“Do you know why the rooster is the true symbol of the French people?” asked my father-in-law not long after I arrived in this country. He had a telltale twinkle in his eye, so I hazarded a guess. “Because he’s cocky?” He chuckled and delivered the punchline. “Parce que c’est le seul capable de chanter les deux pieds dans la merde.”
Translation: Because he’s the only one who sings while standing in shit.
Everybody laughed but I confess I didn’t really get it. Until it dawned on me: the French are often dans la merde but that doesn’t stop them from crowing.
It was my first experience of self-deprecating humour à la française. Or, as they say here ‘le sens de l’auto-dérision’. Although it will not likely be your first impression of the French, this ability to laugh at their own foibles is alive and well in the land of the Gauls.
It’s one of many surprising things I have come to appreciate about living here. Although I often use this blog to air my pet peeves, here’s my top-ten list of things I love about the French:
1. A sense of occasion. When the French celebrate, they do it right. Bastille Day will be fêted with military parades and big, noisy fireworks, the popping of champagne corks and the traditional televised interview with le Président de la République. Stiff, suited, against a backdrop of the French flag– there will be pomp and there will be circumstance.
2. A slapstick sense of humour. I love that the French will laugh at nothing so much as a man who slips on a banana peel. Because that man will be very proud and full of himself and the contrast of his fall will be all the funnier. And because they seem so worldly and sophisticated, it is also endearing when my French friends have a pipi-caca (toilet bowl) sense of humour. Prout-prout.
3. An appreciation of le quotidien. As much as they pull out all the stops for les grandes occasions, the French enjoy the little pleasures of day-to-day life. The simplicity of sitting down together for meals, sharing a coffee, going for a walk on a sunny day.
4. Sincerely yours. It often seems that the French are unfriendly because they don’t smile. But when they do, you know it is sincere. And when friendship is offered and you are accepted, it’s the real deal. If the French hate one thing about the English, it is their perceived lack of sincerity and authenticity, the fake smile, the untrustworthy politesse. Le faux cul.
5. A love of the local. Along with that love of the authentic comes the conviction that you should buy local produce, in season. The French are appalled by the availability of strawberries in the winter. They would rather wait until it’s in season to enjoy their favourite fruit. For someone who grew up in Canada, where winter is unthinkable without imports from all over the world, I admire the refusal of the French to eat tomatoes from Spain. This love of the local goes beyond fruit and veg – the French primarily vacation in their own country (which certainly has a lot to offer) and every terroir has its own claim to fame on the culinary map.
6. Sundays are sacrosanct. The French are not big church-goers but they do believe in keeping Sundays for family. Which means no Sunday shopping (other than the farmer’s market or bakery in the morning). It makes life less convenient but the lack of 24/7 shopping leaves more time for other things.
7. There is no creed of the politically correct. This is a big one for me. You will not find the food police in France. No one will tell you what to think, eat or recycle. That doesn’t mean they don’t have an opinion. They just don’t think it’s anybody’s business but your own.
8. Respect for privacy. I had a lot of trouble with this one at first. It seems the French turn a blind eye to things which would profoundly shock any English person’s sensibilities by simply calling it ‘la vie privée’. This is a complex issue that goes back to the war (la délation – turning in your neighbour) but suffice it to say that there is no whistleblower culture in France. Where else could a lech like DSK have come so close to running (and probably winning) the presidential elections? But I’ve come to appreciate this value. It means that with the exception of certain rags like Voici (French people magazine) the private lives of politicians and celebrities are pretty much left alone.
9. Not uptight. The French are simply not shocked by the exposure of a nipple in public. You will likely never see full-frontal nudity on prime-time TV but you will see bare-breasted women in commercials and topless sunbathing on the beach.
10. They are resistant. The French resistance lives on in the way the people fight the good flight – circumventing speed checks, demonstrating to overturn laws, refusing to submit to perceived injustices. In other words, they don’t take any crap.
And on a personal note, here’s my story of the Coq Gaulois: Some years ago we moved to the country outside Lyon. There were two roads you could take to get to our village from the nearest big town some five kilometers away: the official main road – la route départementale – and a little country road called la route du Coq Gaulois. At first I always took the main road – it was a bit longer and convoluted but better maintained. Then I noticed that the Coq Gaulois road was not just quicker, it was more scenic and there were never any cops. I started using that road and never looked back. That is when I knew I had well and truly arrived.
Cock-a-doodle-doo, or as they say in France, cocorico!