Miss Manners

Are you polite? I used to think I was, until I moved to Reunion. Now it seems everything I do is inappropriate or offensive.

The most shocking difference I noticed upon arriving here was the attitude toward smoking. In Australia, smoking is prohibited at the beach, at playgrounds, and at restaurants (even outside). It’s considered very impolite to smoke next to others. In contrast, it seems that in France anything goes. You can smell cigarettes in every public place you visit. I once went to a restaurant where the owner smoked while he cooked and served the meal. I was so shocked I didn’t even know how to react.

Another difference in manners is the very particular expectations people have here in serving food. Pouring wine, slicing cheese, serving rice, beans and curry properly… everything has a specific order and technique. In Australia, we’re not fancy enough to have these rules. We believe that cheese is delicious no matter the shape it’s cut into.

In Reunion everyone cleans their house before their friends visit. In Australia we don’t really do that, unless we’ve invited our boss. It’s ok to ask a friend over for a cup of tea and biscuits while the house looks like a dump. And if we’re planning a party, it’s common to go see the neighbours and warn them in advance that there will be music and noise that night. In Reunion, I’ve gotten used to parties so loud that windows shake with the vibrations.

In case you think I believe Anglophones are more polite, there are some mannerisms I really appreciate here. For example, I love that everyone is greeted with a ‘bonjour’ when they step into a shop, office or even at a stall at the markets. And don’t get me started on saying ‘bon appetit’ when you see someone – even a stranger – eating. It’s another beautiful French habit that draws suspicion in my country.

There are hundreds of other differences, from being politically correct to how we take turns talking in conversations to how French kids all stand up when an adult enters the classroom. And don’t get me started on kissing and hugging or tu and vous!

But the biggest difference between the two cultures has to be the importance placed on these rituals. In the English speaking world, we have hundreds of newspaper columns, websites and books advising us on ‘social etiquette’ and how to behave appropriately in each context. The only advice I’ve found for how to be polite in France has been in articles written by English expats living in France. Apparently locals either all have perfect manners, or don’t take it as seriously as we do.

Vocabulary

playgrounds – aires de jeux
anything goes – tout est permis
even – même
pouring – verser
slicing – trancher / couper

fancy enough – assez sophistiqué
unless – à moins que
dump – taudis
warn – prévenir
loud – bruyant

shake – secouer
greeted – salué
stall – étal
take turns – prendre la parole, chacun son tour
hugging – une accolade

to advise – conseiller
either / or – soit /soit

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The Citrus Thief

A few months ago my mother-in-law came to visit the island, she found a nice house on the internet to stay free of charge, as long as she fed the cat and watered the garden. The house was located in Le Tampon, and the best part was the orchard. There were avocados, lemons, limes, oranges, mandarins, bananas and plants everywhere. My mother in law was enjoying waking up in the morning, picking some oranges to press for her morning juice, collecting some avocados for the salad with lunch, a nice juicy mandarin for a snack, and a few lemons to flavour the chicken for dinner.

This went on for about a week and just when she started to get into a routine she awoke one morning and all the oranges were gone! “That’s strange” she thought, since just the day before there were lots on the tree. Later on that day she contacted the owners of the house who were also quite surprised since that has never happened to them before. Well, the orange juice would have to be store bought from now on, which was not a big deal, after all there were still many other fruits left in the garden.

She carried on with her routine as usual, omitting the glass of orange juice of course, and lived comfortably for another couple of weeks, forgetting about the unfortunate loss of the oranges, when one morning she awoke only to realize that the citrus thief had struck again! This time stealing every last lemon! Now, if she were in Canada, she could blame the disappearing fruit on a bear, or raccoon. But, since this is not Canada and she can’t realistically blame the hedgehogs or chameleons, she started to ask herself: who was this thief and why did they want all of her citrus?

Unfortunately, this question would remain unanswered, but the garden was still full of limes, mandarins, avocados and bananas. In the weeks that followed the citrus thief struck one last time stealing all the mandarins except for one.. Which raises the question: why leave just one? Either the thief overlooked that one, or he/she started to feel bad for stealing all this fruit and left one little mandarin so that my mother in law could have a last drop of vitamin C.

