France is narrow streets and bicycles and daily baguettes.
It’s rectangular cut trees, roses and little dogs with fancy coats. It’s long dinners. Fascinating discussions after the cheese. Cigarette smoke. France is wood and old brass fittings. It’s analogue. It’s paper. It’s the soft sensual sounds of French, it’s feeling beautiful. France is old chalky buildings and ancient battlefields heavy with young men’s blood. It’s untold stories.
The essence of France is in the unwavering eye contact, it’s in the slow and deliberate cheek kiss and in knowing the words of long formal greetings. It’s in saying “Bonjour” as do the French without smiling and letting go of your impulse to give a good strong hug. The essence is in the delicious contradiction of restraint vs pleasure-loving indulgence. It’s in the sensuality.
You don’t come to France to be whatever you want, the system is not set up for that. You come to France to become French. Red wine and entrecôte, wonky wicker chairs on the pavement, darty waiters in waistcoats. It’s predictable, safe in its predictability. The rules are ubiquitous, learn them, follow them and so be French.
Becoming French is about accepting that your way of doing things will probably be seen as wrong...and if you want to make friends and be loved and understood, you’ll have to change. Not always easy when you’ve had a lifetime of doing things a certain way.
You’re at a dinner, someone makes a joke, you laugh but louder than everyone else, you learn to hold it back, tone it down. Someone makes a funny quip, you love it, you add to it but go cheekier, there’s an uncomfortable pause, you’ve gone too far, think before you speak.
You love playful teasing, you try it with strangers, they don’t understand: “Do you work at the post office, Monsieur?” you ask with a cheeky smile as a fellow customer hands you some tape. “No, I do not work at the post office.” Playful with strangers? Non non non! You sometimes lament the wasted opportunity for moments of fun, moments to break up the screaming monotony of daily life, which can be the same grind in France as anywhere else. Shift your thinking, interact on their terms. “Bonjour Monsieur, merci Monsieur”. Now you are understood.
It all depends on how much you want to change. Some are there in France, biding their time, missing fish and chips. But I wasn’t there to be Anglo-Saxon, I was there to be infused with Latin charm and to come as close as possible to knowing how it feels to be French. Whether I managed to do this or not is perhaps irrelevant, it was the process of trying, and of having that effort appreciated, that was truly incredible. Smiling nods of approval as my fashion sense evolved, compliments from friends about the food I served, joy from others as my level of French improved. Yes, she understands us...you could almost hear them say. I was overjoyed.
I had worked so hard to assimilate and it filled me with happiness to know, that in some small ways, I had succeeded.
published 6 October 2012