Are the French Rude?

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Mr Rude French Are the French Rude?You know, I can’t help thinking that the arrogant rudeness some Anglo-Saxons seem to find so inherent in the French is the result of a misunderstanding caused by a different cultural conception as to what constitutes basic politeness. This was once again brought home to me during a recent week’s holiday I spent in Portugal with a group of 20 or so French tourists. Even though I’d had several lengthy conversations with at least two male members of our group (especially at mealtimes when the wine began to flow), it was only towards the end of the holiday when we really started getting to know one another that we began using first names. It goes without saying that, had we all been Anglo-Saxons, we would have been on Christian name, even back-slapping terms right from the start. And the Frenchman in me is tempted to think it is this importance you attach to ‘friendly’ politeness which can cause you to view some aspects of the more formalistic French codes of socially-acceptable behaviour as little more than unamicable aloofness. In this respect, I distinctly remember one occasion when I’d just landed back in Blighty, and the Englishman in me must still have been fast asleep.

The train taking me from the airport was almost empty and I had no problem in finding a window seat. The next stop, however, was a large town where a crowd of people were waiting to board. Pointing to the vacant seat beside me a lady politely enquired, with an amiable English smile, ‘Is anybody sitting here, please?’

‘No!’ I replied, shaking my head, and with what I thought to be a cordial tone of voice.

Now, had this been in France the lady would certainly have gratified me with a primly polite ‘Merci, monsieur,’ and then, without further ado, would have proceeded to sit down. Not so with our English one.

‘I’m asking you if this seat is free!’ she repeated with barely-concealed annoyance.

A little surprised, I retorted, ‘Your original question was, ”Is anybody sitting here?” My reply was ”No!” That means nobody is sitting here!’ And with a gentle smile I beckoned her to take a seat.

She sat down stiffly. Despite having brought to her notice the correctness of my grammar, something in her demeanour made it obvious that offence had been given, and a long, heavy silence ensued. Puzzled, I gave the matter some thought. And, as we rolled along, it must have been my Englishman who began to stir; for it gradually dawned on me that, not only had my response to her first question been far too laconic, but totally lacking in English-style, friendly warmth.  And it could even have been mistakenly construed as ‘No, I don’t want you to sit here!’ In fact, what I should have said was something like, ‘Not at all, go ahead and sit down, love!’ accompanied by the broadest of smiles. But now the harm was done and all my attempts at reconciliation were in vain (she curtly refused my offer to lift her heavy-looking bag onto the luggage rack above). I finally retreated into resigned perusal of my newspaper.

Rude French waiter Are the French Rude?Personally, during the 42 years or so I’ve been living in France I’ve always operated on the principle that if you’re pleasantly polite with others in the vast majority of cases they’ll be pleasantly polite back. For me, at least, this has always worked with the different nationalities I’ve crossed the path of, including the French. Perhaps I’ve been lucky but, apart, perhaps, from the odd Parisian waiter (never address them as ‘garçon’), I’ve yet to come across the arrogant rudeness some Anglophones seem to find so rampant. The only exception was some years ago when I was having a drink in a café with a Scottish friend. We were sitting at the bar and our conversation was in English. Suddenly, an elderly man standing nearby announced loudly to one and all, ‘Ca sent la merde ici!’ and proceeded to storm out. In his favour, I think he’d had too many, and had perhaps mistaken English for German (perhaps he’d suffered during the German occupation of World War 2). So great was the indignation of the café owner (and several people standing around) that he offered us a drink on the house!

 

The Rule of the Rule (Part 2)

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Parking machine sign 300x113 The Rule of the Rule (Part 2)So, after carefully depositing my vehicle therein I followed the Exit sign and accompanying arrow which led me to two rather mean-looking appliances reposing beneath the notice Ticket Machines. Their ungenerous disposition was confirmed, moreover, by a Ticket Machines Do Not Give Change, while a Parking Tickets Must Be Clearly Displayed At All Times provided another reminder that visible proof of payment must always be shown; and a Tickets Must Be Affixed To Inside Of Windscreen Or Side Window Of Vehicle So As To Be Clearly Visible At All Times provided an explanation of the technique required to satisfy this. In marginally smaller letters below it was made uncompromisingly clear that the operation described was the entire responsibility of the vehicle owner, and that no sympathetic consideration could be entertained should the ticket become unstuck and fall out of view. And the directive Time Paid For Must Not Be Exceeded left me in no doubt that only Swiss-like punctuality was acceptable here.

