Some of us have been here a while. (Several of the more senior members of our expat community came to fight WWII, married French people and never left!) We either arrived with or mastered the language, we’ve gotten the hang of enough cultural markers to avoid extreme ridicule, and our biological clocks have – if not really slowed down – at least not speeded up. But for the life of us, there are still elements of our adopted country that leave us scratching our têtes. For starters(1):
- Who are all these Napoléons? How many were there? Who’s the one with his hand in his vest?
- Speaking of which, where did King Louis XVIII come from(2)? Didn’t France get rid of its king Louis XVI during the Revolution?
- What do you say to whom under what circumstances to close a letter? There must be a way to chose among Veuillez agréer…and Je vous prie d’accepter…and Je vous prie de croire…and Je vous prie de bien vouloir agréer…; between …mes meilleurs sentiments and …ma considération distinguée; among those and Avec mes respectueux hommages…? Where is it? Where is that way? I know you can look this up on the Internet. What did people do before the internet? What if you’re stranded on a desert island with no Wifi? How do you know?
- What does deux minutes really mean? As in, “I’ll be with you in deux minutes.” We know it doesn’t mean deux minutes. What’s the conversion formula?
- Speaking of which, how are you supposed to interpret those electronic signs at bus stops telling you how many minutes you have to wait for your bus. After staring at these for exceedingly long periods (while waiting for buses) I think I’ve figured out that if you multiply the posted number by five, you see if you have time or not to go eat a three-course meal before your bus comes. For instance, if the sign says “3,” you know you can at least scurry back to your apartment to make sure you turned the iron off. But I might be wrong about the multiplier. Where can I find out?
- Speaking of which, where is it written that if you’re under ten and you get on a bus with any number of adult accompaniers, you are the only one allowed to put the tickets of everyone in your party into the ticket-punching machine? Your mother doesn’t do it. Your grandmother doesn’t do it. If you forget and start sauntering all the way back to the far end of the bus, your ascendants call to you frantically so you can return and punch the tickets. If you are in the middle of a temper tantrum, you take a break and punch the tickets. If you don’t particularly care about punching the tickets, you punch the tickets. If you abhor punching the tickets, you punch the tickets. I think this is inscribed into the Napoleonic Code, right? Along with regulations governing marriage, inheritance and public education? A sub-question of this question is: What kind of jail time are these kids looking at for not punching the tickets?
- Just how iron-clad reinforced are our immune systems after years – decades – of eating bread served by bakery personnel who just touched a coin that, after having been fished out from under a métro track by an HIV-infected transit worker, was given to a bum who had not taken a shower in months and whose dog then carried it in its mouth to drop it affectionately into a pile of excrement produced by his dog-girlfriend, from which it was salvaged by the guy in front of you at the bakery?
- When does the crossover happen? What is the exact nano-second of ignition? How does the now-or-never moment reveal itself? At what point, in other words, can we make the switch from vous to tu. It can’t be determined by how long you know someone: I said hello to the same woman in the Champs de Mars on my morning runs for ten years – that’s 4x/week x 52 weeks x ten years = 2,080 hellos – and when she finally invited me over for tea, it was so blaringly obvious that this lady was never going to tutoyer me that any hope I had ever had of grasping this phenomenon flew right out her lace-curtained window. It can’t be determined by bonds of solidarity: No, being stuck on the tarmac with 188 other starving, cranky, impatient passengers does not a tutoiement make. In fact, the built-up frustration only makes for uglier arrogant glowers from the wrongly tutoye’d. It can’t be determined by family ties: An acquaintance of mine has been asked to tutoyer her father-in-law and vousvoyer her mother-in-law. The French know when. They’re born with it. How can we find out?
1 Look for more in future columns.
2 Louis XVII, who at the age of ten died in 1795 in prison from illness, was the son of Louis XVI and Marie
Antoinette. Louis XVIII was the brother of Louis XVI and reigned for one year in 1814/15.