Tag Archives: French

Getting Frenchified

So, you’ve been in France for a few years and pride yourself on being a self-proclaimed Francophile. You know exactly how baguettes are made, the entire route of the Tour de France, Edith Piaf’s birthday (down to the minute) and that there are precisely 32 bridges on the River Seine. But being a mere Francophile is one verre de vin short of being completely and totally French. How do you know when you’ve made it?

Perhaps you have a little mental checklist going for yourself already. Knowledge of the difference between “mûr” and “mur”? Check. French husband or wife? Got it. A black- and red-checkered caddy with which you bring home your market vegetables? Of course!

But you need to downsize. Think smaller. Much like what counts in love, being French is in the little things.

Take your kitchen, for example. A plethora of evidence lies here. You know you’re French when:

–       You actually use your knife while eating, instead of leaving it abandoned by the side of your plate (or worse, still sitting in the kitchen drawer). Bonus points if you’ve picked up your non-dominant hand off your lap and placed your wrists on the table in between bites.

–       You set the table with a mini spoon above your plate. You use this mini-spoon to eat anything from yogurt – always at the end of the meal, of course – to kiwi to cake. A fork at dessert? Blasphemy!

–       When eating fruit, you imperatively peel it first, using a small and graying paring knife circa 1943 to pull the skin off towards you in one fell swoop, while miraculously sparing your thumb from amputation.

–       You are able to talk about wine, Camembert and/or melon for hours upon hours.

Of course, the kitchen is just one aspect of French life and thus, just one indicator of true Frenchness. Let’s step out of the house and onto the streets to see how far you’ve come. Do you do the following things? If not, step to it!

–       Argue to the death for anything from getting the Post Office to stay open an extra two minutes while you mail your rent check, to receiving the five euros your boss still owes you from last month.

–       Say “Bonjour” upon entering any establishment and “Au revoir” when leaving, even when no one is around and/or it is quite clear that no one gives too hoots about your presence.

–       Pronounce “Le P’tit Wrap Cheese & Sauce Ranch” with a French accent at McDonald’s without even flinching.

–       Go coin scavenging. When your friend pays you back with a 10€ bill for that 6€75 Vogue magazine you bought her, you politely ask if she has 75 cents. When she gives you the look of crazy, you ask her if she perhaps has 5 cents. No? 70 cents, at least? Just like the many small businesses here, you just don’t have the change!

Of course, work is also a great place to become more French. Check this list to see if you’re almost there:

–       You can’t start your day without one of those teeny 70-centime coffees from the office vending machine.

–       For lunch, you obligingly bring a Tupperware container filled with last night’s meal. You learned the hard way that one time you brought a peanut butter sandwich and watched your co-workers look onward with disgust.

–       Once you’ve said “hello” to someone one time, you’re done for the day. No more courtesy smile, no more “Salut”. Unless there’s a necessary interaction, you walk by your co-workers with a breezy aloofness.

If you’re still in the dark about any or (heaven forbid) all the above rules, I suggest you invite yourself over to your French neighbor’s house for dinner immediately to get a real taste of life à la française. Or at least rent the latest Jean Reno film. Even Gerard Depardieu will do. But please do something. Your friends won’t tolerate your two-hour discussions about how the Notre Dame was built much longer. It’s not too late to save yourself and become really and truly French. Allez, on y go!

Originally published in Brit’mag.

America’s image problem. Is the press to blame?

Last night I met Jacques. He was a jovial character, in his 60’s, drank bourbon with no ice and cracked jokes the minute you met him. I didn’t like him. Anyone who has to try that hard to make me laugh can’t be trusted.

But by the time the aperitif was finished, I had warmed up to Jacques and realized that he was the most interesting person at our table of friends, opinionated almost to a fault and a genuine thinker. Never one to leave a comment open-ended, he sparked conversations I had yet to have in France.

One of Jacques’ most particularly interesting comments was about America.

“I hate the U.S.” he said after a few minutes into the conversation.

Now normally, this sort of sentence makes me want to throttle a Frenchie, but I could see that Jacques was the sort of guy who liked to incite controversy.

“Have you ever been there?” I asked him semi-calmly.

“No…” he said, before launching into his justification.

Jacques, like many French people, explained that he hates “L’Amerique profond,” which in English terms loosely means, “typical America.” Since he’s never been to the country, he can’t fully comprehend what he’s saying, and he knows it.

The image of America that he sees – on TV, in movies, in the newspaper – is, in fact, the reason so many people hate America. Just like Americans have an image of the French as baguette-carrying, beret-wearing, mustache-sporting cheese and wine lovers, the French consider the Americans a gun-toting, violent, ignorant, obese people.

