Throughout the years, FUSAC’s Hints & Hindsights columns have highlighted French-Anglo cultural differences, emphasizing, for instance, how strange it would be to see French folks walking down the street with huge smiles on their faces, or how shocking a request for a doggie bag would seem to a restaurateur. But among the tens and tens of such instances that we have provided, none have seemed downright unthinkable. If a French woman had won the lottery two seconds before hitting that sidewalk, yes, a smile just might creep onto her otherwise très sérieux visage. And the fact that “doggie bag” has snuck into French – translated as…doggie bag! – can mean only that some modicum of acceptance isn’t too far behind.
The list, of course, goes on. But there is another list. A secret list. Kept far, far back in the cultural vault and guarded by cumulative millennia of tribes and church and monarchy and pilgrims and founding fathers and immigrants and tradition so profoundly imbedded and encrusted that even forces as formidable as globalization, technological interconnectedness and the uber-popularity of American TV series cannot haul its items, kicking and screaming, into conceivability. This is the list of phenomena that never-ever-in-a-million-years-in-your-wildest-imagination-no-matter-what-could-possibly-transpire-on-planet-Earth would cross that otherwise porous border – and of which merely several are offered below:
In One Direction
The Managerial Firmament: France has had presidents, candidates and potential candidates who have acted like movie stars (glitz, glamor, globe-trotting, girls [You know who you are!]), but real movie stars running for president would be too shocking to even become laughing stocks. They’d be ignored totally. (Not to mention a non-star movie star, as fans of Ronald Reagan’s A-list politics are loath to admit of his B-list film presence.)
And whereas googling London Mayor Boris Johnson gets you to images of his sometimes crazed-looking eyes glaring out from under a savage cyclone of white-gold hair, as well as to more sites containing the word “eccentric” than you’ll ever want to visit, French politicians – many of whom attended the same schools, orate with the same intonation and project the same pristine designer-suited appearance – seem to have started shunning risky eccentricity at birth. To a country where people who have worked crunched together in a cubicle for decades still call each other Monsieur and Madame, a mayor often referred to as merely “Boris” is an affront.
Corporate Arts & Crafts: The Internet offers a collection of debates, with varying levels of vitriol, on the merits (or not) of knitting during meetings and presentations. From the renowned physician who would never have made it through medical-school lectures without yarn and needles to focus her wandering brain, to the church-Board chairman who stormed out mid-agenda after spotting the increasingly growing afghan on the lap of an industrious – albeit attentive – trustee, via the contented grandma who has patiently purled her way through every platitudinous PowerPoint slide of every retirement-home guest speaker in the past five years, everyone brings passion to the subject. That the practice is even up for discussion – let alone pursuit – sends the French guffawing uncontrollably or shrieking in horror. One Anglo newcomer remembers that when she cluelessly pulled out her knitting during an initial meeting at her Parisian workplace, the stunned silence was so immediate, thorough and profound that she momentarily thought she’d lost her hearing!
In the Other Direction
Amor Librorum: Maybe the English would. The Irish, Scottish and Welsh might. Perhaps the Australians and New Zealanders. Likely the Canadians. But if you offered money, love and all the chocolate-chocolate-chip ice cream they could ever eat in their lives, you could not make an entire population of Americans get through a television or radio show about…books. Books! Intellectuals, authors, critics, analysts, professors sitting around – that’s: sitting; not running, lunging, ultramarathoning, attacking, power-swimming, hang gliding, urban-sport jumping, crawling through mud, beer-ponging; sitting aroundfor an hour, talking about books. On Friday night, no less – just when after a hard week’s work you want to snuggle into that sofa and decompress with a bracing action show to forget about all the pedantic prattle at the office. No, not even Manhattanites. No. From 1975 to 1990, the Friday-night literary talk show Apostrophes consistently ranked as one of the most watched broadcasts in Gaul. A current France Info radio feature involves booksellers from throughout the country calling in their recommendations – plot descriptions and all. “Hey, honey, quick! That guy from the Reader’s Nook is on! Hurry! Forget about dinner – we can eat later!”
Stockingless in Saumur : Who would have thought that women in the land of Chanel, speakers of the language that gave us the word etiquette (which also means “label,” or “[price]tag”), heiresses to the elegance laced through the Louvre when it was a royal palace and vaunted at Versailles when it was the apogee of global sophistication and grace, would be in everyone’s face with their bare legs from Easter to October? Bare legs under a business suit in the boardroom of the executive suite? Under an Yves Saint Laurent confection at a table at Maxim’s? Under a black skirt and white blouse in a Notre Dame pew before trundling off to grandma’s for Sunday supper? “You are not fully dressed unless you’re wearing stockings!” screams the mantra in parts of the Anglo world that should reconsider (Philadelphia, for instance, liquefying in the hot-hazy-humid August sun). “Wear stockings, even in humid summer weather,” advises monster.com’s dress-for-success advisor. “For a professional, well groomed look, pantyhose are a must,” reminds gardenweb.com (they do add, “unless you have great legs”). When pitting France’s stockpile of rules, regulations, diktats, prescriptions and proscriptions against the New World’s lust for freedom and making-it-up-as-you-go-along, wouldn’t you think it’d be the other way around?
by Shari Leslie Segall a writer who lives in Paris.
Watercolors by Judit Halász from the book 90+ Ways You Know You’re Becoming French