Friday, December 4, 2009

Things that make you go hmm…

I have been attending classes, had guests for Thanksgiving, experiencing life here and, I have to say my eyes are opening in a way they have never been opened before. When we first were talking about coming here, we decided on a minimum 2 year stay since anything less seemed like just a vacation. I think we have been at least partially right. I am seeing and understanding so much more this year.

Lots of it is just little things I learn in class. For example, in France, a menu is called a carte. On each carte there are usually 3 sections, entrées (appetizers), plats (main courses) and desserts (desserts). Then there is what they call the menu – which is usually a fixed price selection, which varies daily. For example, if you order the menu, you can have salad or soup, with steak or fish and pie or ice cream for 15 Euros. I wonder how we got the idea that entrée is the word for main course? Americans got à la carte right. Hmm….

Another day we learned about clothing styles. They have no word for sweater, for example. They call bowties un noeud papillon and choker style necklaces un collier de chien or dog collars. I admit, the idea of choking isn’t all that attractive either. If something is out of style they say it is demodé and if it is in style it is à la mode. So, why do Americans think à la mode means, with ice cream? Hmm…..

We were talking about tipping, and I told them that “tips” is an an acronym for “to insure prompt service”. Well, they said, if that’s true, then why do you tip at the end of meals? Hmm……

They use the same word, le casque, to mean both headphones (for music) and helmet (for riding bikes or motorcycles). Hmm….

How about our word for cleavage? I have often heard people say "decolletage" for the lovely result of a v-neck top. Well, in French the word is décolleté. In fact, décoller means to take off in a plane! Hmm….

This is a nice one. Sister-in-law is belle soeur (beautiful sister) and brother-in-law is beau frère (handsome brother). We need to adopt this. Beautiful is so much more friendly than our in-laws!

When talking about emotional words we came across gai – which translates to our word gay and means, you’ve guessed it, happy. Well, of course, I had to ask if it also meant homosexual, as it does in the US. I was told the answer was yes – (but they spell it gay in that case). I then discovered that most French don’t refer to gays as ‘gays’ or ‘homosexuals’ but rather as pédé. I immediately thought of pedophilia when I heard that word but it turns out it is the evolution of an an acronym P.D. This stands for pas derriere. Not from behind….. Hmm……..

I’ve started to be exposed to more idioms. Some make sense or are the same as ours such as un grand saut which is a big leap. Another one people told me is that if you work hard you avoir des biscuits or get the cookies. Scruffy beard here is referred to as une barbe de trois jours. People routinely show up at the office with these 3-day beards—and it doesn’t seem to carry any stigma. If they’re wearing the same clothes and not showering, why should they shave? If you’d like to note how small things can make a difference – mention the mustard seed or un grain à moudre. If someone gets mad you can say - Il a pété les plombs. which means ‘he blew a fuse’, or ‘farted lead’, whichever you prefer. How about the translation for “I’m between a rock and a hard place”? Try être entre deux feux (between two fires). And too hoof it (or go on foot) is aller à pinces. Hmm…….

We already blogged about the tooth mouse (Americans have the tooth fairy) but I recently discovered they have no Easter Bunny. Children here are taught that the candy that is left in the garden rains from the sky when a giant bell rings in Rome. And then there is Santa Claus. They had no tradition of Santa in France as early as 30 years ago! They got gifts, but they were from baby Jesus. Good way to keep Christ in Christmas! And what kid wouldn’t worship the dude that brought all those cadeaux? And the French (and Cambodians, Armenians, Germans) all think the idea of Santa originated in the USA. There is absolutely no connection, in their minds, between Saint Nicolas and Santa Claus! I tried to tell them that they were the ones who made up Santa – but they don’t believe me. (Wikipedia backs me up, but, let’s face it, an American probably wrote the article.) Traditionally Germans have a whole different holiday to celebrate Saint Nicolas that is actually occurring this weekend. There are some great legends on him if you want to share them with your kids. I will reprint my favorite below – it is the one most often told by the French.

The Evil Butcher

Three small children were gleaning in the fields. As they worked and played, they wandered off into the town. Walking about and exploring, the children forgot the time.

