The « je ne sais quoi » of French and Anglophone differences.
There has been an unending stream of Anglo writing trying, and usually failing, to articulate the very palpable, yet sometimes elusive, distinctions between French and Anglo world views. Of course, humerous books are written about how Americans differ from English, New Zealanders from Australians etc. However, given the obsessional quantity of literature there is on the subject, it has to be said that there is some peculiar quality about the “French difference” or the “French paradox” or whatever name it may be called. Anglo writers who live or have lived in France are enamored of the topic.
Most of the books that I know of which confront this cultural comparison are done in the vein of the affable Anglo moving to France and relating their adventures in “faux pas” and misunderstandings while coming to terms with their charming and bewildering new environment. Peter Mayle’s ‘A year in Provence’ has become the reference for this genre. The book has taken on a merchandising life of it’s own with satirical spin offs like ‘A year in the merde’ by Stephen Clarke. Enough people come to France with vague aspirations of writing and ample free time to read other’s accounts of doing it that this has become a self sustaining market. If anyone would care to read a more local work of this type you could try ‘French Impressions’ by John S Little. It offers a time capsule glimpse for Anglos living in Montpellier who might wonder what it was like for an American family to attempt to integrate here in the 1950s.
There are at least two other subgenres amongst this spate of “Anglo tries to understand Franco” writing. One which has become increasingly popular is what one might call the admiration for French “savoir faire” book. In this category I would put ‘Why Frenchwomen don’t get Fat’ by Mirielle Guiliano and ‘Bringing up Bébé: One American Woman discovers the wisdom of French parenting’ by Pamella Druckerman. You may even add Julia Child’s ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ or Waverly Root’s ‘The Food of France’ to this category. The other subgenre is more serious pseudo academic approach of which my favourite is ’60 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong: Why we love France but not the French’ by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau. In this work, a Canadian couple attempt to analyse the underlying differences between the French and the rest of us, while keeping their account entertaining with personal anecdotes.
It may seem that I am glibly suggesting that the Anglo-Franco differences question is purely a machination of idle self obsessed ex pats wanting to write about their experiences but that is not my intention. There seems to be some thing particular about these differences that are particularly unsettling for Anglos. The afore mentioned ’60 million Frenchmen..’ work suggests that Anglos are often vexed by fundamental divergences of perspective because we fail to see the French for what they are. That is to say, essentially foreign. We are not surprised when a person from China has a very different conception of the world from our own but the French seem to be so outwardly like us that we think that disagreements are due to a misunderstanding, or in the worst cases, an error for which we feel the French need our reprimand. That is the most coherent explanation I have read so far from the literature on the subject. In most other writing there are only snapshots, which, while sometimes revealing, don’t analyse or articulate the phenomena. It is also a fine explanation for why, whenever you get a group of Anglos together, that have chosen to live in France, in some café or on a beach while enjoying many of the finer aspects of French life, the conversation inevitably turns to complaints about the French.
Next month I will try to establish an annotated list of the frequently perceived differences or “bones of contention” between Anglo and French cultures. Till then you may want to read one of the afore mentioned books or write the blog with your own observations on this type of book or on the subject of our French and Anglo disputes.