Thursday, January 28, 2010

Meandering French observations…

As you all know, I roam the streets of Besancon – sort of like a superhero of kinds, searching for new and interesting facets of life here in France. I often think, while I compose, of WordGirl from PBS.  Perhaps I am her international cousin?  For whatever reason, I am always eager to hear what people think about one subject or another.  Fodder both for the blog and my information-hungry brain.  Now all I need is a really cool name…. and a cape.

I must, however, go back to a very recent blog in which I addressed French hygiene.  I was roundly reprimanded in comments by 2 real live French people (I love all of you and I hope more of you will give me comments).  It seems I am now “connu comme le loup blanc” (known like the white wolf).  This is a new idiom (thanks Marie) which means everyone knows who I am – and it is true that people seem to be friendlier to me recently – maybe it was since I implied they weren’t so friendly?   But, I digress as usual.  The noble representatives of France both defended in their comments the sterile purity of the French health system, especially as compared to the Americans.

First off, I agree with you on the indisputable fact that the people of your nation enjoy better health than those of my own.  You live longer and everyone can see a doctor (imagine that?).  I also would like to quell your worries about US nurses and other medical professionals wearing scrubs outside of medical environments.  The US definitely has practices to avoid contamination – especially in a surgical environment.

On the other hand,I maintain you have some  habits that are less than ideal. Some French people pick their noses, all the time, in public (in my opinion a little private nose picking is nobody’s business but your own – I follow a don’t ask, don’t tell rule on that one)  But standing on line next to me in a store?  Frankly, it’s gross – and it happens a lot.

Secondly, there is the food sharing thing.  I mentioned licked cupcakes but it doesn’t stop there. People will, on a regular basis, finish off the half eaten plate of another person.  I’m not talking a mom eating junior’s carrot sticks.  I’m talking about sitting around a table at a restaurant with co-workers and passing a half eaten meal over to someone who wants it.  And if there is only one piece of cake left they might bite it in half and then offer the other half to a co-worker who just walked in.  And they take it!  One time at a party people couldn’t get my brownies out of the pan so they literally started clawing at them and scraping them out with their bare hands – diving in over and over until they got a good bit.  This went on with various clawers until all that was left in the bottom were a few crumbs and some broken fingernails. (ok, you got me, no fingernails)  Yes – they were adults….

How about the fact that, in Griffin’s preschool every time he had an accident last year they just left him stinking up the bathroom until I showed up to clean him up. I guess that means the germs don’t spread to the other people?  And how, even though they knew he had a gluten allergy, they fed him baguette?  And then there is how, if a student pukes in Zander or Callie’s school, it is the teacher who is down on the floor cleaning up the mess – and no one even leaves the room. There is some kind of janitorial staff.  I don’t think puke is in their contract.  And the kid that just puked waits in the classroom with the others until someone can come pick them up, hanging around for half an hour or so spreading those germs.  I’m pretty sure the concept of a school nurse does not exist here. Not sure what the health implications of this all is – but it somehow seems relevant.

OK – and they also wear their clothes over and over and some of them don’t shower very often and are (sad but true) stinky.  I think, in fact, in the US we waste far too much water with over showering and throwing perfectly clean clothes in the laundry – but sometimes the French take it a bit too far.  That ‘homeless guy’ smell is something I now experience on a daily basis in the streets of town.  OK, OK enough on hygiene!  By the way, I hope you are all not deeply offended. I don’t think French people are gross or anything.  I just think they have some different practices than us – that can be hard to get used to!

We must now move on to hiccups.  That’s right, hiccups or hoquet in French.  I ended up, for whatever reason, discussing hiccup cures in my English class and I found out that a. They believe nothing really works to cure them and b. There are a few tried and true remedies.  The French remedies they mentioned are listed below:

1. Scare/shock/surprise someone

2. Hold your breath

3. Eat a spoonful of sugar

4. Drink a glass of water (maybe also while holding nose and ears shut)

Guess what?  Those are exactly the same as the remedies (American of course) that I know to cure hiccups.  I got really excited at this point.  How is it possible, I wondered, that two disparate cultures can have identical cure traditions and also believe honestly that they don’t work?  Would this hold true over any culture?  Is hiccup cure the last remaining fragment of verbal tradition carried over from the Tower of Babel?  Sadly, as soon as I began my research I found out I was utterly wrong.  There are hundreds and hundreds of cures for hiccups.  They are amazingly diverse.  I also read that someone had hiccups once for 64 years and is in the Guinness book of World Records.  That sounds awful – how could he sleep?  

