Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

Category: French lifestyle

More Système D

By-Passing le Code de la Route

You know, I just don’t seem to be able to get it through my English alter’s thicker part of our skull that life is too short not to take advantage of every single moment, and that precious time can be wasted blindly following the rule. Once again le Système D can be of precious assistance. Take, for example, le Code de la Route. During the time we were together, Priscille lived with her parents in a small mountain village some five kilomètres from the town where we lived and which could only be reached by a twisting mountainroad. Journey time could, however, be reduced by turning left off this main road and following another route – a steep, narrow, but relatively straight lane leading directly into the village centre. So narrow was this lane that a one-way system had always operated to the advantage of the coming-downers, the going-uppers being officially informed they must take the longer route by a large No Entry sign located at the intersection. It goes without saying that when our Englishman was at the wheel the words ‘No Entry’ constituted a barrier as impenetrable as Priscille’s virtue and, as my Frenchman never failed to remind him, we stupidly lost up to five minutes following the longer main road to the village instead of taking the short-cut.
      Things really came to a head when a section of the main road between the short-cut intersection and the village was partially blocked by a landslide, and a one-way system, regulated by temporary traffic lights, was implemented . When he was at the wheel, not only did my English part continue to take the same route, but he actually waited when the lights were red, frequently wasting precious time. What I could never get into his bird-sized part of our brain was that, even if we took the short-cut, the limited number of inhabitants, the remote location of the village, as well as the time of day (usually we called on Priscille and her parents in the evening after dinner) weighed the law of probability heavily in favour of us not meeting a going-downer on our way up.
      Of course, much to our Englishman’s extreme discomfort, whenever my Frenchie was in control, we always took the shorter way up. This choice always revealed itself to be right, except on one occasion when we had to stop and pull in to one side to let a coming-downer through. He, of course, in true French fashion, left us in no doubt as to his opinion on the matter by lowering his window, sticking his head out and bellowing, ‘Ca ne va pas la tête, non?’ However, this allusion to the softness of our brain  was due less to the fact that we’d infringed the rule than the slight personal inconvenience he’d been caused: for this certainly didn’t prevent him from taking the same short-cut himself when he became a going-upper on his way back.
     Sooner or later, of course, life’s journey leads us on a collision course with those officially appointed to make sure rules and regulations are respected. It must not be imagined that because a French policeman is clad in blue, a heart of gold doesn’t beat beneath. What my French half doesn’t seem to be able to get through to our rosbif is that, with the help of le Système D, this type of encounter is far from obliging you to resign yourself to the worst. During the short time Priscille and ourself were together (the poor girl soon realized she couldn’t cope with an English and Frenchman rolled into one), whenever my Froggy was driving and we were stopped by les flics for exceeding the speed limit, he’d given her strict instructions to pretend to give us a resounding telling-off (towards the end I suspected she wasn’t acting at all). At the same time, our Anglo didn’t have to force himself to impart a typically English, sheepish expression to our face. In nine cases out of ten the policeman was unable to conceal his amusement and let us off with just a warning! C’est ça, le Système D!

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Le Système D?

 What is le Système D?

