Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

Category: Living in France (page 2 of 3)

Shaking Hands With The French (2)

At friendly social gatherings it’s considered polite for a man to go round and shake hands with everybody he knows (and also, as described above, with friends of friends he hasn’t met before). When numbers make this impracticable you could possibly get away with a ‘bonjour tout le monde’ accompanied by a friendly wave of the hand. The handshake is less important when you leave, but still appreciated – particularly by those you’ve been in conversation with. Slinking off without saying a word is not to be recommended – so, once again, when shaking everybody’s hand is not convenient, a general ‘au revoir tout le monde’ won’t go amiss.
In similar informal circumstances a woman would be expected to cheek-kiss those men and women she was on friendly terms with, and would normally be required only to shake the hands of the men she had not previously met (though, in very informal circumstances, she could even cheek-kiss these). Shaking hands with a woman she was not previously acquainted with would be reserved for more formal occasions, and at parties and other friendly social occasions it would be more appropriate to cheek- kiss.
Similar rules apply at the workplace where, on arrival, it’s important for a man to go round and shake hands with his closest male colleagues while kissing women on the cheek. Care must be taken not to miss anybody out as this would be considered bad manners and could cause offence. So much a part of polite everyday French culture is this that, in many cases, even the boss will go round the office and factory each morning shaking hands with both male and female staff, regardless of the position they occupy in the company. Similarly, on arriving at company meetings men shake hands with men and cheek-kiss women colleagues. The Brit or American might think this sort of ritual is a source of much time-wasting. This can certainly be true. A French friend of ours informs us that, in the company where he works, one employee systematically goes round both office and factory shaking hands with or cheek-kissing each of a total of around 50 male and female colleagues. He reckons that at least twenty minutes is spent doing this each morning!
It’s also recommended that you shake hands with your plumber when he rolls up to replace a tap washer. In fact, so much importance is attached to this that if his hands are full, dirty or wet a French tradesman will frequently offer a forearm, a wrist – or even a little finger! If you’re greeting him outside in cold weather don’t forget to take off your glove. And even though it’s more appropriate to cheek-kiss small children you could, nevertheless, shake the hand of an older boy. He could be flattered by this since, in his eyes, you’re treating him as you would a man.
The handshake itself should be relatively brief but firm – une poignée de main molle, a limp handshake, will do nothing to convince the other of your sincerity. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be a bone cruncher, and the French tend neither to pump nor linger. It’s also important to look at the person whose hand you’re clasping. If you’re talking to someone else at the time, break off the conversation, verbally greet the person you’re shaking hands with, and look him in the eye. Personally, there’s nothing we personally hate more than a man silently extending his hand in our direction while continuing to talk to (and look at) another. It gives us the impression we don’t count for very much. The double-handed shake (i.e. using one hand to shake that of someone, while placing your non-shaking hand either on it or halfway up his arm) is normally confined to politicians. In a world where the word ‘never’ frequently means ‘not today’, it’s not a proof of sincerity. And placing your non-shaking hand on the other’s shoulder or using it to pat or slap him on the back are also not guaranteed to convince – though a previous Président de la République did frequently resort to both!

Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ? In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format. Get started here :   http://calloffrance.com/free-ebook-offer

 

   

Shaking Hands With The French (1)

