Changing France

 

One of the most frequent questions I am asked by visiting tourists and student groups is:  “Has France changed?” and if so, “how?”

Since France is people by the French, it’s fairly obvious that you can’t address the question of whether France is changing without addressing the question of whether the French are changing. The late writer-diplomat Alain Peyrefitte in his book C’était de Gaulle quoted the general as saying that the French “have not changed since Julius Caesar described them.  Their strengths are bravery, generosity, unselfishness, impetuosity, curiosity, creativity, the gift they have to adjust to extreme situations. Their weaknesses are a clannic spirit, mutual intolerance, brusque anger, internecine quarrels, the jealousy they feel for the advantages that the others have.”

General de Gaulle is no longer here but I would venture to say that his description of the French character still holds true.  Yet, since his time, the world has become truly globalized – and many of the French have as well.

Many young French people now flock to London or the Silicon Valley or Sweden or Japan to pursue their studies and some even end up making their lives outside of France.  Others return to France. All speak very good English.  That was certainly not the case in de Gaulle’s time.

The American influence is all over Paris. Who ever would have thought the French would see food trucks on their streets? But they are there and everyone loves them.  In traditional boulangeries,  brownies comfortably nestle among the éclairs and millefeuilles.  In French restaurants you’ll have no problem ordering a hamburger (pronounced hahm bourg air) or cheeseburger (see picture above).

Some of the changes are welcome.   The French are no longer universally rude, although the stereotype of that famous trait continues relentlessly.  Just the other day, Pamela Druckerman wrote a column in The New York Times about taking French nationality. She remarked that a friend asked her “if she felt herself getting more and more rude.”  I think it’s a great laugh line but am a bit worried about her friend and all those people who remain convinced that the French are, above all other things, rude.  If you turned that comment around, it would be a bit like asking someone who had taken U.S. citizenship “if she felt herself getting fatter and fatter or louder and louder.”, Ouch.

So, obviously, for some people, the French are still rude, while others find them friendlier and friendlier.  It’s true, as I tell my students, that the French are sticklers for form and resent those who omit the proper ones. For example,  if you walk up to a Frenchman while in Paris and ask him directions in English and without even saying “Bonjour“, you can bet he’ll be rude.  In France, you preface requests and conversations with a “”Bonjour, Monsieur” or “Bonjour, Madame“.  It simply means that the person is worthy of of respect and a human being  (kind of our equivalent of “have a nice day”).

To continue the list of changes, the French brush their teeth more, wear deodorant more, are less rude, speak more English.  That’s the good side.  They also are packing on the pounds due to the change in their diet which comes from our American influence.  (Sorry).   French kids used to eat bread for breakfast, now they consumer sugary cereals.  Go to a grocery store and you’ll see a tremendous variety of snack foods and fizzy sugary soft drinks you never would have seen before.  You also see people eating sandwiches in the metro.

At the same time, and you might call this the French paradox, the interest in “bio” or organic foods has progressed by leaps and bounds and people are focusing more on vegetables and light food than heavy meat-based stews.  Still, when I see ads for industrial sugar products on the tube with the warning message under it admonishing us all  to “eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day” I see that the French have bought into the same mixed message we have in the States.  (But that, I fear, is  a worldwide phenomenon).

What remains that is really, really French?  Several times during the week, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes at mid-day,  I see groups of children, sometimes as young as 3 years old, walking, two by two, in an orderly line, accompanied by adults.  They are being taken to some activity, maybe the pool, maybe a film, maybe a museum.  When they get to that museum, they don’t move or talk while the guide explains a work of art to them.  That behavior has always fascinated me, as has the French childrens’ attitude to food.  They eat – or try – everything.  My grandchildren, from the time they could eat solids, have dug into (and dug) everything from smelly camembert and Roquefort to mussels.  Why? There’s no concept of “food for children” and “food for adults”.  It’s food for everyone! That’s one thing that I hope will NOT change in changing France.

I’ve some  photos to illustrate my various points.  One is of an urinoir or “pissoir”, which still, unbelievably, exists in some cafés.  They are going the way of the dodo – but not yet.  To me, it’s so macho because you have to make your way past the guy who’s peeing to get to the toilet for women.  Beurkh.  The other photo is of a sign in a café telling clients they are expected to renew their drinks order every two hours. This is aimed at all the people who remain in a café all day long sipping on one cup of coffee. Well, up until now that’s what people do in cafés!  Seems to be changing and that would be too bad for the number of cafés has already plummeted drastically and a lot of people like this writer depend on cafés not just for the drinks but for the conviviality.