Traffic wardens The Rule of the Rule (Part 2)As I walked back to the car clutching my ticket another Wheel Clamping In Operation – Release Fee £100 (at this stately home £100 seemed to cover every form of transgression) supplied yet one more dire warning of the fate that would befall the more absent-minded among us. And if any bright spark was still under the illusion that this was all bluff, a Wardens On Patrol and CCT Monitoring At All Times made you grimly aware that this car park’s surveillance system had nothing to envy that to be found in any of her Majesty’s maximum security prisons.

Keep off the grass The Rule of the Rule (Part 2)As I strolled past the turf a succession of notices to Keep Off The Grass served to remind you that in England this type of ground cover is for the eyes alone, and that any intrusion on it by foot is as outrageously profane as venturing into a mosque with your shoes stlll on. A little farther on, however, and a spirit-raising Picnic Area announced that a spot had been thoughtfully reserved for those seeking prandial communion with nature. But it took no more than a couple of strides for a No Picnicking Beyond This Point to make it abundantly clear that nonsense of this sort had narrowly-defined limits. And a minute later a Visitors Must Use Benches And Tables Provided put a stop to any idea Mum might have had of sunning herself on the car rug; while a No Ball Games Allowed made it equally plain to Dad that if he got the bat and ball out for a game of cricket with the kids, he’d be playing on a sticky wicket.*

Litter bins The Rule of the Rule (Part 2)Close by, a Please Use Litter Bins – Fine £100 brought it home to us all that any attempt to apply the principle ‘If you’re going to do it, make sure it’s on somebody else’s doorstep’ would be at offenders’ considerable financial risk. And the sight of a splendid ornamental lake, complete with fountain and ducks, brought with it a No Feeding The Birds and No Feeding The Fish, thereby leaving the animal lovers among us in no doubt at all that it was in their interests to take any uneaten bread home for tomorrow’s breakfast toast. And the triple injunction No Swimming – No Paddling – No Fishing threw cold water on any plans some of us might have had of depositing themselves wholly or partially in this liquid element, or extracting existing occupants from it.

As the house came into view a large Admission: Adults £10 – Children And Senior Citizens £6 informed me that there was a price to be paid for the privilege of viewing the treasures within; and the bracketed parenthesis (Non-Refundable) beneath made you unequivocally aware that once you were in you were in, and that, financially at least, there would be no opting out. And another CCT Surveillance In Operation At All Times served as yet one more stern reminder that Big brother had his beady eyes on us all,  and that any idea we might have had of pocketing a silver teaspoon by way of a souvenir had better be dropped right away.

Queue here sign The Rule of the Rule (Part 2)However, before committing myself to a visit I decided to step into the nearby café and think about things over a cup of coffee. In the unlikely event that some visitors had escaped that genetic programming which lines you English up with much the same fatalistic resignation as lambs waiting to be slaughtered, a Please Queue Here herded me towards the usual roped passage barely a yard wide. And while stoically waiting in the queue I couldn’t fail to observe a Customers May Not Consume Their Own Food And Drink hanging from the ceiling. And below a Food And Beverages Must Be Paid For Before Consumption made it perfectly clear that all that froggy rubbish about only settling after had not the slightest chance of being tolerated here.

Breakges must be paid for The Rule of the Rule (Part 2)While drinking my coffee I gave some serious thought to whether I should proceed to go in.  ‘Why not?’ I finally decided. ‘After all, I’ll certainly see some splendid things.’ But as I was getting up to leave my arm caught the empty cup which went crashing to the floor. Immediately a waitress came marching up.

 

‘That’ll be £5 please!’ she announced.  I proceeded to point out to her that I’d already paid.

‘Oh, that’s not for your coffee. Haven’t you seen the notice?’ she replied, nodding towards an All Breakages Must be Paid For sign I’d somehow not observed. I paid up without a murmur and  decided to spend the day at the coast.

