Thursday, June 7, 2007

Top questions about France from Americans, part 1: People

While living in Paris with my classmates, we often welcome friends and family from the US. After being in Paris for a couple of days, they always seem to have a ton of questions about all things different between the cultures. I seem to have heard and answered the same questions over and over so I have compiled a list of FAQs that I will do my best to answer.

Q. Are there ANY fat women in Paris?

A. Yes, they are called "foreigners". Despite the fact that the French eat the heaviest sauces, stinkiest cheeses, and the fattiest parts of every animal, French women seem to stay super thin. Not Nicole Richie thin, mind you, but slim and sexy. Why? The portions are much smaller that those in the US and the French take their time to sit and enjoy a meal. You will almost never see a French person walking and eating at the same time. Meals are social events where people can sit and talk and enjoy the food. It is not to "feed the beast", it is to be savored for apparently as long as possible. Which is why you can never have dinner and a movie; here it is dinner or a movie. Also, French cities are usually quite small compared to other major cities and they lend themselves to walking. Paris is literally an outdoor museum with monuments everywhere you look. So, why take the subway and miss the most beautiful city in the world? Why not walk and enjoy it? Plus, you definitely do not want to miss all those slim and sexy French women!

Q. What's with all the babies?

France has Europe's largest birthrate with 2.2 kids per family. Why? Well it is really simple, the government makes it easy to have children. Women get mandatory maternity leave, and men can get paternity leave as well. There are plenty of government run day cares for kids 2 and up called "creches", or "cribs" en anglais, which do a good job of letting mothers and fathers get back to work. After that, the kids are in school until they are 18 or 19 years old. Pretty cool, huh? People can also work 4 out of 5 days a week (don't worry, they only get paid 4 out of 5) and most mothers take Wednesday off, when the maternal schools are closed.

Q. What are those things men carry that look like purses?

A. It is called a "man purse". The biggest oxymoron since jumbo shrimp.

Q. Do the French ever work?

A. Yes. You just don't notice it. Like eating, the French work ethic is one that mandates that work should take as long as possible. There is no such thing as a deadline in France. Things are never done on time. But, amazingly, things seem to get done nonetheless. The French make the most of the time at work by doing what needs to be done and not really worrying about it. So it just looks like they aren't working. They never look like they are in a rush, except to get to a cafe table in the sun (more about that later). There is also a 35 hour work week, but this only applies to hourly workers. Most people go into work around 9 and leave around 6. Just like the US. But the manner in which things are done are COMPLETELY different than the US. In my humble opinion, Americans live to work and the French work to live. If you have an appointment at 10am, expect your French counterpart to arrive at least 15 minutes late (up to 30 depending on how high in the hierarchy that person might be) and for the meeting to start at least another 15 minutes after that. Coffee and small talk are extremely important. Most french workers get at a minimum 4 weeks vacation a year with some getting an amazing 11 or 12 weeks depending on the job. That's a frickin' week a month! But the salaries also reflect the fact that they get this much time off. The paychecks here are about half of what they are in the States. So, you decide. Would you rather get the vacation or the cash? Tough question.

Q. Why can't I get a table at a cafe on a nice day?

A. The French beat you to it. And they are not going to leave! When the weather turns nice here in Paris, everything moves outside. It is a typical French postcard scene: Sunshine, beautiful architecture, and a sea of tables filled with Parisians drinking coffee, reading books, people watching, or being people watched. You can order a coffee at a French cafe and sit all doggone day if you like. The server will never bother you. They will also never ask if you would like anything else, so if you do, and you manage to get the waiter's attention without yelling; head to the track, it is your lucky day.

Q. Do the French hate Americans?

A. No. They hate George Bush. They have to be reminded from time to time that over 50% of Americans did not vote for W. Twice.

Q. Why don't they speak English in Paris.

A. Paris is in France. They speak French in France. I take back what I said in the last question. This question demonstrates why the French hate Americans. Yeah, yeah, yeah, if it wasn't for us, they would all be speaking German. And if it wasn't for them, we'd still be colonies. It's called history, learn it.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

When it is OK for a man to say "I'm going to the Salon"

Paris is a wonderful place to live for those who enjoy the finer things in life. It is also a great place to live for those who want to know what those finer things are. France's biggest claim to fame (not counting the Concorde, which was half English anyway) is their luxury items. Wines, cheeses, meats, breads; it all tastes better in France. And let me tell you this, these guys know how to show it off.

Paris hosts many expositions to highlight their incredible ability to produce luxury consumables called Salons. Think of them as festivals in South Carolina except replace "Poultry" (Leesville, SC; or "Chitlin' " (Salley, SC; with "Independent Vineyards" ( or "Gourmet Food and Drink" ( Unlike SC, you do have to buy a ticket to get in, but you can always con the merchants at the booths inside to give you free tickets. Also unlike SC, once inside there is a plethora of free tastings. Thousands of them. And we are not talking about a morsel or two of crumb cake. Foie gras, pate, dried meats, and, of course, the finest wines in the world await your palate. For free. Let me repeat that; you get inside, you drink wine and eat foie gras at hundreds of booths, for free.

Miles and miles of anything that is "luxury food and beverage" is at your disposal. You can see people walking around buying cases of fine wines at grocery store prices, ready to fill their cellars with all that is good about France. I am a big fan of French cheese (former WWII General and then President of France Charles de Gaulle once said that it is impossible to govern a country with 365 different kinds of cheese) and these salons are where it is at! Cow, Sheep, Goat, Blue, White, moldy, soft, hard, perfumed, and stinky mingle together waiting to be paired with just the perfect red, white, or bubbly.

