All things cheese in France

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Terroirs and Nationalities

If cheese, wine and other food stuffs have terroir which defines their nature relative to the place they arise from, could one say that people's nationality is similar to terroir? I have pondered this question ever since I moved to France - Paris to be exact, then the United Kingdom - London and then back again to Paris. Were the French like a big intense Époisses, the English like a West Country Cheddar and us Americans like…Velveeta?  

Living and working in France and the UK, across Europe and in the Emirates, I came across many different cultural styles and just like terroir, began to attribute certain characteristic behaviour to each of them. I never saw the French as rude and arrogant, probably because to me, their comportment was specific to their surroundings. They were direct and straight-forward; extremely dynamic. Okay they could be contentious but they were always intensely committed to what they believed. For me, they and their motivations were totally understandable (even though speaking French) and accessible.  

When I moved to the UK, I thought, wow, now I will be able to understand everything that's going on because of course, they speak English…well this proved to be typical expat thinking and a big trap because although the language is English, it is spoken or rather delivered in an extremely different manner. A great deal of communication in the UK and specifically England is subtext and non-verbal. This attribute proved to render understanding anything that was going on there (even in a language in which I was fluent) more difficult and sometimes downright incomprehensible.  

The Emirates were even more fascinating. The working echelons, like any wine or cheese were certainly the product of their own culture but having been shipped off at 18 or 19 to the UK or the US, they acquired another terroir as it were. They were capable of displaying their own cultural terroir, Arabic culture, as well as the veneer of the acquired occidental culture, separately, intermingled or intermittently at will. To deal with this was intriguing and a very slippery slope and strained my theory of terroir and nationality a bit.  

To explain what I had learned to my colleagues in America, the terroir analogy was a bit of a stretch, so another one worked better. What does NO mean to each of these cultures? In my dealings with Germans, it quite simply meant no, not possible. To the English, no meant 'oh sorry, not certain but could be nice'. To the French, no means no - but, i.e., if you can convince me you and your argument are worthy, it could change to yes. To the Italians, no always meant 'anything is possible bella, so let's have lunch and we'll work it out'. In the Emirates, no meant absolutely nothing, no is the beginning of a negotiation. Although simplistic, this always helped bewildered and flustered American colleagues.  

I was recently asked to write an article on the subject of cultural differences between the French and Americans for The American Magazine, published in the United Kingdom. Instead of cheese references, I found another one more relevant and rather amusing. If you are interested, here is the link to the article Smile - We're all Cats and Dogs