|French people. Just look at how different they are(n't)|
I like baguettes and French cuisine and wine as well as many more of the clichéd aspects and realities of life in France, but it seems to me that that’s not enough, and that it’s difficult to get the most out of living in any country without trying to understand its people and what makes them tick.
The first clue for me came, although I didn’t realise it at the time, during a visit from my sister, who lives in Liverpool. It was her first visit to France and after just two days here in Lyon she suddenly asked “is today a day of national mourning or something?”
I answered that it wasn’t, that this was just a normal day. “What made you ask?” I enquired, curious. “Because I’ve noticed that very few people talk in the street here, or on the metro, and the clients in restaurants and bars seem very quiet and reserved compared to England. Nobody seems to laugh much either.”
I had all but forgotten that conversation nine months later when a French friend told me she was going to Liverpool because it was that year’s ‘European Culture Capital.’ She isn’t a particular adept of Anglo-Saxon culture or, indeed, of the Anglo-Saxon world in general. But despite her reservations about British food and the British way of life she bravely got on a plane and went.
I fully expected to be bombarded with her negative impressions of England when she returned, but when I next saw her, and to my great surprise, she declared that “I’ve been so depressed since I got back.” She explained that she’d fallen in love with Liverpool, its people, and England in general. She also said that people laughed and chatted away in the street, that pubs were animated and friendly, and that people dressed how they liked, whereas “here in France it’s all blue jeans and black coats except in summer, and nobody talks to anybody. They’re all so gloomy-looking and unexpressive.”
Her words tied in perfectly with those of my sister. What could this mean?
It all came full circle much later, during a conversation with a friend and emeritus French History professor. I related these anecdotes and he began his answer by evoking the well known French expression ‘pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés’ - literally ‘to live happily, let’s live hidden.’
We went on to discuss that in the context of the French Revolution, during and after which people had to be very careful about how they behaved in public and, more particularly, about what they said.
That’s because saying or doing anything that could have been construed as being anti-revolutionary often resulted in the utterer receiving a one-way ticket to the guillotine. And that in turn, he theorised, may historically explain why French people are arguably less expansive in public than are, say, the British or Americans.
Opinions will differ on that of course, but I feel that trying to learn more about who the French are has undoubtedly enriched my life here.
So, my tip on how to enjoy France to the full? Learn about the French, accept that they may be different to people in your country, and remember that even if their national characteristics may be different to yours, and that they are generally more reserved in public, they too tell dirty jokes, have a lot of insights into life and living, or not, cheat on their husbands and wives, or not, and they too do the shopping, go to work and clean up after the kids. And, of course, a meal at home with French friends is every bit as raucous and rambunctious as it would be if the guests were Anglo-Saxon.