Everyone is created equal

Before I moved to France, I took the liberté, égalité, fraternité motto somewhat for granted. Lovely aspirations, I thought: who would not agree with them? Now that France is in fully-blown election fever, however, I have had cause to note that the égalité part, at least, is not merely a soundbite for a long-forgotten manifesto, but an obsession that permeates every aspect of French public life.

In the centre of our village, there are a series of metal panels onto which posters can be pasted. For most of the time the peuple ignore the affichage libre signs instructing them where they can stick their notices (so to speak) and compete riotously with each other to plaster their adverts closest to the middle of the only section where they have no right to do so. A few weeks ago, these metal panels suddenly multiplied. Within minutes, they had been slathered with François Fillon posters.

Then, one day, everything was taken down and stern notices went up telling people to refrain from further campaigning. The panels remained naked for about 24 hours whereupon, one morning, they sprouted numerals, from 1 to 11, to each of which a single poster promoting one of the 11 presidential hopefuls was assigned. Since then good citizens of St Cyr have obediently left the panels well alone.

It took me a while to work out that this unusually orderly bout of affichage was a symptom of the literal-minded French obsession with égalité. If all the candidates are given the same surface area on which to advertise, the State can say that they are equal.

It is not just posters that are singled out for the equality treatment. The live presidential debate broadcast across French television screens in early April allocated precisely 18 minutes of speaking time to each of the 11 candidates. In other words, it didn’t matter whether you had a great deal or nothing at all to say on any particular issue, or indeed whether or not anyone wanted to listen, you would be able to express your views for precisely the same amount of time as everyone else.

The debate is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to égalité in French political broadcasting. France Télévision and Radio France are, it transpires, required to give equal time to all of the candidates in all of their broadcasting — quite a feat of coordination across their many networks and channels. I listened to an interview with one of the officials in charge of this policy during which, the interviewer, quite reasonably, asked what the state intended to do about social media. The official responded that ça fait déjà beaucoup de travail de surveiller les antennes. Throwing social media into the equation would require more resources than were available. Well quite. Not to mention the blatantly North Korean note that such an initiative would strike…

On the one hand, it is touching that France continues to strive so earnestly for égalité in politics despite the obvious futility of such an endeavour in the internet age. On the other, it is symptomatic of one of the nation’s most intractable ideological blind spots.

Running provides an instructive metaphor here. In a sprint, officials can do their best to make racing conditions fair: they can make sure that everyone runs the same distance, starting at precisely the same time; and without the help of any detectable drugs. What the linesmen cannot do, however, is create equality. If they could, then Eadred would stand a chance against Usain Bolt. The fact remains, however, that Usain Bolt and Eadred are not equal in running, or in anything else for that matter. That is the point of a race: to root out the inequalities, and celebrate them.

In politics, as in sport, the State can make conditions fair (although arguably much less comprehensively than is possible under sprint conditions), but they cannot make the candidates equal. By allocating everyone a single panel for their poster and 18 minutes of speaking time, they will not give them all an equal chance of winning. Some will have more money backing them; some more notoriety to thrust them forwards; and some will simply be willing to engage in bare-faced corruption. Others may be female, from an ethnic minority, ugly, impoverished or just championing a difficult cause. Whatever it is, there will always be some candidates that have an advantage over the others.

In the centre of Lyon, not all citizens think political posters should be treated equally.

Does this matter? The inequalities in any system certainly have an impact, for better or for worse (take Donald Trump, for example). If you can’t bring yourself to care about whether or not all politicians are created equal, you probably can care about kids in school. It is the same mule-headed muddling of the concepts of fairness and equality that has led to the creation of an education system where no special considerations are shown to children with dyslexia, or autism, or indeed just those who have a practical rather than an intellectual brain. Well, says the State, we gave zem la même scolarité, ils peuvent se débrouiller, non ?

Fine, though I’m not sure that liberté, sink or swim, fraternité will catch on as a national motto.

Life in the fast lane

In a recent edition of Late Night Woman’s Hour, business woman Hilary Devey was asked whether she followed her instinct in her professional life. She described walking away from a deal with someone after he had revealed that he frequently drove from Brussels to Paris despite being banned from behind the wheel for drunk driving: at this, her instincts told her that the man was untrustworthy.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m with Hilary. I, too, would have turned down the deal. Given that the meeting took place in Paris, however, in her place I would have been neither shocked nor surprised. Since moving to France, I have lost count of the number of times I have seen someone get behind the wheel after several glasses of wine (although it does not excuse the behaviour, British readers should remember that a French glass of wine is a mere 125 ml compared to its bucket-sized UK equivalent). No doubt the man in question made his disclosure so openly because he did not think there was anything particularly unusual about it. If Hilary were to rule out doing business with anyone who had a string of driving infractions to their name, she would never do business in the hexagone again.

The French don’t let a drink get between them and their car

Eadred and I consider ourselves to be scrupulously law-abiding citizens. Our children are the sort of annoying progeny who, having heard us drone on about respecting public spaces, loudly voice their disapproval of people who drop litter or tag walls. Since our brushes with Madame Lipstick, they have added speeding to the list of antisocial behaviours about which they are generally appalled. They have even been known to wind down the back windows of the car and yell disparagingly at drivers striving for the speed of light, mais vous êtes en retard pour la fin du monde ou quoi ?

