French lessons part deux
by Carolyn Wyler
I wasn’t sure at the time why I needed to know any French. Everyone in my small town, eleven-year-old-world were white Americans who spoke only English. What did I care about a people and country I would never see? I wasn’t the one to decide the curriculum however, so I found myself in our 6th grade elementary language class, memorizing numbers and phrases I was sure I would never use. Un, deux, trois, quatre … Comment allez vous?
Now that I’m older I realize the impact the French have had on American culture: a la mode, au jus, ballet, bon appetite, café, croissant, c’est la vie, cliché, décor, déjà vu, escargot, faux, hors d’oeuvre, ménage a trois, sabotage, sans, and voila there you have it! Just a few of the many things we have adopted from the French and that I have in fact said or tried. Yet other than a few phrases and numbers, I really knew very little about the French. When my husband and I decided we wanted to take a trip to France during spring break this year, I decided I really needed to bone up on the country, its language, and the people.
I was at a major disadvantage. Except for the one French class I could barely remember, I knew next to nothing about the country. I had heard they were a proud people and that proper pronunciation of their language was important to them. They didn’t mind foreigners, but they respected you more if you at least attempted to speak their language. So I took a crash French course set in Rosetta Stone. Parlez-vous anglais? “Excuse mois Frahns, I think you dropped a z and some s’s over there behind your words.” I could play and probably win scrabble with all the excess letters they attached to their words but didn’t use.
What I read and heard about the French people was often contradictive. Some said they are arrogant and rude. Others found them courteous and respectful as long as you were courteous and respectful to them. I halfway believed the stereotypes and expected that the moment I stepped into their country I would spot a group of odorous, overweight, chain smoking, scantily clothed, topless people sitting around tables piled high with richly prepared foods, spending the day scarfing down a buffet of crepes, cheese, fondues, and croissants, while dragging puffs of cigarette smoke and engaging in ménage a trois while attempting to steal wallets.
As a cardiology nurse, I found myself concerned with their risk of heart disease given some of these stereotypes. I was certain they were just one crème brulee away from having a massive myocardial infarction. But what I read amazed me. Statistics reveal that the French have a very low risk for heart disease compared to their European neighbors and the United States. I was determined to find out more about these people.
As my husband and I stepped out of the Eurostar and into the subways of France, I became extremely apprehensive. Having arrived during their five o’clock traffic, we had three to four people crammed into my two to three foot personal space and we were accosted with an unpleasant aroma, which quite honestly could have emanated from my husband or me. I clutched my bags tightly and looked around frantically for a friendly face.
Everyone seemed intensely focused on getting on and off the train, finding a seat, and reaching his or her various destinations. Those who were talking were speaking a language that didn’t sound a bit like what I had been practicing with Rosetta Stone and the stops they announced over the speaker did not seem to match the words on the map above the seats.
I give my husband full credit for getting us to our Paris hotel without getting lost. But we arrived hungry.
So what do two terrified and starving Americans do when they arrive in France? They hunt for a McDonald’s of course. That was my husband’s idea anyway. I thought we were there to experience French culture. But now, having been dumped into entirely unfamiliar territory and trembling from fear of the unknown, I reluctantly agreed. McDonald’s meant home, American, and all that was familiar and “safe.” We spent over an hour walking around desperately searching for Ronald as our growling stomachs groaned increasingly louder. Alas, Ronald eluded us.
Exhausted and famished we stopped outside a small crepe restaurant operated by a single employee. How do you say “Do you speak English” again? My mind went blank.
My husband voted that I should be the one to ask the guy inside if he spoke English because he didn’t want to sound stupid. But it was ok if I did? My brain re-engaged, I gathered all the courage I could muster, and I shakily inquired, “ Parlez-vous anglais?” I think I could have hugged him when he said in perfect English, “yes, please have a seat.”
For the next few (and way too short) days, we thoroughly enjoyed the French cuisines, sites, and tours and were fascinated by the astounding architecture, art, and culture. We didn’t run into a single arrogant French citizen. When we butchered their language and they had difficulties understanding our broken French renditions, they simply pulled in reinforcements who spoke English fluently.
When we did happen to pass by a McDonald’s on our tour of the city, we were shocked. If not for the golden arches on the sign outside, neither of us would have recognized it as a McDonalds at all. The chocolate shake my husband purchased was called a Frappe and was about half the size of our smallest shakes in the states. Nothing on the menu read “super size, Big Mac, fillet of fish, apple pie, baseball hotdogs or Chevrolet.”
I don’t even know if the French know what “super size” is as all of their food portions, are quite small. For me this wasn’t a problem as I had already been accustomed to Jenny Craig for the last several months and knew all about portion control. For my husband however, and I suppose for many foreigners, size mattered.
On the flight home I had a LONG time to contemplate and take in all I had seen and experienced. What was it about the French people that was so attractive and why did they have the second lowest rate of heart disease in the world? Could the reason be because they get five weeks of vacation from their employment every year? Could it be because their obesity rates are the lowest in the European nations stemming from their active lifestyles and their avoidance of processed and fast foods? Could it be because the rich entrees and desserts they do consume they enjoy in small portions?
Could it be because dinners are a tremendously important occasion for them and it is normal to spend three to four hours in the evening relaxing and unwinding from a stressful day (stress being another risk of heart disease) while enjoying a meal? Could it be because they have universal healthcare which offers benefits to everyone and the sicker you are the more help you receive?
Clearly it is a combination of all of these factors that decreases French peoples’ risk for heart disease and enables them to live healthier lives. Perhaps there were, in fact, even more lessons I could learn from the French … outside of the Rosetta Stone.
Next time I feel my arteries start to clog up from too much stress and the plaque restricting oxygen to my heart, I will stop, pull off my top, grab a Frappe in one hand, dangle a long cigarette holder in the other (just hold it, I don’t smoke), lounge back in my chair, and prop my feet up and say in my best French accent, “C’est la vie”.