The ABCs of life in France
In my 33rd year in Paris, here is an ABCs of life in France (the French call that an abécédaire, from the Latin abecedarium, which gave us the English rarely-used-outside-of-academia “abecedary,” which is sometimes employed to denote not only the document containing the alphabetic list but also the teacher or learner of the contents of the document, who can likewise be referred to as an “abecedarian”) of random fascinating facts and figures about France and Paris that for the most part are inhaled, absorbed, stumbled upon during decades of presence as opposed to learned in lectures, browsed in books, witnessed on websites. In other words, to know this stuff, ya gotta be here:
Here’s A to H, stay tuned, more letters in 2 weeks!
I to P, has now been published Here’s the link
is for army: Not only are the French not patriotic, they find patriotism shameful (associating it with extreme-right movements like Marine Le Pen’s Front National) and laughable (seeing all the flags festooning American houses after 9/11 as evidence of maudlin tackiness). They are thus dumbstruck when they learn that deplaning uniformed soldiers are often vigorously applauded in U.S. airports by total strangers.
is for barber: The word for hairdresser is coiffeur. The word for the person who deals with men’s hair is coiffeur. It is not barbier, which comes from la barbe (“beard”), designates someone who works on one’s facial hair and is a profession and thus term that began to fade at the end of the last century. Although there are salons de coiffeur exclusively for men (and quite exclusive ones, at that) it is not uncommon to see men getting their hair cut in a salon de coiffeur whose décor and clientele decidedly tend toward the feminine.
is for catch: No, this is not what a typical French father or mother will do with a typical French son or daughter on a typical summer weekend. With rare exceptions, this interlaced-with-Americans’-DNA, baseball-sourced activity does not exist in France. Which is why this section is really about mental health, emphasizing that it is crucial for expats in need of counseling to find a professional of their own nationality–or at least their own general background. Telling a French psychologist that you’ve been a misfit all your life because when you were a kid in Wallace, Idaho (population: +/- 800), your father played catch with your brother more than with you will garner the same amount of understanding and help as would a French person’s telling a Japanese psychiatrist that he’s been a misfit all his life because he’s never cared who won the Bouclier de Brennus. (Here are pages of listings for Anglophone counseling services in Paris and beyond.)
is for dog: A French dog is always right. You are always wrong. By virtue of its dogness, it is right. Learn that and your next jog, bike ride, hike, errand will now be interrupted for fewer–if any–minutes, as you will not need to enter into battle with the person at the other end of the leash. If there is a leash. No slipping on patches of wet gooey canine excrement, no terror at the set of huge saliva-soaked teeth charging your way, no total inability to bypass the multiple-hound-and-owner throng communing on your habitual route is blamable on the animals. If you had not come to the park today–or been born–none of this would have happened.
is for English: One of the most visited cities on the planet is the ideal laboratory for observing the degree to which English is the global tongue. Whether one agrees with the policies of the United States or the practices of the United Kingdom, it is heartwarming and entertaining to watch a Russian man try to flirt with a Peruvian woman in–as the French call it–“the language of Shakespeare.”
is for Flexible: Please, please, do give the French a break. Yes, the country is more hidebound than the U.S., New Zealand, Canada, Australia. But France is ten times older than the U.S., New Zealand, Canada, Australia. Yes, the venerable Académie Française has sought (in vain!) to insulate the language by keeping the invasion of English words at bay via Frenchisms such as coussin gonflable (“blow-uppable pillow” — air bag), restauration rapide (fast food), courriel (from courrier électronique: electronic mail — e-mail). But the younger generation is violently wresting itself from the ferrous grip of two thousand years of tribes, church and monarchy though travel, academic exchange, Netflix series and a little utensil called the Internet. Born around the same time as the euro, they can’t even be overheard in supermarket lines lamenting the disappearance of the beloved franc.
is for Grandmother: “I have a confession,” said a French friend when I had just arrived, over three decades ago. “I’ve made a very difficult decision. It was not easy. It took me all weekend. I didn’t sleep. But I made it. And there’s no going back.” Then reaching into the profound recesses of the storehouse of her soul, she looked into my intrigued, inquisitive eyes and said, “I will no longer visit my grandmother 52 Sundays per year.” – “You’re kidding, right?” She was not. And while I was disappointed (I had expected at least, “I’m going to leave my husband for my lover,” not to mention, “I plan to get a gang of like-minded girls together and rob a bank”), I was glad to learn that she’d found the courage to deviate so ferociously from the cultural norm. Today, one couldn’t make a dominical call on grand-maman even if one wanted to, as she is probably out running a marathon, biking the Pyrénées with her (younger) paramour, FaceTiming with the gal she met on her around-the-world cruise or merely basking in descendant-free peace and quiet!
is for Haricot Vert: Which means string bean, which is not what every young Parisian woman’s silhouette looks like anymore (and if it did, she would not be referred to as an haricot vert but said to be maigre comme un cent de clou: “skinny as a rake,” although clou usually means “nail” [the kind you hit with a hammer] and “rake” is translated by râteau). Thank you, [fill in the name of your favorite restauration rapide purveyor: See “F,” above]!
by Shari Leslie Segall, a writer in Paris