Thursday, January 12, 2017

Neat or Not at All

Seldom a month goes by that I don’t thank my lucky stars that I was raised proper - well actually raised to be proper. Between my grandparents, that I would listen to, and my parents that I tried not to listen to, I learned to say please and thank you, look adults in the eye when greeting them, and a long list of other niceties that, with a lot of prompting, became ingrained, automatic behaviors.  Credit should also be given to my great uncles who taught me how to shake hands with just the right amount of pressure, to be on time or get left behind, and how to drink whiskey neat or not at all. 

Now here in France every social event makes me feel like that youngster learning how to comport herself all over again.

Here on “the other side” of the ocean there is a very different set of rules on how to act proper in the world of French adults. Here I thank my lucky stars that I have an adoptive family that is willing to answer questions and gently teach this old dog new tricks - even though one of these French rules says that it is impolite to correct another adult. 

An evening out will start by being careful to calculate our time of departure so that we will arrive at the home of our hosts no earlier than 15 minutes late. My childish brain says I have to be ready at the appointed hour, so I am.  But I don’t want to start off my special evening in the dog house, so I sit all dolled up in my house, tapping my toes until the clock has struck the “official” hour and then sit there for another 15 minutes listening to the voices of the great uncles saying, “What the heck are you waiting for?”

Upon arriving I no longer get to show off my just-right American handshake as I introduce myself to a new acquaintance or say a quick hi to old friends. Here it’s a round of kisses to all. Then the doorbell rings and it will start all over again. I guess the best thing about being late is you get all this hello-ing over in one fell swoop. 

At some point we are all seated at the dinner table.  Now is my big chance to put to use a whole bunch of my new tricks. I hear my grandmother’s words “keep your hands in your lap” over and over.  But at the same time my mind is working overtime to remember that in France, it’s, “Keep my hands on the table”. 

Dinner served I am thrilled that my unbreakable childhood habit of eating “continental” style is now de rigueur. Here there is no need to: cut my food, put down my knife (right hand) and fork (left hand) and then pick up the fork in my right hand. Something that has raised eyebrows my entire life will go unnoticed here.

I’ll drink my wine as slowly as I can and wait until I am served more instead of having the audacity to ask for more - even if my glass has been empty for 3 or 4 minutes! 

I hold my breath that I will not be the first person that has to cut into the cheese plate and I count on the person before me knowing cheese cutting etiquette that I can copy cat. 

I put my bread directly on the table. 

I stay seated while my hostess does everything. Like a child I watch everyone to see what they are doing and try to mimic or change whatever American mannerism that is trying to sneak back to the table.

I have made great progress in my French comportment but, until last week there was one rule I had heard about, but was doing my darndest to ignore. Then some new Americans moved to town and they really wanted confirmation of what I was convinced could only be rumor. We decided that we could ask this crazy, slightly embarrassing question here in the confidence of a family from whom we knew we would get an honest response. 

We had all heard that one is never to use the bathroom when you are a guest in a French home. So sometime in the middle of Christmas dinner I screwed up the courage and asked my French hostess the question, well actually I stated it as a fact. “I have heard that when one is a guests in someone’s home they cannot use the bathroom”. The immediate response was “absolument” - this pretty much translates to of course you can not! There was an audible gasp from the Americans. Not go to the bathroom when one might be a guest for 4 - 6 hours. Now that is a rule of etiquette gone too far! I thought of the times one of us had used the bathroom here in this very home - not to mention others- and how no one had ever corrected us. (This particular friend has been a great guide to living in France and has gently guided me in other niceties. How could she have neglected this bit of info? It probably never occurred to her that we didn’t know this rule.) This great prudish problem in a country where men can pretty much pee in public pretty much anywhere they like!

I have to confess that I have taken this new trick under advisement, but as of yet there are not enough years of voices telling me that I cannot make myself comfortable if things are becoming urgent - plus my curiosity of what the rest of the house looks like often gets the better of me. I guess someone forgot to drill into me that curiosity killed the cat and that for old dogs some habits are just going to get worse not better. At least when it comes to drinking with proper French adults I never get left behind when it comes to a quick nip of 100-proof eau-de-vie and that’s a good southern way to show you have right proper manners!

1 comment:

bfblogger said...

Never heard the story of the bathroom. I'm an American in France and need to check out that one! Thanks for the heads up on it.