Monthly Archives: January 2019

Demystifying the French – once again

Are you a Francophile ? Or a Francophobe ? It may seem contradictory but whether you are one or the other you are surely confronted with the same malady :  you don’t understand the French.

Of course the Francophobe probably doesn’t even want to.  The Francophile, on the other hand, is avid for all things French, the wine, the food, the aesthetics, the romance. l But even when the Francophile easily and eagerly catches on to the wine, the food, the aesthetics and the romance in France, he or she doesn’t necessarily understand or « get » the French. In that, France is unique. I mean, do people write books about « figuring out the Chinese » or « figuring out the Italians » ? Or « demystifying » them ? Mais non !

But the French…oh my. Now it’s time for me to tell you that I have lived a very French life in France for more than forty years (French husband, French in-laws, French schools for the kids, etc.) and am well-equipped to dissertate on the subject of the mysterious French and their ways. About twenty years in, it occurred to me that there were many things I didn’t understand. I felt an itch, an urgent need to investigate and if possible unravel the mysteries of the French.  (Mysteries, by the way, is often a polite way of saying that they’re driving you crazy and you don’t know why.) That resulted in my books French Toast, French Fried and Joie de Vivre. One might say I had (and still have) an ongoing fascination with the French. And I’m not alone. A veritable cottage industry about France and the French has popped up. In fact, there’s almost a surfeit of books on the subject.

Fortunately, once in a while someone like Janet Hulstrand comes along and writes a book that stands out. It’s not a book about buying a cute little farmhouse and filling it up with Provencal furniture ; it’s not a book purporting to know everything about French cuisine or this or that. (These books often tend to ignore the French other than as caricatures, aka Peter Mayle). No, this is a helpful, practical, insightful and informative tome about the French and the way they are – and how to be sensitive to them. So many people aren’t. (And then criticize the French for being rude and arrogant !).

If there’s one book that will get you up to speed on the French and your relationship with the French, this is it. In a benevolent but no nonsense way, Hulstrand tells us all about demystifying the French, the title of the book.   Her subtitle is « How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You” – which I doubt will happen (I’ve been in France too long…) but is a nice goal. Even if the French LIKED you a bit (and you them), it would already be great.

Here’s what I like about Ms Hulstrand’s book : At 100 pages, it’s brief enough to carry around with you or read on Kindle so you can always have it on hand.  ( For more information and a look at the charming cover, please check out https://wingedword.wordpress.com/demystifying-the-french/.  And her advice is sound, starting with Part One which offers « essential tips for even very brief encounters «.

Tip #1, which is to say « Bonjour ! », seems amazingly simple as does Tip #2, « Ask ‘Do you speak English’ ? » – but the number of people who do neither is great. My favorite, though, is Tip #5 : Shhhh !!! (For goodness sake !). Well, my dear American friends, let’s face it : you are simply too loud so please, please remember to keep the volume down. Hulstrand explains why. If you follow her instructions, you will indeed be amazed by the results.

Part Two deals with the French mentality which you will begin to understand if you live here long enough (and even then it can be difficult) but which can be a major mystery if you’re a tourist. Hulstrand tells the reader about the French passion for complication, the importance of being « correct », the importance of taking your time, and the unimportance of money (this is a major difference with the USA). If you read and absorb and act on this information, you’re on your way to having a much easier, more relaxed time in France.

The author generously culls quotes and knowledge from others who have plumbed the mysteries of the French (full disclosure : that includes this writer). She also provides a wonderfully unorthodox glossary of French terms, such as Adieu and Au revoir and their nuances , Foutre, a crude, but often used word, Laicité and Système D, two concepts that are hard for the non-French to grasp.

With a list of sources cited and additional recommended reading, Hulstrand has done a fine job of covering the territory. You’ll want to read more after finishing it – but if you only have one primer on the French to read before your trip or bring along with you, hers is the one.

You may even end up « loving » the French – and making them love you. 

Sick and Tired of the Yellow Vests !

Last SaLet me say it loud and clear so there’s no ambiguity:  I am sick and tired of the Yellow Vests.

Saturday, January 5, was the EIGHTH time the Yellow Vests, a populist movement named for the bright yellow jackets French drivers must have in their car in case of an accident, filled the streets of Paris and other major cities to demonstrate.  About what?  Initially, it was about the carbon tax which would make gas more expensive. President Macron delayed the measure. It was also about the cost of living, and President Macron responded by making some moves (among them, 100 euros additional income each month) to try to ameliorate their situation.

So what is all this about now?

That’s what I’m asking myself.

As time goes on, the number of demonstrators dwindles, for sure.  But the violence is, if anything greater, more unpredictable, lightning quick, astonishing and frightening.  A few examples from yesterday’s demonstration: one Yellow Vest, a professional boxer, repeatedly punched a policeman who managed to protect himself from the vicious blows with his shield;  in another  mind-boggling attack, some of the protestors got ahold of a construction engine and bashed in the door of the Ministry of Relations with the Parliament while the Minister, who was there, was evacuated by security guards.  And we’re not even talking about the cars set on fire, the broken windows, the looting and pillaging (one fellow was caught by police after he tried to sell online three expensive Givenchy bags he had stolen during a recent demonstration).

Now here’s the kicker: the reaction to these totally reprehensible, totally illegal acts of sedition was, in general, a big ho hum.   French journalists and French politicians and the majority of ordinary French people  continue to sing the same old song:   we mustn’t  mix things up.  The violence is not the fault of the  innocent peace-loving  Yellow Jackets but outside infiltrators. Some even say that the violence of the acts is a response to the violence of the government. Uh, that one’s lost on me.

Today on TV, I finally heard a member of Macron’s party deliver the message I have been longing to hear ever since this tomfoolery started:   “This violence is insurrectional and must stop. Now.”

Too bad it’s not the majority message. Most of the pundits shrink from going this far.

To try to understand the woes of the Yellow Jackets, the government has called for a national consultation starting on January 15.  It will  try to involve simple citizens in determining what is wrong, where and grievances can be remedied. This is all good and well – but personally I think that these people, who have no leaders, very different demands and are being manipulated mostly by the extreme right plus the extreme left and revolutionary movements, will never have enough. Because their ultimate project is to overthrow the government.

Of course there are decent, hard-working people and people down on their luck and people who don’t have enough money to make ends meet. They deserve respect, they deserve help.

But their movement has been hijacked.

And there is no excuse for the violence that we have seen the past eight Saturdays and will see much more of as time goes on.

If I were the French Head of State, which I’m not, I would refuse to enter into any kind of negotiations until the Yellow Vests get off the streets and give them back to law-abiding citizens.   Personally, I, and many people I know,  have not gone out for eight Saturdays because although the Yellow Jackets say they will be demonstrating in one place, they quickly move to another (which, by the way, is illegal).  My husband loves to go to the Stamp Market at the bottom of the Champs-Elysées on Saturdays. He can no longer go because the entire area is barricaded either because they have said they would demonstrate there-  or because they might turn up .

Tourism is down, shops and restaurants and hotels are losing money, the damage to streets and stores and cars and monuments can be counted in billions of euros.  And don’t you think it is absolutely terrifying that the demonstrators have actually approached and entered the center of power by forcing their way inside a Ministry? I do!

But never forget: in France, the right to strike is sacrosanct  even when those strikers penalise all the other millions of people who are just going about their business.

Something wrong with this picture?  You bet.