I have a made a few pronouncements over the years which have been greeted with great hilarity by the family and which have then been mimicked and adapted with glee until I want to strangle everyone.
One such wise saying was that supermarkets say a lot about a culture. Another was about you can only truly know a people through its amusement parks. You may be inclined to agree with the family that these deep insights are laughably lacking profundity, but I still maintain they carry some worthwhile universal truths.
Anyway, I’m adding another to the cultural insights list. Community meetings are a window into the minds of others.
I say this after a good many years of participating in the annual general meeting of the co-owners of a block of flats in Paris. The very first time I attended, I felt transported into a film set, surrounded as I was by loud harrumphs, derisive snorts, shrugged shoulders, extravagant moues and “ben, ouai”s.
But that was the superficial stuff, and I’d seen plenty of expressive gesturing over my years of studying and working in France. What was more interesting here was observing the exchanges of an ordinary meeting taking place in an entirely domestic context.
For a start, there is no such thing as low key disagreement. Any difference of opinion, however slight, is accompanied by loud shouting, but absurdly it’s a shouting match conducted in formal elegant french in which proprieties are observed and polite modes of address maintained.
Then there’s stuff like openly re-negotiating, say, agents or other professional fees. The sort of money dealings which would never be covered in such an open forum in England. My embarrassed squirming as this all takes place undoubtedly says as much about the English as it does about the French!
People start off making a point and then descend into long philosophical speeches, and the rest of the meeting seems quite happy to patiently sit it out.
And despite all the wild shouting and skirmishing, all the resolutions seem to get passed or rejected with unanimity.
It’s a great night out for all, and I have to say I love it. I love the fact that the French are still the French. That in this increasingly globalised world of Starbucks and computer English, the soul of nations cannot be so easily lost.
Vive la différence!