It is a double paradox that a people like the English or Americans whose perception of politeness requires them to make total strangers believe they are their instant bosom friends should become so coldly distant when it comes to shaking hands, while their more formally polite French neighbours should attach such vital importance to seizing the hands of those they frequently have only the slightest acquaintance with.
Though shaking hands plays an important part in both Anglo-Saxon and French business culture as a means of expressing sincerity and cordiality when meeting, parting, being introduced or concluding deals, squeezing the hands of others is not systematically resorted to in day-to-day Anglo-Saxon life. In the normal course of events it is mainly restricted to those friends and relatives you’ve not had the pleasure of seeing for a considerable length of time, and is more often confined to men (women tend to kiss). And when you’re introduced to strangers at a social gathering in England you can even get away with a simple ‘hello’, accompanied by a friendly nod of the head. As a result, the Englishman can go for days, even weeks, without being called upon to slip his hand into that of another.
The newly-landed Anglo-Saxon expat would do well to note, that France social etiquette requires you to make repeated daily use of the handshake as a tangible sign of your friendly inclinations towards other males, and that staring uncomprehendingly at a Frenchman’s proffered hand can not only be a source of considerable offence, but cause you to run the considerable risk – though some allowances might possibly be made for that legendary English reserve – of being labelled unfriendly or even impolite. So, whenever you meet a French male acquaintance (you don’t need to know him all that well) in the supermarket or the High Street, shaking hands should become a reflex or, if he draws first (as, being French, he almost certainly will), to seize his hand warmly in yours. This is expected, even if you don’t have time for a chat. And if you can spare a moment to converse, it’s important to note that a second poignée de main, though not systematic, can be required when you part.
If your male friend or acquaintance is accompanied by someone you’re not personally acquainted with, you must first shake hands with the former and then, since it would be impolite to exclude him, with the other. This can, of course, depend on circumstances and the numbers involved. Generally speaking, however, it will be appreciated as a sign of warmth and conviviality. The other day, for instance, we played a round of golf with two French friends. Afterwards, the three of us had a drink together on the terrace of our clubhouse. As we were sipping our beers a pal of one of our friends arrived, shook his hand, and then – since it would have been impolite to ignore the other two of us – proceeded to shake ours and that of our other friend. He could, of course, have simply bid us a friendly ‘bonjour’, but the physical contact involved in shaking hands added an extra touch of cordiality – especially appropriate in a socially-oriented golf club context. Nevertheless, Anglophone expats may be relieved to know that if you meet the same male friend or acquaintance for a second time in the same day you’re not expected to shake hands again (though normally this won’t go amiss), and the simple recall, ‘On s’est déjà serré la main’ will suffice.
As far as greetings between male and female are concerned the rules are a little different as the type of greeting will depend very much on your degree of friendship. If you’re being formally introduced for the very first time shaking hands (even between women) would be necessary. Things are more delicate, however, if you’re already acquainted. Once again, depending on how well you know each other, you might offer her your hand or simply greet her with a polite ‘bonjour’. Be aware, however, that, in theory, at least, the rules of polite French etiquette require a man to shake a woman’s hand only if she first offers him hers. If you know her well, the bise, the cheek-kiss (more about this later), will more likely be resorted to.

