Bonjour, I’m Hot. Shall We Kiss?
“La machine ne marche pas!” (The machine isn’t working!)
I was getting seriously frustrated. I was stuck in a parking lot in Toulouse at an exit booth that kept spitting out my ticket, and a long queue of irritated drivers had lined up behind me. I’d apologized as best I could to the other drivers by pointing to the booth and then slicing my finger across my throat which I figured would get the message across that the thing was dead. Either that, or I was about to reach the end of my earthly tether, which would be equally true. To make matters worse the parking guard who was locked inside his office (COVID, ya know), was completely ignoring me, seemingly content to leaf through whatever magazine he was reading while motorists languished outside. Why was I not getting through to this guy???
One of the cars started honking, which set off a cacophony of other honks. People were not amused.
“La machine, elle ne marche pas” I insisted “mon ticket, elle ne veut pas le prendre” (The machine isn’t working, it won’t take my ticket)
I waved the offending piece of paper, and pointed to the machine once again. Still nothing, not even a glance. Perhaps he couldn’t hear me?
Suddenly it occurred to me what I’d done wrong. A terrible faux pas, an inexcusable cultural misstep, the kind that so often happens when you live in another country and forget because…well, stress or whatever.
“BONJOUR” I shouted through the glass, as clearly as I could “la machine ne marche pas” (HELLO! The machine isn’t working)
He looked up, smiled wryly and was suddenly helpful, or at least begrudgingly helpful enough to sort me out. I’d forgotten to say the magic-word-that-precedes-all and despite my obviously foreign accent and the fact that the entire garage was backed up with angry customers, he wasn’t going to let me off the hook until I did. What if I hadn’t figured it out? I could just imagine the headlines “foreigner expired after 126 hour ordeal at Hospital garage for lack of respect”. The article would undoubtedly be tragic, but everyone would agree the outcome was only to be expected.
Late that afternoon as I was still fuming a bit over the whole thing, a thunderstorm came through the valley.
It was a spectacular event. The sky turned a dark grey with bulbous clouds that rolled in like billows of giant smoke. Then the wind came, always the precursor to big storms here, whipping trees and shutters against the house. Then droplets, tentative at first, building, growing to a crescendo of hailing rain. Finally lightning and thunder, the most awesome of all natures fury. I am fascinated and frightened by them the same way I am with fire and big seas. It’s thrilling to see something so intense, humbling to know you have zero control, mesmerizing to experience. And at the end of it all if you’re incredibly lucky, you’ll get a rainbow to remind you how beautiful it all can be.
That evenings rainbow was the most saturated and bright that I’ve ever seen. A double rainbow glowing like a brilliant halo against the dark sky. And from that contrast I thought about my day, the cultural differences and things we sometimes misunderstand about one another. They can be both good and bad, interesting yet incredibly annoying at the same time, but they’re really what make this travel life so beautiful.
It’s all part of the journey…
I’m Hot For You
“Je suis chaude”
I knew it was wrong as soon as I said it, mostly based on the sniggering and “ah oui?” I got in response. Of course it was an amateur language error, the kind of mistake you only make once in public company. The right thing to say if you’re warm (as in temperature) is “j’ai chaud” whereas the other indicates you are hot-to-trot (not saying you won’t ever need the latter phrase, but you might want to choose your moment). It’s just one of many millions of silly errors that are so easy to make when you speak a foreign language, and for the most part you simply have to shrug and laugh it off.
A much more complicated and important issue, at least in French is the whole “you” thing.
The basics of it are simple enough. You use the formal “vous” with elders and people you don’t know and the casual “tu” with your friends and children. The confusing bit is everything in-between. Like when exactly are you considered friends? At what point do kids become adults, grammatically-speaking? What if your friend is also your doctor (do you use the casual term for dinner, and the more formal term when having your annual gyno exam at the office the next day??)? How do you address a deity, like say God?? And what if you’re speaking to a child who also happens to be royalty??
Interestingly enough we actually have formal and non-formal terms in Danish (“du” and “de”), but the formal term has fallen so far out of fashion that you rarely hear it anymore unless someone is addressing the Queen. In France it’s still quite entrenched, although you do hear folks, especially older folks lamenting about how the young don’t speak proper French like they used.
In a way it’s comforting to know older generations complain equally about youth worldwide.
As for me, I’ve been known to flip-flop tragically between the two much like a dying fish (and with much the same visual effect), although I’ve gotten better at sticking to “vous” over the years and have learned to ask “on se tutoie?” when I’m looking to transition from one to the next.
