5 Lessons Learned from Perseverance at the Prefecture

I’ve been MIA, I know. But before I delve into the roller coaster of emotions/events of the past few months (BIG changes on the horizon), I figured I start with something concrete- life lessons I’ve learned from the prefecture.

‘What the heck is a prefecture?!’, some of you might ask. To which I would respond that it is the hellmouth, the keeper of your future, a cirque du soleilesque mental challenge of your emotional strength, or as some people like to call it ‘the administrative building for visas and other important documents’. And for those of you who know what it is, I’m sorry. Let’s take a minute to hold hands, sigh, and let go of what we cannot control. Life lesson number one.

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For those who need a visual

Which brings me to: 

Five lessons learned from prefecture pain and perseverance:

#1- Learn when to let go of things you cannot control. I’ve learned this the hard way, but when dealing with administration, it’s important to check your desire for controlfreakyness at the door. Once you step through those big wooden frames, you are a mere puppet at the mercy of French hands. Building a bubbling rage over a desire for the line to be shorter, the weather to be less miserable, the French people to be less rude, or the process to be less inefficient, won’t change a thing. It only makes the time painfully slow and your mood increasingly less pleasant. Feel that rage for a moment if you need to, and then breathe it out. The line will move, and you will get to your destination.

#2- Expect the unexpected. Just because you have all the right documents, or you waited the allotted six weeks (or months), does not mean that you will leave with a smile of success. In order to release, or at least aid, that desire for control, you must expect the unexpected. Prepare for a multitude of possibilities so that your emotional armor is strongly in tact when you leave. Don’t assume anything. Because trust me, no one wants to see a frustrated sobbing mess crumpled in defeat just outside the gates. It’s awkward. On the flip side, when you do have that rare moment of prefecture success, it tastes all the more sweet…especially when you weren’t expecting it.

#3- Kindness Kills. Ok, so this is a strange expression, but it never hurts to appeal to a person’s humanity. Don’t over do it- especially with the French. But a simple smile, a polite ‘how are you’, or a preemptive merci can work wonders. This is not to say that you should avoid being firm when needed, but rather don’t come in with guns ablazing and silent rage bubbling. After all, these are the gatekeepers you’re dealing with. Make eye contact, be confident, but most importantly be kind.

#4- Be creative, don’t despair. If things don’t go your way, don’t crumple in awkward panicked defeat. Allowing your first thoughts to be your worst thoughts is not only unproductive, it’s unrealistic. There are always options. Maybe let a few frustrated tears fall if that’s what you need, but then get back to the drawing board! Did you ask all the right questions? What would happen if you went again? What would happen if you talked to someone new? 9 times out of 10, plan B has had a weird way of working out.

#5- If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…and with different people. Piggybacking off of the whole being creative thing, is the need for some good ole fashion perseverance. Keep trying. As my grandma loves to say, “Never surrender! Never give up!” (yes, I know that she mixes the order- it just adds to the delightful quirkiness of her shouting it).

My French coworker once said to me, “French administration is a labyrinth. You can get in, but you can’t find a way out.” While it is indeed a mental maze and at times you might find yourself in a pit of despair, a release of control, a creative outlook, a little kindness, and a lot of persistence are excellent tools for navigating that labyrinth.

…and if all else fails, grab a tea or coffee at the nearest cafe with a supportive loved one and prepare for round 2…or 20.

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The Camp Diaries: Weeks 2-3

Bonjour from camp land!

Where to begin? Unfortunately I fell a bit short on the blog updating front as I got pretty sick (still have yet to regain my voice to its full potential), and as a result have far too many stories to tell from the past two weeks. BUT I shall use my notes in an effort to convey the gist of camp craziness.

End of Week 1- The Weekend Adventure:

Saturday marked the first venturing beyond the walls of the chateau with fellow counselor, Olive. It felt strange to leave the premises and see a space outside of a camp-covered chateau. At first sight only Normandy countryside-a.k.a. flat farmland as far as the eye could see- surrounded us. But 30 minutes later Olive and I arrived in a tiny town filled with old people gambling, smoking and sipping on coffees at a miniscule cafe, and bored teenagers hanging out in front of the small highschool. We walked back and forth searching for a semblance of food and sticking out like bright, awkward tourists. Finally the boulangerie opened and we feasted on bread, cheese, and cider in the shade of a chapel as Frenchies walked past with smiles or stares plastered to their faces. We didn’t care. We were content with our picinic….and tipsy off cider.

