Friday, November 18, 2011

Rules to Live By (if You’re French)

There are so many things that I find amusing and confusing about the French.  They live by a bizarre (to me) set of rules that everyone seems to understand that can strike an ignorant outsider as downright odd. Here are just a few:

Non! The French national word: They love it and use it in response to nearly every question. “Non” however, rarely means “no.” More often it means, “how bad do you want it?” or “how far are you willing to go to convince me?”

The French love a good verbal joust. Using excessive and often elaborate language to convey simple sentiments and arguing at length over seemingly mundane things is a joyful exercise. Most are deeply proud of their language. It’s been described to me as the “language of romance, of history, of poetry and la politesse,” which itself is governed largely by what to say and how to say it.

Better to be negative than wrong: The general French disposition is pretty negative – it’s not a criticism, merely a fact and one about which they are actually quite proud. Why? Well, if you expect things not to go well and in fact, they don’t then voila! You were right and more importantly, you were not wrong. In Paris, there is nothing worse than being wrong.

What’s so wrong with being wrong?  This, I think, I finally understand.

Watching my son take his first steps in the French schools, I have learned that the system, its teachers and administrators are rigid and strict. There is a deeply ingrained belief in motivating students through negative feedback, the polar opposite of what’s done in the U.S.  Their top grade is a score of 20 and no one – and I mean no one – ever gets this score. An 18 would be considered an A, almost an A+. But when a child brings home a score of 17/18, the parental response is not “right on!” but “why not a 20?” Praise, many believe, would result in crushing motivation. Negativity builds drive. It’s the opposite of “positive reinforcement” if ever it existed.

Kids are also assigned numeric class rankings fostering a system based on dog-eat-dog competition. The worse your friend does, the better you do – and vice versa. No teamwork and consensus building here.

Sales Prevention: Oh, did you want to buy that item? Ah, non, c’est pas possible. Despite the fact that someone is employed as a salesperson, don’t expect them to actually help you purchase something. Again, adhering to my first point, “non” is the national favorite word. As in, “Do you have this in a size 39?” Non. “Would you be willing to check in the back?” Non. “Could I speak to the manager?” Ah, non!

Pharmacy Love: Whether visiting a doctor for a hang nail or chronic headaches, you will undoubtedly leave your appointment with no fewer than three prescriptions for various maladies you didn’t even know you had. Dry skin? Try a special prescription cream. Twitching eyelid? Prescription magnesium and vitamin B6. Dry cough? Prescription herbal suppository. Yes, suppository. Pharmacies are ubiquitous and most carry identical products ranging from condoms that can be accessed easily on any shelf to ibuprofen, curiously sequestered behind the counter and can only be procured from a pharmacist.

Then there are the simple facts of French life – the rules they accept as true but cannot really explain. Tout simplement, c’est comme ca.

Here are some favorites:

1. If you do not wear a scarf, you will get sick. This is true for at least nine months of the year and any other time the temp falls below 65 degrees. Naked neck = sickness.

2. When the temperature falls below 60 degrees, it is freezing and you are entitled to gripe about it to anyone who will listen. If no one is listening, you can mumble about it to yourself while walking along the street or taking public transportation.

3. If the temperature rises above 75 degrees, it’s insufferably hot. Apply public grumbling from rule #2.

4. Children have no internal body heat and must be layered and bundled within an inch of their lives. If a drop of rain falls, clear the playgrounds immediately and rush home before everyone gets sick.
55 degrees & sunny...
5. Milk can only be put in coffee at breakfast. In fact, milk should only ever be consumed in the morning. Café au lait in the afternoon is a joke and you will be mocked in a café if your order one.

6. Chocolate, however, can and should be consumed at all hours of the day and night, especially at breakfast and during childhood. Hot chocolate for breakfast is considered healthy for kids and is the main reason my kids like living here.

7. Eggs can be consumed at any time of day except breakfast. Omelets are served for lunch or simple dinner and hard boiled eggs in mayonnaise are a delicious appetizer.

8. Green tea, cigarettes and wine will keep you thin. Exercise (and sweating while clothed in general) are to be regarded with suspicion.

9. Tanning is good for you.

10. Unwashed hair is sexy – on men and women.

11. A woman can definitely own (and wear) too much make-up. But there is no such thing as too many facial creams, potions and serums.  These creams can cure whatever ails you. 

12. After a meal, one should always order dessert then coffee. Never both at the same time. Even if you try to order coffee with your dessert, your waiter will not bring it until your dessert plate is cleared.

13. Most French have not visited the U.S. but if they did, here’s where they would go:
1) New York (parce que c’est New York), 2) Miami (see #8), or 3) San Francisco (because everyone loves San Francisco, obviously). Outside of these cities, Boston can be tolerated because “c’est la ville la plus europeene.” (It’s not but don’t bother arguing.) Los Angeles? Ah non. Non, non.

As for travel, most French prefer to stay in France. After all, it is the world’s most beautiful country (as any Frenchman will tell you).

It’s also home to the world’s most magnificent city. And despite the curious, entertaining and often maddening ways of the French, I cannot argue there.