I would ask you to take note of two things before you start reading this latest Home Thought From Abroad — or, to be more exact, since you’ve already started reading it, before you reach the third paragraph. Firstly, there is no hyphen, not even an implied one, between the words Body and Language: this is not a mini treatise on the art of finding the French mind’s construction in the French face (with my sincere apologies to William for murdering his rhythms). So if that’s what you thought you were going to find, you’ll only be disappointed: please move on and don’t hold up the queue.
Secondly, this little tract should not be attempted by those of a puritanically nervous disposition: this is about the body, its functions (well, one of them at any rate), and the way the French feel about such things. In short, parts of it are irretrievably contaminated with words which are guaranteed to offend the prudish. You have been warned…
There are many books one can read on the most important things to do, and the best way to behave, when one is thinking of coming to live in France. Much of the advice they give is so obvious as to be silly. For example, no sentient being needs to be told in so many words that it is not a good idea to march up and down the Champs Elysées, carrying an enormous union flag, and shouting: “We knocked seven bells out of the bloody Frogs at Waterloo” at the top of one’s voice. Behaving in this way would, at the very least, tend to slow down your assimilation into French society (and merely substituting ‘Agincourt’ for ‘Waterloo’ is really no improvement). But one useful maxim on which all the books seem to agree is this rather subtle one: “By all means try to integrate yourself into everyday French life — but don’t try to behave like the French.”
I found this one very interesting, largely because I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. Were black-and-white striped pullovers, à la mythical onion seller, a no-no, for example? Should I only ride my bicycle the correct and lawful way down one-way streets — and never on the pavement? Must I be perpetually doomed to be the only person prepared to queue for a bus?…
It took me a good few years of avid French-Watching to work out what this Golden Rule is really about. And a good deal of what I discovered related to the human body: the French do not think about it in anything like the way that we Anglo-Saxons do. In that particular regard, our two races could have originated on different planets from opposite ends of the galaxy.
The fact that there’s a public ‘topless’ beach only five miles or so from the centre of Montpellier should have been a fairly broad hint, I suppose. (I even went there, a few years ago, when the psoriasis was bad. I sat for hours on that beach: under a parasol, supplied with endless cans of Kronenbourg, while well-meaning people kept asking me, for some unaccountable reason, if I was comfortable…) I ought to have realised then that the French attitude to the body is totally alien to our own.
[As an aside, I stress that this attitude is in no way related to the faux pas committed by a friend of ours here (she nearly speaks English) who once told us that, were we to go down to the Antigone quarter the following Sunday morning, we should see “many of the local tradesmen exposing themselves in the street.” Because if I tell you that the French verb for ‘to exhibit’ is exposer, and add that the tradesmen in question were holding a street-fair, each with a stall displaying their goods and services, I think you’ll understand what she trying to say. But to resume...]
I intentionally ignored the fact that, during the summer months, many of the locals tend to wander about in not-a-lot (though, according to my aesthetic sense, it might be better if some of the parts so freely displayed were encased in reinforced concrete to a depth of several inches). Montpellier has a hot climate, and warm climes tend to call for appropriate amounts of clothing: this is not John O’Groats in February. And so (perhaps because the heat was slowing down my brain) it took a little while before the penny finally dropped. But when it did drop, the resonating clang! was deafening. It happened one evening on a balcony…
Let me set the scene. It was well-past eleven on a July night. The day had been sweltering; even at this late hour the apartment felt hot and airless. Hache was standing on our little balcony, trying to get some breeze from the street. I’d just left her to go and get a beer from the fridge. As I was coming back I heard her say (and with no little surprise in her voice): “You’re not going to believe this, but there’s a Sumo wrestler living across the street from us!”
Glass duly refilled, I rejoined her on the balcony. “Which flat?” She pointed. It had double French windows giving onto its balcony; the curtains were not drawn and the lights inside were full on. I could see the back view of a large, rectangular-looking, and totally naked person as they wandered about — cooking, I thought — and I instantly understood why the word Sumo had popped into Hache’s mind: one of those upper arms would have made at least three of one of my thighs.
