Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Like a "Poisson" Out of Water

I spent many years teaching French to adults and teaching American executives awaiting transfer to France how to cope with the cultural differences they would face.  One question always popped up more than any other – “Do you think of yourself as more American or more French?” 

It’s a natural question to ask someone who is bilingual, bicultural and bi-national.  In fact, it’s a question Yvan Jayne gets asked a lot. 

In 1998, the 16-year-old Marseillais came to the United States to finish his studies and fulfill his dream of becoming a champion Rodeo bareback-rider.  


In December, Jayne will compete in the world championship finals in Las Vegas. 

Jayne and his American wife live in Rockwell, Texas.  When asked if he thinks of himself as more American or more French, he simply says, “je crois que je me considère autant Français qu’Américain. Pourquoi choisir?”  (Translation:  I think of myself as being as much French as American.  Why choose?) 

On any given day I may feel more American or more French, but they are essentially two halves of my happy “whole,” and I would not feel complete without both.  And I like to think that I have successfully integrated the best of French culture into my American way of life. 

Still, there are times when I get that old, familiar feeling............

Like a poisson out of water, which usually comes over me as I’m walking into a local restaurant to have dinner as everyone else is leaving.  I have never gotten the hang of eating dinner at 6:00, à l’américaine.  I firmly believe it would be a shock to my French digestive system.  

My Apéro of Choice - the Kir Royal

At home, we generally have apéritifs at about 7:00 or whenever my husband gets home from work.  It’s a great way to disconnect from the working world and reconnect with loved ones over a civilized cocktail.  Dinner is on the table by about 8:30 and, whatever we have, we always end with a bit of cheese, some fresh fruit and a square of dark chocolate. 

In a recent issue of French Morning, a wonderful online newsletter published out of New York for expats living in the New York area, they had a little quiz designed to find out just how well their expat readers have integrated into American life.  Strictly speaking, I don’t consider myself to be an expat, as I’ve been here since I was three years old, but I thought it might be fun to take the quiz anyway. 

« Quel type d’expatrié êtes-vous ?  Plutôt expat ronchon ou « red neck » ? Ou quelque part entre les deux ? Pour vous aider à déterminer votre niveau d’intégration aux Etats-Unis, répondez à cette petite vingtaine de questions élaborées par la fine équipe de French Morning. »
Roughly translated:  “Your answers to about 20 (actually 17) multiple choice questions will show how well you have integrated into American culture.  For the purposes of contrast, you are either a grumpy (ronchon) Frenchman or a ‘red neck’ American or something in between.”    

Naturally, I expected to fall somewhere in between.  I don’t listen to country music and I don’t consider myself to be grumpy. 

Some of the questions had to do with eating habits – Have you ever eaten peanut butter?  Do you still have the ingredients in your “frigo” to whip up a quiche and salad at a moment’s notice? 

Other questions had to do with work habits – Do you eat lunch at your desk? – and lifestyle – How many American friends do you have? 

And then there were supposedly “American” items mentioned that I had no clue what they were.  What the heck is a “cornhole?”  I had to honestly reply aucune idée – no idea!!

So, how did I do?  Well, here are my official results: 

Résultat: Vous êtes encore très Français, et vous avez tendance à considérer que beaucoup de choses sont mieux en France. Vous n’avez pas perdu votre côté Français ronchon.

Well, as it turns out, I’m still a grumpy Frenchman, who occasionally feels as out of place as a 2CV in New York. 

Naturally, sweeping generalizations about cultural differences, while fun to make, are always liable to run smack dab into interesting exceptions.  We once stopped for lunch at a lovely little restaurant near Uzès.  The restaurant’s soundtrack was all country all the time.  It turned out that the owners, a charming gay couple, were wild about country music.  There was clearly more of the “red neck” than the “ronchon” about them. 

If you’d like to take the expat test and find out if you are a grumpy (ronchon) Frenchman or a “red neck” American or something in between, just click below.


