Thursday, November 22, 2007

French Goodies

One of the most common questions students ask me is, "have you ever been to a foreign country?" After informing them that I am already in a foreign country from my point of view, they usually ask me if I've been to other countries. The only country I've been to besides Japan (and the U.S.) is Canada, so I tend to get asked what other place I'm interested in visiting. Usually, I say Spain because Spanish is the only other language I have any experience with and some of my husband's family roots trace back there.

One of the places I have little interest in visiting is France. I know it's a very beautiful country and has a lot to offer culturally, but I also know they have no patience for Americans who can't speak French, and I can't speak it at all. I don't want to go somewhere and pay people to be rude to me and treat me like a second-class human being because I'm from a particular country and can't speak their language. Of course, these days, being American is pretty much enough to get you treated like the plague pretty much anywhere in the world. Hating Americans isn't considered a prejudice amongst most folks who are inclined to do so. However, the Japanese aren't quite as inclined to tar and feather us all because our current president is doing his best to completely destroy America on both the domestic and international fronts. I guess they feel as disconnected from the politicians who control their country as we do.

Some of my students have gone to France and told me that they were surprised that the French people were so polite and helpful (in most cases) even though they (my students) can't speak French. I always tell them that French people don't appear to have the same issues with non-native English speakers who can't speak their language as they do with people from other countries. Of course, I have no idea how valid these thoughts are as I have no first-hand experience. I can only say that the French reputation for rudeness is quite pervasive as reflected by both my conclusions and the preconceived notions of my traveling students, though it is certainly likely a lot of it is unfair as most negative generalizations about groups of people are.

One of my husband's students recently went to France and brought him back some incredibly nice goodies. One was a bag of cookies from La Cure Gourmande and the other was a canister of chocolate truffles from Jeff de Bruges. The cookies are a collection of very dense, crunchy, buttery biscuits in various flavors. They have a unique texture heavily influenced by what I'm guessing is the use of a grainy sugar. They have a unique smell which I can't quite pin down but is vaguely reminiscent of dill (of all things). Though there are various flavors, (e.g., coconut, orange with lemon) they all seem to smell the same. Because they are dense and hard, one approaches them with low expectations, but they are incredibly good in a way you don't often experience in cookies in either Japan or the U.S. I'd love to know the techniques and recipes for them.

The truffles have crispy, delicate chocolate shells with light, incredibly creamy fillings. They are clearly high quality and have rich, chocolate flavor without being overbearing. The student either bought very high quality souvenirs for my husband or French sweets live up to their high reputation (or both). They're so good it's almost worth considering going to France. ;-)


Luis said...

It was funny, my only experience in France. I always figured that the rudeness thing was greatly exaggerated; maybe it is, but maybe it's not. I was at CDG airport in Paris, transferring to a connecting flight to Spain, but I couldn't find the wing I wanted to get to. So I found someone just sitting there, and I first asked, "I'm sorry, can you speak English?" He looked up and nodded, at that point emotionally noncommittally. Then I asked him where I could find the part of the airport I was looking for. I was using my very formal, very polite manner at the time, feeling sheepish about having to ask.

I swear to god, the guy then sighed dramatically, shaking his head, and answered my question, but in a tone of voice that absolutely reeked of the attitude, "you stupid idiot, I have told you this twenty times before!" Complete with the accent, of course. Either this guy was having fun with me and was fulfilling the stereotype to put me on, or he was living it, in full color.

Shari said...

It's possible some reputations are well-earned. ;-)

Jess said...

My experiences in France have been overwhelmingly positive. I've been to France twice--once to Paris--and I have only encountered one rude Frenchman/Frenchwoman. He was a waiter (and honestly I can find rude waiters here in St. Louis).

I had expected to find the French "rude and snarky", as I had been warned, but was pleasantly surprised. Everyone was polite, some exceedingly so, if slightly reserved.

I think whenever traveling it helps to learn "the basics" in the local language--hello, goodbye, please, thanks, and "do you speak English"? I'd be slightly irritated if someone came up to me speaking French. :-)

CMUwriter said...

This post made me think of National Lampoon's European Vacation, mostly the part where they go to eat in an expensive french resturant, and all the kitchen workers are scooping food out of frozen food containers onto plates.

Andrew said...