The Frogs and Frogs


The Frenchie in us has never quite been able to comprehend why
the thought of eating the legs of such inoffensive little creatures as frogs should inspire such unmitigated horror in the majority of you English; nor, given the fact that the legs of this same amphibian are enjoyed by other nations of our planet, why only Gallics are considered so intimately associated with it that the name should have come to be so cruelly synonymous (the French attempt at vengeance with ‘les rosbifs’ is mild by comparison) with them. Our Anglo, on the other hand, has always been at a loss to understand how the rear members of so viscous, unsightly a creature as a frog could have come to be considered such a refined delicacy of French cuisine.
Though the consumption of frogs’ legs is a well-established, organized and widespread enough tradition to justify it being termed an institution, the French are not daily consumers (in spite of what some English people might think), and eating them is considered a special treat, usually taking place in a restaurant and limited to the early days of Spring. And it is not, in fact, the legs, but their fleshy upper part, les cuisses, the thighs, which are consumed, though it’s not unknown for some to extract additional pleasure by sucking and munching the bones. In the past, frogs were collected in millions – in daytime by means of a red rag (for some inexplicable reason frogs are fatally drawn to red), and at night they were mesmerized by the light of a torch. In view of the rapidly declining numbers, however, it has now been made illegal to harvest them commercially, and frogs may only be taken for personal consumption. So, most frogs’ legs eaten in the Hexagon today were attached to the bodies of foreign-spawned aquatics flown in live.
It goes without saying, however, that a certain amount of poaching still goes on. An indication of how seriously this is taken was provided by an article which appeared recently in our local newspaper. Two men, a father and his son, it related, had been caught red-handed collecting a total of 417 frogs encaged in 11 lobster-type pots, surreptitiously deposited in a neighbour’s mere. Not only did these considerable numbers suggest that their antics had a commercial outlet (the wholesale price of a kilo is around 30 euros), but the offences took place during the reproduction period at the beginning of March when frogs are especially easy to capture. Apparently, this was not their first attempt, and it was estimated they had poached at least 1,000 batrachians annually over a number of years. Though the accused pleaded that the frogs were solely for personal consumption, the magistrate thought otherwise: for the father was fined 2,000 euros (he didn’t bother to turn up in court), while the son was made to fork out 1,000.
Restaurant owners usually obtain their provisions at the airport, take the frogs back home, where they are kept alive in special tanks before enduring, on, of course, a far greater scale (as many as 4,000 tons are consumed each year), a fate very similar to the one we have described above. As far as the eating is concerned, it’s difficult to understand what all the fuss is about: the taste is a relatively bland cross between chicken and fish, and one of the native russet species (rana temporaria) is said to have a noticeable hazelnut flavour. Though sophisticated gourmet variations do exist, normal cooking is extremely straightforward, and when fried in butter with a sprinkling of parsley, together with a few crushed cloves of garlic, they go down a treat. Not only does French table etiquette permit the use of fingers when eating, but they are expected to be licked in audible appreciation. Usually frogs’ legs are consumed in dozens and, incredible as it may sound to some, many restaurants now follow the Anglo-Saxon all-you-can-eat fashion by offering, for an all-inclusive price, as many as can be got down.

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 Ebook download at :

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

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French Arrogance: Myth or Reality?

 

The Gallic part of us is inclined to think that the more educated, open-minded and travelled Brit tends towards a positive perception of the French. This is far from being the case with the popular classes (we can’t speak for other Anglo-Saxon nations) whose Francophobic tendencies are often encouraged by a tabloid press which, for nationalistic and commercial reasons (it enjoys a readership of tens of millions), seems to delight in serving up liberal portions of what their readers want to hear. And the subject of French arrogance seems to be a subject they enjoy the most.

     Some years ago during a national truckers’ strike in France, a number of strike-busting English drivers who happened to find themselves on French roads at the time, were held captive by their French equivalents. This unleashed so much fury on the part of one tabloid that it hit on the idea of conducting a ‘Frog-Bashing’ campaign. This consisted in inviting readers to send in all the anti-French jokes they knew, and awarding a prize for the one considered to be the most hilarious. The degree of response defied all imagination, producing so many rib-ticklers that the newspaper didn’t have enough space to publish them all. It goes without saying that a good number of these focused on French arrogance, and for several days we were treated to such side-splitting hilarities as: ‘How do you make money out of a Frog? By buying him at the price he’s worth, and selling him at the price he thinks he’s worth!’

     One of the main explanations for what, to our mind, has no more sense to it than labelling the English a supercilious lot, merely because they don’t shake one another by the hand at least twenty times a day, can be found in the misunderstandings which can arise when people view one another through the deforming lense of their own diverging culture.

     Personally, during the 45 years or so we’ve been living in France we’ve always operated on the principle that if you’re pleasantly polite with others in the vast majority of cases they’ll be pleasantly polite back. For us, at least, this has always worked with the different nationalities we’ve crossed the path of, including the French. Perhaps we’ve been lucky but, apart, perhaps, from the odd Parisian waiter (never address them as ‘garçon’), we’ve yet to come across the French arrogance and rudeness some Anglophones seem to find so rampant. The only exception was some years ago when we were having a drink in a café with a Scottish friend. We were sitting at the bar and our conversation was in English. Suddenly, an elderly man standing nearby announced loudly to one and all, ‘Ca sent la merde ici!’ (There’s a smell of shit round here !) and proceeded to storm out. In his favour, we think he’d had too many, and had perhaps mistaken English for German (perhaps he’d suffered during the German occupation of World War 2). So great was the indignation of the café owner (and several people standing around) that he offered us a drink on the house!  

