Bonnie Einsiedel is a student from the Mornington Peninsula who finally graduated from her Arts degree (Political Science/French – Monash) in Lyon, France in June this year; demonstrating that too much French food, wine and culture can be an unexpected incentive to course completion
Having been transformed from a petite, punctual, perfectionist, healthy quasi-vegetarian to a larger, unpunctual, disorganised, social-smoking carnivore after living in Lyon for the past 10 months, I could write a thesis on this wonderfully quirky, artistic, dynamic and old-fashioned society. Here is a short précis of my French cultural experience.
Trigger alert: This article contains gross cultural generalisations
1. To smoke or not to smoke
Before moving to France, I believed that smoking was for rebels or sad souls after a difficult break-up. France is not only the country of fine wine and food, it’s the capital of fumeurs. Unlike in Australia where a concerted health campaign kicked our small cigarette habit, the tradition is alive and thriving in France; particularly during the 5 minute break each hour at university where the campus is scarcely visible underneath the smoke haze. If I had a dollar for every mother I spotted lighting up while pushing a pram, I’d be disgracefully wealthy.
Smoking in France belongs to no class, it’s a trendy behaviour embraced by everyone. It brings together strangers, it keeps down the weight, it’s cheap and can be a substitute for breakfast – 20 cigarettes and three bitter black coffees and you’re ready for work. It’s also a symbol of resistance against the Man. I knew a Frenchman who took up smoking when the government prohibited smoking in bars; a practical way to campaign for one’s civil liberties. Pity it kills.
2. The French diet : a recipe for extending one’s waistline
No one is warned about the dangers of living in the country of good food and wine until it’s too late and you’ve replaced your wardrobe with clothes two sizes larger. The Capital of Gastronomy (Lyon) demands a serious commitment to wine, cheese, pastries, baguettes and long lunches. As a vegetarian it is impossible to embrace French culture. Memorable moments and meat go hand-in-hand. There’s nothing like arriving at a campsite in Ardèche after a day of canoeing and having your wine expert friend produce three bottles of red wine and a top côte de boeuf. Or when you go to a party in a sculptor’s warehouse next to the train tracks in winter and are handed top quality blood-dripping meat cooked over the fireplace. Irresistible.
Much has been written on how the French stay thin when enjoying wonderful food and wine and engaging in relatively little exercise. The French always tell me it’s due to their balanced diet. To date I haven’t met a French person with a balanced diet. I suggest it’s a mix of factors: great genetics, a rigid three-meal-a-day structure, less processed food, a serious amount of black coffee, a tonne of cigarettes and a lack of elevators/escalators/any alternatives to walking. Organised sport has little, if any, contribution to their size. You know when you’re in sports’ gear and a bus driver congratulates you on doing exercise that sport doesn’t have the same status in France as in Australia.
3. Masculine Frenchmen : a wonderful oxymoron
French men cop a lot of jokes from Aussies about being feminine due to their behaviour and dress sense. If anything, Australia could learn a lot from European masculinity. Unlike our culture, which often demands unemotional muscle-men interested in footy, history may look more fondly on the Frenchman who is more in touch with his intellectual and emotional side, has more interests, is more sociable and certainly dresses better. One should never underestimate the power of a clean, ironed, French-perfumed shirt. Romance is also an important part of French society, where public displays of affection (PDAs) are rampant (and obligatory), you can find yourself introduced as someone’s partner after one date and may even receive eloquent abusive text messages if you reject a Frenchie who’s particularly keen.
With a ratio of about 500:1 attractive French women to handsome Frenchman, France is the place to be if you’re interested in females. There is no shortage of model-looking, elegant, well-dressed Frenchwomen, of all ages. Foreign females hoping to snag one of the few remaining handsome, single, heterosexual Frenchmen have to emphasise their accent and up the charm – something that beautiful French women have never had to exercise and thus sometimes lack. To those intimidated by fabulous Frenchwomen, I suggest an all-nighter in Saint Tropez as a reminder that the most classically stunning French ladies are hassled all evening by creepy freaks and have wasted ten hours by the pool trying to darken their already flawless tan.
Charles, a wine expert serving up some delicacies
4. The great language misunderstanding
Only those willing to feel like an idiot several times every day for at least five months should take up French. Learning French is confronting for English speakers as, unlike in Australian society, not correcting someone’s language mistakes is IMPOLITE. It’s much easier for us to learn French than for Frenchies to learn English, as we have constant free advice from our French housemates, friends, local bakery and bar staff and anyone that we meet who picks up a linguistic fault. You know your French is improving when a close friend tells you she can now decipher your text messages (you’ve only been in France eight months), or when friends affectionately mimic your accent – a sign they can at least understand what you’re trying to say.
5. Patience is a virtue (and compulsory)
For people who are not naturally patient, France is either an insurmountable nightmare or a miracle cure. In Africa one often encounters ‘African time’ (slower pace, slower service), like in some Pacific islands or South American countries. What one does not expect is the level of disorganisation of this top European power and the incredible patience of the French. Multiply all waiting times by at least two. At the supermarket, for example, it can take twenty minutes to verify the price of an item, during which time everyone waits patiently in the queue. Unlike in Australia where train delays can provoke heavy-swearing, unartistic graffiti and bottle-smashing (not that public transport is a patch on France’s system), the French shake their heads silently then continue reading their books. I’ve waited almost an hour to buy phone credit and up to 45 minutes for a friend to arrive (being overly-punctual is rude).
The stark contrast between the organisational efficiency of my Australian and French universities demonstrates the ‘anti-system’ element in French society and is a shock to anyone used to the way the Australian system functions. To begin with, once you’ve chosen subjects for the semester, there is no online timetable designating classrooms. A staff member at the foreign student bureau explained (after I’d waited thirty minutes in the queue only for her to have a ten minute discussion with a colleague about their weekends), that to find out class times and locations I needed to find the relevant noticeboards, which could be “anywhere on campus, there is no system”. Forget visual or kinaesthetic learning, lectures are three hours of dictation with no powerpoints, recordings or interaction with professors. There were days when every printer in the library and computer labs was out of order; don’t ask for a scanner, there isn’t one on campus. Exams can be delayed one hour before their starting time, when you’re already at the examination venue. If you took all these little frustrations on board, you’d eventually explode. Instead, Australians are forced to be more flexible with time.
Time has a different value in the Capital of Gastronomy. It slows down when we’re in good company, enjoying good food and wine; completely disconnected from professional life. Above all, Lyon has taught me how to live in the present and for that, I am eternally grateful.