Becoming French

A few weeks ago in my excited stupor, I hit the bookstore in search of some good reading material on life in France and more particularly, on the mind-boggling subject of the French.  My amazing French teacher Isabelle, had recommended a great book (When in France do as the French Do) but it seemed as I browsed the overstocked travel section on that a single book would not satiate my hunger to know all there is to discover about this strange and fascinating culture.  I entered the bookstore armed with a long list of books that I had found online and marched straight up to the counter with the ‘magic’ computer and fed the desk clerk one title after the next until the ‘how many more!’ look of exasperation began to appear on his face.  At that point I took the call to prioritize among the remaining 5 of my 10+ titles to avoid pissing him off.  He sent me off with a little piece of paper containing the very valuable information regarding there whereabouts of these books in the vast land of reading that is Kinokuniya.

I have already begun to read a few of my purchases and I highly recommend anyone making a similar move to France, whether for work or play, to pick up a few of these titles. Some are full of essential information including how to rent an apartment, how to open a bank account, where to find language centers and even where to shop.  Others include insights on the French and their numerous idiosyncrasies…some of these readings serve as an encyclopedic breakdown on how they think, why they behave as they do and why they are always so irritable.  This section alone is fascinating and will truly help explain a lot of their bizarre behaviors.  It may also serve to explain and rationalize why they may often seem to be so difficult (to put it gently!).  Isabelle insists that the French and the Parisians are two different breeds; as the Parisians refer to anything outside Paris as the Province.

Here are some snippets from some of my favorite reads rich with some of the insights I have acquired to date:

“Then there is the uncanny business of the truffle […].  even if you are prepared to sacrifice the flavour of fresh truffles for the protection offered by the canned variety – even then, you can’t be sure.  One hears rumours.  It has been hinted that some French cans with French labels actually contain Italian or Spanish truffles (which, if true, must be one of the most profitable and least publicized acts of co-operaton ever between Common Market countries)” –— From “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle.

Who would have thought!

 “When the sun is shining on the roots of a likely looking oak, approach cautiously and, with your stick, prod gently around the base of the tree.  If a startled fly should rise vertically from the vegetation, mark the spot and dig.  You might have disturbed a member of the fly family whose genetic passion is to lay its eggs on the truffle (doubtless adding a certain je ne sais quoi to the flavour)”  — From “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle.

Ewwwww!  Makes me think twice about the wonderful flavorful decadent truffle a little differently…

“It is a rule of life that, when the phone rings between noon and three on a Sunday, the caller is English; a Frenchman wouldn’t dream of interrupting the most relaxed meal of the week”  — From “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle.

I love it!  A true appreciation for the simple pleasures in life…

I have also learned that Parisians know English very well, especially those in the corporate world.  In fact, apparently,” to the Parisian, English is secretly more cool and quite obviously much simpler than French.  The Parisians talk about son spirit, son timing or son management with his friends.  Il squeeze, il switche, il checke.  Parisians also love South America and most have a friend from South America.  Those who don’t wish they did.  South American friends bring lightheartedness and a Spanish accent to Parisian parties.  These are key to a good party.  It seems lightheartedness is a quality Parisians love in people from South America and Belgium.  They admire it in English people and they despise it in people from France or the US.” — From “Stuff Parisians Like” by Olivier Magny

Olivier Magny can also explain the use of the French words sympa and beaufs.  Why they wear black, what Roland Garros means to them and so much more.

Some valuable reading for an expat (or expat to be) in France:

  • “Stuff Parisians Like” — by Olivier Magny
  • “A Year in Provence” — by Peter Mayle
  • “When in France, do as the French Do” — by Ross Steele
  • “Working and Living in France (Cadogan Guides) — b y Monica Larner
  • “A Year in the Merde” — by Stephen Clarke
  • “French or Foe?”  — by Polly Platt
  • “Savoir Flair” — by Polly Platt
  • “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t be Wrong: Why we Love France but not the French” — by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow

I have only begun to tackle three of these books so far!  The reading has been exciting and at times laugh-out-loud funny!  I am enjoying this prep phase of getting better acquainted with the French as the worst part of being in a new place is making all the common mistakes an obvious foreigner would make.  My objective with this stack of reading is to blend in as seamlessly and quietly as possible…like slipping into a crowded room of French unannounced.

If you have any insights about the French and Parisians in particular, please do share and help me become a little more French!



  1. A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff · · Reply

    I spent a year in Paris as a student and I found that being persistent is key to pretty much everything especially when it comes to bureaucracy. Enjoy your reading and good luck!

  2. Many thanks for the tip! Will definitely keep that in mind!

  3. One great thing about the French is they are usually very happy to speak to you in French (unlike other nationalities who always want to practice their English!). I did a degree in French and Italian and was lucky to live there for a while, when are you moving there and to which part? What a great adventure :)

  4. Wow! Sounds like you’ve had quite an adventure yourself! : ) I’m waiting for paperwork at the moment so hopefully in another 2 months max! I’ll be moving to Paris for work. Which city were you in? I’m a little scared but mostly VERY excited!

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