 

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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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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Anglo-Saxon Instant Friendship

 

Inappropriate Familiarity?

One of those many things the Frenchie in us has difficulty in understanding about you Anglo-Saxons is the fact that, in contrast to the more formal French polite codes where the use of Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle to address strangers is de rigueur,  the importance you attach to instant friendship requires you to greet people you’ve never met in your life before in the most familiar of terms. During our holidays in England last year, for example, we walked into a small  shop. There we were welcomed by an assistant, young enough to be our grand-daughter, and whom we’d never clapped eyes on in our life before, with a cheery, ‘Hello, young man!’ So much did her greeting smack of inappropriate familiarity that our French and Englishman joined together in firmly pointing out that, since she would never have addressed a genuine young man in this way, what really prompted her greeting was, in fact, the very opposite to what she was attempting to imply – namely, that we were no longer a young man!

‘Young Man’ and ‘Old Boy’.

So how is it possible for the uninformed Frenchman not to fall into total confusion in a country where the quest for instant friendship obliges you to  call a man ‘a young man’ when he’s not a young man, but rarely call a man ‘a young man’ when he is a young man, and where it’s quite possible to address both an old man and a young boy as ‘young man’, and both a young man and an old man as ‘old boy?’ Isn’t it far more logical to be friendlily polite with people you know, and just politely polite with those you don’t?

Instant Friendship?

‘Hello, I’m John.’

Mind you, we probably got off lightly. For such is the importance you English attach to instant friendship that when you go into a shop you can be addressed by someone you’ve not had the pleasure of seeing in your life before with a disconcerting variety of familiar appellations which can only lead the foreign observer to surmise that you’re on the most intimate of terms. What’s more, this obsession with instant friendship obliges us to invite people we’ve never in our life mucked the pigs out with to address us by our Christian name, or even its diminutive, and to take the liberty of using theirs. Last Saturday evening, for instance, we were invited to a dinner party given by a couple of English friends.

‘I don’t think you know Jennifer and John,’ said our hostess by way of introduction to a couple we’d never in our life met before.

‘Oh, just call me Jennie,’ replied the lady, her cheeks creasing into the sweetest of smiles.

Limits?

This addiction to instantaneous friendship can, however, show its limits. This was illustrated one day last summer when we took ourself along to an agricultural show with an English friend and his wife. As we were walking past one stand a young woman rushed up to our friend’s wife.

‘How wonderful it is to see you again!’ she effused, seizing her in a smothering embrace. A brief conversation followed between them after which we continued on our way.

‘Yes, I met her at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago,’ my friend’s wife explained, ‘but I can’t for the life of me remember her name!’

  *   *   *

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 edition of Barry’s Frenglish Folies by following the link below :

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

A Nation of Cheats?

For some Anglo-Saxons recent events might have confirmed  that the French are at all levels a nation of cheats.  And it’s certainly true I’ve had numerous occasions to observe during my more than 40 years of French expat living that the average Gallic’s conviction that rules are necessary – as long as they’re for others – has generated treasures of resourcefulness and daring in devising ways of getting round them. The fact that the French could be accused of being a nation of cheats  is nowhere more evident than with the common queue.

French queueWhile the Anglo-Saxon approach to queuing reposes exclusively on a notion of orderly, single-file alignment in strict conformity with the rule of ‘first come first served’ – the slightest deviation from which will unleash unbounded fury – not only do the French tend towards a more roundabout conception of linearity but show a marked inclination to favour the principle of ‘every man for himself’. Why only the other day I was waiting patiently in a long supermarket queue when the cash desk next to us opened up. Without so much as a by-your-leave those who had joined our line well after me rushed gratefully into the breach. I’ve also witnessed supermarket customers stick the price tag issued by the fruit and vegetable weighing machine onto their plastic bag before surreptitiously adding a couple of bananas or tomatoes more. And people jumping over a Métro station tourniquet rather than pay the price of a ticket is a fairly common sight. Moreover, a third of those aged between 18 and 65 questioned in a recent survey admitted that at some time in their lives they had stolen at least one article of less than 20 euros in value. And not only does undeclared work and fiddling the national health, family allowance or unemployment benefit system cost the country billions, but tax evasion seems to be a national sport.