  1. Dearest Marie-Thérèse,
    Haha, my results were: Le Touriste... Maybe true as I'm not from France but from a very Burgundian, southern most Province of Les Pays Bas. But I too had no inkling about a corn hole...
    As for dinner time, personally I must be French as I've never ever liked the 8-12-18:00 o'clock rhythm and I like to eat my dinner around 20:00 o'clock whether my husband likes to eat earlier the older he gets!
    I'm more flexible and also when on the road, I didn't really care much about feeding times, provided we find some place to have a healthy meal.
    Yes, our fridge is stocked up with fresh fruits and vegetables and as for the American bread, that has been the hardest part to adjust to. We usually stock up in Atlanta at Costco or Whole Foods for the more European type of healthy breads. Don't like any of the fluffy stuff; period.
    I'm not raised on Baguette, in Limburg we had it with soups and as a canapé.
    Very funny though and no, I'm no country music fan either and I would do horrible in any quiz about it as I'm totally illiterate. French friends are not around here and my only French friend moved to Montréal but she was from Québec and we had the best time together while they lived here and while we visited them. I feel like a fish in the water when I'm in Québec and also when I'm in Florida, south of Orlando that is. The mixture of Spanish and Italian influences makes me happy and also the different architecture and foods.
    But we're quite happy here and no, we never have adapted to the American lifestyle in the kitchen and at table. Never!
    I had to laugh as they were making fun of Donald J. Trump for eating chicken with knife and fork. Well, he has had European wives and still lives with one and that's how it's done over there! They don't get it here and my Pieter is being mocked for 33 years now when having lunch at Rotary. My etiquette classes are rather hard as it is so difficult to teach teens to not swap back the knife and fork... So for that I feel very good about being able to dine even with royalty in most continents as we know how to. Americans would look awful.
    I've often told them in my classes that if a terrorist wants to spot an American wherever, they can easily pick them out without them speaking one single word. It's above all the table manners that gives them away! One arm on their lap and bend over to the plate and shoveling in with only the use of the fork. Also the use of the salt shaker before ever tasting the food... Typical American habits!
    The peanut butter and jelly sandwich I've never ever eaten...
    Sending you hugs,

    1. That's so funny that, after living here for so many years, your result on the quiz was "le touriste." I have a feeling that whoever put together this little quiz may have had more than a few peculiar views about Americans.

      As always, thanks for stopping by.

      Bisous, M-T

  2. As an American who appreciates and loves French culture, I still am perplexed with the use of the fork. The European way to use the fork seems upside down to me. Why try to balance food on the up-rounded side of the fork when turned the other way the fork acts more like a scoop - therefore holding the food more securely? I still struggle trying to do it European style. The food always falls off :)

    Not every born and bred American is stereotypical, just like not every French or European person is the same. For instance, I was raised to eat meals at the table with family. We eat using the freshest, mostly non-processessed foods. We weren't raised eating white bread or pastries for breakfast - nor peanut butter sandwiches. I can't believe the commenter above said Americans would look awful dining with royalty. I think we've done just fine, and I think royalty have been well educated in diplomatic etiquette and would know better than to judge different cultures using their own as superior to anyone else.

    My family has never related to country music and I would do horribly on a quiz on it as well.

    The last paragraph by commenter Mariette, is in shockingly bad taste: "if a terrorist wants to spot an American wherever, ..."

    Vive le difference?

    1. Dear Anonymous, I had to laugh out loud (I'm still not used to typing LOL.) when you talked about using the fork. It was a source of much amusement at our dinner table. My French-American mother, Mme Mère, was raised in the US and always held her fork the way most Americans do, while my father, who came here speaking very little English, always held his fork à la française. I compromise by doing it the American way when in America and the French way when in France. When in Rome..... The whole purpose of holding the fork "upside down" from the American perspective is to make sure you don't put too much food on it and into your mouth each time and not to load up the fork and shovel it in. I can see advantages and disadvantages to both systems.

      When it comes to chopsticks, I'm at a total loss. I would probably starve in Asia.

      You sound like the sort of person I would enjoy having a conversation with over lunch, and I promise not to make you hold your fork "upside down," if you promise not to insist I eat w/chopsticks. Deal??

      Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

      Cheers, M-T

  3. Oh, I like the idea of a French cowboy! Perhaps he watched American Westerns as a boy.

    My mom is also European, from Germany. Though I'm accustomed to German food and culture, I think of myself as American. Certainly, I'm interested in my German (and English) ancestry, but I think I have an American mentality. When I played with German kids on visits to Germany, I felt American because I knew I was only visiting for a period of time. Home was across the Alantic Ocean.

    1. Actually, when I think of French cowboys I usually think of the "cowboys" in the Camargue region of France, but I don't think any of them has ever participated in an American Rodeo least, so far as I know. As French cowboys go, this one is quite a hunk, n'est-ce pas?

      I have to agree that when I'm in France, except w/family, I sometimes feel very American and vice versa. Those of us raised w/a foot in each culture often create a hybrid culture uniquely our own, even to inventing our own words and playing w/existing ones.

      When my father would end a sentence w/"n'est-ce pas?" my brother and I would reply "Yes, Pa." Even my language purist Papa would laugh at that one.

      Thanks for stopping by Debra. Always enjoy your comments.

      Cheers, M-T


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