 

Cricket pitch The Rule of the Rule (Part 2)* To play on a sticky wicket = to find oneself in a difficult or delicate position. Derived from the game of cricket, a better understanding of this commonly-used expression pre-supposes an elementary knowledge of this quintessentially English sport – if, indeed, the word ‘sport’ can be used to qualify an activity which my Frenchman assimilates more with ‘ritualized loafing’ (sic). The ‘wicket’ is the name given to the narrow strip of grass where, according to him, ‘most of the little action which characterizes the game’ takes place. On it a bowler pitches a ball at a hitter who will attempt to strike it with his bat. Unlike in the game of baseball, the cricket ball is usually pitched in such a way that it bounces in front of the batter, and when the wicket is ‘sticky’ (i.e. drying out after a fall of rain), the ball rebounds in a frequently unpredictable way, thereby placing the batter in a perilous situation.

 

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The Rule of the Rule (Part 1)

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Keep Out sign The Rule of the Rule (Part 1)Even though the Frenchman in me would be the first to admit that, unlike you follow-the-rule English, some of his concitoyens may be accused of lacking in citizenship, he can’t help thinking that mitigating circumstances can be found in the fact that the freedom granted to you to do what you want in publicly-frequented places is far more restricted than in France. For not only are you at constant risk of being brought to order by authority or, incredibly, by your fellow citizens, but I don’t know of any other nation which displays such a generalized obsession for regulating public behaviour in the minutest detail. What other judgement can we have of a country where the ubiquitous presence of such a multiplicity of signs, notices, placards, boards, stickers, plates, pointers, arrows, warnings, instructions, recommendations, injunctions, enjoinders and sundry symbols makes it perfectly clear to all what they can and, above all, what they can’t do in public places, and leaves them in no doubt of the dire consequences that will befall them if they fail to comply? And this can be carried to the most ridiculous extremes. I mean, in some public places it’s even forbidden to kiss!

No kissing sign The Rule of the Rule (Part 1)Imagine, par exemple, you’re a businessman and you decide to take a train to visit a customer in London. Your wife drives you to the station in the morning, and stops at the drop-off point in front. What’s more natural that, just before you get out of the car, your lips should come together in a parting kiss? But, incredible as this may sound, at one station in England at least you can’t do it. It’s officially forbidden! Presumably in an attempt to get us to swallow the idea that it increases traffic fluidity, the area has a prominent sign displaying a man and woman in the act of kissing – with a prohibitive line drawn though it! But don’t worry! Inside the station another sign indicates that kissing is now allowed. The only problem is that your wife’s now on her way back home and there’s nobody left to kiss! And nowhere is your English fixation with the punctilious regulation of public behaviour better illustrated than on that occasion last summer when I visited one of your stately homes.

No Dogs Allowed The Rule of the Rule (Part 1)This is not to say that things didn’t get off to a reasonably encouraging start. For on arriving my heart was warmed by the prominent notice Welcome to Grumblesby Hall attached to a pillar of the palatial lodge gates. I began, however, to have one or two doubts when a No Dogs Allowed suspended immediately beneath, made no bones of the fact that if anyone thought he could take Rover for a run (or more) in the grounds, he was barking up the wrong tree. But I was somewhat assured when, on driving through the gates, a Car Park – 200 Yards sign brought it to my attention that not much more than a stone’s throw ahead a place had been thoughtfully provided for the visitor to lodge his car; and the prominent arrow which followed removed any doubt anyone might have had as to the route to follow in order to reach it. A few meters farther, however, and a killjoy Maximum Speed 5 mph made it quite clear that any attempt on the part of the boy racers among us to cover the distance indicated at a speed not much exceeding the locomotive capacities of a snail would be deemed perilous enough to render them liable to a Fine Not Exceeding £100.

Wheel Clamping The Rule of the Rule (Part 1)In an effort, no doubt, to deter the rambler type of visitor, eager to get off the beaten track, the next sign announced there was No Parking on Grass Verges. And just to make sure we all understood this was no idle warning a ghastly-sounding Wheel Clamping in Operation – Release fee £100 brought it intimidatingly home that not only would any offending vehicle be instantly clapped in irons, but an extortionist ransom would be demanded for it to be freed. As I inched forward, another No Parking on Grass Verges came into view – the At any Time beneath bringing it unequivocally home that military discipline was in operation here, and that in absolutely no circumstances would the slightest quarter be shown.

