste une petite question..” and could he help me find my bus. He gave me directions without blinking an eye or giving a smile. I was just doing what I should have done in the first place. I felt about two inches high. The last time I was scolded like that, I was probably twelve years old. I’ll say one thing, once it’s happened to you, you never forget to say “Bonjour” again. It doesn’t matter who it is. It’s la politesse. I always say “Bonjour Madame or Monsieur”. When leaving, I always say ‘Au Revoir’ and ‘Bonne Journée’. Even if someone stepped in the elevator and you rode only three floors with them.

Most of us ride by public transportation. We spend a fair amount of time out on the street or in public places. One can always tell if there is an American new to the country near by. Their voice is at least three decibals louder than anyone else’s. After awhile, I find myself hoping I look french when I hear Americans talking so loudly and not caring whose space they are invading. French, in general, speak quite softly. They text all their messages. They are constantly with their phones as is most everyone but the French do it more quietly. It was strange to me when I first arrived that so few people used their phones as phones. Then I figured it out–the noise factor.

Yesterday, I was shopping at Picard ( best frozen food store in the world. Another blog!!) A woman speaking Spanish spent her entire time at the store on the phone, walking around, talking very loudly. Everyone was looking at her. It wasn’t a mean look, it was a look to say “You might consider speaking softer.” When she got to the cash register, the fellow taking her money was so kind. He tried to speak Spanish with her. She just glared at him. He asked if she spoke English, she nodded her head. Then he told her how much she owed in Spanish. She looked at him like she had no idea what he was saying. Here he was, a young french boy, trying to make this woman less wrong by joining in on her language but she wasn’t having any of it. I felt bad for him. She left without a goodbye, a thank you or any indication that he had been helpful. So it’s not just Americans.

I have two friends, both named Sylvie, who I meet with each once a week to practice my conversational french. When I was confirming a date with Sylvie #1, I started my text by saying “Salut, Sylvie.” When I arrived at her home two days later, the first thing she said to me was one never, ever, ever uses ‘Salut’ in writing. “We, the french, only use it if you see a friend on the street and wave Hi/Salut!”. Well yes and no. Sylvie is my age, old school, and it probably was a strict rule at one time. My younger french friends say people do use it among close friends in writing. However, I hate breaking these rules of politesse especially when I’m not even sure I know many of them. So to be on the safe side, I’m sticking to Bonjour or Bonsoir.

La Politesse is no small thing. Children are taught it from a very young age. If children seem ‘bien élevé’ (well brought up) when you see them out on the street or on the metro, that is why. There are rules. If you as the visitor or the Ex-Pat living here or the tourist passing through, respect these rules you will find the French very easy to get along with. However, if you just blunder your way around in English not attempting to be polite, you will find yourself getting some strange looks. It would be easy to misinterpret those looks as the French looking down their noses at you. In fact, they will just be wondering why you are not ‘bien élevé”!

While I was finishing up this blog, my friend Janet Hulstrand, sent me a copy of her brand new book: Demystifying the French: How to Love Them and Make Them Love you. It is an extension of everything I’ve written here. I will be interviewing her and putting it in my next blog.

A bientôt,

Sara

Bonne Année 2019

With the French tradition in mind, this blog is my New Year’s card to all of you.

The French have a tradition that I really like.  Instead of sending Christmas cards, they send New Year’s cards.  They can send them any time during the month of January. If you tip a service person, you put it in your New Year’s card. So what happens is that here in France people prepare for Christmas with the presents and the parties and going to Galleries Lafayette to see the windows without the fuss of writing Christmas cards. Then, after you take the tree down, put it out on the sidewalk for pick-up, you have the rest of the month to write cards. People are still saying Bonne Année to me. It’s nice. I feel like I’m slowly moving into 2019 with the daily reminder to make it a good year.

The French have a tradition that I really like.  Instead of sending Christmas cards, they send New Year’s cards.  They can send them any time during the month of January. If you tip a service person, you put it in your New Year’s card. So what happens is that here in France people prepare for Christmas with the presents and the parties and going to Galleries Lafayette to see the windows without the fuss of writing Christmas cards. Then, after you take the tree down, put it out on the sidewalk for pick-up, you have the rest of the month to write cards. People are still saying Bonne Année to me. It’s nice. I feel like I’m slowly moving into 2019 with the daily reminder to make it a good year.

I spent New Year’s Eve in the town of Annecy in the Haute-Savoie region of France. Annecy sits at the north end of Lac d’Annecy, a lake that has a 32 kilometre circumference that one can walk, run or bike easily.

Pier just south of Annecy

My friend, Barbara, and I spent four nights there. What for me is the most amazing part of traveling at any time of the year in France is the transportation. Annecy is southeast of Paris, about an hour south of Geneva. By car, the fastest driving route takes five and a half hours if you don’t stop. By TGV (fast train–often going up to 200 km per hour), the trip is a bit over three hours. Marseille, in the south of France, is just over three hours. Bordeaux is two hours. Even the small towns along the Côte d’Azur where the train stops at every famous spot, one wouldn’t spend more than five or, at the very most, six hours on the train. These are comfortable trains with tables to write at or play games. There are always one or two “Bar” cars that sell sandwiches, drinks and sweets. There is every kind of discount card imaginable. A senior card that often has first class fares that are lower than second class fares for the under 62 years old set. A weekend discount card, a weekday discount card, a youth discount card, a student discount card.

The old city of Annecy

To go such a distance for only four nights is easy. Our AirBnB was a five minute walk from the station. We spent one day just walking around the town of Annecy, especially Le Centre Historique and Vielle Ville with cobbled streets, winding canals and pastel-colored houses. The Marché de Noel was alive and well and open until January 6. We took a bus ride up to La Closaz, a ski area, hoping to ride the chairlift to the top of the mountain. We were told that the winds were quite bad that day and the lifts weren’t operating while we were there. So we took the bus back and went to a movie!

On our last full day, New Year’s Eve day, we started on a walk down the west side of the lake. We stopped for a coffee in Sévrier, about 7km south of Annecy, and ended up eating lunch. We walked out of the Café to blue skies and a warm sun, the first we had seen of the sun during our trip. It transformed the lake and everything around it. We now could see what everyone was raving about when they told us how much we would love Annecy, how beautiful it is. Indeed, with the sun bouncing off the snowy white mountains and reflected in the lake with it’s multitude of sailboats, it was dreamlike.

We stopped in a store as we walked home and Barbara asked about fireworks. The salesperson looked at her and said “This is Annecy. We don’t have fireworks here.” “Completely calm and quiet?” Barbara said. “Oh yes.”

We leaned out the living room window just before midnight and heard people counting down the minutes to midnight at the top of their lungs. At midnight, we saw a few fireworks very far off in the distance. It was hard to tell if it was a suburb or where they were originating from. After a few screams and yells, a siren or two, all was quiet by 12:30am!!

East side of Lake Annecy at sunset

As we got off the train at Gare de Lyon the evening of January 1, 2019, Barbara and I looked at each other and said almost at the same time, “This is so easy. The train ride flies by in no time. I got so much done!!!” And we both went towards our separate routes home. The metro for me and the train to the suburbs for Barbara.

Welcome to 2019. I hope to see you in Paris this year.

A bientôt,

Sara