Things Are Weird All Over, Part One: Oddities of France

Time for a Surreality Check

April 29, 2014By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Paris Update GAS
Iillustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings.

A rather hastily written article has been making the rounds on Facebook recently entitled “20 of the Weirdest Things About America That Americans Don’t Realize Are Weird.” Posted on by an anonymous and apparently British user under the pseudonym “Foreveralone,” it mentions quite a few things about the old USA that are indeed pretty strange, like allowing cheese to advertise and aerosol lawyers.

Oops — I mean allowing lawyers to advertise and aerosol cheese, the latter of which the author (quite rightly) reviles as “just bizarre.” The post also includes some entries that I think are rather weird choices for a weirdest things list, like the amount of water in the toilet bowls.

I have stared, sometimes for minutes at a stretch, down the business ends of quite a few toilets in quite a few countries, and have never noticed any significant and consistent water level difference between the two sides of the Atlantic. Maybe it has something to do with the Gulf Stream.

However, that item, and two other complaints about my birth country’s crappers (biological functions seem to be somewhat of an obsession for Foreveralone, which may at least partially explain the choice of pseudonym), started me thinking about my adopted country’s squatter toilets — already discussed in more detail than necessary in a previous C’est Ironique.

When I first came to France, I found them surpassingly strange, not to mention inconvenient, disgusting and at times humiliating. But, perhaps numbed by exposure to secondhand smoke and French pop music, I got used to it.

Then it occurred to me: if I’ve been here long enough to find squat toilets normal, then I’ve been here long enough to compile my own list of…

The Weirdest Things About France That I No Longer Realize Are Weird

1) Urinals for all to see

Like Foreveralone, I can’t seem to get my head out of the toilet. A lot of French cafés and bars have a urinal just sticking out of the wall back by the toilet stalls, with no door or divider to hide it from view. To a fresh-off-the-plane American, this looks like a childhood nightmare come true, but there’s a reason for it: two of France’s favorite pastimes are drinking and arguing, so as a convenience for male patrons, the urinals are installed in such a way as to remain within earshot, if not eyeshot, of the bar. That way disputatious drunks can continue to spout off while, ah, spouting off.

2) Movie theater extortionists

This is no longer common, but when I moved to France in the early 1980s every movie theater had an extraneous but unavoidable employee. The procedure went like this: after buying your ticket from the cashier and having it torn in half by the ticket-tearer, you were supposed to wait just inside the screening room for the “ouvreuse”: a woman (for some reason it was never a man) with a flashlight whose job it was to show you to your seat. You were expected to “tip” her two francs for her efforts, which usually consisted entirely of glancing at your ticket and telling you to sit wherever you want.

One of the ouvreuse’s alleged added-value functions was to seat latecomers discreetly and quietly, so as not to jar the film buffs in the audience out of their reveries. But if some clueless foreigner going to his very first film in France (from the case files: David S. Jaggard, Cinéma Saint-Lazare, 4:30 showing of Diva, February 18, 1983) arrived late and dared to sit down without slipping her a coin, she was free to interrupt the opening scenes with a torrent of earshattering verbal abuse until he finally understood the phrase “deux francs” and forked over her hard-earned “wages.” Which she would then spend on assertiveness-training sessions.

3) The box tax

Speaking of paying too much for audiovisual entertainment, France, like most European countries, charges its citizens a special tax for owning a television set. For an American, this makes about as much sense as charging a special tax for owning a clock or a nail clipper. The idea is that the revenues thus generated finance the national broadcasting networks so that they won’t have to show ads. Which they do anyway.

So when you buy a TV, you have to show an ID and register your address, thus authorizing the government to dun you for this modest, but frankly galling and apparently pointless, tax. The only way to evade it is to buy a set secondhand.

I tried this once and it proved impossible. For several months, I responded to every single “moving sale” ad I could find that listed a television among the hand-me-downs up for grabs, and every single time I was told, sometimes within hours of publication of the ad, that the TV was already sold. From this I conclude that the black market television traffic in France must be the biggest single cause of the national budget deficit, and thus of the Eurozone debt crisis. Funny they never mention this on TV.

4) Chump change for champions

Speaking of not getting paid enough for providing audiovisual entertainment, Americans would be shocked at one feature of the game shows on French TV, namely the size of the prizes. Or rather “prizes.” In the United States, anyone who wins a nationwide game show can expect to walk away with a sizable chunk of cash, and some repeat winners, for example on Jeopardy, have pocketed millions of dollars.

But here in France, the top scorer on a run-of-the-mill game show is likely to leave the studio only a few thousand euros richer. I suppose it has to do with the size of the country, and therefore of the audience, and therefore of the advertising budget, and therefore of the payout potential, but it seems a bit sad to have all the cheering, wild applause, lights flashing, bells ringing and contestants pumping their fists in the air because they won €2,150. Enough for a root canal! Yay!

5) Letting your molars rot

Which they probably need, because French people (in my experience) don’t go to the dentist very often. Having grown up in a society where getting a dental checkup twice a year is considered an obligation, on par with rotating your tires and polishing your handguns, I find it lamentable that so many of my French acquaintances will only see a dentist when they have a toothache. And even then only when the ache becomes acute enough to ruin their enjoyment of life’s essential pleasures, like eating, drinking and arguing.

And of course that other even more essential pleasure of life, the one that the French have elevated nearly to an art form. I refer, obviously, to…

6) Jaywalking

I confess: I got used to this fast. Most Parisians, including me, don’t look at the walk/don’t walk signals when they cross the street — they look at the traffic, and if they think there’s a better than 50-50 chance of reaching the other side with nothing vital broken or bleeding, they go for it.

The Foreveralone Manifesto mentions the astonishing fact that jaywalking is illegal in the United States. Technically, it’s illegal in France, too (in Paris the fine is €4), but, contrary to American practice, the law is never enforced and rarely observed.

So rarely, in fact, that there are now signs at especially dangerous intersections in Paris warning pedestrians, in effect, that the lights here really mean something, for once:

Paris Update Pedestrians

The sign says “Pedestrians must obey the lights.” Soon we’ll need signs saying “Pedestrians must obey the signs saying they must obey the lights.” And so on.

And, of course, we also have lots of jaycycling, jayscootering and jaydriving, which I continue to find weird. And annoying. But it seems to be a deeply ingrained part of the culture. If France had a manned space program, we’d probably have jayorbiting.

And speaking of atmospheric disturbances…

7) Dining with dogs

I was reminded of this one on Facebook by reader Cheri van der Feltz: most restaurants in France allow dogs. Although I’m accustomed to this, I still find it disconcerting to see diners sitting there, shoveling in the snails and foie gras, with Fido faithfully biding his time under the table. Not because it’s a health hazard — after all, people eat at home in the company of shedding, drooling, territory-marking, toilet-water-drinking dogs all the time, and I’ve never seen an obituary listing “alimentary canine exposure” as the cause of death.

What I’m most concerned about here is the pooches themselves. There they are, endowed with an unimaginably keen sense of smell and a ferociously keen instinct to funnel-chug anything edible that comes within snout’s reach, and they’re forced to sit through an entire four-course meal immersed in a cloud of aromas from one of the world’s finest cuisines.

Imagine their plight: every breath floods their nostrils with the enticing smells of the most appetizing food on earth, and they know it’s not for them. I submit that this is subjecting the poor creatures to needless torture. To alleviate all this suffering, French dog owners who insist on taking Rover to restaurants should also take along a little something to placate his palate between courses.

And I have the ideal solution — convenient, inexpensive and efficient: aerosol cheese.


© 2014 Paris Update


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.

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