Friday, 19 July 2013

La France et les Franç impressions

So there are plenty of stereotypes about France and French people in general, but here I'm going to take a look at some things I noticed about this wonderful country and its people, to see if these age-old clichés are true, and of course to add several new ones to the list. 
*Disclaimer* - This post is designed to be as honest as possible, and if I cause any offence, je suis vraiment désolé. I assure you that France and French people made my time abroad the best year of my life and I love you all forever, despite some of these interesting observations.. 

1) Bureaucracy 

Everyone has heard of the notorious French bureaucracy at one time or another. With good reason, let me tell you. Coming to France, you'll find that instead of the euro, passport photos and birth certs become legal tender for the first few weeks, as you can barely buy a pint of milk without someone asking for your documents, and if you have some new sécurité sociale they seem to have made up five minutes previously just to annoy you. I was almost refused my room when I arrived, exhausted and confused, to my Résidence because I didn't have some personal belongings insurance that I had never been told about. I eventually persuaded them to let me stay, as I knew nobody in the town, and I promised to get it done as soon as possible. In order to persuade them however, I had to speak directly to Mr. Bureaucracy himself, the Résidence director, who ambled out of his comfortable armchair to come reprimand this bothersome jeune irlandais who didn't understand their ridiculous system of checking in. But all things considered, the Résidence wasn't too bad compared to everyone else in that regard. 

Applying for CAF, or APL as it is called too, was one of the most stressful things I did all year. I eventually went to the office in mid-October with all of my documents and handed them in. The extremely disinterested guy behind the counter told me that everything was fine and that it would be processed within the month. Happy days, I thought to myself. I might add that the very fact that the French government gives students free money back on their rent for no apparent reason is pretty decent of them, and redeems them somewhat in my eyes (I'll try not to think about their massive budget deficit that isn't getting any smaller, but not my problem I suppose!). About seven weeks later, I received a letter saying that my documents were not correct, and that I needed an up-to-date, recent birth certificate. Now I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure I was only born once, unless Hinduism has become a thing in France all of a sudden. If it was about the translation, I'm also pretty sure that the French language hasn't changed drastically in the last two years since I got it done either, perhaps some new verlan additions and new words such as iPad and hashtag, which I'm pretty sure wouldn't feature on a birth certificate. Not yet anyway, we'll see how things go. I subsequently did absolutely nothing about it, trying to get my head around this strange request, when suddenly a few weeks later they wrote to me saying voilà, here's your money, tout va bien ! Some in-house contradictions going on in the local CAF office obviously, or maybe some guy just had had a really bad day and decided to take it out on me.  Which brings me quite aptly to my next point.

2) Customer service 

The French have no idea what it is, nor have any desire to start doing it. Growing up and working in Ireland, where the American over-the-top customer care attitude has somewhat caught on, I'm used to decent service, such as people asking you if you need help, going the extra mile for you, that kind of thing. Even a smile as you walk in is nice. The French honestly couldn't care less, and the fact that you're buying so many things and asking them for an extra bag is quite frankly very annoying to them, and they don't seem to understand why you can't just go elsewhere. In fairness to them, in the smaller shops, the owner or cashier does tend to greet you with a big "bonjouuuur" and then wish you a "bonne journée/soirée" on the way out, but that is about the extent of it. An extremely irritating experience I had was in the local post office. I went to get some money, sent from home by the Western Union transfer system, which I had used before elsewhere without much difficulty. I walked into the post office at 4.35pm and asked about the transfer. The mademoiselle behind the counter informed me that she could not do the transfer, as the office closes at 5pm and they usually finish the Western Union transfers half an hour earlier. 4.35pm. I looked at her in shock for a few seconds, before showing her the time in a desperate "I really need my money and I think you're being a tad unreasonable" kind of way, and she eventually let me complete the transfer, at the same time making me aware that she had done me a massive favour and that I, in some way, owed her one. I might add that I was pretty much the only person in the place, apart from another client who was being angrily shouted at by another cashier after he kept asking for something they could not do for him. Yep, that happens too. Another thing is, cashiers will continue to place your receipt and change on the counter right beside your outstretched hand, resulting in a full minute spent trying to pick up each and every coin, while a massive queue waits behind you. The cashier will then act frustrated at your lack of progress, not realising that it was his or her simple action that caused all the trouble in the first place. Gaah. I am aware that there are also a lot of very nice, helpful French workers that welcome customers warmly, but in the nine months I spent there, I must say they didn't seem to be an overwhelming majority.

