David Sedaris, author of “Me talk pretty one day”, a book about learning to speak French, shares some tid-bits about life in France in an interview with Franceguide, the official website of France Tourism.
You bought an apartment in Paris about six years ago and have written quite a bit about your experiences there. What drew you to the France?
My boyfriend has a house in Normandy. We used to go for the month of August, and I wanted to learn French, and it seemed like the best way was to just move there. But I would have gone insane living in a little village with just 12 houses, so we moved to Paris. But my thinking was that I could learn a lot without trying. You know, you see advertisements on buses and newspaper headlines. I mean, I went to school, but on top of that, a lot sinks in just by osmosis.
Do you notice a lot of cultural differences between the capital and this small town?
Basically, it’s just a little dinky small town. There’s a little small-town fair every year. There’s one movie theater 20 miles away. I think when Americans think about France, they think of it as being sophisticated. You know, if you ask the average American, they think that a French person is very sophisticated and is going to sit in judgment of them. But this is the France of tractor pulls and people wearing t-shirts reading “I’m with Stupid.” It’s a lot of brown socks with shorts. I think a lot of Americans would be surprised at how familiar it feels on some level.
Have you visited other regions of France?
I’ve spent a lot of time in Brittany and in different places in Normandy. But I’ve only been to the south of France one time. I tend to like Northern places where people are more stand-offish. You don’t have to talk as much.
Where did you go in the South of France?
We took the train to Avignon, and then went to Arles and spent a couple of days driving around down there.
But you prefer the North?
Well, I don’t like hot weather. Normandy, it’s pretty great: I always am amazed when it’s Bastille Day and I’m wearing a sweatshirt and a jacket. To me, you know life is good when no one has screens. That just means it’s hot and there are a lot of bugs that they have to keep out. And it’s a really pretty part of Normandy. A little pretentious, but very pretty. They call it Swiss Normandy—it’s very hilly. Our house is right around Falaise, where William the Conqueror was born. That’s about 25 miles away from my village.
In Me Talk Pretty One Day, you talk about some of your early (and somewhat painful) French lessons. Has it gotten easier?
I never developed an ease with French. I can say pretty much everything I have to. But when I speak, I can see in people’s eyes—I can see them thinking, “Wow, this guy’s messed up.” Now, they may not say it, but it’s just that there are so many little landmines in French. Like if you don’t know the sex of the podium, and you’re trying to say that the podium’s attractive, then, you know then you’re not saying the word “attractive” right either. There are so many chances to mess up before you even reach the verb. My boyfriend lived in France before I ever met him; that’s how he learned his French. And you never sense any frustration in him when he’s speaking French. It just comes naturally to him, and that’s never happened to me. I’m just never not self-conscious about it.
Are there certain aspects of French culture that you find to be especially hard for foreigners to grasp?
A lot of Americans go to France and they think the French are rude. One thing they don’t realize are all the little formalities that go into every encounter. And that often, nothing happens until you’ve observed those formalities. And growing up in the South, that feels very familiar to me. And people will say, “Yeah, well they might say, ‘Oh, Hello, how nice to see you,’ but they don’t mean it.” It’s like—who the hell expects anyone to mean it? But I think so many people go to France, and they don’t understand that, and so they’re not observing those little rules, and so the relationship is going to be skewed anyway. I don’t think they have any idea that they’re the ones that are coming off as rude.
A lot of your writing deals in absurdities and makes us think twice about things we take for granted and consider to be normal. How has this perspective, this willingness to find the humor in differences, helped you adjust to life in France?
Well I guess it’s made it so that I always sort of welcome, rather than being fearful of certain situations, thinking I can write about them later. I had a story in the New Yorker a while ago. I had a kidney stone and I went to the hospital. And this is when I very first moved to Paris. And a nurse led me into a room and told me to strip to my underwear. And I knew that phrase, because I’d gotten this medical French tape. And then she said something else, and I didn’t quite catch it. So I was in this dressing room, and I was in my underpants, and then I stayed in that dressing room for a while. And I thought—this is kind of silly. She obviously didn’t expect me to be in here for like half an hour. There were 3 doors in there, so I opened one of the doors, and there was a little waiting room. So I was sitting there in the waiting room, and then a couple walked in, and they were fully dressed. And then some other people came in, and they were fully dressed. So obviously, I had missed something that this woman said. It was like a horrible dream. And I’m sitting there in my underpants. In front of people. And I thought, “Well, you know, one day I can write about it.” It took a while to put some distance between me and that incident. Took a while to be able to laugh about it. Because at the time, it was just absolutely horrible.
