Now that Lou and I are settling back into our rural French home after our ‘nomadic’ spring, we are making moves to get more involved in local life. On my part that has meant volunteering at the local ‘café associatif’ (community café) as a way of making new friends.
Yet as we get to know people better, the minefield of cultural differences becomes more apparent. The cultural gap that looked like just a hop across the Channel turns out to be elastic and at times expands into an ocean of cultural misunderstanding.
There is one thing that I miss hugely about life back in England. Not Cathedral City cheese or Marmite or fish and chips, but being able to mention “Black Books” or “the Lumberjack Song” or “WOMAD Festival” and have people know what on Earth I am talking about. Even with like-minded folk of a similar age, such as the café volunteers, it seems there is a whole world of different cultural references.
Take Saturday evening at the café, when we were all sharing some tasty nibbles before a folk music night. The light bulb above the bar had gone, so Jean-Luc climbed up on a ladder to change it. There ensued a comical scene, with a huddle of advisors debating how Jean-Luc should remove and replace the bulb and whether or not to switch off the electricity while he did it.
The ‘light-bulb joke’ comes immediately to mind. But not if you are French, it seems. I remarked to the accordion player on my left that in England we would probably be quipping “how many café associatif volunteers do you need to change a light-bulb?” My joke was greeted with polite insouciance. As everyone clapped when the lightbulb was finally replaced, I silently chortled to myself “… that would be seven – and an audience to applaud.”
A quick enquiry to a friend the next day informed me that French lightbulb jokes do exist, so perhaps the musician at the café was just too cool to laugh. My point, however, is that I am constantly tripping up because my French cultural baggage is too light.
There is a whole lifetime of French cultural references that we are never going to catch up on – from jokes, to song lyrics and television series – no matter hard we try. The other day, someone sang back “S’il vous plaît” at me after I had asked him to do something “please”. At first I thought he was laughing at me but he explained that this is the refrain of a cheesy French pop song. Being ‘culturally challenged’ in this way is like trying to do an egg and spoon race with both hands tied behind your back.
And this is to say nothing of the culture gap that yawns between us and the more ‘paysan’ of our French neighbours, who are the real country folk. That chasm extends wider than language and cultural references to span a different way of life and traditional customs.
Our neighbour Daniel has been asking us to come to the ‘repas de chasse’ (‘hunt meal’) spit roast since last year, so we ended up going along on Saturday lunchtime to please him. Which is how I found myself watching as Daniel’s friend Victor and his mates lifted a majestic stag’s head up onto the balcony of the ‘salle des fêtes’ (village hall). Daniel told me the stag weighed in at 175 kilos (about 27 stone) when he was roaming the woods and fields hereabouts – a real ‘King of the Forest’. He was finished off by Victor back in February, just before the end of the hunting season. I found myself wishing he had managed to get away for another year, as it seemed a tragic end for such a beautiful beast.
The hunters say that there are too many deer and wild boar, so they need to be culled. However, the main reason there are so many wild boar is that the hunt create the ideal conditions for them so that they have wild boar to hunt – and so it goes on. As a lily-livered city-dwelling liberal, of course I have ambivalent feelings about the hunt, but at least here in France they do eat what they catch.
Extensive research (Wikipedia) tells me that ‘culture shock’ develops in stages, starting with a ‘honeymoon period’ when everything seems exotic, delightful and charming. I fear we may now be entering the rather longer ‘negotiation period’, where we realise that we actually do not understand many of the people around us and that we have barely built the foundations of our bridge across the cultural divide.
We had better start applying ourselves to learning French pop songs of the 1970s and 80s…