European Manners

How Language and Manners are Interlocked in a Culture

This ‘Travel Tale’ will be a little different . . . only a few photos, just the ramblings and observations of a travelling wordsmith, always wondering; what does that word really mean, or does anyone know the etymology?

I have always been fascinated by languages . . . their history, structure, and especially their evolution . . . how they change over time and adapt to the conditions around us.  A good example of this is the way we greet each other . . . especially in North America.  The standard greeting these days seems to be “Hay!”, usually answered by the same thing . . . “Hay!”  Just watch any movie or series on TV, unless it’s a period piece, that’s what you hear.  Whatever happened to “Hello”, or even “Hi”, or “How are you?” or shortened to “Howdy”.

Everybody wants to shorten things down to the point where the original meaning is lost.  I notice in Europe the same thing is happening, although not as fast.  In Germany, Guten Morgen is shortened to Morgen!  France has abbreviated the formal Comment allez vous? and informal Comment ça va, down to Ça va?. Italy still uses Buon Giorno and Greece uses Kaliméra, although I am sure they all have their shortened versions.

The main point of this story is to relate a few anecdotes about language and manners that we have encountered in our travels over the years.  ‘Language and manners’  . . . the two are almost inseparable, linked together to form an integral part of the culture.  The examples I use are mainly in France, or about French people and manners.  For years people used to tell us “The French are so arrogant” . . . “the French are stiff and not very polite . . .”   As we started travelling in France, or had exposure to French people, we soon learned ‘Not So!’  We discovered that the French people are just very polite!  They are reserved and cautious about initiating a conversation or even responding to one.  We found that to strike up a conversation with someone in France, the most important thing to remember is to start the conversation with “Bonjour!”  This seems to be the ice-breaker for all conversations.  By starting with this, you usually get a like reply “Bonjour”.  Once that hurdle has been cleared, you can then begin your original conversation ,  like ‘where is the museum’, or whatever.  I’m not sure, but I think they consider it rude for someone to just start off with a request for information.  First, establish some rapport, then proceed.

A brief look at how some European countries handle this wonderful time from Author Ian Kent
Gasthaus Goldener Hirschen  (The Golden Deer, or Stag)

The first anecdote took place in this restaurant in Bregenz, Austria.  Bregenz is a lovely small city in western Austria, right on the shores of the Bodensee, or Lake Constance.  This city and restaurant features prominently in my novel ‘Reaction’, where my protagonist Jake Prescott reacts to some ‘bad guys’ here and eventually meets his new love, Sabrina.

But I digress. . .

Diana & I were having dinner one evening with our daughter at the before mentioned restaurant, which was very busy that evening because of some TV crews filming something in the restaurant.  We were asked if we minded sitting at a table with another couple off to one side of the restaurant.  No problem, we said, so we were seated at a large table with a French couple from Paris.  We enjoyed their company as we sipped our wine, waiting for our food to arrive.  As it happened, their food arrived first, and they continued to converse and sip wine.  Eventually, our food arrived, and as soon as it was put on the table, the other couple picked up their utensils and announced “Bon appetit!” and began to eat.

We suddenly realized that their Parisienne manners dictated that they could not begin eating until we had our food as well.  We talked about this later and decided we were glad that our food hadn’t arrived first . . . I’m not sure my crude North-American manners would have stood the test!  Just a small thing, but something we’ve remembered ever since as an example of ‘classy’ manners.

The second anecdote is just a small incident that occurred while we drove around the French countryside with our daughter.  Stopping at a small cafe at the outskirts of village, the three of us went in for a French lunch.  There were about a dozen people scattered around, having their lunch.  As we entered, all activity ceased . . . everyone stopped what they were doing, put down their utensils and looked up to us.  We glanced around, a bit surprised, but we knew at that point what was expected of us.  So all three of us nodded to each group in the cafe, with a “Bonjour, Bonjour!”.  Everyone looked relieved, nodded in return, and continued with their meal.  The three of us were a bit amazed at the response that a simple ‘Bonjour’ had produced.  Remembering our manners, when we left the place, after paying the bill, we turned and nodded again to the remnants of the lunch crowd and said  ‘Au revoir’ as we left.  This time, we were answered with several ‘Au revoirs’ from the other patrons of the cafe, and we carried on, this lesson in French manners fresh in our minds.

The third incident was in the Alsace region of France, at a Gite/winery we stayed at for several days.  One day, as we visited the tasting room and conversed as much as we could with the others, we noticed they were washing out one of the huge wine barrels, large tanks for storing the wine.  They had a large manhole cover off, and a water hose and an electric light were strung into the tank, so whoever was inside could pressure wash the inside.  After some time, as we tasted more wines, they decided the tank was clean, and they began to pull out the hose and the electric light.  The last thing to emerge from the tank was a young man, fully clothed in waterproof gear, crawling out on his hands and knees, and eventually standing up. 

Now . . . picture this . . . he had just been inside this big tank, pressure washing it from to top to bottom, wet, cold, crawling out and bringing himself upright to face us. 

What does he do?  As soon as he spotted us . . . obviously tourists from another country, etc., he smiles, nods his head and says “Bonjour, Bonjour!”

We almost burst out laughing, but he was just displaying his manners to the guests of the establishment, so we just smiled politely and returned his Bonjours.

Talking about it later, we realized this young man had been trained, most likely by his parents, to be polite at all times . . . something our youth could learn.

Caveau des Chevaliers de Malte from Author Ian Kent
Caveau des Chevaliers de Malte

The last anecdote involves a restaurant in the same village.  A very popular restaurant, called Caveau des Chevaliers de Malte.  There is so much history in this village . . .Niedermorschwirhr,  I mentioned in another tale about the Alsace that the crest for this village is a head of a black faced Moor.  The Chevaliers de Malte . . .  the knights of Malta, or the Knights Templar.  In any case, a great restaurant, so the first time we tried to get a reservation, they were booked.  As we stayed in the village for several days, we tried again and ended up  enjoying dinner several times, and enjoyed talking with the hostess, a lovely woman.  As it happened, the day we had to leave, we ate dinner there, but they were so busy, we could not get to say goodbye to the hostess when we left.  As we walked up the street towards our B&B, we heard someone yelling behind us  . . . “Au revoir . . .au revoir”.  We turned around to see the hostess running down the street to catch up to us . . . just to say “Au revoir”

Caveau des Chevaliers de Malte from Author Ian Kent
Inside the restaurant

Time and again, we have seen other examples of good manners and kindness throughout our travels, in many countries.  So, I suppose the moral of this story is . . . don’t be too quick to criticize a person because he does things a little different to you.  Maybe that’s the way they do it where he comes from, maybe what you are doing is wrong.  Maybe we could learn something . . . no . . . I’m sure we could all learn something!

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