I grew up in Canada, until a few months ago when I moved my family to Texas. So much is the same and yet so much is different. Like the night we watched all the high school athletes being introduced at the beginning of the school year. Every team walked across the field to applause -- as a TEAM, together. Until it came to football. Then even the freshmen team members got to run across the field individually to great applause. This would have never made it past an organizing committee in Canada. "What makes your kid more special than mine?" would have been the cry. But everyone here just cheered and had a good time, so no harm no foul I guess. It was just one small indicator of some cultural differences. Overall we are impressed by how friendly, helpful, and respectful Texans are. Cointrary to the cliches, they seem more polite than Canadians, especially the kids. We encountered more bullying and teasing among kids north of the border. Go figure.

Shari, I hope all is well with you and yours.


Shari said...

Hi, Andrew. It's very good to hear from you again and I appreciate your comment. I recently dropped by your site to see if you'd changed your mind about discontinuing your advice column. Mind you, I don't blame you at all for stopping as I'm sure you're a busy fellow but it is something I miss reading!

It is very interesting that things seem very different even across similar cultures. In the U.S., one finds that there are vast differences across regions. It's a hard thing to convince people of because people love to see all Americans as the same but people have very different characters in different areas (as you noticed). I'm sue that, across Canada, there are similar variations in personality.

I have always heard Texans have a reputation for cordiality though I've never been to Texas myself. When I moved from Pennsylvania to California, I experienced a form of culture shock myself as the west coast and east coast personalities are quite different.

Thanks again for stopping by and I hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

Harry said...

I've found the French to be really polite, I think the thing to do is show at least a tiny willingness to try and speak a bit of French (I speak none, but figured a few words to throw in there). Kinda the same as Japan, you don't get that far with English alone, even speaking basic Japanese endears people to you much more, I've always felt.
Working as a waiter I don't think I would be that happy if someone was suddenly speaking to me in a language I didn't understand (contrary to what a lot of people think, most French don't understand much English).

Anonymous said...

I hate that the French have such a bad reputation, because I have had only brief encounters with rude French people, and only in Paris, and overwhelmingly positive encounters everywhere else in France.
I lived in Belgium for two years and made frequent trips to France, vacationing there a few times and spending the odd weekend here & there. Once out of Paris, I found that the French people were polite, interested, helpful...everything they are supposed to NOT be.
France is a beautiful historic country. If you're not interested, don't go, but don't believe all the bad press. I think French people deserve an open-minded chance the same way Americans do (and rarely get).

Shari said...

Harry: Hi there and thanks for your comment. The students I've spoken to about visiting France have mentioned that people in the countryside tend to be very nice and helpful though the students my husband has spoken to have said they've encountered some rather rude people.

Anonymous: Thanks for taking the time to comment. :-)

It may simply be a case of geography, as you mention, but I probably still wouldn't go to Paris (being American, I have little desire to travel anywhere because of the attitude toward us these days).

While I think the point that several people have made about having people walk up to you and speak a foreign language in your country is a very good one, I think that it's not just any foreign language but English which is the current "international language" because most people study it as their second language in school. In the U.S., the equivalent is someone walking up to you and speaking Spanish (which does happen) because that's the most common second language taught there.

The irony is, of course, that there was a time when French was the international language and it may have been the case in the past that people used to speak French as the same, perhaps irritating, way of communicating when they didn't speak the indigenous language. Customs forms for some types of parcels in Japan are still only written in Japanese and French as a bit of a throw-back to that time.

Tess said...

My experiences in France have been wonderful. The first time we went was for the 55 aniversary of the D-Day landing in Normandy. My husband's father (now deceased) was among the first paratroopers to land. During his time in Normandy he was photographed for News Week carrying a young boy to a medical station; the caption noted that the boy's father had been killed. We knew nothing of this until a WWII veteran called out of the blue looking for my husband's father. The fellow has made a hobby of finding and meeting fellow paratroopers. The boy in the picture (now middle-aged) was wondering if he could meet his rescuer. Anyway, we went to France and were most warmly welcomed. Turns out the caption was wrong: the boy's father is still alive and well! It was amazing: For the celebration, many many French people dressed up as American soldiers and nurses. Some had restored tanks, jeeps, and ambulances. It looked like a movie. Our money was no good in restaurants and cafes when they realized we were Americans!!!

While more recent trips were not so exciting, I found people very kind. On the issue of being hated as Americans these days, I'd agree that there are some who have an attitude. My daughter who lives in Madrid has met a few; but overall she says that people are able to differentiate between the U.S. government and the American people.