The French and German Way of Life

Germany is where I live and France is where I go regularly. True, I don’t know all of Germany, I know a certain part of Northern Germany best, and there is still so much to discover. I don’t know all of France either, as I mostly travel in one particular direction when I do go, though I have been to a few different cities. But in the last decade, through this combination, I have been fortunate to experience for myself parts of the French and German way of life. And for me one of the most telling bases of comparison for the two is the impression I’ve gotten from both nations in their approach to managing time.

I think those last two words, the choice of them, is already indicative enough of the strength of the German influence on me, which joyfully melds with my own character set-up. It seems Germans see time as something to be treasured, respected, a luxury to strive for, a tool to plan with, a sought-after component of leisure, an opportunity not to be wasted. For there is nothing more frustrating than time that is wasted. The French, meanwhile, always seem to be sure that whatever happens, there will be more time, becase la vie est belle and so is France, and why don’t you sit down, have a glass of wine and some cheese while you wait, you uptight German person.

In my French class we recently started a new lesson built around the subject of le train. Much was said while we collected the vocabulary we already knew. Our teacher explained the one marked difference between the German Deutsche Bahn and the French SNCF. Punctuality? Non. Plus, plenty of people in Germany complain about Deutsche Bahn. Non, it is le ticket! If you have your German train ticket, your platform is printed on it, and usually c’est vrai! Meanwhile, in a French gare you have to go stare at some information screens to find out where you board your train. It is not unusual to not have these details even 15 minuts before departure (being German). This was precisely my first experience taking the train from Paris-Est station to Strasbourg and the memory still makes me snort like an impatient horse.

I had to ask my teacher one burning question. Are the French relaxed about this fact and all Oui, c’est ça, or are there actually people in the country who are irritated by this? My teacher shrugged with that characteristically elegant, but nonchalant air, her eyebrows going up and her lips puckering in sync with the movement of her shoulders. Certain circumstances allow you to get a refund for your train ticket, she said. But what about your destination, the plan to be somewhere at a certain time, I sputtered. Another shrug.

I was recounting this story to a German friend, after we had made lunch plans, which we neatly laid down like we always do, despite knowing each other for ten years. We had included the possibility of being SPONTANEOUS in deciding where to go if it rained, because we planned to walk. But in case we didn’t get to, we were prepared!

Being a middle child, maybe this is what it’s about for me, a constant melding and co-existence of the stable and the new, the tried and tested injected with occasional joie de vivre, the satisfaction and gratitude of something working our as planned (or better) against arriving somewhere two hours later, but your favourite cafe is still open, and you get dessert on the house because your group is friendly and happy about seeing each other.

I know that the French and German way of life will both stay as they are. I know that I will continue feeling as if a bus or a subway train arriving on time as per my prior checking online is a present just for me. I know that (sometimes) it’s OK to stop thinking about time as such and live in the moment. And occasionally I will prepare dinner as a three-course meal. After that I will memorize the platform number printed on my train ticket AND check it on the information screen in the station.

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Learning French and Going to France

When you’re learning French and traveling to France, you naturally feel like you should try speaking French once you arrive on French soil, right? Wait, try? “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” You are not simply a tourist or a visitor anymore. You basically have an obligation.

Oui, Yoda certainly knew what he was talking about. I know the process of this particular trip to Paris and it automatically divides itself in to tasks in my head in reference to opportunities to parler français. With decisively German precision I follow my plan of producing short, but appropriate sentences.

I enter the plane and say “Bonjour, Madame”, “Bonjour, Monsieur” to the crew as I make my way to my seat, on the same volume level that I use in other languages, because, you know, je parle un petit peu français. I am rewarded with a “Bonjour, Madame” or sometimes still with a “Bonjour, Mademoiselle.” I like being called Mademoiselle. I don’t find it derogatory and it reminds me of when I started flying to France as a student, after first moving to Germany. The German Fräulein has said farewell and disappeared in to the mist of times past, but Mademoiselle isn’t quite ready to leave just yet.

Step two of my exciting journey en français is putting to the test our extensive lesson on ordering in a restaurant. Are you ready for it? Here goes. “Je voudrais un chocolat chaud, s’il vous plaît.” The stewardess doesn’t politely ask me to repeat my request (parfait!) and gracefully hands me my little cup of hot chocolate, following the action with a sentence I can’t repeat, but I know she’s saying I should stir the liquid. She also asks, and I’m pretty sure I am typing this correctly (confidence is everything), “Vous desirez de l’eau avec votre chocolat chaud?” And because I’m an experienced traveler en France and prepared to invest my German powers of concentration in this drink before me, I answer elegantly, “Non, merci.”

I gratefully sip my hot chocolate, because I need to fortify myself for what comes next after these linguistic achievements. Step three of my interactions en français will be to put money on my Navigo pass so I can take the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris. I spend the remainder of the flight painstakingly composing various versions of what I want to say. “Bonjour, j’ai mon Navigo…non, bonjour, j’ai un Navigo…is it un or une Navigo? Wait, they don’t need to know it’s my Navigo, too much information, and I have it in my hand anyway, it’s not like I just picked it up off the floor, my picture is on it. OK, how about, bonjour, je suis ici pour cinq jours? Or is it de cinq jours? Or just cinq jours? Bonjour (smoothly slide Navigo towards SNCF employee behind the glass), je suis ici pour (maybe I can ask them, with that little laugh as if we’re sharing an inside joke, if pour is correct, haha, hmmm, oui, le français) cinq jours et je voudrais…what do I use for “to” or “until” when I’m talking about a stop? We recently had a few lessons where we repeated how to use en, au and aux, depending on whether you were talking about a country, city or region, and what gender they were. But we didn’t cover stops of the Parisian metro!

But my feverish race of thoughts is stopped quickly after I enter the SNCF ticket office in the airport. I only manage to get out “Bonjour, je suis ici pour cinq jours”, but something about it must have been convincing, because the lady at the counter released what sounded to my ears like a torrent of rapid French and the only word I understood was “dimanche”. I apologized in English and she reeled off the information I needed in the same language, but she clearly didn’t wish to pursue any longer interactions, so all my carefully constructed sentence parts will have to be saved for next time.

I redeemed myself the next morning by loudly and decisively telling a man blocking my path in the metro “Excusez-moi!”, only to see that he was a ticket controller.

 

Learning French as an Adult

Thankfully school students still draw in pencil on desks, so it’s easy to remove the typical choice of doodle that’s staring me right in the face and, quite frankly, offending me. You’d think they would get a little more creative in the 21rst century, but no. I open my coursebook to Lesson One and join the rest of the class in repeating the bonjours, bonsoirs, je m’appelles and et tois.

The good news is, French is so widespread nowadays, especially in a city as international as Hamburg and with travel in Europe being what it is, that the material is by no means unfamiliar. It’s simply been a very long time since I’ve learned and pursued. Practiced conversations are quite short and ever so slightly stilted, as we tentatively feel our way around words and sentence structures, not yet being advanced in verbs beyond the present tense. Que fais-tu? Moi, je suis danseuse classique, so there! Actually, I made myself a ballet dancer, but the teacher frenchified it a little more so that the translation wouldn’t be too close to Deutsch and we would learn new additional words. We were encouraged to make up professions today and the result was a long list of diverse occupations that we practiced talking about. Que fais un footballeur?

A French colleague told me ils and elles were used to talk about groups doing something, yes, “but the French language is a bit macho”, so even if there was just one man present in the group I’m talking about, the correct pronoun to use is ils. Mais oui, bien sûr.