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Thursday, December 8, 2011

On finding your inner Frenchman

It took me five years not to constantly try to change the population of France into behaving and thinking like me. During those five years, it almost drove me insane. Sometimes I'd be so angry at an entire nation I'd just shake and leer from morning 'till night. Pitiful, isn't it, considering I simultaneously loved living here. 

I've conducted my own empirical research about any given expat's first years in France, and basically everyone goes through this same phase. It's the phase I like to call  'I love France but dislike the French' -phase. It's interesting, because it just might be the only time in your life that you experience passionate love and teeth-clenching hate at the same time (besides that time when your first True Love told you he 'needs more space' when you knew perfectly well he has his eyes and other body parts on the girl next dorm). 

But then one beautiful morning - the hate is gone. You wake up and notice it's been replaced by a benign, benevolent understanding and acceptance, not unlike the one you feel for your dog when finding its excrement in your new hat. You've entered a brand new period, the one I like to call the 'Finding your inner Frenchman'-phase. I know all about it, because am wrestling with it at this very moment.

A few hot tips for your research of that beret-headed, Pastis-smelling, explosive, mustachioed Frenchman inside yourself.

  1. It's a lot like high-school acting classes. You've been given a role you're not really comfortable with (like that time they asked you to identify with a cannibalistic vegetarian samurai) but which is interesting nonetheless, and you give it all you've got.
  2. Your role has everything to do with your sex, and from now on, you need to attempt to behave accordingly. (This was the hardest part for me, being a man-of-the-house Nordic woman.)
  3. You need to look for the right questions, not necessarily the right answers. I've found a few such questions, very dear to all Frenchmen. What's for dinner? And what wine goes with that dinner? What's the perfect cheese to top it all? What if I can't find a local cheese that goes with the wine that goes with the dinner? 
  4. File everything. 'La paperasse', paperwork, is your friend, and as such should be profoundly understood and cherished. There may be a day when you get a letter enquiring after the exact amount of your water bill of 1982, and you'd better have the old water bill handy, or the enquiries will swallow your whole existence.
  5. OK, so this is as far as I've gotten.

I have, on occasion, caught a glimpse of my inner Frenchman. Once when tasting a fully mature cider with a fully mature Camembert. Another time when attending an old lady's funeral and being asked to play the organ next to her coffin. Another time when getting fresh bread on a foggy morning in my medieval village, and smelling some villager's fireplace being lit. This morning when my child started screaming in the supermarket and the French ladies around me didn't tut or shake their heads but smiled patiently. It's a peaceful feeling, finding that inner Mr Dupont. Because for so many years, when he would have been so helpful in various hellish Parisian situations, he was nowhere to be found. Instead, I found him lurking in this tiny picturesque Southern French village, drinking a Ricard by the counter of Café des Voyageurs. And having found the elusive Mr Frenchman, there's no way I'm letting him get away.
Eh non, Monsieur. I'm here to stay, and so are you.

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