Of late we have had to admit that our self-righteousness is starting to lose its sheen as the result of a number of speeding tickets, which are beginning to drop into our boîte aux lettres with sickening regularity. They turn up despite earnest attempts to remain within the speed limit at all times.

The fines are uniformly exasperating, doled out for doing a speed of 56 km/h in a 50 zone, or 117 km/h in a 110 zone. “Well,” my formerly upright British self would have tutted at these protestations, “speeding is speeding. It’s a fair cop. You only have yourself to blame”. Oui et non responds the lax Gallic half of my brain. The panneau announcing the 50 zone, for example, was erected precisely 20 metres before the camera which caught me frantically braking in response. The 110 zone was on a section of motorway that alternated between limits of 130, 110 and 90 km/h with bewildering frequency and no discernible logic. One momentary lapse of concentration on the side of the road (when arguably you should looking straight ahead) and you’re liable for a ticket.

The first speeding ticket to arrive (mine, incidentally) prompted much hand-wringing. “We have each been driving for nearly 20 years,” wailed Eadred “and we had clean licenses until we came to France”. I made repeated trips to the filing cabinet to fawn nostalgically over the virgin expanses of my paper licence, soon to be sullied by my first-ever point. I felt it as a great stain on my character. Now that we have received a combined total of five such missives, however, our response is markedly different: oh putain I muttered at the last one, casting it aside in frustration. I have become so acclimatised to my illegality on the road that I have even downloaded a fine-paying app onto my mobile phone. Eadred had to report to the Mairie just this morning with paperwork to appease the police who had stopped him for speeding last week. Whereas three years’ ago he would have been appalled at this brush with the law, now he is principally irritated by its inconvenience.

A screen that pops up on my phone all too often

Speeding is, you see, a French national pastime, but then so is the creation of zones in which the speed limit varies unpredictably. It’s like a vast game of one-upmanship. Where can we hide zis new spiiid limite panneau ? chuckle the authorities as they daily shift the speed zones around on a completely random basis. ‘Ow fast can I goh wizzout getting cotte ? say the drivers, rubbing their hands with glee. At work I have heard colleagues boasting about the number of points they have on their licence, and reminiscing about the happy time they have spent on the special stage you can pay to attend so that the points are taken away. When I attempted to join the discussion, my musings were waved away on the basis that my three points were too meagre to count as a meaningful contribution.

As with school and tax, it seems that the rules of the road proliferate for the sheer pleasure of seeing them broken. Whether we like it or not, for the first time in our straight-laced existence, Eadred and I are being forced to acclimatise to life outside the cadre.

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Thank you to all of you who pointed me towards the excellent post by France Says on speed cameras in France. She expresses the view that many cameras are simply cashpoints for the State and has given me some excellent new French terminology to boot. The post is well worth a visit, as indeed are all her posts, if you want to read more about speeding in France…

Good day to you

Greeting a friend in France is simple. You say bonjour, fix your face into a cross between a pout and a pucker, and lean in for the bise. In Lyon, one air kiss on each side suffices, but so long as you are alert, you can quickly loom in for more if this seems to be required. The only time when you abandon this ritual is when one of you has a grippe resulting from a cold neck, when you confine yourselves to the verbal part of the greeting to avoid contamination.

So long as you are fairly familiar with someone, this protocol will hold true, even if you are, for example, arriving late for a music rehearsal. In such circumstances, there is no notion of skulking quietly in at the back. Indeed you risk offending everyone if, before even getting your violoncelle out of its case, you fail to do a quick tour of the players, who will stop playing at even the most crucial of junctures to return your bise.

At work the rules have been modified slightly, presumably to avoid the awkwardness of imposing a kiss on someone you manage, or leaning in to embrace a boss who has just told you that your entire annual output was null. Although nobody would complain if you did the bise with a colleague who was also a friend, it is not expected. By contrast, whereas in London my cheery “good morning” was frequently greeted with a combination of perplexity and resentment, neglecting to say bonjour to absolutely everyone in your French office when you first arrive is close to a sackable offence.

Having mastered the art of saying bonjour in the office and in social situations, one might think that I could move on to more complicated aspects of French conversation. But no: I still have a long way to go before I can be confident of passing l’art de la culture française : module 1.

From time to time, you see, Eadred and I employ people to do jobs that other couples can manage for themselves, things like planting une haie to hide the giant cat litter that is the roof of our neighbour’s new house. Despite the fact that I am now very well acquainted with the artisans who do this sort of work for us, the moment when they arrive each time remains supremely uncomfortable because, after three years of practice, I still don’t know quite how to behave.

The first time an artisan, a femme de ménage, or your child’s violin teacher comes round is straightforward enough: you don’t know them at all, so you shake their hand, and you remain firmly in vouvoye-ing territory throughout the interview. On the second occasion, I am still comfortable shaking hands, and unless they suggest tutoye-ing me, I vouvoye with only minimal discomfort.

