In France, as everywhere else, January is a time to start exercising and going on diets. So it was that, at the start of term, as soon as I had deposited the children at school, I found myself sporting a pair of leaky trainers and speed-walking up a very steep hill so that I could run along the top of it and back. For the first fortnight I felt pretty good, not least because I could not hear myself panting heavily over the sound of my Women’s Hour podcast. Occasionally I would pass someone walking their dog and every time I did so I would do my best to speed up; to turn my grimace into a smile; and to wish them a cheery bonjour in a sufficiently energetic voice to prevent them from calling me an ambulance.
My wildly ambitious dreams of the Paris marathon came to an abrupt end last week when I greeted an immaculately turned-out woman of retirement age who signalled for me to stop. As soon as I drew near to her she said oh la, vous êtes toute rouge, tutting and shaking her head all the while. Now, it is true that, as soon as I start to run, my face goes rapidly from what I like to call English rose through rouged, then tomato and finally to beetroot. No doubt this masterclass in the diversity of available shades of red is usually accompanied by an alarming sheen and a pained grimace. No matter: I have long since had to come to terms with the fact that I cannot be gorgeous and run at the same time. I had thought that the general public had accepted this too because, in the UK, every time I encountered anybody whilst doing an impression of a traffic light, that person would politely and ever-so-discreetly avert their gaze so that they stared intently at their left shoe until I had puffed past. I had not bargained for the French public.
In England the phrase “I always tell it like it is” is code for “I am giving myself a license to be extremely rude and unpleasant”. In France, however, directness equates to honesty rather than rudeness, and people no more expect to take offence from piercingly direct remarks than they do to give offence by telling the truth. The chic old lady I encountered on my run was telling me that I was red out of kindness, to make sure that I did not press on unawares and go into cardiac arrest. As flummoxed as I was, I managed to produce for her the correct response, which was to laugh, thank her, and tell her that red was my natural hue. My instinct, however, was to stagger off the path and weep in a bush about my general inability to glow rather than sweat.
The same impulse to directness pervades all interactions where one person makes a request of another. In London I sometimes helped the school’s PTA by recruiting other parents to help out at fund-raising events. Each response fell into one of three categories. About a quarter of parents readily agreed to help, although their readiness did not always prevent them from pointing out how generous they were given their manifold other commitments. A further quarter declined, but gave a lengthy and involved speech explaining precisely why it was that they could not help on that occasion. The remaining half looked hunted, stammered a great deal, and eventually said that they would assist. With this category you had to wait somewhere between an hour and a week before you received the e-mail explaining that they had just remembered that on the day in question they needed to babysit for their cousin’s best friend’s little niece’s step-brother, whose mother had a job interview, meaning that they could not help out after all. You were then obliged to reply saying yes, of course, you quite understood, and that nobody could be expected to give up their time under such terrible constraints.
Recruitment on behalf of the APEL (the French PTA equivalent) is far more straightforward. One quarter of those you approach agree to help, sometimes rather grumpily, but at least sparing you the set-pieces about how fortunate you are given their busy and important lives. Three-quarters of those you approach say non. At this point I linger, awaiting the lengthy excuse, but rapidly feel uncomfortable, as nothing further is said, and indeed, often the other person has turned their back on me and is already talking to someone else. Occasionally, feeling sorry for me, the other person will add j’ai un empêchement, which means “I have an impediment”, but this non-specific embellishment is deemed rather excessive, a concession to my needy English air. I am still waiting to try out this response for myself, but each time that I steel myself to utter a decisive non, I panic and miserably find myself saying oui whilst beaming ingratiatingly because someone cares enough about me to ask for my help.
My experiences at the school gate have taught me that French directness saves a great deal of time and effort. This lesson applies in multiple contexts. When buying trousers in London, for example, if unsure I might have asked the sales assistant what they thought about a particular pair. Undoubtedly I would have got a positive response. After that I would have wasted ten minutes of my life trying to decide on its sincerity. A further half an hour would be wasted once I had got the trousers home in trying them on in front of the mirror, worrying about how they looked, and asking my children, who would gaze admiringly back even if I were wearing a bin bag. Finally, an hour would be wasted taking them back a week later because, deep down, I had known all along that they were not quite right. In France, I can save 40€ and buy myself 100 extra minutes of time to write my blog simply by asking for the opinion of a shop assistant. For them there is no dancing around the point. They will look me up and down appraisingly then say, clearly and without compassion, non madame, orange n’est pas votre couleur. Presumably it clashes with the beetroot spreading out from beneath my hairline.