The most ridiculous customer service experience we had was when ringing the emergency services. There were a group of youths up to no good at the Résidence, who had threatened my friends with brass knuckles and even knives, yet the authorities not only put my friends on hold for several minutes, but then refused to send anyone over (all "busy" apparently) and tried to get them to "make sure" the group was still there, telling them to "take off their shoes" and tiptoe down the stairs. I have a feeling there won't be a series called CSI Grenoble anytime soon.  

3) Food and Drink 

The French are known worldwide for their excellent cuisine, and despite living on a tight student budget, I sampled some of the local and national delights a few times during the year. The €2 bottles of wine that were so much part of the experience may not have been the best quality wine in the world, but it felt very French to us, by the end of the night at least. However, a friend's Parisian roommate was personally insulted when he spotted a plastic 1,5L bottle of wine on the table, costing a sum total of about 1€, and refused to associate himself with us for the rest of the evening. He was equally as offended and quite hurt when he saw us later opening a different bottle of wine, apparently in an extremely blasphemous way which went against his Parisian values and upbringing. On a positive note, my experiences of the local Tartiflette and Raclette dishes were excellent, and despite not being the biggest cheese fan, I had some good experiences in that regard. The French enjoy their baguettes and boulangeries in general, however I couldn't find a decent replacement for Irish white bread. At Christmas I was welcomed home by a glass of nice milk and a slice or two of Brennan's bread and I couldn't have been happier. I also missed my chicken fillet and breakfast rolls, examples of typical Dublin cuisine that no-one else understands. 

One thing I had noticed about France several years back but that hit home again this year was the surprising lack of overweight people. For a nation that eats so much bread, you would think they'd be piling on the pounds. To my surprise, I realised there were only about three McDonalds in the entire city, compared to three within 200 metres in Dublin, there were no massive counters full of sweets and chocolate bars in newsagents, and they didn't tend to stuff themselves at meal times either. Fair play France, something we could all learn from I think.

Drinks wise, the French were a revelation. The wine was of course an ever present necessity, but the drinking habits in bars were quite different. I was recently dared to ask a barman in Dublin for a half pint of beer with some added peach syrup, and the look of confusion on his face was quite a sight to behold. In France, it's not even the girls or the not-so-tough guys that would order those, but big groups of hefty mecs coming in together to have a few scoops, demi-pêches all round s'il vous plait, merci et bonne soirée. Then there was the Kriek, a Belgian beer that was cherry flavoured. I'm not even going to make fun of it because it was actually excellent. A personal favourite, along with the aforementioned demi-pêche. Working briefly as a barman in France I realised that it is quite different to Ireland, as you come across things you've never tasted and never even heard of every night of the week. The French seemed to love their apéritif drinks like Pastis and Ricard, and even the orangey flavoured Picon which you add to your beer, again for better flavour. There was also this bottle of green liquor called Get (pronounced Jet) which I had never seen before in my life, but was a big hit with the jeunes and even the not so jeunes. Apart from the endless slagging from those who are not French, you can order what you like in France and nobody will judge you. So if you really want that cranberry juice with a hint of lime, go for it ! Your manliness shall not be questioned and your self esteem shall remain intact. 

4) Landscape 

It goes without saying, France is an amazing country for many reasons, but the landscape is quite incredible. They have a region to suit all tastes, snowy mountains and breathtaking views in the Alps, sun, sea and sand in the south, beautiful countryside near the centre and in Brittany, the germanic beauty of Alsace, the beautiful wine region in the south-west and of course the buzzing metropolis that is Paris. (Apologies for regions not mentioned, it's nothing personal). I fell in love immediately with the mountains that surrounded me and I missed them whenever I went elsewhere. I came to envy the kids growing up in the region, especially when they would nonchalantly whizz by me on the mountain with perfect balance and no fear of falling over and making a fool of themselves on the slopes. Grrr. The weather was a welcome change too, as there became an expectation of snow and sunshine at certain times of the year, something I have never been used to growing up in Ireland. 

