Stinky cheese, chic fashion and noir cinema: the ’30 seconds’ game description of France. However, does a stereotype detract from the value of a culture or does it merely serve as a signpost for navigating an unknown land? Gastronomically speaking, France stands up to every imaginable stereotype: mountains of cheese, fresh baguettes and the waft of croissant pastry tickling the taste buds of all in close proximity. However, sliced pan that never expires, and UHT milk that smells as if it is expired, are the Erasmus-budget counterpart to this food-lover’s fantasy.
Crepes are surprisingly difficult to come by and I am yet to see a Frenchman with a spiralling moustache, decked out in a slanted beret. Thus far, my time in France has taught me that stereotypes serve to romanticise that which is merely different.
It’s rewarding to interact with a new culture and in general the French are welcoming, but in a more reserved manner to Ireland. One of the first questions friends ask me is if I have met any nice French guys, to which I answer that I have been pursued – but in more of a literal sense. I must say that I have met lots of lovely French people, both male and female, but just like at home, there are instances that encourage caution. In a way, I guess you could say that I don’t exactly help myself. New to a foreign city, I explored by playing metro bingo. This consisted of hopping off at a random destination each time. Arm stretched wide in front, with google maps audibly leading me around, it does not take a stretch of the imagination to wonder how I was spotted as a foreigner. On one of these adventures I came across a homeless man selling fruit out of a trolley. Upon closer inspection I noticed that he had halved each piece of fruit, was eating one half of a peach and proffering the other to potential customers. While taking in the beauty of the cobbled streets and magnificent buildings I was heckled… by an ambulance driver. Lights flashing, burdened with the responsibility of attending to the vehicle’s occupant, this industrious fellow found the time to slow down and catcall me. Unwanted attention is commonplace in every country, but it becomes more noticeable in a new environment.
While perusing the aisles of the supermarket, from the aubergines to Emmental cheese, I felt the heat of a burning gaze on the back of my neck. Later, directing my gaze from the newspaper stand, my romantic, and determined, pursuer asked me ‘what is it to be so beautiful?’. Red faced and sweating from scouring 40 aisles for stir-fry veg (i.e. gold-dust) all I could do was laugh. French men are inventive with their chat-up lines. From a middle-aged taximan’s offer of one-on-one tutoring to a young guy’s discussion on overnight orienteering competitions in Ireland, you have to give it to them; they are entertaining.
Whether a cultural difference or a creative means of beginning a conversation, I’m cautious but good-humoured after each encounter.
While in Ireland, no one is considered a stranger, I find that the French are very polite but more reserved than us. As a small island, a common thread, no matter how tenable, can be found within five minutes of conversation with anyone. Recently, while queuing to check-in a bag in Dublin airport, I found myself chatting to a friendly man from the Isle of Mann. Of course, we found a connection: his eldest daughter was conceived in a town near my house. Not exactly what I expected to be discussing in a big crowd! I imagine a French student would be surprised by the simplicity of courtship techniques to which we, in the land of leprechauns, have become accustomed. On a student night in the cattle-mart of Havanas or Voodoo, a confident lad smiles and offers you a drink. If you say no, not a badge, not a bother, no hassle. You will probably end up chatting with him in the process and discover that ye have at least three mutual friends and went to the Gaeltacht with his sister.
Do you Voodoo? Wouldn’t I love to.