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The French

Lunch in La Roque-Gageac

About a week ago, Margie and I returned from two weeks in the Dordogne region of France, east of Bordeaux. The picture above shows us having lunch in the restaurant Les Prés Gaillardou, in La Roque-Gageac. The photo was taken by one of a group of French tourists seated at a nearby table. We started chatting with them when I offered to take a picture of their group.

We found it particularly easy to start conversations with the French people we met on this trip. Of course, I have the considerable advantage of speaking French rather well (although hardly perfectly). Margie speaks French at an intermediate level, and has to work much harder to sustain a conversation. Because we were in a tourist area, many of the people we met were other tourists, but a great many of them were themselves French. There was also a large British presence. The signs on many stores and restaurants were in French, English, and, strangely, Dutch. We did meet some Americans, but not all that many.

We also interacted with the employees of restaurants and stores. Tourists, merchants, or locals, pretty much everyone was quite open and friendly. When we started speaking in French, they generally answered in French, even though many might have spoken English. If it took Margie a while to formulate a thought, people waited patiently. We found it easier on this trip than in the past to strike up conversations with nearby restaurant patrons. The French tend to be respectful of the private space of others, and in the past they often were not eager to talk to an adjacent diner they don't know. We did once chat for a couple of hours with a French couple at an adjacent table in a restaurant in Segovia, Spain, but of course, we were all tourists there. We've continued an e-mail correspondence ever since.

On this trip, we used a mode of travel we've used before: we stayed for two weeks in one place, and used it as a base for day trips by car. Our base for this trip was the town of Sarlat, where we stayed in an apartment within the medieval portion of the village, in a pedestrian-only area. Despite the omnipresent tourists, Sarlat is still a real town, and in shopping for groceries and things like that we did interact with actual residents. We found them mostly easy to talk to as well, although occasionally we would come across someone with a difficult to understand local accent.

Although I can usually understand French pretty well, it's a hard language to listen to (see my previous blog entry "L'Accent tonique"). Apart from the lack of a tonic accent on individual words, a great deal of difficulty springs from the fact that most final consonants are not pronounced. This sometimes causes completely different words to be pronounced exactly the same. For example, in a restaurant, I at one point thought the waiter was talking to me about "Vin cinq ou cinquante" ("Five or fifty wine"). It turned out that what I was hearing was "Vingt-cinq ou cinquante" ("Twenty-five or fifty", two different carafe sizes). When you don't pronounce the "gt", the words vin and vingt are pronounced exactly the same.

Since I've been studying Italian, I've been a little disturbed by what Americans do with the word "Panini". As I described in my blog entry "Biscotti (bis)", the Italian word for sandwich, "panino", literally means "little bread" ("pane" (bread) + diminutive ending "ino"). Its plural in Italian is "panini" (one panino, two panini). But despite understanding this distinction in gelato/gelati, Americans seem to have decided that one sandwich is a "panini", and two of them are "paninis".

Okay, but since French and Italian are both Romance languages (Latin-based), I figured the French would do better. Sadly, apparently not. French restaurants frequently advertised "paninis", and I never saw "panini" used as a plural, or "panino" used at all. If the French can't get this right, the Americans don't have a chance. I give up.

What else did we notice on this trip? It used to be very easy to distinguish Americans from Europeans. Their clothing was different, their eyeglasses were different, their hairstyles were different, and their shoes were different. That seems to be no longer the case. Everyone is buying the same clothing, the same glasses, and the same shoes, from large multinational corporations. The world is homogenized. Everyone looks alike.

Dog under a table in FranceThe French still love their dogs, and are still allowed to bring their dogs into restaurants. Dogs that are brought into restaurants are generally well behaved, and usually sit quietly under the table (Margie took the picture on the left on an earlier trip to France in 2004). One way to strike up a conversation with a French man in a restaurant is to compliment his dog. By the way, notice that even in 2004, the French man with the dog under the table was wearing bluejeans.

It also used to be that it was hard to find a French man or woman who was overweight. This is no longer the case. There are plenty of overweight French men and women these days. I wonder if, with restaurants like McDonald's, the United States might have something to do with this. When buying some bottles of caffeine-free Diet Coke for Margie in our local ("Casino") mini-market, I got a lecture from the woman behind the counter on how bad it is for you, and how badly "Americans" eat. This might have been revenge for our contribution to fattening up the French.

