Friday, November 18, 2011

Rules to Live By (if You’re French)

There are so many things that I find amusing and confusing about the French.  They live by a bizarre (to me) set of rules that everyone seems to understand that can strike an ignorant outsider as downright odd. Here are just a few:

Non! The French national word: They love it and use it in response to nearly every question. “Non” however, rarely means “no.” More often it means, “how bad do you want it?” or “how far are you willing to go to convince me?”

The French love a good verbal joust. Using excessive and often elaborate language to convey simple sentiments and arguing at length over seemingly mundane things is a joyful exercise. Most are deeply proud of their language. It’s been described to me as the “language of romance, of history, of poetry and la politesse,” which itself is governed largely by what to say and how to say it.

Better to be negative than wrong: The general French disposition is pretty negative – it’s not a criticism, merely a fact and one about which they are actually quite proud. Why? Well, if you expect things not to go well and in fact, they don’t then voila! You were right and more importantly, you were not wrong. In Paris, there is nothing worse than being wrong.

What’s so wrong with being wrong?  This, I think, I finally understand.

Watching my son take his first steps in the French schools, I have learned that the system, its teachers and administrators are rigid and strict. There is a deeply ingrained belief in motivating students through negative feedback, the polar opposite of what’s done in the U.S.  Their top grade is a score of 20 and no one – and I mean no one – ever gets this score. An 18 would be considered an A, almost an A+. But when a child brings home a score of 17/18, the parental response is not “right on!” but “why not a 20?” Praise, many believe, would result in crushing motivation. Negativity builds drive. It’s the opposite of “positive reinforcement” if ever it existed.

Kids are also assigned numeric class rankings fostering a system based on dog-eat-dog competition. The worse your friend does, the better you do – and vice versa. No teamwork and consensus building here.

Sales Prevention: Oh, did you want to buy that item? Ah, non, c’est pas possible. Despite the fact that someone is employed as a salesperson, don’t expect them to actually help you purchase something. Again, adhering to my first point, “non” is the national favorite word. As in, “Do you have this in a size 39?” Non. “Would you be willing to check in the back?” Non. “Could I speak to the manager?” Ah, non!

Pharmacy Love: Whether visiting a doctor for a hang nail or chronic headaches, you will undoubtedly leave your appointment with no fewer than three prescriptions for various maladies you didn’t even know you had. Dry skin? Try a special prescription cream. Twitching eyelid? Prescription magnesium and vitamin B6. Dry cough? Prescription herbal suppository. Yes, suppository. Pharmacies are ubiquitous and most carry identical products ranging from condoms that can be accessed easily on any shelf to ibuprofen, curiously sequestered behind the counter and can only be procured from a pharmacist.

Then there are the simple facts of French life – the rules they accept as true but cannot really explain. Tout simplement, c’est comme ca.

Here are some favorites:

1. If you do not wear a scarf, you will get sick. This is true for at least nine months of the year and any other time the temp falls below 65 degrees. Naked neck = sickness.

2. When the temperature falls below 60 degrees, it is freezing and you are entitled to gripe about it to anyone who will listen. If no one is listening, you can mumble about it to yourself while walking along the street or taking public transportation.

3. If the temperature rises above 75 degrees, it’s insufferably hot. Apply public grumbling from rule #2.

4. Children have no internal body heat and must be layered and bundled within an inch of their lives. If a drop of rain falls, clear the playgrounds immediately and rush home before everyone gets sick.
55 degrees & sunny...
5. Milk can only be put in coffee at breakfast. In fact, milk should only ever be consumed in the morning. Café au lait in the afternoon is a joke and you will be mocked in a café if your order one.

6. Chocolate, however, can and should be consumed at all hours of the day and night, especially at breakfast and during childhood. Hot chocolate for breakfast is considered healthy for kids and is the main reason my kids like living here.

7. Eggs can be consumed at any time of day except breakfast. Omelets are served for lunch or simple dinner and hard boiled eggs in mayonnaise are a delicious appetizer.

