Saturday, 26 November 2011

Ramblings: French Fancy



What is it with the whole British/ French thing? Stereotypes are generally based on something, I know, but that something is usually from ancient history and was so banal that it wasn’t worth noting in the first place (writes the gay male nurse). There’s nothing duller than a well worn cliché of a comment or a long held national or regional rivalry. Especially when repeated as a truism ad nauseum. It’s like laughing about people having red hair being inevitably ugly or women being bad drivers or men being childlike when they’re ill. It’s boring and uninspired, as is stating that the French are rude.
Let’s face it, if you passionately think that you’re local town/city/country is superior to the neighbouring town/city/country, then good on you. It’s good to have the black and white views of a child and good to have a child-like passion to get worked up over, especially if you’ve managed to uncover that whole Tooth Fairy/Santa myth yet. (If these views are based on some kind of football based rivalry, I retract that, you’re pathetic and feeble.) Let’s have a reality check though. Most things aren’t black and white. The town down the road does have a few unfriendly people and a smaller weekday market but maybe yours has a less classy pub and a poorer cinema. Life’s rarely just as simple as A+B=C and the population of France are not rude and malodorous.
I love France, love Paris and would say without doubt that I actually have tended to like most French people I’ve ever met. My first visit in the late 1980s was to Northern France, Mulhouse to be precise. It’s a fair city, pretty in parts, industrial in others and nestled in nice countryside if you travel a short distance. That could almost describe my home region, although we have less impressive mountains and it takes a lot longer to get to Switzerland.
The visit began hellishly. I was 20 years old and with my alcoholic older boyfriend, Barry, at the time and we were there to visit his brother and his French girlfriend, Annie who was a dental nurse. Barry’s brother, Sam, had forgotten to take any time off work to take us out as he’d planned and also, unsurprisingly, drank as much as Barry did and was equally as nasty a drunk. Queue a string of listless days wandering round a small French city with a grumpy alcoholic in tow who was getting progressively more drunk, followed by evenings in a small French flat with a French girl who spoke little English and a the equally drunk and obnoxious other English alcoholic. Barry and his brother seemed to be having a competition called “who can be rudest their partner whilst drinking spirits then pass out”.
Annie was a lovely hostess, taking her nightly humiliations and her angst at having not the usual one alcoholic twat to deal with but two. She cooked beautiful meals, delicately spiced and flavoured local dishes, and provided delicacies and treats. She asked me if it was acceptable if she spoke solely English to me as she was keen to improve her faltering language and accent. I gladly agreed and said to make her feel better I’d speak purely French. Her English was better than my French but we both got by and smiled a lot and encouraged each other. If only we’d both been bilingual enough to confront each other with the phrase: “What’s a nice English/French boy/girl doing tied to an obnoxious miserable old twat like this?” then we may both have enriched each other’s life even more.
Annie tried hard to speak English well but was met with derision by the brothers grim. “Sam is a good cooker!” was one phrase met by laughter direct to her face by the pair. Being French, she maintained poise. She kept me stocked up with linen, made suggestions of where to go in the town and what to see and repeatedly apologised for Sam’s rudeness and for his failure to look after us as guests. She was mortified that they weren’t treating us in a way that she thought appropriate and ashamed that she also had no time off work. To be honest we were a bit stranded where they lived. The public transport was poor and we were just too far to walk anywhere decent.
By day 4 I was desperate: loving the French food and the company of Annie but hating being stuck with in a reunion between two brothers that was essentially a prolonged drinking and spite competition. I don’t always hide my feelings well and knowing we had another ten days to go I felt pretty grim. I retreated into my pile of hefty novels, moping on the balcony and smoking cheap French cigarettes. The one occasion Sam managed to try to show us some hospitality he took us out to lunch to a flea bitten cafe where he and Barry drank several bottles of cheap red wine and he then drove us back to the flat, perilously drunk and they both lapsed into loud snoring sleep leaving me alone with my books again.
With the prospect of another ten days of two very rude Englishmen in a French city, the French came to the rescue with their natural flair for hospitality. Annie took us out with a group of her friends who insisted on taking us to a stylish restaurant. They insisted on paying, insisted on trying out their faltering English on us and insisted that we needed to see more of the region. They pooled their diaries and formulated a plan: a rota of who could take care of the poor English boy. Over the next week, we had a fantastic experience.
Every day people would arrive and collect us before lunch, taking us on trips to the mountains with meals in traditional Alsace rural cafes, trips to the countryside with lazy lunches, a day in Strasbourg, visits to the cathedral and art museums in Mulhouse and meals out in the evenings. The younger French women took me under their wings and insisted on taking me for shopping trips where I marvelled at the level of service the French got, the courtesy, the free gift wrapping, the range of products on sale. I learnt lots about the local culture, saw the range of scenery of the area and felt like they were genuinely taking pleasure in trying to make me welcome. My constant attempts to try to spend money were repeatedly met with refusals and I returned each day with a full stomach, a full wallet and often, small gifts.
Barry and Sam carried on drinking but it was bearable. The rude English had been well and truly outclassed by the delightful French. One family even welcomed us to their Sunday lunch on their farm and set up a huge trestle table of food for us and waited on us hand and foot all afternoon. It was like an impressionist painting come to life. I admired a grotesque carnival mask (they had a collection from numerous years of the local autumn festival) and they insisted I left with it. When I left, I left a pile of gifts for Annie as a surprise in our room and naturally, she wrote and thanked me. Being French and polite, they tend to behave like that. I heard that she had left Sam a short while afterwards and I was glad for her but not brave enough to take her lead and follow suit.
I know this is one example and you may say that your experience of the French is that they’re rude and inhospitable, but personally I found it a very different matter. This also wasn’t the only time. The barn I once rented in Brittany was owned by people who went to extreme lengths to make my stay comfortable and easy. They provided anything I asked for, presented me with bunches of flowers and gifts of cheeses and cakes and even offered me the use of their over-sized dog who had taken a distinct shine to me. I took them up on this and having a huge black shaggy dog only added to my pleasure on coastal walks. People wherever we went enquired about our origin, painstakingly tried to translate menus we were struggling to decipher, even fetching some ingredients from the kitchens to show us if we failed in our comprehension.
Well, French haters, I’m guessing your argument here: this is rural France I’m discussing. What about those terribly rude Parisians? My answer is, have you ever visiting a city in England? Any city, since maybe the 19th Century? Are city workers in shops and cafes always so polite in England?
My experiences in Paris (detailed here on this blog in other posts) were that the service people and locals were amazingly charming. The poor lady in the chemist who I tried so hard to buy a personal item from, was coy charm epitomised. This showed extreme good manners as I was trying to buy condoms and lubricant with no words and a rather poor mime. The staff in the smaller bars would try to engage in conversation and were only too glad to revert to English when I struggled with my schoolboy French. I was bought drinks, invited to join in a sing song of Piaf numbers in a basement gay bar and shop staff were always helpful. I don’t recall a single person being openly rude. I don’t recall bad body odour, halitosis or arrogant behaviour. Maybe I’ve been to a different Paris from you.
I know you’re going to tell me you tried to speak French and they looked on at you struggling with a sneer and then answered back in perfect English. I don’t perceive that as a fault. They’re trying to help, humiliation is a good teacher. It’s good they let you try and who can blame them their faint sneer, it’s a feature of their inimitable style. I expect many of us sound quite absurd too. They could always just ignore you and leave you to it too. Now that would be rude.
Now, anything else you want me to sort out? Women drivers, all young people have no manners, things aren’t what they used to be? I’ll take you on gladly.

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