becoming French Life en terrasse

Becoming French: Not as easy as it sounds?

Becoming French: the Myth

Becoming French is a popular topic, in literature and in social media. Becoming French, to some francophiles or expats, is a goal, a rite of passage, an achievement to be proud of. An urban legend claims becoming French has a lot to do with {insert one, or several of the following items:} learning the language and a few facial expressions; using “Bonjour” in public places; mastering the art of people-watching while sipping a strong “express” at café terraces; embracing l’apéro; knowing how to tie a scarf; knowing your way around the cheese or yogurt aisle at the local Monoprix; ordering fresh produce at the local outdoor market; knowing your Paris arrondissements, your Left from your Right Bank, and the best “expos” (exhibits) or museums in town; realizing that there is more to France than Paris; accepting that one must learn to smell the roses and just live once in a while. Still, becoming French may not be as easy as some would have you believe.

becoming French: Monoprix sign
The Monoprix promise

It is interesting so many foreigners want to become French, or at least embrace the French lifestyle. It is flattering they should value French life and French customs, and would want to blend in, for a few weeks, a few months, or a lifetime. An entire industry continues to benefit from this, with new books, new podcasts, or new tutorials coming out every week. Becoming French. Do you want to publish a successful novel or biography? Mention “Paris” or “France” in the title, they say. If you can share your personal connection with French culture, even better!

becoming French: at the cafe
Becoming French en terrasse

Those crazy French!

Over the last few months, as France grappled with disruptive strikes and massive public demonstrations, it’s been obvious many foreigners (francophiles included,) were puzzled at things the French said, or did. This is not an uncommon occurrence. France lovers try to understand the French. They want to understand them. After all, these visitors or temporary locals have done their homework. They have observed natives at length in their natural habitat. They have studied the language, the history; visited the museums; read the books. Still, the French may appear complicated, difficult, predictable in their challenging ways, as are their bureaucracy or their unique approach to customer service.

becoming French Sign in shop window
The sacred summer vacation

Start them young!

I was browsing the book section at my local Monoprix this morning when I spotted some of the books my son, (he just turned 20,) read as a child. Junior was born in the United States, but I made sure he knew who T’Choupi, Petit Ours Brun, or Asterix and Obelix were. As I flipped through the pages, with some nostalgia, I realized it is true what they say: Becoming French (or American, or Spanish,) will remain challenging for all those who have not grown up in the local culture. Your brain, just like it does when you study a foreign language, is more likely to absorb the material (and the message behind it,) when you are young. This immersion in the local life and all the cultural references surrounding you daily, at home, at school, in the streets, reinforced by your parents, teachers, and peers, is what eventually helps you become an integral part of that culture. So even if you don’t always agree with something people say, or do, you (somehow) understand where it’s coming from. It does not surprise you.

becoming French young boy reading on the metro
Young reader on the Paris Metro

Becoming French one Children’s book at a time

French children learn early on what is appropriate and what is not, and what society expects from them. Old-fashioned lessons in civic education are once again part of the French public school’s curriculum. (Check out this story about the fundamentals of the French school system if you would like to know more.)

Some children’s books focus on classics. From Left to Right: Lili is malpolie (she does not have good manners.) Max loves to tell des bobards (he is a liar.) P’Tit Loup does not like to share. Max and Lili claim nothing is their fault and never take responsibility for their actions. Max is a cheater.

Other stories teach children how to eat the French (right?) way. From Left to Right: Lili only likes fries (children should eat EVERYTHING!) T’Choupi has a sweet tooth and is trop gourmand (in France, one knows the difference between un gourmand and un gourmet.) Marlène commits the ultimate sacrilege: le grignotage (she snacks all day.)

Some stories detail aspects of daily life. From Left to Right: French children learn early on how to give their maman a bisou (a kiss.) Thanks but no thanks: None of that awkward hugging for them! Songs and nursery rhymes from their childhood will stay with them for the rest of their life, just like Jean de la Fontaine‘s famous fables we had to memorize and recite at school. Songs and fables will also teach you valuable lessons along the way (photo 2.) You can find them (and other great books) at the local public library, la bibliothèque (photo 3.)

