Does my bum look big in this?

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.


If you want to read other blogs about French life, do visit the Lou Messugo blog, where there is a link called AllAboutFrance where you will find some of them.

24 thoughts on “Does my bum look big in this?

    1. My stance was not so much anti-runnning Mel Hunter as lost in admiration for those people who could motivate themselves. Sadly I have managed to twist my ankle by running in such a novice fashion so I am about to enter another phase of sitting on the sofa carping about people who run…

  1. A wonderful read – thank you for the chuckle 🙂
    I’m running and red-faced too, but don’t give a monkey’s uncle what people think. There’ll be a blog post on it coming up soon. I was greeted with an “Oooh, là, tu es toute en chaleur!” from a retired lady I know, which surprised me a bit as I associate the term “en chaleur” to an animal being on heat (-and when I’ve just staggered through week two of the C25K plan, there’s nothing that would interest me less).
    As for the school PTA stuff goes, I had a good laugh reading your post. I was part of the ‘parents d’élèves’ world for ten years, and one thing I learned was that many of the parents demanding activities for their children are never seen offering to help, except when they are more interested in the activity in question that their offspring. Example: one year the new (male) infant school teacher was surprised to see the number of mummy volunteers inexplicably go through the roof when he asked for help taking the kids to visit the Fire brigade’s regional training centre. Needless to say, we mums who had dealt with dressing screaming kids at the pool and getting them back to school in sub-zero temperatures got the few seats in the bus 😉

    1. I’m very pleased that you liked the post, thank you, and even more delighted that, neither in my red-faced humiliation nor in my solitary volunteering am I alone.

      1. Bravo Emily. Am enjoying your blog.

        I am very much la bette rave when jogging and also a big huffer and puffer. I think your elegant french madame would probably have skipped the niceties and started charging up the defibrillateur tout de suite. You got away lightly.

    1. Yes, in the UK that would be an embarassing situation, which nobody would mention. I wonder if commenting on one’s state of unfitness goes in hand in hand with the more relaxed attitude to bodies/nudity in general. Who knows? Thanks for dropping by anyway.

  2. I laughed out loud at this, particularly your last line! Ex-cel-lent! I can relate to everything here, except that I go beetroot from fast walking, I don’t even attempt to run. I love using “j’ai un empêchement” it covers everything without any further explanation needed and in the end it’s true this directness saves a lot of time. Thanks for linking up again Emily.

  3. Hi Lost in Lyon! Great read. I’ve just moved to St Etienne and have been running in the sub-zeros. I got a ‘bon courage’ from an old lady. But mostly people just stop me in the street to ask directions (!?). A phrase that I liked in Japan was ‘otsa kara sama deshita’. The spelliing might be a bit dodge, but my colleagues translated it as ‘you look like s”£$t you should go home’. Ahhh. I still laugh.

    1. Thank you for visiting – I have always taken the bon courage a bit amiss. I hope that you are enjoying St Etienne – despite it being just down the road I have not yet been. Good luck with the sub-zero running.

  4. First, I’d just like to say that I go immediately a beetroot colour during any physical exertion but I’ve never had anyone actually stop me and inquire if I’m OK (maybe because I usually exercise in the company of other people).

    I really enjoyed your analysis of French directness. I do have to say that over the years, having watched my husband to it innumerable times, I have learnt the wonderful expression “j’ai un empêchement”. I was always explaining and giving reasons before. It’s just so much easier!

    Another interesting difference between Anglosaxons and the French, as you’ve no doubt discovered yourself, is that they don’t say sorry:

    I look forward to following your blog.

    1. Thank you for visiting. And thank you for the not saying sorry link: that explains a great deal, not least the fact that everyone looks at me as if I am very weird when I apologise approximately once every two minutes in a conversation about nothing in particular!

  5. Oh my goodness, I love this post! It is such a difference the way the French approach blunt honesty than other places. I’m American, and the French seem to view us as superficial. I do appreciate being more “real” with people instead of not expressing your feelings or opinions for the sake of “politeness” – though it is hard to find that balance! I never would be able to say flat out “non” to someone without feeling the need to give a little explanation! One of my American friends here calls it the compliment sandwich – when we want to give a criticism, we stick it in the middle of 2 compliments to soften the blow.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog. I agree that a flat out “non” is very difficult to achieve if you are not French, though undoubtedly it would save time…

  6. Hah, I love the running bit. Just a a few days ago, a British friend ran past my house looking both glamorous and in-breath. She even stopped for a quick chat (only the second time she’d been running since having two kids and she as enjoying it 25 minutes in). By that time, I’m dripping sweat and my legs have gone weak making me look like a giant wet jelly wobbling down the street.

    I congratulate on seeing the light beyond British politeness. Us Aussies are a bit like the French in that respect. Why waste time with being polite and getting yourself into a situation you don’t want when you can just be direct? I think this attitude got me into trouble more than once when I lived in England…!

    1. Thank you for visiting! Yes, I think that in the US people are even less direct than we are in the UK, though by this point we’re splitting hairs… Thank you for visiting!

  7. Great post! It reminds me of when my mum visited the doctor for the second time in France and his astonishment that she put on a whole five pounds!!! She mumbled something under his withering gaze and lives to avoid such an encounter now. Perhaps that’s the real reason French women don’t get fat 😉.

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