My French husband Maxime chose a classic Aussie moment - the middle of a BBQ lunch on day of the 2016 AFL Grand Final - to say the following:
'Australians have no culture.'
I looked at my friend Marisa, of Italian heritage. Years ago, she had said exactly the same thing, sparking an angry argument with Aussie friends.
'You said that once!' I said to her.
'Yes. But I don't say it anymore,' Marisa replied quietly.
'Right - because I think we do have a distinct way of life, a way of approaching life, that's Australian. I think that's what culture is. And if you count thongs and a hat with corks on it, we even have a national costume.'
'Yes,' said Marisa. 'Not a fan of the hat, but I think Australians are more laid back than Europeans. Europeans have their protocols, they can get upset by trivialities.'
'Like when to go to the toilet!' I cried.
I had once been scolded in France by getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of dinner.
My dad then pointed out that it used to be like that in Australia too. He itemised all the dinner-table rules there used to be, saying that he was not allowed to put his elbows on the table and so on. We have obviously loosened up a lot since then, but our European cousins have not. Manners, politeness and structure have their place of course - the idea is to get the balance right. Which Maxime evidently thought we hadn't:
'All Australians care about is sport and horse racing,' he said.
I was quite happy to agree that obsession with sport was part of Australian CULTURE, but it had not occurred to me that we were particularly obsessed with the horse. In France, there are famous horse races at Chantilly (as in the cream ... and the castle ... and the race-track) and Longchamp (as in the handbag and the race-track), for example. There are sports bars dedicated to betting run by the French version of TAB, called PMU (Pari Mutuel). The PMU logo even includes horses! The same characters are found in both versions of the sports bar; they just speak different languages - and the Aussies are on beer and Winfields while the French are on wine and Gitanes. And so, as Marisa turned to Maxime to take up the argument against him, I tried to think what would have caused him to think Australians were crazy about racing.
We had taken him to the picnic races at Drouin twice. And I now recalled that he ... didn't like it. He ate take away burgers from food trucks happily enough but was deeply suspicious of the whole betting thing. J
'I just put a dollar each way. Just on a horse whose name I like,' I had explained. 'It's a bit of fun.' -
On our various picnic rugs, we had spread what we'd brought to eat - rolls, salads, roast chicken, mini quiches etc., and popped some bubbly and set about enjoying ourselves. What was not to like?
But going to the races was something the Frog had never done. And so he was wary. Towards the end of the day, when the crowd had swelled and teens were getting hammered at the pop up bars, Maxime had gone from out-of-his-comfort-zone to scathing.
And while our French kids happily accrete around the TV to watch the Melbourne Cup every year and excitedly talk about which horses they had in the school sweep, Maxime retreats to the kitchen to console himself with cheese. If we'd held a Literature Cup and had eaten delicate canapes and sipped real champagne, that would have been fine, I'm sure.
Well, let me just say one thing: if I score any winnings on my dollar each way bet this Melbourne Cup, a certain Drog won't be getting half of the packet of Cheezels I buy with it!The British came up with rules of modern horse racing, and so that may well be an additional reason for French aversion.
What's ironic is that I wrote this post on the train to Caulfield. On the train with me were the best dressed people you've ever seen on the Frankston line. It was Caulfield Stakes Day, apparently. Thankfully I wasn't on that train with a certain Frenchman ...