Having been in France for several months now, I feel as though I’ve had enough time to settle in and really get to grips with French culture. Understandably, there’s sure to be many more exciting and thought provoking events to come, but I believe that I’ve got one cultural aspect fully sussed out.
When I explained to others that I was to be spending seven months in ‘la belle France’, a common reply was a word of warning: “watch out, the French are arrogant, rude and impatient.” The widely known stereotype was one that I was willing to brush aside, wanting to arrive in France with an open mind – a blank canvas, if you will, on which the French could prove their doubters wrong. Like I said, four or so months could be deemed a fair amount of time to judge, and this is the conclusion I have come to: the stereotype is often (not always) indeed correct.
While in France, I have a job at a secondary school where I teach English, but must push myself to speak French to teachers and the poor, unknowing French public. I was told that the teachers would probably talk to me in English, even if I approached them in French, so I must persevere and brush aside the awkward moments when I continued in French and they in English. However, I was not expecting the sheer rudeness from some of them, particularly middle aged professionals.
On my first day at the school, feeling terrified and nervous, I was approached by a female teacher who welcomed me with a warm, friendly smile and an upbeat “bonjour!” only to be followed by a conversation in English, in which she firmly stated that I was to remember my place in the “educational hierarchy”, as she called it. I continued to stare open mouthed as said teacher went on to explain that I was to speak English not only to the students, but teachers too. She said how she was wary to let me come into her classes as I could not be trusted, but she would certainly use me to better her spoken English. Needless to say, I thought about throwing my teacher’s diary at her smug face.
I suddenly felt a slight hatred for the people that I am to live with for the next seven months, feeling stupid for defending them to the many doubters. Even the students are not afraid to delve into my life, asking personal and uncomfortable questions without batting an eyelid; “do you think I am handsome? ‘Ave you had sex?” to mention a few. I have also noticed that the unrelenting stare given on the street is completely normal, not even turning the other way when their judging gaze is met. Perhaps this wouldn’t be deemed rude and awkward to another European, but my stand-offish British nature and want of personal space has taught me otherwise. After ranting about this to anyone who would listen, I began to wonder whether the glares were out of curiosity or even admiration (not feeding my ego here!). That the awkward, blunt sentences were in fact meant as lighthearted comments, simply mistranslated and lost somewhere within the language barrier placed between us. Unless the teacher was in fact a part-time actress, I believed the smile she had plastered across her face to be true.
The same excuse could not be used, however, for a certain woman working in what used to be my favourite “boulangerie”. After greeting her politely in French, but proceeding to ask my friend if she had 50 cents in English, the woman briskly walked away muttering that she had no time for English in here and refused to speak it. I threw the money on the counter, practically demanded a baguette in my best spoken French and stormed out of the bakery. The ignorant woman has cost said bakery their most valued customer, seeing as I (used to) eat half my weight in baguettes and pain au raisins bought from there. Their loss, France is the food capital of the world – my baguette cravings do just fine.
It is hard to believe that even with the small space of water between us, England and France have so many different versions of what is ‘normal’. Perhaps my strategy should be to embrace this culture that has proven to be so different from my own, to take their bold and strange ways and see them as exactly that; bold and strange in the most positive sense of the words. Or failing that, learn to fight fire with fire.