The violin has not brought familiarity

The problem is that, whereas by the third or fourth meeting, my French friends will have segued seamlessly into familiar forms of address, lost the handshake, and be kissing cheeks left right and centre (well, perhaps just left and right), I am stuck pumping hands and trying hard to avoid calling anyone anything at all in the desperate hope that I won’t have to choose between tu and vous.

When I am not paralysed with shame, I am amused by the reactions I get to my predicament. The prof de violon has obviously given me up as a hopelessly stiff example of the genre Anglo-Saxon, and proffers his hand before I can muster the courage to pucker up (which I nonetheless continue to rehearse doing each week before his knock at the door). The ouvrier who did three months of renovations on our house before we moved in, and much more since, took matters into his own hands after a year, and came in for a bise. I was relieved that he had taken the initiative, but that did not stop his office manager calling me afterwards to check that my British sensibilities had not been offended.

The only cure I have ever found for my profound discomfort at such moments is to think back to a moment at the school gate in London when a lovely English friend of mine welcomed a new French parent to the school with a bear hug. Over my friend’s shoulder, the French woman’s expression was, frankly, terrified, and her posture resembled nothing so much as that of a plank. It took a few weeks, but eventually she started hugging us all back. I still wonder from time to time whether she mistook the hug for the direct cultural equivalent of the bise and started hugging bewildered brickies and football coaches. A very small, shamefully vengeful, part of me hopes so.

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Since writing my original post, Diane at Oui in France referred me to her blog post on faire-ing la bise. In it she links to a hilarious YouTube video by British comedian Paul Taylor, in which he goes through the various confusing issues associated with kissing in France. If you are offended by gros mots, you may wince a little, but it really is an excellent way to understand my anxst about the simple act of greeting someone.

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The name of the game

When we arrived in France, our eldest was plunged into a class called CP, which is where, aged 6-7, French children learn to read from scratch in a single year. Fancying ourselves as we did, Eadred and I thought steering a small child around le chat s’est assis sur le tapis would be a cinch. All such illusions were shattered a mere week later when the Reader came home with a syllabic dictée of “e” sounds to learn: be, bé, bè… We took turns in testing her, reading out a sound and asking her to write it down. “It doesn’t sound like it does when the maîtresse tests us,” she managed, politely.

The same phenomenon arose in the “ou” week. Vou, vu, vue, we attempted for all of five seconds until the withering look on the Reader’s face stopped us in our tracks. Other crowds were tougher than our daughter. We lived on the route de Saint Romain, you see, and no matter what I did with my mouth, this was always noted down as the rue de Saint Romain, or once, when I had managed to get my voice to drop the requisite number of pitches to form the ou correctly, the croute de Saint Romain.

The arrival of our younger daughter, the Curly One, in CP this year marked something of a watershed for us. Whereas with the Reader all our “e” sounds had converged in the middle, this time round our be comes with sufficient pout, and our with sufficient insouciance, to differentiate them. Similarly our vou is sufficiently deep and our vu sufficiently reedy to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, the syllables we are uttering belong to the French language.

We may feel smug for having finally disentangled our French vowel sounds, but (nearly) correct pronunciation brings its own dilemmas. These begin even upon being introduced. The vowel sounds in my name, you see, do not appear anywhere in the lexicon of syllables all French people have learnt in CP. Believe me, I have tried to find my place, but with an E (be) I become Uhrmily; with an É () it is Aehmily; and with an È (bè), Airmily. That is before you have even thought about the “i” in the middle, which becomes something like an ihhy, or the “y” on the end, which frankly does not even exist.

I tried, for a while, to translate myself entirely, and become Émilie, but this jarred. My name is Emily, not Aehmihhyleeh (pronounced with a whistle of breath through the teeth). Similarly I find myself unable to call Eadred “Polle”, or to introduce my mum as “Susanne”. A very good friend called Nicola persists in the completely unreasonable use of her Christian name despite being told almost daily that this makes her a man and thus, presumably, that she should call herself something different.

Aliens in a foreign land

All of this is, of course, my problem. I cannot expect the entire French language to shift its foundations just because a family of disgruntled English-speakers has decided to set up shop in Lyon. I am, however, surprised by the complete lack of lip-service paid by the French to the pronunciation of proper nouns in other languages, and indeed by the tacit assumption that all non-French pronunciations are somehow incorrect and to be disregarded.

In the UK, Eadred and I were frequently amused by the BBC’s very earnest approach to the correct pronunciation of foreign words. “Afghunisthun” Ritula Shah would say. Other presenters would break off from their stream of undulating English to produce a perfectly pouting “Ollonde”, and Angela Merkel would always have her hard “g” instead of the soft “j” of her English equivalent. I am sure the BBC frequently gets it wrong, or just not quite right, but, well, at least its journalists are trying in their own small way to overturn centuries of imperial complacency.

No time is wasted learning how to pronounce foreign names correctly in the corridors of French broadcasters, however. The British PM is Thérès-a Mai, and the German Chancellor’s “g” loses its guttural edge. Reports come in from Londres and Douvres, and across the Atlantic Donalde Trhhoomp is busy passing executive orders.

