French lessons, and lessons about the French

An impromptu offer from an officer manager to practice French helped reshape the Monitor bureau chief's initial notions about life in France.

When I called a consultancy company in France specializing in sustainable business practices for a recent story on the Bangladesh garment factory tragedy, the office manager who picked up the phone said afterwards, “Are you looking to perfect your French?”

Embarrassing, yes, but she wasn’t being unkind. In fact, she was offering to connect me with a colleague who wanted to practice his English. She added, “If you need extra help, you can call me for ten minutes per day.”

I didn’t really take the offer seriously, until a few days later – and after my story was written – I thought, “Why not?” I called her, somewhat hesitantly, and asked if it was a good time. It was awkward at first, but it came easily once we realized we both have toddlers the same age. And there it is: my first French friend, a woman I’ve never met, who talks to me on the phone each day, patiently listening to me prattle on and correcting my butchering of French expressions in Email messages. It might be the nicest thing anyone has done for me unsolicited in a long time.

Apart from being where the news is, in contact with the people living through it and shaping it, I believe another crucial thing that foreign correspondents can offer is the tools to dispelling stereotypes. Before I moved here, I wrote a “farewell” letter to Mexico, about my fears that my French neighbors would be nowhere as warm as my Mexican ones. Those ideas were shaped from media coverage, movies, and even French people I know who warned me about everything from the French hating Americans to hating one another.

I’ve only been here for two months. I have a lot more to learn about the people before anecdotes become opinions. But already I can see how my initial notions can be very wrong.  And it’s not in the major events or episodes, but the daily living over time.

Take yesterday. I was sizing up the people outside of a new gym class I was about to try: "body attack." I made note that all the women around me, without exception (and I did look at them all), were wearing make-up. Not heavy make-up, but they were made up.

Like some people need coffee in the morning (I need that too) or a nap in the afternoon, I need to belong to a gym. I’d been disappointed by several lame classes previously in France. I tried to withhold judgment until I gave it more time, but inside I was thinking, “Do the French not work out as hard as Americans or the amazing athletes in Mexico with whom I did yoga, cycling, Pilates, and lifting over the past seven years?”

I didn’t have high hopes today.

And then we started warming up, and then we started jumping in the air, and doing planks and pushups, and army exercises – and people were whooping and hollering, and breaking out in dance. There was an obvious camaraderie in the class. And the exuberance was unmatched by any Latino zumba or body combat class I attended (with perhaps the exception of an extraordinarily energetic spin class I once attended in Brazil).

I would have never expected that, judging from the reserve one sees on the streets of Paris. I would have never expected a French mother, working full-time, to talk to a stranger (a journalist, no less, asking invasive questions) every day on the phone. These surprises are sure to stack up over time, until I realize that what I came here thinking is in large part no longer even true.

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