In defense of the French – a very personal view of Camino companions

When entering a bar, cafe’ or albuerge filled with fellow pilgrims, one almost always experiences raucous bonhomie where everyone is talking, gesticulating,  laughing together in an at times bewildering number of languages and improbable combinations thereof. We are all communicating together as best we can and having a lot of fun doing it.

Nevertheless, just as often as not there will be a lone individual or little group who do not participate in this communication free-for all, and just as often than not,  they will be French. All over the world I (and, I am sure, many others) have experienced similar situations where the French do not seem to communicate or participate. This has given them the (undeserved) reputation for being unfriendly, elitist, standoffish, or what have you. Admittedly Paris waiters are amongst the most snooty in the world, and have not changed much from Mark Twain’s time when  “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”

This is also definitely not the case once you leave Paris and travel out in the country as we have done for several years on the various French pilgrim routes … people do make an effort to understand my far from acceptable French, and do make an effort to speak slowly and clearly when speaking with me, regularly evaluating if I can follow what  they are saying.  Moreover the French when you observe them in their native habitat are a very voluble and even inclusive people when they meet someone that speaks their language  and lots of talking and  lots of laughter can be heard from the moment they get together. Need I add that the French – of all ages – are also amongst the most courteous people I’ve met up with.  What really hit the nail on the head for me in corroborating my own opinion of them, is that the other day  I read that in an opinion poll of airline passengers concerning whether they always engage in conversation with their fellow passengers, 43% of the French respondents said yes, they would – they topped the list as being the most inclined to initiate a conversation (you want to know who was least inclined to engage in conversation with fellow passengers? the Brits  … see list below)

Let me start with everyone else … everyone that is not French, that is.

Let’s start with their diametrical opposite, the  Italians… a French word here, and English word there, maybe some Spanish, a few hand movements and some Italian I learned from Fellini  (and mafia) movies, and we have a conversation going, laughing communicating … bonding! (Once, some years back in Italy, I had gotten on the wrong train, and when the Italian ticket collector, who knew no other language than his own, came by, the resulting conversation between he and I was pure opera buffo: after his initial exclamation of “Mama Mia” (I kid you not) at my mistake, by utilizing this method of communication Italians are so good at, together we got my travel situation quite sorted out)

Germans, ach Germans, so easy to communicate with – especially if there are beers on the table … they speak some English and other languages, but if you can speak German with them there is no end to the possibilities for gemütlichkeit, and they are quite effusive in their praise of you fractured German. What I especially like about them is that you both can have a raucous time together with them and still  intermingle it with quite serious conversation. I know Germans have the worst of reputations –

– but as traveling companions and fellow pilgrims they have few equals. They also are good hikers with the best equipment and their Camino guide books are second to none (ordnung muss sein) and they have more than once rescued me from a wrong turn.

Any one coming from an English speaking country should have a distinct advantage when it comes being able to mingle now that English has become the new Lingua Franca. The Brits, are my favorite, especially for their wit and humor, with the Canadian coming in a close second because of their unique combination of American openness and forthrightness and (I must say it) almost European sensibilities ( this goes double for the Québécois). Americans, especially the young, are often culturally very innocent and seem to take everything quite literally and therefore to my mind they are not as comfortably participating in light-hearted Camino banter. Though Americans are always outgoing, open and forthright, I sometimes detect a sort of hesitancy, which, with my own American background, I interpret as a sort of suspicion of the motives of others – I am most probably wrong, but …

The Spanish pilgrims, who are actually in fact our hosts on the Spanish Camino, also seem reserved vis-à-vis non-Spanish speakers, but quite voluble amongst themselves. Yet they are more than willing to talk to anyone else who knows a few Spanish words – in fact in this respect I have found the Spanish to be very similar to the Italians, and I have been able to negotiate in Spain (off the Camino) with the most atrocious Spanish, combined with a little French, a little English and some hand moments.

Finally I would like to mention the Koreans. We have met up with quite a few young female Koreans, most often traveling in groups of three or more. They are delightful to watch. Young, pretty, and energetic, highly organized, with the latest gear (including Samsung tablets of course), they are a giggly bunch obviously having a great time, and though they speak little of any other language, they are quite approachable and communicative in their own way. I also noted that of all the pilgrims we have ever met, they are the ones who seem not only to simply enjoy their Camino most, they also seem to eat better and healthier than any of us others. They have not at all abandoned the ceremony of preparing and eating a proper meal together, and always combine lots of proteins, carbs, fruits and juices (they do no ignore wine) in almost all of the meals they as a group prepare – they do tend to prepare and eat their elaborate breakfasts at an unholy early hour though, and the noise of their preparations and packing can be quite unnerving.

So what is it with the French?

It’s a big country with large population and a long history of fostering a very uniform and ubiquitous “high” culture with a very uniform school system: any potential outside cultural influence, be it literature or films, are immediately translated into French and often thereby “Frenchified. Thus, they really have no motivation what so ever to acquaint themselves with any other language (or culture) – once when I asked an American if he had read an important work in our profession (anthropology) that had as yet not been translated into English, he answered:  ”If it is truly important it would have been translated, hence it is not important” and the French would most probably with equal validity say the same. So, one reason they seem so insular is that they have really never been subjected to any foreign linguistic influence. Moreover, their uniform school system ensures that all native French speakers (everywhere in the world actually), speak a more or less standard (high) French and thus are not as accustomed as people in other countries are to understanding regional and ethnic dialects and variations to their language. Again, just like the Americans, the French never really developed an ability to negotiate in foreign cultures and languages (including internally, within their own country …).

Their mono-high-culture also sets a high premium on clarity in argument and respect for intellectual prowess expressed through the written and the spoken language. These two factors (mono-culture and a tendency towards casuistry) seem to me to be the most immediate reasons why the French seem to be so French when they are étrangers. I do think, however the link is not necessarily so direct in explaining why they do not at all participate, and why they seem so unapproachable – which they are not.

The French are great conversationalists, they love to talk together and their culture and school system puts a high premium on the art of conversation. Eating and conversation (they do go well together, don’t they) have both in France been raised to an art form. The French dilemma abroad or when meeting someone who does not speak at least a passable French, is that they are almost incapable to communicate freely and unselfconsciously with such persons. And not being able to communicate freely, means that the conversation they could engage in would be totally inelegant and not very artful – thus it’s not worth their time … it’s better to stay silent!



The most talkative nations

(percent of those responding that they will alwasystart a conversation with their fellow airline passengers)

1. Frenchmen: 43 %
2. Spaniards: 36 %
3. Italians: 33 %
4. Russians: 25 %
5. Turks: 24 %
6.  Germans: 22 %
7. Swedes: 22 %
8. Dutch: 19 %
9. Danes: 18 %
10. Brits: 16 %


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