I was asked recently, by someone heading for a short stint in France, if I could think of any obvious cultural pitfalls to try and avoid when she arrived. The need to greet all present before launching into the nitty-gritty of the reason for being somewhere, and the 'bise', (the delightful French custom of greeting by way of a kiss or kisses), came to mind immediately.
A little later, I was preparing myself a tisane, a herbal tea, made, in this case, exclusively from the plants in the gardens of the Talloires Abbey, when I remembered an awkward moment that I had experienced many years before.
Then, employed by the French government as an English-speaking assistante, my rather vague job description was to help out the English teachers with their classes in two French collèges. It was a nine-month position and, as I was young and carefree, it seemed like an excellent way to experience first-hand living à la française.
As luck would have it, I was posted to Grenoble, where the only person that I knew in France, lived. My friend suggested that she meet me at the train station and take me back to her parents' house for a couple of days until I found my feet. Hugely relieved at the idea, I accepted. Breakfast had finished for the family when I arrived, but the mother busied herself with preparing me a cup of tea ... only the cup was not like any cup that I had drunk tea from before. In my limited experience, soup would have been a more suitable liquid and I looked around for a spoon, thinking that it was strange that no-one in all my years studying French at school and at university had prepared me for drinking tea like the French. But, there was no spoon and I wriggled uncomfortably, hearing my own mother's voice concerning soup-drinking etiquette. "Don't slurp." "Tilt the bowl at an angle away from you and use your spoon to get the last drops." "No, Catherine, do not pick up the bowl with your hands." What was I to do? I procrastinated, waited until my host left the room, grabbed the bowl with both hands, downed the tea and slipped the bowl quickly back in place... precisely as I should have done, minus the haste and embarrassment.
And now, for a bit of cultural confusion in reverse.
Back in Australia, my daughter took a packet of Mini Bites (bite-sized brown rice crackers) to school to eat at recess. Hoeing into them, there was a loud guffaw from the boy to her right. Said monsieur then reached into his pocket for his iPhone. Still laughing, he took a photo to send back to his classmates in France. His language background took him on an altogether different mind journey ... if further explanation needed click here