samedi 18 septembre 2010

K is for kissing and generally being polite

On se dit bonjour, bonsoir, voila tout — We only have a nodding acquaintance

French folk are invariably very polite. Of course, there are exceptions, namely Parisiens, anyone behind the wheel of a car and the check-out assistants at Leclerc in Montauban.

Bonjour and bonne journée are familiar phrases to everyone. But stroll along the road to the Sunday market and you will be wished ‘bon marché’ (have a good market) by the neighbours. Get into your car and you will be exhorted to have a ‘bonne route’, but that is somewhat doubtful (see D is for Driving). At a restaurant, you will be wished ‘bon appetit’ before you start your meal and ‘bonne continuation’ after every course. In fact, everything you do, there is a ‘bon’ for it. A friend was once surprised to be urged to have a ‘bon fin de matinée’ (have a good rest of the morning) — at five minutes to midday. And just the other day, when we went to the swimming baths, the lifeguard exhorted us to have a ‘bonne baignade’ (have a good swim). Earlier we had been wished ‘bonne piscine’ (enjoy the swimming pool) by a friend as we set off. So, what do you say if you meet someone you’ve already wished ‘bonjour’ to? Simple. Just say ‘re-bonjour’.

The most worrying aspect of all this politeness, is whether you shake hands or kiss (twice on one cheek, once on the other) people you know — or indeed are being introduced to — when you meet them. The resulting confusion can lead to an odd little dance and the occasional clash of foreheads as you try to gauge what the other person is going to do. I think if in doubt, go for the kisses, as happened in the local swimming pool when I met a woman I’d exchanged a few words with the previous week. Amazingly she recognized me in my quaint little swimming hat and glided up to exchange kisses (or bisous as they are known to us locals).

The downside of all this is that it can take ages for any event to get started as before anything happens, everyone must go round all the attendees and exchange bonjours, hand-shakes, kisses and sometimes ‘re-bonjours’. And when you leave, another round of bisous, and choruses of  ‘au revoir’, ‘bonne journee’, ‘bonne route’ or whatever is appropriate to the time of day.

Then there is the vexed question of whether you call people ‘vous’ or the more familiar ‘tu’. ‘Tu’ is meant to be used when talking to small children, animals and anyone who gives you permission to ‘tutoyer’ (call them ‘tu’) them. But I can’t always remember who should be ‘vous’ and who should be ‘tu’. I generally err on the safe side and use ‘vous’ or nothing at all, which then leads to complications involving ‘on’ (the French word for ‘one’) and makes on sound a bit like the Queen. A French acquaintance, who started calling us ‘tu’ after about 10 minutes, explained that as she likes everyone, she uses ‘tu’ all the time. I don’t think I would have the courage for that.

Politeness hasn’t skipped a generation here. Shortly after we moved to France, we were walking through the town when we saw a group of teenagers idling on the street corner. As we walked past them, something you often did with trepidation in parts of London, they turned to us and chorused ‘Bonjour Madame, Bonjour Monsieur’. They didn’t know us and we didn’t know them, but it was the polite thing to do.

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