According to Hollywood, this is the view from every window in Paris. Which is closer to the truth than some of the things I heard… Photo: Darren Palmer
The first thing every Frenchman does in the morning is not take a shower. Then he puts on a beret, kisses his wife once on each cheek and drives off in a tiny, flimsy car to go not buy toilet paper and pick up a long thin loaf of bread to accompany his breakfast of snails, frog legs and undercooked beef. On the way, driving rudely while smoking an unfiltered cigarette, he turns the radio to the all-accordion station, and when he reaches his destination he says, “Ooh-la-la!” because the bakery is on strike.
Or at least that was what I was led to believe when I lived in the United States. After I moved to Paris, I saw the proof of what I had already suspected, namely that most of the American stereotypes about France are exaggerated, if not outright horsemerde. Some of them are more or less based on historical reality but no longer apply, like the idea that the French use bidets instead of toilet paper. The famous one about their not bathing and using perfume to mask the odor may have been true once, like in about 1885, but in 1885 this was also true in the United States, minus the perfume.
As it turns out, most of the preconceptions about food are factual – even the most disgusting ones. I have never had a problem about eating snails or frog legs, but I remember blanching in disbelief upon being told that “the French eat raw beef.” It sounded preposterous to me at the time, but this was, as I learned later, a reference to steak tartare, a mainstay of many a bistro menu. It’s cold, uncooked ground beef mixed with egg yolk, capers, herbs and other flavorful stuff; it’s delicious (I’m speaking from experience here); and it’s a very efficacious way to get food poisoning (again, experience).
Speaking of “disgusting,” before I had ever crossed the Atlantic I was solemnly informed by more than one person that “there’s this cheese in France that has, like, worms in it, and you’re actually supposed to – get this – eat the worms! No, really!” This had all the hallmarks of a poodle-in-the-microwave story: an implausible and horrifying thing that many people had heard about, but no one had experienced firsthand. The information always came from someone who supposedly knew someone who supposedly knew someone who supposedly had seen the cheese.
Interestingly, after I moved to France I heard this same tale from Parisians, but attributed to Corsica. So I asked a Corsican coworker about it and found out that in Corsica they also tell the same story, but in their version the cheese comes from Sardinia. And, to my profound surprise, the rumor chain stops there: this dairy product does indeed exist. It’s called casu marzu, the aging process involves the digestive action of a certain breed of fly larvae, and the cheese is considered edible only when it is literally crawling with live, leaping (apparently they jump) maggots. Which, by the way, can thrive cheerfully not only in curdled sheep’s milk but also in human digestive tracts, where, in some cases, they trigger a variety of painful, unpleasant, unsightly and unspeakable symptoms that are, fortunately for us all, beyond the scope of this article. But, rumormongers please take note: this cheese is not French.
Now then, on a more wholesome, Frencher note: while I was compiling my list of preconceptions and misinformation, it occurred to me that many of the paltry scraps of French culture that had seeped into my uncosmopolitan awareness when I was younger came in the form of songs. For example, back in the States when I was a kid, everyone could identify, if not actually sing, “Alouette.” In the staunchly Anglophone Midwest, we didn’t have any idea what an alouette was (it’s the word for “lark”), let alone what any of the other words meant, but we knew the melody. As far as I knew, the first two lines of the song were:
Alouette, blah-blah alouette,
Alouette, blah-blah duh-duh-tum.
Ignorance is a terrible thing. Therefore, in the name of greater intercultural understanding, I offer herewith a more or less literal translation of the lyrics of this famous ditty:
Lark, affable lark,
Lark, I am going to pluck you.
I am going to pluck you the head.
I am going to pluck you the head.
And the head.
And the head.
Now you know why the lyricist was never nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The song goes on like that for hours, unchanged except for replacing “head” with one other body part per verse (beak, back, wings, feet, pope’s nose, pancreas, etc., etc.). I’m not sure what the point of it all is. Notice that the singer is addressing the lark, which must therefore be alive and conscious enough to listen to these elaborate, detailed plans for plucking him, but there is no mention in any verse about how the singer intends to slaughter, I should hope as humanely as possible, the poor bird. Or was the idea to remove its feathers and then release it back into the wild? Also, singing through all of the verses would burn off way more calories than could be gained by consuming a little songbird, so I infer that the lark was not going to be eaten. Maybe it was an early dieting technique.
Another piece of music that did nothing to improve my understanding of French was that World War I classic “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” which was on side one of my mother’s favorite Sing Along With Mitch album. Actually, I should say “next to nothing,” because I did learn a couple of things from it. I learned that “mademoiselle” means “girl” and that somewhere not in the United States there’s this place called Armentières (except that in the song it’s pronounced “armen-teers”) and that the French pronounce “Paris” “Par-ee.” So far, not so bad, but the catchphrase of the lyrics is “parlez-vous.” It’s pronounced more or less correctly, but it means “do you speak” and the rest of the phrase (do you speak what?) never comes. This spawned the common misapprehension that parlez-vous, sometimes even spelled “parlay-voo,” is a single word meaning “speak.” Under the pervasive and lasting influence of this song, Americans still sometimes ask me, “Do you parlay-voo frawnsay?” Which would mean, “do you do you speak French?” To which I answer, “I I do do.”