Oh and in case you’re wondering, if your doctor is also your friend you may use “tu” throughout (I asked to be sure lol), and for the God thing it’s also “tu”….seriously. Finally for royalty it’s always “vous”. unless you happen to be anti-royalist which (as you might imagine) most French rightly are, in which case of course it’s “tu”, yet again. See how easy it is?
Pro Tip for French cultural amateurs #1: In case the situation should ever arise for you, the right way to say I’m hot for you is “je suis chaud(e) pour toi”. If you’re still saying “vous” to each other, you’ve probably jumped a smidgen too far ahead in the relationship, grammatically speaking. And lastly, if you’re talking about your cat or how hot he/she might be, try to remember its “chat” and not “chatte” which again, would take you in a whole other direction.
Shall We Kiss?
I’ve always loved French kissing.
I’m talking about “la bise” of course, the little peck on the cheeks you give each other when you meet. The other kind isn’t too bad either, but perhaps a touch too forward for a simple “hello” (a whole other kind of cultural miss-step). Bises are intimate without being intimate, a way to hug without the actually hugging, a personal hello and goodbye for everyone you meet.
They take time to adjust to, if you’re not used to that kind of thing, and also time to do. So if you’re at a party with 20 people and need to leave say, you’ll need at least 30 minutes for goodbye bises not to mention the little chit-chat that goes along.
On top of that there’s the whole nuance of how to do it which can be a real minefield for foreigners. Do you give 2 kisses or 3? Perhaps even 4? Do you start on the left or the right? What if you end up in a ping-pong back and forth (he/she goes left and you go the same way)? Do you play dodgeball deciding where to land kind-of-thing? And what kind of “kiss” is it actually?
Being the curious type, I’ve asked our neighbors about this and learned quite a bit in the process. Surprisingly, it’s not as straight-forward as it might seem and although there are some rules, even French-born get confused at times.
In general terms bises are really just cheek touches done with a “kissing sound”. 2 kisses are the most common number, but 4 kisses are done in some spots up north, with 3 kisses the norm in the SE. In some regions how many kisses you give is still a huge debate. Finally, you tend to start on the right cheek in the west, but use the left cheek in the east, with a few exceptional exceptions (naturally) and if you end up in a ping-pong situation you eventually just let one person lead and figure it out. Fun, isn’t it?
Of course COVID has effectively killed la bise in France so all of us have been out of practice with this for a while. There’s much discussion and debate about whether it will ever return again, or become as common as it was been before. Personally of course, I really hope it does. This is one cultural habit I’m totally down with.
Pro Cultural Tip #2: Do not confuse “bises” with “baise”. You may get waaaay more than you bargained for. And hugging? Well, it’s not really a thing. You may find yourself stepping forward into the void as your intended hugee recoils in horror and confusion.
Passing Storms Cool The Day
It’s cool today.
Misty clouds hang low in the valley and the ground is moist and fragrant from the storm that passed last night. Polly, Paul and I went on a long walk around the neighborhood this morning, waving “bonjour” to the few cars that passed, stopping to chat to the asses down the way (we said “bonjour” first and used the “tu” form of course), saying “bonjour” to the Sunday cyclists (it’s Tour de France time, and the French are serious about cycling) and basically just enjoying the cool weather.
Polly girl was happy and feeling more peppy than she has in a while. The big sore on her side is sloooowly (it’s so, so slow) healing and her arthritis seems under control for now. She’s not the young pup she used to be, but then neither are we. I’m waaay past the “mademoiselle” stage and am often “chaude”, for reasons that have nothing to do with handsome French men. And we both creak in ways we never did before, despite regular lubrication with French wine.
Sometimes youth seems to pass as fast as the storms that roll through our valley.
Soon the warm weather will start building again and we will finally (hopefully) decide where, if and how we’re traveling this summer. Much depends on our Polly girl and a few other things we have cooking, which I’ll blog about soon. In the meantime we’ll just enjoy the storms and rainbows that come our way. And hope we don’t make too many faux pas in-between.
So, my dear readers I’m dying to hear. Have you committed any embarrassing cultural miss-steps in your travels, either at home or abroad? What happened? What did you do? DO share and comment below!SPONSORED LINK:
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Lauren Brown says
Beautiful rainbow! Hope you both are doing well and have avoided Covid!
We have my friend! All fully vaccinated now too.