Week 2- Monday Madness:

Change is the theme of this week. Two new counselors arrived last night full of energy and excitmement.

The day started with a relatively calm atmosphere- we were efficient and even finished the set up with extra time on our hands. We had a week under our belts and figured we had it in the bag. Bring on the kids! …That is until a storm of 50 tiny kids poured off the bus. Not teenagers, not adolescents- kids. At first I thought the perspective was making them tinier than expected. But it was actually their age. Not 10 and 11 year olds but tiny, hyper, first-time-away-from-home 8 year olds.

The rest of the day was chaos. The teachers came over-prepared and messed with the money system (which I was conveniently in charge of) and the kids were confused, hyper, scared, shy, and unable to comprehend the situation (aka English). Olive and I’s window was apparently not fully shut and our room flooded with the afternoon rain that decided to contribute to the chaos. Our evening campfire was canceled and dividing up ESL classes was quite the confusing effort. This week is already so different.

Bank of America time

Bank of America time

Tuesday and Wednesday It’s a love/hate game I’m playing: 

We divided the ESL classes and I got the lower level hyperactive kids, as well as the one student with autism who is not taking kindly to our new camp names. So now he has two names- French+ American Camp name. So far, so good.

Well, I faced my fear of teaching elementary frenchies. I first faced my fear of highschool students in Montbeliard, and now the part of me perpetually terrified of teaching such small non-native speakers is calm. All things considered, the class went really well today and they kids are pretty damn cute with their tiny French voices. I miss working with little kids. It’s nice to be reminded of the work I love.

Wed…
The days are getting longer. And more chaotic. Last night a kid peed himself and another one cried for home. Today several cried from dodgeball. And yelled. So. Much. Yelling. What a horrible game. I only have one more full day, but it seems like an eternity. My throat is sore from all the yelling over excited voices. All. The. Time.

I find it funny that instead of yelling “you can’t do that” to one another, the kids say, “tu n’as pas le droite” (aka ‘you don’t have the right!’). I’m glad I understand French.

All in all I’ve enjoyed this week- which is a testament to how much I love working with elementary kids. True they’re hyperactive little shits for a large portion of the time, but they’re also adorable little beings with giant smiles, and a genuine curiosity for learning about this world they’re in.

The day is done and all I want is silence. I don’t want to talk to anyone. Even laughing feels like effort. My throat hurts. My ears are buzzing. I fall asleep with tiny French voices in my head.

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ESL madness

Thursday- New Theme Day- Hit Music:

What am I supposed to do with this theme? These are kids not teenagers! We’ve been reviewing colors, shapes, and the alphabet. Oy vey this week is long.

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I’ve been working general store for the week- the place where we sell kid crack (candy and soda) and souvenirs for mom and dad. First thought- this is tedious and horrible and I really don’t see the point. But two days later and I see the benefit. It’s a good experience for the kids to be in charge of money, and have a real life situation of making transactions in another language. Well done AMVIL.

I feel like a goblin counting gold. I was locked away in General Store for over an hour on a beautiful day counting inventory and doing far too much math. I regret working General Store this week. Who knew little kids would buy so much more than teenagers?

Dancing with kids is golden. I love their energy and excitement (some of the times), but most of all their smiles. Compared to the teenagers last week, it was refreshing to open the doors and have the kids not awkwardly stand in corners, but descend on the dance floor in a sea of spastic and enthusiastic movement. One little elf (no really, that was her camp name), all round and ‘typically nerdy looking’, broke out of her shell and boldly asked the boys to dance. At the end of the night she gave me an impish smile as she held up her count of four fingers (four boys).

Friday-

We said goodbye to one of our new counselors today and it felt oddly sad. He was only here for a week, but you bond quickly in the trenches.

The sentiment was different for the departure of the kids. Some counselors literally did cartwheels as the bus full of kids pulled away.

Two more weeks.

End of Week 2- Weekend Adventure:

I hate the world. I’m sick. At least it took effect when the kids left. But I wish I could just not be sick at all! Going into town for some meds.