Florida International Panthers v Miami Hurricanes

What's more American than cops and football?

And many of us Americans are. But many of us are not. As Jacques and I discovered in our animated debate, there’s the image of a country from outside its border and its image within. There is truth in the former based on the latter because, obviously, prejudices and stereotypes are based somewhat in reality.

However, once inside a country, it becomes impossible to define its culture. An American from afar can easily imagine the “average French person.” But a French person has tantamount trouble describing his own country and culture.

After all, there is the North – with its potato-at-every-meal culture, warm-hearted citizens with a Belgian touch and cloudy weather. And in the East, where France meets Strasbourg, the typical French person becomes at once German and “universally European.” In the Southeast, there’s the macho attitude, olive oil and fish dishes, lavender fields and a false-friendly people. Go over to the Southwest and you’ll find great wine, rainy skies, shy folks and beautiful pastures. And let’s not forget the enormous Arab population in France these days, or the number of West Africans and Vietnamese.

Of course, four years ago while I was sitting at home in Minneapolis and dreaming about France, I never could have imagined all of that. So, to hear Jacques tell me he hated America, part of me wasn’t shocked.

How could I be, when the only TV shows played here from America are “Cops,” “The Nanny,” “Seventh Heaven” and “Desperate Housewives?” The only news about America is about which country we’re blowing up next, our hypocritical stance on human rights, our gun laws, and our massive (and negative) influence on President Sarkozy? French kids are getting fatter on American fast food, zoning out on Miley Cyrus TV shows and watching Texan cops handcuff every Hispanic man in range. Why wouldn’t the French hate America?

The easy answer is to say that the media is to blame. But is it? It’s hard to know whether it’s the chicken or the egg who started it. After all, there are but a few free presses that exist today and they are not usually the loudest voices. Mass media is largely supported by government funding, so the majority of images we see of America and France (and other countries, for that matter) are based on what each government chooses to produce. And this, in countries where the press claims to be free.

So I’m not angry with Jacques. I know he means well. And when other French people tell me to my face that they hate my country, I will try not to get upset. But, I trust that I am allowed to make a few jokes about the complaining, afraid-of-change, adulterous French person in return.

Within reason, of course. I am on their turf, in the end.

Riding the wave of French feminism

I have a bone to pick with Alain Soral, French sociologist and ex-Front National party member. It’s not his pretension or even his manipulation of his “followers” that bothers me, but instead his definition and loathing of modern feminism.

Soral claims there are two types of feminists: the “freaked out” feminist like Simone de Beauvoir, and the “bitches” such as Elisabeth Badinter. He claims that the modern feminist model only pertains to the plight of upper middle-class white women. At his debate in Bordeaux last Saturday, he openly admitted to detesting the “American neo-feminist.” I hate to break it to Alain, but being an American female today – or any female at all – means being a feminist. After all, what sort of gender would we be if we didn’t fight for our equal rights within a world run by men?

De Beauvoir

French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, circa 1955

In a televised program I watched recently, Soral claimed that the reason fewer homeless women were on the street than men was because they liberally took advantage of their ability to get government aid – and subsequently housing – by having a child. Do you mean to tell me that if I shoot myself up with drugs, run away from my family or lose my job and home, that I can simply have a baby and everything will turn out okay?

The idea in itself is ridiculous. This goes right along with those (mostly men or the religious right) who believe that birth control or the morning-after pill actually condone having unprotected, careless sex. Only a handful of women are dumb to the fact that having a baby is a lifetime commitment, not one to be taken lightly and certainly not a way to get out of a sticky situation. The fact is, having a baby usually is the most sticky situation a woman can find herself in. No matter how involved a man is in a pregnancy, those 9 months can only be fully experienced by the woman herself.

I’m not alone in opposing Soral’s views on the French homeless woman of the 21st century. On France Inter today, reporters announced the completion of a study as to the greatest risks of a woman on the street. Far and above was the issue of rape and sexual assault. So when Soral says that the reason we don’t see as many homeless women out there is because they are living comfortably in their government-owned apartments with their new babies, I have to disagree. Because the risks of being a woman and on the street are so high, most find shelter elsewhere – be that with friends, a boyfriend (even if he is abusive, this may be the more likable option) or at a homeless shelter. Being homeless is scary enough without bringing a child into the mix.

I think before anyone talks about feminism in France, the French language must change with the times. France has come a long way in terms of women’s rights, and soars high above U.S. legislation on the subject. French women get maternity leave for up to 16 weeks. If a French woman so chooses, she can take up to three years off (unpaid) from her job and come back to it afterwards with total job security. And she can ask for a one-month vacation from her job within three years of having her child, and be paid approximately 500 euros by the government-run CAF.

