Freaking Out Frenchie

Adjusting to France, Cultural Differences

So the other night MB and I were sitting watching an episode of French Masterchef.  The contestants were in the middle of a challenge in which they had to create a thin hollow ball made of out sugar (not exactly like the BBQ challenges of US Masterchef).  In one part of the challenge it was necessary to roll out and work the hot sugar “dough” which is at a dangerously high temperature, they have to wear special gloves.  One contestant is working his dough and talking about how hot it is and how you must be very careful.  The contestant next to him then accidentally sticks her naked elbow into the dough and lets out a scream.

His response…without so much as an eyebrow flutter:  “Mais…voila.”  As the girl next to him clutches her burned flesh he shrugs and returns to his work.

It is hard to fluster a French person.

The French are not big reactors when unusual things occur but instead just take them as though they were the most normal thing in the world.  When walking home in last weekend’s bizarre snow storm we saw a man in a car that was stuck.  MB went to go and help him and within moments the next few people who walked by did the same.  There were no introductions or laughs or camaraderie…no one ever said “woah, what happened?”  They just calmly set down their grocery bags and walked over and did it before continuing on their way.

“Quoi?”

In the US it would have been a conversation, hands would have been shaken, huge thanks would have been given and later that night the guys who helped would have told their families.  It wouldn’t have been a big deal or anything but a mini-event, something interesting and noteworthy in an otherwise standard day.

The uber blasé-ness of the French is something that I have noticed for a while now and that I get no small amount of amusement from.  I mean, I love it when something bizarre happens on the street and no one reacts.  Am I the only one seeing this?  And not to give to many plugs to Masterchef but it provides another excellent example.  In the US or Australia version, when people find out that they have made it past auditions there is great excitement and enthusiasm – sometimes awkward and rambunctious hugs.  In the French version there will be a nice dignified smile and a “thank-you”, luke-warm excitement at best.  Wait?  Where is the lady who falls to her knees and praises Jesus?  NOT in France.

Recently, however, I have discovered the Achilles’ heel of the French blasé.

In French class last week, our professor was asking us questions about daily routine and life.  The question came up of what do you have for breakfast.  Two of the students answered that they didn’t have breakfast.  Instead of shrugging (“ouais”) and continuing on with the lesson, he stopped…horrified.

“Wait, you understand what I asked, yes?  What is it that you eat for your breakfast today?”

“I didn’t have breakfast today.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I never have breakfast.”

“Never?!?!?”

“No, don’t like it.”

“But…I…what?”

This conversation went on for about 15 minutes while the teacher continued to flip out about lack of breakfast eating.

Later that week, MB and I started discussing how different life will be if we ever decide to have children.  We were talking about an upcoming dinner party and considering how different entertaining would be with children in the house (different, terrifying…however you want to describe it).  I mentioned that instead of a long aperitif before dinner we would need to try to have the dinner more quickly and then have drinks afterwards so the kids could go off to play, sleep, what have you.

ME: Yeah, I mean, god, do you remember being like 4 or 5 years old and stuck at your parents parties?  Horror!

MB: Yes, but I mean you don’t need to get rid of aperitif.

ME:  Well, I don’t mean get rid of it but just you know…like a half hour instead of an hour or hour and half and then just hang for drinks after.  It would just be easier for little ones’ attention spans.

MB: You can’t just change your life for your child!

ME:  Um…dude, a child is going to change your life.

MB:  But you have to set some boundaries, no?

ME: Of course, but I’m talking about shortening aperitif not getting them ten puppies.

MB: I don’t think it would be necessary; the kids would be fine for an hour beforehand.

ME: SERIOUSLY?  Do you really not remember being a kid stuck with boring adult conversations, and oh my god, an HOUR?  Think about how long an hour is when you are 5…it is FOREVER!  (I can feel a panic attack washing over me as post-traumatic stress from childhood comes back)

MB:  But they need to learn.

ME:  Remember that they wouldn’t be having drinks during that hour.  It’s not even fair.

This gives him pause.

The conversation continued for about 10 minutes with increased vigor until we realized that we were talking about a completely made up situation involving non-existent children (yes, it took us 15 minutes to realize it was a pointless disagreement to be having).  But I was struck afterwards about how vehemently MB protected his aperitif…even against all reason and practicality.  He was…flustered.

“You may take my life but you will never take my aperitif!”

Just like my French professor he was irrationally unnerved by the idea of food/beverage/dining protocol being disrupted.  Park sideways on the middle of a sidewalk?  No one will bat an eyelash.  But dare to upset the “naturel” state of drinking and eating and you will definitely freak out a Frenchie.

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