We stopped at bakery where Olive got a macaroon. It was quite the process as the baker walked around the counter and used little tongs to carefully pull the bright yellow pastry out of the fridge and place it on silver platter. Then she instructed us in French that we needed to wait 10 min for it too cool down in order for the flavor to be ‘top’. I love France.

At least sick meds, sun, swans, and tiny dogs that think they’re the swan commander, help with sickness.

Week 3- “Santa brought condoms to camp”

I had to work customs this week (confiscating snacks and electronics) and I was not a fan. Neither were the kids. They were pretty good sports, but it’s not the ideal first impression I’d like to make on kids.

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Also an 11-year-old camper, Santa Claus, brought condoms to camp. According to the teachers they’re probably his dad’s, but still…Santa brought condoms to camp.

The difference in their level is like night and day. This age is so interesting as they are on the precipice of teenagedom- but not too cool yet. 

As we sat around the campfire singing songs and roasting marshmallows, I realized how funny it is to teach almost teenagers how to roast marshmallows. Sharing my childhood past time of s’mores, something so normalized for me, and so bizarre to them was amusing as they quizzically looked at eachother and whispered, “c’est trop bon!” 

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Tuesday-Thursday: Activities

This is my first week working on Activities instead of ESL. It’s a lot of physical work but maybe beats lesson planning at 11 at night.

First time in two weeks getting a break- 40 glorious minutes and all I could do was try to sleep. My sickness wants me to sleep, but my brain is too wired from my internal camp clock. Eff. 

survival essentials

survival essentials

Being on activities means teaching a bunch of frenchies how to play baseball. Objectively this sport is pretty weird. Fortunately these kids were really excited about learning and got pretty invested in the game. Only one student cried- great success! 

Two camp essentials- hot water and health. When you don’t have either things get dicey. I’m getting real tired of Normandy. 

Spectacle
This is the worst thing ever. Being sick and in charge of the same kids all day is brutal. How can I get them to focus, write a script, memorize lines and block out a scene if I don’t have a voice? I want this day to end. 

Ok so spectacle felt brutal, but was ultimately worth it to see the smiles at the end of the night. My kids were so proud of their performances and said goodnight with giant, beaming, smiles. I’m such a sucker. 

It also didn’t hurt to have amusing counselor interludes. Laughing at your coworkers as they try to do tricks as an awkward caterpillar, and smashing shaving cream into your coworker’s faces as you imitate their arms and laugh cry into their backs is really quite wonderful. Laughter is indeed the best medicine. 

Friday-Saturday: “Day Release”

The kids left crying (some even sobbing). I guess that means we’ve done our job well. It’s always a mixed feeling saying goodbye. We want them to go, so we can have some quiet and enjoy our one day off, but it’s strange to think that we’ll never see them again.


But tonight we’re actually going to a real city! The counselors are trekking to Rouen for a night on the town. I’m excited to speak French again. Being surrounded by French every day, but not being allowed to speak it has been a bit torturous. I never thought I’d say this, but my mouth misses French.

Rouen is a really cool city. It was so strange to see night life, and restaurants, and so many people. The counselors didn’t know what to do with themselves. So they got drunk. 

As my fellow coworker Buzz said of the night, “it’s like day release from prison”. 

I think that about sums it up.

One more week.

You Stay Classy, France

Last Sunday I explored the underbelly of French class- via my first wine tasting experience. It was wonderful to savor, taste, and learn about not just French wine- but natural French wine (we’re talking more pure than organic. These people still use horses instead of machines!) However, by the end, I couldn’t help but leave laughing at the contradictions of class that I had just witnessed.

You see, amidst the swirling of glasses and savoring of flavors, was the oh-so-classy spitting into buckets. The wine would dance and swirl in people’s glasses, and then moments later, out of their mouths, the spit sparkling on the rim of the bucket with just a hint of wine color lingering. Tres classe.

I know, I know. If you’re French, or a Francophile, or just a lover of wine, you’re probably getting all puffed up and ready to tell me, “It’s how true wine tasting is done!” You’re there to taste the wine, let the many flavors explore your palate, and then move on to savoring many more. I get it. I just couldn’t help but think about all the good wine that was going to waste. That’s the American in me-waste not. So what if you get tipsy and lose the full range of your wine tasting palate? You’re still drinking good wine! …or maybe that’s just the inculte in me.