Jerome CahuzacMind you, how else do you expect the engine room crew to behave when the captain and his officers at the helm of state fail to set an example? For somewhere I can’t help thinking that holding public office in France gives some high flyers the idea that they’re 10 000 metres above the law. Take, for example, the case of Jérôme Cahuzac. Now Jérôme Cahuzac, a former reputed surgeon, was until two years ago the brilliant Socialist Budget Minister entrusted by Monsieur le Président with the arduous task of fighting tax cheats. The problem was that, after promising a merciless clampdown on those of his concitoyens who held secret tax haven bank accounts, he was finally obliged to confess (after weeks of vehement public denial) that he himself had salted away an estimated 600 000 euros in a Swiss bank account; he’d even reportedly tried to invest around 15 million euros (£12.7 million) in a Swiss fund in 2009. It goes without saying that not only was he obliged to resign his government position but also that of député (though he was extremely reluctant to do so), and is now being investigated for tax fraud.

Thomas ThevenoudAnd, as if that wasn’t enough, it was revealed more recently that when it came to not paying bills Thomas Thévenoud, a former Secretary of State in the present Socialist Government had no equal. Not only had he not bothered to pay his local taxes but he was late in declaring his taxable income for 2012 and 2014; and he’d even ‘forgotten’ to make a tax return in 2013! Mind you, he was finally obliged to settle a total amount of 41.475 euros to the French Inland revenue this year, including some 12.000 euros in penalty fines.

But this was far from being all. He’d also failed to pay a number of parking fines over the years, and seems to have been convinced that the electricity and water he used came absolutely free. And after hearing all this we can’t really blame a former landlord who revealed that his former lodger hadn’t though it necessary to pay his rent for the last three years. And then there was a physiotherapist who declared that the same highly-placed politician had been reluctant to pay for his two daughters’ physiotherapy sessions back in 2007. Apparently it took two years, several reminder letters, and a visit from a bailiff to remind him that he hadn’t settled the bill. And if that wasn’t enough, Monsieur Thévenoud also omitted to inform the appropriate authorities that he’d been the director of a wholesale wine company in 2010 – though admittedly it only lasted a month. Mind you, I suppose you’ve got to hand it to him somewhere. For in his defence our former Secretary of State (he’s still a député, though now disowned by his Socialist brothers) was imaginative enough to have put all these omissions down to what he described as a chronic case of ‘phobie administrative’. I’ve heard of claustrophobia, arachnophobia, agoraphobia and even acrophobia, but I’ve got to confess that ‘administration phobia is a new one on me.

French Rudeness?

Mr Rude FrenchYou know, I can’t help thinking that the arrogant French rudeness some Anglo-Saxons seem to find whenever they cross the Channel is the result of a misunderstanding caused by a different cultural conception as to what constitutes basic politeness. This was once again brought home to me during a recent week’s holiday I spent in Portugal with a group of 20 or so French tourists. Even though I’d had several lengthy conversations with at least two male members of our group (especially at mealtimes when the wine began to flow), it was only towards the end of the holiday when we really started getting to know one another that we began using first names. It goes without saying that, had we all been Anglo-Saxons, we would have been on Christian name, even back-slapping terms right from the start. And the Frenchman in me is tempted to think it is this importance you attach to ‘friendly’ politeness which can cause you to view some aspects of the more formalistic French codes of socially-acceptable behaviour as little more than unamicable aloofness. In this respect, I distinctly remember one occasion when I’d just landed back in Blighty, and the Englishman in me must still have been fast asleep.

The train taking me from the airport was almost empty and I had no problem in finding a window seat. The next stop, however, was a large town where a crowd of people were waiting to board. Pointing to the vacant seat beside me a lady politely enquired, with an amiable English smile, ‘Is anybody sitting here, please?’

