Monday, June 16, 2008

De Tocqueville du jour

Don't get me wrong: I know I sound just as silly when I make sweeping generalizations about life in France. The baguettes, the croissants, the Gallic shrug, the bureaucratic inanities and the strikes are all taken from real life here, sure, but a little exaggeration adds spice and cultural simplifications are crowd-pleasers.

But I smile when I hear the same complaints and observations about American life from nearly all of the French I've met who have spent any time in the US. There's exaggeration as well, but I can still recognize us a bit in their reflections.

They all have seem to have the same list, and it goes something like this:

1) "Everything is so big! I looked and looked for the smallest [car/t-shirt/refrigerator/bag of chips/pair of jeans] I could find, and it was enormous." Pretty much the same observation we make in reverse the first time when we visit France. Some of the cars here, such as the Smart, look like wind-up toys to us, and imagine my surprise when on my first Thanksgiving in Paris I found I couldn't fit my turkey roasting pan into my oven.

2) "That's what you call yogurt!" It apparently tastes like gelatin. And don't get them started on the cheese.

3) "Why does everyone keep asking me how I'm doing?" The forced cheerfulness of otherwise apathetic wait staff and salespeople drives most French nuts, my husband in particular. Paris waiters and shopkeepers may be many things, but no one can accuse them of being insincerely enthusiastic.

4) "When you say 'water' it sounds like 'waDer.'" Yes, we swallow the Ts. But I discourage French-speakers from trying to imitate us, for it aids our comprehension not at all and sounds profoundly silly. (My husband believes he can do it. I assure him he can't.)

5) "Don't you ever stop to eat?" There is no more horrible thought to the average Frenchman than that of eating a hamburger behind the steering wheel of a car, or a sandwich at one's desk, or even a slice of pizza in front of the television. Though the sacredness of a mealtime as a true break in the day may disappear here in a generation, if the crowds of teenagers that swarm Parisian McDonald's are any indication.


Marianne said...

This is brilliant - great to see it from the other way round. I wonder what they'd say about the UK- probably just bang on about the filthy food I guess! That's really sad about MacDonald's I hope the French are robust enough to hold onto that great respect for mealtimes. England went a bad way long ago.

Isabelle said...

Hey Parisienne, you forgot about Jell-o (I'm not sure I'm spelling it right), I think it is the French' worst food enemy!
My kids hate it, I hate it too. How about your husband?

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@Isabelle - my husband hates jello, peanut butter, and more than any other American food product, root beer. I've always hated jello myself, and never quite understood the point of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so I may have been French all along and just not known it.

I still don't pass up a good root beer when one crosses my path, however.

@Marianne: I'm not sure that America ever had a family meal tradition to lose in the first place. Although when we do do a real dinner, we make it ridiculously complicated à la the American Thanksgiving with turkey + ten side dishes.

caramama said...

I love this! Fantastic!

And the US does have a family meal tradition... it's eating on a paper plate in the living room while watching TV! I'm just joking (mostly).