Sunday, February 13, 2011

France vs. the United States of America

It's a love hate thing. Seriously, as much as the French despise the Americans, they love them, imitate them and strive to be just like them. And as much as the Americans loathe the French, they are infinitely jealous about the French, wish to live in France for a year or so and soak up their lifestyle. French are thin, Americans are fat. French are arrogant, Americans gullible. French reserved & well-mannered, Americans loud & rude. French cosmopolitan, Americans narrow-minded... The obvious conclusion would be (and it's a social consensus) that the two countries are entirely and inherently different. Bullshit. 

There are no more freedom fries. When in 2003 Dubya decided to invade Iraq and look for WMD (which I believe, he did not find, did he not...), the French expressed strong opposition to the US plans on several international political arenas, a.o. in the U.N. Shortly thereafter, two (of course) republican Representatives of the House have ordered the removal of the country's name from products. Freedom Fries were born. By 2006 the House has quietly revoked the change. Little did they know that French Fries aren't French, but Belgian. And anyways, the French couldn't give a damn about what the Americans would call their potatoes. Yet, I'd say a pretty clear manifestation of Francophobia by Americans, right there.


Coca-Colonisation & Fridges. So, the Anti-Americanism in France, let's say, roots a bit deeper. While over the pond the Americans tried to rid the world of communism during the cold war, the French communist party held a significant share of the electoral vote in France, decidedly fighting against the capitalist American society slowly but surely invading France with modernization and inventions like the frigidaire or Coca Cola. But more importantly, America was threatening to take the lead on visual arts, popular music, architecture and literature, leaving France behind (I will soon write a post on the illusion of "Le quart d'heure d'avance"). Net, France - La grande Nation - was about to lose international status and heritage. And it hurt. 

Pretentiousness and megalomania. Some of the stereotypes mentioned in the opening paragraph may well be close to reality. And there are some obvious social, cultural, religious and ethnic differences between France and the US of A. But there are more parallels than meet the eye. First off, both countries claim their social and cultural systems are ideal models, universal archetypes for the rest of the world. Now, you know what happens when two guys meet to compare their meat, each on suggesting to have the biggest. It's the same with countries. 

But even on a much more introspective level, the two countries are similar and moving in the same direction (for better or worse): Many of the TV shows that work in the US, also work in France (I am talking about the absurd early afternoon Jerry Springer type shows, and Tele Shopping and stuff like that...). Astoundingly many French hardly speak any other language than their own. French media are hardly focusing on the outside world, what's important is happening in France and vice versa. A majority of French are vacationing in France, French colonies or french speaking places. French apparently need to be made aware of the most obvious like, 'coffee is hot', 'eat healthy', 'drive carefully', 'do not microwave your cat' etc. Many Frenchmen are disloyal to their sports teams, even national teams. The French also claim world leadership in many things, some of which they might have, but certainly not all: art (Picasso only lived in France, Michelangelo was Italian, so was Da Vinci), political system (d'uh!), cuisine (close, probably), aircraft technology (Concorde?) wine (fight it out with Italy), work ethic (SNCF?), cheese (come on...), romance (Shakespeare?), bread (make it 'Croissants' and we're ok) etc. Net: In many respects, the French could well be regarded as the Americans of Europe.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Chapon fermier de Pintade de challans rôti sauce armoricaine et sa fricassée de légumes oubliés

French cuisine has earned its name. There's no denying that. Of course the portions are microscopically small, you'd think the kitchen has either ran out of virtually everything, or the waiter has accidentally served what was specifically put together for the anorexic hag sitting at the table next to you. But, in France, sorry: in french restaurants it's quality over quantity. The food is indeed to die for. Which actually makes the apportioning issue just that less bearable... It's like a coitus interruptus. It's unfair, doesn't make sense and creates frustration.

You are what you eat. A recent study by scientific journal The Lancet has shown that French citizens rank amongst the countries with the lowest average BMI scores in the world, with countries like Bangladesh and Japan ranking close. It's not one of the scientific conclusions, but for me it's obvious: french cuisine. Consequently it can't be astounding to learn that the term 'molecular cuisine' has been coined by a Frenchman called Hervé This. But, actually I wanted to point out something completely different.

If it ain't got that sound, it won't break new ground. Reading let alone understanding french menus can be a real pain. French cuisine usually comes with long, painstakingly crafted and complex names for sometimes actually quite primitive dishes. It's not a Sirloin Steak, it's a "rear back cut of beef steak in its butter-garlic flavored reduction with a triplet of steam cooked vegetables". It must be awfully entertaining to watch me screen through a french menu, every now and then look up with a dazzled face and eventually making a random pick, sweating tears while trying to communicate my choice to the waiter. I know they're amused. It's my pleasure, though. They just need to get the portions fixed, dammit!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Asthmatical consent

Yes. Really quite an awkward thing happening here in France. The first time one of my key account managers produced this really awkward sounding "yes" (in french: 'oui' - pronounce [we]), of course I thought it was lack of pulmonary control or some sort of respiratory issue he was suffering from.