Two things happened at that point. Hache decided to freshen her G&T and left the balcony. The wrestler turned round to speak to a small boy who was sitting on the balcony. (He was trying to entice their next-door neighbour’s cat into jumping across to him, with — to judge by the expression on his cherubic little face — every intention of throttling it should it be half-witted enough to do so.)
“Darling,” I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Sumo wrestler wearing a 42 DD ’bra, but this one probably does — when she gets dressed.”
It was, indubitably, what my friend Alistair would have called ‘a fine big girl’. And this FBG continued to meander around the place without a care in the world. She couldn’t not have realised that she was fully visible from the other side of the street (which is wall-to-wall apartments from end-to-end and pavement-to-roof): the lighting, chez elle, would have been more than adequate for the stage of the Alhambra in the opening scene of Oklahoma! She simply never gave it a second thought. She was at home. And when she was ‘at home’, on a hot summer night, she felt entitled not to wear anything. Ergo, she didn’t: it was entirely her choice; nothing to do with anyone else. Q.E.D. But (and this is the punch-line) when I saw her in the street the following morning, as she set off for the market to get her greens, she was as demurely dressed as any Presbyterian Minister could have wished: Knights Templar, in full armour, used to reveal more flesh than she now did. But this was now and here; the other was then and there; and, to the French way of thinking, they had absolutely nothing in common, so no moral contradiction was implied.
That really started me wondering, as you might imagine, and my studies intensified. A bit of careful digging then revealed that it wasn’t just the attitude towards bodily display that was different: bodily functions were also included. I cite as proof the following paragraphs. They have been extracted (with only slight modification) from that source and fount of all on-line knowledge, Wikipedia. They relate to a French artiste known as ‘Le Pétomane’:
Le Pétomane, was the stage name of the French flatulist (professional farter) and stage entertainer Joseph Pujol (June 1, 1857–1945). He was famous for his remarkable control of the abdominal muscles, which enabled him to seem to fart at will. His stage name combines the French verb péter, (to fart) with the suffix -mane, which therefore translates as ‘fartomaniac’. The profession is also referred to as ‘farteur’, or ‘fartiste’.
It is a common misconception that Joseph Pujol actually passed intestinal gas as part of his stage performance. Rather, Pujol was able to ‘inhale’ or move air into his rectum and then control the release of that air with his anal sphincter muscles. Evidence of his ability to control those muscles was seen in the early accounts of demonstrations of his abilities.
Some of the highlights of his stage act involved sound effects of cannon fire and thunderstorms, as well as playing ‘O Sole Mio’ and ‘La Marseillaise’ on an ocarina through a rubber tube in his anus. He could also blow out a candle from several yards away…
(On a purely personal note, I find myself far from spiritually elevated by the fact that the French verb to fart and my preferred forename are differentiated solely by a microscopic blob of ink over the first e…)
And, should you choose to believe that this is a ‘one-off’ — in so far as being quite acceptable to French sensibilities, I mean — then let me instantly disabuse you of that notion by quoting certain current colloquial expressions from my French-English dictionary:
Il veut péter plus haut que son cul (lit. He thinks he can fart from higher than his arse): He’s a cocky bugger.
Péter dans la soie (lit. To fart in the silk): To live in the lap of luxury.
L’affaire lui a pété dans la main (lit. The affair farted in his hand): The deal fell through.
Se péter la gueule (lit. To fart in one’s own mouth): To fall flat on one’s face.
Péter le feu/les flammes (lit. To fart fire/flames): To be full of go/beans.
Ça va péter des flammes (lit. That’s going to fart flames): There’s going to be a heck of a row.
Péter les plombs (lit: To fart (lead) weights): To go off the rails.
I rest my case.