But as I said, the French paradox reigns.  Some of the French may be snacking while others stick to the traditional two main meal a day scheme.  Some may feast on cheeseburgers and sandwiches while others prefer a good boeuf bourguignon.  When I mentioned to a traditional French grandmother that her grandchildren could, from time to time, eat a sandwich without it killing them, she looked at me with horreur:    “Mais ce n’est pas de la nourriture!” (But a sandwich isn’t food!”) she exclaimed.

So there you have it. France is changing but not for everyone and not all the time and not everywhere.  A complicated answer, perhaps, but the French are complicated.
And that, I assure you, will never change.

 

An historic American home – mine

 

In today’s Joie de Vivre post, I’ll be talking not about France, but about America, and the joie de vivre  I experienced growing up in an historic home n Shenandoah, Iowa.   Built in 1895, it was and is beautiful and spacious, elegant on the outside with a wraparound enclosed porch and a turret, and on the inside with thick oak doors, a highly polished wooden staircase with newel post, stained glass windows and two living rooms, one upstairs, one downstairs, both with fireplaces.

I associate the house with my “roots”:  I am the sixth generation of the Welty family in Shenandoah which began with Samuel Welty in 1855.  Most of our family lived on farms outside Shenandoah and my father was the first to buy a home “in town”.  When he bought it in 1948 from the original owner, I was 3.  I thought it was a family myth but my sister recently confirmed that the place was so big that on moving day I got lost!

The house was the center of my universe.  In fact, as I started thinking about our home on Center Street, I realised that I lived in the center of the country on Center Street, attended Central School (now unfortunately torn down), married a Frenchman who attended “Ecole Centrale” (also Central School) and whose family hailed from the Massif Central in the center of France.  Plus,  the house was central to my love of architecture and old homes and support of preservation efforts everywhere in the world.

Recently  “our” home, which I lived in until the age of  23, was  featured in our local newspaper,  and I was thrilled to see that the present owners have kept it up beautifully.  You’ll find a written description of the house’s amenities in the well-written account of it in the Valley News.  http://www.valleynewstoday.com/news/historic-homes-ron-and-kris-larock/article_b259a6e4-faad-11e6-ad7e-b73969b064fb.html?utm_medium=social&utm_source=email&utm_campaign=user-share

I have visited Shenandoah several times and have always gone to see the house – from the outside.  Sometimes friends are surprised when I say that I never wish to go inside and that even if I were invited, I would not.  Why?  A house like that has a spirit of its own.  It warmly wraps a family inside it.  I will leave it to the present owners to enjoy their turn as custodians of this very special place.

Even today, even after having lived in France for more years than I lived in the States, I can and often do take a mental tour of it, traveling from room to room.  I remember the wallpaper in many of the rooms, the smell of the cedar closet off the upstairs living room,  my cozy  bedroom under the eaves, our family’s sit down dinners around the table in the dining room (where there was even a bell for servants in the floor under the table – no servants, though), the creepy basement and scary attic, the gatherings of friends around the grand piano, nights chatting lazily with friends on the front porch.

The house is no longer “mine” but I carry its beauty and  warmth wherever I go.

Red Velvet Pancakes and Valentine’s Day in Paris

Valentine’s Day in Paris.  Doesn’t it sound romantic?  It is!

I kicked off the pre-Valentine’s day period by attending a reading by three American writers celebrating their love affair with…Paris.  Held at the Paris Culinary Institute on the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville, the event featured a drinks hour which consisted, among other things, of delicious red velvet pancakes (yes, I said RED)  graciously furnished by none other than Craig Carlson, the author of  Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France.  Craig knows a thing or two about pancakes and Paris, being the owner of the fabulously successful Breakfast in America diners in Paris. Anyone having the erroneous idea that buying a restaurant in Paris is the stuff of dreams would do well to read Craig’s book. Craig is not only an observer of French life. He is deeply IN it and that includes all of it, not just discovering a better view of Notre Dame (from the back instead of the front) but dealing with France’s excruciating illogical labor laws – and that includes a stint in a Parisian jail cell.  The chapters in which he tries – and fails –  to fire employees who are sluffoffs or worse are absolutely priceless and absolutely true.

I haven’t had time to read the books by the other two authors, American Lisa Anselmo and Canadian April Lily Heise, but am looking forward to them.  Lisa’s book is called My (Part-Time) Paris Life: How Running Away Brought Me Home“; it is the tale of how she fled to Paris after the death of her mother from cancer.  April Lily (she told me she goes by Lily) Heise presented her second romance memoir,  Je T’Aime…Maybe?, the sequel to Je T’Aime, Me Neither.  From the humorous excerpts that Lisa and Lily read from their books, it would seem that finding one’s true love with a French man in Paris is more compliqué than it looks and fraught with cultural misunderstandings.

