On cultural differences and bricolage

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All my thoughts are wandering around culture tonight. Or, more exactly, cultures, their variety, their differences. For some reason, it's about France, the UK and the US, probably because we are close friends (don't analyze this please). Let's start with the bad thing so we can end on the good ones.

On the range of weapons of cultural destruction, I hear that Governor Bush -- as Michael Moore calls him -- will not eat French toasts anymore on Air Force One, for in another little step into ridicule, some primate has decided to rename them "freedom toasts". Does this have any effect on us French? None, zip, nothing, because "French toast" means nothing for us. Neither do French fries which most of the French people will attribute to our Belgians friends (check the secret history of French fries). Those expressions are true parts of the American culture, and renaming them is hurting nothing but the American culture. If it weren't that bad, it would be laughable. We shall see, between a culture and a government, which one is stronger.

A few days ago, I read a post from Gavin Bell about French vs. UK markets. Gavin describes the richness of the local markets, shops, press in St Omer compared to the dominance of supermarkets in the UK. Even in Paris (mais Paris n'est pas la France), the local shops and street markets are predominant, my explanation being that it is a part of our social life, like the pubs -- something we do not have in France -- are a part of the English social life. In a subsequent email chit-chat, Gavin pointed the difference between "pubs which traditionally serve men beer, whereas in France there are cafes that serve everything to anyone." To which I added another difference between our cultures, the one hour lunch break in France vs. the 5-to-7pm beer drink at the pub (which are, to me, equivalent socializing traditions at our respective workplaces).

Gavin further elaborated on the French cafe-bar, English pub or US coffee chain. I am impressed by his insight on something that has become less noticeable for me, living in a city where between two cafés, there is a café. Cafés rhythm our life as long as we are awake, from the morning café-croissant, through apéritif, lunch, afternoon drink, apéritif again, diner, digestif, to the last 3am decaf, including cigarettes, newspapers, stamps and tons of games. If you want to extend that experience 24 hours a day, enjoy the all-in-one hôtel-restaurant-brasserie.

What strikes me is Gavin's point about the US coffee chains. While they are spreading in the UK, somehow competing with the pubs, they are virtually non existent in France. It never crossed my mind until I read Gavin's post, but there is no Starbucks in Paris. Exactly like the local shops repel the supermarkets, our cafés repel the mono-function coffee chains, or at least maintain a very healthy competition against what looks like a cultural step-back. You are never far from a good coffee in France and if you want more diversity, there are plenty of brûleries which sell coffee from all over the world that you will prepare yourself at home.

This gives me a handy transition to another cultural difference. There is no English equivalent to the French word bricolage. The closest thing is "do it yourself", a whole expression which sounds rather unfriendly at first, to French ears at least. In 2000, the bricolage market represented €91bn in Europe, €300bn worldwide and €15bn in France, 5% of the total market! It is the first personal equipment market here, before furniture, electronics, telephony and computers. I know one English man who, when his better half tells him to do something he doesn't want to do, tells her "bricolage". It is not exactly acculturation, but it is a good start.

Bricolage has other meanings and related words in French, like bricole which is a triffle, a little thing. The verb bricoler can be translated as arranging, knocking up, tweaking, tinkering. The French lesson du jour will then be that renaming French toasts is both a bricole and a cultural bricolage. In a future lesson, I might tell you why W. is a bricoleur.