One of the things I enjoy about travelling is the perspective you gain from stepping away from your world. Our recent jaunt to England made me think about some of the things that define the French. How very ‘English’ I sometimes still feel (which for me means anglo-Canadian) and at times how very French I’ve become.
It’s the little things, of course, and readers of this blog will know that I am one for observing the details that make up our lives.
La file d’attente
It starts at the airport. Whenever there is a line up, the difference is immediately apparent. The Brits queue in an orderly fashion; the French must push forward like a force of nature. I find myself somewhere in between, struck with admiration for the ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach of my fellow English natives yet driven by my far more impatient French self to get ahead quickly.
If you smell someone before you see them, there are two possible explanations: either they have not bathed or they are wearing strong perfume. Sometimes both explanations apply. In the latter case, they are very probably French. I can put up with body odour but have a very low tolerance (which is to say almost no tolerance) for perfume. French noses seem to be able to bear stronger scents far better than mine; the idea of a fragrance-free zone is entirely foreign.
Le petit déjeuner
One of the habits I have never acquired after all these years in France is eating just bread for breakfast. I will rarely say no to croissants and other French viennoiseries like pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins and croissant aux amandes (yum!), but my idea of breakfast is a bit more substantial. And if bread is involved, it must be toasted.
Starting the day with a ‘full English’ is horrifying to most French people; personally I enjoy a bit of egg and bacon, but the sausage, beans and black pudding is a bit much. A beer would have made it even better but is this even allowed in the UK so early in the day?
Le café ou thé
The French mostly have coffee with hot milk for breakfast, famously dunking their bread or croissant in a large bowl of the stuff. After that, they tend to drink small cups of espresso café or ‘express’. It is taken black, although sugar is always on offer.
I’m a hybrid there, too, as I love a couple of good strong coffees with milk for breakfast then drink tea in the afternoon. If the espresso is good, I will drink it black after a meal. Coffee culture is everywhere in the UK now but as soon as we left London, I had a hard time getting the kind of coffee I like: strong but not bitter with a bit of milk; not milk with a bit of coffee. Or – horror of horrors – instant coffee.
As for tea, who am I to complain about the nation that made it famous? But there was little evidence of whole tea culture that can be found now even in France, where green is a mainstay and my personal favourite is white (the leaves, not with milk!). French tea drinkers rarely take milk.
If you order meat in a French restaurant, you will usually be asked how you’d like it cooked. ‘La cuisson’ may be medium or rare (rosé or bleu), medium rare (à point) or well done (bien cuit). Ordering anything well done is a very tell-tale sign of English-ness.
Mine is medium rare.
The relaxation of dress standards in recent years has made it harder to put labels on people. So much the better! But there are a few tell-tale signs that will give French people away to those in the know. A scarf even in mild weather (we have very fragile necks!); a certain cut of clothing (the French don’t do oversized); anything well-ironed (rumpled is not a look the French favour). Men will be unshaven, as is the fashion, but they will wear a trendy pair of glasses, skinny jeans and their ‘pullover’ will sport a discreet but fashionable label. Women may appear drab at first glance, then you will notice that their jacket conceals a rather attractive top, that their accessories are coordinated and that underneath that basic ensemble is surely some well-cut lingerie.
French behaviour in public places, aside from pushing in crowds, tends to be discreet. They don’t mingle, or start up conversations with strangers. I noticed this in several pubs where many of the patrons were looking about them and chatting with their neighbours; those with there heads down and sticking strictly to themselves were almost inevitably French. To be fair, the language barrier may be a reason.
Here again, I’m a hybrid. I have a horror of enforced socializing and will almost always gravitate to the edge of a crowd. On the other hand, people often come up to me on the street and ask for directions (more fools they, as I am rarely of much help); start talking to me on buses or in waiting rooms; sitting next to someone we often end up in conversation. My husband is always fascinated by this as it never happens to him. He shakes his head in wonder as I regale him with these stories.
Les bouledogues français
My Frenchie featured in this blog is called Higgins, a British name if there ever was one. And rightly so. On our recent trip, husband reminded me that the French bulldog breed has its origins in Nottingham, where the lace workers who travelled to France had to keep their canine companions small in order to go on the boats across to Calais.
Have you ever been surprised to discover that something you thought of as typically French or English was not at all?
I love your list. Tea! Oh tea!
