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The French: it's complicated

Opinion: Alan Duff

There is no such thing as "going Dutch" when it comes to paying for dinner.  The person who invited you takes care of the bill.  Photo / Getty Images

Let them wait." Come to New Zealand to see fingers and clenched fists and even road rage in response.

Another French couple explained supermarket check-out behavioural code. Like the woman who remembers she's forgotten something so everyone behind her has to wait or change cashiers. "Yes? So this is a problem? You have a country to run, perhaps?

Someone will die if you are delayed several minutes? When it's our turn at the cashier we'll take as long as we like." This is France.

The chatty little old lady syndrome is observed at every bakery (boulangerie). The queue as often as not goes out into the street. Old gal doesn't care.

Doesn't consider that other people are waiting. Nor will the bakery owner try to rush her.

In fact, the owner will engage with the woman. And you must wait. If she feels like chatting for several minutes, no one would think to object.

It is expected to be late for a dinner date, yet not for an appointment with a professional person. Being poured a drink on arrival is never done.

You wait for some magical social moment and, if other invited guests haven't arrived, then not until they do. And don't ever expect a spontaneous party to happen. The Frogs don't party or even spill over like us, but they take an interminable time to say goodnight.

In a strike-ridden country, you'd think this would reflect a nation of laid-back layabouts. Not so. They're a busy lot, the French. The trains and planes and buses run on time. Buildings go up in no time.

My wife and I will see the rapid progress of some building project as we bike past it most days. In a year or so there's a finished block of 10 or 50 apartments with a for sale sign up.

The French are the most productive nation in the European Union, as well as having the most strikes. How? They are a contradiction.

Some years ago, the publican of an Irish pub described his French male customers as "scarf-wearing tightwads who count their change out from a little purse and never buy a round". I was appalled to think this might be true but only recently had this apparent tight-fistedness explained.

"They don't buy a round for, say, a group of six or even four, as they don't drink like Irish or Anglo-Saxons or southern Antipodeans." We buy a round when it's our turn because we expect to have four or six drinks, whatever the number might be.

Not the French. He might have one. Or six. He decides how many, not social pressure.

If you're invited to someone's house for dinner, it is not necessary to take a bottle. Appreciated, yes. But you are not obligated.

Personally, I can't do that. We all know - and mildly despise - those who never bring a bottle. At a restaurant, going "Dutch" is rare. The person who invited you pays, awkward though that is for us: "You are my guests." No further explanation is needed.

Speaking of Dutch, they are notorious for being the most miserable spenders in any holiday location they go.

But it is their culture to be extremely frugal. Just as the Chinese are great savers and Kiwis are not. Yet a Chinese person will spend several thousand dollars on a brand-name handbag, which some may consider stupid.

Yet the same woman who considers it stupid is putting an extra spare rib on your plate at her restaurant. It's cultural.

I got an email from Terry M, an old mate in Rotorua, saying, "I caught two beauties. Both five-pounders." Being trout, which he smoked for his son to take back to the Gold Coast.

It's what Kiwis - and Maori in particular - do: give food as a tribute to family and friends. A feed of crays, paua, mussels, bacon bones, a piece of wild pork, watercress, rewana bread. It's the culture.

Pacific Islanders feel obligated to give money to both their family and their church. It's non-negotiable. The French, on the other hand, have "a complicated relationship with money", according to my new French pal.

"Giving away money could be seen as showing off or taking away the recipient's dignity." It might also mean a culture of meanness. Which matters, or it doesn't.

NZ Herald  Jan 26, 2016

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