Vive la Difference!

The lake in front of Granny’s house

I spent a couple of days in Ireland last week, visiting my mother.  Each time I go back, I feel more and more like a stranger in a strange land (any other sci-fi nerds out there?).  This time, I even started to notice the differences while I was waiting for my flight in London.   Read on, and see if you can relate to what I’m talking about…

Transport

I remember on my first trip to the US, back in ’82, thinking how strange cars look with the steering wheel on the left hand side.  Well, cars now look weird to my eyes when the steering wheel is on the right hand side.  My brain screams out “Waaagh, where’s the driver?  Oh, on the other side.”  It happens all the time.

And on the subject of cars… while I (mostly) manage to drive on the correct side of the road for whichever country I’m in, remembering which door to use to get into my mother’s car blows my mind every single time.  And that carries over when I get back to France… I have to stop and think “Which side?” for the first week or so.  And even then, I frequently get it wrong.

Meeting and Greeting

There are strict protocols to be followed when greeting people down here in deepest, darkest Provence.

When you meet a friend or family member, you kiss in greeting.  The number of kisses varies from region to region.  Around here, it’s one on each cheek.  15 kilometres away in St Martin, it’s three.  How the hell are you supposed to know these things??  Apparently, you’re supposed to be able to follow the lead of the other person and keep on exchanging kisses until they stop, but I’ve never been any good at following a lead when dancing, so why should this be any different for me?  I’ve disengaged early far too many times, but thankfully I am forgiven because I’m a foreigner (and apparently, my accent is ‘mignon’).  In general, people seem to start on the left, then go right, then go left again as necessary.  I stick to this left-right-left system as a rule of thumb, but despite my best efforts, there have been one or two awkward On-The-Lips moments when I meet a practitioner of the right-left-right system.

When you meet an acquaintance or a business associate, you MUST shake hands.  The LSH was helping a friend install some equipment in their shop and was fascinated by how much time was taken up with hand-shaking first thing in the morning.  Everyone went around the room shaking hands on arrival.  The last person in had fifteen hands to shake.  I’m not kidding, thirty minutes of the work day went on hand-shaking.

Each time I go back to Ireland, I find it harder and harder to drop these rules.

For example…

Greeting Family

When I arrive at my mum’s house, I have to remind myself to greet her with our normal Irish family greeting – a big bearhug and a kiss. I must not slip up and bisous her officiously on each cheek.  That would not go down well.

Greeting Friends

If I were to greet my Irish friends with a kiss on each cheek, they would recoil in horror and gossip about “Yer wan and her fancy French ways” afterwards.  If I fail to greet my French friends this way (but only the FIRST time I see them each day.  This is part of the protocol, too.  I wish there was a guide book, it took me ages to figure that one out) they think I’m in a huff.  It comes naturally to me, now.  So much so, that in Ireland, I have to stop myself from running around kissing everyone.

Greeting Acquaintances

When my mother’s home help arrives in the morning, I find it strange that she sticks her head in the door and says Hello to me.  What’s wrong with that?  Well, we should be shaking hands of course!  I have to force myself to remain seated, resisting the urge to go over to formally shake her hand.  It’s the same with Seán, who’s been doing odd jobs in the garden and around the house for more than twenty years.  There’s no doubt that if I was greeting him over here, there would be a handshake at the very least, but most probably we’d kiss each other warmly on each cheek.  Over there, it’s a “Howiya! How’s it going?” sort of greeting.

Greeting strangers

I live in a tiny village here in Provence.  And it’s just damn rude if you do not greet everyone you pass in the street with a polite “Bonjour.”  My mum lives in a slightly larger village in Co Clare.  And, over there, it’s just damn weird if you say “Hello” to everyone you pass.  And it’s even weirder if you say “Bonjour.”  Yes, it happened.  No, I don’t want to talk about it.

Chit Chat

Ah, the weather.  Where would the art of conversation be without it?  While I was away in Ireland, it rained very heavily here in Provence.  For a morning.  The whole village was talking about it for the next week.

The day before I left Ireland, the sun shone ALL DAY LONG!  And it even shone the next day!  All of a sudden, people were smiling at strangers and saying things like “Great day, thank God.”  If the sun shone all the time in Ireland, we’d be the happiest people on earth.  Just imagine, maybe the Fields of Athenry would never have been written – what would we sing at rugby matches instead?

Also, note how the Irish always throw in a divine thanks when something good happens.  Even the non-believers.  To be sure, to be sure.  I’m sure there are some French people who say “Grace à Dieu” from time to time, but I haven’t met any of those ones.  Yet.

Food is a topic of conversation that comes up regularly in both cultures.  It’s the same.  But different.

Because only the Irish could have an in-depth conversation about all the ways they love to eat potatoes.  Yes, I was there.  Yes, I was even an active participant in the conversation.  And no, I wasn’t faking it.  I do love to eat potatoes.  In many different way.  But they must be proper, floury spuds, not those greasy, soapy things they serve over here.

