The Bonjour Effect by the husband and wife team of Canadian writers, Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow is an intriguing guide to understanding what the French are really saying. It’s written on the premise that even if you think you’re pretty fluent in French, the simple literal translation can leave out many of the cultural and societal nuances that hide behind the words.
Nadeau and Barlow have a good track record in tackling the complexities of France and the French. The authors of Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong and The Story Of French, they’ve lived and travelled extensively in France and French-speaking countries, and for their latest book, they spent a year living in Paris with their two young daughters from 2013 to 2014.
They start with one of the most familiar French words, ‘Bonjour’. Getting this wrong can lead to some very Gallic cold-shoulders. After eleven years living in the South West of France I dare not board a bus, buy an apple, walk into a bar, or sit down in a doctor’s waiting room, without saying Bonjour. Many of my French friends who have small businesses frequently complain about how rude the English tourists are – walking into their shops without even saying ‘bonjour’, rummaging through the racks, and walking out again without saying ‘Merci, au revoir’. For the leaving is as important as the arriving (something which sadly Nadeau/Barlow miss out in their chapter on Bonjour).
This is most definitely not a book to help you improve your French in the sense of a language/grammar guide book, although the authors did originally set out to write a learners’ guide called “How to Speak to the French in Twelve Easy Chapters.” Somewhat disarmingly, they confess that they departed from this structure because they, “met fascinating people, had surprising experiences, and ended up with lots of stories to tell.” And that’s exactly what makes this book a pleasure – the amazing number of anecdotes and observations on current French society from sexual mores to politics to business to education. Nadeau and Barlow then add in a layer of anthropological, linguistic, and historical details that make this book a fascinating exploration of French as spoken by the French.
It’s great to read alongside a fellow Francophile as the temptation to interrupt them in their activities and share nuggets of information is overpowering. As a life-long enthusiast with a view that my cup is always half full, I was puzzled by the French always moaning. But I now know why my French friends thought my enthusiasm was ‘charming but quaint’. In their eyes, ‘being happy seems naïve’. As the authors put it: “Overt pessimism has an elegant anti-establishment quality about it, like wearing all black.”
Concepts like ‘terroir’, the French obsession with food, the importance of philosophy for the French, how they approach education and raise their children, getting to grips with French identity (and the current issues surrounding racism in France) – all find a place in this book.
I wish it had been written before I came to live in France eleven years ago. Some things I’ve learned through trial and error, but some things – despite speaking pretty fluent French – have passed me by, and this book provides a brilliant explanation of aspects of French life and culture that for me, had got ‘lost in translation.’