True confessions of a British Expat
by Leila Benzo
I believe that because I am British there is a tiny part of me which is French. Lying dormant… left over from the Norman Empire, just waiting to spring to life again.
Then I hear it come from my mouth as I accidentally walk into a door and the word “Aie!” slips out.
The hubby tells me he’ll be late from work and the sound “pffffff” vibrates from my lips! My 18-month old throws a fit and I scowl and call him “mechant!”
Wow… hang on a minute. Could it be that I’m turning into a French person? I’m afraid it could.
I actually do have some French in me because I’m mixed race, British/Tunisian/French/Moroccan/Turkish. But I was born and raised in England and that’s all I really am. British through and through, from my obsessive tea drinking to my love of rain. I have never felt more British than when I’m away from home, and I’ve been abroad for almost a decade. But just because I feel British doesn’t mean that I’m stuck in a mould.
I’ve been living in Paris for about one year and I can already feel myself becoming French, without even trying. Right now I’m positive that with a bit of discipline, the right attitude and a good diet, anyone can become fully French if they so desire.
But, for me, becoming French is not a choice. It’s something that’s slowly creeping up on me like a burglar in the night, coming to take my Britishness away. I worry that one day I will find myself at a dinner party joining in on a 30-minute conversation about how to cook an omelette, as serious as a political debate with no smiles or jokes.
I fear that I will lose the ability to see the funny side of life and get sucked into the abyss of despondent pouting.
Unintentionally, merging with a different culture is like stepping into a steaming hot bath with the plan of not getting your hair wet. You know it’s going to happen: you’re going to end up with wet hair no matter how much you try to stop it. Once you are in that environment it will have an effect on you no matter how much you may resist. You will feel the culture creeping up on you like the sweat that forms around the hairline, you might have a moment of believing that you have things under control, and you can stop it, but before you know it your whole head will be wet, and you’ll contemplate a full shampoo and conditioning treatment.
The transition of becoming French is not just reserved for Brits, any nationality can unwittingly experience this metamorphosis, especially if you have an openness to other cultures and easily take up new habits. Our brains are like sponges and if we spend enough time immersed in any kind of culture we will eventually become part of it. When I lived in Singapore I could feel myself very gradually turning Singaporean. I started getting a slight Singaporean accent and saying Mandarin expressions and words. It seemed almost out of my control, no matter how much I fought it.
I can feel the same thing happening here in France.
I am subtly merging into the French culture, this cannot be helped I suppose as a slight change is inevitable, but I will resist fully becoming French for as long as I can.
Since my transition from British to French began, my parenting style has changed. Alas, we seem to have gone back in time to the Victorian era! I used to be so carefree, but now I expect my kids to be on their best behaviour at all times, and to not bother me or anyone else for that matter.
They should be polite, eat correctly, not whine, listen, and definitely not have tantrums, especially in public areas!
I remember when I first arrived in Yvelines (a western suburb of Paris). I’d sit in the park watching my kids run around having fun. I’d smile and feel good, but then I’d hear the other parents telling their kids off. ‘Who invited the fun police to the park?’ I observed their bizarre parenting style, which consisted of persistently threatening their child with the removal of a toy if they didn’t calm down. “Calm toi” they’d shout. This would be followed by the punishment of removing their toy, usually a bike, which made the child cry. I used to feel so saddened. I would see the same situation play over again. ‘Why are they doing it?’ I’d wonder. ‘Just let the kids be free, let them have fun’
Now when I go to the park everything has changed. I sit down, get my flask out and my biscuits, tell my kids to go play and “laisse moi tranquille” for a moment and “don’t make too much noise today please mummy is tired.” Then I notice someone else’s French child having a good time and being quite loud a little too close to me, and I realise…I don’t like it! I look around to find the fun police parents. Yes, I spot them. Good, they will tell this annoying child off soon and hopefully take away his bike. I hope they will tell him to calm down. Then I hear it. One of them shouts out “Dou – ce – ment!” Yes, they noticed. Excellent!
In England when kids get sick we smother them in Vicks and put them to bed early. Since my transition from British to French began I now have a new technique.
Now, when the kids get sick I get them in a head-lock and I spray salt water up their noses, which makes them cry as if they are being tortured, and that’s apparently good for them.