It is yet one more measure of the vast differences exisiting between two nations – geographically divided by just a narrow stretch of shallow brine but, mentally, deep oceans apart – that what is a veritable institution on one side of the Channel, is totally unknown on the other. So, for the benefit of our Anglo-Saxon readers the Froggy in me will begin with a brief explanation of the etymology of the term ‘le Système D’, followed by a definition, along with some examples of its modus operandi in daily life.
My non-French-speaking Anglophone readers will certainly have realized that, in regard to the word système, the two languages converge so closely that deleting the grave accent and the last letter leave us with an English word meaning ‘a scheme, or plan of procedure’. But it’s the capitalized fourth letter of the alphabet which imparts that same French flavour to the expression as garlic does to a roast leg of lamb when pushed in near to the bone: for this ‘D’ represents the initial letter of the commonly-used reflexive verb se débrouiller, literally meaning ‘to disentangle’ or to ‘extricate oneself.’
You unimaginative, sheep-like, stick-to-the-rule Anglo-Saxons tend to adopt a submissive attitude towards those relatively minor obstacles which everyday life, at some moment or other, inevitably places in our path. These little problems may be of a practical nature, can be caused by rules and regulations, or by those officially appointed to make sure they are applied. In contrast, the more creative, individualistic Frenchman has developed what is termed ‘le Système D’ – an implicit, institutionalized anti-code, perhaps not always perfectly licit, but never more than marginally detrimental to others, which relies on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of each to improvise an immediate solution. De plus, ‘être débrouillard’ is a positively-perceived trait, an attribute it is considered desirable to possess when confronted with life’s daily hassles and, as such, a quality which French parents encourage in their offspring.
In its most rudimentary form, le Système D consists in improvising a practical solution to a concrete problem by adapting any material at hand. Let me illustrate this by two examples. A few summers ago, I spent a couple of weeks’ holiday on the Côte d’Azur. Now, in view of the long journey ahead and the likelihood of encountering dense traffic on the way, I decided to set off well before dawn. However, while loading up my car of that time, an old 2CV, I realized I’d forgotten to remove the many insects that had come to a sticky end on the windscreen over the previous days.
‘I’ll go and get the window spray,’ my Englishman said.  On coming back I directed the nozzle towards the glass and applied my right forefinger to the button. Nothing happened.
‘The bloody thing’s U.S.,’ he muttered in dismay. ‘What the heck are we going to do?’
‘Ne t’en fais pas, mon vieux !’ my Frenchie replied. ‘On va se débrouiller!’ – ‘Don’t worry, old chap ! We’ll sort something out!’
Being a bit slow-on-the-uptake, what my English part didn’t realize was that the same, even better results can be obtained, totally free of charge, simply by using a few sheets of newspaper, a drop of water, and a bit of elbow grease. Soak the newspaper in the water, rub away and squashed insects disappear like magic!
‘Elémentaire, mon cher Watson!’
On another occasion, a rather more serious problem enabled me to come up with a more daringly imaginative application. I was driving along with Priscille, my girl friend of that time, when a red warning light started flashing on the dashboard of that same old 2CV. Of course, I pulled up immediately, jumped out and proceeded to lift up the bonnet. It didn’t take long to see where the problem lay. The fan belt had chosen that moment to come apart. Now, as my more mechanically-minded readers will know, this type of breakdown, while not being a disaster in itself, would have made any further attempt at motorized advancement liable to seriously compromise the future health of the engine. So, I had to find a makeshift solution to get me as far as the nearest garage.
‘Oh, shit!’ said my Anglo. ‘We’re stranded. What the hell are we going to do?’
‘Ne t’en fais pas, mon vieux!’ my Froggy replied without the slightest hesitation. ‘Il n’y a pas de problème. On va se débrouiller.’
Needless to say, he’d already found a solution. Now, the armour of Priscille’s virtue constituted an impenetrable shield against every conceivable type of incursion, whatever form it came in, whatever direction it came from, and whatever part it was aimed at, and I had to use all my charm to get her to divest herself of her tights (after all, weren’t we in a tight spot?). But the rest was plain sailing. After twisting them into a rope, I knotted them round the pulleys of the dynamo, and hey presto! two minutes later I was breezing along again. C’est ça, le Système D!

 

Tu or Vous?

