Le Parisien, a Paris daily, recently ran a survey asking A quoi rêvent les Français, what do the French dream of? You know the kind of thing: what people want from life, to what extent their ambitions have been realised, how far life has short-changed them, and so on. So far, so good, nothing out of the ordinary, especially as the popular wish-list began with two yawn-yawn predictable I-needs: more money and better health.
Fair enough, but the story really starts at No.3. What would you have said? Love? Friends? Fame? Popularity? Long life? Children or grandchildren? Shorter working hours? A female boss? A clearer brain? Cleaner environment?
Surprise, surprise. Just over a fifth - 21% - answered temps pour soi, time for oneself, me-time. This was closely followed, indeed virtually cancelled out, by something even more eyebrow-raising at No.4: Being a useful member of society.
How little we know the French.
* * *People - other expats, chiefly - occasionally ask me how long I've lived in France. It's so long now that I've almost lost count. Getting on for twenty years, I reply, wishing I hadn't been asked, because it sometimes - by no means always, I do assure you - signals starter's orders for a tacit snobisme race, much against my will: Johnny-come-latelies can't pull seniority and find someone else to talk to, while those that outdate us have long since carved out lives for themselves in France that don't involve junior expats or even other Brits. I don't expect it was all that different in the days of the Raj.
French reaction to our having lived among them for so long varies. Some are gratified by how good our French is (it's no more than competent, really). Others are too polite to say what une oreille de cochon we make of speaking to them, but betray themselves unwittingly by screwing up their eyes and peering at us, hoping that this will reveal what we're on about.
Of course, we carry a heavy burden of preconceptions about the French. We've done this unconsciously since childhood. It's a burden that has nothing to do with received stereotypes: never, to my knowledge, has an onion-seller, dressed in beret and striped Breton shirt, pushed his bike into our village, his handlebars groaning under the weight of strings of onions. No policeman with waxed and pointed moustaches, cape and truncheon has ever been seen in our local gendarmerie.
Perhaps we can identify the French definitively with the help of the English dictionary? Maybe there's some illumination if we look up 'French'? Let's see what happens.
The people we've chosen to exile ourselves among, for instance - well, I'll make a list of everything they lay claim to, and if you've nothing better to do you can fill in what's missing. I'll give you the first two to prime the pump:
- fast-moving bedroom or domestic comedy (French farce) in which
- the female characters possibly wear wide-legged underwear (over to you)
- which are unlikely to have been made by a sort of primitive crochet, looping wool over four panel-pins stuck in a cotton reel and drawing the resulting woollen cord through the hole.
- the common kidney bean, eaten pods and all, probably not enlivened with
- a mixture of oil, vinegar and lemon juice, but maybe accompanied by
- potato chips crisped and golden-browned in hot oil, and
- bread dipped in egg and milk and then fried, and
- a long, narrow, crusty loaf with tapered ends.
- a double fold at the end of shirt-sleeves, etc
- a method of knitting socks
- fabric edges enclosed by stitching on both sides.
- a protective sheath possibly taking its name from a town in the Landes département, or the name of its inventor, nobody knows, to reduce the risk of
- socially transmitted disease.
- sneak off, disappear suspiciously?
- crème anglaise (English cream) means custard. It's certainly yellow, but it's thin, over-sweet and served cold
- j'ai la visite des Anglais (the English have come to see me) is an expression meaning it's my period, time of the month - no explanation is offered for this - and
- filer à l'anglaise (to go, to leave in the English manner) means to sneak off, to disappear suspiciously. Exactly the converse of the English expression.
* * *That Le Parisien survey. 75% of people questioned said that their lives came up to their expectations, that their dreams had been realised. Yes, 75%. You'd never get that in the UK. There must be something wrong somewhere. Maybe it's the crème anglaise.