Glamour Magazine Hosts The 17th Annual Glamour Women Of The Year Awards

Gloria Steinem has been the face of American feminism for decades

So, then why are we still using terms such as “Husband and woman (mari et femme)” or “My woman (ma nana)” to refer to a man’s female counterpart? Of course these are but few feeble examples. But France has long explored ways to remove the sexism from its language and come up dry. In 1993, the University of California at Berkeley actually studied the relationship between the French language and gender in a course entitled, “Sexual Difference, Gender and the French Language.” As the course outlines:

“Though there is no necessary correlation between gender, as a grammatical category and sexism in language, for a variety of reasons, cultural as well as linguistic, it has been difficult for French, particularly in France (in contrast to francophone communities outside the Hexagon), to comfortably institute nonsexist usage.”

It seems, since 1993, that not much as been resolved. And Alain Soral’s sexist rhetoric certainly isn’t helping things. While Americans are already onto “third-wave feminism” (a movement led by Rebecca Walker, which challenges second-wave feminism and focuses on the rights of the non-white, wealthy female), the F-word is still a gros mot in France today and linked largely to homosexuality. It rests heavily in literary theory and philosophy instead of practice. As the scholar Elizabeth Wright points out, “none of these [well-known] French feminists align themselves with the feminist movement as it appeared in the Anglophone world.”

Feminism in France needs to start with women themselves. I wouldn’t say the situation here is grave, but it’s certainly urgent.

French, Muslim and Patriotic? It’s all possible, says Alain Soral

On Saturday night in Bordeaux, sociologist and ex-Front National member Alain Soral joined Moroccan imam Tareq Oubrou for a discussion entitled, “French, Muslim and Patriotic.” After the two experts discussed their points of view on what it means to be Muslim and French in today’s society, the debate opened up to the nearly 200 people in the audience.

As perhaps the only American in attendance, I felt like I was watching the discussion from the sidelines: not 100% affected by what was being discussed and not 100% understanding where either side was coming from.

It’s hard to discuss immigration with French people as an American. Coming from a land created by immigration, how can I reproach a people (such as the Maghrebin) for setting their sights on a new life in a new land? Living most of my life in a country with virtually no single culture to preserve, how can I fight for one religion or culture to prevail here in France?

For these reasons, I usually choose to extricate myself from any conversation regarding immigration, unless I am directly asked about it. But even then, I try to hold my tongue. I’ve never had a French person much appreciate my responses.

While Saturday’s debate discussed whether or not French culture and religion can survive alongside or in spite of Islam, it forgot to touch on one major point that would clarify much of the immigration problems facing France: What does it mean to be “French” today?

Mohammed Ali Mosque

With France's growing Muslim population, some say the construction of new and larger mosques are the answer

Soral kept talking about how his views were not his own, but those of the “typical French white male” or as he put it, “the average French person.” This is where Soral – and much of French politicians – have gone wrong in the past few years. As one audience member asked during the discussion, “why are we still discussing whether the Muslim community can survive in France? We’re into the 5th or 6th generation Muslim in France these days… the issue is tired.”

The average French person no longer fits into the white Christian mold. Just look in any number of France’s chapels to see that most of them are in a constant state of emptiness. While Bordeaux is in the midst of a political cock fight against the possible construction of an enormous mosque in town, most “typically-French” people I know are “non-croyant” and haven’t been to church in years. While the Muslim headscarf has been deemed “ostentatious” by the French administration and an affront to their precious Christianity, the only remnants of “French Christian religion” are a few pictures of Santa Claus in public schools around Christmastime. When it comes to France’s culture and religion, I don’t necessarily see what the French think they are at risk of losing.

To me, France is not little old white ladies walking around with rosaries hanging from their necks (that would be Italy) – it’s great cheese, wine and pastries. It’s beautiful palaces, museums and castles, green countryside and stone houses. Living in France means less hours at the office and more time to spend with family. France is loved by so many because it still has that old world, European charm even in the 21st century.

However, that charm is often to its detriment. As the Soral-Oubrou discussion demonstrated, France is a little too old-world when it comes to current events. Immigration is not exactly a new issue. Ever since the war with Algeria from 1954-1962, France has tried ineffectively to integrate the Muslim population into French culture. Looking around today, even in France’s smallest towns, there are Vietnemese, Moroccan, Senegalese, Chinese and Cameroonese children, adults and grandparents. Immigration is here and it’s here to stay.

So before we drop our jaws at the prospect of being both French, Muslim and Patriotic all at the same time, let’s remember that – despite what the French political scene may look like – being French in 2009 does not necessarily mean being white and Christian. Until the “new French” person has been nationally established, then we can really start talking about immigration and what it means to be patriotic.