True confession time: I wasn’t sure I’d attend the event.  I thought I had overdosed on memoirs by foreigners recounting their lives in France.  That is rather ironic considering that (she says modestly) I started the trend way back in 1997 with my first book, French Toast.  In those faraway days, other than than the best-selling A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle and the cleverly titled French or Foe by the late and regretted Polly Platt, there were few books in this genre.   Hey, it wasn’t even a genre yet!  Publishers being conservative, they were looking for the next Peter Mayle and my book was rejected more times than I’d like to think of. But – a message of hope  for discouraged authors – a good publishing house did pick it up and it’s still out there.  Pat on the back:  Diane Johnson, author of the best-selling Le Divorce and two-time finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, called French Toast  “the gold standard of books about the French.”  Persistence pays!

The pre-Valentine’s Day reading by  three talented, ebullient, energetic and enthusiastic authors changed my mind about avoiding “books like mine”.  Each story is different and there’s plenty of room for all.  What can be more enlightening and entertaining than to read about the experiences of people who, for whatever reason, have decided to slip out of their “comfort zone”,  turn the tables, rip up their roots and settle, for a while or forever, in the City of Light.

The picture above shows left to right, April, Harriet, Craig and Lisa.  I’m not holding up my latest book, Joie de Vivre, because I didn’t have a copy on me. (Another message to authors – always walk around with copies of your books).   As you’ll see, I did though have my visiting card with its cover!

Happy Valentine’s Day to all and here’s to love for Paris and love in Paris!

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The border between Arizona and Mexico at the town of Nogales in this July 28, 2010 photo.  AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON

Thirty years ago President Ronald Reagan called upon the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall”.  He was, of course, referring to the Berlin Wall which had divided West and East Berlin for almost a quarter of a century.

Now we are hearing President Trump boast and brag about building a wall between the United States and Mexico.  A big one, a high one (in Trump language, the biggest, the highest).   What will that wall do?  It will protect our borders, keep out the slime, the terrorists, the drug dealers, the people swarming over the border to take American jobs.

And not only will there be a wall, but Mexico will pay for it!

Just one thing,  a small detail  which you might not know if you haven’t visited the area:  there’s already a wall.

But before going into that,  a personal reflection:   Part of my family lives in Tucson, Arizona.  For years, every Christmas we would jump in a car and drive south to Nogales, Arizona, then cross over to Nogales, Mexico on the other side of the border.   I don’t know who started it but we all loved that trip which became a ritual. We couldn’t go to Tucson without going to Nogales. We would try out our awful Spanish, amble around  the colourful market,  buy  Mexican Christmas tree decorations and Mexican handiwork to offer as gifts , savor spicy enchiladas or tacos for lunch and drink a couple of Margaritas before piling back into the car and driving back through the desert north to Tucson.  We were hardly alone – that place was jumping with gringos like us down there for the day. The Mexicans were happy because we bought their stuff and we were happy because we bought it.  What’s not to like?

In the first years we went there, a chain link separated the two countries. We barely noticed it. Then one year we went on our usual outing and from a distance espied  a  high,  rusty-looking metal fence. It was unsightly and offensive; it divided the two Nogales’s in two as definitively and repulsively as the chain link never had.   We had to park the car, then stand in a long line of people to get our papers checked before we were allowed to enter Mexico.  It made our excursion a lot less fun. Come to think of it, I’ve never returned to Nogales since.

Well, if it was less fun for we Americans who wanted to get in, you can only imagine what it was for those Mexicans who, for whatever reason, wanted to get out.   We headed back in our comfortable air conditioned car while they left everything behind, climbed or circumvented the wall and with only their feet to propel them, started on  a perilous adventure. You have to be brave or desperate to embark on a journey across forbidding land under a blazing sun with the risk of running out of water or getting arrested by the border police who are there in droves.  Many times as we traveled on the Tucson-Nogales road, I would look out the car window at that dry and desolate and beautiful desert and think of all those Mexicans crossing it.  Many made it; many didn’t. (The U.S. Border Patrol has found 6000 human remains, a figure not often mentioned in all the talk about the border).

The wall, Mr. Trump, is already there in many places along the border.  Why build more walls, higher walls?   Walls are ugly, divisive and basically useless, the concrete manifestation of a nasty mind set.

No, Mr. Trump: don’t build more walls.  Tear down this wall!