Hmm….sounds like there could be a song in those sentiments. 😉
Um, “french fries”… Yeah, it applies to “Canadian bacon” as well. Or “English muffins”. That the French bulldog is English makes perfect sense, given the way English love their little animal pals!
Once, decades ago when I was young and dimwitted, I found myself with a friend in Forbach, Alsace. We’d hitchhiked there and ended up there at night. We slept in the weeds in a vacant lot across from a church that we considered going to to “seek refuge”, but wisely did not…. When we woke up, we discovered that we’d barely penetrated France. On one side of the road, we were in France. On the other, beyond the Bundesrepublik Deutschland Grenze sign, was Germany, the country we’d just left!
The curious impression that came from that realization was that the France side was a bit weather-worn and unswept; the German side, meters away, was tidy and maintained nicely. The people on the French side were nicely dressed; the people on the German side were, too, though not quite as stylish.
I remember coming back from Greece to Germany, and being astonished how clean and polished it looked compared with Greece. Anyone driving through villages along secondary roads in Germany is familiar with the black-clothed Großmütter sweeping and washing down the roads in front of their homes! I don’t recall any similar phenomenon in other countries.
‘Young and dimwitted’ – LOL! I already knew about French fries, but some of your other observations are new to me. Did not know about the German passion for street sweeping! Thanks for sharing.
Today a spry gentlemen from the Mairie was sweeping up the fallen leaves which have piled up in a corner outside our neglected maison.
I was most impressed. I love to see both civic and personal pride in our village.
I’m sitting here like a nodding dog on the parcel shelf of a car. I recognise every single point. And even though I drink my coffee black and take my steak rose I’m still instantly English, particularly at the market where I stand patiently in my queue of one as the far more savvy French push there corner and overtake in much the same way as they do behind the wheel of a car!! xx
It’s an inborn trait, methinks. Even husband frequently cuts me off when walking down the street without realizing it. Ha! Your head bobbing sounds familiar – it’s my go-to tactic when pretending to understand what people here are on about! 😀
Head bobbing is a fine art … one that I suspect you are expert at! 😁
Honestly everywhere I go I find that French people respect queues in general, at cash desks of supermarkets, in banks, to get an entrance ticket to a theater or a stadium, people who try to cheat are very rare and trigger unpleasant loud reactions . I don’t know why Anglo-Saxons keep repeating this about French and queuing . It might not be totally Nazi strict but once you have travelled around the world, India, Arabic countries, South America, you find French queues are made by programmed robots . Same for French driving by the way, I get totally bored on the roads now, thinking that all present French drivers are bloody Swedes .
Breakfasts are not or have not always been what aliens call French breakfast . Adapting to the kind of work that will follow is rather sensible . My grandfather was a small peasant in a time when men and not machines were doing a lot of work and he ate a full meal in the morning, charcuterie, meat, and the South-West very thick soup, “la garbure”, that is a meal in itself . Not forgetting half a liter of wine from his own vine of course, he was not a picky wine drinker my Pépé .
Good point you eventually understood that meat must never be overcooked . You have a chance to get civilised one day . Do you know that coffee and milk make a terrible mixture for your stomach ? Personally I adore tea but only in the Arabic way, with mint, or the Indian way the Chai . If not, coffee, black . In Spain it’s difficult to get a coffee without milk !
One of these days I hope I’ll understand this scarf thing . Before I started reading the Anglo web I didn’t know that the French were scarf addicts . Since then I tried my best but I can’t succeed : I only see scarfs in rare occasions, when it’s freezing or in a “soirée” for instance . I took an appointment with an ophtalmologist because I’m afraid it’s a serious handicap .
Aw, Phil, you’ll make a civilized woman of me yet! 😉 The queuing thing is not just about respecting a predetermined order – it’s that in so many places there is no defined line up and people just jockey for position. How about a bank or post office? In Canada we would have a sign saying: “Please wait here for the next available teller.” (Okay, so maybe they don’t even have people working in banks anymore – I’ve been away too long to say!) But the line protocols are clearly identified. Coffee in milk: a pharmacist I used to work with told me this but I did not believe it; however, recently I cut out the fat – went from demi-écremé to écremé with coffee and what a difference! As for the scarf thing, I had not realized it either until I read about it elsewhere and realized I have adopted this habit. If there’s the least chill in the air I must cover my ‘cou’ or be sure to get a stiff neck.
