December 2007


Snail Talk

A year or so ago, I picked up Stephen Clarke’s book, A Year in the Merde. It was an amusing take exploring how an Englishman spent his year living in France, dealing with the peculiarities that come with the French setting.

Although I enjoyed the book, I never felt like buying the sequels to the novel—the book was good, but not so good that I wanted to run out and read more of his fiction.

That said, last month when I was in the Dresden train station, I bumped into another book by him, Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French. In this book he reveals ten essential rules that help you understand the French, along with a bonus 11th commandment that is also quite helpful.

Although I am not a French speaker, nor am I French, the book rings true to me. Commandment 5, “Thou Shalt Speak French” is typical: he talks about how important the French language is for Frenchmen, and how you can annoy the French. He covers such hot topics as how to correctly translate the sentence, “I love the shoes you gave me.” He also dwells on sentences that if slightly mispronounced can lead to misunderstandings, like “J’aimerais juste baiser” instead of “J’aimerais juste un baiser.” One is polite, the other is frank.

My favorite part of the book is not actually about the French, it is instead about Anglo-Saxons. When talking about drinking, Stephen Clarke observes that the French are always shocked when the English announce on a Friday evening that they are “off to get pissed.” In other words, getting drunk is the goal of the evening—and quite frankly, the French are right to be appalled.

I find it incredibly annoying when people announce to me that they are going out to get drunk—the sole purpose of their evening.

When frat boys make this announcement, I just roll my eyes, but whenever I hear thirtysome year old people make this announcement, I am puzzled. Are their lives so boring and meaningless that the only way to be entertained is to get drunk as if they were an undergraduate living in a frat house?

For me, drinking is incidental. I have been drunk—I’ve been drunk in Britain, The Ukraine, Armenia, the States, and probably a few other places—but I have never, not once, set out with the intention of getting drunk. It’s been an accident—a by-product of having too much fun.

I guess I am more like the French than I think—save for the fact that I refuse to drink and drive. In the US, drunk driving is tackled by having strict laws if you get caught; in France, to cut down on the number of deaths, Stephen Clarke reports that they cut down the trees that line the road.

4 comments to Snail Talk

  • Actually, the French drunk driving laws are stricter than in the US. You can be legally drunk after 2 glasses of wine and you can go to jail for 2 years for driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.8. Around Paris checkpoints on the road are quite common. I observed them often curing my frequent travel to France last year.

  • @John: I didn’t know that!

    What I kind of left out of that last paragraph was the point Stephen Clarke was actually making, which amounts to a discussion of socialization. He observes that in the US and UK it is ok to be the designated driver, but he feels that in France it’s not as acceptable, thus leading to a larger number of drunk drivers as compared, specifically, to the UK.

  • It is apparently a relatively new development; I guess they finally decided that the horrifying level of highway fatalities needed to be dealt with. From what I’ve read it’s working quite well.

    Last year my partner spent about 8 months at his company’s head office just outside of Paris, so I was there a lot. He was staying in a corporate apartment just outside the city so we saw the checkpoints a lot. Usually from our vantage point on the bus, so that we didn’t have to worry about having three beers at the Bear’s Den!

  • @John: Clarke’s book was published over a year ago, which might account for a lot of the differences. It’s always a good thing when drunk driving is discouraged. A few years ago I was in the UK watching television, and a commercial came on. It featured American cops pulling people over in America and administering tests by the side of the road to people who couldn’t pass them if they tried.

    Then they said if you thought it was funny, you should be careful because these tests were now happening in the UK. The last scene in the commercial was a British policeman testing somebody by the side of the road there…

    It made me laugh, I have to admit.