I don’t think I could ever be mistaken for being French. I’m just too much of a practical Kiwi. However, I’ve always found something maddeningly mysterious about the whole French culture.
Learning French and eating snails
My first encounter with anyone French was more terrifying than mysterious. It involved a Napoleonic woman with an Amelie bob and a bark like a barely chained alsation. Miss Lynch, my third form French teacher.
Miss Lynch was notorious for relegating people to the hallway for not producing the required answer in less than three seconds. I think I learnt more about school radiators than I did about French.
For the next 15 years I have to admit I was slightly Francophobic.
Then, whilst living in the UK, my boyfriend at the time suggested a weekend in Paris.
It was Easter and my boyfriend, a lapsed Catholic, suddenly took it into his head to start practicising again, in Paris. Consequently I had to endure a 2 hour mass in French at the Sacre Couer. “We can tick it off the list” he said brightly, ignoring the fact that I wasn’t Catholic or French.
All through our four day stay he practised his school-boy French to distainful waiters while I cringed. The final straw was when he insisted I try snails at a seedy little back street bistro. “Isn’t this so French?!” he exclaimed gaily as I grimly chewed something resembling garlic flavoured car tyre with a distinct aftertaste of soil. Why I was eating something that belonged in the back yard I couldn’t fathom. Luckily frogs legs weren’t on the menu.
French cooking isn’t for the faint of heart
When Mireille Guiliano’s “French Women Don’t Get Fat” first hit the bookstands I salivated like a small French poodle. Finally the world of French women would be revealed, we would learn all their secrets, their desires and most importantly, their recipes.
For the next week I busied myself in the kitchen making all sorts of French dishes: Ratatouille, Grandma Louises Oatmeal with Grated Apple and Plum Clafoutis without batter. I even cooked the Salmon A’ L’Unilateral.
Unfortunately it set the cat into a frenzy, the smoke alarms off and created a stench which my flatmate complained about for days. Cie la vie.
“French women consider prunes the perfect detox food,” said Mireille, “I still eat two prunes at breakfast a few times a week”. Dutifully I bought a bag of prunes and proceeded to consume the lot. With inevitable consequences.
Still even with all this cooking and prune consumption I felt I was no closer to really understanding that exotic creature, the French woman.
Up close and personal encounter with a French guy
Then in early 2003 I had a French encounter of the up close and personal kind. A French man (we’ll call him Pierre) was employed at my work. Pierre unlike his kiwi male colleagues looked like he’d jumped off the pages of a glossy European men’s magazine.
He strutted, impeccable in Versace suits, he seemed to be permanently cloaked in a thick intoxicating aura of sexuality. I was fascinated yet terrified. Because he worked in IT it was only a matter of time before we crossed wired paths.
The eventual conversation was brief, it involved (after my computer was fixed) an invitation to an expensive hotel room and the consumption of French champagne. It was an outrageous proposition.
Intrigued, yet completely out of my depth, I avoided Pierre whenever I saw him. I had no idea how to respond to such a brazen display of wantoness. Is this what all French men are like I wondered?
French style is an acquired taste
Somewhere amongst all this confusion my younger sister in London for her OE actually nabbed herself a French boyfriend. Everyone was mightily impressed. “She always wanted a French boyfriend”, said one of her friends knowingly. Did she?
All that comes to mind is one night when we were out clubbing and some French men wearing yellow zip-neck pullovers invited us “ladeez to go to a discotheque’. We were horrified.
Perhaps here in New Zealand we’re just suspicious of anything even slightly resembling manners. Though the French aren’t particularly known for theirs.
A friend of mine recounted a trip to Europe where her cousin met a French man. After getting along famously he dropped this conversation stopper, “Why do you New Zealanders smile so much?”, he enquired, “It makes you look infantile”. Cie la vie.