Yeah, and I read that story in the New Yorker, and I couldn’t think what she might have told you…
Well, she had obviously said something about a robe. But at that point, I just decided to say “OK” to everything, whether I understood her or not. “OK.” So I kind of dug my own grave that way. In America, I kind of know the rules; things kind of make sense to me—even if I don’t understand them, they make sense to me. I certainly didn’t vote for George Bush, but I can understand how he became President. And in France, things often happen and I can’t understand them. Even when I ask people to explain them to me, I can’t understand them. And I think: I can’t understand because I’m not French.
Political things. I think you have to be raised in a Socialist country in order to understand them, in order to wrap your mind around certain ways of thinking. Sometimes things might be normal, and they might be absolutely normal, but because I mistake people’s motivations, I might think of them as absurd. When actually, they’re just—normal.
What have you found that French people find strange about Americans?
Friendship. The American idea of friendship. I hear that all the time. French people will be amazed. They’ll say, “You’ll know someone for 2 minutes, and you’ll call them your friend; then you won’t have anything to do with them again.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s called friendship.” Whereas in France, in Normandy especially, people are really stand-offish. You can walk by someone’s house, and they’ll be sitting in front of their house, and they’ll just turn away. But if you meet them at a dinner party, then they know you. Then, you don’t want to walk by their house, because you’re going to have to talk to them. And if they have you over to their house for dinner, and you go—and then you have them over to your house for dinner—you’re stuck with them for the rest of your life. It’s like getting married or something. So I prefer the American way, where you call somebody your friend: You meet somebody, you go out to dinner or something, you run into a third party on the street, you say, “Yes, this is my friend Donna.” And then you never see that person again. That’s beautiful to me. That’s perfect. That’s the way it should be. But French people don’t understand that at all.
What advice do you have for Americans visiting France? You must notice American tourists in Paris all the time.
I’m always sort of surprised when I walk through Paris, and I see people taking pictures. And I often think: you wouldn’t take a picture of that if you hadn’t already seen a picture of it. And then they they’ll go to a place to look at something that they’ve seen pictures of. And I’ve never quite understood that impulse. Or people will come with their checklist, things they think they have to see. I’ll often say to people, “Well are you going to go to the movies? Are you going to go to the supermarket?” And they’ll say, “Well, I can do that at home.” And it’s like—yeah, but it’s different. I mean, maybe those are just the sorts of things that I enjoy doing. And maybe even the movie thing is just completely stupid, because you’re just sitting in the dark; but I’ve just always appreciated the fact that people don’t talk in movies there.
What drew you to Paris?
The shopping. And it’s so beautiful. I think that was a big part of it, because I grew up in North Carolina, and then I lived in Chicago, and then I lived in New York. And Chicago and New York are both good places. New York is very exciting. Or it was for me when I lived there. But Paris is just so beautiful. For any American, it’s just sort of shocking to live in such a beautiful place. The countryside in America is very beautiful. And there are cities with nice parts to them—but they’re not nice for as long as Paris is nice. You go to an American city, and it can be nice for a few blocks; but then it turns into parking lots. I love living in a place where I can’t think of a single parking lot with a chain-link fence around it.
What do you recommend for people to do when they go to Paris?
I always tell people to go to a puppet show in the Luxembourg Gardens. Because it’s just enchanting. And even if you don’t speak French, it only lasts for 20 minutes, and there’s an intermission in the middle of it. But the kids there are so excited, and they’re just so—they’re a childless person’s idea of what a kid should be like. You know, they’re dressed really well. And they’re so excited, and they chant, “Gui-gnols! Gui-gnols! Gui-gnols!” (puppets) before the puppet show starts. And it’s just this great sort of old-fashioned place. And you tip the woman who seats you. And they sell little things. But they’re not horrible little things—they don’t have t-shirts and stuff like that. It’s just like the place that time forgot. And I send people to Drouot, the auction house. Because there are like 12 rooms: and in one room, they might be auctioning off 18th-century paintings, and in the next room, they’ve just got sealed boxes full of junk; next room, they’ve got someone’s jewelry collection. And you just wander from room to room. At first, I was intimidated. And then I realized: these are just guys from the flea market. People go to the Louvre, but that stuff’s going to be there forever. The paintings at the auction house are just going to be there today. So you can go, and you can look at what they’re going to be selling the next day. And they have catalogs, so you can look at for some of the fancier shows. I think that’s a great place to go.