French Lessons

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I have been living in Paris since January. A French company was interested in my research work and lured me here to work for them; thus I am on leave from my college for the year. Herein I share with LRC readers some of the things I have learned and observations.

My arrival was without incident and now I am quite settled. Much of the credit goes to Cosmopolitan Services Unlimited (CSU). CSU primarily consists of a group of attractive young women that work to ease the transition to life in Paris. . . . Wait a minute, what are you thinking? These girls are totally professional. . . Duh! No, not that kind of professional! The company hired them to obtain my work permit and to help me find an apartment.

rue Daguerre

The apartment market in Paris is fierce. One must have a list of 10 places on the search day, and rank the choices as they go so fast. But I liked the very first one and was ready to take it right there. It is even the best value. But prudence reined and I viewed several more, which was an interesting way to see Paris. The best feature of the apartment is its location on rue Daguerre, in the 14th. (Paris is broken into 20 districts called arrondissements. Locals usually simply use the number of the arrondissement to describe a location.) My street has lots of everything and is very lively. In a word, it is very Parisian.

I am working at a research center outside of Versailles. I walk to the train station (Gare Montparnasse), take the 7:20 express (less than 15 minutes) to Versailles Chantier, and there catch a bus to the center. From door to door it is about 60 minutes. The commute has been my biggest (but minor) problem in France. I am used to a small town in the US where I walk to work, or I could drive and get there in 5 minutes.

Also the commute has been made more difficult by the weather. I expected it to be warmer and wetter than Easton, PA where I live in the US. But it has been cold, gray and dark. After waiting for the bus and standing around French train stations I was chilled all day. I added an extra layer of clothing that made a big difference. I am exaggerating, but it seemed like there was not a single nice day. But now it is spring and things are different, as I will explain below.

As was recently written about Germans, the French have also been soaking in a socialist brine for a long time. Thus the company seems very nurturing and yet somehow profitable. I try not to ask for anything but they are always giving me something. The company is paying for French lessons and giving me time during the day to go to class.

In France, for starting employees the usual number of vacation days is 25. There are 12 federal holidays. But two days are added as floating bridge days; and two more for some historic reason. Recently they passed a law limiting the work week to 35 hours. Actually it is difficult to work only 35 hours a week. The solution: salaried employees are required to take 3 days off every three months. So effectively there are 53 days off.

But there is no free lunch, and the French pay in several ways, especially in taxes. On my pay statement there are 23 different social taxes listed at various rates with various bases. They amount to about 17% of my brut (gross) salary and is deducted. The remaining net salary is the basis for the income tax. For some other reason another 3% is deducted. But I, and everyone else, receives u20AC42.20 for transportation. The income tax is not withheld, though you can have it arranged to do so. The highest rate is about 50%. Accountants for personal returns are rare as most people must simply pay what they are told to pay. I am not sure what my tax bill is going to be next March, but I am sure I will be writing the biggest check of my life to the French government.

It is hard to understand why the French economy has not collapsed. I think France has found the economic niche of making money doing things inefficiently. Anyone waiting for service in a brasserie knows first hand about inefficiency. But one still loves to be there and so tends not to mind. I think the Argentines could come up with a very good sparkling wine, but they could never charge $100 a bottle like the French do for Champagne, even if it were of the same quality.

I have written before about the importance of knowing a second language and my study of Spanish. It would have been nice to go to Spain to continue my studies, but c’est la vie. Now my goal while here is to learn as much French as I can. To support the concept of second language study I present the following quotes.

Charlemagne: To have another language is to possess a second soul.

Sir Humphrey Davy: Language is not only the vehicle of thought, it is a great and efficient instrument in thinking.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe: Those who know nothing of foreign languages, knows nothing of their own.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.

But my favorite and most apt is from Mark Twain after his visit to France.

Mark Twain: In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.

Speaking in French is like being a fish out of water. Not in the sense of the cliché of being out of place, but more literally. In fact, you must round your lips, like a fish, and you must choke (as the said fish is out of water so cannot breath) on the end of words so as not to pronounce the last letters.

An old friend of mine who runs a great bar in San Antonio called the Bombay Bicycle Club once told me, "You can tell if it’s a good joint by the bread." France has wonderful bread! The bread culture is representative of the wider culture of spending resources (money and time) on food. Almost everyone goes to the boulangerie (bakery) everyday for a baguette. Of course the bread is baked daily. And with no preservatives it is stale by morning. A mystery of French culture is what people do with the stale bread.

Greetings in France are important. You probably know about the kiss-kiss on each cheek. For women and women, women and men, and even men and men this is most common. A pleasure in France is to watch a group of young women parting, everyone kissing everyone twice; their bobbing heads reminds me of pretty chickens. But there is more about greetings in France; a semi-formal greeting to everyone, everyday is typical. Several workers in my building, even those who work in another department, are sure to shake the hand and exchange a bonjour with everyone else in the building every day, including me!

The French must have coffee to work. If coffee is not the fuel of French industry, it is certainly the lubricant. A strike in the Brazilian coffee fields would no doubt be more devastating to the French economy than a transportation strike (which are common enough anyway).

