But sometimes you don't know about a custom until you find out you've transgressed some social rule. I do not like learning this way. I've recently discovered that "excuse me" is not a polite way to start a conversation here unless accompanied with "hello." I found this out after I started to notice I was getting evil looks from people I stopped to ask for help or information. Last week I went into a shop to ask their hours, and the conversation went like this:
Me: Excuse me, what time--
Shop girl: HELLO.
Me (nodding confusedly): Yes, what time--
Shop girl: HELLO.
Me: Yes, what time--
Shop girl: HELLO.
Me: WHAT TIME DO YOU CLOSE TODAY?
The shop girl and other customers were rolling their eyes and shaking their heads, and a post-game analysis with Josh sorted it out: I was supposed to start with, "Hello excuse me," or "Excuse me hello," but not just, "Excuse me." The thing that stinks is that the better you get in a foreign language, the less people are accepting of this kind of mistake. A researcher gave a presentation on this phenomenon at a conference for language teachers I attended last summer, and it was like bells started ringing in my head and fireworks exploded in my brain when she explained it. Because it is SO TRUE: the better your French (or Spanish, or American) accent, the more you seem like "one of us," and the more surprised (and offended) we are when you don't follow our social rules. But if you have a heinous accent and are fumbling for words like "hello," and "thank you," people generally put aside their ideas of how the conversation should go (did you remember to say please?) and focus on just understanding what on earth you're trying to say.
But back to my point. It can be REALLY FRUSTRATING to have to learn by getting it wrong. Example: yesterday I went, for the first time, to one of Josh's ultimate frisbee tournaments. We pulled up at the crack of dawn to the team's meeting spot here in Aix to pack more people into the car and caravan to Nîmes, where the tournament was going to take place. I was coccooned in my seat with bags of snacks and other gear for the day, and munching happily on my breakfast. So, I stayed put (as did M, another American rider who we'd already picked up), the car was packed with more people, and we left. And as we were pulling out, someone mentioned that it had been rude of us to stay in the car instead of getting out to give everyone their good morning bises.
This rankled us. We're going to spend all weekend with you engaged in (or watching you play) a team sport, which is a significant amount of quality time, and politeness dictates that instead of a smile and a wave, we begin the weekend by extracting ourselves from the car in order to kiss you all? How much of me do you people want?!?!
I think the problem is that most adults have confidence in their abilities to act logically. So when you are faced with a small problem to solve (stay in car vs. get out and kiss people), you do what is logical to you, and you think nothing of it. And then, when you find out that you were expected to act otherwise, since you had determined what to do using your well-functioning logic, it makes the French course of action seem illogical. It leaves you thinking everyone around you is crazy for wanting you to kiss them good morning, file reams of paperwork, or say "hello" before you say "excuse me."
Luckily, Josh's frisbee team thinks of M and I as "the clueless Americans," a notion of which I do not plan to disabuse them. So even though they thought we were being rude (and we thought they were crazy), they also thought it was funny.
M and my annoyance at the French bises was exacerbated when we got to the tournament. The team got into their pre-game huddle, where we knew Josh was going to lay out his plan for beating their first opponents, Discobol. Last year Josh's team, T-R'Aix, beat Discobol by a hair, and this tournament, Discobol was gunning to take them out. So, Josh circled everyone up and began his pre-match pep talk and strategy briefing...and was promptly interrupted by a member of KLB, a "friendly" team, who sauntered onto the field to say hello. They were playing later in the day, so they'd be rooting for T-R'Aix during the first game, and their arrival occasioned the bises. Which means, as Josh tried valiantly to rally his team, first one, and then another of KLB's players walked around his huddle, pulling out each T-R'Aix player in turn to give them two kisses. Their focus was blown. Finally Josh stopped an approaching KLB player in his tracks and told him to stay away until the huddle was over, but the damage was done. T-R'Aix lost the first game in overtime and the defeat weighed down on them for the rest of the day. I'm waiting now to hear from Josh how today's matches went, but T-R'Aix had gotten off on the wrong foot.
As KLB's captain actually walked THROUGH THE HUDDLE to give those $%#& bises, I caught M's eye and mouthed, "I WANT TO GO HOME." Sometimes I just can't take this culture. But the bad comes along with some nice surprises--not least of which is how they treat pregnant women in France. We knew that historically, France has been very pro-reproduction because of a low-population crisis after WWII. We didn't know that we're going to be getting a nice little payment from the government to help buy baby gear. Or that a body pillow for my pregnancy-related backaches will be covered by our insurance. But apparently pregnant women themselves are given really cushy treatment. I had my first experience with this today. The grocery store was packed, and I joined the back of a verrrrrry long line at the "priority" (handicapped or pregnant) register. I wondered why non-priority clients were in the line, but I also didn't expect what happened next: I was ushered all the way up to the front, even past a woman with a baby who was only buying three boxes of granola bars. I tried to make her go before me (I had a giant basket of stuff) and everyone insisted: pregnant girl goes first.
It was nice to get special treatment...but I still thought everyone was crazy. I wonder, when I get back to the US, will I have reverse culture shock and think all the Americans are crazy? Probably, but hopefully I'll be able to take the bad with the good, eat cupcakes, and be happy.