EXCELLENT!!! ❤ your post has reminded me a French saying: chassez le naturel, il reviendra au galop! 😀 = c'est impossible de se débarrasser totalement de ses tendances naturelles ou de tenter de les dissimuler… 😀 btw, c'est Destouches, French writer of the 18th century, who wrote "Le Glorieux", where he mentioned this famous expression:
"Je ne vous dirai pas: changez de caractère,
Car on n'en change point, je ne le sais que trop;
Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop!"
* * *
even though we've lived longer in France than in our native countries, we came here as ADULTS, and therefore we'll be "French" on the official papers alone… et tant mieux: vive la différence! 🙂
Very smart fellow, that Destouches. As for us transplants, I think we put down stronger roots in our adopted countries in some ways because of the effort we make to adapt. But you’re right, we can’t (and wouldn’t want) to change our true nature, we are who we are! Merci Mélanie pour ces perles de sagesse!
I don’t find problems with lines, but unlike Phildange, I find the drivers atrocious. I’ve never driven in the U.K., and the only noticeable things about U.K. drivers here are the huge size of the vehicles, the fact that they very well may be lost, and that they practically drive in the ditch (only a problem for pedestrians and bikes on the side of the road). However, the French! No passing where there’s a solid white line? Ha! Speed limit? Double ha! Drifting into oncoming traffic while texting? All the time. And then getting mad at cars that honk. Also: if the car is fancy and new, taking two parking spaces. And at all times, parking anyplace, even illegally, if it’s free.
Sometimes I wonder if Anglo expats don’t live in a special reservation where Aboriginal French of the 50s display their show for Aliens . How I’d like to know where this place is to settle there !…
I think some Anglo expats do live in little enclaves and don’t integrate at all.
Us? We are fully and happily immersed in our very French and untouristy village.
Having been exposed to such types only recently via a Facebook group, I must say it’s appalling to move to a country then make no effort to integrate. You guys sound like you’re doing it right!
I am embarrassed to admit to being a Brit sometimes when I hear these obnoxious folk talking.they give us a bad name. I could tell some tales but would offend , so I keep schtum
There’s nothing so loud as Australians abroad but I’m pleased to note an increasing number of French over here. Re fragrance, you may be interested in a book published this year by Kate Grenville (Aussie writer) called The Case Against Fragrance – written after she realised her headaches were caused by all the fake fragrance everywhere, including hotel rooms with those little hisses of perfume in the bathroom…
Interesting about the book, I will check it out. Ironically, although I am increasingly intolerant of strong-smelling perfumes in various household products, one of my clients is a leader in the fragrance industry. As for Aussies abroad, we see very few and usually they are on their own so I cannot attest to the loudness factor. Brits abroad are another story, at least when on holiday in France and other sunny European destinations. Maybe it’s being out of the usual setting?
A great list Mel and your Higgins is an adorable sweetchops!
Thanks, Lisa, he is that indeed! (Although sometimes I wish I could turn down the volume on his snoring!)
I’m neither French nor English (although I have a great deal of English blood in me) – I’m from the U.S., but I found this post amusing and telling and educational. I’ve been to France oh so few times – only twice, and that was decades ago, but I loved it so much and am determined to return. When I do, I’ll wear a scarf every day, but I refuse to wear perfume, as I gave that up decades ago, and like you, find the strong odor offensive. I’m a huge tea drinker, and either take it with lemon (the green or white variety) or brew it in skim milk (the Earl Gray variety). I think this makes me purely British? Like you, I also dislike ‘forced socialization’ and will let others knock me down as they get further up in line, or I’ll sit quietly in the corner of a pub asking for no company, but enjoying the people watching. Perhaps you and I are a delightful…. hybrid? 🙂
Rare hybrids, and perhaps soul mates? 😉 People watching for me is the only thing that makes travel bearable. Husband and I are like spies sometimes, as we’ll discreetly speak French to make observations when surrounded by non-French speakers, and English when surrounded by French. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Hope you can make it back to France again one day soon!
Not exactly the question that you asked, but related: things that anglophones think are French and things that francophones think are American: https://zipfslaw.org/2015/12/17/things-we-think/
Yes, I enjoyed that….you neglected to mention the dreaded ‘café américain’, to which the French add hot water enough to make it scalding and tasteless.
The first time I felt really french was the day I crowded my way to the front of a shoe sale line. Any American would have pushed me back to the back of the queue bit the French seemed to respect my spunk (come on, shoes were half price, it wasn’t spunk it was burning desire). Great list and observations.
A shoe sale is clearly extenuating circumstances. French women understand this! Glad you enjoyed. x