 

A little bit of courtoisie, s’il vous plaît

The day after Trump’s inauguration Philippe and I took the metro to the Place de Trocadero to join the Women’s March in Paris. It was a joyous hodgepodge of young and old, women and men, Americans and French and a sprinkling of other nationalities.    I was standing there holding my poster before the march began when a French man came up to me and asked the following question:  “Why is your poster only in English?  You are in France!”

“Yes,” he huffed, looking at my uncomprehending face.  “France is not an American colony.”  And having delivered his parting shot, off he went, leaving me stupefied.

It was obvious, at least to me, that since the protest was about Trump and since most of the participants were Americans, the posters would be in English.  Non?

But the fellow’s comment got me thinking:  Am I a nasty American imperialist, one of those people who doesn’t give a fig about the country she is in? You know the kind of people I’m talking about. They are the ones who wouldn’t consider learning the French or Spanish or Italian word for “hello” or “thank you” when in France, Spain or Italy. They figure that everyone in the world speaks – or should speak – English just like them.

This being said, as far as the Paris march is concerned, I can understand why the majority of posters were in English. Many of the American participants were visiting Paris, passing through.  Others  may live in France but don’t speak or write French for whatever reason.  But what about people like me who live in France permanently and speak and write French with no problem?

I had to ask myself why the thought of making a bilingual poster never even crossed my mind.

The answer is simple: I figured it was an American protest against an American President.  That’s basically true.  However,  I didn’t take into account where I was – in France, walking down French streets, showing a poster that would be read not only by other Americans, but by the French who just happen to live in this country!  The harm Trump can and will do affects the entire world, including the French. They too are the victims of this election.  So they should at least be able to read my sign!

OK, I was culturally insensitive which is rather ironic for someone who has written three books on the subject of being culturally sensitive.  A slap on the wrist to me!

And a  little reminder to all Americans abroad: keep in mind that a little courtoisie goes a long way.  Now that we’ve got Trump, we need as many ambassadors on the ground as we can get.

So, excusez-moi, Monsieur.  La prochaine fois j’écrirai mon poster en français!  (Excuse me, Sir. The next time I’ll write my poster in French!).

Harriet talks about writing and living in France


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Harriet Welty Rochefort, in the gardens at the Palais Royale. Photo by Jen Geer

Harriet Welty Rochefort grew up in Iowa, earned degrees from the University of Michigan and Northwestern, and first came to France in 1967. She met her husband, Philippe, in 1971 and has lived in Paris ever since.

Harriet is a former professor of journalism at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), and a speaker, freelance journalist, blogger, and the author of three books about France and the French–“Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French,” “French Fried: The Culinary Capers of an American in Paris,” and “French Toast: An American in Paris Celebrates the Maddening Mysteries of the French,” which Diane Johnson, author of “Le Divorce,” hailed as “the gold standard of books about the French.” All of her books have been published by St. Martin’s Press.

A French-American dual citizen, Harriet lives with her husband in a garden apartment in the 20th arrondissement, which she says is “one of the last areas in Paris not to have a Zara, Sephora, or H & M.” She is currently finishing her first novel, which takes place in France during World War II. Harriet recently took the time to answer my questions about her work and her life in France via email.

Below is our “e-interview.” 

Janet Hulstrand: You grew up in Iowa, and first came to France on a study abroad program, right? What year was that, and what do you remember about what that was like? What was most surprising (or even shocking) thing about life here to someone arriving fresh from the Midwest? What was most attractive to you about French culture?

Harriet Welty Rochefort: Unlike many who came to France as young people, I didn’t come here on a study abroad program. I had always dreamed of going to France and simply bought a one-way ticket after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1967. I wasn’t even a French major but I managed to fake French well enough that people would chat “at” me, which enabled me to improve. Actually, I had taken a trip to France while at university and was smitten with Paris and intrigued by the French. What was surprising to me was how small everything was (streets, cars, people, portions), and how beautiful everything was. I thought I had stepped into an Impressionist painting. I adored going down the Seine in a bateau mouche. I adored not knowing what the French were talking about, but guessing by their hand gestures. I found them so expressive. The smallness of things continued to strike me: in my latest book, Joie de Vivre, I have an entire chapter called “Small is Good: Les Petits Plaisirs.” In it I discuss les petites boutiques, les petits détails, les petits fours, un petit moment, and all kinds of other good things that are petit. Small, in France, is good!

JH: What is the biggest misconception Americans have about the French?