But no. He wasn't the only one doing it and there's no way the french smoke THIS much. My entire team is giving 'vocally challenged consent' every now and then, saying the word "oui" while inhaling. As if they thought they didn't have the time to inhale first, and THEN speak. To be fair to them, they can also say it in a normal way.  
The worst thing is, though, that I haven't really figured out yet which one to expect in what type of situation. I'd like to be prepared the next time it happens. Suppress the urge to call a medic. And may be, sometimes, assimilate and imitate... be french. Just for fun. But as long as I can't even anticipate it, I'll keep my breath.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Not giving a shit is stereotypically french. There is no doubt about that. The French have gone as far as devising a nifty little phrase to give notice of their indifference: 'bof'. Throughout the country, it serves as the universal, all-encompassing answer to any odd or even questions asked. Up to 95% of all 'bofs' come with a similarly typical 'Gallic Shrug':

Despite the not-so-french simplicity and briefness, this inconspicuous verbal discharge comes in a number of forms, and thus, it may hold various different meanings, according to the way it is delivered. 'Bof' can be pronounced with or without vowels (e.g. 'bbrrrffl'). It can be a snotty statement of disapproval, an artfully prolonged expression of helplessness or just an apathetic  way of disclosing pure lack of enthusiasm.  

Yesterday, I was on the receiving end of a world-class 'bof' when I asked the waiter whether he had some mayonnaise to go with my french fries. Very apparently he didn't. I felt like I had just asked for ice cubes to go with my Châteauneuf-du-Pape. When turning back to my french colleagues, looking for answers, all I got was... you know... 'bof'.   

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Rien ne va plus.

"Now, when France goes on strike, nobody notices" Sarkozy said at some point after he was elected president of 'la grande nation'. I have lived in France for no more than 3 weeks, and my team assistant has already issued the second strike warning. Somewhat ill-advised bragging by my namesake right there - clearly there's pure chaos in Paris when public transport comes to a stand still. 'Rien ne va plus'...! 

Needless to say that in the 30 years I've spent living in Switzerland, there was not one single strike. Swiss trains, trams and buses have time trackers installed indicating seconds off timed schedule. Yes, seconds. The timer display turns red when the vehicle runs beyond one minute late. This is when folks waiting at train stations and bus stops start getting nervous. Not for being late. But something bad might have happened. It's called 'service public' and the Swiss take it seriously.   

The actual french working week has 36.9 hours - on average. Only the German and the Dutch work less. Yet, even after relaxing the (socialist) state-imposed 35-hour week in 2005, France still has the lowest legal maximum of working hours per week. Another statistic reveals the French to spend the least amount of time... actually working. Apparently, the proportion of weekly working time actually spent at work is around 75% in France. In Spain it's 79%. In Italy 83%. European average is 86%. In Poland it's 95%. 

It's how my former (French) finance manager predicted: Productivity in France generally means 'not a lot of actual work, but actually a lot of coffee breaks'. And then yesterday, during a coffee break, my touch down manager revealed to me that I will have around 38 days of vacation - excluding a number of national holidays. 

I am slightly concerned about how I will afford more vacationing with less actual work. But if the French labor system turns out to work for me, too... I can only say 'chapeau'! Well done. Savoir vivre! That is... unless France is on strike again when I want to go on vacation. 

Friday, March 5, 2010

La grande complication.

"La Grande Nation" proves every right to own it's name. France is big. You might think that I - born and grown up in little Switzerland - might just be over-impressed by the relative size of things. After all, Paris is more than ten times the size of Geneva in terms of population - over 50 times, agglomeration included. It's one of the most populated metropolitan areas in Europe.

But I'm talking about administration. A study I found on the internet shows that public employment as a percentage of total labor force in France is amongst the highest in Europe - Only a few nordic countries rank higher in that list. Another study shows that the total public sector performance indicator in France ranks at the bottom of the list of european countries - only Greece and Italy indicators are worse.

The french have a way of complicating things which - under normal circumstances - would seem simple, almost banal. Just to get your apartment fixed up with an internet connection requires to i) be physically present at a service location of your telecom brand, ii) fill a seemingly infinite number of forms, iii) produce a number of documents to prove you are a local, legal, employed, sane and financially fit citizen and then iv) wait an incredibly long time until the service actually gets put in place. I am not trying to be difficult, but in order to get an internet connection in Switzerland, all you need is a credit card and a phone call.

It's nobody's fault. You simply can't point fingers. It's just the way french administration works - since centuries probably. It's the system. And so the French queue up and wait to get things done, silently swearing in condemnation, checking their wrist watches from time to time. Not knowing that, ironically, it is the Swiss who are the real masters of complications. Swiss haute horlogerie invented terms like "striking complication" and "astronomical complication". Some Swiss watches are made up of over 1700 parts, and over 30 complications. And yet, not one of them require to fill a form before you can read the time. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pointy brown suede shoes?

OK, what's with the pointy brown suede shoes? Based on a non-representative survey conducted in the 8th and 17th Arrondissement - about 35% of male population in the survey area wear pointy brown suede shoes. 

Maybe there's something I don't get. It could be a dress code of sorts or a symbol of status. All I know is that a significant share of Frenchmen around Paris wear them. I just can't seem to identify the common denominator amongst all pointy brown suede shoe wearers (PBSSW) - apart from the pointy brown suede shoes. 

To be honest, I am surprised to observe that many PBSSW in the capital of fashion. I am certainly not the person to take fashion advice from, but I can tell the good from the bad. I guess you could wear them and still look good - just (probably) not with jeans, chinos or black trousers. It makes the PBSSW look old-fashioned and somewhat clumsy. They could (probably) go well with a navy suit. Personally I would only wear them with a dark brown felt or plush suit, a big afro wig and a fake moustache. 

Maybe pointy brown suede shoes were part of the standard french school uniform a few years back, and some just have a hard time to let go - old habits.