I recently traveled to France with my younger son to meet up with his older brother who had been studying in Montpellier for a couple of months. I had the good fortune to travel in France in the 90’s and already had a deep appreciation for the culture. I am always stunned when I hear American descriptions of the French as “rude.” I am immediately taken aback when after inquiring if the comment reflects an aversion to trying to speak French, by the truly silly reply, “They all speak some English so what's the point?” To me that is an unfortunate conclusion as the point is about appreciation and gaining understanding of another culture.
Over many years I spent 5-6 weeks in France, and though I have a very flawed capability with the beautiful language, I can speak enough to make my way around and elicit smiles of appreciation from the French who very politely put up with my horrendous pronunciation.
Rudeness has never been a feature of French culture for me. In fact, it is the opposite. I have found the French to be polite, formal and sentimental. I believe that the general tendency to be formal and polite allows appreciation a broader compass. In that context, beauty and form are more important and more available.
For example, we had the great good fortune to be in Paris during the final of the World Cup when the French National Team lost in overtime to Argentina. Invited to an intimate, small bar by friends we shared the joy of the game with true fans. They sang the French National Anthem – as expected, complained raucously about the referees and reacted to the excitement of the game with enthusiasm and passion. What was not expected was after the loss in overtime and shots the entire bar broke out in sincere applause for the great match we had witnessed and which the home team had lost. To me, that was quite special and a wonderful example of the culture's formal sentimentality that is quite real.
We also had an opportunity to get a bakery tour and see the wood fired oven in an old Parisian bakery. There were no dials, no electronic measurement tools, just a big old wood-fired brick oven. As the baker described the baking process in that setting, it’s all hands on - touch and sensitivity to temperature, humidity and all the aspects of baking. The oven, which was in use, enveloped our senses with its gentle warmth reinforcing our love of and fascination with France.
In France, people walk all over. Paris has one of the best subway systems in the world, so access to the town is a high-speed jaunt underground with lots of steps up and down to get from here to there. It’s a hand on and deeply human place. Even though I had been in Paris before, I had never ridden a tourist
“on-off” bus and I sat frozen in late December, in the top front of the double decker bus. A traffic snarl at the obelisk at the base of the Champs-Elysees was mesmerizing. The light turned red and there were cars stuffed in the intersection going all directions. No one blew their horns – they just worked through it. More evidence of my theory that the French are formal.
It is their formal approach that keeps things cool. In New York there would have been a lot of horns beeping and some colorful language shared. “The sounds of every nation make the island one.” (Gil Scott-Herron). I don’t know that my broad brush analysis is very deep. This tourist’s experience of sentimental formality which has been consistent over a number of visits is a welcome reminder of the beauty of the human spirit.
I imagine like many things in a social context, this formality probably has its advantages and disadvantages so my observations might be a bit superficial. Still France is fun and enlightening place to visit- make sure you can speak some French before you go.