When you think about France, what is the first image that comes to mind? A fellow in a beret clutching a baguette, a perfume-drenched femme fatale or a pretentious chef in a white hat? North Americans can be forgiven for believing such stereotypes as that is how the French are portrayed in popular culture. Every movie that is set in Paris shows picturesque cobblestone streets lined with charming cafés. Every scene breathes romance against a backdrop of accordion music. Every joke invokes smelly cheese, frogs legs or French fries.
Contrast these idées reçues about France with the reality:
1. Paris is the world’s most romantic city. Not unless your idea of romance is crowds, congestion and snooty waiters. Paris in the spring is most often cold and rainy (as I learned to my dismay upon arriving from Canada with a suitcase full of summer clothes). The average Parisian is a rather drab commuter whose life is spent getting to and from work, a killing routine known in France as métro-boulot-dodo. The French accept visitors to their capital city with a mélange of wonderment (why would anyone choose to come here?) and hauteur (tourists bring business but have the annoying habit of demanding service).
2. The French are fashionable. Outside haute couture circles in Paris, the French tend to dress conservatively. They do care deeply about appearances but focus on keeping up a certain standard rather than sporting the latest trends. No French woman worthy of the name will wear sweats or Crocs or even UGGS; she will sacrifice comfort for what is perceived as essential female infrastructure: push-up bras and thongs, skinny jeans and heels. The men still tend to wear suits for business and a uniform apparel of jeans and open-necked shirts on the weekend. Both sexes make frequent trips to the hairdresser, as attested by the number of salons de coiffure.
3. French men carry purses. Not unless they were born before the 1950s. The small leather saccoche or man purse that my father-in-law still carries has been replaced by the thoroughly modern satchel or backpack.
4. The French are sex-obsessed. Why do the English historically associate the French with a liberal attitude towards sex? A French kiss is only known as such in English. The French refer to this type of baiser as an action rather than a thing: rouler une pelle (literal translation: to turn a shovel) or simply mettre la langue. What we historically call a French letter, or condom, the French call a capote anglaise. Clearly this is one invention that nobody wants to take credit for.
The licentious reputation of the French may be partially explained by the Folies Bergères and the French can-can, along with topless sunbathing and a more liberal attitude towards nudity. French voters are more accepting of their leaders’ extra-marital affairs – that is, they turn a blind eye to such behaviour out of respect for la vie privée, which is sacrosanct in French culture.
5. The French are devoutly religious. While French Canadians are a pious lot, in France the Catholic church is more of an institutional backdrop than an active part of people’s lives. Other than weddings, baptisms and funerals, most people rarely set foot in a church. And the presence of so many beautiful old churches can be misleading – many don’t have resident clergy or hold regular masses.
6. The French are unfriendly. It is true that the French feel no particular need to smile. There are a couple of reasons for this. Bad dental work is one. Another is socialization. But this should not be confused with unfriendliness. The general rule is that as soon as you get outside of Paris and the larger bourgeois cities (Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse), people are much more welcoming. People from le nord are reputedly unfriendly to outsiders until you get to know them – but then will be your friends for life. People from the south (in particular Marseille) are thought to be superficial and untrustworthy.
7. French people always kiss in greeting. La bise, a salutary kiss on the cheek, is an essential part of French social life. The number of kisses varies: two is the standard, three in parts south and a head-spinning four in Paris and Normandy. However, most people do not embrace in business situations, although some form of contact such as a handshake between colleagues is quite common. And men do not kiss each other, unless they are family or very close friends.
8. The French eat a rich diet of foie gras, snails and frogs’ legs. Only on occasion. Most days the French diet is based on simply prepared but well-balanced meals of meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, cheese and yogurt. And of course, fresh bread, most often in the form of a daily baguette. Breakfast, le petit-déjeuner, is that most humble of meals, traditionally consisting of little more than bread and café au lait. Croissants and other viennoiseries are reserved for weekends and special occasions. Forget bacon and eggs unless you are in a big hotel. I once tried to order French toast for breakfast in a café and was met with incomprehension. Known here as pain perdu (lost bread), it may have origins in France, but served for breakfast with maple syrup it is purely North American. The French are known to eat pain perdu for dessert.
9. French fries are French. French fries were not invented in France but in Belgium. Belgians are to the French what Newfies are to Canadians (just as “Polacks” are to Americans or the Irish to the English), although I have never understood what it is about people from such places that makes them the butt of so many jokes. Les Belges are portrayed by their French cousins as massive consumers of pommes frites, as they are called in French. But (hold on to your cholesterol count), the Belgian version of this specialty is consumed with mayonnaise, not ketchup.
10. The French enjoy wine with every meal. This may have been true in the past but is much less so today. Wine is a big part of the culture but the French will often drink water with their food. The main meal is consumed at lunchtime, with a simple soup for supper (hence the word ‘souper’). People will have a glass or two of wine with the evening meal but this is far from the norm. Red wine is preferred over white and often consumed with fish as well as meat. Many French women drink little if at all, other than a glass of champagne as an apéritif. And beer is mostly a workman’s drink.
These are, of course, just general rules to which there are many exceptions. As an adopted French woman I am doing my utmost to make the latter a myth. Some French women do indeed drink — wine, beer, you name it!