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.