It might be thought that, under normal circumstances, politeness, especially when served up in its friendly form, can only go to unite. But what is less surprising with the French and English (where things are never normal) that it can frequently divide? And what greater damage has been inflicted on Anglo-French relations than that inoffensive-sounding little subject pronoun tu? You know, the Frenchman in us can’t help thinking it’s that same irrepressible desire to get on cordial terms with every Tom, Dick and Harry in less time than it takes to say Jacques Robinson which makes so many Anglo Saxons consider it an open sesame to instant friendship with all. Take the case of Sue.
      Last year, our neighbours, Monsieur and Madame Martin, had a young English au pair girl, Sue. Now Sue had just left school and, before going on to study French at university, she had decided to take a sabbatical year working in France with the aim of improving her spoken language and knowledge of French customs and lifestyle. The problem was that at the beginning of her séjour she systematically used the familiar tu to address all and sundry as a signal that she wished to be on friendly terms with all. Finally, Madame Martin had to take her to one side and explain that, though natural with people of her own age, using tu to address complete strangers, those she barely knew or whose social or professional status, age or even gender created a distance, was little more than misplaced familiarity – a discourteous lack of respect akin to a youngster in England addressing an adult he barely knew by his Christian name. Consequently, to avoid any risk of giving offence, she could only advise her to use the more distantly polite (and also plural) equivalent vous and, as a general rule, to leave it to the native speaker to call the tune.
     But while the more formally-structured codes of French polite etiquette usually require a stricter adherence to prescribed or customary forms with the result that you would normally use tu only to address relatives and friends, this is merely a broad indication and exceptions may occur. For example, in the past especially, but sometimes even today, some parents from the grande bourgeoisie, the upper middle classes, still require their children to address them by vous!  And though we have known my wife’s brother-in-law (as well as two of her cousins) for more than 40 years now, we have always used, and will certainly continue to use le vouvoiement. So, it’s important to realize that longstanding vous relationships of this type will probably be entrenched for life. It is also not uncommon for an older person to use le tutoiement when addressing a younger one (especially someone known since childhood) while the latter continues to uses the more respectfully polite vous.
     To complicate matters even further, though we would normally use vous to address those we’re not on familiar terms with, we can, in some circumstances, be on tu terms with those we hardly know. This is especially the case in a club or association where members are considered to be amicably united in pursuit of a shared activity or goal. So really there’s no hard and fast rule: things may depend on the situation you find yourself in, and/or the nature of your relationship, and it all boils down to a question of what you (and the other person) feel the more comfortable with.
     But, as our Frenchman has to admit, sometimes the choice between tu and vous can be both subtle and complex – even for a native speaker. At our golf club, for example, we sometimes play with a member some twenty years younger than us. When playing together we quite naturally use the tu form to address each other. But strangely, back in the clubhouse over a drink he reverts back to vous – presumably in deference to our age. This puts us in a rather embarrassing position. How do we react? Do we continue to use tu or, like him, go back to using vous?  In cases like this it’s probably better to discuss things openly and come to some form of mutual agreement on the use of one or the other. This is what we did on one occasion while playing a round of golf.
     As we were preparing to tee off on the last hole a lady came up and greeted us with a, ‘Bonjour, Barry. Comment ça va?’
‘Mais ça va très bien!’ we replied, recognizing Geneviève, a lady golfer we hadn’t seen for some time.
‘Et …?’
     We hesitated for a fraction of a second. Were we previously on vous or tu terms? We couldn’t for the life of us remember! So, it must have been our formally polite French part who prompted us to choose, ‘Et … vous?’ The expression of disappointment which momentarily clouded her face said everything. Fortunately, on realizing his mistake, our Frenchman managed to retrieve the situation by saying, ‘Oh, excuse-moi! On se tutoyait, non?’ For the short conversation which followed was full of friendly warmth.
     

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Have a Nice Something!

The French custom of wishing you a nice something on parting

‘Have a nice game of Scrabble!’

Given the doubtful nature of English cooking, the Frenchman in us can certainly understand why you Brits can’t be gulled into taking seriously someone who expresses the wish that you have a nice meal. He would, nevertheless, have thought that a conception of politeness which encourages you to display, from the very moment you meet, a maximum of familiarity towards your fellow man – even when he’s a total stranger – would, at least, require you to have the decency, on parting, to express the hope that you have a nice day. Toutefois, when you think about it, what could be less astonishing that a people who for centuries were preached to night and day that enjoyment of any kind was a cardinal sin should rarely wish one another a nice anything?
     Nevertheless, anyone wanting to embrace French lifestyle and culture to the full must be aware right from the start that the Gallics are incapable of parting from those they’ve been chatting to (even when not much more than half a dozen words have been exchanged) without systematically wishing they have a nice something. Such a well-established and accepted part of French polite etiquette is this that not expressing the wish that you have a nice walk, a nice game of golf or a nice journey would be perceived, at best, as a glaring omission and, at worst, the height of discourtesy.
     The most frequently-encountered of these turns of phrase are focused on parts of the day or week – ‘bonne journée’, ‘bon après-midi’, ‘bonne soirée’, ‘bonne nuit’, ‘bon weekend’, counting among the most common. Others (the untranslatability of which somewhere seems to endorse the fact that they’re alien to Anglophone polite culture) are more specific, and split morning, afternoon and evening into beginnings and ends: ‘bonne fin d’après-midi’ (literally ‘have a nice end to your afternoon’), ‘bon début de soirée’ (‘have a nice beginning to your evening’). And ‘bon réveil’ (‘have a nice wake-up’) is a favourite with early-morning newsreaders. What’s more, the custom is flexible enough to embrace any activity you’re already, or are soon to be engaged in and, if this is of a challenging or irksome nature, a ‘bon courage’ is usually forthcoming. In addition, you can be wished a vague, all-embracing ‘bonne continuation’ (‘continue having a nice whatever you’re doing now’) – even when you’re doing nothing at all! So the number of variants is without limitation (we’ve even heard ‘bonne partie de Scrabble’ (‘have a nice game of Scrabble’).

This blog is based on an article from the author’s latest book, Barry’s Frenglish Folies – ‘A potpourri of humorous, serious, and humorously serious reflections on the French and English seen through the eyes of a split-identity and occasionally demented Frenglishman’.