Pauline Conn says
Thinking about how Americans often consider the French to be “so rude” when, apparently, it is we who are rude! This explains a lot! New perspectives are always good. Thanks for another wonderful post. Send the rain here, please. Roasting in AZ.
Indeed. What’s considered rude is often a matter of perspective or culture. There are so many things I’m used to doing in US which would be considered totally rude here, and visa versa. It takes some brain gym to figure it all out lol.
Once I was talking to a neighbor who was from France. I was telling him how really nice all of the people were that we met in our two weeks in France. Hs comment was, “ Well you haven’t been to Paris” and he did not mean it in a positive way.
HA! Yeah there’s a big divide between Parisians and non-Parisians in France. I’ve met nice people in both places, but most rural French don’t trust “city people” and visa versa. Since I live in the countryside now, I totally get it. Folks here are the best 🙂
Angie Quantrell says
Hmmm. I think perhaps I should get on with “lubricating” my joints with French wine! Some days! Fun post! I do love the custom of la bise. I hope it comes back!
Baking here in the Pacific Northwest. 115 this week, several days. Many over 100. It makes me cranky! And the kitty Monet is none to happy with us keeping her in so she will survive a fur coat and temps in the 100s.
Looking forward to more blogs and beautiful photos. 🙂
The heat wave in PNW is really bad! I feel for all my friends up there. Hopefully it’ll all cool back down to normal again soon. Stay safe..and cool!
Love, love this! You seem to have the heart and soul to express the exact correct thing! Bonjour,
Darhl Stultz says
I went to France to work for a year maintaining computers at Sud Aviation in Toulouse way back in1967. I spoke exactly two words of French when I arrived — Oui and Merci. I used the P&P method of ordering food in restaurants… I would Point to an item on the menu and then Pray that it would be something I would enjoy. One day, I wanted mustard for my steak and I could not get my waiter to understand me. So, I whipped out my phrase book, found the entry for “mustard”, pointed to it and turned the book towards the waiter. Unfortunately, my finger moved and he saw me pointing to “mustache”. To say that the waiter was further confused is to put it mildly.
Too funny! Thanks for sharing!
Cultural miss-step: In Venice, my husband and I were returning to our hotel room during a visit in August (what is the Italian phrase for “blistering hot”?) and made the ugly American mistake of asking for a bucket of ice. Oops.
HA! You know I saw a bag of ice at my local Carrefour the other day and got quite excited as I’ve not seen them here before. Ice is just so normal in US, and so not normal here.
Jennifer R says
ha ha this brought back memories of my difficulty with German. That language has a similar formal / informal division of grammatical constructs. I learned German as part of my corporate employment for a a German-owned company. And hence, ALL of my grammar was of the formal nature. And then, a friend of the family married a lovely German woman, and they have children. Clearly I should be speaking to her, and the children using informal speech. But I don’t KNOW that form. (And frankly, the formal version is a bit rusty, although easier than the informal form.) So it’s a little confusing, and difficult. I definitely got a chuckle out of that flowchart. And, in German, the danger is in the verb “to know.” There is one word for “to be acquainted with” and another for “to know in a really intimate way.” To further confuse things, the second word has that meaning when used with people, and so is not used with anyone except one’s partner, but is perfectly fine, and correct, when applied to facts or bodies of knowledge. One shouldn’t mix those up! Ah, I imagine those learning English have similar struggles, At least French and German have somewhat-consistently-applied rules. English is just a mess. 🙂
Your photos are gorgeous.
LOVE your stories Jennifer. Never knew those details about German. Thanks for sharing!
David Michael says
Reminds me of our first time driving through France by car, stopped at a gas station, asked for gas, and the attendant brushed me off. Until… I said “Bon Jour”. Then…he poured the gas. That trip was a real learning experience and frustrating at times.
About ten years later I took my kids (young teens) on a bike camping trip through the Netherlands, Belgium, and France where we camped every night in local campgrounds. The differences on that trip traveling in France were amazing. In nearly every town, people would wave, show us around town, and made sure we had no problems. Indeed, on our last week on the coast, a couple from Paris who camped in front of our tent, gave us a key to their apartment to use for our five day stay in Paris. Absolutely amazing!!! So…if you want to enjoy France and meet the people, travel by bicycle!
The French love, love, love bicycling. We have big groups in our area who go out en masse every weekend, and the Tour de France obviously dominates TV when it’s on. I’ve always wanted to do a longer bike tour here. One day!