HWR: The Americans think the French are rude,  and that the French don’t like them. The French can be very rude and it’s because they want to be, but it isn’t targeted at Americans. They are much ruder to their compatriots than to foreigners. As for liking Americans, all you have to do is look around you when in France and see how everything American is a big deal. The French have adopted brownies, hamburgers, brunch, food trucks, casual Friday, musical comedies and a host of other American things because they like to emulate Americans. They also unfortunately have emulated us on political correctness but it’s probably not as bad as in the States. This is not to say that all of the French like Americans. But I would say that a majority of them do. Hey, they even marry them! I belong to an organization of American women who are married to French men – there are 600 of us and that’s just Paris and the women who are in that organization. Think about all the others!

JH: What are the most common misconceptions among the French, about Americans?

HWR: The French think that because we call everyone our “friend” that we are insincere. They make a distinction between their real friends and their acquaintances. I keep telling them that we do this as well, but I don’t think they believe me. They also think that because we call the boss “Joe” or “Debby” that there’s no hierarchy. It’s a little more complicated than that.

JH: And while we’re at it, what is the biggest misconception both Americans and the French have about Midwesterners? 

HWR: Actually, I’d say that the French have fewer misconceptions about Midwesterners than Americans do. Americans think that Midwesterners are unsophisticated louts, and don’t hesitate to say it. I guess political correctness does not apply to Midwesterners.

JH: What do you still miss about life in the U.S., if anything?

HWR: I miss greeting people I don’t know, and being greeted by people I don’t know in a casual way. I miss having chats with people in a casual way. I miss the spontaneous exchange of information.  I miss sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of a wooden American house overlooking a lake and feeling like all around me is vast (Europe is so small!). I miss a lot of things about the States but I never allow myself to think about them, and haven’t ever since I got here. I firmly believe that when you are in a place, you are really in that place. That’s why, when French people ask me which country I like best, the United States or France, I reply, “Apples and oranges. When I am in France, I love where I am and don’t think about the States. When I’m in the States, I appreciate what’s there and don’t think about France.”

JH: What do you think you would miss the most about life in France were you to no longer live here?

HWR: I wouldn’t miss the pollution in Paris, that’s for sure. I would, though, miss something that is unique to France-its astonishingly different regions which you can get to so easily on those splendid fast trains. La Bretagne, l’Alsace, l’Auvergne – just pronouncing the names makes me want to hop on a TGV (rapid train) for a total change from Paris. For the record, I have visited every single region in France. I would also miss the cafés, les petites boutiques and les petits détails of life, the lifestyle and style in general. The French attach a great deal of importance to style, to the way things look, to the way things are presented, to form, and I like that. I wrote about this subject in “Life as an Art Form,” one of the chapters in Joie de Vivre.

JH: You are married to a Frenchman and have two children who have been raised entirely in France. How did you approach your children’s education, both formal and informal, linguistic and otherwise, in terms of their bicultural heritage?

HWR: I always spoke English to my children even when they inevitably answered me in French. I thought it was important for them to be able to speak with their American family. We took them on trips to the U.S., especially to see family in Iowa, Chicago, and Arizona. Neither opted to go to college in the U.S. though. They had been to French public schools and were used to French education. I think they are a nice combination of French (but they are not as formal as the formal French) and American (but they are not as relaxed as relaxed Americans).

JH: How do they identify themselves?

HWR: They generally say they are French. Then they might say they have an American mother.

JH: Do they feel half-American? Or just like the children of an American parent?

HWR: Frankly, it’s hard to tell. They don’t like to talk about the subject, especially when people ask them whether they feel more French or more American. It’s kind of like asking them whether they prefer their mother or their father. I think they are proud of having a French father and an American mother, and that they like the blend. One of our sons lives in Montreal, which with its mix of English and French, is perfect for him. The other lives in Paris. He’s an author and writes in French but he also translates books from English to French. Having two languages is definitely an asset, and in today’s world it’s even becoming necessary to have three.

JH: You are the author of three nonfiction books about France and French life. But I understand that you are in the final stages of completing your first novel. Can you tell us a little bit about this work? What has been most challenging about writing fiction? And when will we be able to read this book?

HWR: I am indeed in the final stages. It is a historical novel set in France during WWII. Fiction for a nonfiction writer is a bit like playing guitar for a pianist, I would imagine. It’s the same field but you need different skills. I’ve had to hone skills I never had to use, or use in such a sustained manner, in nonfiction – set scenes, create dialogue, wrestle with a plot. It’s fascinating. As to when you’ll be able to read it? When my agent decides she likes it, shops it around, and finds a publisher who is enthusiastic. That is really the final part of the process. And after three books, I find that I am more concerned about the process than the finality. Of course I hope my agent will like it. Of course I hope readers will like it. But I didn’t think about that when writing it. I just focused on the immense challenge of creating a fictional world, something I had never done before.