Then there is coup.  The only US adoptions of coup I know of are coup de grace – the blow that kills (usually merciful).  Then there is coup d’etat – which is what we use to mean the violent overthrow of government – although usually we are lazy and just call it a coup, or military coup.  But in English coup can also be very positive.  If you say “What a coup!” it’s a compliment – sort of like saying you did something really difficult.  But back to the French who use coup for all sorts of phrases and most of them are idioms no non-French speaker would ever get. To make a phone call they sometimes say coup du fil.  If you want to take a quick look you might do a coup d'oeil.  How about if something is a piece of cake?  That would be a coup d'aile.  Then there are the more violent uses of coup which include coup d’etat (explained above) as well as kicking (coup de pied), jabbing (coup d’arret), slapping (coup de main), and hitting with a broom (coup de balai).  That last one came from Zander and he insists French kids use it – but I’m not so sure.   The reason this all came to mind was thanks to none other than good old Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who, in season 5 claims her father has run off to Barcelona with his secretary.  Giles responds by calling this ‘le coup classique’ which, according to wordreference, means the same old story. I think this is probably right, but I also found out that, according to backgammon (a game I loved to play with my Aunt Pat as a kid) a coup classique is a win from a nearly unwinnable position, or a great comeback. I just made one of these last night when André and I finished up a game of canasta.  I was over 1000 points behind, twice, and I came back to win it all.  Why is it that winning, when you think there is no chance you possibly can, is so much sweeter?  

The other day, I asked Callie to promise to be nice to Griffin while I was in the shower since they had been arguing.  In our house, we take promises pretty seriously and try never to break them.  I realized, however, that I’d never taught her the classic maxim. “Cross your heart and hope to die, stick a needle in your eye.”  After explaining this she said that sometimes French kids cross their hearts but usually they do another thing which involves bumping closed fists, holding hands and then slapping 5.  I looked it up as well and it seems there is a French equivalent that kids say (although mine don’t know it).  It goes like this: “"Croix de bois, croix de fer, si je ments, j'irai en enfer”.  I love that both versions include dire threats of violence to those who break their word.  Sometimes people also say “sur la tête de ma mère” or "sur la tête de mes enfants” which is like we would say “I swear on my mother’s life!”  Adults are more likely to say “Je te donnes ma parole d'honneur.'' which means something like “I give you my word of honor.”   

Until next time, I’ll be out there. Fighting bad accents, looking for idioms, warding off germs and seeking hiccup cures that work.  It won’t be a coup d’aile, but I’ll do my best.  Je te donnes ma parole d’honneur.


Alain said...

I like the nose picking thing :-) Are there so many French people doing that in public? I can't tell because I don't live in France anymore :-D

Anyway, let's move on to food sharing. I can think of at least two Americans who have shared their meal with me, and yes, I did accept that. Leftovers are frequent in the lunchroom of my company. I do believe there is some kind of germ paranoia in the US (lobbying from the health industry maybe?).

French people actually assume than most of the people they know are healthy, clean and don't carry any dangerous disease. And it's safe to assume that because as you said, there is healthcare for everybody.

That's why we shake hands, kiss women and even, yes, share food with other people. It's just a matter of trust. And French people just can not throw food away anyway, which Americans do without any problem. I personnally can't do that.

We are a social nation and human interactions are part of our daily life. And guess what... It does not kill us but probably makes us stronger :-D In the end, who lives the longer? The dirty rude nose picking French guys ;-)

Life is unfair :-)

Adeline said...