Conversely, only in France will you overhear a group of young men having an in-depth discussion about the best wines to serve with foie gras.  Yes, I was there, too.  No, it was not a group of well-to-do young toffs, it was a bunch of normal lads, some of whom work in agriculture, some in construction.  They sure as hell know their wines from a young age over here…

Fashion

I knew I was with Irish people when I was waiting for my Ryanair flight to Shannon and I spotted three bright orange young ladies, sporting Amy Winehouse-type updoes, three-inch long eyelashes and shocking-pink velour track suits.  I’m sure they thought they looked fabulous, and the young men with them seemed to find them attractive, but.  Ehhhhh.  No.  ‘Nuff said.

On the other side of the coin, a long long time ago, I was queuing for a flight to Nantes when I realised that I was the only person in the queue who was not wearing a black coat.  Boy oh boy, but the French sure are conservative about outerwear.  ‘Nuff said.  Again.

d’Electric

Light switches.  How can anything as commonplace as a light switch cause trouble?  Very easily…

In France, when the switch is down, the light is off.  In Ireland, it’s the opposite.  WHY?  Isn’t that something that the EU could have standardised, instead of bananas and carrots?  This generally doesn’t cause a problem until you’re faced with a multi-switch panel and you turn every single light on and off until you finally find the one you want.  I’m sure my neighbours sometimes think I’m trying to send out an SOS some evenings…

And then there’s switch for the bathroom light.  In Ireland, it’s NEVER EVER inside the bathroom, it’s outside, on the wall beside the door.  For safety reasons, I believe, because electricity and water don’t mix.  For the same reason, you will never find an ordinary electrical socket in a bathroom.  In France?  The light switch is inside the bathroom.  Usually (but not always) beside the door.  And our bathroom has two ordinary electrical sockets positioned just above the twin sinks.  And, strangely, I have yet to be electrocuted in my bathroom.  But watch this space.  It could happen.

Speaking of bathrooms brings up something which holds a special place at the heart of every Irish household.

The Immersion

This is great big copper tank, used to heat water, which can be found in the hot press, swathed in lagging jackets and blankets.  The hot press has been an Irish institution for generation.  It’s where you keep your spare bedclothes, clothes and towels, so that they can benefit from any micro-therms of heat which slip out through the immersion’s insulation.  The Immersion has a setting which allows it to heat just a ‘sink’ full of water or you can go mad altogether and flick it to ‘bath’ (but just once a week, right?).  Normally, it also has a timer connected to it, so that the household has hot water at the appropriate times of day.  Despite this, every single Irish Mammy that ever existed has been known to cry out in pain “Oh no! I forgot to turn the immersion off!”

Compare and contrast to the French equivalent of an Immersion.  Great big tank, yes.  Presumably copper, but you can’t be sure because it has a sort of built-in insulation wrapped around it.  No big puffy lagging jackets; no extra blankets draped over it.  And (gasp of horror) it doesn’t live in a hot press, it lives wherever is handy.  Like in a corner of the garage.  Or in a little annex at the back of the house, cold and uninsulated, as in our rented house in Cereste.

To be fair, the built in insulation seems to work quite well, because that little annex was bloody freezing in the winter, so it was no good at all for airing clothes.

But much more seriously… there was no sink or bath option.  The only option was to have a gigantic tank of hot water.  And, in fact, that’s all we ever had.  A gigantic tank of hot water.  All.The.Time.  Because not only was there no sink/bath switch, there wasn’t even an on/off switch.

It’s enough to give any self-respecting Irish Mammy heart failure.

Ehmmm excuse me, I think you left the immersion on

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14 thoughts on “Vive la Difference!

  1. Oooh, don’t get me started on double light switches 😅 Horrible! In Sweden the light is off if its down, at least in our little casa. My spouse is a former electrition…so if he got it wrong all the time, that could be an explenation. 😉 And we also have electricity in the bathroom, without a warning lable. Maybe this is a kind of natural selection thing to keep the numbers in check (oh, that was dark, I know 😝) When we lived in a flat in the city, I found myself one day in the entrance hall, I was about to leave for a shopping tour and was fumbling in my bag to find the door keys (that’s an intercontinetal thing, I guess), when I heard a door being opened on the level below, coming from the garage. I was waiting for a person to come up the stairs, because there is nothing else down there, but nobody came up the stairs. Then it hit me! “No seriously??” I thought to myself. I just closed the door and stayed quiet. 10 seconds later a woman came up the stairs. I sayed “Hej” put the (by then found) key in the door, locked and went my way and left a completely shocked swedish women in the hallway. What I learned later was that this is like a sport. Swedish people don’t want to meet their neighbours in the hallway. They even check the spy-hole to make sure nobody else it out there before they leave their flat. But guess what, I caught myself doing that exact same thing the last time I was in Germany. 😂😂😂

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    • Hahaha, city people are weird!!! I hate cities! And when I’m in a city I tend to scuttle around and not make eye contact with anyone because they might be big bad evil city folk. Weird, eh.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Having lived in half a dozen foreign countries, I was always at a loss at the local culture. I was constantly trying to apply the social niceties that I”d learned from the LAST country I”d lived in . For instance, people in Korea were always saying Hello, How do you do? in excellent English, the. Germans would look at you as if you had your head on backwards. The Saudis would sooner die than say hello to a WOMAN…especially one NOT in a chadour (aka burka) and carrying a rifle and a handgun.