JH: What are your favorite things to do in Paris, and some of your favorite places? What do you recommend for visitors to Paris when they come? (What should they be sure not to miss?) And what would you to say to encourage those who might hesitate to come to Paris these days, that they should come?

HWR: I love to hang out in cafés! I love the Jardin des Plantes, the Passage Vivienne, the Eiffel Tower, Paris in the early morning when almost no one is on the street, Paris at dusk, Paris along the Seine, all the “jardins” and museums and places of beauty. Of course visitors should hit the high spots, the Tour Eiffel, the Arc de Triomphe, the Invalides, a ride down the Seine, Versailles.

To those who hesitate to come, I would say “Don’t worry.” There are evil people everywhere in the world, including in the States which has had its share of terrorist attacks and shootings by Americans with guns. I would tell them to take the advice of the U.S. Embassy, which issues regular bulletins encouraging visitors not to draw attention to themselves, not to gather in public places which could be targets, etc. Take those precautions, but don’t deprive yourself of a trip to one of the world’s most beautiful cities. I feel lucky to live in it every day, lucky to have the history of Paris surround me in its buildings as I walk. The charm of it, the sheer beauty, the idea that you can learn something new about art and history just by being here, has never worn off.

Janet Hulstrand divides her time between the U.S. and France, where she offers writing workshops in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region. She is currently leading a book group at the American Library in Paris, and in January will be teaching “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the Queens College (CUNY) Education Abroad Program.

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Sorry to toot my own horn but if I don’t do it, who will?  Below is a lovely review of my third and latest book,  Joie de Vivre, by John Pearce,  author of the intriguing mysteries Last Stop: Paris and Treasure of St. Lazare.   John’s third book is scheduled for publication in mid 2017;  you can find his blog at  http://parttimeparisian.com/   Phrases in bold in text below are mine.

 

Books: Joie de Vivre – An American living the Paris life
Posted on August 14, 2016 by John Pearce

 

Forty-plus years of living in Paris, first as a student then as the wife of a well-known banker and historian, have given Harriet Welty Rochefort the ability to look at both sides of the French-American cultural divide with a sharp analysis that’s both trenchant and humorous.

She’s published three books that I think of as cultural dictionaries. In them, she translates French culture in a way Americans can understand, even if we sometimes can’t quite comprehend. The French are different from us Americans (and from Germans, the only other European culture I know well enough to judge). But at the same time they’re much like us. Or we’re like them.

I met Harriet late last year at one of Patricia Laplante-Collins’s Sunday soirées. Patricia had invited her to be the guest of honor and presenter of a slide show based on her most recent book, Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing like the French. I also got to meet her husband Philippe, who retired as a banker then went back to the Sorbonne for his doctorate in history, and their friends Ron Rosbottom, the Amherst professor who had just published the outstanding When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, and his wife Betty, a noted cookbook author. (When Paris Went Dark is fascinating, and is on my list to be reviewed soon.)

The Differences

Harriet’s focus is the differences wrapped within the similarities. There are plenty of both, and they seem pretty well matched in plusses and minuses.

An American tourist will generally cast the differences in superficial terms: a surly waiter (some are, most aren’t, and even those warm up if you are nice to them), or fashion. Here’s Harriet’s take on that:

“An American woman might, for example, get the dress, makeup and hairstyle right, but she can’t change her wide-open, trusting, smiling, innocent American face.”

Bingo. And the same goes for her American husband. We stand out, and we need to be conscious of that, since we’re guests in their home.

Dress aside (and that does seem to be less important year by year), the French are known as one of the most pessimistic people in Europe. Harriet’s take on that again:

“After watching the nightly eight o’clock news on France’s Channel 2, I want to immerse my head in a bucket of Bordeaux.”

I watch that newscast, too (it’s on the web at France2.fr. Be prepared to follow quick French) and it does seem to focus on the negatives of the day, but that’s pretty much TV news everywhere these days.

Les Petits Plaisirs

Harriet’s choice of chapters summarizes the culture differences well. There’s an important one on “Romance, French Style,” and one I especially liked entitled “Small is good: Les Petits Plaisirs.” Several deal with the special differences and attractions of French women, and she wraps it up with “How I Became A Little Bit French.”

Joie de Vivre is a charming book, informative at the same time it entertains. I give it five stars. If you’re already a Francophile you’ll enjoy it immensely; if you’re just thinking about a visit you should consider it as well.

Thomas Dunne Books. Kindle edition $11.99, hardcover $19.17. I reviewed the Kindle edition, which I purchased. Its Amazon page is here.

Back in Black

Why Do All Those Parisiennes Wear Black?