Learning about the past and making sense of the present

History lessons start early on in France (because there is a lot of material to cover?) From Left to Right: French symbols and historical figures are featured on this book’s cover. Do you recognize them? Second photo: French children know that Victor Hugo’s iconic Les Misérables does not take place during the revolution of 1789, but much later, in the 1830s. Yes, there have been many uprisings and revolutions in the course of France’s long history. Social unrest is part of life, and when the going gets tough, it’s ok to take to the streets and voice your concerns. People have done so for generations.

What is going on in the streets? Why are people on strike? What are they fighting for? The answers are always in a French children’s history book. From Left to Right: 1936. A lengthy national strike leads to a social revolution for French workers, the introduction of the 40-hour work week and the annual two-week vacation. In the 19th century, there is a great divide between the way the bourgeoisie and factory workers live (photos 2 and 4.) In May 1968, another revolution launched by students and a national strike bring the country to a halt (photo 5.)

Becoming French: Sometimes, the book is wrong

Being French means asking a lot of questions, (over-)analyzing situations, looking critically at (almost) everything and everyone. Being French often means replying Non! first, (even if you have to change your mind later.) Sometimes, like P’Tit Loup, you just have to dig your heels in, ignore what the book says, and “always say ‘No.'” Because you can. That’s the French way, too.

becoming French Children's book

A bientôt.

FGIS note: This story is part of the “France as I see it” series. All photos captured with an iPhone 6S. – Véronique.

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What did you think about this article? Let me know in the comment section below, (I love reading your messages and reply to most.) Don’t be selfish and share with a friend! Merci. Véronique (French Girl in Seattle)

20 Comments

  • Love the way you explain to your readers that life is complicated but not only in France. It is throughout the world. Just in different ways. There is no magic.

    When we first arrived in Singapore my daughter was 4 1/2 and son 3 1/2 and we lived in the Raffles Hotel. The shopkeepers adored these two little people and spent much time with them, teaching them Mandarin, how to use an abacus, etc. They started school at Dover International School as both had birthdays. In school they also learned Malay.

    They, as children, learned so much more than the adults. And, although today they no longer speak either language, they have learned other languages. But more important, they learned about different cultures, people, countries and it has remained an important part of them.

    • Thank you for sharing your family’s story Tomi. Yes, kids are lucky. They can travel the world (or learn at home) and absorb info like little sponges. It’s a shame the human brain makes this more challenging as we grow older, and we also seem to lose some of our innocence and ability to look at the world like children do. Too much stuff to cram into the hard disk, I guess. Dommage. A lot of it could be erased to make space for more important stuff. A bientôt.

  • I love this peek into some things a child sees in France. The photo of the page inside L’histoire de FRANCE, Les Trois Glorieuses – – you’d never see Marianne depicted like that in a children’s book in many countries, including my own. Which is exactly one of the reasons why I admire France so much – to me it’s just not an uptight culture in many ways. Thank you =)

    • Good point, Bob. Thank you for stopping by. The French want to protect children’s innocent eyes, of course. On the other hand, we aren’t about to tamper with a Delacroix masterpiece either. We respect classics too much. 🙂 A bientôt.

  • When I first started my serious study of French, my goal was to someday speak French like a Frenchwoman. It was not until after many years of language study that I realized I would never reach my goal. And that is ok!

    I feel the same way about the idea of ‘becoming French.’ I remember during my first trip to Paris (and France) in 2003 how I envied the chic, confident women I saw in the city and how much I wanted to be just like them. But some time ago I realized that also would never be possible and I realized that was ok, too.

    I am an American – it is a permanent part of my identity. I dress like an American, behave like an American (but a very restrained one, when I am in France), and I speak French like an American. That is who I am. If I move to France (a dream) I will be an American in France. I will never be French. But just as you, Véronique, enjoyed your time as a French Girl in Seattle, I enjoy my time (I love my time) as an American Woman in France.