When it was late and the sun going down, the children were hungry, tired and lost. They came to a lighted butcher's shop, knocked and said, "We are lost and hungry. May we eat and sleep?" "Oh, yes," came the reply, "do come in."

As they enter, the butcher takes a sharp knife, cuts them up, and puts them in a large salting tub. Seven years pass.

A knock comes on the door. Bishop Saint Nicholas appears, saying to the evil butcher, "Open your large salting tub!" The saint puts his hand on the tub and, appealing to God, says, "Rise up, children." The little children awake and stand up. Their families joyfully welcome them home.

Ever since St. Nicholas has been the patron and protector of children.

Gore and redemption – that story has got it all. And no wonder they don’t associate him with our Santa!

André and I had a great discussion, after Thanksgiving dinner, with our guests. Joelle is a teacher and talked to us about the strict rules they have in French schools controlling what they can do in the classroom. They are not permitted, for example, to bring in any outside experts without a lengthy application process and proof of expertise. Her husband, for example, is Italian, and she wanted to bring him in to speak Italian to her class. This is not permitted. In fact, in her old school (stricter than St. Claude) her husband wasn’t even allowed on the school grounds! If he needed to bring her medicine or something – he was met at the gate by the principal, who would bring her what she needed. I came in one time last year to teach “If you are happy and you know it clap your hands!” to the class and she was actually reprimanded afterwards. Teachers, according to her, have a bad reputation in all sorts of venues in France since they tend to be more curious and ask questions. In France, this couple says, you are not to ask questions of anyone – your doctor, your plumber, your boss, etc…. or you are a troublemaker. They are the experts, you have to listen. They simply do not take you seriously – even if what you say has merit. I was saying that I thought there was more than just language barrier holding Zander back on reading – she agrees but claims the teachers hands are completely tied. They are absolutely forbidden to teach in any way that varies from the national standard, even if that means 20% of the children are left behind. How frustrating! But at the same time it felt like an affirmation of some kind – I’m not crazy – they really do think differently here.

One class we talked, all too briefly, about stereotypes. According to the paper handed out by my teacher, Americans think many, many things about the French. They are small, skinny, have black hair and long noses. The men have mustaches and wear berets. They are smart and know lots about good food and wine. They are romantic - their men have lots of affairs and their women are sexy, fashionable and sophisticated. They are arrogant. Yes, this is official curriculum in my class. Hmm….

Well, it is a bit disconcerting, I must say – to represent the US to these guys. They turn to me and say, “So, is this true?” And, of course, I can only speak for myself. Some of it rings true to me – and other things don’t. Then we got onto the topic of what Americans and French think about Asians (because of the two Cambodian women in the class). It was interesting that US and French stereotypes for Asians matched. We thought Asians were: small (as in short) with slanted eyes and dark hair. They are a bit reserved and are very intelligent, valuing education and hard work. Then we talked about what Asians think of Americans – They are rich and fat and they have pointy noses. Actually, the only American stereotype Asians, Armenians, Algerians, French and Germans all could agree on was that we are FAT. And, yes, yes we are. French, Americans and Asians also agree on German stereotypes, tall, blond, strong, a bit reserved….. At one point my Algerian classmate asked me what Americans think about Algeria. I told her the answer was nothing, since, in my opinion, the average American has never spared a thought on Algeria at all and probably could not locate it on a map. I can’t either, so here are some cheat sheets, thanks to wikipedia, but you have to figure out which one is which:

The same indifference applies for Armenia and even Cambodia (although that falls under the generic ‘Asian’ category, I suppose if they knew that much which I doubt many do) I could have gone on talking about this for hours, but class ended and we didn’t go back and discuss it any further (rats!). It is one thing to talk stereotypes in a group that is all one or two nationalities – and another entirely to talk with people from all around the world (at least 4 continents).

I’m feeling the need, here, for a disclaimer of some sort but I don’t know what! I feel like I am passing a lot of judgments, and I hesitate to do that. But at the same time, I have been having so many interesting conversations lately, I just wanted to put some of my thoughts down on paper. I hope you know that what appears below is based on my limited experience, and only that.