8. Green tea, cigarettes and wine will keep you thin. Exercise (and sweating while clothed in general) are to be regarded with suspicion.

9. Tanning is good for you.

10. Unwashed hair is sexy – on men and women.

11. A woman can definitely own (and wear) too much make-up. But there is no such thing as too many facial creams, potions and serums.  These creams can cure whatever ails you. 

12. After a meal, one should always order dessert then coffee. Never both at the same time. Even if you try to order coffee with your dessert, your waiter will not bring it until your dessert plate is cleared.

13. Most French have not visited the U.S. but if they did, here’s where they would go:
1) New York (parce que c’est New York), 2) Miami (see #8), or 3) San Francisco (because everyone loves San Francisco, obviously). Outside of these cities, Boston can be tolerated because “c’est la ville la plus europeene.” (It’s not but don’t bother arguing.) Los Angeles? Ah non. Non, non.

As for travel, most French prefer to stay in France. After all, it is the world’s most beautiful country (as any Frenchman will tell you).

It’s also home to the world’s most magnificent city. And despite the curious, entertaining and often maddening ways of the French, I cannot argue there.


At November 18, 2011 at 7:15 PM , Blogger Sara said...

Such a good post!

Number 5 cracks me up because I'll never forget the reaction I got from a waiter when I asked for a café au lait in the late afternoon, while everyone around me was sipping glasses of wine. He looked at me as though I had three heads, pursed his lips, then proclaimed "Mais, non!" before rushing away and returning with a very large glass of red wine, which he set down in front of me with a great show of importance. I still crave milk-laden coffee at all hours of the day, but now I don't ever attempt to order past noon when I'm in France!

At November 19, 2011 at 11:38 AM , Blogger Paige said...

Hi Sara -

Love that story. I recently ordered a cafe creme at about 4pm at a cafe. The waiter looked at me with a grin and said, "Il me reste des croissants, aussi!" (Meaning breakfast food, of course). As often happens, it took me an extra minute to figure out he was teasing me. One of these days, I'll have the perfect come-back at the ready. Thank you so much for commenting!

At November 19, 2011 at 10:24 PM , Blogger geraldine said...

Hey Paige,
No, French people aren't so negative, it's just too easy to say "yes".
You can get a 20 in "dictee", or in "calcul", rarely in history and never in writing. I can't believe that the ranking still exist but, isn't it a positive reinforcement for the 3 first one? :)) just kidding. My teachers were used to give the results starting from 20 to... 0 With appropriate comments.
Pharmacy in the US, the place where you can buy almost everything, from cigarettes to drugs, from slim fast medicationsto coca cola, you can even buy your christmas lights over there. After 10 years in the US, i'm still amazed, but at least the cashier is (often) smiling.
The forecast is the easiest subject of complain: whatever it is, it's too something and won't of course be better anytime soon. The good thing about the weather, is that you have few chances to fight about it, it's usually consensual, and you talk abou it everywhere and with everybody!
Last, I love that post, it reminds me that the french are so incroyablement french.
Did you ever read the comics " les bidochons?"

At November 22, 2011 at 4:36 PM , Blogger Lost In Cheeseland said...

I can definitely relate to the U.S. point - whenever I'm asked where I'm from (Philadelphia), I get "c'est près de New York, ça?". Their only point of reference, clearly.

At November 22, 2011 at 5:23 PM , Blogger corine said...

I so wish this wasn't true. But it is :)

At November 24, 2011 at 10:00 AM , Blogger Paige said...

Geraldine! So great to read your comment. You are so right about American "pharmacies," which are really much more ridiculous than the French pharmacie. From holiday decorations and T-shirts to nail polish and DVD's - anything and everything can be found at a so-called American "pharmacy." All done, of course, in the name of efficiency, which - as we know - isn't top of the list for the French!

An upcoming post will be about the many things I love and admire about France and the French. Stay tuned! And "Happy Thanksgiving!"

At November 24, 2011 at 10:03 AM , Blogger Paige said...