I will add some example to my DH comment.
In the U.S.A.:
I'm shocked when a teacher blows the nose of several children, one after another, with very thin tissues without going to wash her hands.
I'm shocked when some of my co-workers or people in a store burp loudly without saying:"I'm sorry".
I'm shocked when in hotels people go to the swimming pool after having sweated in the fitness room without taking a shower.
I'm shocked when people park their SUV,pick-up or Hummer directly on the sand when they go to the beach.
I'm shocked when my co-workers let food go moldy in the fridge, without cleaning it up.
Okay I stop my list! ;)

I'm shocked but I finally accept these differences between our countries. There's not one better than the other one, just different cultures and ways of life. :)

Personally, I don't eat food after someone else, and I think that most of the Frenches do the same.

Take care!

Adeline C.

Adeline said...

Hi Rebecca,

I see there's another Adeline in here...which is odd, since Adeline is not a common name (in spite of the fact that there are two on your blog...mere coincidence!!!)
Anyways, I won’t comment (too much) on the hygiene, but some of what you describe seems unreal…what is this school??? Unbelievable! Well, actually I can’t really say how it is elsewhere, since I don’t have kids, and it certainly wasn’t like that when I was at school…but things might have changed. Concerning the clothing thing, I don’t know about the others but I do change on a regular basis! I guess what I’m trying to say, is that maybe not everything you see more than once makes it a French thing…and I don’t want you to think that it is like that in every family. But I’m sure that does exist (even the nose picking…I’ve actually never saw it in public places, but in cars, when people think they’re alone and not seen!!). I guess unlike you, I don’t roam the streets of Besançon to encounter the French life since I’m part of it, and therefore, I’m not really paying attention to what’s going on around me! As concerns the food sharing, what you describe about the brownies I’d definitely wouldn’t do (the nails part made me laugh!!! I was like “no way”…and then I read the rest and found out indeed no way! But the food sharing is true; I guess (as far as I’m concerned anyways) it comes from the fact that my parents and grand parents have suffered the war and its consequences; they have starved during the war (and I’m talking of WWII, but it was probably true of any other wars, but for those I don’t know!) and a piece of bread is almost sacred; so we never throw away our food. So in restaurant, we don’t take our left overs with us (as you might have noticed), it’s not in our culture yet, but I hope it will soon! So not to waste, we share our left overs…well actually not all of them; I wouldn’t eat something someone would have bitten on…I think it’s gross! Just like I wouldn’t drink in someone else’s glass, or eat with somebody else’s spoon or fork…Ok, I’ll stop here!

As concerns the word “coup”; I had never thought of it before, but you’re right, we do use that word a lot. A few comments:
Coup d’aile: never heard of that one, but might regional
Coup de balai does exist
Coup de fil (not du fil)
And there’s one more that comes in my mind: "boire un coup" for "drink something"; but I guess the list can go on and on…
Je te jure would be something I’d say more that "Je te donne ma parole d’honneur", and is for "I promise".
"sur la tête de ma mère" is slang and is commonly used in suburban areas…so you might hear it in some movies when they want to stress on slang!

I'm going to read the rest!!!

kelly said...

Adeline (#2): I can attest to whatever happens in Zander's school. I assistant teach English here in Besançon and have first-hand experience EXACTLY what Rebecca describes. See my comments here:

As for the food sharing, I'm wholly American and wholly FOR food sharing ... and I know that most college kids in the states are as well. Sure, I imagine things are different in a professional environment, but I know that I am always willing to finish someone's plate if there's room in my tummy. In fact, I finished a guy's plate the other night at a thai restaurant (Pum) and felt kind of nervous about asking him if I could eat the rest of his rice (he was French). Now that I know it happens often, I'm pretty PROUD of myself! :)

Hey, I've learned some new idioms myself on 'coup' ... another is 'coup de main' - to give someone a hand.

As for the water-conservation,'s incredible how much water French people save! I'm constantly astonished. You can save loads of water during the dishwashing-process with a simple small bucket filled with soap. Most people don't even have dish washers and they STILL save water by using the buckets! (do you know what I'm talking about?)

thanks for this post, very interesting!


hit counter