Barry’s Frenglish Folies is available as a free Kindle download at :

                          https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MZ39MUB

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Thoughts on the French Dunk

 

The English and French Breakfast

It has always been an enigma to the French part of our Frenglish self that you English, so universally condemned for the uninspired nature of your cooking, could have managed to impose on our planet such a varied, copious and delicious meal as the cooked breakfast; and our English half is no less mystified that the French, who have elevated cooking to no less than a creative art, could have come up with nothing more imaginative than a miserable slice of bread and a bowl of watery coffee by which to start the day. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the Gallics do not appreciate the qualities of a full English breakfast. But there exists perhaps no other country in the world where so many people unreservedly admit there’s nothing like a substantial meal to get the day off to a flying start, and where so few actually find it possible to believe that anyone can have either the time or the stomach to  take it – even at the weekend.

A Soggy Mass

What our Englishman finds far more regrettable than the insipid, insufficient nature of the French breakfast is the manner in which it is frequently ingested: for a widespread Gallic practice (as rampant as queue-jumping, street demonstrations, strikes and le Système D) consists in plunging bread or croissant into a breakfast bowl of coffee (or hot chocolate) until the former has imbibed as much of the latter as the laws of physics will allow. The soggily unappetizing mass thereby produced is then popped into mouth, munched with relish before finally being allowed to slide down throat.

 An Ancient Ritual?

Does the practice (hereinafter referred to as ‘the French dunk’) draw its origins from some ancient Gallic ritual which required food to be dipped into a recipient containing the still warm blood of a vanquished foe? Is it now considered to be a pre-masticatory phase essential to a digestive system not yet in full working order at this early time of day? Or does it simply provide a means of adding a modicum of taste to a meal more suited to a prison punishment diet? Whatever the case may be, the habit is endemic enough to constitute an infallible sign of French presence in the breakfast room of any foreign holiday hotel.

A Breach of Table Etiquette

Beyond the doubtful gustatory merits of the French dunk and the nauseous spectacle it presents, what shocks the Englishman in us even more is that this use of bread to perform a function more commonly associated with that of a sponge represents a gross breach of table etiquette: for an elementary rule of good table manners states that solids and liquids may only  be united after being despatched separately down throat.

Other Meals

Our Englishman might have been prepared to grant some attenuating circumstances, had the French dunk been restricted to breakfast alone, which, considering the early hour this usually takes place, would have enabled it to go unnoticed by those non-dunkers still under the influence of their recent dormant state. Regrettably, the same technique is unashamedly presented to fully-awakened public gaze during meals consumed at other times of the day, particularly (though not limited to) ther final stages when most solid matter has been transferred from plate to stomach, and little else remains but the sauce. In this respect, moreover, such is the assiduity with which bread is used to wipe the plate clean that subsequent washing is rendered entirely superfluous.

The Pronged Derivative

The rules of French table etiquette, though making no mention of breakfast dunking, do, in fact, condemn the main-meal habit of using bread digitally to mop up sauce. It would, however, appear to be tolerated when bread is impaled on fork. But even our Frenchman has rarely witnessed this pronged derivative in action, and personal experience would lead us to believe that, like most rules in France, it tends to be ignored. It might also be thought that in this land of rampant individualism, daily strikes and general protestation the nation would have counted an equal number of anti-dunkers. In reality, this is not at all the case. For on this point, at least, the country is resolutely united. Indeed, so much a part of the national heritage is the custom that not only has the verb ‘saucer’ been derived to describe it, but it is systematically inculcated in progeny barely weened from their mothers’ milk.

Attenuating Circumstances?

Though our Englishman remains stubbornly hostile to the French dunk, the Froggie in us recommends that a far more tolerant stand should be taken. For who can say whether even the most well-mannered of English diners would not succumb to the temptation to dunk, were he presented with that rich variety of deliciously-fresh, good-quality, easily-prepared, natural and inexpensive sauces which the French have elaborated to accompany food?  And would it not be something akin to profanation that they should suffer the same cruel fate as their crude, often bottled English and American counterparts whose un-dunked remains are so frequently laid to rest down the kitchen-sink plughole?

 

This blog is based on an article from the author’s latest book Barry’s Frenglish Folies, ‘a potpourri of serious, humorous and seriously humorous reflections on the French and English viewed through the eyes of a split-identity and occasionally demented Frenglishman’.

You can download the free Kindle, Ebook or PDF edition of Barry’s Frenglish Folies by following the link below :

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/691726

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