The first time I heard about “an exception to every rule” was in French class. Soon after, I would learn that the phrase goes far beyond grammar to encompass rules in everyday French life. I will never forget the French customer who bought lingerie from me (summer job) and who, learning I was about to leave for a university exchange programme, invited me to visit her while I was in France. My goodness! How generous! But in the very next breath she mentioned that when the French extend such invitations (Casually? To a stranger? While buying underwear?) they are not to be taken up on the offer.
This first live and in-person foray into French etiquette left me boggled. It’s now been two decades since I became a resident of France and I am no more clear on acceptable behaviour now than I was on the day I arrived at the Aéroport Marseille Provence wearing des bottes de cowboy (in my mind I was an ambassador representing the State of Arizona). Here are just a few recent experiences that had me giving the boot to my cloudy cultural understandings.
While dropping off my 19-year-old for her BlaBla car (popular ride share in France), I noticed that my daughter greeted the young driver with a kiss on each cheek. When I called her later, to make sure she’d arrived safely in Aix-en-Provence, I asked if she knew the conducteur.
“Non,” she said. She’d never seen him before and they didn’t have friends in common either. But I thought la bise was reserved for friends, or friends of friends. My daughter’s explanation only confused me more, “C’est comme ça, maman!”
Before sea urchin season ended (hunting oursins is strictly regulated), I accompanied my husband to the nearest calanque to watch him collect his favourite appetiser. As he returned from the cold water with a bag full of spiky creatures, a French woman approached him and got right to the point:
“L’eau est à quelle température?” she asked.
What? No “Bonjour”? I thought it was illegal not to begin every encounter with, “Bonjour Monsieur” or “Bonjour Madame.” Was there some sort of seaside exception? A bonjour-free zone? Did being barefoot somehow relax the rules of French politesse?
During our recent search for a home we visited dozens of maisons – often one after the other with no time for a pit-stop. In one particularly neat and clean bastide I saw my husband break for the nearest WC and so break The Bathroom Rule! In France you are not supposed to ask to use a person’s bathroom. You hold it in until you get home or, more likely, to the nearest leafy tree. Not my Frenchman! Seeing an opportunity, he dashed into les toilettes, leaving me confused, annoyed – and wishing I was as brazen!
Still, no matter how desperate, I would not break any rules – not even the imaginary ones I’d pieced together over the years of kissing, greeting and ‘relieving’. Decency is always a good rule. No exceptions!
CONDUCTEUR = driver
BISE = kiss
OURSIN = sea urchin
BASTIDE = country house
L’EAU EST À QUELLE TEMPÉRATURE? = what temperature is the water?
From France Today magazine