5) Politics and the Revolution

French people love their Revolution, and never stop talking about it. While I did go to Sciences Po, a Political Science university, and therefore should have expected political polemics about the foundations of modern democracy etc, they would bring it up constantly and at any given moment. Fair play and all, I think they did a good job (apart from letting Napoleon run the place afterwards and then putting a King back on the throne 30 years later...*awkward*...) but in a very abstract History of Mentalities class with a few foreign students that would love to participate and have lots of experiences from their own countries to share, it might be interesting to take a more worldly view of things, especially on universally relevant topics. I've realised that France, while not quite as noticeable as the US in terms of inward-looking attitudes, it is a country that is quite centred on itself, something I am not at all used to growing up in Celtic Tiger Ireland, where we depended on other countries and our large number of exports kept the economy going. I'm not saying it is a negative thing, but noticeable all the same. Our history, being controlled for years and fighting for independence also lends itself to that difference, and while socially we lagged behind everyone else for years, economically we relied on Britain and, since 1973, on Europe for our livelihoods. France, being the home to one of the most influential revolutions the world has ever seen, and being relatively powerful in the grand scheme of things for years, is a very proud nation, from their involvement in the wars (which fortunately gave us a few days off during the year) to their current social system and employment laws, they stick to their ways and are delighted about being French. I do admire that, as the notion of "being French" is more important to them than individual sub-cultures or religion, and it works quite well most of the time. 

Also, La Marseillaise is now officially my favourite of all national anthems. While the lyrics are incredibly gory, racist and bloodthirsty, its rousing nature is an absolute pleasure to behold, especially at a France Vs Ireland rugby game where you're the one Irish guy in a sea of French people, trying not to feel awkward. The best way to avoid the awkwardness, I found, is to just start belting it out with them. 

I had the privilege of attending a speech given by the President of France, François Hollande, in January, when he gave his Voeux à la Jeunesse, addressing the French youth. Being a massive deal for me to be invited, I suited up, but going out the door, I was quite self-conscious about my lack of shoe polish and the slight crease in my shirt. However, when I got there, I found that I was the only young person, out of several hundred, that had worn a suit for the occasion. A few were in shirts and one or two had ties, but the vast majority of students and young people there were dressed as if they were going to the cinema, including the twelve young people up on stage speaking directly to him. One guy was in a full Adidas tracksuit, looking like he was just back from either the gym or vandalising someone's car. Now I understand that they are young people and they have to be young, but when the President of your country comes to speak to you, the very least you should do is put on a shirt and trousers. Some people mistook me for security near the end, allowing me to get quite near the guy and shake his hand, so wearing the suit definitely paid off. 

6) The people themselves  

The general stereotype of French people is not very flattering. Frogs legs and snails tend to describe the people as well as their daily cuisine sometimes, but I think that's very unfair. While Parisians are traditionally the most unfriendly, the Parisians I met were for the most part really nice people, and easy to get along with. Perhaps this is because they were outside their tourist-filled home city, however when I was in Paris I also had some very good experiences. 

The age-old problem of French immersion is one of the main problems with the Erasmus programme as a whole, in my opinion, especially for English speakers. At times the Erasmus community is alienated from the French student body purely due to language barriers and unwillingness to embrace the unknown, on both sides. I found that taking smaller tutorial-like classes (CM), in which I was one of the only foreign students, really helped in getting to know the French students and becoming a part of the class, rather than just the foreign part-timer that nobody knew. The groups which organised the events for Erasmus students were run predominantly by French people, showing that they do have an interest in meeting people from elsewhere, and I honestly think that with a bit of effort language-wise, it is very easy to make some great friends in France. I noticed too that French students in France are the exact same as Irish students in Ireland in some ways, as they can be very welcoming, as long as they understand what you are saying or what you are trying to say, but if no effort is made, then they will naturally stay with their classmates. That's why having a good basis of French before going and also being prepared to leave your comfort zone in the language really really helps. I would highly recommend finding an apartment with French speakers too, as it is too easy to stick with the anglophones all the time and not embrace the French for the really great people they are. I am glad to say that I have some fantastic French friends after my time there, which I will definitely be back soon to visit. 

All in all, I have to say that France is a really fantastic place to live, and if you ever get the opportunity to spend some time there, or even to learn French, do it. If you respect the people by trying your best to use your French, they will most likely respect you back, and even if the odd few speak back in English, don't back down, keep speaking French whenever possible. Eat baguettes and drink wine to your heart's content, and for the girls, beware of some French guys who tend to be creepy with a capital C. Only some though, the vast majority are complete legends. If you're reading this and are French, you know who you are. 

                                                          Vive la France !
                                                          À la prochaine ! 

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