Perhaps yet more flagrant is the French tendency to re-spell names for their own convenience. One of my orchestras is playing a piece of music by hitherto unheard of composer Aaron Copelan and I am daily amused by the fact that, in France, the Russian President is styled as Vladimir Poutine, which makes him sound rather cute. Mind you, if they kept to the correct spelling of the latter, he would be known as Vladimir Fuck, which one might imagine could be construed as undiplomatic.

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A qualified success

The last time that I visited my coiffeur— let’s call him M. Ciseaux—I was not in search of un nouveau re-looking so much as a further iteration of my Frunch ‘airdoo, which helps me to blend in around these parts. M. Ciseaux begged to differ. Almost as soon as I crossed the threshold, his lip had begun to curl in distaste. Self-consciously, I slunk across the floor and settled myself in front of the mirror. He lifted up tufts of my hair, looking at them with such undisguised horror that I began to question whether perhaps I had acquired some poux, or had only dreamed that I had taken a shower the night before. After a dramatic pause, during which I wished to evaporate, he asked, mais qui, QUI, a fait cette espèce de coupe ?

Busted! Or, as they say here, prise la main dans le sac. It is perfectly true that, just two months previously, in seeking out household economies I had decided to try out one of my two local coiffeurs, both of whom are cheaper M. Ciseaux. The result was not delightful, but neither was it upsetting, and though I had decided that perhaps I might not go back, I had got through eight weeks without giving the matter much more thought. Now that M. Ciseaux had a sharp implement next to my head, however, the matter assumed a greater importance.

It took but a minute for me to confess to my crime. Doubtless my disloyalty stung a bit, but M. Ciseaux seemed far more concerned by two other issues. Firstly, there was the question of how I had managed to survive eight weeks in un tel état catastrophique (answer: just fine, although now I was beginning to worry that I had been walking around looking like Worzel Gummidge). Secondly, it was utterly incompréhensible to him how anyone could possibly have got their diplôme if they went round cutting hair in such an incompétent manner.

At this point I compounded my original error by remarking blithely that there were diplômes and diplômes, and that not everyone could be as doué as M. Ciseaux. I have heard tell that flattery gets you everywhere. Well, not chez le coiffeur, as it turns out. A diplôme, you see, is a diplôme is a diplôme is a diplôme. It is the État Français, no less, which awards professional qualifications, and one would very much doubt that the Président of the République, follicly-challenged though he may be, would dish out hairdressing qualifications to any old sheep-shearer who showed up.

When I made my flippant remark, I had temporarily forgotten that all who wish to succeed at French life must defer to, and live within, a cadre. It all begins when French children rentrent dans le cadre at school, and progresses through coche-ing administrative cases, to its apotheosis which comes with the attainment of a profession: the ultimate cadre, which, whether you are a surgeon, a charpentier, or a leader of men, requires you to be diplômé d’État in a highly specific and prescribed manner.

It is easy enough to forget this overriding need for a specific diplôme for whatever job you do when you are a blundering étrangère. In the UK it remains true that a music degree from a good university can see you through a successful career managing domestic water supply, being a diplomat, or marketing bleach. Here in France your music degree will earn you the right to be… drum roll please… a music teacher. Oh, only if first you sit a number of ferocious academic exams, for without a CRPE, trusting you near even a single pupil would be pure madness. With a CRPE, whether or not you have any aptitude for teaching (about this the CPRE s’en fiche), you are qualified to teach them in their droves. It’s all in the piece of papier, you see.

Me, having blown up lots of balloons, for which I am not qualified, sporting a haircut from someone who was qualified to provide it.

… which all explains why, each time I tell my French friends that I have taken on a new work project, their eyebrows shoot skywards. I freelance for two different media organisations here, having worked only in the public sector in the UK. For me it is a chance to use existing skills in a new context, and to acquire different ones, and I relish my good fortune in having been afforded the opportunity to do so. For some of my French friends my switching trades like this is nothing less than systemic vandalism.

That said, however gung ho about my lack of relevant diplôme I may be, after my latest appointment with M. Ciseaux, I can tell you that I will never, ever, try my hand at being a coiffeuse.

 

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Le grammar-ing

On my fortnightly dash around the hypermarché, I temporarily mislaid the products for washing one’s children. Having zig-zagged fruitlessly up and down several times, I finally gave in and asked an assistant where le shampooing pour enfants could be found. Any native English-speaker who has ever tried to pronounce le shampooing in a hurry will understand my reticence in seeking help on this matter. Needless to say, I mangled the Gallic oingt sound required of me, provoking in my interlocutor first bafflement and then near-hysteria.

Mais vous etes britannique, non ? she asked, through her tears. Le shampooing c’est un mot anglais ! Precisely because I am indeed britannique, I suppose, I smiled and nodded politely at this insult, before taking directions and trotting off obligingly with my trolley. What I should have said, however, is “non ! Le shampooing is not at Engleesh mot. And if it were it would be pronounced “oo” and then “ing” not wuahng. Bim.”

