Feb 04 2012

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escaping… your cultural identity

I often feel an affinity with the French language, and some words in particular make perfect sense to me, are more natural to me than English words. Take, for example, the verb “parler”, which is “to speak”. “I speak” is “je parle”. Of course I parle. You parles, we parlons, they parlent. There’s more onomatopoeic sense than in “I speak”. But then I hear some words that completely confound me even after I find out their translation. Words that seem absurd, such as “pétoncles”, which is “scallops”. Why on earth is there a word like “pétoncle”? And then there’s the ungainly “soutien-gorge” for bra.

I suppose this ridiculous, almost-anger-type reaction must be an expression of culture shock. It’s surprising what you can be bothered by, even after almost five months. For example, the other day in the supermarket I was shopping for salad, and had in mind a crisp, simple iceberg lettuce. Alas, iceberg lettuces are difficult to get in France, at least in winter. The French have incredible lettuces, actually, lettuces of all different shades that open up into a large, sprawling flower-type-things and that are delicious. But as I realised there were no icebergs, I gazed upon the bed of massive, sprawling, weirdly-coloured lettuces as if they were triffids. At my supermarket, they’ve got a machine that sprays a fine mist over the lettuces to keep them fresh, but to me, in my state of disgust, it seemed as if the lettuces were mutant animal-vegetables that required constant feeding by osmosis. One of the ways in which I’ve gotten over this horror is by discovering the most delicious salad in the world: mâche. It comes in tiny little florets, is dark green, and has a sweet and nutty flavour. It doesn’t exist in Australia, but it’s incredible, much tastier than the iceberg, and I eat it every day. It’s like praline chocolate disguised as a leaf.

A bit more on words: I’ve been having a wonderful time discovering and practising French expletives, such as “merde”, “enculé”, and the therapeutically onomatopoeic “putain” (you have to spit out the “p” and you let the “ain”, without pronouncing the “n”, extend in proportion with your annoyance or shock). And, if you’re really annoyed, you say “putain bordel de merde” (basically, whorehouse of excrement). It’s interesting that the two most common expressions of disgust or annoyance – “putain” and “bordel”, (“quel bordel” signifying “what a mess!” “what a disaster!”) —refer to, respectively, women prostitutes and brothels. Perhaps this reflects a historic taboo that encompasses sex, paid-sex, and perhaps a certain misogyny, that isn’t so apparent in Australia. Our primarily expletive – fuck – has sexual connotations but it is by no means gendered or indicative of particular modes of sex. On the other hand, I highly doubt that the common Anglophone derogatory expression “that’s so gay” would have a translation in French. Oh, but of course, Australia also has the dreadful “c**t”, which is much worse than “putain”, using, as it does, the vagina as a most offensive insult.

Despite the prevalence with which swear words, or “gros mots” are used, France is an incredibly polite society. Not saying “Bonjour” or “bonsoir” to the shopkeeper when you enter their realm, or to the other inhabitants of your apartment building when you see them, is considered rude. Of course, I’m speaking in particular here about the south of France. The politeness of Southern France is, I believe, well demonstrated by the case of drunken and lecherous men who approach you at night when you’re walking home. Whilst in Australia you can expect to hear a slurred “Hey, wanna root?” or “nice tits”, I’ve had one drunken and amorous man slur “You’re so beautiful” and another ask “Would you like to have a coffee with me?”. The intent is the same, but the expression is so different that it almost makes the experience a delight, if not amusing.

And, speaking of well-wishes, the French are delightfully exact with this pleasantry. Of course there’s “have a nice day”, used very often, but there’s also “have a nice start of the week”, “have a nice end of the week”, “have a nice end of the day” and “have a nice end of the month”. This might reflect a heightened awareness of temporal specificity, or perhaps it’s just a cute convention.

Another lovely thing here is that inviting someone, or being invited, to dinner becomes a real event, even if it happens on a Monday night. Any half-decent host will provide five courses: apero (basically, fancy nibbles), entrée, main course, cheese course (at least three types), and desert. And it’s customary for invitees to bring the host a bouquet of flowers, and / or chocolates and of course wine. But while guests show their gratitude with gifts, verbal expressions of appreciation of the food tend not to be as exuberant or extensive as they are in Australia, or at least this has been the case in my experience.

One especially great thing about living in a foreign-language speaking country is that, at least for a little while, it’s impossible to pick up on verbal cues that indicate social status. You have to work so hard just to figure out exactly what the other person has said that it’s impossible to read that person’s speech for signs of, for example, class, (non-)hipness, or (sub-)cultural affiliation.  And, to a lesser extent, the same applies to the visual codes of clothing. Because you simply have no idea, you’re freed from making those inevitable and often involuntary judgements about people based on subtle social codes, and you can simply take them for exactly what they say and do, they become simply human (the downside of this, however, is that sometimes it’s difficult to pick up on cues that tell you whether someone is a little weird, a little off, whether you should avoid them. These cues, too, can be very culturally relative.) Sadly, this ability to not judge slowly disappears as you learn the cultural currency.

And I imagine that it goes both ways, to some extent: it’s the markers of “foreigner” and “Australian” that will dominate people’s reading of you, at least for a little while, and which will completely obscure other kinds of pigeonholing, such as, for example, “elitist academic type” or “un-ironic, mainstream, reality-tv-loving type”. It’s a bit like an erasure of the social identity that you’ve built in your home country, and this is aided by the fact that sometimes (especially at the beginning, when you’re struggling with the language), you simply cannot expressive yourself as you otherwise would. Sometimes this is challenging and very destabilising (we work hard for our cultural identities), but it’s also massively freeing.

(Australian guest-blogger Romana Byrne has lived in France since late August 2011)

Permanent link to this article: http://www.escapetoparis.com/2012/02/escaping-your-cultural-identity/


  1. Jullien

    It’s lovely to be dissected like this…
    You’re not always proud to be french when you look at yourself though foreign eyes.

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