All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Strip the willow in the cheese queue.

French CheeseImage by chez loulou via Flickr

One lesson I learned very quickly in rural France was to address everyone, on every conceivable occasion, but never by name.

In the days of the old baker...who actually made bread from scratch rather than turning out batches of Readymix.......entering the shop at rush hour - ten minutes to twelve - was a bit like Highland dancing as you were passed up and down the queue shaking hands or exchanging the cheek to cheek salutation and it felt a bit like Strip the Willow - in slow time. The queue at the cheese stall at the local big town market was another Highland dancing experience, with the stallholders darting out from behind their stand to join in the ceremony. Entering the then doctor's waiting room was a more sedate experience, given the sticks, zimmer frames and sinister looking bandages, but the salutation round had to be completed even if the earlier arrivals could not rise to their feet. It could do your back in, crouching over Papy, even if the eau de vie on his breath at eight in the morning didn't take yours away. For some reason, people didn't salute each other in the dentist's waiting could be that they were in too much pain, or it could have been the sight of the dentist with blood stained overall returning richly scented from the bar, ready to do battle with the next molar. I have even shaken hands while buying my ticket to enter a junk fair. All this I can handle. I do still have problems as to which cheek to start with, but a sharp eye on the head movement of your co respondant generally solves that problem. No good even guessing how many 'bises' to expect....'furreners' have perverted the ancestral traditions of even darkest France, so no one seems to know whether it is two, three or four...especially lascivious elderly gentlemen who would go for non stop action if not restrained by their wives. It is wise to adopt a certain posture with these gentlemen....feet well back and just the head and neck inclined as their hands seem not to have felt the decline of age and it is regarded as impolite to slosh one as he so richly deserves.
Of course, the cheek to cheek has been adopted by the British in France, just to show how well they are fitting in, but why do they have to do it when mixing with each other? Growing up in an era where the horror of every military man was to be congratulated by a kiss from a French general, touchy feely was not in fashion, except behind closed doors with the lights out and not with French generals. It is always a bit disconcerting to find that some chap thinks he can meet you for the first time at someone else's house and attempt to clutch you to his person while administering hot breath to the approximate area of your chin...and then expects congratulation on how well he has adapted to local custom! It is regarded as impolite to slosh these chaps, as well.
Didier complains that people nowadays don't even shake hands or say 'Bonjour', just rush past with their heads averted and he puts this down to the influx of Parisians to the countryside, where, as he opines darkly,
'No one knows what they got up to in Paris.'
Strangely, he doesn't include the Brits in this, but, given their full on attempts at physical integration described above, he probably gives them Brownie Points for effort in maintaining tradition.

My problem has not been the salutation process...but the recognition process. I read a book published some years ago about the life of women in my area which included some fascinating statistics about marriage. Apparently, the area had a tramway - a light railway - in the interwar period, and, in this period, marriages were registered with partners much further away from base than in the period before and after its' existence. Pre and post tramway, the choice of life partner seemed to be limited to bicycle distance. So, for a few brief years, the gene pool opened up, before returning to the norm. This, in my view, explains the French village clone phenomenon. It has been my experience that while I could not say with any exactitude whether the gentleman who has just saluted me is Georges Dixneuf or Jacques Leboeuf, I do know that whoever it is comes from the commune. I also know that if I attempt to address him by name I will get it many of them look alike, and it's not just the caps and vests. I also know that if he does not look like Messieurs Dixneuf or LeBoeuf then he is not from these parts and is probably an 'incomer' like myself. Inbreeding was exaggerated, not only by the demise of the tramway, but by the loss of life in the two World Wars. If you look at the population statistics, it is only now that some villages are approaching the number of inhabitants they contained in 1914. Further, the absence of men as POWs and forced labourers in Germany in the 1939 - 1945 war affected the choice of partners. I do not intend to discuss the odd fair haired child born in that period...their treatment has been a disgrace to a civilised country...but, in general, the inbreeding had been reinforced again until fairly recently, when further education has taken children out of their immediate surroundings to meet clones from other communes.

I suppose that the breakdown of a closed local society encourages the breakdown of the salutation...after all, who wants to be embraced by some chancer whose grandfather never knew your grandmother?
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  1. Interesting post.

    I wasn't aware of quite how much in-breeding occurred in the more isolated villages in Turkey until I lived firstly in Cappadocia and then in this village.

    I got to know an anthropologist who was studying this in Cappadocia, and was amazed to learn that there was one particular village that had become so isolated that the "marriages" between very close relatives over several decades was now populated with people with physical and learning disabilities as a result. In the village where I lived I worked for a man who's maternal and paternal grandmothers were sisters...but it seemed to stop at that generation because it was thought preferable to start sending the young men further afield to seek wives.

    In the village where I now live, there are very few young people. They've mostly moved away to work, so things have changed, but there are still a few married couples in their 60s or 70s who look remarkably alike.

