No queueing please, we're French
Intimidated by the anarchy of the boulangerie? Perplexed by the art of French kissing (calm down - on one another's cheeks, I mean)? Gigi, also known as Gill Baconnier*, took advice from Gérard Depardieu before slipping into Salut! Forum mode to navigate the minefield of French manners......
“Manners maketh man” somebody once said, before political correctness became de rigueur and spoilt the alliteration.
They had a point though, especially when it comes to table manners – you can tell a lot about a person by the way they wield a fork.
This noble implement was brought to France from Florence in 1533 by Catherine de Medici, when she married the future French King Henri II.
Until then, people had eaten with their fingers or with pointed knives - later banned by Louis XIV because they encouraged violence (presumably, in those days, you just stabbed the serving wench to death if the soup was cold). Eventually, forks caught on in England and table manners were born.
My first meal with my new in-laws was accompanied by raised eyebrows, discreet nudges and faint gasps.
They seemed alarmed rather than impressed at my skilful balancing act with peas and when I had finished eating, putting my hands demurely in my lap, I looked around to see my mother-in-law choking on her filet mignon.
I had, it appeared, made enough faux pas to constitute a marathon – beginning with my deviant fork technique.
The French hold their fork in both hands - not simultaneously - and periodically turn it upside down depending on which hand it is in and what it is doing. You spear the food with the fork in your left hand and cut it up with your knife; you then change hands and use your knife (now held as if you were trying to read the writing on the side of a pencil) to push the food onto the upturned fork. Sounds confusing? It is…
Once you’ve mastered the cutlery choreography, there are other things to look out for. I was always taught to sit at the table with my hands on my lap - unless I was eating - but here this is considered suspicious behaviour.
Hands are planted firmly on the table where everybody can see that you’re not stealing the silver or sneaking food to the dog or whatever they imagine you can get up to down there. Paradoxically, it’s quite all right to tear your bread to bits and scatter crumbs all over the tablecloth – if I’d ever done that in our house I would have got a clip around the ear.
The first time we had guests for dinner, they turned up at the door with a shop-bought tarte aux pommes. I felt quite insulted until my husband explained that this is perfectly normal between friends and it doesn’t mean they are wary of English food (although that was before they tasted the Twiglets…).
A gift of chocolates is quite acceptable, too – but be careful about bringing wine; your hosts will have chosen the wine according to the type of food being served and not according to how quickly you can get drunk on it, which is how I choose mine.
Whatever you do, do not bring the hostess a bunch of chrysanthemums. These are for putting on graves so, unless your hostess is dead or is a particularly bad cook, stick to tulips.
Queueing is considered a quaint Anglo-Saxon custom for people who are not in a hurry. After years of forming an orderly, solitary queue of one while little old ladies ruthlessly elbowed their way past me, I now jostle for my baguette like everyone else – it’s either that or starve.
A rather interesting version of the queue does exist at the supermarket checkout: people still push in but they ask first, declaring they only have two items and they are late for an appointment.
Before you know it, eight people have gathered round you, dolefully clutching their two items and staring pointedly at your full trolley – if you’re not careful, you could be queuing till closing time.
Kissing is another custom I have had trouble adapting to – it isn’t easy to kiss with a stiff upper lip. Here, nearly everyone wants to kiss you on the cheek and not just once but twice, three times or even four.
It doesn’t – as I first thought - mean you have suddenly become irresistibly desirable – in fact, it hardly means anything at all to a French person. Perfect strangers will plant great smackers on your cheeks without a second thought and this can be a little unnerving (although perhaps I should just be grateful anyone wants to kiss me at all…).
Some people, however, do prefer to wait until they know you better and when this happens you can end up head-bobbing like a demented chicken while they slowly back away, fending you off with a stiff handshake. I haven’t ever kissed a British person here – it just isn’t done, old chap: my friends and I just mumble a non-committal “yerright?” when we meet and that’s fine by us.
A die-hard English male acquaintance – the type who stands five feet away when he talks to you and apologises if he inadvertently steps on your shadow - would greet my French husband with a kiss on each cheek and greet me with a barely imperceptible nod. I only hope he remembered where he was the next time he went home and down to the rugby club for a pint - although I have heard the alarming rumour that kissing is catching on in Britain these days. Frankly, that doesn’t sound right at all.
Of course, after 20 years of living here, I do manage to behave with reasonable decorum in most situations. I still cannot bring myself to jump a supermarket queue or kiss a roomful of strangers but perhaps I just need more practice.
Anyway, being foreign is a great excuse to be shockingly rude now and again. After all, who’s to know that eating one’s chips with one’s fingers isn’t the absolute height of good manners in British society? Or that dunking one’s petits fours in one’s tasse de thé isn’t terribly posh? And who am I to tell them? That would be spoiling all the fun…
* As Gigi, she is a succinct, witty star of Salut!, her observations all the more appreciated since my changeover to Typepad made the comments field a leaner, sharper territory. As Gill Baconnier, she's a teacher, poet, Depardieu fan and blogger living in the Alps. With Depardieu, she probably prefers the real thing but only the wax version was available for the shoot.