‘No!’ I replied, shaking my head, and with what I thought to be a cordial tone of voice.

Now, had this been in France the lady would certainly have gratified me with a primly polite ‘Merci, monsieur,’ and then, without further ado, would have proceeded to sit down. Not so with our English one.

‘I’m asking you if this seat is free!’ she repeated with barely-concealed annoyance.

A little surprised, I retorted, ‘Your original question was, ”Is anybody sitting here?” My reply was ”No!” That means nobody is sitting here!’ And with a gentle smile I beckoned her to take a seat.

She sat down stiffly. Despite having brought to her notice the correctness of my grammar, something in her demeanour made it obvious that offence had been given, and a long, heavy silence ensued. Puzzled, I gave the matter some thought. And, as we rolled along, it must have been my Englishman who began to stir; for it gradually dawned on me that, not only had my response to her first question been far too laconic, but totally lacking in English-style, friendly warmth.  And it could even have been mistakenly construed as ‘No, I don’t want you to sit here!’ In fact, what I should have said was something like, ‘Not at all, go ahead and sit down, love!’ accompanied by the broadest of smiles. But now the harm was done and all my attempts at reconciliation were in vain (she curtly refused my offer to lift her heavy-looking bag onto the luggage rack above). I finally retreated into resigned perusal of my newspaper.

Rude French waiterPersonally, during the 42 years or so I’ve been living in France I’ve always operated on the principle that if you’re pleasantly polite with others in the vast majority of cases they’ll be pleasantly polite back. For me, at least, this has always worked with the different nationalities I’ve crossed the path of, including the French. Perhaps I’ve been lucky but, apart, perhaps, from the odd Parisian waiter (never address them as ‘garçon’), I’ve yet to come across the arrogant French rudeness some Anglophones seem to find so rampant. The only exception was some years ago when I was having a drink in a café with a Scottish friend. We were sitting at the bar and our conversation was in English. Suddenly, an elderly man standing nearby announced loudly to one and all, ‘Ca sent la merde ici!’ and proceeded to storm out. In his favour, I think he’d had too many, and had perhaps mistaken English for German (perhaps he’d suffered during the German occupation of World War 2). So great was the indignation of the café owner (and several people standing around) that he offered us a drink on the house!

 

Eating out in France

Gastronomic restaurantHere are 20 tips the newly-landed Anglo-Saxon expat might find useful when eating out in France. Some of them will also applywhen eating out at the home of those French friends of yours.

1.  For many Anglos (and Americanos) eating out in a restaurant is like running a four minute mile. Perhaps it’s the fast-food syndrome. Just remember that eating out in France means there’s no hurry – so relax and enjoy it. And even if you do sometimes have to wait a bit between courses (there are, of course, limits), don’t cast incriminating looks at your watch. And for Heaven’s sake don’t, I repeat don’t threaten to walk out!

2. Even though you did mistake the main course for a second starter in that three Michelin star restaurant, don’t ask the waiter for more. It’s not the done thing. Remember, French gastronomical cooking favours quality, freshness and refined presentation rather than quantity. I mean, you can always fill up with bread (it should come in limitless supplies). And you can also draw consolation from the fact that the cheese and dessert courses are to come.

3. If you decide to go for the steak you’ll be asked, of course, how you’d like it. There are four degrees of cooking: bleu (extra rare, i.e. cooked on a candle); saignant (rare); à point (medium), and bien cuit (well done). Be aware that very few French people ask for their steak well done. It could come with a consistency very similar to shoe leather. Even though many Anglos tend to feel faint at the slightest trace of blood, my advice would be to steer a middle course, so ask for it ‘à point.’ Or you could choose the fish.

4. If you order lamb chops in an English restaurant these would normally be cooked right through (and served with the ubiquitous mint sauce). Be aware that in some French restaurants they’re automatically served rare. In others you have the same options as with steak, but the word saignant is often replaced by rose (pink). With roast beef you’ve got no choice. It automatically comes red in the middle.