    I’d have that same surreal feeling, almost an out of body experience when I’d return to the US after several years absence. My subconscious would say, didn’t there used to be a building here? Or my god they drive insanely these days. The cliches and phrases that had been fashionable the last time I was in the States are so forgotten that people look at you strangely if you happen to use it.
    an analogy to what is going is this. Let’s say you meet an old friend after many years. The last time you met: oh, fifteen years ago, she had a chatterbox, happy toddler at foot.
    In your mind, that toddler does not grow up. You still think of Old Friend with the toddler but today you meet here with a 17 year old, sullen teenager who is embarrassed to be seen with his mother and only grunts acknowledgement of your existence.. Kids don’t grow up in our memories, and our homelands don’t, either. But they do, just as we are changing all the time when elsewhere.

    As for the cars: my husband and I went to Australia in 2013. I took the online driving test before going there. Only because I’d driven in Europe did I have no problems whatsoever with the signs, etc. BUT…driving on the wrong side of the road was…oh, was challenging for a while, and became tiring after several weeks. We were continually going to the wrong side door, as you mentioned. I said to my hostess, you should put a neon arrow pointing over the driver’s head that says Warning, Yank Driver.
    She said, oh, we have no problems whatever figuring out you’re American…you turn on the windshield wipers when you signal for a turn! (and vice versa…)

    I learned that I’d lived outside the US long enough when I was able, for the first time ever, to actually hear what my home state’s of Michigan’s accent sounds like. Despite television, there are still accents, although they are waning, as everyone on TV speaks with a Midwestern accent. I’m sure you’ve all heard the Southern drawl, but that, too, is going away in a big hurry. Still, I can always tell a Minnesotan, a Wisconsin native, and a Chicago (Illinois) accent. When I got to Michigan to visit family, I realized that I was hearing a Michigan accent.
    Hmmm. I thought, well, obviously, I have lost my Michigan accent. I’ve left there at 19 and haven’t moved back. Obviously I’ve lost it, right?
    Nope. I was recorded the first night at ‘home’ and heard myself…yup. Still sounding Michigander after all these years.

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    • I think because I go back to Ireland regularly, I don’t see such huge differences in the environment or in language. But I do find the ritual meeting and greeting customs hard to drop. It took a long time for them to feel ‘normal’ and they are really engrained in my subconscious now.
      I was also very good at recognising US regional accents the first couple of times I was there. I spent a summer working in a resort in NJ and by the end of the summer I could identify accents from Philly, New York city, New Jersey, Baaaaston and Canada (not US I know but we had a lot of Canadian tourists!) I spent a year in LA – there’s no real accent there, mid-western as you said, and then another stint in Chicago, so I could identify Chicago and wisconsin accents. I thought I had lost that particular knack but as you said, maybe it’s just that the regions are losing their accents due to the pervasive influence of telly

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  3. I’d agree with Annette that over her we are more like France with electric. Not much kissing but some handshaking when necessary. My daughter has been to Ireland many times and recently went to Scotland to do a walking tour of the standing stones. She loves both countries. I think it helps she has Scottish and Irish roots. I’m not sure I could handle the driving on the right side but I’d give it a try. My daughter didn’t seem to have a problem with it in either country. I think it’s nice when folks say hello or greet you on the street or in stores. We get some of that here but not always.

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    • When we had our left-hand drive car in Ireland a couple of years ago it completely confused both the LSH and me. Each of us drove on the wrong side of the road twice, but thankfully with no disastrous effects! That’s the worst we’ve been… I never drove on the wrong side when we had the Irish car here for the first year.

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    • But I bet you get confused about which door of the car to go to!
      And as for driving on the correct side… well that’s overrated in my opinion.
      Enjoy the spuds. And have some black pudding while you’re there!

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  4. This is really funny. I think we are more like France here in the US than Ireland, surprisingly. Light switches are up for on, light switches are inside the bathroom, and our water heaters are like those in France. And our cars are the same, too. But we don’t kiss in greeting and our hand shakes are much more moderate — saved for first time meetings, or work meetings. I do like the French custom of saying Bonjour to everyone; especially in shops. It feels so welcoming, even if it is a formality. My son has been to Ireland a few times recently, for work, and really enjoys the people and the pubs.

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    • About the d’electric… you guys only have 110V coming out of the sockets in the US. Not enough to kill you, in general so I can understand a lackadaisical attitude towards mixing electricity and water over there. We have the full homicidal 220V over here in Europe. Why is this considered dangerous on the British Isles but not in the rest of Europe? Who knows…
      That’s great that your son (Kyle?) has been travelling! Great to hear that he’s enjoyed Ireland… tell him to try to go to Cork and Kerry…. It’s so much fun to explore the world when you’re young! My eldest daughter is currently adventuring around Asia… scary for her mom but a great experience for her!

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