Bonjour "Cheeseland" and thanks for commenting! I love your blog and am flattered you have visited mine. Parisian responses about visiting the U.S. are hilarious - my husband and I joke that they almost always follow this exact script! Thanks again.

At November 24, 2011 at 10:06 AM , Blogger Paige said...

Merci, Corine. Decoding and trying to understand French culture is endlessly fascinating to me! Even more so now as my kids are growing up here. Thank you for reading the blog.

At December 1, 2011 at 1:35 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved this...I am French/American and lived in Paris for awhile before moving back to the States and you have really hit this right on! So funny and so true. Everything I love and hate about the French. Everything that made me want to move back to the US and makes me miss Paris at the same time. The only thing you forgot to mention is the French cashiers fear of American credit cards and not knowing what to do with the machine. I can't tell you how often I had to take the machine from them and pass the card myself. It seems to terrorize them. Great post!

At December 1, 2011 at 7:49 PM , Blogger Laura said...

I lived in Paris for 8 months and had a bit of a different outlook on things. Sure many French will not speak English to you even if they can and their ways are quite different, but I found people in the shops and pharmacies to be quite helpful and I could always order a café crème in the afternoons - that is quite different though than a cappuccino or cafe au lait which is frowned upon after breakfast. Most French people just order a shot of espresso and be off like the Italians, order an espresso with their glass of wine or just skip coffee all together and go straight for the glass of wine. I loved their intrinsic and prophetic way of speaking. Their idioms and similes always impressed me. I wish our language was as expressive and eloquent! I did not have any children that went to school, so I cannot speak on that point, but chocolate is very healthy :). Especially nutella for breakfast or after school! And of course, if you are French and live in France, why would you want to come to the US? I know I wish I could have stayed on forever!

At December 1, 2011 at 9:45 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the chocolate part. Oui, mes petites filles aiment le chocolat, aussi!

Fun post!


At December 1, 2011 at 11:08 PM , Blogger moi said...

I love this post!

I am married to a French man living in Los Angeles and our 5 year old son attends a French government sponsored Lycee.

Having lived in France I know all too well about the things you write about.

Can't wait for the next posting from you, love your spot on observations.

At December 2, 2011 at 4:31 AM , Blogger Virginia H. said...

great blog! I just had to read it all in one day because it amuses me to see the perspective of an American in Europe. I am from Brussels (french speaking) and now live in South Florida but my upbringing is very similar to how you describe the french. I think my kids teachers think I am a horrible mother for sending the kids to school with Nutella sandwiches!

At December 3, 2011 at 10:55 AM , Blogger oliviadog said...

Just discovered your blog today. Loved this post! Thanks to momopedia. I live in Paris too (almost three long years now) and agree 110% with all 13 points, even 12 and 12. Ha:)

As a hyper-healthy parenting type, when I saw chocolate flavored BABY food, I was beyond disgusted. Thus, I am perplexed as to all these skinny French kids because they eat so much candy, pastries and pasta/pizza. I mean, these kids carry around a ziploc of colored flavored sugar everywhere they go! Good thing the dentist is covered by SECU.

And yet other parents look at my kid with concern when she is dressed "appropriately" for the weather too. So weird here, n'est pas?

At December 30, 2011 at 8:32 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paige, I found your blog through HIP Paris and I just had to tell you how much I enjoy these two posts (this one and the more recent one.) I also live in Paris and you capture part of the spirit that makes living here so fantastic.

At January 8, 2012 at 6:49 PM , Blogger Anne said...

Love this post Paige! Rings so true, and I've recounted versions of these stories to friends in describing Parisians. It's great to read your posts and makes me miss it so much! What a different journey with the kids in tow.
Hope we get to visit one day!!

At February 15, 2012 at 4:09 AM , Blogger Jennifer said...

I just stumbled upon your blog (through your article for Motherlode) and really like it! I find many similarities with Verona (where I'm from-even though I'm now living in Singapore!
Especially the amazing menu my little son had at the local preschool!


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home