5. Even though in Anglo-Saxon land bread without butter is only deemed fit to be thrown out for the sparrows, this is not the case in France where unbuttered bread is the rule. The only exception is at breakfast time when it can be liberally buttered and jammed.

6. The above applies especially to cheese. When you’re eating out in France the only possible accompaniment to cheese is plain bread. And don’t ask for cream crackers or cheese biscuits. They won’t know what you mean.

7. Be warned that le French Dunk (the common French habit of using a piece of bread to soak up that delicious marchand de vin sauce in much the same way as a mop is employed to clean the kitchen floor) is frowned upon in the best of circles – though apparently French eating etiquette allows it when bread is impaled on fork. Personally, I find the French have a more liberal interpretation of what constitutes good table manners – especially when it comes to normally accepted rules on how you should use your knife and fork. But there again my mum was a stickler for that sort of thing, and most of it  remains. Remember, it was the French who invented the pleasures of eating and the English who decided the rules.

8. Don’t order a large cup of coffee (as some Americans do) to drink with your meal. The same goes for Coca Cola (Americans again).  Beer also tends to be not quite right. Go either for mineral water which can be plate (still) or pétillante (sparkling). Or, far better, order some wine. In many cases you can order an inexpensive pichet (jug) of their house wine.

9. Don’t think you can have cheese at any time during a meal (Americans again). And if you can help yourself to the cheese board (in many restaurants the waiter will serve you), don’t leave it looking as if it’s been hit by an Exocet missile. So don’t hack your portion. And don’t cut the best piece for yourself.

10. In France it’s considered the height of bad manners to cut the lettuce in your salad using your knife and fork. If the leaf’s too big use them to fold it up into a mouth-friendly parcel.

11. Even though you’re absolutely ravenous and would like to pick the bone clean, resist the temptation to pick that chicken leg up. It could be a messy business. It’s certainly less practical but it’s considered better manners to dismember it using your knife and fork. If you’re meant to use your fingers a special finger bowl will be provided.

12. Don’t ask for ketchup to put on your French fries. Even though things are changing in restaurants of any pretension the waiter might not be able to conceal his horror. The same goes for brown and other bottled sauces and condiments.

13. The French are rightly proud of their cuisine, so treat it with the respect they’re convinced it deserves. When you’re served that foie gras keep well off the subject of force feeding (or animal cruelty in general). Oh yes, and don’t spread it on your toast. It’s not Marmite.

14. It’s the custom in France to let women order first in a restaurant.

15. If you can’t quite finish off that tender entrecôte steak, it might be a good idea to think twice before asking for a doggie bag so that Rover (or his owner) can partake of (or continue) the feast at home. Even though things are now changing, it’s still not really the done thing in many French restaurants, so you might get strange looks.

16. When the waiter pours some wine for you to taste it’s not really to see if you like it. It’s to make sure it’s not corked. This gives it a distinct, wet cardboard smell. So instead of actually tasting it you can just swirl it around in your glass, get your nose in there and give it a sniff. The same test can be made to make sure it hasn’t turned into vinegar.  Cheaper wine comes more and more with a screw top – so it’s a bit pointless nosing it as it just can’t be corked.

17. Be suspicious if that pichet of red wine you ordered is served chilled. This is the usual way to hide the harsh taste of low quality wine.

18. Often in cheaper restaurants knives and fork are not replaced. So when you’ve finished eating your entrée leave them by the side of your empty plate. If you don’t the waiter will do it for you. You can wipe your knife on a piece of bread.

19. As a child, when I’d finished eating my Mum always insisted on me putting knife and fork together on my plate in a half past six configuration. In a restaurant, she said, this acts as a sign to the waiter that he can take your plate away.  In France the position tends to be twenty past four (though it’s not often observed).

20. Oh yes. I almost forgot. Don’t put your hands on your knees under the table when you’re not eating. For some inexplicable reason (perhaps some Frenchmen have wandering palms), it’s considered not the done thing. Rest both forearms gently on the table so that they’re clearly visible to all.

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