An important component to my quality of life is a local pub. I have found a nice little bistro near my apartment, but even closer to the hotel I stayed at upon my arrival. Les Tontons is a nondescript place, but the young bartender Guillaume takes good care of me and I always seem to have a conversation. What is bad about Les Tontons? Well, not everybody in France smokes, but virtually everybody smokes while drinking. The bars and bistros do not have air cleaners so the smoke can be quite thick.

One of the comments I often heard in America is that the French hate Americans. This joke I found on the internet is attributed to Conan O’Brien.

Q: Why don’t the French want to bomb Saddam Hussein?

A: He hates America, he loves mistresses and he wears a beret. He is French.

I have talked to many strangers (though I know them now) in Les Tontons. When they understand that I am from the US they all said they like Americans very much. Of course then the conversation often drifts toward politics and the war, where all dislike Bush. In fact, it seems every other night someone has bought me a drink. Though the night I was given several kirs (white wine with the liqueur cassis) may not have been in kindness as I had a major headache the next day.

Of course, it helps that I dislike Bush, and for more reasons than the French do. But I also respond that I don’t like Chirac either. What’s more, I think if France had the power of the US it would be doing as much or more mischief around the world as the US is now. In a footnote regarding the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in a book I was reading, an English author writes "Anyone with any sense and with a knowledge of French history adopts an attitude of caution and mistrust in dealing with the rulers of France." And for readers of LRC, substitute any country for France.

To contradict another stereotype, I have found that the French also have a wonderful sense of humor and are usually happy. However, this stereotype is understandable if one only reads French literature.

Another common perception of France regards their war record. Two more jokes from the internet make the point.

Q: Why do the French call their fighter the “Mirage”?

A: Because it’s never seen in a combat zone.

Q: What do you call 100,000 Frenchmen with their hands up?

A: The Army.

This perception comes from WWII but is emphasized because the French would not join the US in Iraq, though they did fight in the first Gulf War.

Normally I teach at Lafayette College, named after a Frenchman. The following plaque can be found on a building close to my office.

Without the French navy the Americans would not have won the battle at Yorktown, and perhaps not even the war. As for courage and sacrifice, consider the single battle of Verdun during WWI. The number of casualties may actually be more than the official French war history that was published in 1916 of 377,231. Of this number 162,308 (out of a population of 42 million) were dead or missing. Compare this number with the total number of Union combat deaths in the American Civil War of 110,070 (out of a population of 34 million). Perhaps our country would be less willing to jump at the solution of war after living through such a catastrophe.

I am sure you have read about the student demonstrations in France. LRC writers have commented on them here, here, here, and here. In a word, the issue was tenure for new workers. I find that Americans do not even understand the tenure system for college and university professors. For a whole country to have tenure is incomprehensible. For Parisians to take to the streets for serious or silly reasons is as much cultural as political. Christopher Dawson wrote about the Paris at the time of the French Revolution.

For Paris was still at heart the old city of the League and it needed no teaching from America or England to learn the lesson of Revolution. It remembered the night of St. Bartholomew and the killing of Henry III, and its crowds rallied as readily to the preaching of the new Cordeliers and the new Jacobins as to that of their Catholic predecessors who led the mob against the Huguenots and held the city for five years against Henry of Navarre. Already in the days of July the people of Paris had asserted their power in unequivocal fashion and had regained their liberty by force of arms. Henceforward the people of Paris were an independent power, and a power which possessed far more political self-consciousness and revolutionary will than the people whose representatives sat in the National Assembly.

Other famous street revolts in Paris occurred in 1830, 1848, 1871, and 1968. The cars burning in the suburbs last November and the student demonstrations against the CPE (the proposed law in question) this year allow 2005 and 2006 to be added to this famous or infamous list, depending upon your point of view. One of the demonstrations began down the street from my apartment. A couple of hours before the scheduled start of the march the atmosphere was more that of a carnival than of a mob. In fact I had a nice sausage sold by one the many street vendors who came to serve the gathering crowd. In the end, I think the demonstrations were more about the ambitions of the connected power players, both the politicians and the leaders of the syndicates (like unions but more powerful and integrated into society than in the US) that organized them.

Sabine Barnhart has written eloquently about traveling.

Traveling is a personal challenge that many men still want to experience. It’s the last frontier to break away from the old familiar ways and discover something new. The renewal generally brought progress to man. He returned with new technology, medicine, music, poetry and goods. Sometimes he discovered these things in another land, or he found it at the edge of his own universe — in his mind. But what he conquered and discovered; he owned his experience. This personal and very private knowing is something that could not ever be stolen and taken from him. It’s an eternal gift that would carry him through his entire life and shape his character.

As this is true for traveling, it is even more so for living abroad. For me to soak up the French culture, both the wine and the socialist brine, has been wonderful and interesting. And now that spring has arrived all hearts are beating faster in Paris. The long sunny days and flowers make it is easy to forget the long dreary winter, politics, economics and work. The mind instead turns to love; perhaps this is dangerous, but it is obvious why the Parisians are now smiling as they dreamily look into each other’s eyes.

Ira Katz [send him mail] teaches mechanical engineering at Lafayette College. He is the co-author of Handling Mr. Hyde: Questions and Answers about Manic Depression and Introduction to Fluid Mechanics.

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