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!

http://harrietweltyrochefort.com/wordpress/wp-admin/media-upload.php?post_id=460&type=image&TB_iframe=1

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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!

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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!

French Cauchemar

Co-Ownership – A French Cauchemar

If you are lucky enough to own a condo in Paris or elsewhere in France, once a year you’ll be convoked to a general assembly of all the co-owners.   Accounts and all other matters concerning the property, such as upkeep and expenses, will be read out and discussed, supposedly in a reasonable manner.

Dream on.

Do you know the French word for nightmare?  It is “cauchemar” and an assemblée générale is truly a  cauchemar.

In  2002, we bought our first apartment in Paris after years of renting.   That’s a big step and we have found that  being an owner has been mostly a positive experience.   What’s not positive is attending the annual co-owners’ meetings which range from weird to horrific.

And edifying.   I thought, after years of living in France with a French husband, that I knew a lot about the French, from the way they talk to the way they think and act.  Hey, I even wrote 3 books on the subject!

But my first co-owners meeting was a revelation.  First of all, I learned that the French are NOT rational, as in Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”).  Good-bye to that little cliché:  In co-owners’ meetings, the French don’t seem to think at all and are as far from rational as you can get.   They grumble, interrupt each other and generally look irritated or glum.  No happy faces here!

They also do very odd things.  One co-owner, a former French ambassador, spent an entire 4 hour meeting reading the Bible out loud. This was not because he was religious, but because he wanted to obstruct the proceedings.

That, at least, was creative.  Most of the time people simply act like thugs.  Some of the  co-owners in the building we live in are so rude and aggressive that two syndics  (property management companies hired by the co-owners)  successively threw in the towel and refused to renew their contracts with us  (it’s usually the other way around). In other words, WE got fired!

Secondly, I learned that the French love to sue.  Oh, they rag me about the American propensity to go to court for things like sexual harassment or scalding coffee but they’re not far behind: French owners love to sue when unhappy.  They generally lose and since the entire building is involved in their lawsuit, guess who gets to pay the damages? All the other co-owners. No wonder everyone looks grumpy.

I’d like to say that what I have seen is the exception to the rule but everytime I tell the stories to French friends, they pull out their own tales, which are, unbelievably, even worse than mine.

The third thing I sadly learned is that while the French like to vaunt their savoir vivre and their ability to vivre ensemble, when it comes to their argent, it’s each to his own.

Years ago author Tim Parks wrote a book called Italian Neighbors. His neighbors were quirky and odd and funny, real characters, but people who at least on the page sound charming.

Of course Parks didn’t describe any meetings of co-owners.  It might be that when Italians (and other nationalities) find themselves in a room talking about spending money on a property they have in common, they are just as bad or  – heaven help us –  worse than the French.

Au secours!

 

Bart

 

Parisians-Don’t Scowl at Me!

Parisians –  Don’t Scowl at Me!

Recently I’ve heard many tourists, mainly Americans, comment on how “nice” the French have become.  “I heard they were arrogant and mean but they couldn’t have been kinder,” one remarked.  “I was afraid to come to Paris because of the French reputation for being snotty,” remarked another, “but they weren’t at all like that. I can’t wait to come back.”

I preface this post with those comments lest my readers think I am  “dumping on the French”.  While I’m at it, I should also point out that I have never subscribed to the “all the French are arrogant” theory although I always thought and still do that SOME of the French are arrogant just as SOME of the Americans are loud.

Now that I’ve taken the necessary precautions, I can get to the heart of the matter which is a question:  Why do the Parisians scowl so much?  Note I say “Parisians” and not “the French”.  The minute you get on a train and get yourself to a provincial French town, you’ll encounter people who actually do smile and say BonjourMais oui!   But the Parisians….. It’s a well-known fact that the Parisians do not smile. Oh, they may smile at their children or their mother or their best friend but they do not walk around with the Universal Smile that is drummed into Americans  from childhood.

Yet although I know this fact, having lived here for 44 years with a French husband and two Franco-American children, none of whom practice the Universal Smile, I still am shocked by The Scowl. (It’s one thing not to smile, another to frown, glare and look positively malevolent).

The Scowl is usually because the person is on the metro and it’s crowded and smelly and it’s not a smiley experience.  The Scowl is because the person is engaged in his or her own thoughts and sees no reason to communicate with a total stranger. A Parisian waiter without a scowl would not be a Parisian waiter.  You’re supposed to smile at him, not the other way around.

The Scowl is NOT, as many Americans would have it, because you are not French. No, French people scowl at other French people, believe me.

In recent days, the Parisians have had more to glower and groan about than usual: a weak and vacillating government,  garbage, plane, train, and metro strikes, and even the flooding of the Seine after  a triste month of grey rainy weather.  Even I, the perpetually smiling American, am down at the mouth.

The garbage strike exacerbated my bad humor. On a recent day I decided to take a walk from my apartment near the Place Gambetta in the east of Paris to the lovely verdant, hilly Parc des Buttes Chaumont.  To my horror, the promenade consisted of avoiding the mounds of garbage piled up and all around the green city garbage bins parked on the sidewalks while trying not to smell the offensive odors that had collected after said garbage had rested there for more than a week. I refused to think about rats.

As I write this, the garbage strike is winding down, but the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail, the Communist trade union) is  still in a fight to the death battle with the Socialist government which it accuses of being too far on the right. (Imagine that in the U.S.!)  Metros, planes and trains are still running – but not all of them as many workers are still on strike. (Why the strikes? Oh, I almost forgot: they are over a proposed labor reform law the unions rejected and which the government, weak as it is, promptly watered down – but not enough for the unions).

The last stand, a huge demonstration on June 14, and continued strikes, is taking place in the midst of the Euro Cup which started on June 10 and has brought millions of tourists to France.  The unions could have called a halt to the strikes during this period but that would have been so un-French.  Best to let the visitors see what it’s like to live in a nation where “democracy” is equated with street protests.

The admirable solidarity of a nation united by the shocking and shameful terrorist attacks in January has unravelled, giving way to this public struggle against the government and the bosses.  Union members say they are defending the rights of all workers.    My butcher begs to differ:  “They’re not fighting for MY rights,” she told me, as she deftly sliced a cut of tender veal.  She and her husband work long hours and have no special rates at holiday camps or bonuses or other perks.   “They’re fighting for the special privileges that they don’t want to lose.”

So there we are: plenty of reason to be grumpy.  But, please, Parisians:  it’s not my fault so don’t scowl at me!

Jan in front of poubelles

A Canadian friend and longtime resident of France holding her nose.