I’ve been trying to learn French since I was fifteen, which is about two centuries ago.
At this point, I would still describe myself as an advanced beginner when it comes to understanding colloquial French. So I try to watch French movies as much as possible.
I have several movie packages with my cable subscription, but they keep showing the same dull American “action movies” and I’m sick and tired of the car chasing scenes, special effects and blood and gore in movies that are clearly designed for an audience with an IQ below seventy.
So I watch French movies instead based on the theory that even if it is a dumb movie, and it often is, it will be good for something because it should be good for my French.
I’ve lived in a number of countries on three continents, but I never lived in France. I started learning the language in high school, but I only visited France twice as a tourist. So there is a lot of things I don’t get about the French culture when I watch French movies or TV series (I try to watch Plus Belle La Vie sometime when I am not busy), such as:
1. How the French keep kissing each other on the cheek.
Men and women kiss each other on the cheek, while men still mostly shake hands, though not always.
I get that every culture has different customs.
Mongolians add butter to their tea because it’s cold in Mongolia and they need the calories in the harsh climate. Eskimos rub their noses when they greet each other, mostly to show that they come in peace, although the real reason may be to make sure that their noses have not fallen off yet in the cold winters beyond the Arctic circle. The Japanese bow deeply to each other and keep their head down for a precisely specified time period depending on social status.
And the French keep kissing each other on the cheek. OK, I don’t really have a problem with that. The Japanese have a bowing culture because they are very conscious of the social order, and the French have a kissing culture because it is a nation that puts more emphasis on tenderness than the proper social order, I get that.
No big mystery there, but why do they sometime kiss each other on the cheek only once, but sometime twice or three times, and sometime four times?
And both kissing parties always seem to know exactly how many times it should be done and precisely at what interval. Should one of the kissing parties linger on the other person’s cheek for a split second longer, it would spoil the natural effect of the whole kissing procedure and the result might be somewhat awkward. For example, instead of kissing each other four times according to the proper rhythm demanded by the vibrant French culture, they might end up doing it only twice or three times, which would probably qualify as anti-social behavior.
But that never happens, at least not in French movies that I have seen.
2. How they keep drinking red wine on every possible occasion.
Regardless of the time of day, the French just ask each other “Tu veux prendre un verre?” (literally, “You want to take a glass?”), and they either go straight to a cupboard in the kitchen where they have a bottle of red wine waiting for them already uncorked and started on, or if they are outside their home, they go to a restaurant and drink red wine. And they never drink white wine in movies. They may be asked by a waiter whether they want white or red, but they always go for red.
They drink it with or without a meal, and then they get up from the table and drive somewhere in their “bagnole” (car) usually a Peugot, sometime a German car, typically a Ford if the person driving the car is about to be ambushed or meet with a tragic end in some other fashion.
Based on what I see in French movies, it must be legal for French people to drive after they have been drinking their national libation of choice even if they have just finished off a whole bottle of red wine.
They even give red wine to children (which would be a major crime here in US) if the kids ask for it in French movies, although sometime they just pour a little bit of it into the glass and fill the rest with water for the French enfant terrrible.
3. How they keep drinking beer from tiny glasses that seem to be wine glasses, but a bit shorter.
I see it in movies all the time, and it actually happened to me too. Every time when I ordered a beer in a French restaurant, they brought it to me in one of those funny little glasses that look like wine glasses that should be recalled for safety reasons because they are too short. You could easily knock them over when you have a few beers in you. That’s why in Germany, they drink beer from a big solid “Stein”, which literally means “a stone” because the glass is as heavy as a stone. In France, they drink beer from diminutive wine glasses instead. What a perfect symbol for a terrible clash of incompatible cultures!
I once bought a set of glasses in Walmart that looked exactly like the French beer glasses, just for the heck of it. These glasses must have been made in China by Chinese people, who simply ignored proper specifications for glasses that white devils may use in America, to try drinking beer that I usually have with my dinner like the French on the theory that it just might make me more fluent in French.
But one day, when my son happened to stop by while we were having dinner, he looked at me with an astonished look on his face and said “You drink beer from a wine glass”? It was the same look he gave me when he me asked one day “You wear pink socks”? No, I don’t were pink socks!!! The socks were originally ochre, but because they too were made in China, after I threw them in the washing machine with some other items of clothing, they became pink and I didn’t really notice.
So I stopped wearing pink socks and drinking beer from those defective wine glasses because you never know who might stop by and catch you doing something silly like that.
After a hiatus of more than three decades, I’ll be in France for about a week at the beginning of September for The Fourth IAPTI Conference in Bordeaux.
I’ll probably have a list of a few other things that baffle me about the French people for you by September.
See you in Bordeaux! I’ll have a teaser booklet of my posts with me – ask and you shall receive!