I do that about 4 times a day. I have a cupboard full of medicament just in case one of them gets an out of control runny nose! My doctor says they both have allergies to something, but he doesn’t know what, so we’re still waiting to find out. Maybe the universe will tell us one day. In the meantime, as directed by him, I keep buying and using every kind of medicament we can find, just in case something might work on this runny nose mystery.
Or maybe it’s just called ‘having a cold..?’ “pfffffff” my eyes roll.
What my daughter teaches me about French culture
I learn a lot from my daughter, who is my direct link to French culture. At 3 years old she is more advanced linguistically than I, so she has the insider knowledge, and I just seem to tag along.
I’m sitting eating dinner with my kids and one of them accidentally drops something. My daughter and I turn to each other, raise eyebrows and say “oh la laaaaa!”
I ask her to please teach her 18-month-old brother about table manners – the manners that she learns at school– because quite frankly I want to learn what they are teaching her. Before she started school she was a nightmare! She wouldn’t sit still, and I didn’t really know what to do, but after a few months at school, she turned into a perfect little adult at the table. Now she always looks at her little brother in this slightly worried way – knowing that he has so much to learn. She sits with her back straight holding her cutlery perfectly (I never taught her that).
Occasionally she says that she doesn’t like the taste of something, but it’s very rare.
Every day when I collect her from school I ask her what she had for lunch and she tells me that she’s eaten salad and all sorts of vegetables. All things that she’d previously rejected at home.
Both my kids love green beans, which have become an important part of our diet. The only thing I can’t get my head around, and will not force onto them, is the endive. What is that about…? Yuk.
Most of the songs my daughter teaches me are about food and snails. Most are about how cute and funny snails are and how we want to eat them! Our garden is full of snails and my kids do eat snails with their French Papa. Snails are a big part of our life, and something I had never known was such an important part of French culture.
Frogs don’t have this kind of importance at all. I have a new respect for snails and have come to appreciate them much more than I had done previously. My daughter says quite regularly that snails are her best friends, and when their antennas stand on end she takes it as a sign of love, and I don’t argue with that. If that’s what she thinks then so be it!
Turning French without speaking French
Amazingly, I am turning French even though I can’t yet speak French. This proves that knowing the language is not crucial to becoming a different nationality. The most important thing to understand is that you don’t have to understand every word, but understanding the general tone and emotion of the person who is speaking is the most important part of the transition process.
As long as you can say “hello”, “goodbye” and a hand full of other expressions with a convincing accent and gestures you will be well received by people. It means that you have the ability to mimic their way of communicating and they appreciate that. (watch video).
You also don’t need to have any French friends. Having acquaintances will do, just so long as you say, “bonjour” and do the serious head nod to passers-by you will be part of the community in no time.
You might occasionally meet the type who’d rather not converse and they might make things very hard, but that’s alright, just “pffff” let the steam out and move on: to the next destination Thomas!
There are some sounds in French that you have to understand and be able to produce to really feel the transition begin. One of the sounds is the nasal ‘on’. It’s not like the English ‘on’. The French ‘on’ is something very different; it occurs from deep in the throat and seems to sit back there never to be pushed out of the mouth. It’s the ‘on’ in b’on’b’on’, mign’on’, n’on! There is also an inwards breath ‘oui’ which can be used if you feel like speaking while you breathe inwards, rather than outwards.
If you want to make a sound while you think about the next word, imagine that you are a sheep and say ‘Baaaaaa’.
Another useful expression to know is ‘et bah dis donc’. A French person told me that this means ‘well well well’, but I don’t think there’s an actual translation for the expression, it’s just good to understand as we say it to children a lot. It’s a bit like the British ‘oooh’ or ‘wow’.
(Not) Eating, the French Way
I am losing weight, which is encouraged by the French, because they really don’t eat much. But Nutella is OK, everything in moderation.
A little bit of everything is good for you, but it must be just a little bit. When I say little I don’t even mean a portion. The best thing to do is imagine you are a mouse.
It’s a nibble, nibble, nibble. Just pass by food and nibble it out of curiosity then move on, don’t linger too long. Or better still, imagine that you are a rabbit. I bet you’d love some lettuce… we don’t call lettuce ‘lettuce’ here we call it ‘salad’.
I have to put out of my mind all the images I have of an actual salad, which usually comes with a plate full of different veg and maybe some meat, cheese or fruit and nuts, topped with luscious creamy dressings; because here ‘salad’ is a huge mountain of one type of lettuce on a plate drizzled with olive oil.
