Image: Lina Nordin
Social media could take over a person’s life. Am I right? Tweets, Instagram, Facebook posts and private messages just to name the ones I actually have on my phone. Lord only knows how many more there are and how many more are either in the works or in someone’s head about to pop out. I tweet once in a blue moon, I post photos on Instagram just about as often. Facebook and I are buddies. I mean, how amazing that I can “talk” to my French friends in real time. Back in the olden days, way before the internet and cell phones, when regular phone calls to and from France cost a small fortune (not to mention that in 1978 I had to give Mama Mildred’s phone number to a woman at la poste, who would pretend not to understand my French thus reducing me to tears, and ask her to dial it for me, I would go to a bank of phones, talk to Mama for 30 seconds or so, then give the woman however many French francs she demanded, hoping that I understood her number and didn’t give her 10 times more than she asked for). Ah, the good old days. Damn traumatic is more like it. At least that first time in Paris. And letters? They took (and still take, by the way) 7-10 days to arrive, if they arrived at all. I’ve watched postal workers take my postcards, stick them up on a shelf, then assure me that they will get to my friends, Mama, husband and/or children in the U.S. But for all of that, I do not allow my students to randomly use their cell phones except to take photos and check the time. No text messaging, snapchatting, instragramming, or whatever kids do these days. They may most certainly check in with their parents and pals once we are back at the hotel and checked in for the night. I am careful to follow my own rules as well. It’s called living in the moment. And having something to show and tell everyone when you get home.
I digress un peu. I came across a very funny article in The Local this morning. Tell me that this would not pique your interest if you are at all interested in France.
Twitter reveals 25 everyday ‘problems’ about life in France
I could not not read that, could I? And then try to locate my Twitter password (I couldn’t so I had to change it), log on, and follow this group (or whatever a group is called on Twitter). #franceproblems
Here’s the run-down on the list with my experiences noted.
- Waiters giving women their phone numbers. Even as a femme d’un certain âge, I have to admit this is rather flattering. Harmless really. It happened to me about three years ago during a solo January trip, but it wasn’t a waiter, but a museum guard at Le Grand Palais. I had just seen an exhibit about Gertrude Stein and her art collection and was exiting the exhibit when a guard stopped me. Of course, the first thing that popped into my head is that I swear I did not touch a painting. Did I take photos? No flash? Was it even allowed? No, he just wanted to tell me how beautiful I am, ask me my name (that day I became Isabella) and give me his phone number on a slip of paper.
- Kiss vs handshake. Okay, this can be a bit worrisome. Kiss your friends. How many times? Twice? Three times? Depends on where you are in France. In Paris and northern France I’ve found that two times suffices. With my friends in the south of France, it’s usually three. Total strangers? A very quick handshake will do. Not the pumping thing that Americans tend to do sometimes. I practice with my students. Not les bises, just the handshake. I call in a nearby teacher to help me with the kissing thing. But no hugs. At least not unless they are very good friends and grab you first.
- Somewhere to eat in the late afternoon. The French eat at meal times, my American friends. They are not a nation of snackers and eat anytime you please people. Look around you next time you are there. They are not obese. Plan your meals a little more carefully when you are there. Or find a café that is open all day. No, it won’t be a Michelin star restaurant, but it will tide you over. And dinner before 6:00 pm? Never. Apéritifs, the after work drinks with a friend, but even dinner at 6:00 is a ridiculous idea. Usually around 8:00-8:30 pm for families. Later in Paris on a night out perhaps or the weekend.
- Resisting the temptations of French cuisine. Ha! I do not do that. Why? Moderation and the knowledge that you are walking many kilometers a day help. Resist a chocolate dessert? A pretty pink macaron from Pierre Hermé? An éclair at Christophe Adam’s shop? Jamais. Now, granted when living there, you really have to practice that moderation thing. But I found that the food at meals was so incredibly satisfying that I didn’t really need to overindulge. Sweets aren’t as sugary there either. (Dare I say sugar is the downfall of the American diet?)