There are many words used in French which, like le shampooing and the even more confused après-shampooing (conditioner), are derived from an English noun, but which, for some inexplicable reason, have had an –ing tacked onto them, when in fact they are neither gerund nor present participle.

For some reason, a high proportion of incorrect –ing words crop up in the field of beauty. A quick stroll around the centre of my local village will produce a hairdresser offering his customers un looking, or (presumably for those whose looking has become a little tired), un relooking. He has even been known to offer un nouveau relooking for anyone willing to risk a third attempt. For those who would be better off sticking their head inside a paper bag, there are doctors who can offer un lifting (a facelift, rather than a session with dumbbells and fake tan).

The curly one undergoing some -ings at the hairdresser’s

Comfortingly, if you don’t want any degree of looking or lifting, you can just fall back on un brushing, which is not a brushing at all, but a blow-dry. Or you could be entirely self-reliant and don un jogging (tracksuit) to go for un footing (a jog, not a session of footsie beneath the table), perhaps having previously done le zapping (changed channels on the TV) until you have found a programme showcasing the French equivalent of Mr Motivator. Or you could simply take your clothes into the village for le pressing (dry-cleaning).

A picture which explains why le brushing is sometimes necessary
The curly one after a little light relooking

Many –ing words used in French have a worrying air of incompleteness. When driving about in the countryside it is not uncommon to see signs for le campingLe camping what? Camping stove? Actually, it means campsite, where an –ing had no business in the first place. Similarly you may be directed to leave your car in un parking… which means car park. You may hang your clothes in un dressing (room, otherwise known as a wardrobe). You could even go on an outing to le bowling (alley), wearing un smoking (jacket).

Most upsetting of all is the impression these words convey of their English authenticity. That shop assistant did not mean to be insulting: she was probably quite proud to be deploying a genuinely English word. This misapprehension can lead to some quite disconcerting moments when French people speak in English to you, and say things like Eymileee, I am so pleased to ‘ear zhat you also like zhe fooding. Per’aps you can look at your planning and we can go for dinner and zhen go to a dancing? (Well, that would be lovely, but only once we have done an hour’s crash course on gerunds.)

I find all of this even more peculiar given a context in which the Académie Française attempts to maintain its vice-like grip on every aspect of the langue française. Special distaste is reserved by this venerable institution for evil Anglo-Saxon words which are attempting to penetrate the francophone vocabulary. When Lauren Collins was privileged enough to attend one of the Académie’s meetings, she marvelled over the length of time they dedicated to the formation of French neologisms designed to combat such nasty invading terms as “business as usual” (comme si rien n’était was a popular option). I can’t help but wonder how it is that a country that offers up such reverence to the niceties of its own tongue can show such a casual disregard for the basic grammatical principles of another. If your language is to be swamped, you could at least make sure that it is swamped impeccably…

… or perhaps this bastardisation of English words is all part of a cunning plan to discredit the language of the Anglo-Saxons, which is, after all, laughably simplistic.

In the bleak midwinter

Lyon has a continental winter: that is to say that it is cold. I have stopped remarking on this in the presence of French people, however, because I am bored of finding good-humoured ripostes to the suggestion that, being British, I should be used to freezing temperatures. OK, so the Lyonnais winter is sub-hyperborean, but when it comes to bone-chill it beats London hands-down. Since moving here we might as well have taken out shares in knitwear and doudounes.

Last week saw an afternoon of particularly glacial conditions during which I had the misfortune to need to spend more than five minutes standing outside. Under ordinary circumstances I might have done a few burpees just to stay alive, but the presence of witnesses rendered this inadvisable, so I took up desperate shivering instead.

I had with me the Reader, who was on her way to a dance class. As well as her leotard and tights, we had swaddled her in velour tracksuit bottoms, thick socks, two long sleeved-tops, a high-necked fleece jumper, a thick winter coat, woolly hat, and gloves. Despite looking like a Michelin man, her lips quickly turned blue and her normal pallor increased to the extent that she was almost transparent.

Oh la la, elle a froid, everyone said (for some reason my offspring, despite also being British, are immune to jibes about their constitutional resilience to the cold). Despite exuding all the warmth of an ice-pack, I gave the Reader a hug to demonstrate that her predicament bothered me, too. Then (bingo!) all at once came the two remarks that I should have been expecting from the outset: c’est son cou ! Mais elle ne porte pas d’écharpe ! Oh la la: elle va attraper la grippe !

I shall examine the second statement first. All French people seem to be taught in school that disease springs from changes in temperature. If a French person is cold they will immediately catch a cold. I may be no scientist, but for me it has been fairly convincingly demonstrated that the common cold is caused by a virus, not by air temperature. The good old NHS tells me that becoming cold can increase the likelihood that a virus you are already carrying may become active, but that without the presence of the virus in the first place, nothing will happen.

France may be a nation that prides itself on its scientific rigour, but I have learnt that no amount of pesky evidence will dispel this causal association between ambient temperature and illness. I therefore continue to endure accounts of how someone has travelled between sunny climes and the frozen wastes of the north, the changements de temperature resulting in some terrible maladie. I have also schooled myself in not challenging the idea that the common rhume is the same as the grippe. We may not get the ‘flu in the UK very much, but in France, a runny nose equals the grippe. Point.

