15 November 2010

How to spot a Frenchman

The stereotype says that all the women here look like Brigitte Bardot (big sunglasses, big hair) and communicate by saying oh la la, while the men play Petanque, drink Pastis, and drive Citroen 2CV cars. None of this is true but you can tell by looking a little closer.

Nobody here in the south uses backpacks or waistpacks, except the tourists. Locals don't wish to get mugged. Instead, they carry everything in thin plastic bags. And because they have their hands full of plastic bags, they carry their baguettes under their arms. If you see someone with a kilt and bagpipe, that's a Scot. If you see someone with a baguette, or a whole bundle of baguettes, under their arms, that's a Frenchman. The previous sentence ran out of political correctness halfway through.

You'll find street musicians anywhere. But only in France will you see an old lady with a clipboard and a microphone, dressed in red velvet, belting out French chansons. She is aided by the fact that chansons are customarily sung with a throat cancer voice.

Contrary to common wisdom, the French don't refuse to speak English to foreigners out of arrogance. They aren't arrogant, they truly don't speak English. They have learned it at school, of course, but forgot it. They don't speak any language other than French because it's not necessary. The French like to spend their vacations in France, especially at the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, where only French is spoken. (They all have their vacations at almost the same time, which makes the holiday season the best time to visit Paris and hell everywhere else.) English-speaking businesspeople, and even English-speaking tourist information staff do exist though, the French economy does not consist of hermits.

The French are much more polite than Californians. This is not the synthetic politeness of a Californian waitress who waits until you have your mouth full to ask "is everything ok" with her widest grin, watching you sputter. The French, when boarding a bus, will always greet the driver with a friendly bonjour (unless it's after 18:00, in which case it's bonsoir), and the driver will return the greeting. Shopkeepers will go beyond that and say both bonne journée and au revoir when you leave. (Although here in the south it comes out as à revoir.) In California, excuse me often means get out of my way, while a pardon here means my sincerest apologies, I didn't see you, of course you can enter the line before me. These people even pay attention to zebra crossings!

However, the French language is also good at swearing. I have waited at the checkout of Marseille's posh Galeries Lafayette department store, listening to the loud conversation of the cashiers punctuated by putain and other potty language. The literal translation of putain is whore, but overuse has worn it down to a mild expression of disapproval. And to bust another stereotype, I haven't heard anyone say merde yet.

No comments:

Post a Comment