Monday, September 25, 2006

Something New

I thought I'd try something new. A lot of people ask me (when I go back to the states) How I like living in France. So I will try to paint a picture of life in France for an American.
It might be fun to do it on a 'Good Things' 'Bad Things' scale.
Today I'll just tell you what struck me the most, and what was the hardest to get used to.

In France, politeness is an art form. When you walk into the post office, or into the bakery, everyone in line turns around and either smiles or says 'Bonjour Madame' (Madame because I am a Madame. If it were a guy, they'd be going 'Bonjour Monsieur'. ) And you are expected to smile and say 'Bonjour' back.
When you pay for your baguette, the boulangère (baker) will say "Merci, et bon journée!" And you are expected to say, "Merci, et bonne journée à vous!" (to which she will reply 'Merci' and this can go on for a while if you're not careful.)
When I used to live in Lyon (the capitol of Politeness in France) my neighbor would say 'Bonjour Madame' even if I had seen her already twice that day, had dined with her and her husband last evening at their apartment, and I'd just stepped into the elevator.
Bonjour Madame is infinitely more polite than just a simple 'bonjour'.
When you enter a house in France, everyone, including the children, come to the door to greet you. The children are all models of 'politess' and hold out their cheeks for kisses after saying 'bonjour'. When you go to a dinner party, you greet everyone with two kisses, (one on each cheek - but sometimes there are 4 kisses, and I never know when that applies, except some of my neighbors here are into 4 kisses and supposedly that is a country bumkin thing, and no Parisian would be caught dead kissing 4 times.
But you never kiss when you meet for the very first time, and you don't kiss the baker, no matter how many times a week you see him.
You shake hands the first time you meet. Then, as you are leaving the party, you kiss, because you have already met and shaken hands. Kissing is done without fuss - two little smacking noises in the air as you lightly press your cheeks togather. Glasses must be removed if both are wearing them. Usually the man will remove his, or if it is two women, kissing is done carefully and at a slight distance.
Men never kiss each other, but they do if they are father and son in some families, or closely related. Usually men shake hands or and pat each other on the shoulder if they are good buddies.
Men hold doors for women, pull their seats out, pour the wine (never pour your own wine at the table if you are a woman) and serve the women first. Women are pretty spoiled here. However, French women are expected to be able to cook well (my friends all cook like French chefs, which is REALLY annoying to me, lol. But I love getting invited to dinner) and they are expected to keep house perfectly (a slovenly French women is rare) and they are expected to look good at all times. (another frustrating thing - they all look like they just got out of the hairdressers, and their clothes are all ironed an and matched. They tend to wear skirts more than jeans, and have nice shoes. They tell me they can spot an American because of the frumpy shoes we wear. Huh. I am not giving up my sneakers - sorry.)
So living in France has its ups and downs, but at all times there is a polite smile (although the French waiter's will certainly be slightly supercilious)
and a cheeful 'Bonjour!' wherever you go.


Madeline Hill said...

Oh, Sam, you know I have been asking about "life in France " for a while now.. thanks! I love the little tidbits. I am a wee bit old fashioned myself.. I like the "serving women first" part, and I don't mind housekeeping too much so.. I could hold up my end. the "always well dressed thing.." I dunno. I'm wearing my Speedo rubber slippers, an old pair of jeans and a holey tee shirt right now..

Daisy Mae said...

Wow, I would never make it in France. The greeter at Meijer and walmart also say hello as I walk in but I am so busy looking through my purse for my shopping list that I rarely look up and answer back. I guess I'm just another rude American. But I do it so well! ;-)

Jennifer said...


I've been reading your blog for awhile now. I'm just young aspiring writer who likes to blog hop. I love France and speak enough French to get around. I'm attending classes as well. When you moved to France where you fluent? How long did it take you to be able to converse successfully? How much English you speak on a regular basis? It's very interesting and would like share these cultural aspects with my French class if you wouldn't mind and anything else you want to add. It's better than a textbook. Thanks very much. : )

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, if anything prevents me from enjoying France, it's the kissing business. I can't even stand the embraces exchanged with close relatives and friends that are common here (and my SIL should have got it after 10 years, silly beyotch), so the idea of touching cheeks makes me shudder.

But there's nothing wrong with 'bonjour, Madame' and pretty dresses. :)

Sam said...

Hi Maddy -
I'm in my jogging pants and wearing my son's old sweater right now (plus sneakers) so I don't qualify either, lol!

Daisy - that was really hard for me to get used to because I'm so SHY! I manage to smile now (instead of saying a cheery bonjour) but in the beginning I'd duck my head and turn bright red!

Hi Jennifer -
I'll blog about speaking French next! Thanks for reading my blog!

Hi Gabriele,
It's a very Latin thing - and you get used to it eventually. Yuo can excuse yourself if you have a cold (even more polite! lol) saying, "excusez-moi, j'ai un rhume!" Then you don't have to kiss anyone!

December Quinn said...

Very interesting!

English women overdress as well. They have a real tendency to look fussy and overdone--something about the way they wear their clothes makes them seem uncomfortable.

Not all of them, but a lot of them. Maybe it's a European thing?

Great post!

Bonita said...

How delightful. I just love good manners. My only problem is the language -- I took french classes for 3 years and still can not speak that beautiful language (part of it is my speech problem and hearing, however). I could read enough to interpret menus and maps when my daughter and I visited Paris, though.

Wynn Bexton said...

I have only traveled briefly through France but other people who have gone there have remarked on the 'rudeness' of the French. But your observations are not at all like that. I'm enjoying reading about your life there. More please.
The cheek kisses: I got used to that in Greece and also now being around Latin Americans where the kisses are normal greetings. I like that kind of 'affection' better than a stiff, formal handshake!