Having been in France for a couple of months, I think it’s fair to say I’m now an expert in French culture. Considering this, I feel it’s my duty to address a couple of stereotypes of French people, both of which were popular when I was growing up. I have discovered that one of these is indeed true, whilst the other is demonstrably false.
When I was a kid, the stereotypical French bloke was depicted as wearing a black beret and a white long-sleeved t-shirt with horizontal blue stripes, and riding a single-speed pushbike to the bakery every morning to pick up his daily baguette (that’s a bread stick for those who speak even less French than I do, which is probably very few of you).
The stereotypical French lady would be wearing a cotton summer dress as she also headed to the boulangerie on her bicycle, which would be fitted with a stylish and practical basket. What’s more, both would be invariably cheerful and offering everyone ‘bonjours!’ with a smile.
Baguettes in paradise
Traditional attire, bicyclettes and joie de vivre aside, upon my arrival in France I wanted to see if the entire nation really was obsessed with crusty bread sticks.
As I mentioned, having now spent a considerable amount of time in la belle France, I feel well equipped to pass judgement on the place of the baguette within French culture. I can say without fear of contradiction, that France is most definitely the Land of the Long White Breadstick. The French have quite clearly not accepted that sliced bread is the best thing since sliced bread, and have stuck reverently to their baguettes.
Every day I have witnessed dozens of Frenchies heading back home from the bakery with this treasured fresh-baked bread. I was able to accrue a very large sample size of baguetted shoppers, as the bread sticks are long enough to poke out from shopping bags and baskets, and are easily seen when carried casually beneath the arm. As well as satisfied baguette shoppers returning home, I probably saw even more French people on their way to the bakery to buy their daily baguettes, but I didn’t realise it at the time, as they just looked like French people walking along the street.
I’m a bit partial to a bread stick myself, and have eaten a goodly number since I got here. I soon discovered, however, that if you arrive at the bakery a little on the late side, you’ve got Buckley’s* of getting yourself a baguette, as they will all have sold out.
In addition to the ubiquitous boulangeries, most supermarkets also bake their own bread. But woe betide he or she that fronts up late wanting a baguette, and instead has to make do with a pre-packaged, factory-produced bread product. The walk of shame to the checkout, and the looks of horror and commiseration from the other shoppers, are excruciating.
So reliable is the French need for a daily baguette, that I expect this phenomenon also serves a useful community service. Part of the reason why getting a baguette from the bakery after 2pm is nigh on impossible, may be that each boulangerie knows how many baguettes to bake each morning, as they will have the same amount of customers come in every day to buy one.
Considering this, if there’s a spare baguette in the rack after lunchtime it might be cause for concern: ‘Stop in on Marie on the way home will you mate? She didn’t come in for her baguette today’ or ‘Alain said he was going to get up on the roof and clean out the gutters this arvo. Make sure he comes in for his baguette tomorrow, will ya?’
This is actually the same baguette, seen from a slightly different angle
The second stereotype I grew up with is that when it comes to language, French people are uncooperative, arrogant and judgemental. So the story went, if you travelled to France and wanted to speak English, you would be met with silence and disdain. And what’s more, if you tried to speak French and didn’t manage to sound like a local, well that would be even worse.
I tried to learn French at High School. I spent four years wrestling with it, culminating in an ‘E’ grading in Year 11 and the end of the road for me and the French language. I was told by my teachers that my French pronunciation was tres bien, but my understanding of grammar was tres shithouse. Consequently, I headed to France wondering if every interaction with a French person was going to be unpleasant, and instantly transport me back to the horrors of High School language classes.
I’m very pleased to report that this stereotype about French people and language is not true. Maybe in the past there was something in it, but not any more. In the whole time I have been here in France I have never been treated as a leper for my lack of language skills. Au contraire, when I opened up each interaction with ‘I’m sorry I can’t speak French’ one of two things would happen. Most often, the French person would smile and say something like ‘that’s ok I speak English’. On more rare occasions, the local would say ‘I can only speak French’ (which I can understand in both English and French), and then we would laugh our way through the interaction with mutually intelligible words, mime, and interpretive dance. Sometimes, to help out a struggling traveller, the French person would press-gang a mate who had a little English into helping with the situation.
Actually, whilst we’re on the subject of the French language, the French really do say ‘Oh la la!’ Nah, really! You hear it quite often. It’s not used in the cliché ‘oooh la laaaah‘ suggestive fashion, coupled with a waggle of the eyebrows, that you hear in old movies, but rather when a situation is problematic, or when something has gone wrong. One scenario where my lack of French did get a bit stressful, was when I had an issue with a car I had hired. I went into the rental car office and found a staff member, and we quickly established that neither of us spoke much of the other’s language. I pushed on regardless, trying to explain my situation in basic English. I could tell mid-way through the interaction that I had lost her, as she frowned and her mouth opened slightly. I paused, and she looked at me with brow firmly furrowed and said ‘Oh la la…’ I have also heard the phrase in a number of casual sporting contexts, where a shanked tennis shot or misplaced soccer kick would elicit an ‘oh la la!’ from the player.
So if you’re keen to visit France and don’t speak much French, fear not! Your interactions with the locals will usually be straightforward. And if not, they’ll still be fun. And if you like fresh baked bread, you’re in for a treat. Just make sure you slip on your stripey shirt and beret and get on your bike early, otherwise you’ll be the one busting out the ‘oh la la…’
*very little chance
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