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“Bonjour” is The Most Important Word in France

Graffiti in Nantes
Graffiti in Nantes

I’m so used to the typical cheery North American greetings that it took me a while to stop at “bonjour. ” In Canada, people often start all kinds of transactions by asking “hi, how are you today?” (the reply is irrelevant, it’s invariably positive) but in French, it sounds very strange to say “bonjour, comment ça va?” unless you actually mean it. People say “bonjour,” just “bonjour. ” “Salut” or “coucou” (the very informal “bonjour”) are used for friends, acquaintances and family.

So I “bonjour” people. “Bonjour, une baguette,” “bonjour, juste le journal,” “bonjour, un ticket de bus.”

French sounds very formal to me now compared to interactions I can have with strangers in North America. For a start, here, I’m a “madame. ” Even wearing shorts and a Hello Kitty t-shirt, I’m “la madame. ” It could make me feel old but I noticed that Mark was “le petit monsieur” this morning at the hair salon.

Of course, here I have to use the proper “vous” instead of the all-purpose “you,” and I have to remember to beat around the bush instead of being blunt. For instance, you don’t say “excuse me, I can’t get through with the stroller,” you just sigh loudly until people move. Then you roll your eyes and mutter “pardon” while looking infuriated by the small inconvenience.

The other day, I was at the supermarket queuing at the “balance,” the self-service scale for produce where you weigh and tag your overpriced bananas and green beans. The guy in front of me was waiting for the machine to spit out the self-adhesive tag, I was right behind him. Suddenly, I saw a lady coming from the right positioning herself behind the guy. I knew what she was trying to do.

“Excusez-moi,” I said, “la queue est ici.”

“Oh, were you waiting in line?”

No, I’m counting broccoli leaves.

“Mais oui madame,” I replied.

We were utterly polite but we talked with enough disdain that any French would have understood that we were in fact arguing—the French way. Of course, foreigners would have marvelled at how polite the French are.

Even Mark started to say “bonjour” and “au revoir.”

Mark still understands French but he mostly speaks English and the new vocabulary he acquired over the past few months is en Anglais aussi. It doesn’t bother me—he will pick up French sooner or later, right now, he needs to develop his language skills and master at least the English language.

Feng’s parents talk to him in Chinese but my parents try to speak English. In fact, my entire family is polishing its high-school-level English. It’s pretty funny.

“Juliette… your parents are talking to each other in English,” Feng noticed the other day. I hadn’t paid attention, I’m used to switching back and forth and being the translator on call. I fill up vocabulary gaps (“How do you say ‘escargot’ in English?”) and I use my mind-reading skills with Mark (“I want to see movie” means “I want to go back to the modern art gallery where installations play a movie”).

Then, you have my grandfather who says “nein nein, achtung!” to Mark.

“You’re speaking German!” I said. “I’m not. I listen to the BBC all the time. That’s how I picked up English.”

“Mais non!”

“Mais oui! Look, Mark understands what I say.”

What do you want to say to that?!

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