Speaking of saying everything twice, that brings us to the renowned composition that millions of American schoolchildren probably think is the French national anthem: “Frère Jacques.” This is the French “Row Row Row Your Boat” – in fact, the two tunes can be sung simultaneously with no fear of dissonance. Like everyone else in the history of Western society, I was taught this number by rote when I was in grade school, probably right after a rousing round of row-row. Here again, I was left in the dark about the meaning. I was able to piece some of it together from the English “Brother John” version (about which more later), but I still had gaps in my comprehension. According to the way I understood it back then, the annotated version would go like this:
Frair-uh Zhock-uh, Frair-uh Zhock-uh,
So there’s this guy and his name is Jacques, and he’s the singer’s brother. No problem.
Now we’re wondering if he’s sleeping. Later, after studying a little French, I was wondering why the singer is calling his blood sibling “vous,” the formal form of address reserved for elders and superiors. Makes no sense.
Sonny Lemon Tina, Sonny Lemon Tina.
This is what I understood, and this is what I sang. Was it a shout-out to a blues singer? A transgender prizefighter? I had no idea.
Ding dang dong. Ding dang dong.
Hey, I can understand French! There are supposed to be bells ringing, for reasons unknown, so this is onomatopoeia.
Only much later, embarrassingly later, did I realize that Jacques is not the singer’s brother, he’s a monk. That kind of brother. So he’s addressed with the formal form because monks are formal kinds of guys. And the third line is “Sonnez les matines” – he’s supposed to haul his cassock out of bed and “ring the bell for Matins,” i.e., the early-morning services in the monastery.
Would it have killed someone to explain this to me? As I mentioned, my only source of information was that lame “Brother John” translation, which only served to aggravate the confusion: I grew up thinking that Jacques was the French equivalent of John. It’s not – the correct rendering would be James. Why change the monk’s moniker? The only logical reason would be to fit the rhyme scheme, but in point of fact there is no rhyme scheme. Why not call him Skip?
I can only presume that the adults who taught me the song were as clueless as to its meaning as I was. Probably the same people who were spreading the story about the worm cheese. I’m so ashamed of myself for having labored so hard for so long under such burdensome delusions that I have decided to embark upon an effort to dispel my fellow Americans’ misconceptions about France, one fallacy at a time. Starting with…
Today’s French lesson:
The French do, in fact, say “ooh-la-la,” but somehow the pronunciation was perverted in export. The first syllable is properly pronounced “oh” as in “Coca-Cola,” and not “ooh” as in “Oops, I spilled the casu marzu on the autopsy table.”
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Reader Catherine A. Melland writes: “I am an American woman and have been dating a Parisian man for the last eight years. The things that American people ask me about the French are hilarious (e.g., not showering, not using deodorant, etc.). Thank you for clearing this up.”
Reader Jeanne Serrano writes: “I greatly enjoyed Mr. Jaggard’s amusing piece on Americans’ often ignorant misconceptions of the French and in general would agree that everyone everywhere in the world needs to work to overcome preconceptions and stereotypes (admittedly, maybe Americans need to work more than others). However, I suspect the stereotype of the unbathed Frenchman has some truth in it that is much more recent than 1885. I say this based on three pieces of evidence I encountered myself not all that long ago:
“1. While in college in Ecuador in the early 1970s I took French classes at the university and at l’Alliance Française. Both used the same audio-visual materials which featured slides with recorded dialogue. In one lesson a woman visits her friend’s new apartment in Paris where she is given a tour of the home. Upon being shown the bathroom, she exclaims in surprise—apparently quite impressed: ‘Oh, vous avez une salle de bains!’ Obviously, at that time, it was not common for Parisians—even middle class Parisians—to have a bathroom in their apartment.
“2. At about the same time my husband, a typically hygiene-obsessed Mexican, made his first trip to France. The hotel he stayed in had one bathroom per floor and charged 1 franc for a shower. Under the circumstances, he and his travel companion, another personal-hygiene-obsessed Mexican, decided to shower every other day to save money.
“3. A close friend of ours in Mexico spent several years in France while studying for his doctoral degree. He returned a passionate Francophile, speaking French to his children and… bathing infrequently and refusing to use deodorant, personal habits that were impossible for anyone standing close to him to overlook. He and his family eventually moved permanently to France where, one assumes, his malodorous state is not offensive to anyone. Granted, these are isolated anecdotes, certainly not scientific evidence, but as the saying goes: ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’”
© 2011 Paris UpdateFavorite
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.