As my stomach flopped in disgust (I’ll admit that I have a particular propensity for spit related nausea), I noticed some cheese. At least I could distract myself with some delicious…moldy cheese. Again, I get it- I’m in France, everything at this event is natural, I’m even a lover of strong cheese- but when it came down to it, I opted for the less fuzzy greenish blue ones. And yes, it was earthy and delicious.

When we returned to making our tasting rounds I couldn’t help but become spit fixated. I tried not to, but everywhere I looked people swirled and spit. The buckets glistened and saliva wine mixtures dripped on the tables. Swirl, spit, repeat. As I started to feel like a bucket overwhelmed Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, I witnessed the mother load- a giant spit barrel being wheeled out of the building. So much spit must’ve been swirling around that monstrous container. The thought was enough to make me woozy and take a brief tasting break- or maybe all the wine I had been drinking (and not spitting) was getting to my head.

I thought that maybe I was crazy, until I recounted the day’s events with a friend back home, “Ewww!! Whyy?,” she exclaimed. I started to rattle through the list of reasons- well it’s the real way to savor the wine, and truly taste a wide range, and the French really appreciate and value quality food and drink…but ultimately all that came out was, “I know, right!?”

I guess spit just isn’t for me. But you stay classy, France.

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Briançon and Hiking in a Winter Wonderland

Welcome to Briançon, a unique little city of medieval fortifications, strong history, hearty people, and stunning views, nestled in the French Alps. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, it is apparently the highest city in the EU, and definitely one worth visiting if you have time in France.

administrative-france-map-regions-Briancon

Getting there is a bit of a trek, especially in the winter time as the windy, icy roads, threaten to slide you off the side of the mountain. Just hold back any fear of heights or car sickness, and you’ll be fine.

But the destination is always worth the journey. Picturesque views don’t hurt either…

This was my third visit to the city, and I have to admit that the stressful drive was well worth the worry when I experienced the beautiful snow and sun on a special hike. Continue reading

Oh the Travel ‘Companions’ I’ve met

Most of the time I relish in flying alone. Despite the stress that usually accompanies flying- waking up at the ass crack of dawn, dealing with power drunk security officials, eating god awful food at jacked up prices- in spite of all of this, airports can actually provide a wonderful source of solitude, or much-needed space. I have time to write, ponder, read that book I’ve been dying to finish, observe the various interesting human interactions, and catch up on my latest trashy magazine (yes Cosomo is my guilty travel pleasure).

But then there are times when I wish to all-that-is-holy that I was traveling with a partner, or friend, or anyone who I could comfortably tell to “move their damn arm because it is popping my personal space bubble!!” On my way home this past Saturday, as I sat getting far too personal with the frosty airplane window, because Mr. ‘Unaware of His Surroundings’ just had to take up the entire arm rest, and even some of the skin between my ribs, I thought about the travel “companions” I’ve had the pleasure of knowing throughout the years.

I present to you only a few of the character’s I’ve met.

1. The Talker
This companion can actually be quite fun- if you’re in the right mood. Usually they’re excited about their destination, and want to hear all about yours. But mostly they want to tell you about their life’s story. I’m from Texas, so it’s kinda protocol to engage if someone talks to you. We’re talkers too. However, if I’m sleep deprived, or travel constipated, or still pissed off by the TSA jacking my favorite key chain, (true- it was a tiny pocket knife, but it’s honestly so small that even a fly would roll their eyes at it), then the last thing my sweaty, frazzled self wants to do is exchange in social pleasantries. Which leads me to #2. Continue reading

French Friday Fun (sometimes I like alliteration)

A family friend posted a link of terrifying French children’s books, and I thought it was too amusing (and scarily accurate) not to share.

Welcome to the French world- where being unabashedly blunt, and scaring the crap out of your kids is the norm. Where frank, no-bullshit doses of harsh reality are served with a glass of milk before bedtime. No wonder French adults are the way there are. There was never any hope.

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Click here to see more terrifying French children’s books.

Happy Friday!

Stumble, Walk…Dance!

I’m awkward in Grenoble. True, I just moved here and am still getting my footing, but like a baby learning to walk, I’ve spent my start in a state of stumbling (whether that be verbally, physically or socially).