Pay and Display 300x113 The Rule of the Rule (Part 1)After crawling on for a hundred meters or so an Official Car Park notice informed me that the limits of authorized vehicular advancement had now been reached; and as I pulled into the enclosure an All Vehicles Must Be Parked Well Within Lines – Penalty £100 made it perfectly clear that those who didn’t comply with surgical precision would render themselves liable to a not inconsiderable fine. And just in case any idiot had got it into his silly head that parking was on the house a Pay And Display notice brought it to the attention of one and all that permission to deposit your vehicle inside the park required not only the payment of an appropriate fee but visible proof you had acquitted yourself of it.

(To be continued)

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Here’s To An Excellent 2014 Vintage

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Grapes Heres To An Excellent 2014 VintageFrench wine connaisseurs will be pleased to hear that an exceptionally mild winter and a sunny spring got the 2014 vintage off to a good start and that, despite some localized hail storms, this year’s grape harvest should produce a much higher yield than the previous two years. The French Ministry of Agriculture estimates that, unless there’s a meteorological catastrophe in the weeks to come, the 2014 French grape harvest should produce around 47 million hectoliters of red, rosé and white wine. This is considerably more than in 2013 when 42.3 hectoliters were produced, and well exceeds the average of 42.3 million over the last five years. Though the cold and rainy summer we’ve had makes these figures a bit difficult to swallow, an especially mild winter and spring got the year off to such a good start that the atrocious summer weather that followed hasn’t really affected the final result, even if the cooler summer weather has caused grapes to ripen a little later than usual.

Bordeaux vineyard Heres To An Excellent 2014 VintageThis year the Bordeaux, claret-producing region should yield between five and six million hectoliters, an increase of 40% compared to last year when vineyards were devastated by hail storms. And even if they haven’t been entirely spared this year, these have not been comparable with the storms which did so much damage in 2013. However, some producers  in the Languedoc-Rousillon region were not so lucky. ‘Hail destroyed part of the Minervois vineyards. 20.000 hectares were affected in the Aude which represents 21% of the total wine-producing area of the département,’ declared Xavier de Volontat, Vice-President of the Conseil interprofessionnel des vins de Lnguedoc. ’700.000 hectoliters were lost which represents 5 to 6% of the total quantity of around 1 million hectoliters.’ But for those producers affected help is at hand. ‘We’re counting on producers’ sense of solidarity in sharing their grapes with those whose harvest has been completely destroyed. But, generally speaking, we have high hopes for the 2014 harvest. As far as the other vineyards are concerned, even if the yield is only average there’s a very good balance between the different grape varieties and, since the summer hasn’t been too hot, the quality should be good.’

And optimism is also present in the famous Côtes du Rhône region where the average production of 1.7 million hectoliters over the last five years should be exceeded. ‘We have the potential to reach 1.8 million hectoliters for 2014,’ announced Françoise Dijon, head of the technical department of Inter Rhône, the region’s wine-producers’ organization. Even though the weather we have in September could change the name of the game, the grape harvest is looking good both in terms of quantity and quality. And as far as ripeness goes we’re a week ahead of 2013. I repeat, however, that, even if things look promising, it all depends on the kind of weather we get over the next weeks.’

It’s the same story in Burgundy where many reputed vineyards were ravaged by hail – especially the Côte de Beaune on 23rd July. So, generally speaking, if the weather keeps fine it should be a good year here, too. This will enable French  producers to become more competitive after two difficult years when many buyers turned their backs on the French market in favour of Spanish or Italian wines.

Grape picking Heres To An Excellent 2014 VintageAnd in the Jura where I live, and whose distinctive wines are generally unknown to all but the more specialized English connaisseur, producers are  keeping their fingers crossed that the sunny start to September which has already enabled secateurs to start clicking into action will continue over the next weeks. If it does, the quantity and quality of the 2014 harvest should be above the average for the last five years. Cheers!

 

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