Bob McLean says
Enjoy the cooler whether while it lasts. It’ll be heating up soon enough. Bloody hot here in Ontario as well. Yes, Canada. It gets hot.
I’ve always thought you were rather “hot”, but cultural norms being what they are, didn’t think it would be prudent to state the obvious.
I’ve never made that “je suis chaud” mistake, but once upon a time when we were living in Puerto Rico, I said something to the young female order taker at a fast food place that resulted in some hilarity. To the point where her supervisor had to intervene. To this day I don’t know what I said. Broken Spanglish apparently. My wife and I were simply ordering Taco Salads. Maybe something to do with the Taco part? The not so subtle difference between “chat” and “chatte”?
And on the kissing front, there was a time when one of my wife’s female co-workers asked her if it would OK to kiss me? They like to kiss in Puerto Rico. Seems I was “hands off”. Or…”lips off”? Well, I was the Bosses husband, after all.
Wonderful! I’ve definitely had those moments where I clearly did or said something wrong, but just never figured it out, so I can totally relate. Love the stories.
Ruth Samson says
Thanks for an enjoyable read and some good chuckles! I am English Canadian married to a French Acadian Canadian and have Grandchildren in Montreal. I learned French in university and was taught to use “vous” pretty much everywhere except close friends and family. Then we moved to an Acadian area where pretty much only the priests were addressed with “vous”! Then I go to Montreal and like you I do the tragically dying fish flip-flop. I have also demonstrated my inability to shut off my French translation brain when I return to my English speaking province and continue to regale English only librarians, doctors and shop assistants in fluent French .
Back many, many years ago when I was a senior in high school, I went to Mexico with the Spanish Club (although I was a 7 year German student.) The teacher kindly agreed to allow me to go along, quite a favor and treat for me. Young, somewhat immature, having a ball with all these new friends -you can picture it -me with long blonde hair, quite chatty and giggly -> not compatible with social rules for public transportation, I found out. The more the teacher, Mr Hardy, implored me to be quiet, the more I giggled. It was contagious and soon the group of 20 was snickering. The bus driver finally had enough and put the whole group off the bus way short of our destination. Made for a tense afternoon.
Oh dear, what a hoot….in retrospect of course lol. I’m sure it was mortifying at them time. Great story.
Love it! Yup travel and languages sure can get easily get mixed up. At one point I was at a French grocery store texting to family on the phone in Danish and then turned to the cashier and spoke Danish to him too. Lots of odd looks all around lol. Thanks for sharing.
It was 45C in my back yard shade yesterday. A town called Lytton broke the Canadian record yesterday of 46.1.Supposed to reach 47 today. Incredibly hot for the West coast of British Columbia. Too hot to be hot (to trot). When I lived in Queensland, Australia, I was playing rugby and my wife told some friends that she going to “root for Nick”. No no not here!. Lots of examples. Make sure the English don’t really “knock you up” in the morning. Love your blog.
Haha! I could easily made that same mistake. But boo for the heat….that’s far, far too hot for anything. Hope it’s cools down to more normal temps again soon.
Thanks that was a hoot! I respect the way the French always say Bonjour to greet no matter who both are. I lived in Japan where the honorific thing is also a mine field !!
Your brother dropped by yesterday so we had a good catch up. Hope you and your dad are well x
How wonderful to hear from you Cathy! And yes, I remember some of those honorific traditions in Japan, from when my parents lived there. Definitely a steep learning curve for foreigners!
Sue Malone says
I keep trying to remember any kind of similar goof up but so far my aging memory is forgiving me and letting me think I haven’t managed it. Or at least I didn’t know it if it happened. Although I am known for putting my foot in my mouth often when I blurt out something without thinking. Much worse at that when I was younger, and have calmed down a bit as I get older. Learned a LOT from your blog today, as I often do. Such fun experiencing an inside view of life in the French countryside. Yes. Hot here in Grants Pass. It is cooling to simple 100 this week. My plants aren’t happy either way. Extended days over 100 turns some leaf tips crispy no matter how much water I add to them. And I don’t have a lot of extra water to add! News is showing brown crispy tips all many of the firs in the fields of Christmas trees throughout the state. A big loss for Oregon farmers. No one will buy brown tipped firs I am afraid. Stay cool and much love to Polly. Good to hear she is plunking along and doing a bit better. Oh how we love our babies and how hard it is when we get to these golden years with them.