Duck a L’Orange in an Ashtray

The French are not big on rules.

The other night, a friend of ours asked if we could drive him to Ikea; some of the wooden slats on his couch had broken and he wanted to see if he could buy replacements.  We suggested that he call first to make sure that the slats he needed were available for purchase.

“So, what did they say when you called,” I asked him.

“Oh, yeah, so they said that they don’t sell them.”

“Dang, so what are you going to do?”

“We should go anyway.  The guy on the phone said that they don’t sell them but I should just argue with them until they give them to me.”

“What?”

“Yeah, he said they weren’t supposed to sell them but if I just got into a fight it would probably be fine.”

“This is what the employee told you?”

“Yep.”

Welcome to France, a place where the employee of a company will advise you to pick a fight with his coworkers in order to get what you want.  Now, that is what I call customer service!

This is a normal type of attitude in France.  Rules are considered sort of loose guidelines that you can choose to follow or not.  On the streets, cars will be parked in all manner of fashions, in different directions, on sidewalks, sometimes the little cars will pull in perpendicular to a parking spot so that front of the car is on the sidewalk and the back of the car is on the street.  My entire neighborhood parks in the spots on the street which are blocked off for fire hydrants.  I remember leaving a bar with a friend one night and upon arrival at his car he found he had a ticket.  He was outraged.

“Why did he get a ticket,” I asked MB.

“Did you see the way he was parked,” MB responded.

I looked at the car and realized that he had basically just stopped in the middle of a road and left it there.

This attitude extends to all variety of things.  Crosswalks: just a suggestion, lines: if you feel like waiting, ashtrays: if you can find one.  I have no idea how to deal with this.  What can I say?  I’m a rule follower.  I wait in long lines, if someone tells me that they don’t sell an item then I take that as the answer, and if I get a fine for doing something wrong I accept that.  I’m terrified to try to break the rules.  The French, on the other hand, appear to take a sort of glee in “getting away with it”.  MB always looks so satisfied with himself if he has managed to bend a rule without getting caught.

One of my first interactions with a French person was about ten years ago at a French restaurant in New York City.  The proprietor, who is Parisian, was there and my friends and I happened in on a quiet night.  He sat with us and chatted for a bit at the beginning of our meal.  Towards the end of the meal, one friend and I went out front to smoke a cigarette; the cigarette ban had just recently passed in New York City.  As we were walking to the door, he approached us.

“Ah, my friends, you are leaving already?”

“No, no, we are just going to smoke a cigarette.”

“Pfff…,” he rolled his eyes.  “You come with me.  My patrons do not smoke on ze street!”

We followed him up the back stairs and into a private dining room towards the rear of the restaurant.  He pulled out a tea saucer and we all sat.  I wasn’t sure what to do.

“I’m sorry, should I just ash on the plate?”  I didn’t want to be rude or break a rule.

“Oui, I can now get a fine for having an ashtray in the restaurant.  It is reediculous.  What if I want to serve duck a l’orange in an ashtray, huh?!  I cannot!”

My friend and I told this story for ages.  It was so classic and so perfectly French.


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13 Responses to Duck a L’Orange in an Ashtray

  1. So true! You must know the expression “c’est interdit mais toléré” (it’s forbidden but tolerated) and I think that just sums up the attitude in France altogether. I remember endless discussions with one of my stepsons about how to get around rules. I have a hell of a time getting my university master students not to eat in the computer room. Every week, I have to send them outside. Also the French may not stand in queues but they know the exact order in which people come into a shop and will soon tell you if you’ve jumped the virtual queue! And it’s definitely true that you’re supposed to kick up a fuss if you want to get anywhere – even with clients whose payments are overdue. Some accounting departments work on the policy that they only pay up if the supplier gets really insistent …

  2. Julie says:

    So funny!! I, too, am a rule follower, but wouldn’t it be great if we all had a little more “French” in us? Thanks for sharing and the laugh!

  3. Cécile says:

    Another great post I have to share! You capture French behaviour perfectly, love it! (Although the Ikea story must be exagerated, even for France ;-))

    Another thing you didn’t mention is “light-stealing” in supermarkets: you go get your groceries and if hungry, take a snack on a shelf and eat it while shopping. And then you hide the package somewhere and don’t pay for it- why would you pay for an empty package?!
    Some French families make their kids do that.

    Hum, I might write my own post about it someday and link yours 🙂

    • Brittany says:

      “light stealing?” That is awesome!

    • breadispain says:

      Ha – I swear the Ikea story is true! Although “fight” is the wrong word, he told my friend to just argue with the staff and they would probably just give in. Cracked me up! Okay, and I did not know about the “light stealing” at the grocery store but this makes all the wrappers in carts make sense!

      Oooh – would love it if you wrote on this subject because I know you would have much more fun examples than me!

  4. Aly says:

    You made my day. I laughed so hard.

  5. God, that was a wonderful night. Did I tell you that I sent Nick there for his 16th Birthday, and when I called to make reservations, Jean-Claude answered the phone and after a few minutes of chatting he REMEMBERED us? That man is a god.

  6. Theresa says:

    Loving the posts — wish I’d done similar ones when I moved to Kiwiland and was going through culture shock there. And great work on those blog awards on the right-hand column — go, you!

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