French young people still seem to favor caps and other clothing with American logos, although they often have no clue what they represent. I talked with a young man with a Day-Glo green Yankees insignia on his cap, and found he had absolutely no idea who the Yankees were, or even what sport they played. On a previous trip to France, I said "Go Sox!" to a man wearing a Boston Red Sox cap, and found the same thing - he had no idea what the "B" on his cap stood for. But on this trip, a man wearing a Red Sox cap in fact proved to be from Boston, and a woman in his party uses the same health club in Wayland that I do - perhaps I'll run in to her there.

An American man once described to me what he considered to have been an unpleasant encounter in France with a French shopkeeper. He said, "She refused to speak English with me." I asked him why he was so sure that the shopkeeper was able to speak English. After all, he was in France. Perhaps she didn't speak English at all, or her English wasn't very good, and she was afraid to try it.

But he seemed sure that anyone working the counter in a shop in Paris absolutely must be able to speak English. Furthermore, he added, as he was leaving the store, she said to him in English, "Have a nice day". As far as he was concerned, that clinched it. I couldn't convince him that the episode might have had other interpretations.

Despite the American's arrogant English Chauvinism, it's entirely possible that the shopkeeper didn't speak English, or didn't speak it very well. English is very widely spoken in the world, but obviously not by absolutely everyone. And I don't think the ability of the shopkeeper to utter a single stock phrase in English necessarily implied a useful command of the language.

With regard to speaking foreign languages, the French in the past have sort of been the "Americans" of Europe. That is, the French are not renowned for their facility with foreign languages. They have traditionally been bad at foreign languages because at one time, French, the world's diplomatic language, was everybody's second language, and the French didn't need to learn anything else. That's the same reason Americans are bad at foreign languages today - they simply don't need anything but English.

Now that English has taken over the lingua franca role that French used to have, the French are of necessity adapting. The French friend that we met in Segovia says that now, starting at age ten or eleven, almost all French students study English for at least four years. It will be curious to see what happens at some point in the future when English loses its status as the world's second language, and Americans have to adapt to something else - perhaps Mandarin Chinese.

I wondered, also, if the American man had gotten off on the wrong foot by violating customary French manners. Upon entering a small shop, it's polite in France to greet the shopkeeper and anyone else who's there, by saying, "Bonjour / bonsoir, monsieur / madame / messieurs-dames". In many shops, it's rather impolite to start walking around and picking things up. It's expected that you will wait your turn to be served. And of course, the man may well have gone up to the shopkeeper and simply started speaking in English, with no introduction or apology for not speaking French. Note 1 

This custom of always explicitly saying hello and goodbye as you meet people and take your leave is the very first French custom pointed out in the well-known French language instructional series "French in Action". The video shows a woman coming across a group of friends on the street. She says hello, and shakes hands individually with everyone in the group. It turns out that she's on her way to an appointment, and can't stay and chat. Thus she says goodbye to everyone in the group, once again shaking hands with each, even though she had just done that moments ago. Note 2 

The French have a habit of kissing each other on the cheek multiple times by way of greeting. A different number of these kisses (called "bises") is used in different regions of France. This can actually get confusing even to the French. For the record, two kisses seemed standard in Sarlat, first left cheek to left cheek, then right to right. Women kissed women and women kissed men, but I also saw (less frequently) men kissing men. The number of "bises" I observed, two, is in agreement with the web site Combien de bises?, which shows two for the Dordogne. In its survey, the site also asks which cheek to start with, but it doesn't seem to display that result.

We hope to make many more visits to France in the future.

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© 2011 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted October 6, 2011, and slightly updated October 13.

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Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   I once walked up to a policeman in Paris and, impatient American that I am, launched right into my question (I think it was, "where is La Sainte-Chapelle".) He paused briefly, looked me in the eye, and said, "Bonjour Monsieur". I had been properly corrected. You also say goodbye when you leave. These niceties are even observed by highway toll takers:

Me: "Bonjour, Monsieur."
Toll taker: "Bonjour, Monsieur."
I hand over the toll
Toll taker: "Merci, Monsieur."
Me: "Au-revoir, Monsieur."
Toll taker: "Au-revoir, Monsieur. Bonne journée."

All Americans visiting France should read the marvelous book, French or Foe, by Polly Platt. If you follow her advice in social interactions, you will have a much more pleasant time in France.   [return to text]

Note 2:   Since I've mentioned the French instructional series "French in Action", I have a chance to put in a plug for Margie's French teacher, Cynthia Edelman, whose organization in the town of Acton, Massachusetts is called "French in Acton". What a difference an "i" makes.   [return to text]

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