I am sitting on the 69 bus going from our place near Place Gambetta to the Bastille and looking out the window at the grey sky.

You know how you assign colors to places? I assign bright blue to Marseilles in the south of France even though it rains there from time to time and I assign grey to Paris even though the sun does come out and the sky is blue.

But I maintain that the true color of the Paris is grey.  Resolutely grey.

And the true color of the clothes people wear in Paris is black, just as the color of the clothes people wear in Marseilles ranges from yellow to pink to orange to turquoise, the brighter and bolder the better.

The people of Paris may wear colorful clothes in the summer but when September slips around the corner, they’re back in black and gone to grey.

This morning on the bus I count the number of women wearing a color other than black.  The result:  three!  (Out of hundreds).    One is Chinese; she’s donned a bright pink scarf. Another is a Muslim who wears a cheerful pink hijab. A white-haired Frenchwomen dressed in a dusky rose pink coat walks her (black) dog.

The deal in Paris is that black is the basic.  If you do wear a color, it’s generally a top or a skirt or an accessory.

But black is the base.

So why all the black?  As American fashion journalist and inveterate French-watcher Tina Isaac told me when I interviewed her on the subject for Joie de Vivre:  “Black is timeless, a no-brainer, works in all situations…never appears overdressed or out of place or in bad taste, does not need (much) accessorizing, does not need to be expensive… is slimming, lends an air of sophistication and intelligence.”

She calls black “the spirit of Paris, sartorialized.”

I like that phrase so much that I’ll almost forgive all those Parisiennes for walking around in black against the backdrop of a grey sky and making me feel like I live in a black and white photo.  But if you can’t lick ’em, join ’em which is why I attached the photo below proving that I too wear Paris black!

zebra-lady

Some Memories of  “Don’t Eat Your Soup With A Fork”

40 years have passed since an irreverent, fun and sassy publication called The Paris Metro hit town.  Tonight, in Paris, the founders of and contributors to that very special magazine, which unfortunately died after only two years and 64 issues,  will be celebrating its 40th anniversary, starting in fine style with a champagne cocktail at the emblematic Tour d’Argent.  For the commemorative booklet put together for the occasion, contributers were asked to write long or short pieces about Paris in  the 70s and personal memories of The Paris Metro.  I was flattered to be included:   I only wrote one article for the magazine.  But that piece was priceless, for me at least.    Below are my reflections on “Don’t Eat Your Soup With A Fork” and how it inspired me as a writer.

(The Paris Metro 40th Anniversary book edited by Patsi Benter Krakoff and Joel Stratte-McClure is on sale at amazon.com).

 


Let’s see….got to situate this. Paris Metro ? The magazine, not the underground. That was eons ago. Can I even remember it ?

Of course I can !

And better than that. I am sitting here in my home office in Paris looking at a photocopy of a long feature I wrote for Paris Metro called « Don’t Eat Your Soup With A Fork ». It was even illustrated with four delightful drawings, one of which showed a well-dressed man manipulating a giant lettuce leaf that sprang up in his face, spattering vinaigrette all over his clothes, the tablecloth and his terrified tablemates. (That was to illustrate my point about how a good hostess should always cut lettuce into bite-sized portions).

I can’t remember who had the idea for an article about French politesse but I do remember that the editor had a concrete suggestion about who to contact. The name he gave me was Princess Beris Kandaouroff. She was an Englishwoman who had penned « The Art of Living-Etiquette for the Permissive Age ». I duly trekked over to her apartment, somewhere in the 9th arrondissement as I recall, where she cheerfully proceeded to give me a crash course on what to do and not to do in France if you want to abide by the rules. Ca se fait and ça ne se fait pas are things most French instinctively know but we poor foreigners don’t, hence the necessity of books,articles and general instruction on the subject.

Most of the rules concern dining which, in a country obsessed with food, is no surprise, and my article went on and on about all the horrible faux pas one could unwittingly commit at a formal dinner party if not in the know. Offer carnations ? Never – they bring bad luck. Sop up that delicious sauce with your bread or a fork ? Neither. Don’t sop it up at all when dining out.

And those two bits of advice are only for starters.

I was amazed by all the things one should and shouldn’t do. The Princess advised guests never to show up at a dinner party with spare friends or animals unless asking permission from the hostess beforehand. To illustrate her point, she told me that she once invited the director of a zoo to dinner and he came with a lion, causing pandemonium. Re-reading that today, I wonder if it was the whole truth. (Time magazine, where I was a stringer in the Paris bureau for many years, would have got a fact checker on it). Anyway, it was a great story and that’s what counts.