‘What!? Is that my meal?’ Of course not, you can have a fried / grilled piece of meat too, but we usually eat that alone on the plate before the salad course. ‘Huh, what about the bread?’
Well, the bread is actually one tiny baguette shared by 6 people and you have to ask for it to be passed around. Everyone will stare at you, and then you should just cut yourself a tiny slither of it because everyone’s watching and they already think you’re overweight just because you have breasts and a double chin.
“Circulate the bread please!” and ‘allez op’ it’s gone again. I’ve never been so hungry in all my life!
I try not to think about it too much but because I am becoming French, I can’t help but be slightly preoccupied with my weight and have, for the first time ever, invested in scales and eat a much healthier diet than I used to.
Food is not something which ‘just goes in your mouth’. It’s more like something that sits on a table and is stared at, talked about (at length *yawn*), sniffed, nibbled at, talked about again and finally stared at again, admired, caressed as it’s wrapped up and put away for tomorrow where the entire process will start again. Coming from a hedonistic food culture of the UK I have found the ‘food self-control game’ the most irritating part of the transition process from English to French. That, and the fact that no one understands what a cup of tea is.
However despite all of this angst, as far as my family is concerned, chocolate is now good for our health, cake is OK for breakfast and we eat rotisserie chicken every Sunday.
This has not gotten boring for an entire year, and “yes” to the sauce and potatoes; the more the merrier for my brood. We even have a special cheese box which must be stocked up regularly. Cheese is very important in our house. If we are out of cheese, and wine, we don’t quite know what to do… We frantically walk around outside in the dark trying to find a shop that’s open!
And what about the bread? Is it from today? Is it hard yet? Oh, why didn’t I get fresh bread today? Quelle stupide!
Telling it like it is!
Since becoming French I have felt that I am freer to express my emotions. You can forget all that ‘stiff upper lip’ nonsense. Now I am able to say exactly what is on my mind as soon as it enters my mind.
If I have a problem I speak up and tell the person directly, no messing around. I go on strike regularly: cleaning strike, tidying strike, reading stories strike, washing my hair strike – you name it! If there’s something I’m annoyed about I just stop doing it to prove that I will not be taken for granted or be overlooked in my job. So far, none of my strikes have gotten any kind of positive response but I feel like my point was well made and my voice was heard, which is good.
My attitude towards other people has changed. I used to regularly be in tears from how people spoke to me, a trip to the post office or calling customer services felt like walking into an emotional minefield. ‘Why could they not help a little bit, and empathise with me?’ I used to wonder. But now I have grown the Parisian thick skin and I have learnt something very important:
If someone says something to me which is rude or annoying, instead of being negatively affected by it, I shake my head, raise one eyebrow and gently puff some air out of my mouth and somehow that makes everything fine.
Accepting la merde
Dogs have taken on a new meaning to me. I understand the importance of fluffy friends and that for a lot of people a dog is a baby. Dogs are pushed around in prams and doted on by their owners. Dogs are also told off a lot just like the toddlers are.
The dog caca is just part of France and to be annoyed by it is futile.
I now see a walk on a pavement more like a workout, and a test of sight and reflex, as I dodge the caca. My daughter actually jumps over caca as if they are hurdles on a racetrack. I’ve given up on telling her not to do it, what’s the harm? If I can get from my house to school, and the shops, and back again without stepping in caca de chien, then I have succeeded in the game. If not, then I played badly. End of story.
Worrying is a big part of our French life and we worry a lot in our house. We don’t want our kids to be behind intellectually or overweight, or to do too much ‘caprice!’ (whining / screaming). We worry when they watch too much TV; maybe it will give them developmental problems…!?
We worry about health a lot; the food, the environment, the government, the future… We spend a lot of our time worrying. We worry some more about health and everything that effects our health.
“Do we have enough medicine? Are we eating enough fruit? Maybe we should do more sports… What does the pollution forecast say for this weekend? Is it too high? We need to get away, go to the countryside. We should go to Normandy to breath some sea air.”
“Oh forget it, let’s just have another glass of wine.”
“Have you got any cigarettes?”
Leila Benzo is a British expat mum living in a western suburb of Paris. She has two young kids and works part time as an English teacher.
Merci Leila! What a brilliant, funny and honest post. MLP is loving it!
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