I have been talking, on and off, to Augustan, our babysitter. He is black and an immigrant from Haiti. He seems to be very interested in America and asks us, at times, what are the differences between the US and France. We, again, feel a bit uncomfortable being ‘the US’ for people but do our best. I always say that any generalization about the US is false, because it covers such a vast land area and has such a diverse population. We also say that people should never consider André and I as typical Americans, since anyone typical would never, ever, come live abroad for a few years. Augustan is happy to have the opportunity to be in France – but says life is easier for immigrants in the US. He says there are barriers in France that make it hard for blacks, and immigrants to succeed. I find that interesting since my observation of French culture is that, in general, the black population is very integrated. In fact, off the top of my head, I can think of far more parents in our neighborhood where the couples are mixed than where both are black. I also haven’t observed ‘black’ neighborhoods (although there seems to be Muslim ones). This is very different from the US.

Now I’m going to try to codify a bit of what I usually say when asked about the differences. In general, I think that the French take better care of their citizens in terms of things like social programs, unemployment, basic education, health care, etc…. I also think the French have a much smaller gap between rich and poor which puts everyone on a more equal footing. There is a greater balance between work and life and the needs of the family are a priority. They don’t have suburban sprawl. Most people live in small villages that have everything you could need and these are very tight knit and self-sufficient. They take care of each other. They are amazing artisans with food and with crafts and value tradition and history very highly. They like things that are quality – and they keep them safe. They might wear the same outfit three days in a row – but it’s a designer outfit that they will continue to wear until it is truly no longer useable. Things hold value in France. When they go out, they stay up late, eat for hours, and party hard. That being said, I also see problems in France. They are a country undergoing huge demographic changes and are facing a real crisis when it comes to integrating the increasing Muslim and non-white population in their country. They seem to want everyone to become ‘French’. I was surprised to hear that immigrants, in this country, are not only expected to read, write and speak French – but also be able to, off the top of their heads, name 10 popular French actors or athletes. Does this seem a bit much to anyone else? This is no melting pot – and I see prejudice in a lot of places. It’s the norm, for example, to put a color photo on resumes when turning them in for job applications. Also, I have never, as far as I know, seen a same sex couple in Besançon, with or without a child. It is very difficult, if you live here, to change jobs or careers. If you try, people suspect it is because you failed at your other job. People don’t show emotions here – and have no idea how to handle it when other people get emotional (of course, some Americans would see this as a strength). Children here are treated as clones, not individuals and there is no flexibility or richness to school life. Adults don’t really speak to kids. There is also no parent involvement in the schools and no sense of a school community. Questioning authority is heavily frowned upon in some arenas and in others, it exists to little effect. (An example is how teachers here strike, but then go back to work the next day – there are unions, but they appear to be powerless). Sexism is still very strong – especially concerning people’s beliefs on what the youth do. (e.g. boys hit, girls don’t, girls do gymnastics, boys don’t). People are friendly, but not, in general, open. They are slow to embrace change, even good change.

In America, we have some real problem areas compared to France. The biggest problem, by far, is the lack of basic care we have for our people. The lack of food, shelter, education, health care, etc…. for the poorest members of our society is a huge problem. Yes, there are poor people in France, but not like we have in our ghettos. Americans are, in my opinion, much more selfish. The gap between rich and poor is huge, and widening more and more. It is getting harder and harder to escape poverty, while in Europe it’s getting easier. We also are, let’s face it, fat and unhealthy! We spend too much on things we don’t need and things we can’t afford, and waste, waste, waste. We don’t have the strong infrastructure maintenance and rail system they enjoy in Europe. We also work far too much – we don’t give enough balance to things like vacation time and even time off for having a baby (In France, you stop working 6 weeks before the baby arrives, and then get 6 months off afterward). But America still is, in large part, a land of opportunity. They have amazing school (for those lucky enough to live in the right areas) with art, music, gym, computers etc…. There are wonderful universities and people can choose from a myriad of different career paths. There are so many choices, in fact, that, for Americans inflexibility is a definite weakness. Americans value parental involvement, and community involvement. In general, people welcome new ideas, new talent and new blood. We accept change, as a nation, pretty rapidly – re-electing Bush and then switching to Obama 4 years later is a prime example. People are more open and emotional in the US – they give more to charity and to each other (of course, this is necessary since the government certainly isn’t going to do it for them!) The US has much more gender equality and religious tolerance. We have an amazing set of national parks and local parks, many of them free and our playgrounds rule. Cars and gas are cheaper in the US – and thrift store shopping is way, way, way better.