Back to the poor Reader, before her limbs become numb with cold. The idea that an exposed neck is particularly dangerous is equally unfounded. Yes, it has often been claimed that we lose most of our body heat through our heads (and, yes, our heads are balanced on our necks), but research published in the British Medical Journal has shown these claims to be false. We may be more sensitive to changes in temperature in our head, face and chest (and by extension, I suppose, neck) than we are in other parts of our body, but these areas lose heat no more quickly than anywhere else.

The French concern with keeping the cou warm at all costs has led to what can only be described as a national obsession with scarf-wearing. From the moment that the thermometer drops below about 20ºC, only the clinically insane would leave the house without a trusty écharpe (it’s acceptable to start the season with chiffon, so long as you progress to wool or fleece at below 10 ºC). Allowing one’s child to step outside without one is almost criminal. (Why do I feel the need to remind you here that the Reader’s neck was not exposed, but was in fact covered by her roll-neck fleece jumper?)

The Reader and her sister in winter scarves, with their aunt, who is lucky to be alive without one

I can only presume that it is from this worship of the magical properties of the écharpe that the French man’s love affair with the man-scarf springs. Take a stroll around any French office and you will see but a tiny smattering of ties. Scarves, on the other hand, you will see aplenty. And whereas in a British workplace a silk or chiffon scarf might be considered to be mildly effete, in France such an item is de rigeur. Indeed, you might be mistaken for thinking that they formed part of the uniform of the workplace.

As part of my regular audit of how French our family may have become, I note that Eadred the Bald has embraced this sartorial choice wholeheartedly. It is relatively difficult to convince him to put on his underpants before donning his man-scarf in the morning, and panic sets in if he can’t find his accessory as he is leaving the house. I even have great difficulty persuading him to take it off before he splatters tomato soup down it at lunchtime.

Eadred boldly exports the man-scarf to an English pub

Mind you. Eadred is ill far less often than the rest of us. Perhaps there is something in this scarf-wearing, after all…

 

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A class act

Every day my daughters enter and leave their school through a door over which is suspended the tricolore, with the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité emblazoned above it. Collecting them one day, I fell to musing aloud about the improbability of finding a Union Jack at the entry to every British school, let alone a national motto, if indeed one existed. I should know better than to muse aloud. On this occasion I found myself face-to-face with a Frenchwoman wearing a particularly unforgiving look. Mais bien sûr que non, she said, before going on to explain that in England we could not have cette devise (freedom, equality, brotherhood) parce que, in England, we had le class system.

The existence of le class system is, of course, undeniable. It is there in daily references to the “silent majority”; in our recriminations over Brexit; and even in our designation of the littlest room as “toilet,” “loo,” or “lavatory”. We all spend a great deal of time publicising our position on the class ladder by emitting subtle signals decipherable only by fellow Brits. There are those who proudly climb a few rungs by “bettering themselves”. There are also those who are intent on clambering down, starting by announcing, in an accent devoid of consonants, that they were born on a council estate to parents who were only recently out of the mines (it being generally accepted in some circles that the area of intersection in the Venn diagram of high birth on the one hand and personal integrity on the other is vanishingly small).

So, yes, we remain ensnared by le class system even in the twenty-first century. Suggesting that France lacks a socially-gradated system, however, would be misleading. Here, as everywhere else, égalité is all very well so long as the moneyed can be privately equal behind the walls of their maisons de maître, and the poor will content themselves with being equal in their high-rises.

It’s not just a matter of money, either. In France, as in the UK, a distinction is made between the picturesque working class of garlic- and beret-wearing paysans and the urban poor, who are routinely suspected of being lazy and scrounging. At the other end of the scale, there are those who proudly vaunt their aristocratic heritage, living in dilapidated piles and driving ancient Renaults, but who would shudder at the thought that they might be placed into the same category as the nouveau riche, with their Porsche Cayennes and their Swarovski crystal.

The problem for any British interloper is that the code in France is subtly different, as Eadred the Bald and I recently discovered. One night a few weeks ago our serious, literary-minded elder daughter (let’s call her the Reader) surprised us by asking to have her ears pierced at the tender age of nine.

According to my well-thumbed British code book, pierced ears before secondary school come under the same social heading as Coca-Cola in baby bottles. As a British parent, you can be certain that, if you allow your child to have their ears pierced at a tender age, sooner or later you will overhear some tight-lipped parent loudly telling their child that they can’t have their ears pierced too because “it’s just not something we believe in at your age”. It is the same phenomenon that attaches to childhood bikinis. I have lost count of the number of times that my children’s two-piece swimsuits have given rise to a frosty silence on the part of British visitors.

The Reader with middle class ears
The Reader with middle class ears

When the Reader made her request, therefore, my instinct was to turn her down. She deserved a reasoned answer, though, and it was here that I stumbled. Yes, letting her have her ears pierced would place us amongst the settee-sitting ranks in the UK, but in France a canapé is just a canapé, and here, pierced lobes are viewed not as a mutilation but as an adornment. When discussing the issue with French mums they could not understand my hesitation. Wasn’t it just a little bit déplacé, I ventured. Pourquoi ? came the baffled response: c’est très joli.

