Au Revoir, Amérique

Bonjour! Kierstin was recently awarded a scholarship to study in Switzerland. Switzerland is probably the perfect location for our first trip to Europe, centrally located and a veritable amalgam of French, German, and Italian-inspired culture. One of the best things about visiting somewhere new is learning a little bit about it. So, I’ll dive into some interesting tidbits about a few of the countries that we might visit in our upcoming trip to Europe – starting with France.

A Certain Je Ne Sais Pas.

The French certainly have a few oddities, at least to an outside spectator. And perhaps that’s how the phrase je ne sais pas, which literally means “I don’t know”, entered the lexicon of the non-French-speaking bourgeois. (Hey! Another French word!) There are a few interesting (and somewhat peculiar) behaviors that can be associated with the vertical stripes of blue, white, and red. To start off, some Americans like me might find French eating habits a little weird. The stereotypical Parisian dons his striped shirt and beret, hops on his moped with a grocery bag filled with baguettes, and finds a nice bistro that serves snails fried in garlic and butter. And while most Americans might only slightly shy away from the slimy mouthfeel that they imagine comes with escargot, they probably might be a little more repulsed by some of the other dishes that many French citizens love.

In 1998, California voters passed a proposition that outlawed the human consumption of horsemeat. In other parts of the United States, laws may not be as clear; however, it’s probably safe to say that the idea of eating horsemeat is somewhat nauseating to most US citizens despite any logical inconsistencies. Not so in France. Horse tartare, which is finely chopped horsemeat served with diced veggies and other seasonings and topped with a raw egg, is a dish that you might find on the menu in some French restaurants. Foie gras, fattened goose or duck liver, is another popular French delicacy, but the practice of gavage, where the animal is force-fed through a feeding tube is widely criticized. There have been efforts to produce foie gras in a more natural way with some success, but that doesn’t undermine the claim that France has some weird dishes.

Of course, it works both ways. People from France might look at Americans and think that the food we eat is reprehensible, too. And according to my high school French teacher, this is pretty accurate. She used to tell us about her trips to France where restaurant owners would discover that she and her students were American. The owners would point to large signs in their windows: a giant, red glass bottle with the words “We Have Ketchup” hand-painted on the poster. Apparently, French citizens believe that Americans drown everything in ketchup – fries, hamburgers, steak, eggs, vegetables (and “I put ketchup on my ketchup shirts” probably don’t help the stereotype). The nose-thumbing cries of “Bof!” accompanied by the Gallic shrug toward ketchup did not go unheard by the French government who, in 2011, limited the amount of ketchup consumed in school cafeterias. The rationale was that students were gulping down fries and ketchup indiscriminately while snubbing traditional French cuisine, and the government wanted to promote French heritage.

What they put in their mouth might seem odd to Americans, but where they put their mouth can be considered a completely different French quirk. Faire la bise, literally translated as “to do the kiss”, refers to a quick peck on both cheeks when greeting and saying farewell to just about anyone and everyone. Typically, smooches are exchanged among peers and good friends. But two burly rugby players might even bump heads after a heavily-contested match – except this contact would a lips-to-cheeks exchange coined as the bro-bise rather than the rough-and-tumble behavior that Americans might expect. That’s not to say that Frenchmen epitomize sportsmanship while Americans don’t (looking at you, Zidane), but the kissing tradition in French is certainly not something you’ll see in the United States.

Besides just foodstuffs and odd greetings, there will be some other interesting French traditions that we might run into. There is La Petit Souris, which is the little mouse that comes to collect children’s teeth (rather than the tooth fairy). We won’t be there for Easter, but if we were, we’d hear about the bells flying out of their steeples to go to Rome for the holiday. If we decided to stay and become citizens (Kierstin’s parents’ nightmare becoming a reality), we would get the chance to “Frenchify” our name on the application (e.g., Michael would become Michel). And it seems like good advice to bring your own keyboard to France unless you abhor the QWERTY that most Americans have come to know and love. In France, you might run into the AZERTY keyboard instead. Interestingly, if you travel abroad and hop on someone else’s desktop, you are likely to find any number of layouts; Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Belgium also join France (along with a few other countries) and have adopted a different keyboard system then the one used in the United States. Some boggling inconveniences that the AZERTY keyboard features includes the need to press SHIFT to type a period and numbers. This experience in France will definitely be different, but I think we’ll enjoy it.

Things to Avoid, or Faux Pas

While visiting other countries is a great way to learn all about them, it’s also a great way to show how much you don’t know about them. That’s why I tried to find some cultural don’t’s that would let us blend right in with the Parisians. These are typically word of mouth, but I tried to find ones that were recent and cited by multiple sources, so hopefully these will be real cultural gaffes to avoid (like Jimmy Carter telling Poland that he “left America never to return) rather than misinformed rumors (like John F. Kennedy stating he was a jelly doughnut).

Ordering Steak Well-Done – Luckily, Kierstin and I are of the “knock its horns off” type and won’t be ordering a charred steak anytime soon, but if we tried to in France it would be we were insulting the chef’s and cow’s honors.

Tipping at Restaurants – In France, a waiter’s wages are based on a salary and does not depend on tips. Some restaurants include a service charge automatically to cover this expense, but typically, tipping in restaurants is not required. The service charge is actually included in the price of the meal, too, and so you see exactly what you are paying. Of course, a couple of euros here and there are okay when the service is exemplary.

Staying Formal – When meeting someone for the first time, it’s important to address them as sir or madam rather than their first name. Even after getting to know the person, it’s customary to not address them by their first name unless they specifically say so.

Kisses, Not Hugs – As mentioned, the art of faire la bise is extremely important to the French. Even if the people you are meeting are good friends, a couple quick pecks are better than a friendly hug. In France, a hug seems to be a more intimate act than what would be shared by close friends.

Knowing Your Tu and Vous – If you took another language, you might have run into the formal and informal you, which isn’t prominent in English. In French, tu and vous both mean “you” but a person of authority or one that you don’t know so well should be addressed as vous. Sometimes it’s not even as straightforward as that, and so when in doubt, it’s probably better to use vous.

Any other tips? Post them here! We don’t want to be running around France making fools of ourselves!

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