In the end, there is no closure and this is a mystery that will remain unsolved. The worst part, is that the citrus thief is still on the loose! So, if you have lemons or oranges in your garden keep a close eye on them, and enjoy the fruit while it lasts, because you never know when it might just disappear!

Vocabulary

orchard – verger
lime – citron vert
to flavour – assaisonner
to awake – se réveiller
owner – propriétaire

not a big deal – pas un drame
unfortunate – malheureux
thief – voleur
citrus – agrume
to steal – voler

to blame – accuser
to strike – frapper
raccoon – raton laveur
hedgehog – hérisson/tangue
to remain – rester

overlooked – négligé
last drop – dernier goutte
closure – conclusion
unsolved – non résolu
on the loose – en liberté

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It’s Time for a Drink

It’s time for a drink! In Australia, you can basically say this sentence any time of the day, either to celebrate a special occasion or just because, and no one will be shocked.

In Australia, like most other English speaking countries, we have a drink when we feel like it: A beer at the pub at 5 to mark the end of a hard day’s work with fellow colleagues, cocktails at 6 with other friends followed by a glass of wine and nibbles and then a glass or two with dinner. And then, of course, ‘one for the road’! (one of the reasons why taxis are a lot more popular than in Reunion!). And the next day, it’s off to a brunch, which is obviously more exciting with champagne than tea!

That’s my life in Australia. And I’m not the only one who lives like that. My life in France however, is somewhat different. When I invited three friends for a champagne breakfast on the beach one year for my birthday, their first reaction was to ask “Really? Champagne? At 8am?” (after two glasses each, they were thrilled with the initial idea). 

On the weekends, when I reach for the bottle of wine at 3pm, my partner even after five years together is still quite shocked, but follows up with one of my very own expressions, “Well I guess it’s five o’clock somewhere in the world”. 

But the worst for me, is when I’m invited to a friend’s for dinner or when I’m staying with my in-laws and I’m obliged to respect the very French tradition of waiting for ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE to be together to start drinking. This is AFTER the painstaking process of waiting for everyone to choose what he or she wants drink, and then waiting for the host (who is alone in the drinks making task, as it’s out of the question that I help because I’m a guest) to prepare all of the drinks. During this time, I’m obliged to make small talk with everybody else when all I can think about is my damn drink that is sitting right in front if me but that I’m not ‘allowed’ to touch. So when everyone finally has their drinks (by this time, my glass of white is wine is now at room temperature) we have to look everyone in the eyes, clink glasses, make a toast and then I can FINALLY drink. 

And given that I’m at this point dying of thirst, my warm glass of wine goes down in about two minutes. Next dilemma, how to get a second glass… Stay tuned!

Vocabulary

nibbles – quelque chose à gringotter
one for the road – un dernier verre pour la route
brunch – un mélange entre breakfast et lunch
however – cependant
somewhat – assez

thrilled – ravi
in-laws – les beaux-parents
painstaking – laborieux
task – tache
make small talk – parler de la pluie et du beau temps

damn – fichu
room temperature – température ambiante
clink glasses – trinquer
finally – enfin
dying of thirst – mourir de soif 

stay tuned – restez à l’écoute

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Service With a Smile

Our island is famous for many things: stunning scenery, beautiful landscapes, cultural and ethnic diversity, and scrumptious food. However, nothing is perfect. Sometimes, the service in Reunion is far from satisfactory. Sometimes, it is very near to satisfactory. But the experience I had at a restaurant in the west of the island last month was so awful, so bad, so atrocious, that if ‘Satisfactory’ were a town, I can say that the service would have been so far from Satisfactory that I could have found myself in another galaxy.

There we were, five adults and four kids, all enjoying a Friday night meal ofmussels and chips.

Halfway through the meal, one of us discovered, in the bottom of the pot, amaggot. A big dead maggot. Now, you’re wondering what a ‘maggot’ is. Have a look at the vocab. Got it? I know. I nearly threw up. We told the waiter. He told the boss. The boss told his waiter to apologise. “No harm done” we said, “these things happen”.

