Tag Archives: France

Sweeping snow off of strawberry tunnels

Last week, during the first week of March, we had one foot of snow. This was the first time it had snowed in and around our village for four years. This is not too important, in itself. I’m sure that the Ohioans and the Norwegians would yawn and roll their eyes after all of the snow they’ve seen this winter.

No, the really important thing was that our near neighbors, who are primarily winegrowers but who also have peach, cherry, and apple orchards also plant strawberry plants that they sell to market distributors. They plant the strawberries in December. A bit early, you say?

No, because the first seasonal fruits to reach the markets in France are called “primeurs” (“firsts”). This means that these fruits and vegetables command a premium price, so a grower is motivated to plant at the earliest possible moment. Which leads me to the subject of this post.

The plants were coming along fine, in rows, sheltered under low plastic tunnels that protect them from wind and cold weather. But – nobody counted on it snowing. So, the night it snowed – all night long – Monsieur, Madame, and their son who is in charge of the family business, took their brooms and continually swept the snow off of the tunnels to keep them from collapsing on the plants and, by extrapolation, ruining the strawberry plants and their chances of making a profit from the sale of these primeurs. And there were a lot of rows and a lot of tunnels.

We had invited our neighbors in for a visit (the apéritif in French) and they told us about it. You know, that event really made an impression on me. We are so very far removed from the actual act of growing the food that we buy and eat.

But I’m sure I’ll think about them sweeping snow off of their strawberry tunnels the next time I eat strawberries.

A bientôt – See you soon.

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Why didn’t you get my joke?

Humor. That’s a serious word. Especially when we’re talking about how it translates (or doesn’t) across cultures.

It has to do with so many “culturally wired” conceptions. It’s in our body language when we make the joke, or something as tiny as an inflection of the voice, or a look on your face.

And the subjects we use in our jokes. What makes a joke a joke in a certain culture? I’m still not completely clear after five years of living in France, immersed in the culture.

My husband says that when you make a joke in France, that it’s about something that’s too absurd to be taken seriously. But when I do the same thing, he often doesn’t understand that I’m joking. What’s the deal? Or more precisely, what’s the secret to humor – in any culture?

Sometimes I think people don’t get my jokes simply because they know I’m not French. It seems that there is a kind of instantaneous intellectual analysis on their part, as in “She’s not French. Is she making a joke?” I may be totally off, but I think this sometimes happens and they hesitate because they aren’t sure I intended to make a joke.

Another thing…I recently got into a cultural tangle (mental, not physical!) due to a misinterpretation of a phrase. And it made me as mad as an old, wet hen as my grandmother would say. A Frenchwoman, fairly good acquaintance of ours, made a remark (a joke?) in response to a comment I had just made about entering the French culture by way of French cuisine. Meaning, by learning about the different regions and their different types of cuisine.

Now, in French, “cuisine” can mean either “food” or “kitchen”. She said, “You surely didn’t enter France by the kitchen.” Now, I interpreted that as meaning “You surely didn’t enter France by the back door.” And I was very vexed. To say the least.

Later, my husband told me I had completely misunderstood what she meant, because in France the saying would be “You entered France by the back door” (vous êtes entré par la porte arrière) and NOT “You entered France by the kitchen (door)”. Sigh.

Probably, she was making a play on words which I didn’t catch. A misunderstanding, or a “malentendu” as we say in French. I’m trying to arrive at the place where I can give her the benefit of the doubt.

It’s those kinds of things that make me want to speak in English exclusively for at least 24 hours. But, luckily, tomorrow is another day in the world of my ongoing cultural adventure.

Until then, à bientôt – see you soon.

On the menu: Expression du jour…

French cartoon icons "Aterix and Obelix"

It started as a game to help me become bicultural. My husband and I invented the “expression du jour” during my first year in France.

Practically every morning after breakfast, we would write on the “menu” (a piece of paper attached with magnets to the side of the refrigerator), a typical French saying, with its English translation opposite. During the day, I would try to use it several times in conversation, sometimes winding up with strange variations.

Have you realized that there are hundreds of expressions in our own language that we use without thinking. They reside in our cultural memory bank and slide effortlessly out to the tip of our tongue (au bout de la langue!) with no conscious thought on our part.

But when speaking a language other than your native tongue, I’ve realized the importance of these “cultural word tools” – and that you can’t be without them. Because you need them to understand the sense of what someone is telling you, to catch the point of a joke, or to make a play on words.

Here are a few of my favorites just for fun. In English “When pigs fly”, translates into the French expression “When hens have teeth” (quand les poules auront des dents). I licked my fingers” translates to “I licked all five fingers and my thumb” (j’ai leche les cinq doigts et le pouce), and “That gets on my nerves” becomes “That breaks my feet” (cela me casse les pieds).

Well, I’ve made a gigantic cultural leap in speaking French! Oh yes, most of it is mastering the grammar and syntax. But understanding hundred of cultural references – from cartoon characters [recognize Asterix and Obelix above – iconic French cartoon figures] to political incidents to literature – and everyday expressions -is essential. Why?

It’s helped me to establish relationships with people. It lets me go beyond surface interactions and find some deeper ways to communicate, because I find that people are more likely to open up when they see that you know their culture, which includes their traditions and sayings.

It’s another major key to the cultural code…

Thanks to http://www.myfreewallpapers.net/cartoons/pages/asterix-and-obelix.shtml for the photo for the photo of Asterix and Obelix

Can you say “bonjour”?

When you go into a store or a small shop in France, remember to say Bonjour!

This is another important part of the cultural code in France that should be number one on your list – whether you are a tourist or a newly arrived resident from “other parts” as we say in Texas. Y’all don’t want to be considered rude, or worse, lacking in “savoir faire” (knowing what to say or do at the right time, or the right way to act in any given situation).

Believe me, they know you’re not French by your accent, but using this one word opens the way to a positive exchange with the vendor or salesperson.

Turn this around and look at it from your own view of the French cultural code. You walk into a shop, and don’t say anything. Then, when you try to buy something or ask a question, you get a sort of stonewall response. You think “I heard the French are rude, and I believe it.” What’s happened? They don’t understand why you haven’t been polite enough/cultured enough to say “Hello”. The Hello/Bonjour acknowledges them as an individual. Think about it.

By the way, if this sounds “teachy”, let me just say that I learned the above by making the mistake.

A kiss is just a kiss, A smile is just a smile…

Well, that’s what the song says. But…here in France I’ve learned that a smile is not such a simple thing.
Oh yes, everyone smiles when they’re happy – that’s universal. But, here in France, I’ve learned that the cultural code for smiling – that is, how it can be interpreted – is not so simple.

Example. As an American, we are “culturally programmed” to smile from birth. If you don’t smile, even when you don’t feel like it, people’s reaction tends to be “What’s the matter with him/her?” “Are they angry, not feeling well, or just plain unfriendly?”

But in France, people don’t trust the “American” smile – teeth showing. Why not? Because they think it’s not sincere, even fake.

Of course, it’s perfectly alright to smile pleasantly once in a while. But it is not a “tooth” smile, more an upward curve of the lips, and the smile is in the eyes. Even with friends or family, the French smile far less than Americans.

Don’t get me wrong. In fact, the French have a well-developed sense of humor. But, you start to pay attention to the eyes and the expression on people’s faces to understand what’s going on with them.

And you thought a smile was just a smile…