Things that make you go "Huh?!"

When we arrive a foreign land, we will certainly discover strange things as well. Foreign & strange does not mean weird & shocking, just surprising & different. We will eventually get used to it & it will not be odd or uncommon afterall. Here are some of the things I had a hard time understanding because it was, and still is, different for me.

What's with the kiss?
Even before I left Manila, the Filipinos have started to adopt the French custom of cheek to cheek kissing, the beso-beso, not only when greeting your parents, aunts & uncles, but also when greeting your friends. So it is here in France but I still wonder over:

Do you greet someone you just met with a kiss? Sometimes we run into a group of friends of friends, and it has always been awkward whether it is rightful enough to greet them with a kiss. I always had the impression that the French offer their cheeks to people they've already been acquainted to or to close friends. One friend however told me that it is a mini icebreaker, regardless of the length of time knowing the person. So until now, I wait for the kind of greeting people offer me a it still baffles me everytime because like me, they also wait! 

Left or right? Most often, I get so embarassed almost smacking somebody on the lips when you are both at the same time leaning over, not being able to see which side of the cheek was being offered first. And at times it can go on for several tries until you both have to count to 3. This is unavoidable since we all offer a different side of the cheek. I always start with my left. 

Pecking count. Another embarassing thing is when you've already kissed both cheeks & the person is still leaning over for a third or fourth. In Paris, it is normally 4 or 2 for some. Three pecks in Montpellier & the rest are just one set. What does it mean anyway? 

The Bonjour & Au revoir Courtesy
In the Philippines, it is only in 5 star hotels or restaurants that they greet you as you enter & say good bye as you leave. Of course when I entered a small shop in Paris, I was almost embarassed not to buy something. What is odd with this automatic courtesy is, that's just it, automatic & most often dry, without a smile. It's not synonymous to good customer service. Saying bonjour & au revoir whenever you enter any commercial establishment here in France is really not a must. As for me, I don't always practice this unless I come in direct contact with someone.

Calling my Parents-in-Law
It has only been on the second year that I finally got comfortable in calling my parents-in-law by their first names. It's not that they didn't ask me to call them
mom & dad, it's just that I can't seem to make myself utter the words everytime I try to call their attention. It's awkward calling them mom & dad when my French sister-in-law calls them by their first names. That's just the way it is for our family here. My husband in turn has a hard time with my parents back home so he just simply avoids it. I wonder how this detail can be so simple & natural in the Philippines, and complicated in another culture. Then there's the issue of tu & vous. My parents-in-law also asked me to address them as tu, but again, I guess it is just right to call them by their first names & keeping that respect by addressing vous to them. 

Friends & Neighbors Friends. Filipinos are by nature friendly & easy to get along with. They are known for their "pakikisama (camaraderie)," even if it means puking your heart out on a night out with friends. The French are rather distant & indifferent. It takes them years & years to pour a little bit of their soul to you, and that means friends from childhood. I have only known a couple of French friends here for 3 years but it never goes over the simple pleasantries of updating each other but with my Filipino friends, it's like we've known each other forever. It is not only because of cultural differences, if ever there was one with the fleeting moments I have with them, but it also true between the French. Humor can be cultural but definitely not universal. 

Neighbors. I really appreciate the privacy of the apartments here in France. It's like living in one building but it's also like living in a house without a neighbor upstairs or downstairs. It's just that, neighbors & it ends there. Unlike in the Philippines, your neighbors will be your friends for a pinch of salt or the daily chismis delivered live. I still find it awkward running into a neighbor in the staircase but we get used to being distant & cold and remain courteous. I bet that if my building is accomodating Filipinos in not even half of its apartment, it would feel like a dormitory. 

Subtelty of French
Yes, the beautiful, but equally difficult, French language. I remember how we had a blast when a friend of mine joined me for courses in Alliance Française, Manila. It was fun learning a new language with a friend where you can laugh at yourselves. But when it comes to speaking it here in France, it's no joke when your tongue is already as twisted as it is & thr woman in the supermarket still doesn't understand a thing of what you're saying. Or being surrounded with your French friends & your head is throbbing for trying to get the context of the conversation. But the best way to learn French is to live in France. Here are some of the words I like best:


Personne. It is loosely translated as "person, anybody, or nobody." But in French they use it in a tricky way. It took me a while to naturally register the concept & use of this word. At first, when I go to a public restroom & ask somebody is in, they say "personne." The first thing that comes to mind is somebody is inside when actually it means nobody. 

Plus. Used as more or no more. More is said plus & no more is plu. Have to be careful in using it especially with adjectives. 

The numbers. The French numbers are a little complicated to the ear starting at 70. 60 is soixante, 70 is soixante-dix, literally means 60-10 that sums up to 70 or 75 is soixante-quinze like 60-15. 80 is quatrevingt, literally as four 20's & 90 is quatrevingt -dix where you get the point. The confusion begins when somebody is dictating a phone number too fast. Sometimes you don't know if it's 60 & 15 or simply 75. It really takes a lot of practice for the learning ear. 

This or next friday? Getting an appointment in French could be confusing you can actually miss it unless you confirm with the date. When they say they will meet this friday, they say "vendredi prochain, " meaning friday next but actually it is this friday. If they really mean next friday, they will say, "vendredi apres le prochain," friday after this friday. You can't even translate it literally. 

"C'est terrible!" A French expression that is both positive & negative. It is, as in English in negative form but it is used in a positive form when for example used to say that a concert is great, "c'est terrible!" They also use it to describe a bad or not so good result or situation by saying, "c'est pas terrible." Terribly confusing really. 

Building floors. In France, the building floors start at 0 floor. When you have to go to the first floor, don't go roaming around the ground floor & go up that flight of stairs! First floor is actually the second floor, the second floor the third, etc, etc.

Things are either good or bad, it's just different.


From Manila to Paris, then to Marseille & to the Côte d'Azur, now in Singapore, clinging to a map of three worlds, where everything becomes all relative.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Makis, I've just read this interesting blog entry that you wrote in July. I went to Alliance Francaise in Manila with a friend a few years ago and it was interesting. Kaso nahirapan talaga ako sa language and the teacher was threatening. Once, he yelled at one of my classmates, saying 'Do you have a speech disorder? Why can't you pronounce it right?' That really embarassed the poor lady. But without having anyone to talk to in French, it won't be easy. This entry taught me some new French words...thanks, Makis :-)