There’s nothing like an apero with your fellow expats for having a good grumble about your adopted country. It all starts innocently enough, someone mentions a party they’re going to that weekend and is wondering what time to arrive. We all agree that it’s best not to arrive too early as no-one is ever on time for French “soirées” and, as is often the case in your first few years in Paris, you’re being invited as someone’s guest so you don’t want to get stuck in the awkward, early (read sober) part of the party with hosts that you barely know.
“But,” someone pipes up, “don’t get there too late because you don’t want to spend half an hour kissing everyone!” No, the French are not liberal-minded free-loving hippies who spend their parties “French-ing” (ho ho!) their fellow party guests, the kissing my friend was referring to was “la bise,” the traditional cheek kiss that French etiquette demands you give and receive every time you greet or bid farewell to someone on social occasions. In Paris it’s usually limited to two bises, one on each cheek, but beware, head further afield in France and the number can rise to four or even five, madness!
At a party, you might think that you would only need to give la bise to the people you already know. No. You will be expelled from the country (probably). On entering and leaving a party you MUST kiss everyone. That’s right, even the ones who look like they haven’t had a wash that day and the ones who just went a bit OTT on the garlic dip, everyone. Now I have never been an overly tactile person, I grimace if someone brushes against me in the metro, so I had thought for a while that perhaps I was the only one for whom la bise could cause distress. But as it turns out, having to bise with perfect strangers is a regular complaint of the British expat, one for whom a stiff nod of the head in the general direction of a group of people pretty much covers the bases on polite greetings. As such, when a group of British expats get together they like to compare notes on contingency plans. One friend suggested la bise for the hosts and then a mad dash to the loo. Others have tried to silently slink into a party and manoeuvre their way round the edge of the room to where the coats are, so that they can surreptitiously remove their coat and thus pretend they’ve been there for hours. This one is tricky, though, if you’re in an apartment you’re not familiar with, also, let’s face it, you can’t actually “surreptitiously slink” around a 25m² Paris apartment, people will notice, you will look weird.
My favourite, and one I have been known to occasionally employ on spying a particularly unsavoury character waiting for la bise, is to wave effusively at the entire group of people whilst announcing, “Bon soir, je suis anglaise” (Good evening, I am English) before heading straight to the bar. This simple statement can be used to cover all manner of social sins in France. They won’t think you’re being rude, just English, which for them translates thusly: “Strange,” or to the more kindly-inclined “different to us [the French].”
My Frog, my fountain of French wisdom, has suggested a perhaps more practical method whereby you bises the hosts and the people nearest to you, then combine the enthusiastic wave with a, less startling, “et bon soir à vous tous” (and good evening to you all). Personally I prefer my own version; it doubles nicely as an explication for not doing la bise and for going directly to the bar.
Interestingly enough, and perhaps a slight indicator that the French have cottoned on to our bise-avoidance tactics, the French expression for leaving without saying goodbye is “filer à l’anglaise.”
But back to the apero I was having with my fellow expatriates. Having had a good moan about la bise at parties, we segued naturally onto other French party complaints, namely that of being asked the same tedious questions every time someone detects a “petit accent” whilst you’re speaking. It always starts with a seemingly inoffensive:
“ça vient d’où ton petit accent?” (where is your accent from?)
A fair enough question you might think, but let me explain. After a number of years of living in France your French becomes more or less fluent, but for most expats your accent sticks around. Fainter, yes, but noticeable nonetheless. Perhaps it’s the same for foreigners in other countries, but here, everyone from shop cashiers to taxi drivers, feels the need to quiz you about your accent, asking, “vous êtes Anglaise?” (Are you English), or, offensively, “vous êtes americaine?” (How dare you!). All of which means an expat can easily face impromptu quizzes about their country origins more than once a week. After five years you can find yourself getting a bit snarky about it, in a yes I’m foreign but I don’t need to talk about it every five minutes kind of way. This can come out in interesting ways…
Recently, at a party, and in the middle of talking to some friends, someone I didn’t know suddenly interrupted the conversation to ask where I was from. More than a little annoyed that he’d interrupted us to “check” if I was foreign, I replied confidently in French, “I’m from here, I’m French.” The look of bafflement on his face was so amusing that I felt compelled to see how far I could take it. “Gosh, that’s strange he said, I could’ve sworn you had a petit accent.””Oh yes,” I continued as my friends hid their smiles, “but I’m from la province [a phrase used by Parisians to mean anywhere outside of Paris and therefore not important enough to have an actual name] and that’s our regional accent.” Seeing the man start to flounder a bit I followed it up by inquiring sweetly, “would you like to see my passport?” Finally I let him off the hook. Was it a little mean, letting this unknown innocent take the flack for five years of pent-up irritation? Perhaps. But it was nice to vary the conversation a little and it was definitely much more entertaining for me!
Let me give you an idea of how the accent/country conversation usually goes:
French person: Do I detect a little accent?
Me: Yes, I’m English.
FP: Where are you from?
FP: Oh. [Blank stare]
Me: [Blank stare back – what? I didn’t start this boring conversation, it’s not my job to keep it going!]
Occasionally someone will have heard of Reading and will qualify this with an, “oh yes, my train passed through it on the way to London,” which also brings you to a bit of a conversational cul-de-sac. Next comes the banal English trivia and mild English-bashing questions: why do you eat beans for breakfast? Why is London so expensive? How many people live in Reading [French people always seem to know the population figures of their hometown as well as those of major French cities – why?!]. This can then lead to “hilarious jokes” about one or all of the following: British weather, British food, the Queen.
I suppose most of these conversations are well-intended, but the instigators are all labouring under the gross misapprehension that because I am foreign I will want to talk about my home country. This is patently not true, but a lot of people think otherwise. I once spent a party trying to hide from a Frenchman who was so excited by my English origins that he followed me around the apartment shouting out the names of shop chains that could be found in the UK but not in France. Incidentally it’s more than a little off-putting having someone bellow “RIVER ISLAND” in your face when you’re in the kitchen refilling your rosé.
Once you’ve been cornered into one of these home country conversations it can be difficult to extract yourself so I find it’s best to cut them off at the pass. My tactic is, as soon as somewhere asks me where I’m from, I answer but with the same question tacked on the end, usually all in one breath: “I’mfromEnglandandwhereareyoufrom?” Then, before they can even squeeze in so much as a “what do you think about the Royal Family?” I follow up sharply with, “Rennes, how interesting. Tell me, how many people live there?” Thus the FP gets a taste of their own medicine and usually move the conversation on to more mutually-appealing topics. Of course it doesn’t always work, all of my expat friends have similar stories of being coerced into passing comment on the inferiority of British cheese (not true!) or fake-laughing at jokes about the rain. Under these circumstances we have all agreed that there really is only one viable option left: filer à l’anglaise!