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Archana Jayakumar has studied French in Alliance Française de Bombay before working there as a teacher. She is now a language teacher in Valenciennes University, in France. This article was first published in the online magazine IDiva where Archana writes a weekly column. Like Chutney and Cheese : 5 differences between Us Indians and ’em French

Having been in France for over two years now, I must say I often get asked about the differences between life in India and la vie in the country synonymous with the Eiffel Tower. By my family, friends, students, acquaintances and the occasional inquisitive stranger. Of course, this isn’t an attempt to criticise either culture or lifestyle. Just a few observations, some stereotypical and some not, having seen how green the grass is on both sides:

Promiscuity isn’t a male crime: When the whole world got to know that French President François Hollande was indulging in original sin behind his long-term partner’s back, it didn’t become a male-bashing feminist issue. Because here, men are not like that only. By and large, society is conditioned to believe that (some) people can be precisely like that. Which automatically means that French women aren’t the very reincarnation of sati savitri (or “good girls”). Unlike in India, where the man is usually labelled the big bad wolf following the breakdown of any relationship. Another issue altogether being that of the tricky, thin line between consent and assault (recent cases such as Tarun Tejpal and Justice Ganguly come to mind) based on what a good Indian girl is conditioned t0 say and what her body gives away. Of course, on the flip side, with all the extra-marital liaisons (considering that marriage isn’t as common in France, let’s just call them extraneous liaisons), the casual relationship-hopping and a society driven by obsessive use-and-throw consumption of not just gizmos but people too, a stable partner is about as common as a tourist-free day at the Eiffel Tower. Exaggeration? Un petit peu, just a little.

To kiss or not to kiss?

To kiss or not kiss?

To kiss or not kiss? Interviews where certain Bollywood stars and starlets talk about agreeing to kiss for the camera or wear bikinis “if the script demands it” seem absolutely ludicrous after you’ve lived in a country that evidently possesses a PHD in PDA or Public Display of Affection. Where couples nonchalantly play tonsil hockey on the streets, in the metro, in restaurants, bars, cafés… Where naked male and female bodies in cinema don’t seem like objects (like they probably would to the item-number-trained Indian eye) but like a natural extension of reality and expression of sexuality.

The price of being impolite: In France, you are considered rude if every sentence you utter doesn’t contain the words “Thank you”, “Please”, “Sorry”, “Excuse me”… The standard “you’re welcome” response to “thank you” is “je vous en prie” which literally translates to “I pray to you”. Cover letters sent along with CVs are usually full of such long-winded verbose “formules de politesse”. In day-to-day life, it’s almost scandalous not to greet anyone who catches your eye with a “Bonjour” (literally “good day”). If you dare not say it to waiters in coffee shops, they’ll probably spit in it. And a café called La Petite Syrah in Nice will charge you 7 euros for: “un café…” or “one coffee”, 4.25 euros for “un café, s’il vous plaît” or “one coffee, please” and just 1.40 euros “bonjour, un café, s’il vous plaît” or “good day, one coffee, please”. A far cry from our “thambi, ek chai… fatafat” (brother, one cup of tea… quick).

The price of being impolite

The price of being impolite

What’s the hurry? Any Mumbaikar weaned on a daily diet of local train travel, or for that matter any Indian habituated to pushing their way out of perpetual crowds, will find this common French trait absolutely irritating. Whether it’s while getting in and out of trains, queuing up at the cinema hall or just about anywhere else, most French people are insufferably slow. What’s more, they’ll take all the time in the world to utter those magic polite words, whereas the average Indian would have pushed, shoved or elbowed their way out.

Complain, complain: It’s almost comical to pit stereotypical images of the ever-complaining French and the poor-but-perpetually-smiling Indian. Of course, there are (several) exceptions to both rules. But the cultural difference where the French must usually be told to enjoy whatever they do is striking. Before any important or even not-so-important task it’s “bon courage”, before a meal it’s “bon appétit”, before a film it’s “bon film”, before a session of dance it’s “bonne danse”, before you read something it’s “bonne lecture”. On that note, I’m going to sign off and “hope you had a bonne lecture”.

To dish out the disclaimer again, I’m not bashing either country or society. The very fact that I voluntarily split my time between both should be proof enough. And yes, there exist some uncanny similarities between France and India. Coming up next week.

Image courtesy: Reuters

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Directeur de publication : Délégation Générale de la Fondation Alliance Française en Inde et au Népal

Rédacteur en chef : Laurent Elisio Bordier

Rédacteur/Coordinateur national : Siddharth Bhatt

Rédacteurs, contributeurs : Guillaume, Abhirami, Alexandre, Chintan, Cléa, David, Eleonore, Elie, Kanika, Karine, Nita, Thomas, Malvika, Marie-Joëlle, Meera, Mayuri, Mitushi, Alice, Prutha, Romain, Ritika, Manas, Supriya ...