Chrysanthemums and death in France

<Yellow chrysanthemum flowers in St Jean de Sixt >
There’s a reason that faux pas is a French phrase. As a non-French person, I’m constantly making mistakes with both the language and the culture. I reckon they invented it for foreigners.

As mortifying as it can be to mix up ‘chiot‘ (puppy) and ‘chiottes‘ (toilets), or ‘canard‘ (duck) and ‘connard‘ (idiot), failing at French cultural etiquette can be equally as bad.

For example, a French breakfast with friends is no fast meal. Expect to spend hours absorbing your food — dunk your croissant into your bowl (yes, bowl) of coffee and break off a bit more baguette while you all catch up. That butter, jam and Nutella is on the table for the baguette, not the croissant. Do not apply these products to the croissant! They might not say anything, but they’ll think you’re weird: croissants are eaten without spreads in France.

In a restaurant, the staff will think you’re equally as weird if you ask for a doggy bag. It’s just not the done thing.

When it comes to cheese, don’t expect any smiles if you cut across the wedge. Cut it like a slice of pie or risk future dinner invitations. And if it’s your dinner party, remember to serve the cheese before dessert.

<Photo of a French cemetery on Alla Saints Day >Most importantly, do not offer chrysanthemums as flowers.

Chrysanthemums are popular in France at this time of year, and it’s not just because they’re in season. The 1st of November is All Saints Day — a public holiday that French people use to leave flowers on the graves of the departed loved ones a day in advance of the 2nd of November, which is Commemoration of the Dead Day, but not a public holiday.

The flower of choice for graves is the chrysanthemum. At least two of my friends have accidentally handed over a bunch of chrysanthemums to French friends as a gesture of thanks. With florists overflowing with chrysanthemums at this time of year, it’s surprising more of us haven’t made the same mistake. The initial reaction both times was a gasp of shock. Fortunately for one friend, the French friend explained the significance of the flower. The other friend wasn’t so lucky, and she may never buy a chrysanthemum again.

So, to recap: plain croissants; pie-shape when slicing cheese; cheese before dessert; and, no chrysanthemums. Otherwise, remember not to laugh when you think they’re calling you a duck. They’re not.

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I'm a technical author, journalist and writer from Australia who has been living in Europe since 2000 and exploring the world from there. My passions are writing, snow sports and travel.

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7 comments on “Chrysanthemums and death in France
  1. sabine says:

    I think you forgot the “tous mes voeux” (best wishes.. particularly useful in Xmas period) with “tu me veux” (you want me)… my german boss (a lady) did the mistake with her own boss (a man)…

    So.. being a Croissant lover, and a French expat (in a country which is clueless about what a good croissant should be), I’d like to bring some clarification:
    – basic statement: a croissant should always be “au beurre” (with real butter and not with margarine).
    – perfect croissant is self sufficient: it’s crispy outside and not too greasy and the multiple layers are melting in the mouth. so it doesn’t need any extra spread…otherwise you miss the point !

    Having said that.
    It is allowed to add butter and/or jam… but then it means you really want to gain some extra kilos.
    if you are a student spending a week skiing with your mates, you would probably eat the croissant with Nutella (chocolate spread) as this is the base element for any student.

    what is totally forbidden is the swiss croissant: already sold with chocolate and sugar, praline etc… too much sugar, too much butter, too much of everything…
    I MISS MY CROISSANTS 🙂

  2. Mandy says:

    I love this post! I make enough mistakes and we supposedly speak the same language! Case in point – try calling trousers pants in the UK. I must have French blood (it was my mother’s first language but she wasn’t French, French was just the language they all spoke) because I always eat croissants plain!

  3. Rosemary K says:

    I can remember when I first arrived in France and was part of the foreign assistant teaching programme, the first thing we were told was not to offer chrysanthemums. I have a friend whose surname is Devine that got her into a lot of trouble as it means “guess”. “What is your name?” “Devine”. You can imagine the reactions.

  4. Ron Rundle says:

    Do you remember we give Chrysanthemums for Mother’s Day, Wen? Something a little weird there………

  5. Wendy says:

    Sabine, that language error is a brilliant one! I must remember it.

    Mandy, ah yes, I once bought red pants because I thought the thong weather was over and I didn’t want to get cold. Not the right conversation to have in the office when you’re actually referring to trousers and flipflops!

    Rosemary, that must have been impossible – what an extra challenge to everyday French.

    Ron, oooh, I’d forgotten that. I wonder if it started with mother-in-laws! 🙂

  6. Rosemary K says:

    I told my (French) husband about the chrysanthemums and he says that you just mustn’t give a bouquet that only has chrysanthemums. If they are combined with other flowers, that’s fine. He remembers them always being a bouquet base when he was young.

  7. I’ve been given a chrysanth in a pot by one or other of my French neighbours. I forget which one, but I’m pretty sure it was a friendly gesture 🙂

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