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French and Russian undergraduate student, trying my hand at the real world.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

On the French

And a good afternoon to you all.

I have decided to dispense with writing about the Swiss as I do not have enough material to make a decent sized blog post about them, and instead to skip ahead to the French. This post then is one that has been gestating in my head for a rather long time and proves to be one of the most challenging ones to write. 

The French are just so complicated. I lived there for a total of six months this year and I still cannot get my head around their completely tangled and contradictory culture. I thought the Russians were complicated and occasionally fickle, but I clearly had not seen anything yet. I speak the language relatively fluently, (depending on whom you ask!) and it has long been said that language is the gateway to culture. Perhaps the difficulty with which I acquired any grasp of French grammar is testament to this.

I just don't understand the French.

My university professors out there were the hardest people to read. My literature professor especially. She was one of those people with a "kind" face - soft features, a maternal presence. She lectured fluently, with an awareness of whom she was lecturing to. I found her most engaging and looked forward to her lectures every week. This was not the case with our personal exchanges, where she became closed off and steely. While I am aware that the relationship with professors and students in French universities is far more formal than here in the UK  - "C'est Madame, a vous!" - I was not expecting such brusqueness from someone who had previously displayed overtones of kindness and approachability. 

I suspect that the French are automatically suspicious of me because I have an English accent when I speak French, despite my efforts to hide it. But it is an accent, not a mental incapacity. There is a misapprehension associated with language and accents, the assumption being that just because a person finds it difficult to function in a foreign language as well as a native, they are unable to function altogether.

It is not just the French who do this, it is a rather universal thing.

I can give you an example on a rather tangential note here. I read a piece this week about mail-order brides in Ukraine and Western men. The same old case of Western men looking for a companion and a trophy, the Eastern European women looking for a way into the West and to be funded in doing so. Except one key difference - the women did not exist. They advertised fake details and personal profiles, luring the men to Ukraine, whereupon it would be discovered that the entire thing was a scam.

I'm not trying to moralise here; my point is that people are smart. Smarter than you might expect.

We (as a human race) cultivate assumptions about countries that have had a shaky political past, that were previously impoverished, and we refuse to accept that they have either changed or that they even have the same grasp of "the system" as more affluent nations.
We just have to look to Russia and how our media covers news in their country as evidence of this.  If you read anything published in certain newspapers, we are made to believe that the country is to be judged solely on its political situation. We are made to overlook the human element of the country. Nothing positive is ever written in our media about Russia. While it is true that the activities of the justice system have raised eyebrows here and in Russia itself, we are never posed with a countering view.
Also, in certain newspapers, the stories come from a "Moscow Correspondent", who often will have no training in Russian, Russian culture, and who will have been sent out there on secondment with a limited understanding of the country that they are being sent to. It will even be their first time living there. Russia is a difficult country for Westerners to understand, from the most basic essential fact that Russians culturally do not smile when you greet them. It looks like it could be a European country in St Petersburg, but it just isn't. It is Russian and always will be. I think often this difficulty in comprehension is translated into our media coverage. A person who is struggling culturally is going to have mixed views about a place, which will often lead to a negative portrayal in media sources. In sympathy with such journalists though, as I suspect I have been a little harsh here, they will often have to fly off to far-flung corners of the country with little notice, which can't be too much fun. I pity anyone covering the Snowden affair - airports are sinfully boring places to wait at the best of times.

I'll put this into context. If you replace all of the Russia elements of that last paragraph and say that England can only be judged by the actions of Whitehall and the House of Commons, you'd probably have something to pipe up about it. Everyone knows that English politics and media is extremely London centric. No Russian who lives outside of Moscow will say that everything in such a vast expanse of land can be judged by a city that is, in many cases, upwards of 500 miles away. That's like saying that Portsmouth can be judged externally by the actions of Stirling, Aberdeenshire for all their geographical assimilation. It's just wrong and misguided.
As such, it is not just Russia that has such treatment by the Western media, I use this only as an example. We are exposed to the negative sides of all countries by our media - such as how Istanbul was transformed into essentially a warzone with the riots, how India is the place to go if you're a woman and you fancy becoming the victim of all manner of violence. The media is what causes us to treat nationals of certain countries less respectfully than we should.

Heading back to France now, I was talking to a camarade in my geopolitics class, who said in no uncertain terms that if I were to go to his house, I would not be welcomed by his step-dad, who was an unashamed Anglophobe. Such a camarade was perfectly pleasant to me, this was if anything a mere anecdote. Can I consider this as racist? I'm not one of those people who deliberately looks for something in everything to get offended about, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth that someone would judge me so harshly, solely on the country of my birth. I am a human being, before I am British. Nevertheless, I never pushed for an afternoon tea session at his parents' house. I would have had to tell them I was Australian or something.

I am also unsure of the overall glumness with which many French go about their business. Restaurant workers in particular, who act as though my custom is a personal affront to them and their "leisure" time at work. The French are a polarised assortment of people. Some are serious to the point of making the House of Lords look like Magaluf, yet others are vivacious, social, exotic, fiery. You meet many French who couldn't do more for you, who will welcome you into their shop with open arms and who consider your accent "mignon". 
"J'adore les Anglais, je suis alle a Brighton - mais j'ai mange trop de barbe a papa et puis je me suis sentie un peu malade!" - so said the woman who set up my bank account, and who I subsequently fell a little bit in love with. It's not even a generational thing; friendliness and seriousness are transcendent of age.
While of course you cannot tar all with the same brush, each culture has its idiosyncrasies. Coming across English people during our travels proved a welcome relief when faced with occasionally very alien cultures - we are universally a highly awkward people who like to make life difficult for ourselves. The French, however, are very much split down the middle - the super generous and the super grumpy. France would be a much easier country to live in were it not for this latter half, and this is a view that is shared by many of my fellow English. 

I would not change the French, but maybe cheer some of them up a bit.


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