I was born and raised in Zimbabwe to Zimbabwean parents. I had little to no idea what to expect when, in 2002, in the midst of a political and economic crisis, my family made the difficult decision to leave our home and move to France. My adopted country was full of surprises.
1. The French are hairy.
This one is a little outdated. While my groovy French aunt didn’t shave and went topless on the beach, the younger generations have completely rejected the freewheeling heritage of the soixante-huitards.
In truth, business is booming for waxing salons in France. There’s even a pubic hairstyle called the Metro Ticket, in honour of the famous Parisian tickets — minuscule little white rectangles that you can find clogging up the city’s drains.
2. France is just like in the Flight of the Conchords song “Foux Da Fa Fa.”
In Zimbabwe, I was taught French out of old 1970s exercise books that my school had inherited from Europe. They were filled with fine line drawings of an outdated, almost mythical France. “Pierre et Marie” always seemed to be on their bicycles and their neck-scarves were always aflutter. Their only concerns were baguettes, saucisson, and TGV trains taking them to colonies de vacances.
As you can imagine, this left me utterly unprepared for the real place. But if there was one thing that lived up to my expectations, it was the SNCF trains that ran along the rural lines of Lot-et-Garonne where my family suddenly found itself. They had mustard-colour leather seats. The fluorescent strip bulbs above the windows invariably flickered and the pleats of the tweed train curtains reminded me of the creases down old-man trousers. I could just imagine myself with “Pierre et Marie” on the way to my very own colonie de vacances.
1. The French Revolution’s legacy is alive and well.
A family friend from my parents’ university days found us a housesit. It was a rambling old farmhouse in the middle of dry yellow wheat fields. The owner was straight out of the pages of history: an old-money aristocrat living in a state of metaphorical ruin, a relic from the downfall of the French Aristocracy.
Her countless cats ran wild throughout the house. They left scat on the marble feast-length table. Instead of cleaning up their mess, she would cover it with pot lids. She was a fervent Catholic, received fax messages in Latin, and harboured dreams of sainthood.
Her family’s wealth was such that her son would never have to work a day in his life and yet her ex-husband owned a château that clung to a cliff and was slowly falling into disrepair.
2. France is the epicentre of seduction.
I might not have had much to go on before arriving in France, but its reputation for romance and mystery hadn’t escaped me. Paris is internationally considered to be the capital of love and a candlelit dinner on the terrace of a chic restaurant is one of the archetypal images of seduction.
What I discovered is that the French consider this to be misguided. For them the Italians are the romantic ones. When they dub Pepé Le Pew into French, they give him an Italian accent. In fact, that’s their go-to solution for most French characters in Anglophone movies and cartoons.
There are so many things that we consider to be quintessentially French, but once you get here you realise it’s all just a question of perspective. What English speakers consider to be a French plait, the French call an African plait. What we call a French manicure, they call an American manicure.
3. The French love France.
While I’d heard of France’s reputation for romance, I was completely oblivious to its reputation for arrogance. Suffice to say I discovered it for myself.
After several years of living here, I travelled to Cape Town to visit a cousin and happened to pick up his copy of The Onion’s satirical, tongue-in-cheek atlas. I opened it up to the entry about France, it began: “One Nation Above God.” While the writing was snarky, I couldn’t believe how spot-on most of the comments were. I felt like they’d read my mind.
The Académie Française is one of the oldest institutions in France. Created in 1635, it’s made up of 40 members called the Immortals. Their job is to safeguard the French language from the influx of English and “bastardized” French from the Maghreb, the old sub-Saharan colonies, and Canada. The literature syllabus is cluttered with dead, French, white males. The history syllabus emphasizes De Gaulle and de-emphasizes Pétain to an alarming degree.
To the mind of many French, there’s no better language, no better cuisine, and nothing better to watch than the Dupont family at their traditional campsite in July on the news.