Me in Grenoble. (Except that it's actually Jennifer Lawrence)

Me in Grenoble. (Except that it’s actually Jennifer Lawrence. But it’s awkward. )

I blame Montbeliard. It was a lovely little home for what it was, but it created an antisocial cave creature, that burns immediately when exposed to sunlight, and doesn’t know how to communicate to Frenchies who aren’t old or teenagers.

Take my first nightlife outing in Grenoble. Much to our surprise, Maribel (fellow assistant) and I actually dragged ourselves outside and in to the cold rain. Effort #1. In Montbeliard you don’t leave your dwelling if there is rain…which is always…hence the cave creaturedom.

But we trudged through the rain, promising ourselves just one drink and then the reward of antisocial solitude in our shelter back home. We aimed for the more low-key option of the wine bar, but upon seeing the mass of people waiting outside, we became discouraged. Effort #2. In Montbeliard you don’t deal with crowds or lines.There aren’t enough people out and about.

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Lost in nightlife translation

Looking disheveled and confused,we arrived at our second option, the London Pub, where we awkwardly awaited the complicated entrance.

  • Wait for bouncer to come to door.
  • Wait for door #1 to open.
  • Wait inside small chamber with bouncer, friend, and dripping umbrellas, until bouncer decides it’s time to open door #2 and allow you in the bar.

Seconds in to our arrival, we were bombarded by a bartender who asked if we wanted to sit, to which we replied with a relieved “Oui.” However, before we could be granted our table, he asked, “Vous etes d’ou?” (Where are you from?). Or at least that’s what I thought. “Etas-Unis” I replied, wondering what kind of bizarre code we were speaking. We were at London Pub, maybe only English speakers could get a table. Or certain types of English speakers. Should I have said Scottish?! However, my thoughts came to a halt when I saw the smile and head shake as he repeated, “Vous etes deux?” (You’re two?). “Ohhh. Oui. Juste deux.” Cheeks were definitely turning red.

One weird, disappointingly juice heavy cocktail, a surprisingly empty bar, some drying and lots of embarrassment later, Maribel and I considered tossing in the towel. We were out of our element. We’d been hermits for too long. Hermits we would remain. But something within us rebelled and we tried for one more place. We’d trudged though the rain for a night of fun, not fail. After all, you have to stumble before you can learn to walk.

Long story short, getting lost led us to the start, where we gained footing at Le Tord Boyaux (the wine bar from before) and ended our “night” with the birds. We sang ridiculous French songs, watched the bar illuminate in flames, met some awesome people, tried bizarre flavors of wine (mango and apple pour moi), and caught the last tram to an electro dance.

 

At first we feared a fail repeat as the large place lacked people, and the people who were there swayed like repetitive zombies in front of the dj, leaving the dance floor naked and neglected. But sometimes you just need to dance like no one’s watching. Which is exactly what we did. We let go of the awkward moments, the language barriers, and the social constraints. We shed our hermit skin and left it on the dance floor as we twirled and laughed and danced.

And maybe that’s kinda how life is (or my life at least)- stumbling through the start, until you reach a place of solid footing, ultimately realizing that at the end, you just want to let go and dance like nobody’s watching.

The Art of NOT Speaking French

Allow me to illustrate...

Allow me to illustrate…

As I’ve spent time talking, discussing and laughing with people from all over the world, I’ve come to the realization that English isn’t a very lively language- in terms of not speaking. We are seriously lacking in the ways of nonverbal communication- the various eye rolls, the noises, the hand gestures…we just aren’t as equipped as our European counterparts.

It’s amazing that one can communicate so much with so little effort. And boy do the French love that! They are the kings of having some sort of guteral noise for everything. Every so often you will witness a “mwah!” hand kiss to signify perfection or hear tongue tisking (which to us would seem patronizing) to let you know that you are incorrect. Be warned that our circular motion for crazy is their circular motion for smart and there is more than one way to flick some one off.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Mes Couilles (a.k.a. Bullshit):

Pull down the eyelid to signify "That's some bull!"

Pull down the eyelid to signify “That’s some bull!”