    I love French history (it was my favorite course in my degree program) and I appreciate your stories as they help me to understand more about France and thus to be a better guest when I am in the country. Merci mille fois! Vive la France!

    • Vive la France indeed, Debra. Thank you for the great comment. There are many different ways of “becoming French.” It’s a process that starts for many with adopting the French lifestyle, (however temporarily,) during a France vacation. For me, it was indeed a grounding (and healthy) step to realize that no matter how immersed you are in a foreign culture, how well you speak the language, you remain the product of your own. In many ways, that’s a benefit: It makes you more interesting and more exotic to locals, and you bring a fresh perspective to the table. That’s always a plus when life seems to be too consensual and predictable 😉 And so, for 23 years, I was proudly a “French Girl in Seattle…”

  • This is fascinating, because I did much the same with my own kid, living in France and trying to inculcate American culture via books. We also went to the village bibliothèque during the two hours a week it’s open, to borrow French books, so Max and Lilli are familiar friends.
    To Robert re Marianne, there are naked statues (male and female) all over the place, and the mermaids on the Belle Epoque carousels do not wear bikini tops. No big deal.
    I myself have launched my application for French citizenship. Fingers crossed.

    • Bonjour! Wonderful to hear from you, as always. I am so thrilled you have decided to “become French” officially. Bonne chance! I am not surprised to hear you have done as I did with your own son. We moms of bi-cultural beings want to make sure they maximize all opportunities to explore the world and remain open-minded about other cultures. A bientôt.

  • As I said to Vero on another post yesterday, the more I learn the more I realize I don’t know. Every book I read introduces me to new people, new ideas. And I think I am fairly well educated, by American standards! I have even traveled more than most.

    But then I went to France, started learning about THEIR history, literature, culture, the arts…. I was overwhelmed!! There is so much to learn!! (And I second what Bob said about the drawing of Marianne. You would NEVER find that in an American children’s book!! Even if it IS a reproduction of a famous painting)

    • Bonjour Danyel. Is there another Vero I don’t know? 😉 A lot to learn about France and French culture, you say? Tell me about it. I had to do some serious cramming last year when I started working as a tour guide, as I was a wee bit rusty with some sections of French and European history. It all worked out in the end, and even if I have always been a lifelong student, (“a professional student,” my family said,) the tour guiding career has provided the perfect excuse to keep on learning! A bientôt.

  • What a lucky young man Junior is. Having a Mom that exposed him to two cultures. He will forever benefit from it.
    My love of France can be traced back to my 21st birthday. I visited a cousin stationed in Germany and she put me on a bus tour to Paris all alone. The bus left near midnight and we arrived in Paris during early morning rush hour. I awoke to see the Parisians bustling along the streets to work many with their beautifully dressed children in tow. Hard to explain my feelings. I have been back many times over the decades, Paris and rented vacation homes in four other parts of France. I know I can’t become French at this old age…but through genealogy I actually traced and ancestor back to a small village in the south of France…and didn’t even know I had ANY French blood …ha.
    Great article Vero….Janey

  • Salut, Véro! Comme toujours, c’était un plaisir de lire ces lectures et je continue à me rappeler des choses que j’avais oublié. Merci mille fois!

  • Mon Dieu! Imagine my surprise when I saw “Les evenements » —my revolution of 1968—in a history book! I demonstrated! I struck! I guess I am old!
    I shrug.

  • Debra Hunter had it spot on; however long you live in another country, however integrated you become, you will always remain a product of your origins. When I am in France (and I hope to move there later this year) I strive to be as French as possible. But I am English and there will always be a part of me that stays English. The books, TV programmes, films, comedians, songs that I absorbed as a child, teenager and adult, as well as the political and social movements I have lived through – they are an indelible part of my cultural identity. If you try to go 100% ‘native’, you are denying an important part of who you are.

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