Concluding that our only objection was based on the prejudices of a class system masquerading as a moral code, Eadred and I eventually decided that there was no good reason why the Reader should be prevented from emulating her French peers. So it was that, a week ago, she developed earrings. Her little studs have been greeted with admiration here in Lyon. I am, however, bracing myself for our social descent when we first unveil her disfigurement in the UK…

The Reader with lower-class ears
The Reader with lower-class ears

A question of taste

When our conversational French has deserted us, the fact that Eadred and I hail most recently from London has proved to be a useful conversation-filler at many a dinner party. Usually our interlocutor tells us about their most recent visit there, and all we have to do is nod, smile, ask very basic questions, and patronisingly correct their pronunciation of certain key landmarks, Boooking’amme Palass, for example.

During one deployment of this tactic, I asked some fellow guests whether or not they had eaten well in London. The woman looked positively affronted by my question. Beh, non ! she said, raising her eyebrows when she saw that it was not a joke. The food had, apparently, been gras, pas raffiné and, worse-still, sans interêt.

Eadred the Bald and a cheddar cheese ploughmans (plug-mans as it might be pronounced in France)
Eadred the Bald and a cheddar cheese ploughmans (or plug-man)

I gulped. There are many things that I happily waved goodbye to when we left London, but I still sorely miss the food. When we ate out, I enjoyed taking my pick from Indian, Eritrean, Spanish, Vietnamese, or even British cuisine. When we ate in, I enjoyed experimenting with the readily-available ingredients to make delicious meals from all around the world. Lyonnais gastronomy may have a well-deserved global reputation, but pigs’ trotters and quenelles can wear a little thin after their thousandth iteration, and sometimes I yearn for the exuberant range of flavours that I took for granted in the UK.

Back at the dinner party, I decided to probe a little deeper. What had they eaten? Mais nous avons mangé ce qu’il y avait à manger là-bas… Which was?… Poisson frites. Oh. OK. And what else? Ship’er’s pie. And where had these delicacies been consumed? She wasn’t sure, but from her description it sounded suspiciously like a Wetherspoons pub.

I am still raging, months later, about this contemptuous dismissal of the cuisine of an entire nation based on a deliberately perverse selection of its blandest and poorest-quality offerings. Nonetheless, rage though I might, the negative stereotypes of English cooking persist unchecked in my adopted land, apparently being instilled in citizens of the Republic from the very moment of their birth.

I learnt this lesson the hard way. The process began during our first summer here, when our eldest daughter asked me to make gingerbread men for her end-of-year class goûter. What a lovely idea, I thought, and together we baked up a storm, spending ages cutting out the little gingerbread people and giving them tiny faces and the traditional, but anatomically baffling, three dots down the front of their stomachs. Such offerings had always proved irresistible to small hands in the UK.

The men were not a hit. One child picked up one of their number, turned him around, and asked with ill-concealed disdain, c’est quoi ça ? It was a biscuit in the shape of a man, I explained. Her expression did not soften: c’est un truc anglais ? I confirmed that it was indeed an English thing. She shrugged and put the man back, then whispered to something to her neighbour, who shook her head at me in terror as I loomed overhead with my bizarre British offering. A braver classmate bit into a gingerbread girl and started to cry (c’est trop épicé, her mother informed me).

If the suspicion of small children is to be expected, I find the same quality surprising in adults. Each year at Christmas I amuse myself by making mince pies and taking them to French gatherings. I explain that they are an English delicacy but that they have a taste which is particulier. Some people will bravely hazard a nibble, and the look of shock that crosses their faces upon their first bite is entertaining. Many people will simply turn me down with a look of undisguised horror.

mincemeat

An English friend of mine once took a selection of British cheeses to a pot. Hardly anyone could be convinced to even try the mature cheddar that she had taken great pains to procure (many things here in France sell themselves as cheddar, but they mostly appear to be made of plastic, or have been confused with a block of red Leicester). C’est fort, c’est delicieux, she encouraged. Non, merci, they declined, unapologetically, tucking instead into a wodge of insipid camembert.

Whilst my delicacies are a novelty here, I have been surprised to find high levels of awareness of other British specialitiés. On one occasion I was called into the school kitchen where a menu anglais was being prepared. The cook was at a loss as to how to make the something called le pudding, and was, in desperation, having recourse to some native expertise. I had absolutely no idea what she was trying to make: it seemed to be a sort of sponge cake featuring miscellaneous bits of fruit. Not wishing to increase her panic, I told her that she was doing fine and left her to it. That evening we received a recette anglaise in the girls’ school bags giving instructions for a different version of the mysterious le pudding. I have yet to meet a British person who has ever heard of it, but if that is what passes for British food, I can grudgingly concede some degree of misgiving about it.

le-pudding

The same goes for the hypermarché. On my sporadic visits to the British section of the étranger aisle, I am confronted with a wall of jelly, custard, baked beans and Bisto. Mince pies will never stand a chance if this is how we market ourselves abroad…

non-gourmet English supplies
non-gourmet English supplies

***

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This month, as every month, I have linked up to the Lou Messugo #AllAboutFrance blog linkup, where you will find lots of interesting posts about France.

