Don’t Pee in the Bidet
And Other Lessons Learned in France
By Debbie Simorte
I married a Frenchman, and when our daughter was five weeks old he took us to meet the family. If you are planning a trip to Where the Dollar Has No Value, tuck these insider tips in your Louis Vuitton and fly.
Don’t fake the language.
The French aren’t as intolerant toward non-French-speakers as they’re rumored to be, but if you pretend to speak French when you can’t, brace yourself for confusion.
I practiced “Je parle français comme une vache espagnol” (“I speak French like a Spanish cow”) until perfect and used it during introductions. Everyone laughed hysterically and replied in loud, fast French that I couldn’t understand.
Some travelers memorize the phrase, “Je ne parle pas français.” (“I don’t speak French.”) Don’t waste your time with that one. They already know you don’t speak French. Practice something useful instead, such as, “Où avez-vous caché les toilettes?“ (“Where have you hidden the toilets?”)
It’s useful to know that all French words sound exactly like other words with completely different meanings. I loved the soft drink Orangina, but every time I ordered it in a café, it tasted like gin. “Le pain” means “the bread,” “lapin” is rabbit. They’re spelled differently, but the second syllable in each sounds like “pan” in English.
When offered gateau (cake), I had flashbacks from high school Spanish and feared being served gato (cat). Days later I had to tell mémé (“Grandma” in French – my mother-in-law) that while she was away, the dog killed the chicken. First she gave me that long, universal look that means, “Man, are you stupeed.” Then, realizing what I meant to say, she took off like a French tornado after the dog. Boy did I feel sorry for that mutt when she caught him. I didn’t know how to say “other dog.”
Don’t pee in the bidet.
Most French households have a bidet, which resembles a toilet but is strictly for washing your privates. When we arrived at the in-laws’, I really had to go. I raced to what certainly looked like the restroom. There was a sink, a shower, and a … bidet. There was no time to search for the missing toilet, so I decided no one would be the wiser if I peed in the bidet and flushed the evidence.
Unfortunately, bidets don’t flush. They trickle. And since they do not flush, there is no need for toilet tissue in this room.
I later found the toilet in another room. Just a toilet. A tiny room with nothing but a toilet. How was I to know? If you find the toilet and wish to wash your hands after using it, you go looking for a different room with a sink, and you hope nobody is in there using the bidet.
French meals have many courses and can last for hours. During my first meal with the new family, mémé brought a huge pot of green beans to the table. Everyone filled, and I do mean filled, their plates with beans, so I did too. Best beans I ever ate, and I felt nine months pregnant again.
Then mémé went to the kitchen and returned with a roasted chicken, baby potatoes, and “le pain.” Then quiche. Then salad. Then cheese. Then fresh fruit. Then pastries. Sometime between the green beans and salad, my husband informed me I had to eat it all or our hosts would be offended. Two hours into the meal I excused myself to nurse our baby and fell asleep. My in-laws didn’t notice – just figured I was looking for the toilet again. When I returned to the table they were still eating. In France you have to start supper when you go to the kitchen to get the lunch cheese.
Be a good French kisser.
The family in south central France expected a kiss on each cheek – every time you greeted or left them – even if you were only stepping outside to check on the chickens. To further test foreigners’ intelligence, those from different regions have variations on the cheek-pecking habit, so you must know who you’re kissing AND where they’re from in order to give the proper greeting. “Hi, mémé!” (Smack, smack.) … “Oh! Jean-Jacque!” (Smack smack smack smack.) … “Collette!” (Smooch smooch smooch.) When I forgot this custom one time in four weeks and left for the market without kissing anyone, I was not forgiven.
For punishment they moved the toilet again.
Debbie Simorte lives and writes in Platte County, Missouri. For more of her silliness, visit her blog, “Writing the Life Chaotic,” at writerup.blogspot.com.