Fireworks the other night in Villefranche,
as seen from our balcony.
Well, it’s been a quiet weekend in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Darlene has been resting a lot, still recovering from her throat infection.
I have been wrestling with a new internet connection via AOL after I found out that my attglobal connection left Françoise with a hefty phone bill when we houseswapped with her last September in Cannes. I wanted very much to reimburse her, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Our phone conversation yesterday in French proved to be a ticklish cultural encounter. In my American sensibility, it was a no-brainer that I should pay her the not-insignificant phone charges. But in her French sensibility, this was somehow out of the question, and she let me know that my pressing the issue was bringing her to the point of irritation. I agreed to accept her position on the condition that if, in the future, I unwittingly run up any charges at her house, that she will let me know as soon as she finds out.
At lunch Saturday with her cousins André and Jacqueline, Françoise launched a good-natured discussion of cultural differences between France and the U.S. She asked what bothers me about French customs, and she brought up an American custom which irritates her. When she’s invited to a dinner party in Denver, there seldom are assigned seats at the table. The guests mill around at random, seating themselves in an arrangement that, at a minimum, won’t have alternating men and women, and may also seat people next to each other who really would rather be somewhere else. I told Françoise that my mother, who lives in New England and has a wonderfully continental way, assigns seating at all her dinner parties, but I have to confess that the few times Darlene and I have hosted dinners, we usually let everyone sit where they like. I can see advantages both ways, actually. For me, assigned seating sometimes gives a meal too much of the feel of a command performance, a piece of theater, and so a sense of ease and informality is lost. But I can also see that a host who cares enough to think about seating arrangement is providing a gracious level of concern for his or her guests.
When my turn came, I said I sometimes yearn for the American West’s directness, as opposed to the more elaborate and indirect ways of approaching people here in France. In Colorado or Wyoming, when you want something, you ask for it. You avoid rudeness, but you don’t preface your request with phrases such as “Excusez-moi de vous déranger,” or “Excuse me for bothering you…” I was surprised to learn that my impression of French ways in this area was not shared by Françoise, who said she finds people in general more polite and courteous in Denver than she does in France, where strangers jostle her on the sidewalk as they rush past. I’m not sure André and Jacqueline, who lived in the Denver area years ago, shared her opinion, but they did not dispute it directly.
Jacqueline mimed a very funny version of how Americans eat at the dinner table. She dropped her left arm way down below the table, her shoulder nearly touching the table, while she ate with her right hand. André told the story of an American spy in World War II who spoke flawless German but was discovered when he dropped his left hand below the table at a meal. This lapse in manners cost him his life. Even before hearing this story, Darlene and I have tried to eat with both hands on the table. But I confess that I sometimes cheat, eating with my fork in my right hand as usual, and holding the knife in my left hand as if I am going to cut something, which of course I can’t, because I am right-handed. Now, whenever I am tempted to lapse into American table manners while in France, I will remember Jacqueline’s demonstration.
I just discovered one of the biggest differences in writing the blog in French: Darlene never was interested enough to read over my shoulder and offer suggestions. “You’ve already described how Jacqueline put her arm under the table; just say you will remember her demonstration.” And of course she’s right, soit’s good to have her back as an editor.
Tomorrow we begin the May course at the Institute. I found out from Frédéric, the office executive assistant, that I will be in Avancé I, with Jean as my teacher. “Il est très dur,” Frédéric told me, and I’ve also heard from past students that my new teacher is a demanding one. But I greatly enjoyed talking with Jean at the lunch table, and I am looking forward to working hard in his class. Darlene will have a new teacher and a new group of classmates in Debutante I. We are both jumpy, experiencing the night before the first day of school all over again.
[Update: Part of my jumpiness was dissatisfaction with the flippant tone of my original post, so I am up at 3:30 a.m. revising it, polishing my words in a way that, I realize now, fits more with a French sensibililty. And so I find myself being changed for the better by my time in France.]
When I visited the office this afternoon, I told Frédéric I would like to change my name for the May session, to Léonard. He joked that this would not be possible, because the teachers have already learned my name as Len. But I like how my formal name, the name of my mother’s father, sounds in French, and I’m hoping this little name change will help me dive deeper into the music of French language and culture. Darlene wishes she could change her name, which the French have a difficult time saying. But all we’ve been able to come up with is Fifi, and I don’t think the office would buy it.