Then there are some things I think are the same in French and American societies. The top one is arrogance. Both France and the US have extreme amounts of national pride. They think they are the best and they don’t like their decisions to be questioned. I think this is part of the reason for occasional friction between the nations. They can be stubborn and obstinate. They both have a history of revolution. They both appreciate (and I realize this isn’t as true for the US as France, but it is for my family and associates) good food! They value education and hard work. People from poor nations all over the world want to have the chance to live in both of these nations. They think everyone should be able to speak their language. They are crazy sports fans (even if it is different sports). Their flags are red, white and blue.

All of these are generalizations, and reality is never so simple. Were these fair generalizations? Do you have more to add? What do you guys think???? (I know I’ve got French and American readers – chime in!)

Still, these generalizations come from somewhere—so as I learn more about typical French, it helps me to integrate better and take things less personally. Just as we say we’re not typical Americans, everyone we meet here says they’re not typical French. Hmm….


Shana said...

Totally fascinating post, Rebecca, thanks for taking the time to think all this through! Invaluable thoughts and impressions. This is one to keep for your scrapbook / journal, and to share with your kids when they're older and they're saying "and we went to France WHY? and what was it like there?"

Rebecca Hecking said...

This is so interesting. Thanks for the perspective! I'll share it with my German husband.


hila said...

Hello !

I am originally from Lorraine (North-East of France) but I've been living in Franche-Comté (Doubs) for 4 years and I'd like to comment some things. (My first language is French.)

You wrote : "but I recently discovered they have no Easter Bunny."
In fact it depends on the area of France I guess because when I was a child I did believe in "Le lièvre de Pâques" that is "The Easter Hare" ! And some friends of mine would believe in "Le lapin de Pâques" - "The Easter Rabbit" (or Bunny). But I also have a friend from the North of France who believed in "The Easter Bells"...

You wrote "I then discovered that most French don’t refer to gays as ‘gays’ or ‘homosexuals’ but rather as pédé."
In fact "pédé" is very rude (c'est une insulte). Originally it was the abbreviation of "pédéraste" (originally "pédéraste" was the word for men who were "attracted" by boys ! - but it evolved into an insult for men who loved men)
My friends and I would rather say "gay" for "homosexual" in French.
Or just "homo" or "homosexuel".
Moreover "gay" is rather for men. For women we would say "lesbienne" (from the Greek "Lesbos") or again "homo" or "homosexuelle". (There's also a rude word but I won't mention it.)

You also wrote : "Il a pété les plombs. which means ‘he blew a fuse’, or ‘farted lead’"
In fact it is rather in the sense of "he blew a fuse". I don't feel it like "farted lead" when I say "il a pété les plombs". And the meaning of it, indeed, is "to blow a fuse" (he went mad or angry ; he lost control).

There are other things but I stop here.

I really like studying the different words and expressions from an area to another one, from a language to another one. Also I love studying the social and cultural differences between two countries or areas.
(My studies were with linguistics, languages and sociology)

Un Grand Merci for your blog which I find very interesting !

hila said...

(suite / I forgot to say)
- "lesbienne" like "lesbian" in English I guess...

- "Il a pété les plombs" : we also say "il a disjoncté" as in "disjoncteur" (Circuit breaker).
I think because some "plombs" (lead) are or were used in circuit breakers... (?)

We also use the verb "péter" in sentence like "une bombe a pété" (to say "explosé/éclaté" = exploded/burst) or things like "il a pété une vitre" (meaning "cassé" = he broke a window).

Rebecca said...


loved your post and would love more real french input on my warped perceptions!!! Glad you find the blog interesting.
email me off line if you want - my email hides at the end of front page material.


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