Can You Become French? No! But, You Can Try!
Twenty-three years is a long time to be anywhere, much less in France. In fact, I have never lived anywhere this long, nor wanted to. But France can be awfully addictive and is a “tough act to follow,” making it impossible to think of living anywhere else. Still, after all these years, no matter how much I think I may have “crossed over” to becoming more “French,” Americanisms are so culturally ingrained, that I can never really BECOME FRENCH.
This week I was reminded of this by one of my long-time compatriots, Shari Leslie Segall, who has lived in Paris since 1985. She, along with two other women of equal longevity living in the City of Light — collaborator Lisa Vanden Bos and illustrator Judit Halász — explored their longevity in Paris a few years ago and published a little book about it: “90+ Ways You Know You’re Becoming French.”
Shari says the French agree that a foreigner can never truly “become” French regardless of their identity papers, “but that if you’re here long enough, your adaptation mirrors those Escher drawings where columns of black geese or fish on the left fly or swim straight across the page, migrating and mutating by imperceptible degrees, melting into and finally becoming their white counterparts on the right. To a greater or lesser degree, whether you expected to or not, one day you realize that you’re crossing to the other side. How do you know that you’ve arrived?”
So, how do you know you’re becoming French? Here are a few on the list of what Shari and her compatriots think:
You know when you…
#4. call 5 p.m. “late afternoon” instead of “early evening”…
#5. consider 7:30 p.m. a tad early for dinner…
#6. and refer to them as 17:00 and 19:30…
Everything takes place at least one hour later in France than in the U.S. We wake up later, we lunch later, we dine later and we retire later. This may be because of the amount of daylight as Paris is further north (on the same latitude as Montreal). The farther north you go in the northern hemisphere, the later it stays light in the spring and summer due to the sun’s position versus the northern hemisphere.
I can remember when we wouldn’t think of going out for dinner before 8 p.m…although that is changing in Paris, perhaps because of its international clientele. A few years ago, the restaurants wouldn’t even serve before eight o’clock, and if they did, it was because they had a tourist clientele and know the foreigners’ routine to dine early. When I’m visiting family in the U.S., they have the dinner set for 6:30 or 7 p.m. and my stomach is simply not ready to eat…again! Wasn’t lunch just a couple hours ago?
And yes, the 24-hour clock is really much more logical. About a year after moving here I booked airline tickets to travel to Tel Aviv to visit a friend living there. When I arrived at the airport two hours ahead of my 7 p.m. flight, the ground host explained that I had missed the flight by 12 hours! “Madame, that flight left at 7:00, not 19:00!” Rest assured, I never made that mistake again!
#20. stop smiling at folks you pass on the street and wonder why those batty tourists are smiling at you.
You may not even notice it. Americans smile ALL THE TIME. Their faces are in a permanent smile position and the lines in their faces show it. They look happy and their bright, white teeth are glisteningly freshly bleached. Then, plop them in Paris and they are smiling even more…radiating with how pleased they are to be here. Put that up against the French who were taught to be critical and skeptical of everything, who aren’t happy if they are not depressed and complaining (!) and it’s a big contrast, to say the least! It’s easy for the pickpockets to spot and tourists like this become targets. But don’t let that stop you from smiling. I can’t help it myself, even after all these years. One of my neighbors remarked to me more than once, “Madame, vous êtes toujours souriante!” (Madame, you are always smiling!)
#69. are so used to seeing bare breasts and/or buttocks (in advertisements, on magazine covers, at the beach) that you no longer see them.
I wrote about this recently with the passing of performer Johnny Hallyday. In the summer of 2000, he gave an open-air free concert on the Champ de Mars. The grass was packed with spectators of all ages. His opening act was a line-up of the Crazy Horse dancers…topless of course. Did anyone think anything of it other than me and the other shocked Americans? Doubt it.
#91. believe that a scarf is your most important accessory or your best inter-season buffer.
In fact, I don’t remember owning scarves before living in Paris…except for big wooly ones for the middle of winter in places like New York and Tennessee, but never in Los Angeles or New Orleans! Now, half the shelves in the closet are devoted to scarves of every size, shape, color and pattern and that stack is growing all the time. Even in the dead of summer, it would be heresy to leave it at home (along with the umbrella and the sunglasses, since the weather is so unpredictable). Still, I can’t promise to tie it as well as a REAL PARISIENNE!
I’d like to add a few others of my own. Perhaps Shari and her cohorts would want to make it an even 100?:
#96. wear dresses or skirts everyday and leave pants aside for when you’re going to stay at home.
During a trip to the U.S., I walked out from the guest room at my sister’s house wearing a skirt and top, to which she exclaimed, “Where are you going so dressed up?” It was then I realized that American women have given up showing off their legs in skirts and dresses in lieu of the comfort and androgyny of pants. If a woman wears pants in Paris, she will surely never be noticed. Ladies, leave your pants at home for driving around in your cars and bring your skirts to Paris for the sidewalks and the adoring looks! (Also leave at home the chip on your shoulder about sexual harassment and just enjoy the male attention for what it is.)
#97. like that the toilet is not in the bathroom, but in its own separate room.
I can remember thinking how strange that was! But it didn’t take long to see the benefits and wonder why Americans haven’t adopted the practice. You need a lot less bathrooms when the toilet is separate and no doubt, your bathroom is going to smell a whole lot better with the toilet in another part of the house!
#98. place your drink order last, not first.
I’ve seen it so many times. In fact, it happens virtually every time I’m with visiting Americans. Here’s the scenario: The waiter comes to take our order. Americans will inevitably ask for their wine or Coke or whatever before ordering their meal. He looks at them oddly then asks, “Are you not going to eat?” The order in which you tell the waiter what you’re having is very specific in France. If you tell the waiter what you want out of that order you take the risk of him never getting it right. First, first course; second, second course; third, drinks. At the end of the meal, the waiter will return to take your dessert course, and then again to take your coffee or tea course. And remember, the coffee/tea is a separate course, so if you want it with your dessert, you need to tell him that. Don’t deviate! Besides, how can you know what wine you will drink until you know what you’re going to eat?
#99. write the date as DAY/MONTH/YEAR.
This is one of those things that still makes no sense to me because when the dates are electronically, automatically categorized, the European date system makes them totally out of order. Regardless, the date is written as day-month-year, so today for instance is 3-1-18 or 3 January 2018. Therefore, if I were to write the date 1-3-18, there would be mass confusion. “The only countries that do not share the European date format, in fact, are the U.S., Philippines, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, Canada and Belize.”
#100. file your important documents in “pochettes perforées transparent” that fit into “classeurs” that get put on a shelf instead of into a file drawer.
The system for filing away documents is completely different than what we are used to. File folders don’t exist and even Pendaflex folders and filing cabinets have only been around since Staples and Office Depot came to France. Look in the windows of any office that manages many documents, such as a Notaire’s or accountant’s. You will see shelves and shelves of labeled boxes and no filing cabinets. Office supplies are a fortune (why, I don’t know), so I still make a trip to an office supply store when I’m Stateside and bring back file folders, legal pads and other goodies that either don’t exist here or are very expensive!
If we put our minds to it, I bet Shari and the rest of us could come up with an easy 100 more! But either way, it’s a fun exercise and a great look at how our cultures so widely differ. If you want to learn how to become French, You can purchase the book at a variety of bookstores or on the FUSAC site.
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
P.S. Join me this Friday at the Imaginative Storm Creative Writing and Storytelling Workshop facilitated by poet and storyteller James Navé…IT’S FREE!!! For more information scroll to our promo at the top, visit our Conference and Events Page or email Jim at [email protected]