Sunday, 1 April 2012

The most interesting thing about France is the French

French people. Just look at how different they are(n't)
One very enriching way of enjoying life here in France is to find out more about the French themselves. So just who are ‘the French’ exactly? Opinions will differ, but here are a few of my musings on the subject.

I like baguettes and French cuisine and wine as well as many more of the clichéd aspects and realities of life in France, but it seems to me that that’s not enough, and that it’s difficult to get the most out of living in any country without trying to understand its people and what makes them tick.  

The first clue for me came, although I didn’t realise it at the time, during a visit from my sister, who lives in Liverpool. It was her first visit to France and after just two days here in Lyon she suddenly asked “is today a day of national mourning or something?”

I answered that it wasn’t, that this was just a normal day. “What made you ask?” I enquired, curious. “Because I’ve noticed that very few people talk in the street here, or on the metro, and the clients in restaurants and bars seem very quiet and reserved compared to England. Nobody seems to laugh much either.”

I had all but forgotten that conversation nine months later when a French friend told me she was going to Liverpool because it was that year’s ‘European Culture Capital.’ She isn’t a particular adept of Anglo-Saxon culture or, indeed, of the Anglo-Saxon world in general. But despite her reservations about British food and the British way of life she bravely got on a plane and went.

I fully expected to be bombarded with her negative impressions of England when she returned, but when I next saw her, and to my great surprise, she declared that “I’ve been so depressed since I got back.” She explained that she’d fallen in love with Liverpool, its people, and England in general. She also said that people laughed and chatted away in the street, that pubs were animated and friendly, and that people dressed how they liked, whereas “here in France it’s all blue jeans and black coats except in summer, and nobody talks to anybody. They’re all so gloomy-looking and unexpressive.”

Her words tied in perfectly with those of my sister. What could this mean?

It all came full circle much later, during a conversation with a friend and emeritus French History professor. I related these anecdotes and he began his answer by evoking the well known French expression ‘pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés’ - literally ‘to live happily, let’s live hidden.’

We went on to discuss that in the context of the French Revolution, during and after which people had to be very careful about how they behaved in public and, more particularly, about what they said. 

That’s because saying or doing anything that could have been construed as being anti-revolutionary often resulted in the utterer receiving a one-way ticket to the guillotine. And that in turn, he theorised, may historically explain why French people are arguably less expansive in public than are, say, the British or Americans.

Opinions will differ on that of course, but I feel that trying to learn more about who the French are has undoubtedly enriched my life here. 

So, my tip on how to enjoy France to the full? Learn about the French, accept that they may be different to people in your country, and remember that even if their national characteristics may be different to yours, and that they are generally more reserved in public, they too tell dirty jokes, have a lot of insights into life and living, or not, cheat on their husbands and wives, or not, and they too do the shopping, go to work and clean up after the kids. And, of course, a meal at home with French friends is every bit as raucous and rambunctious as it would be if the guests were Anglo-Saxon.


  1. Friopuille. Love your sisters description/view of the French and your deep understanding of them. It all reminded me of how the Japanese are seen and believed to be in Europe. And how utterly different they really are. They simply can’t be quiet but from the outside you would never know that. Open a bottle of beer and they want to sing and dance (despite being terrible at both). They are the happiest people I have ever mixed with yet somehow manage to maintain this totally false image of themselves world wide.
    Spain however is simply endless noise, in the house, in the street, bars, work place, everywhere! When I first came here I really did think I would go mad. I also thought that they were the rudest people I had ever come across, they would stand in groups on the street and not move when you walked up to them and tried to pass. They are not rude, they simply don’t see you until you are there right next to them and then they are so polite it’s sweet.
    I think where ever we go that is not our home (not that there is such a place for me) we see the difference and make comparisons, them and us, but after a little time and tolerance you see that really we are all very much the same. The show might be different but the performer are the same.
    I have a number of French friends (oddly and happily all good looking females) and I really do always enjoy going out with them, they do know how to have a good night out. Maybe I should start thinking about learning another language? Well, perhaps not.
    Do keep writing, always worth reading.
    And your friend, how are things going on that front?

    1. Incidentally John, do you have a blog? Clicking on your name just takes me to a pre-profile page with no links to anywhere...

  2. ".....after a little time and tolerance you see that really we are all very much the same. The show might be different but the performer are the same."

    Hi John, and yes, you're right about that, and your accurate descriptions of the Japanese and Spanish bear that out. People do do things differently in different countries but at the end of the day people are all the same, as in they can be sad sometimes, they are sometimes happy, sometimes they laugh and sometimes they cry. The degree and manner may vary, but if you like people - and I do, I love meeting people and being with them - you will adjust your à priori ideas because you appreciate them. It's all about liking people and wanting to get to know them.

    Your comment about trying to pass people reminded me of something very sad that I have experienced at least three times whilst walking on very narrow stretches of footpath, or there's an obstruction which reduces a pavement's width, like the fencing for a building site. I would be walking one way and an older (never young) Muslim woman dressed in Islamic dress would come nearer from the other direction and then she would step down into the road to let me pass. God that was awful, to see ladies giving way to me just because I am a man and must be respected and given priority. One of them was even carrying heavy shopping bags. I do find that hard to get used to I must admit. A Muslim friend told me that a lady like that would not expect to be thanked and that if people thanked them they would reply with no more than a brief nod of the head. He's right because when I did thank these ladies (felt very weird) they indeed nodded their heads but didn't say anything.

    Ah people and cultures. Fascinating and tightly interwoven subjects those.

    Oh, and as to you learning another language, oh I dunno. After all, you seem to be doing al right for yourself. ;)

    Lastly, thank you for your concern for my friend. The latest news is that a friend of hers elsewhere in France has offered to put her and her son up in her big house for a few months in an attempt to shake him off. The idea is that my friend would stay in that region, get over all this, and get her life back to normal. Will she do it? 65% of me says yes.

    So, keep well and have a very good evening!

  3. Gosh what a fascinating read!

    Flying back to UK last month i was sitting next to a middle-aged Turkish woman and we were both intrigued by the Spanish family the other side of the aisle because the young father was taking most of the care of his 2 girls while his wife got on with her meal.Later the father disappeared and the wife was visited by a friend and the 2 of them became very animated,much laughter etc.The Turkish woman was disgusted-'how can they make so much noise?it is not right,they are disturbing us..'sort of thing.And i thought then London might be a shock to her but i just shrugged in reply.The great thing for me is to see the differences in the way people behave..
    The historical context you give explains a lot though.Thanks.


    1. Ah, okay, so you're Ruth. Got it! :)(Silly me.)

      As you say, people should just shrug their shoulders at differences and learn to get on together. I was born into a military family and had already lived in half-a-dozen countries before I was 12 so it just seems like second nature to me.

      Mind you, the differences between the French and English are less marked I suppose than between the English and the Turks. I'd be interested to read your ideas on that one day...