“Not everyone thinks like the French,” the French company Naval Group’s program director Jean-Michel Billig, is quoted as saying. “We have to make a necessary effort to understand that an Australian does not think like a French person, and that it’s not better or worse, it’s just Australian.”
They’re bringing in courses “in a bid to smooth out cultural differences between French and Australian staff”, and I am here to say, Monsieur Billig, that in terms of teaching the Australians about the French, le Docteur est in la maison!
As one who lived for four years among your fine people in the small but wondrous French village of Donzenac, playing rugby for the nearby town of Brive – and has returned every year since – I think you can rely on me to give my compatriots a quick crash course.
Regardez! Bring it in tight, you bastards!
First thing to get your melons around is that the French are fabulous people, it’s just that when it comes to being a weird mob, they are the gold medallists, while we can only crack it for silver.
The second thing to realise is that their wonderful creativity actually originates from their sometimes shambolic nature. If I may draw on the celebrated Jean Cocteau bon mot that the “French are just the Italian in a bad mood”, you must conjure with this line from Orson Welles:
“In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Legs-eleven! Double-le-ditto for the French. Don’t try to tighten the parameters within which their French flair reigns, embrace it. It’s just the way they are.
In rugby, it always stunned me that the French referee saying “get back 10 metres” never meant “that distance between nine and 11 metres”. It meant “get back a bit”. Equally, if a “knock-on” was just a very little one the standard procedure was just to play on and there was none of this strange Anglo obsession with observing black-letter law. They want the spirit of something, rather than the dull literal meaning.
Hence a meeting at 10 am, doesn’t actually mean at 10 am, it means as soon as you can after 10 am, and we’ll see how we go.
But, and make no mistake, if that meeting goes until lunchtime, it will be stopped rigidly at lunchtime because the only thing that can get in way of lunch is . . . dinner, should our lunch run long.
Praise the Lord, and pass the wine!
For you see, here is the key to the French. Beyond being world leaders in submarine technology, they’ve also got the market cornered on all the finer things to do with pleasure – from cuisine, to wine, to fashion, to art, to, yes, sexual expression. It’s just in their blood, and nothing can get in its way.
One time when I put my grubby paw around a glass of cognac ready to knock it back, four of my team mates – all of them rough, gnarled forwards, missing teeth – staged an intervention. Peterrrr, that is not the way to drink cognac they gravely informed me. First you have to put the glass between the third and fourth fingers of your right hand, cup the glass and warm it up, before putting your left hand over the top, leaving a small spot to sniff the vapours before sipping, to fully savour the flavour.
“How do you know that,” I asked, stunned. “Who taught you?”
“How can you not know that?” they replied. “Do they teach you nothing in Australie?”
Not like that, no. But I can remove the top off a beer bottle with my teeth, if that helps?
Now, when it comes to the French language, there is no need, of course, to get your head around it all. But mastering a few key phrases will help, heaps.
For me, when playing the likes of Toulon, Nice and Bayonne the most key phrase of all was “Excusez-moi, mais je crois que les testicules que vous tirez sont les miennes,” – excuse me, but I think you’ll find those are my testicles you’re pulling – but you can probably skip that one.
(At least I hope so. If you have to use that, we may assume that the cultural clashes have got a little out of hand.)
In your case just a few key phrases might do the trick.
Start with “Dites, ce n’est pas une fuite, c’est ça?» Say, that’s not a leak, is it ? and work your way backwards from there.
Bonne chance, and let’s hope you all find Octobre Rouge, Red October together!
Twitter : @Peter_Fitz
Peter FitzSimons is a journalist and columnist with The Sydney Morning Herald.