July 2003 The French
 
On our trip to Lyon, we bought a book entitled "Au Contraire! Figuring out the French." It's published by Intercultural Press, Inc. and is apparently one of the "Interact Series" of books dealing with cross-cultural (mis)understandings.

One of the first things we read was that all Frenchmen know that their country is shaped like a hexagon. "There is nothing vague about the notion of the hexagon in the French mentality, … where it not only sums up the physical shape of the land but also shapes French culture. … The clarity and precision of geometric borders are reassuring for the French. … I think that France is the only country in the world that thinks of itself as a geometric figure. And it is important to be a geometric figure."

This seemed a remarkably forceful statement, so when we settled into our seats on the TGV from Lyon, we asked the Frenchwoman seated across from us, "what geometric shape is the country of France?" Without a second's hesitation, she replied, "Hexagon." She didn't add "bien sur," but it as clear she thought it. So, we thought that the book had some merit. And it does.

One of the attributes of French culture, according to 'Au Contraire', is a general lack of regard for other individuals (as opposed to a feeling of responsibility to other people collectively, which is quite strong, and a regard for friends and family). We vividly recalled the behavior of the French in ski lift lines, where they not only cut across in front of you but stomp on your skis with their sharp edges as they do so; we think this is what the authors are talking about. On the water, it manifests itself by a total disregard of other boats in anchorages. If an English of American boat is (in our opinion) anchoring too close to us, we get up from the cockpit, stand on the deck and simply stare at them. Embarrassed, they pull the hook back up and try again. With French boats, our behavior has absolutely no impact. They simply don't care what we think - and wouldn't care if we were French, either.

Rob just saw another example in the Calvi, Corsica, when he went to the waterfront one morning to buy some fish for a bouillabaisse. The fishing boats arrive at around 10:00, and they sell their meager catch right out of the boat. Rob showed up on the wharf at about 9:45, and a German couple arrived shortly thereafter. The boat didn't arrive until about 10:20, and as it approached the dock a woman drove up, double-parked her car, got out, and walked directly between Rob and the edge of the pier, where he was standing watching the boat moor. As soon as the boat was moored, the woman called out her order to the fishermen, who immediately filled it. In fact, the fishermen didn't turn to Rob until after they had filled about three other orders -- and the Germans didn't get served until after three more.

The fish alone cost more than $12 -- and what fish! Ugly, some red and some brown, with spiky dorsal fins and big mouths, bottom feeders all. But, that's what makes a bouillabaisse.

We used a recipe in our cruising guide, which claims to be the 'real bouillabaisse', given to the author by the grandmother of a friend, or something like that. It's not a lot like the recipes we're familiar with. It goes, basically, as follows: Sauté a medium onion and two cloves of garlic, add 250 g. of skinned tomatoes (this poses a question, as you'll see later), some fresh chopped parsley, a couple of bay leaves, thyme, fennel, and about a pound of rough fish, gutted and scaled. Cover with water and simmer for an hour or so, until it's a gruel. Sieve it to produce a thin stock (so, why did we skin the tomatoes?). Now add a decent fish, a tablespoon of rouille (which in our case we bought in a store), a heaped teaspoon of saffron threads, and cook over high heat for another five minutes or so. Remove the fish and serve separately.

The 'chowder' part is served into individual bowls, then croutons are floated in it. On top of each crouton, put a little rouille, then some grated cheese. Bon apetit!