When I travel I try to be as inoffensive as possible in order to avoid the “Ugly American” stereotype. Not only does it feel more polite (and less stressful) to try to assimilate to the existing culture, but I figure if I am going to live there for a year, I need to start learning as much as possible as quickly as possible.
In pursuit of this goal, I recently picked up the book French Toast: An American in Paris Celebrates the Maddening Mysteries of the French by Harriet Welty Rochefort. I was hoping to pick up some cultural cues and hints, as well as background information, i.e. why do these cultural norms exist.
What I got instead was a big dose of terror.
Having traveled to France once already — with the accompanying research performed ahead of time — I am already aware of the more obvious cultural differences between American and French culture. For example, the necessity of saying “bonjour” to the shopkeeper when you enter a store, keeping your voice and laugh softer than American normal (something I struggle with regularly), not smiling like a loon at strangers, and at least attempting to dress a bit more formally.
After reading French Toast, however, I think what I am most afraid of is the… cattiness? the book seems to imply.
“If you live in France for any length of time, you need to cultivate the art of being vache. Vache…is a word that encompasses the concepts of petty, mean, spiteful. And just as, at their best, Frenchwomen can be witty, charming, and endlessly feminine, knowing how to converse, how to receive, how to dress, at their worst they can be vache. Even being vache is subtle.”
From what I can gather, vache is the equivalent of mean-girl syndrome (“Oh, I like those living room curtains. I put the same ones in my little girl’s bedroom.”). As Rochefort puts it, “It is knowing how to send the dart without being transparently offensive.”
I am going to be spending a year there, presumably speaking French on a semi-regular basis. I suspect I’ll be struggling to understand the mere superficial meaning of the words I hear, let alone the hidden undertones. Knowing that there is possibly (probably?) a subtle burn in any comment directed my way will make me paranoid and send my insecurity level skyrocketing.
My only consolation is that hopefully I’ll be so stressed trying to translate the words I’m hearing, I’ll forget that there’s probably another layer in there. I’ll just be delighted that I understood “my grandmother lives in Lyon”.
The imperiousness of the shopkeepers is another terror resurrected by French Toast. Fortunately this is not exclusive to the French so I already have some experience with it. Call it the Pretty Woman Effect: you walk in to some high-end store, the salesclerk acts as if you’re something she scraped off her shoe, you slink out in humiliation. In my younger days this shame-tripping worked and more than once I purchased something I didn’t want that was entirely out of my budget just to show I was “good enough”.
After spending several years in Las Vegas, however, I discovered the secret: it doesn’t matter what you look like, it only matters how you act. In Vegas, the richest celebrities and trust-fund kids often look like hobos but they’ll swan into Gucci or Louis Vuitton and ring up several thousand dollars without a thought. Or they might stroll back out without buying a thing. The key is that swagger, walking in like they own the place (and who knows, they might!) and literally ignoring the attempted shaming by salespeople. Or better yet, smirking at them, which drives them insane.
As near as I can figure it, the reasoning is that rich/high status people don’t have to care what other people think — so if you’re acting like you don’t care, you must not need to care. And if you don’t need to care, it must be because you’re rich/high status. And that’s how they subsequently treat you. Twisted but true, I’m afraid.
Back to the book. I did manage to pick up one new tip that was useful without being frightening: a woman does not serve herself wine — it’s gauche. Instead she waits for someone else to fill her glass. Even if it’s empty, you just wait. Annoying? Yeah, but in my case it’s probably a good thing simply because it’s even more impolite for a woman to get hammered in public.
TL;DR: French Toast definitely belongs on your Francophile bookshelf as long as it doesn’t terrify you into avoiding France entirely.