The letter of the law

A French friend has just returned from a trip to London. When asked for her impressions, I received a five-minute soliloquy on queuing. C’est incroyable, she gasped, breathless: les personnes arrivent à l’arrêt de bus et elles se mettent en rang. C’est bêtement efficace. Mais comment ça se fait ?

Every British person knows in their very bones that the order of precedence for getting on the bus, with the exception of the elderly, disabled and heavily pregnant, is basically first-come,-first-served.** Just as important as following this rule is being seen to follow it. That is why we organise ourselves into a queue, which is merely the visual expression of a deeply ingrained principle.

It’s odd, when you think about it, that France, a country which regulates so comprehensively, can be so apparently lawless in everyday life, whereas England, where the rules are far fewer, obediently toes the (unwritten) line. I have come to the conclusion that this has a great deal to do with the legal systems in the two countries.

Bear with me for a minute… In the UK we have common law, which, however much we howl about the growing weight of the statute book, is minimalist in its approach. It is law by custom and usage, with judges using (and making) precedents in order to reach verdicts.

France, like the majority of countries around the globe, uses a civil law system that derives from Roman law, in which everything is minutely codified. Its own particular version is called the Napoleonic Code, in which all law springs from a series of abstract principles, and is difficult to modify in the face of real life cases.

(If you want a very neat summary of the two systems from people far more expert than I am, you would do well to read this article in the Economist.)

If you live within any system for long enough, it affects the way that you think and behave without you realising it. Thus in the UK we are so accustomed to unwritten rules that bus queues materialise out of thin air. In France, the idea that everything must be codified in order to function gives rise to the sort of infantilisation whereby adult musicians are instructed in the arts of punctuality and bringing their own music stand. It also, as all parents of toddlers and adolescents know, leads to a certain degree of pleasure being derived from circumventing the rules. Furthermore, it creates the idea that the rules are inherently right whatever the context – that by doing no more than slavishly following them you yourself become flawless and irreproachable.

Let me illustrate. One of our neighbours, let’s call him Monsieur le Bricoleur, is building a house in the garden of his children’s home, which happens to be just beneath the terrace of our house. We have been subject to several of Monsieur le Bricoleur’s laments about other neighbours’ dislike of his construction. Nous avons tout fait dans la légalité, he says, donc, je ne vois pas le problème. This last pronouncement—that because everything is legal he cannot see why people do not like his house—makes me choke on my croissant.

The law states that Monsieur le Bricoleur cannot build his house closer than four metres to our shared boundary. Garages, however, are exempt, and yes, you guessed it: Monsieur le Bricoleur has kept his house four metres away from the fence but built his garage right up to it. It may be legal to have done this, but the effect is no different from that had he built his house right up against the boundary line. If having the house so close would have made us unhappy, common sense suggests that the garage will too. The fact that one of those scenarios is legal and the other not makes not a morceau of difference to the effect the construction has on us, or to our feelings.

For Monsieur le Bricoleur, however, our feelings are indivisible from the legality of any given situation. Unlike us, with our common-law sense that every individual circumstance will make for subtle variations in the interpretation of the rules, Monsieur le Bricoleur has the civil law feeling that rules are best made in the abstract, and that reality will simply flex to fit them. If the rule says that people will be happy with a garage abutting their land, they will be happy: no need to bother seeking their opinion on the matter or indeed to consult one’s own common sense.

The house just below  our garden
The house just below our garden

There is no getting away from it: we find the new house, in all its worthy legality, moche, especially compared to the nice square of green that preceded it. Other than muttering darkly about this to ourselves, the action that we have taken has been to start planting a hedge that will eventually grow tall enough to hide the house from our view: a pragmatic solution averting all non-neighbourly feeling, we thought.

Prim and proper as we are, we e-mailed Monsieur le Bricoleur to advise him that the hedge would be planted. The response was immediate. He drew to our attention the rules which stipulate that no hedge on any boundary should be higher than two metres tall. He did not pain himself to point out the less convenient part of the law, with which fortunately we were already acquainted, that the hedge can exceed two metres when it is planted two metres from the boundary.

Taking the lead of Monsieur le Bricoleur, we decided, therefore, that, even if the effect on him of a hedge planted two metres back from the boundary would be the same as one planted on the boundary line, or indeed worse if we allowed it to tower above three metres, given that planting such a hedge was entirely within the law, he would be happy about it. When in Rome…

 

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** I should deal with those of you who are already brimming with examples of UK-based queue-violation. I suggest that the reason that you can bring individual examples to mind is that they are not—yet at least—the norm. In France, having my place in the queue ignored is such a commonplace occurrence that I struggle to recall specific incidents. In the UK, the phenomenon is sufficiently rare as to make it remarkable: the exception that proves the rule.

PoCoLo

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