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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