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!