Freelance journalists Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau moved with their daughters to Paris for a year to write this book. As native Quebecers they were already fluent in French, and in fact had already lived in Paris some years earlier. And yet, they found that the city and its inhabitants had changed since their last expat experience.
What The Bonjour Effect details is not how to speak French, but the conversation and language conventions used by the French. It’s more of a social history, with a large dose of language and linguistics thrown in.
For example, the first chapter explains in detail why saying Bonjour or Bonsoir is so important to the French. And then Nadeau and Barlow explain why visitors to France want to do the same. It’s so much more than a word. It’s an attitude, and when used by a non-French visitor, conveys respect and an attempt to understand the culture.
But this book is so much more. The authors explain why the French are so pessimistic. And how they hate to be wrong, something to which answering tourist questions makes them vulnerable. On the positive side, Barlow and Nadeau learned a lot about the French education system during their stay. Having kids in school introduced them to more about French families and child-rearing perspectives as well.
I bought this book shortly after we decided to travel to France this year. But, reading life being what it is, I didn’t start it until a few days before our trip started. So I was reading it while we were in France.
The timing turned out to be perfect. I was on top of my Bonjours from the start. And as I read about French culture, I was also seeing it in action in our hotel, the museums, and most especially the Metro. Now I know why people looked askance at me when I went to the hotel’s breakfast buffet alone one morning. In France people rarely eat alone, and are even a little suspicious of people who do so. For the record, my sweetie isn’t a breakfast person, nor was he feeling well that morning.
I had information at my fingertips when I noticed the differences between French families and U.S. families. For one, I thought French parents looked like they’d had kids earlier. Barlow and Nadeau confirmed that was likely. And French kids behaved amazingly well in a variety of settings. I noticed it most on our five-hour train trip. The kids in the seats just in front of us were engaged, peaceful, and incredibly well-behaved.
While I haven’t read other books with which to make a comparison, I do know that this particular book was the perfect accompaniment to our trip. It’s more learned than My Part-Time Paris Life, but not the slightest bit stuffy. If you’re looking to learn more about 21st century French traditions and behavior, I highly recommend this book. It’s approachable, funny, and a great balance between history and personal stories from the authors.