The Burden of One’s Frenchitude

MyFrenchLife™ - typical frenchLet me preface this by stating that I do not perceive myself primarily as French, and I am always amazed when I realize that my being French is, to others, the most obvious thing about me.

This jars me even more when people confront me with my Frenchness, and it usually goes like this: when I meet a person for the first time, I say a few words and they usually ask me, “Where are you from?” I immediately know that the expected response is not “Western Pennsylvania”.

At this point, my reaction is to cringe a bit – I tend to think: “Damn, I’ve been caught again at not being American” – and answer that I am from France. This usually provokes a few comments from my interlocutor, which, as hackneyed as they may be, are always positive. They run the gamut from “Oh, I have been to Paris once,” to “I’d love to visit France.” You get the picture.

So, yes, when others discover that I am French, they do not immediately label me as rude, arrogant, overly opinionated bitch, who will never get fat because it’s in her genes not to. In fact, in their eyes, my coolness quotient has instantly increased.

Elisabeth Donato, 12/03/2011

However, my Frenchness – which I prefer to call, in this context, ‘Frenchitude’ – also leads to some weird expectations from me on the part of most of my American acquaintances and friends – to wit:

  • I am often asked to “Just say something in French,” so that people can swoon over the fact that the French language sounds so beautifully romantic. I swear that if I quoted Nicolas Sarkozy and said “Casse-toi, pauvre con” (“F*** off, a**hole”) they would still comment on how pretty that sounds.
  • I am supposed to be thoroughly familiar with every nook and cranny of Paris, and with every single region of France. Sorry to disappoint you. I do know Paris fairly well, but not thoroughly, and I come from a family that was not terribly wealthy, so our travels through France (and Europe) were fairly limited. There are still many areas of France that I do not know at all.
  • On the culinary front, my Frenchitude implies that I am a gourmet cook, who can whip up in no time a dynamite coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon. Those are actually two dishes that I seldom make, because, well, they are not exactly my favorites… I am actually a very good cook, but owe this to the fact that my father worked as a chef for over 20 years, and that my mother was a fabulous cook as well. Both were great models to emulate in my own kitchen.
  • Certainly, I also have the elegance gene, because, well, all French women have an innate sense of fashion. Unfortunately, for some weird reason, even though I do not dress poorly, I seldom look ‘that’ glamorous. And, for the life of me, I cannot nonchalantly knot a scarf the way all French women do!

  • I am also expected to be an expert on French wines – a topic about which I know very little. I am not really a wine drinker, I come from northern France, which is beer country, and I’d rather have a cold beer than a glass of Merlot. (Slight caveat here: I really like a good champagne, Puilly-Fuissé and Pouilly-Fumé are my favorite French white wines [they don’t come from the same areas of France, by the way], and I would never turn down a good Moulin à Vent.)

         The one that never ceases to amaze me is this:

  • Quite regularly, when people I don’t know well realize that I am French, they tell me that they have some French friend or acquaintance “Whom you must absolutely meet.” It is quite an assumption that because two individuals are French, they will hit it off.

In a way, being seen primarily as French by people I meet, acquaintances and friends, seems weird to me because, although my ‘Frenchitude’ is a big part of me (for one, I teach French!), I am constantly in denial of that fact (not the fact that I am French, which I cannot deny, of course, but the fact that I am primarily defined as French by others.) Being stereotyped accordingly is even more weird and a bit annoying, but I feel that part of my duty is to deconstruct the French stereotype, and to educate American folks about what ‘real’ French people and French culture are really about (hell, I wish I knew!)

Image credits
1. Elisabeth Donato
2. First Vintage Books

About the Contributor

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

I am a native of France, and a retired French university professor living in the USA. I return to France every year and love discovering new places I have not yet visited. I am interested in issues of bilingualism and expatriate identity. I enjoy good food, great books, and all kinds of music.

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  1. Julie Chamand Dec 17, 2011 at 11:22 PM - Reply

    Although it is a little annoying to find that you cannot tell people everything they want to know about France, its history, its regions and so on, I still think it’s great to automatically enjoy a ‘coolness label’ just because I’m French. All the stereotypes that we are expected to fulfil aren’t even necessary to bear that label! N’est-ce pas merveilleux ?

  2. Pascal Inard Dec 20, 2011 at 9:13 AM - Reply

    I’ve lived in Australia since 1972 and I have noticed changes in the way the French are viewed here. Everyone used to assume I was from Paris because that’s all they knew, but now there is a greater awareness of the different regions of France that has a lot to do with the Tour de France. Australians are sports mad and think nothing of staying up late to watch the tour, follow their hero Cadel Evans and discover the beautiful regions of France.
    In the 70s, Australians were very upset with the French because of the nuclear tests in the Pacific but now all that is forgotten.
    I don’t drink wine but I always mention that when my grandfather, who was a real connoisseur, came to Australia he really appreciated the Aussie wines and that always goes down well !

  3. Rosemary Kneipp Jan 3, 2012 at 11:29 PM - Reply

    I really enjoyed your post. As an Australian living in France, I’m supposed to have become an expert in all things French. Practically the only time Australia hits the French news is when there are floods or rabbit infestations which I’m always supposed to know about as well not to mention who won the last rugby match.

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