- Baguettes. No preservatives are used so you must consume the whole thing within a few hours and buy a new one tonight or tomorrow. Otherwise you are looking at a baseball bat not fit to consume unless you are going to toast it a bit, throw on some gruyère cheese and add it to the top of your soupe à l’oignon. The government controls the price of basic baguettes so that everyone can afford them. There is also a yearly baguette competition in Paris with the winner supplying baguettes to M. Le Président for a year. How cool is that? I try to remember to check the list, write down the address of the top finishers and try one. Well worth it.
- Planning Sunday meal in advance. Or buying anything much on Sunday. If grocery stores are open on Sunday, it is for a short period of time in the early morning. Day of rest. Time with families. Think and plan ahead. Period. I learned that when I thought I would run over to Monoprix in Arles one Sunday afternoon to pick up a few things I needed. Guess again. I sat down at a café for a glass of rosé instead, wrote some postcards and people-watched instead. Much more fun.
- French hobbies- striking and smoking. It does seem that a lot of French people smoke. The crowd I hang with at home does not. When I go home to my little mountain town in NC, there is still plenty of evidence of smokers. French cigarette packages are not pretty– they carry the words Fumer Tuer or something to that effect in big black letters. Smoking kills. Strikes? Yes, they can be very inconvenient for visitors. No trash pick up. No train. No public transportation. No museum guards. No postal service. No air traffic controllers. It seems to be a part of the way they get things done… better pay, better benefits. Maybe it all dates back to the Revolution, what do I know of such things. There are unions for teachers in the US, but not in my state. It’s illegal.
- Filling out forms- French bureaucracy. I have heard horror stories, but I have no firsthand knowledge of this one. You are on your own if you decide to move over, buy a house or even apply for a visa. Talk to someone who has lived through it and get some sound advice (from an American, not a Frenchman- you will probably just get a Gallic shoulder shrug and a C’est comme ça or C’est normal.)
- Red wine, smelly cheese and kissing your boyfriend afterwards. Seriously? This is a problem? Not in my book. I have nothing to add. Except maybe eat some of the cheese yourself and slurp some Côtes du Rhône with him and then you won’t notice.
- Face cream that smells like Camembert and has to be kept in the fridge. Never heard of it. Désolée. I just use a basic American brand, nothing fancy or smelly. In Arles, we did have a small refrigerator just for the cheese, though. Smelly? Oh yeah. Délicieux aussi.
- Watch where you walk- dog poop. Very real danger. And smelly to boot. Yes, everyone is supposed to carry plastic baggies and clean up after Fifi when she does her business, but does it always happen in any city? Non. And one day in Paris, I did overhear an older monsieur berating a jeune homme for not cleaning up after his chien. A real tongue-lashing. The French love their dogs and there are many mostly well-behaved ones. They take them almost everywhere they go- with the exception of museums and supermarkets.
- Looking chic- no sweatpants in public. It’s a thing. I did not wear mine outside of the house. I don’t take any with me when I go. You do not have to look like you stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine, Elle, for instance, but watch the jogging and yoga clothes in public unless you really are going running. Yoga clothes would probably be changed into in the studio. If you want to wear sneakers, Converse and Vans are popular. When my feet are killing me and I must wear mine, I have black ones that don’t scream tourist. I already wear a lot of black. And scarves. Casual is fine- meaning jeans. Put together, I guess you’d say.
- Fiscal stamps needed for visas. Once again, no experience here. Take a good book to read and just don’t be in a rush. Won’t help. Will only make you très mad and trop frustrated. Have a nice drink and people watch at a café afterwards to calm down.
- Good meat pie. Seriously? You miss that? Try Québec and their lovely tourtière next vacation. If you are living there, make one yourself. Feed it to a Frenchie to gauge their interest. That’s always fun. You will know if they don’t like it. And you will know if they do. And then maybe you will start the next food fad.
