C’est la vie

It is no surprise that the word for stress in French is simply a cognate borrowed from the English, because quite frankly in France, stress has no part in their culture. People say what they want, do what they want and all in their own time. The only time any panic ensues is when Carrefour has run out of baguettes.

But this well intended no-nonsense attitude to life has been the hardest adjustment yet. I’m used to saying sorry ten times a day for no reason and having small talk about the weather on tap. Fake smiles and the undying duty to hold open doors for everyone everywhere have been programmed into me, and faced with such nonchalance i’m starting to malfunction.

The closest I’ve got to a full on break down was without doubt last Friday. Giving myself three hours to get to Marseille and through the airport seemed ample time in my naïve British head, but after arriving at the station to find out all trains were delayed 40 minutes, timings were getting a bit too close for comfort. I sat tight, well acquainted with tardiness and in good knowledge that I thrive in the last minute. I bought a pain au chocolat pre-empting the need for energy for my inevitable sprint through the airport.

Once in Marseille I had less than an hour until my gate closed. With a 35 minute journey still between me and the airport, I weaved through a sea of leisurely strolling Frenchies. No one power walks here, let alone dares work up a sweat running through a train station. Somehow in my flurry I ended up on a coach to the airport and after the driver had had a nice catch up with his friends and decided to set off late… a traffic jam and a small aneurysm later, I arrived at my terminal with ten minutes until my gate closed. Not ideal but not giving up. I literally flung myself at the check in desk and breathed a sigh of relief when security was practically empty. Once my bag was through it was a short sprint to the finish line.

Of course my bag was taken aside and needed to be checked. I had to watch as the lady in front of me had her suitcase emptied of all the olive oil gift sets in Provence and as the security guard complimented her taste on the sundried tomato variety. Apparently an empty security counts for nothing – no one felt like stepping in after I explained I was in a rush, so I stood dancing with impatience as 12 other working security officers made bets on if I was English or Spanish and passed around a confiscated pack of biscuits. Running up to passport control I asked if my gate had closed and they asked if I was single. There’s always time for seedy chat up lines in France. After a passive aggressive smile I arrived at my gate only to find that no one had even been checked in yet – the air hostesses were still getting a coffee, we wouldn’t want to hurry them now would we? I have learnt the lesson the hard way that french time runs on its own accord. At least I burned off the pain au chocolat.

So if my pronunciation doesn’t give me away, my over politeness and woeful worrying definitely do. And this isn’t just a one off, the French don’t sweat the small stuff in any aspect of their lives…

  • They eat what they want. The concept of ‘watching the waistline’ is as foreign as my accent. Lunch and dinner are three course meals, and it’s not uncommon to see someone walking down the street with 10 baguettes under their arm. What’s even worse is that despite this everyone has the figure of a beanpole.
  • They do what they want. Queuing? Never heard of it mate. Waiting in turn out of common courtesy for other people? Haha! The old elbow-through-the-crowd is a real favourite here and causes genuine inner turmoil for the English in me.
  • They wear what they want. It really is like going back to the noughties – full, matching tracksuits are a the height of fashion amongst students. People haven’t even succumbed to the implicit skinny-jeans-or-no-jeans rule we seem to have in England. The glamorous stereotype really does dissolve the further you get from Paris.
  • They say what they want. In England if someone asked you how you were it would be absurd to answer anything but ‘good thanks’ even if your arm had just been cut off. In France honesty is sadly the best policy. I met someone at a tupperware dinner party at the weekend and after asking ‘ca va?’, I got a fifteen minute explanation about their recent troubling bowel movements. At the same dinner party I nearly came home having been coerced to buy an overpriced flan dish and a mince maker, despite being vegetarian. The English in me just can’t say no, and yet the French can talk about constipation within two minutes of knowing someone.

The reality check then is simply to worry less à la South of France. There’s no point getting your knickers in a twist – it’ll all probably be fine and if it’s not at least it makes for a good blog post. Have a croissant and try again tomorrow, ‘cos shit happens (for some, sorry dinner party woman).

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