I am often accused of writing about stereotypes. Sometimes I get really nasty letters from grumpy readers who call me things they can’t spell like bigoted and offensive. But the fact is that people from different parts of the world are DIFFERENT. However much of a stereotype you might think it is, the French do like their lunch and millions of Englishmen drink warm beer.
During my recent trip to Paris the difference between the two nations was polarised by two events. The thing about major cities is that there are lots of roads to cross. And in Paris there are lights denoting when it’s a good time to walk and when its not. A little green man is the signal that it’s safe to cross. (Actually, it’s not, it’s just a Parisian trick, the cars keep coming anyway.)
My step-daughter Julia is being raised and educated in England. She ignored the red man and whenever she saw an opportunity to cross the street, went for it. Bea on the other hand stood resolutely on the kerb, even if there wasn’t a car for miles around, and waited for the green man. When Julia tried to negotiate and suggest that a little flexibility might be a good idea she just said; “You’re not supposed to cross when it’s red. I’m right.” Of course as a mother I am keener on Bea’s road safety ethos than Julia’s, but you get my point. This attitude, instilled in the French from an early age, has resulted in 300,000 French people who like to take risks and cross roads without permission moving to England.
On the train back down south there was a fat middle-aged man sitting next to me (why is it never a thirty-something former male model turned professional tennis player?). As soon as the train began to move, said fatty fell asleep. Then a most extraordinary noise began. It even drowned out Bridget Jones’s Diary which the girls and I were watching. I have never heard a grizzly bear snore but I imagine it must sound something like this man did.
Being English-educated and therefore obsessively polite I, of course, did nothing apart from lean closer to my laptop in an effort to hear the film. A rather young and beautiful Frenchwoman sitting opposite me though decided after half an hour than enough was enough. She began by gently tapping his knee, then tapping it harder, then shouting “Monsieur” in his ear, then kicking his shinbone under the table. When none of this worked, she took my water bottle (without asking I might add) and started to spray water at him. Finally she resorted to pulling the hairs on his forearm with one hand while slapping his knee with the other. This did the trick. I sat there cringing throughout; half-willing her to succeed so I could hear what Mark Darcy was saying and half terrified of the consequences of her terribly rude actions.
I am now on a plane bound for London and an appearance on The Sunday Edition tomorrow to discuss yet another British obsession; class. The French definitely have the upper hand here; they just accept it and get on with it. And they’re not polite enough to pretend it doesn’t exist or that they’re appalled by it.
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007