- Frenchmen find their next love on the street. Well… one lovely January Sunday afternoon I was strolling (flâner– I love this word) along the Seine making my way towards Notre Dame. I felt as if someone was following me, well, not really following, just walking along parallel to me. Sure enough. A nicely dressed Frenchman struck up a conversation. He even asked if he could buy me a souvenir at one of the bouquinistes stands. Mais oui, merci, monsieur. When he asked if I’d like to stop somewhere for a coffee or a drink, I declined and told him that I was meeting friends at Notre Dame. Was I? Non. But he didn’t press the issue and got lost, perhaps looking for another single woman to buy a salt and pepper shaker for. I didn’t feel threatened or harassed. It was broad daylight, there were a million other people strolling the same as we were, I speak French well.
- Breakfast- no eggs and bacon. The French do not eat eggs before lunch and then they will be in an omelette, quiche or hard-boiled with a lovely house made mayonnaise spread on top. Bread, butter, jam, yogurt, fruit, coffee, tea or hot chocolate for le petit déj. Voilà. Who am I to argue with a baguette or croissant or pain aux raisins.
- Train strikes. A pain in the neck. They are usually announced beforehand so that you are warned. See #7. I’ve missed a side trip or two due to this. C’est la vie.
- Finding an open food store after work or a late class. Check times for the corner grocery store. Plan ahead. What else can I say? The French like to go home to dinner, too. Easier to find an open one in Paris than in smaller towns.
- Banks and businesses that close for lunch. Mealtimes are sacred, in case you haven’t caught on, even for bank employees and shop clerks. Sacred. An hour and a half usually. No running errands during lunch. Barbarians do that. Eat. Have a nice lunch break. Don’t eat in the car or at your desk. A picnic outside if the weather is nice.
- Becoming addicted to French cheese. This is a problem?? Only if you have to go home and you can’t find your favorite kind(s) or you have to pay a small fortune for it. I don’t think you will find a recovery group for this. I dream about fresh chèvre and Camembert or Brie served at just the right temperature. But remember, it is NOT eaten as an hors-d’oeuvre in France. Cheese has it’s own course, after the main course and green leaf salad dressed with house made vinaigrette. Three choices usually suffice. A cow’s milk, sheep perhaps, and a goat. Mon dieu, I miss the cheese. Or as the French say– Le fromage me manque. The cheese is lacking to me.
- Obtaining a French visa for non-EU citizens. I am a non-EU citizen, but I have never tried to apply for a visa. When my dream school or company hires me, I am sure they will take of that for me. Right?
- Drinking coffee. Well, I drink it with lots of hot milk for breakfast, but I never adapted to the custom of little cups of espresso after lunch and dinner and at a coffee break in between. I do get disbelieving stares sometimes in restaurants, but I imagine they are thinking — Eh, l’Américaine. With the Gallic shrug. That explains it.
- Listening to neighbors have sex. No comment. Not touching that one.
- Having your French corrected. It happens. Take it for what it’s worth. A quick smile and apology for butchering their lovely language will usually get the corrector off your back. Once again, you may get the Eh, l’Américaine look. After all, the corrector probably does not speak English and is not aware that we do not have that guttural R thing in our language nor do we care about all words flowing together nicely. Most Frenchies are very nice to me and think that I have un accent charmant. I have learned to take that as a compliment. I try. It took me a while to accept the fact that I will never sound like a Française. Pas possible. I started learning French at the age of 14 or 15. Too late. But I will keep trying until I draw my last breath.
- Shower curtains and hand-held shower heads. The shower curtain thing puzzles me, too. Some hotels have half glass doors. That, mes amis, does not protect against water all over the floor. And I am very careful. Imagine the angst I suffer when taking 14 year-olds to stay in French hotels. I am lucky we have never had to pay for a flooded room below. I pray to the shower gods about this every March. The hand-held things sometimes attach to the wall, sometimes not. I just sit and take a shower-bath, if necessary. After all, I AM IN FRANCE. What is there really to complain about?
The blue and yellow salt and pepper shakers hugging are my souvenir from the Random French Man day. On my shelf of do-dads in my classroom!
Bon appétit! Hope you learned something!