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French lessons

As the World War I era song goes, “How ya gonna keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?”

It isn’t hard, let me tell you. In the college year 1972-73, beginning in July, I was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris. Everyone thinks it was just fun and games because of the city. All of my classes were in French as we were a mélange of students from around the world. At break time the Chinese students spoke English with each other. We had Italian students, British, African, German, Dutch, American and other countries I have long since forgotten. Our commonality was the French language.

I grew up near tiny Oral, S.D., a hamlet that is still not incorporated. At the time the population was maybe 50 in the town. Paris had 10 million residents when I lived there. It sounds like a huge culture shock but as in most cities, we had our own little community of shops right around our neighborhood. The shopkeepers were delightful as they welcomed us into their stores so we could practice our French. An etiquette rule of the French was that normally if you enter a shop, you had to buy something. It was rude to just go to in and look around. That was a difference from the U.S. and it was a difficult habit to remember

Surprisingly, I learned more about English while learning French than seemed possible. In English, when we order at a restaurant, we use the phrase, “I want to order.” The French deem that as rude and demanding, and teach that one should say, “I would like to order.” It is a lesson that has stuck with me. It still strikes me funny that the French could talk about a habit or phrase being rude, at least in their estimation.

One French habit that surprised me is they do not believe in standing in an orderly line. I saw elderly women aggressively push their grocery carts in front of others on more than one occasion. One day when I was flying between London and Paris (students could buy inexpensive tickets), there was one person ahead of me in the check-in line, just the two of us. A French man appeared and shoved his bag in front of mine. I reciprocated with my bag and a glare. He backed off in shock as he wasn’t used to someone in London challenging him.

These days, every time I drive through at McDonald’s double lane, I think of the French. They would no more allow another driver to move forward in turn, as we do. Today I signaled to the driver whose vehicle should have been next, to move forward. When I got the checkout window, the cashier said something behind her mask, and I didn’t understand. She took it down and said, “The lady in front of you paid for your order.”

What I did was a common courtesy; her reciprocal action was a South Dakota blessing. ❖


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