If some one is spewing a load of crap, or you just don’t believe what they’re saying, you can give them Mes Cuilles. Literally translating to “my balls” this is a very slang way of saying “That’s some bull!” All you have to do is take your pointer finger and pull down the bottom part of your eyelid. Simple and yet so satisfying.

Saoul (pronounced like sou- a.k.a. drunk):

Nose is drowning in the alcohol

Nose is drowning in the alcohol

When someone has had a bit too much to drink, this hand movement is quite…well handy. Simply hold your hand in a loose fist and move it back and fourth (as if your twisting an imaginary cork at the end of your nose). Apparently this comes from the French saying “Il a un verre dans le nez” (he has a glass on his nose), but is often accompanied with the slang of saol or bourré (sou or boo-rey).

The Gallic Shrug:

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Bof!

Quite popular among my students, the Gallic Shrug is a common way to signify “I doubt it”, “I don’t know”, or “Not my fault”. It is slightly more complicated than the others as it involves sticking out your lower lip, raising your eyebrows and shoulders, and occasionally holding up your hands. Often this is accompanied by the ever so common “Bof!” sound to signify utter annoyance.

The too good/too intense/too much epic hand shake:

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Oh la la!

One of my absolute favorites. Using either the right or left hand, shake it loosely and emphatically back and fourth. I have witnessed this for things being too expensive, too intense or crazy, when something is exciting, or my personal favorite- when food is really good.This is quite a versatile gesture as well as one of the only clear ways Frenchies display their enthusiasm.

Amazingly enough this only skims the surface of the multitude of nonverbal communication common among the French- I didn’t even get in to the noises made! But it sparks an intrigue in my ever growing fascination with language- to think about how we communicate with one another and how subtly or not so subtly it varies from region to region.

But for those of you that are striving to be French Fakers, there is always this Amusing way to communicate in French without knowing the language video for your education and enjoyment.

French don’t give a #@*! about being polite

We all know the stereotype- the French are haughty, pretentious and downright rude. Except that each time I’d traveled to France, I experienced nothing but kindness. Sure they might laugh at your ridiculous accent, but I found that if you sincerely tried (a.k.a. don’t barge in with the “I’m from America and we’re gonna speak my language and do it my way” approach) then they were quite nice…in their own French way.

Until I lived here. In comparison to other countries, at times I’ve felt brazen and outspoken and rude as an American with my American ways. I don’t say Ma’am and Sir (although I’m sure many Americans do) and I can be quite loud and sometimes invade people’s personal space with my weird touchy laugh habit (thanks mom). But the French make Americans look like rule bound, guilt obsessed, polite pampered Brits. Sorry British but you guys do apologize for everything. 

They don’t give a crap about your personal space, your personal problems, standard politeness or welcoming manners. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of French people who have been warm and receptive and helpful. But living here has introduced me to a distinct cultural difference of social standards. Like the girl who blatantly mocked me while sitting next to me on the train and then proceeded to completely invade my personal space even though she had TWO empty chairs next to her. Or the students who talk or text regardless of whether it’s me or the teacher talking. Or the people who cut in front of me at the grocery store or use babies to skip lines at the prefecture. Or the girl who literally sat on me because my SINGLE seat had the smallest bit of room apparently open for stranger seating. No asking, no eye contact, just big ass on my seat. I felt like a crazy person as I searched for someone to share eye contact in a “is this really happening right now?” moment but being polite is so n’importe quoi.

When I first arrived in France, my friend warned me with a story of how she was invited to three dinners before the french even talked to her. I have now sat through two gatherings where hardly two words were spoken to me. I sat as the silent, awkward foreigner, thinking about how if we were in America, I’d have a drink in my hand, know everyone’s name and be involved in some sort of conversation. It seemed unfathomable to me- it’s just common hosting sense, it’s just good manners, it’s just politeness, human decency- how rude! But apparently it’s not rude, it’s just French.

And it’s not just me. Even Paris’s transport authority acknowledged the rudeness with an ad campaign to improve social awareness.

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/travel/news/sacre-bleu-campaign-to-put-an-end-to-rudeness-in-france/story-fn32891l-1226436549175

But it’s not all that bad. I’ve heard that the French are hard to crack, but once you break through, they’re there for life. And I will say that rudeness aside, the blunt way of communicating can be quite refreshing at times. But a big ass on my seat will never be refreshing- it can go find its own!