The Truth about Cats and Dogs

“So are all French as pretentious and snotty as they seem?”  My friend asks me this question as we walk down the street, heading to lunch.  I have returned to the U.S. for a weeklong visit while MB is in the Philippines once again. 

“No, its just a different culture,” I reply.  “They are more reserved than we are, and I think, we tend to perceive that as snobbery.”  During my visit home, I am peppered with questions on this topic.  “Are they all rude?”  “Has everyone been mean to you?”  “Do they hate Americans?” (“Do they really love Jerry Lewis?”)*  

While I am not so sure about my answer, my friend seems completely satisfied.  Of course she was; she is a dog.   A cat would never have asked the question in the first place. 

In the film “Up”, there is a scene where the travelers meet a dog who can talk.  One of the first things that he says is, “I’ve just met you and I love you already” while he jumps up and down excitedly.   

The dog is clearly an American. 

The French, on the other hand, are more nonchalant, more aloof, more likely to have the cat-like attitude.  “Ah, you feed me and what, I am supposed to be grateful?  Pfff…I will piss on your shoes.”    

The stereotypes about French rudeness and snobbery abound.  There have been countless books written by English-speaking travelers that approach the subject (A Year in the Merde, A Year in Provence, Almost French, etc).  The reality, however, is just that we are different.  While an American waiter will needlessly check on you, “are you okay?  Is everything just so great?  Can I get you anything, anything at all?  Perhaps a spare kidney, a goose that lays golden eggs?”  A French waiter will take your order and bring you your food and then leave you to enjoy it…maybe he will do this nicely, maybe with contempt.  Both methods have their values; its nice not to have to flag a waiter down and then have him roll his eyes at you just to get a water refill.  On the other hand, what is more annoying than an overly cheerful waiter interrupting your conversation every ten minutes?  “Hi, I’m Tammy, and we are going to have a great lunch today!”

When you walk into a party in France; it is not unlikely that no one will speak to you.  I went to one, in which, even the host didn’t bother to welcome me or offer me a drink.  But you can’t take it personally; these are cats, people!  Do you expect a cat to immediately jump in your lap and cuddle you…not often.  When a stranger walks into an American party; they are practically assaulted with friendliness, drinks and food shoved in their face, questions asked abundantly, speedy and informal introductions given immediately.  “Come on, play with us!  We are having so much fun!”  Dogs. 

So really, I don’t think its necessarily that the French are snobs; they are just cats.  They are more reserved and less likely to maul you with affability.  And while I will always be a dog person, cats are starting to grow on me. 

*Contrary to popular American belief, I have seen no evidence of an abiding love for Jerry Lewis in France (though I have noticed some links in the sense of humor)


French Modesty

A few months after I had started dating MB in Australia, one of his French friends (we’ll call him Pierre) came for a visit.  I had never met him before and was super nervous about meeting one of MB’s friends from home.  Would he like me?  Would he think I was too American?  Would he be snobby?  Would he be mean?  I had no idea what to expect and was full of anxiety about what kind of impression I would make.  I rehearsed my speech in French over and over again, trying to memorize exactly what I wanted to say and hoping desperately that I wouldn’t choke. 

Finally, the day arrived when Pierre got to town; I came to the house and was waiting with MB for Pierre to finish getting ready for dinner.  Stage fright was washing over me and I was terrified that I would forget all of my French the moment he opened the door.

Well…you know how they say that if you are nervous about public speaking that you should just picture your audience in their underwear?  I didn’t have to picture it. 

When Pierre opened the door to come in and say hello, he was clad in only a pair of tighty whities.  He walked over, nonchalantly kissed me on both cheeks and then proceeded to begin getting dressed.

 Um…am I the only person seeing this?  MB didn’t seem to notice that anything odd was happening; Pierre was chatting away merrily, completely unbothered.      

This is a scenario that would never occur in the United States.

The French have a somewhat more relaxed attitude towards modesty than Americans.  On my first trip to the gynecologist here, she laughed, talking about us, “ah oui, Americains – you are so seely (silly) with your sheet over the legs and only check the one breast at a time, pfff…”  I remember looking at her thinking, so in France you just get splayed out naked over the table?  I mean, what if it is cold?  When I had to get my chest X-ray for my visa, I remained topless for ten minutes in the middle of the room before getting smashed against the metal plate and having the woman unceremoniously re-arrange my breasts.  Welcome to France!

 Perhaps, we are a bit stuffy about our bodies in the United States (a Puritan leftover?).  While a nip-slip during the superbowl caused drama for weeks stateside; I imagine, if the same thing happened in France they would look at it and think, “ouais…is there a problem?”  Here, most of the beaches are topless and the general attitude towards nudity seems pretty casual.  In the U.S., we are incredibly sensitive to it; the doctor leaves the room for you to undress and some of our beaches don’t allow thongs, let alone, topless. 

So this will be a new challenge for me to get used to.  I’m not sure that I’m quite ready to go topless on the beach but maybe the next time I meet one of MB’s friends I’ll trot out in my underwear…no one’s ever considered what effect that might have on stage fright.