If "luxury" isn't your slice of pie, then why not visit the "Salon d'agriculture"? It is basically the State Fair of France. Every beast that happens to be born (or happens to be slaughtered) in France is on display at this event. And yes, it smells just like home, if your home is a farm that raises cattle. One of the best things about this salon is that you get to walk through and see enormous animals, then walk into the next building and eat them.

Animals are selected for blue ribbons (like Saphir here on the right, the biggest doggone bull I have ever seen, weighing in at a mere 3549 lbs). You can also see the Presidential Cock. Don't think Sarkozy, think the national symbol of France, the male chicken. Each year the president himself comes down to the salon to pick out the best looking bird and gives it his special award. Well, he does more than that. The agriculture vote here in France is like the moral majority vote in the States.
Since all these events are held in Paris, you can eat, drink, and look to your hearts delight, and not worry about being over the limit. Just head home by hopping on the subway, which incidentally smells just like home. If you home is a pig farm.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Q: Where can I find a trash can on the Champs Elysées?

A: You can’t.

Most tourists find it very strange that there aren’t any trash cans on the most visited street in Paris, the Champs Elysées. The Champs Elysées starts at the Place de la Concorde, near the Louvre, and runs to the Arc de Triomphe.

This is where American Troops marched to celebrate the liberation of Paris (take that Russia). At one time, the 17th century, it was gardens, but now is home to flagship stores like Louis Vuitton, Adidas, and Nike. It also has cinemas and restaurants, and yes, a McDonald’s. It hosts the annual Independence Day Parade, is lit up like Christmas for Christmas, and is now the third most expensive piece of real estate in the world.

So why no trash cans?

After the Islamic terrorists’ bombings in the metro (the subway system in Paris) in 1995, it was decided that if there were no place to hide bombs, they would be no more bombs. Thus it was decided to take all the metal trash cans out of the city and replace them with plastic bags. The French government also decided to take all the trash cans off the Champs Elysées
because it was the most visited street in Paris. All this was accomplished under the Plan Vigipirate, which was created in 1978 after terrorist activities in Europe. It established 4 threat levels: yellow, orange, red, and surrender. Just kidding, the highest threat level is “run for your life!” Sound familiar? Under this plan France has not seen a major terrorist act since 1995.
Note: The last terrorist activity was the second round of presidential elections in 2002 when Jean Marie Le Pen (equivalent to David Duke in the US; no immigrants allowed!!!) was voted into the second round of elections. More on that later.

So the next time you want to throw away your filet of fish wrapper, don’t expect to do it on the Champs Elysées. It’s for your own good.

Lost in Transduction

I received my first assignment at my new job: help translate the website from French into English. No big surprise as I am the only native English speaker here. Many people speak English, but a technical website that is your image to the world is very hard to translate by non native speakers. It is difficult for me as well, as I do not know how to translate some technical terms. One big assumption people make is that if you speak two languages, you can easily translate between the two. This is not the case at all! I learned the basics of French by using one to one translation, but after years of practice, you begin to think in French when you speak in French, thus “cutting the cord” between the two languages. I do not know of any language that is a one to one exchange. That is, if you translate directly, word for word, between two languages, you come up with gibberish. You have to translate phrases, expressions, and nuances that sometimes can only be found in one language. Lost in translation is as real as it gets. For example, there is an expression in French: 5 à 7 (pronounced sank ah set; literal translation - 5 to 7). It is a very easy and short way of saying that two people meet, usually between the hours of 5 and 7 in the evening to have sex. Then they part ways as if nothing happened. Sometimes it is an affair, sometimes what we in English would call “special friends”, but the underlying meaning is that it is perfectly acceptable to meet someone and have relations without strings attached. Not promiscuously mind you, but the very (French) chic idea of romance.

Note: Some people might find this appalling but the most important thing that you can be in a foreign country is open minded. You have to accept that not everyone around the world thinks the same way you do. You can like it, you can hate, you just can’t judge it. Learning the cultural differences is one of the first things you should do before living abroad. After 2 years in Asia and 4 here in Europe, I have too many examples to show my cultural ignorance but I’ll share just one. In France, and other parts of Europe, when you meet someone of the opposite sex, you greet them by kissing them on the cheek. Well, not really kissing them on the cheek, but touching cheeks and kissing the air. This done by everyone, even at the first introduction. How many times to kiss and which cheek to start with depends on the area and the person. Growing up in the buckle of the Bible Belt (South Carolina), the only people that we men kiss on the cheek is our mothers, our wives, our daughters, and cute babies. That’s it. That amounts to about 5 different people to kiss on the cheek each year depending on the number of cute babies one might encounter. Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive when faced with kissing all these women at first introduction. They were perfect strangers 5 seconds ago, and now I’m at first base! So, when introduced to my friend’s friends, I usually hesitated for them to initiate the contact. This hesitation was not appreciated. I was thinking “I wonder if she minds if I kiss her, I mean, it IS only a kiss on the cheek”; they were thinking “Who does this guy think he is? He is too good to greet me. How rude! I mean, it IS only a kiss on the cheek. Putain americain”. After embarrassing my girlfriend and hearing her explanation (Please excuse him. It’s not his fault, he is American) I decided to just drop my inhibitions and start kissing. I sometimes use the "it's not his fault, he is American" to really get down. I just grab 'em and plant a nice wet one on each cheek just to make sure they know I'm down with the culture. I think I will only be able to push that line so far, though. We shall see.