Post-Feck Off Part 3: Is it soir yet?
Is it soir yet?
The first fundamental difference between French and English culture I noticed was because of the astonishing amount of time I spend in lifts (I live on the 6th floor). In Britain, the protocol whilst sharing enclosed spaces is, in my experience, to look down, keep your mouth shut and try not to think about anything funny (smirking is not looked well upon) and only at the point of leaving or entry can you risk a polite- but not overly friendly- smile.
In France, this is just not on. You greet and are greeted with a bonjour/ bonsoir- according to the time of day, of course- and then wish and are wished a bonne journée/ bonne soirée- again, according to the time of day. Where it gets interesting/ complicated is where people’s perception of afternoon/ evening differs.
I’ve been wished bonsoir in Supermarché Simply at 17H30 and I’ve been wished bonjour in the lift at 21H (that’s half five and nine o’clock for those uncomfortable with the 24-hour clock- you know who you are- and that H instead of the typically British colon can be explained only, I think, by the layout of a French keyboard- you’d probably have to press precisely seven buttons at the same time to get a colon). Personally, I follow a simplistic thought process. If it’s dark, it’s soir. If it’s not quite dark, but I’ve eaten, it’s soir. If I’m just back from a 16H-18H lecture, it’s definitely bloody soir.
It definitely was soir, however, when, after drinking a bottle of red wine with Kettle, I swayed out of the lift and wished the random French person within it a “bonne journée”. At half past midnight.
Have a Bonne Soirée, Bilinguals!
There’s a lot to be said for finding comfort in others when you find yourself feeling a bit lost in a new country. EIMA provided that team spirit that I was really craving. Here was a society that wanted to make me part of something beautiful and international and crazy and fun and I clung to that. Briefly.
Just as Freshers’ Week got off to a pretty crazy start in the first few days, with everyone clinging to anyone and everyone- and trying and failing to remember hundreds of new faces and names with alcohol thrown into the mix- the evening EIMA welcome events had much the same effect. This time with language barriers and the sheer exhaustion that this causes to contend with also. However, being much older and wiser than I was as a Fresher, I was much better prepared and spent a fair proportion of the evening talking to like-minded Erasmus students. And then hung out with Palm Tree and Trop Bien.
Gravitating towards French people on a night out (as well as always inviting Token French Person to predominantly “English” nights out) frequently has hilarious consequences, as the quality of French I speak and am taught declines suddenly after a certain point in the evening. Allow me to explain.
Until this point, my alco-ego gives me the confidence I need to speak without thinking, naturally, using words and phrases I’ve just learnt, which are therefore current and useful. This has a similar effect to throwing the textbook out the window and gives me the best chance of passing for a native- hilariously Anglo-Saxon hair colour aside.
Suddenly, however, I’ll pass the point of bilingual competency and will have a much more fluid concept of which language should be used with whom. I call this the Mrs Doubtfire Bilingualism Phenomenon. You know the bit where Daniel/Mrs Doubtfire is attempting to simultaneously attend a family dinner and a job interview? And inevitably sits down at his potential boss’ table dressed as Mrs Doubtfire? Imagine the effects of attempting to pass equal amounts of time with a group of English speakers who I wouldn’t normally speak to in French and a group of French speakers who I would never speak to in English, or who simply don’t understand English…
Or worse, I’ll be oblivious to the fact that French words are creeping into my English vocabulary and vice versa- “En fait, it’s been like that for a while, tu vois, so it’s not… it’s not… c’est pas pour ça, hein?” I therefore come across as, at best, a bad bilingual piss artist, or at worst, the sort of bilingual that loves to forget that everyone else is not bilingual and to remind everyone that they are so… In short, I come across as a bit of an arse.
As for being taught French, I’ll begin the evening by learning really useful things, like names of cocktails, alternative words for stuff I talk about all the time- like the verb “charier” (to mock)- or dozens of adjectives to describe how awful assignments, lectures and my workload are. And then past a certain point in the evening, I’ll learn 17 alternative ways of calling someone a slut.
Occasionally though, my French company and I stumble across a cross-linguistic gem. The crème de la crème being when I was introduced to a friend of Palm Tree and Trop Bien, whose name was Fanny.
Being rather tipsy, I admit that I was polite for all of about four seconds before I burst out laughing. I quickly apologised and explained that Fanny meant something potentially rather amusing in English. I even had the vocabulary to translate it, having spent my first year of university living with Allstar (who I’ve briefly mentioned before), a French-Moroccan with a hilariously immature sense of humour. Then it was Trop Bien’s turn to burst out laughing. She explained that Fanny’s surname meant “golden”. I turned to my new acquaintance and quipped, “Nice to meet you, Golden Fanny.” I fear the nickname may have stuck. She is an excellent sport however, Golden Fanny.
A couple of days later, I was introduced to two of Token French Person’s French friends and, having been kicked out of a beer garden for BYOB (Bringing Your Own Booze)- beer is not cheap in bars- we were milling around across the street commenting on various aspects of English and French culture (and hardly being complimentary about either). The rest of the group consisted mainly of English folk, two guys sharing the name Edward and both preferring to be called Ed. After a lull in our conversation, one of my new acquaintances turned to me pensively and after a brief pause, asked “The two guys called Ed? Ça veut dire “tête”, non ?” I have since nicknamed both Edwards “Ed the Head”. I treated my new acquaintances to a quick explanation of how “h” is a bloody awful sound for most non-natives speakers of English to pick up and we returned to our musings of France vs. England.
During this same soirée, Token French Person got so hilariously plastered that she found unprecedented confidence in speaking English. So much so, that she wanted to shout about her newfound confidence on the bus, the metro, in the street… and when speaking to French people. Much to the confusion and entertainment of my French acquaintances, I found myself acting as a Drunken English to Tipsy French interpreter.
The Worst English Stereotypes
On my second night in France, I found myself in a typically British pub, called the Frog et Rosbif (Frogs, sorry, French people, call English folk “rosbif” because we apparently turn pink in the sun- it’s particularly true of me, sadly). The pub was a cliché of the worst English stereotypes- football, daft headgear and not glasses but pitchers of beer (unfortunately not at English but French prices- ouch). I loved it. Not because I felt particularly comfortable, but because when I spoke to what turned out to be an English waiter, I clocked on to his accent straight away and he continued to speak to me in French. Score one for the Rosbif.
You can’t take the Blighty out the Rosbif though. The following evening, I was having drinks at an EIMA organised meet and greet with a group of English, French and Finnish students. My Finnish friend, whom I have nicknamed Nemo (for she is a ginger Fin) proposed a toast and as the glasses clinked, called “Kippis!” My English brain immediately tuned in and I replied, “Haha, yes! Get pissed!” I had completely failed to comprehend that she had attempted to teach me the Finnish word for “Cheers!” (which I will now never forget). Then, as if I hadn’t already made it abundantly clear that there is at least some truth to some English stereotypes, I began granting. That is to say,I reverted to the most stereotypically English persona one can invoke. The Hugh Grant. “Oh my word, I’m so sorry…”
Once the week was out, some of us (slightly less of the English) decided to take things a little more steadily. Which of course means replacing beer and wine with tea. This is how Kettle earned his nickname. Rather proud of the Keep Calm and Carry On teabags my dear mother, The Coordinator had slipped into my suitcase when I wasn’t looking, I invited Kettle and Nemo over for tea.
“You have a kettle?!”, he cried.
“No”, I replied, “but I have a pan, water and a hob…”
“Oh my God, I can make tea!”, Kettle exclaimed.
After a reasonable amount of ridicule, I put the casserole (pan) on.