  2. Your post got me thinking about my own approach to my kissing compatriots, and social kissing in general. I didn't realise I had elaborated a set of rules, but apparently I have, and they are:
    1) Social kissing with the Spanish is generally acceptable, but in certain situations where I think it is inappropriate (eg, work) and I am faced with a lunger, I play up my Englishness and stick an arm firmly forward, offering no more than a handshake (as "alien" to me as kissing, but the lunger doesn't know that) whilst at the same time putting up a physical barrier.
    2) Social kissing in mixed company (ie, native and expat) is Ok, with same exceptions as above.
    3) Social kissing in expat-only environments is cheesy. Suggests that the kissing compatriot is advertising his/her gone-nativeness, and leads to fears that at some point during the conversation you will have to listen to how he/she was recently praised by a native for his/her accent/command of the language, or similar attribute.
    4)On the other hand, not having grown up in a handshaking culture either, I feel like a block of wood when I am introduced to non-mediterraneans, and miss some kind of harmless established ritual.

  3. Ayak, social change and mobility - forced in some cases - have changed the patterns of marriage and the inbreeding which was such a feature of life is receding. Luckily.

    Pueblo girl, yes, brought up in a 'How do you do', 'How are you'...structure of greeting that no one here knows it is a bit bewildering and that's what leaves me a bit taken aback by other people's greeting strategies.
    With you all the way on the expat cheesiness...with the French, the bise is just with people I know, handshake for the rest, but with some of the expats you have to take a quick backward step before being engulfed.

  4. I'm really bad at recognizing faces so I guess I'd be in trouble too.

    Canadian always greet each other, even in big cities like Ottawa (well, obviously, you only greet people you know!). I find people extremely polite here, saying hi to the bus driver, "have a good day" etc.

  5. Zhu, I like the idea of greeting people, or at least being polite enough to acknowledge the other person and it's a small world round here. However, with people I don't meet that often who do bear quite a resemblance to each other I have problems!

  6. Social kissing does not exist on a large scale in Minneapolis. When faced with someone who looks like they're heading for a cheek, I just try to not mess it up; and, depending on whether I've been drinking or not, I enjoy it. The Midwest U.S. is quite reserved in its displays of affection, so it's nice to have someone behave as if their planting their lips on your cheek is perfectly normal. :-) I do think, however, that if I were faced with social kissing on a regular basis that I would have to step back and offer my hand.


  7. Hi Helen - your blog did make me laugh, it reminded me of when we stayed in a friends house in Brittany. "Look out for the short square people" he warned, "I'll say no more, but when you get there you'll understand".
    Sure enough all the hamlets and village centres were inhabited by very strange looking squat square fellows.
    We got chatting to a local one day, and asked what he thought about the invasion of the British. "It's fantastic!" he replied " The problem here is there are no new people and we are all shagging each other!!" his words not mine, so there you have it! One small question though, I've never heard of strip the willow - what is it?

  8. Kissing back here is getting out of hand. From the Sloaney air kiss of a few year's ago it's now up to four sometimes, not to mention the inexorable creep of man-hugging. My children say I'm repressed, but I'm really just making a cultural stand.

    I felt the clutch of fear at your mention of Strip the Willow. Never could grasp them; at Balls' practices Petronella, Mairi's Wedding and Machine Without Horses went in at one foot and out the other, and I suffered such horrors at the thought of being responsible for fouling up a sixteensome that I have avoided attending anything involving dancing ever since.

  9. Hi, Pearl, I think I see what you mean...if the cheek to cheek is not the norm it's nice when it comes out of the blue. My sister in law was in Minneapolis and Minesota recently and said she loved it...great scenery, nice people..she thought a lot of Scandinavian background? Don't think she was kissed though...I'll have to ask her.

    Roz, 'look out for the short square people' creased me...they should put warnings at the entrance to know where they put up placards
    'Welcome to St. Ragondin' then
    'It's monuments'
    'It's shops'
    'Mass at 11 o'clock on Sundays' they should add another
    'Its' short square people'.
    Strip the willow is a part of Scottish country dancing where you are passed up a line of people at speed, being helped on your way by the other dancers, all the time hoping that your weight and velocity will be less than the mass of the person gathering you in and passing you on. If less, success, if more, heaps of people on the floor.
    Yes, don't tell me my physics are rubbish, I know, my teacher knew, the examiners knew...but I can keep my feet in Scottish country dancing.
    The queues in the shops were a bit like that, you'd be shaking one hand then you'd be on to the next all the way round the shop, only to start again as someone new appeared in the doorway.

    Brother Tobias, simple rule for Scottish country dancing - go where you're pushed. After a bit the brain gets hard wired.
    Nothing repressed about resisting close contact with someone totally alien intent on invading your personal space.

    Goodness only knows what you might catch.

  10. Thanks for popping over to my blog earlier - and now here I'm enjoying your writing too. Interesting about the inbreeding - of course, there were similar issues in rural Wales where I live about half the time. There's an old joke that marrying a foreigner meant someone from the next valley!

    As for Rawls - his book was much loved in my day because in the introduction he lists the important passages for students to read so it saved you ploughing through the whole tome.

    Another very good philosopher is Jonathan Glover who wrote Causing Death and Saving Lives - and more recently a superb through harrowing book on the morality of the twentieth Century, titled, Humanity. I have some posts planned on his work too, so maybe you will visit again.



  11. Mark, yes I will. I am reading through the earlier posts with much pleasure.
    I have time for reading at the I'll follow up your suggestions.
    I've found so many good leads to authors and poets through has really opened up my mind and made me use it, rather than letting it stew in its own juice.