I didn’t know it at the time but I would dine out (pardon the pun) on that article and that subject for decades.   The article led me to consider French behavior in general which led to my first book, French Toast, followed by two others, also on the arcane and mysterious ways of the French.

Had the Paris Metro editor not given me such a bigger than life source to interview, nor encouraged me to write fresh and funny, that article would have been an end rather than a beginning. As it was, I found a subject and a style.

In sum, Paris Metro was a bright spot in my freelance life, with all its ups and downs, the details of which I will kindly spare you.

There’s only one down side to this story: when Paris Metro was liquidated, I was formally informed that I would be eligible for chomage (unemployment).. Being a bull-headed American, I didn’t bother. How wrong I was. I dined out on « politesse » for years – and in this Socialist country could have been on unemployment for years as well had I cared to pursue the matter.

Well, we all make mistakes. No little regular unemployment checks and other goodies for me. But what I got was not so bad: writing for a publication the likes of which Paris has never seen again, dealing with editors who had great ideas and a great sense of fun, learning to take myself seriously as a writer whose words could make a difference even if they were only to make the reader laugh. That’s already a lot.

And so the 70s passed, Paris Metro went under as so many wonderful publications did, I stayed in Paris freelancing and never left.

Sometimes when you look back on past events or past places or past experiences, everything seems so much better – even if it probably wasn’t.

In the case of Paris Metro, in my experience at least, it really was just as good as it seemed then. The proof : its successors never made the cut, never even got close.

Someone really should get Paris Metro going again….But that’s another story.

An irreverent, lively city magazine, the likes of which has never been seen again in Paris.

 

The Bonjour Lesson

The Bonjour Bullies and the Bonjour Drill

What’s in a word?  A lot, if you consider one of the most important ones in the French language and that is Bonjour.

Here’s what you need to know about Bonjour etiquette when visiting France:  if you ask directions of a French person and don’t preface your request with a Bonjour (preferably a Bonjour, Monsieur or Bonjour, Madame),  you’re likely either not to get your directions or get ones that will take you a long way from where you want to go.  If you enter a shop and don’t say Bonjour, the service will be lousy.

Why?  Salespeople in France have complexes!  They need to feel they are the equal of their customer and not subservient.  They are NOT at your beck and call and will do everything to prove it.    By not greeting them, you are treating them like ciphers, nonentities.  You are giving them the not very subtle message that they don’t count.  Which is why, to get their revenge, they’ll impose upon you  the tedious, boring Bonjour drill which I have seen happen so many times it’s becoming predictable.

This treatment is not restricted to foreigners.  On a recent trip to the beautiful, hot, southern city of Marseilles, my French husband forgot to say Bonjour before he asked a question of a museum guard.  The fellow looked at him with what can only be described as sheer loathing, recoiled and spit out a resounding:  BONJOUR.  My husband, being French, got it and replied:  “Excusez-moi.  Bonjour!”  Even this apology didn’t work on the surly guard who once again faced my husband with a second, even more aggressive Bonjour, and a sneer to go with it.  By this time, my husband was fed up and left the premises.   He had decided, rightly, that the guy was a jerk.

A few days later in the glamorous seaside town of Cannes, I was shopping in a store which sells a wonderful lemon liqueur called “Limoncello” which is made of the finest lemons in Menton.  The salesperson, a sharp-eyed, active (even hyper) young woman was giving her rote sales pitch to everyone who came into the store. I had selected my bottle and headed for the counter as I waited for her to leave the person she was serving to come over to the cash register. But  just then a young woman entered and quietly and politely asked her a question.

I didn’t hear the question but I did hear a booming and aggressive BONJOUR from the salesperson who was obviously insulted that someone had stepped into her shop, asked a question and didn’t even bother to say hello.  The woman, realizing her mistake, acquiesced but it was too late.  But like the museum guard, the salesperson didn’t drop it.   Instead, I heard BONJOUR a second time as the exasperated and furious salesperson faced down the young lady like a teacher with a recalcitrant student.    This time, I was the one who left the premises, plunking my bottle on the counter and exiting the store. The salesperson, totally occupied with her Bonjour lesson, didn’t even see me go.

So, here’s my advice:  DO say Bonjour politely whenever you enter a store or ask for advice in the street.   Don’t just launch into your request.  Don’t worry about it being silly.  Believe me, you can never say the word enough.  Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour, bonjour!

But DON’T let anyone bully you if you have forgotten the precious word.  Yes, you’re rude if you don’t say bonjour, but anyone who makes you say it and then repeat it is rude as well.  There’s a name for those kinds of people.  They are  Bonjour Bullies!