One of the biggest differences I have found between French people and North Americans is their response to the ubiquitous question, “how are you doing?”
In North America, the huge majority of people answer with a cheery “great!”. It is just understood in our society that even if your husband just left you and your house was burgled and your dog has taken to eating the wallpaper, it really isn’t polite to burden other people with your misery.
In France, when you ask the equivalent question, “ca va?” my advice is to brace yourself.
In France, the standard answer is not “great” or even anything remotely like that. In France, people answer with the truth. This can be shocking, to say the least.
Once I absent-mindedly asked a friend of mine ca va? after arriving at her apartment. She informed me that non, actually ca n’allait pas du tout. Her husband was an egotistical macho and she was thinking of demanding a divorce. On the off chance that I had missed the subtext of her answer, she tore off her wedding ring and hurled it across the parquet floor. I hadn’t been living in France long at that point, and it took me several minutes to recover from such a raw dose of the truth.
More recently, we were at a village event in Villers-la-Faye and I asked a fellow villager how he and his wife were doing. I had learned by then to brace myself.
“We’re trying to have a baby but we’re not having any luck,” the villager answered in a booming voice. “Apparently _______’s womb is so acidic that all my sperm get killed off before they can swim to her egg. It’s like she’s got Round-Up in there or something.”
See what I mean?
Once I got used to the vitriol and angst that comes pouring out when I ask French people how things are going, I began to find the honest answers rather refreshing.
Because frankly, although there are times in life when things truly are “great”, there are also many times when they are not.
Take this week, for example; the weather is cold and grey and winter seems to stretch endlessly in front of me, after buying Christmas and Birthday presents and paying pony club dues we have about 50 euros to live on for the next two weeks, I am submerged in work and still feel like I can’t catch up after the holidays, and to top it all off, in a fit of possessiveness Clémentine has hidden the TV clicker in some secret spot, and she has also decided to give up afternoon naps.
I know I have many things to be grateful for, and I am (albeit in an abstract way at the moment), but this week these petty annoyances mean that I am in the depths of a January mental funk.
When I am feeling as I do at the moment – not even in the vicinity of “great” – and everyone around me attests to feeling “great”, I frankly start to feel like a freak.
Whereas in France, I just feel like everybody else.