Then my friend ordered a rum. Inside was something dark. Something crooked. Yes, it was the leg of a cockroach. I had had enough! My friends were being far too patient, so I picked up the cockroach leg and went to see the boss.

Typically British, I felt that all this was clearly my fault. But my Gallic side took over, and my guilt disappeared. “Erm, after the maggot, we have this…” I showed him the offending object. “It’s part of a cockroach.” He replied ‘no, that’s a bit of vanilla.’

I said, ‘I’m not an expert on vanilla, and I’m not an expert on cockroaches, but THIS is part of a cockroach.’

His wife appeared from the kitchen. She looked very angry indeed. “It’s impossible. We have no cockroaches in our kitchen!” she announced proudly.

“Are you suggesting that I go out to restaurants with bits of cockroach in my pocket for fun?” I countered.

Her reaction? She took a close look at my finger. Then grabbed the cockroach leg. And then yes, my friends, she put it in her mouth and she ate it. Like Luke Skywalker, I shouted ‘Noooooooooooooo!’

Chewing away, she went back into her kitchen shouting “you see, perfectly good!”

The boss then advised ME to go and sit down, as he was concerned that I wouldlose my temper. I was just trying not to throw up…

What could I do? What would you have done?

I didn’t want to annoy them. I just wanted to inform them of the problem. These things happen, even in 5 star hotels, it’s not the end of the world. But it’s all about how the situation is handled. And the way this situation was handled was light years from satisfactory.

Vocabulary

stunning – époustouflant
landscapes – paysages
scrumptious – succulent
satisfactory – satisfaisant
awful – affreux

far – loin
mussels – moules
maggot – asticot
to throw up – vomir
no harm done! – ya pas de mal !

crooked – crochu
guilt – culpabilité
cockroach – cafard
to grab – saisir
to lose your temper – perdre son sang froid

to handle – gérer
light years – années lumières

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Grand Bassin

There’s an expression in English: be careful what you wish for. A few years ago, I witnessed something that reminded me how true that is. It was 2009, and I was on my very first hike ever, in Grand Bassin. We had organised to go with a group of friends for the weekend. On Saturday, we descended, and it was great. It was a beautiful day, slightly cloudy and the perfect temperature for a walk. In the afternoon, we arrived at our destination and some of the group took a dip in the cold water. Then, we enjoyed a glass of rhum arrangé served by the owners of our gite, played cards and massaged our sore legs. I went to bed early in preparation for the steep hike up the next day.

The next morning, we woke up to a very hot and sunny day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and at 7am it was probably already 30°. We all covered ourselves in sunscreen, packed plenty of water and started our hike. Having never hiked before in my life, and being from an extremely flat town, I found the walk a bit tricky and regularly stopped to drink, rest and complain about the heat. But I shouldn’t have complained so much, because someone had a far worse experience than me.

About halfway to the top of the cliff, we came across a group of 3 hikers huddled together over a man who had collapsed. Within minutes, the deafening sound of propellers started and the other hikers signalled for us to hide behind a large boulder away from the rock face. A helicopter was about to land. After the unconscious man had been carried into the helicopter and it had flown away, we asked the remaining group members what had happened. It turns out that the group had set out with only a litre of water between the four of them on an extremely hot day, wearing flipflops and totally unprepared for the hours of walking ahead of them. When his friends had warned him about how challenging and hot the hike was going to be, he laughed and said: “don’t worry, it’ll be easy. I’ll just get a helicopter to come pick me up!”

Their story has stayed with me through all these years as proof that our words and imagination can be pretty powerful.

Vocabulary

to wish – espérer
to witness – être témoin de quelque chose
to hike – randonner
cloudy – nuageux
to take a dip – piquer une tête

flat town – ville plat
tricky – difficile
to complain – se plaindre
halfway – à mi-chemin
huddled – regroupés

to collapse – s’évanouir
deafening – assourdissant
boulder – rocher
flip-flops – savates
to pick someone up – récoupérer quelqu’un

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