In the southern US, when someone says, “Why don’t y’all drop by some time?” you need to know NOT to go to their house. It’s not a real invitation. It’s what you say in the South to be polite. Language and manners aren’t always literal. In America, to be polite, you leave some food on your plate “for Miss Manners.” In France, you finish every bite on the plate even if it’s a huge helping of nasty, detested, nearly raw pigeon or pan-fried foie gras. Even if you’re on a diet that your hostess knows about.
My French friend Christine came over for lunch last week. We know each other from Minnesota. She has spent huge amounts of time in the US over 28 years. She and I are really friends. We stood in the kitchen as I was plating the main course. Gesturing to the entire chicken available for just the two of us, I asked whether she liked white or dark meat. She smiled and said, “No French person will ever answer that question. It would be rude.” “But, Christine, that’s illogical, it’s just us. Pretend we’re in Bemidji. ” She smiled like the Sphinx or the Mona Lisa. I gave in and gave her a leg and a piece of breast. When she left, I just packed up half the chocolate-raspberry tarte I’d made (that she had clearly loved), and handed it to her, asking if she’d please take it home as a favor. I really wonder what kind of chicken she prefers. She ate it all. I probably won’t know until some end of time when all secrets will be revealed.
Again in the South (another foreign culture to me, so I notice things), when someone tells a scurrilous story about a woman she detests, the description frequently ends with the sweetest-voiced, “Bless her heaaaarrrt.” I’m from Ohio, but I’m pretty sure it’s the encoded equivalent of that word that real ladies don’t say, or at least don’t write in public.
I have heard French men and women do something similar four times – make fun of someone wittily, and at length, mimic them in a way I haven’t seen since 8th grade, then end the story with, “Mais, il c’est mon ami.” (“But he is my friend.”) Bless his heart. French humor is different. They mimic people. The Harry Potter audio book reader does voice characterizations that would appall Americans. Ron stutters. Hagrid mumbles in a low, SLOOOWWWW voice, “Duhhhhhhh, Haaawwwy…” This is the country that loved Jerry Lewis before he got nice and switched to doing telethons.
I think the only arena in which the French acknowledge political correctness is politics. Despite the crushing personal income tax (50% for very ordinary wage earners PLUS the 20% VAT sales tax), you don’t disparage poor people or old people who are being supported with the taxes. But lazy people on the dole are fair game. And it’s open season on German Chancellor Andrea Merkel’s shoes. And pants. And outfits. And hair. The woman is holding Europe together with brilliance, bailing twine and duct tape, but she’s not chic.
The French teach differently. I get a vivid sense of this since I’m here studying French cooking. Great American teachers encourage students with, “That was FABULOUS! Oh wait, there’s one tiny thing you might want to think about trying that might make it even BETTER…” French teachers don’t have to encourage students. A Parisian friend whose family came here from Africa laughs about Americans who all get trophies for showing up. “The French flunk out of classes – all American classes are filled with geniuses,” he boomed in one of those ringing African laughs.
A friend from my high school spent a year in a French lycée (high school). Francie wafted her way through a year of steady badgering by the French language teacher (essays in French returned with encouraging professorial commentary like, “Barbarisme !” “Execrable !”). At the end of the year, Francie was awarded the graduation prize for the highest grades in the class. Her thrilled mother crossed the room to thank the teacher. “Oh, oui, madam,” responded the teacher, “But, it was a very stupid class.”
I think an American supervisor must have given firm feedback to one of my first online Rosetta Stone teachers – Helene was a beautiful, stony-faced, French perfectionist. (We could see her. She couldn’t see us. That was probably a blessing.) American accents, misuse of articles, mangled grammar stabbed her like stilettos. A pained, straining-to-hear look flickered across her face as she listened. She snapped out neither “Babarisme !,” nor “Execrable !,” but they were engraved on her face. Instead, she employed her technique-for-Americans, acquired, I am certain, at great expense to Rosetta Stone management. She looked pained, but did NOT tell us we were wrong. She pretended to merely repeat what we had bumbled through in simple, elegant, restrained, classically correct French. Then she would nod, enunciating gravely, “Parfait.” “Perfect.”
My certainty grew that some Rosetta Stone supervisor had worked hard with her, making it clear that, although you can be critical with Europeans and Japanese, when dealing with Americans, one had to be encouraging, one had to give Positive Feedback, or they would grow discouraged, not have fun, and would stop paying for private lessons. These were, after all, volunteers, under no compulsion to study a language. “Tell Them They’re Doing Well, Whether They Are or NOT,” insists my imaginary supervisor to Helene. Life is painful. Suck it up. Just do this little thing.
One day, at the beginning of a 25 minute group session with Helene, she asked us to ask each other questions. Excellent exercise. I asked another American woman how she was, expecting her to respond with a polite French equivalent of, “Fine, thank you so much for asking. Lovely weather, isn’t it?” Instead, she answered truthfully, in worse than execrable French, giving us a pained recital about her husband being fired from his job, and something I couldn’t understand about her son in the hospital. Helene’s expression was a stunned replica of my husband’s when I ask his about his feeiings during overtime in a Final Four game. Helene’s lovely face contracted in a quick shimmer of horror. We shared a moment of silence. She then repeated the firing and hospital story in beautiful French. She stopped. She nodded. “Parfait,” she murmured.
Our pastry teacher in Lyon said that something was “perfect” every once in a while, meaning it. But David was a rarity. The most stunning positive reinforcement you can hope for among teaching chefs is “Pas mal” (“not bad,” coupled with pouched-out lips, jerked up eyebrows and a shrug). I hit the jackpot at Lenotre in a pate au choux/eclaire/religeuse class last Friday. I started piping tiny flames with a 4 millimeter star pastry tip around the little religieuse’s (nun’s) pastry head. I’m assuming this is a classic French halo effect for this traditional pastry. Nobody explains this stuff. but I had spent January obsessively practicing pastry bag piping technique to get ready for this French Adventure.
I whipped the first 4 little strips of angelic white buttercream flames into place. The chef lurked over my right shoulder. He watched two more flames flicker onto the nun’s head. “Ce n’est pas mal, eh?” (“Hey, that isn’t bad, is it?”) He waited three more stripes. He shrugged, lifted his eyebrows and said, with rising excitement, “Ce n’est pas map, eh?” I still didn’t look at him, but wordlessly finished the last 4 strips, neatly encircling the nun’s head with flames that fit exactly into the space. The chef honed in on a pitch-perfect imitation of my mom speaking English to people who only understand a language she doesn’t speak. “Ce n’est pas mal, eh ????” he shouted in my ear, bouncing on his toes in excitement. Judging from how bad my piping wasn’t, I may be being nominated for a spot in the Meillure Ouvrier de France pastry competition.
It truly wasn’t horrible.