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A U.S. trip and a French freak out

This Joie de Vivre blog has been silent for months.  Pardonnez-moi!

The reason is that in Fall 2013 I embarked on an action-filled book tour in the States for more than a month, traveling from big cities to small (think Chicago, Seattle, then Shenandoah, Iowa,  my hometown, Joplin, Mo.  and Knoxville, Tennessee to name but a few) – and it always takes me a long time to get back in the saddle, digest my travels, and move on.  It took me even longer because during the Christmas holidays Philippe and I decided to celebrate his newly acquired doctoral degree (from the Sorbonne in History with highest honors) with a richly deserved vacation in Mauritius and the French island of La Réunion. See photo below!

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So, albeit belatedly, a few quick thoughts on the U.S. trip and a confession:  After living in France (one could also say “Europe”) for so long, I am flabbergasted by how generous my fellow Americans are with their time and how easily things get done!  (France is a wonderful place but things do tend to get complicated). Many of the people I visited and stayed with along the way were old friends but some were new.  In both cases they cheerfully drove me from place to place, made me comfort meals or took me out to eat, got me and/or took me to the airport, and bent over backwards to facilitate my every move.  One friend gave me her own spacious room to sleep in while she trekked upstairs to her smaller guest room, yet another actually ended up shlepping and selling my books.  In LA I spoke at an event at Vromans held in conjunction with the Alliance Française of Pasadena, in Seattle a friend threw a momentous book party for me at which we sold more than sixty books.  In Knoxville, Tennessee, a friend arranged for me to be the keynote speaker at a Writers Guild fundraiser and sell my books. The event was held in a boutique horse farm and at it I learned what Southern hospitality means.  Such gentility!  I could go on and on because everywhere I went people were gracious, welcoming, efficient and fun.   I mentioned friends but family pitched in too – my brother Ward Welty in Huntsville, Alabama and wife Jane threw a book party for me and ferried me to appearances in  Knoxville and Birmingham. As I told them, I only come to stay with them once every ten years or so but when I do, watch out!  They gamely met the challenge and probably collapsed with relief after my departure!

When traveling around like I did, it’s not easy to take the pulse of the country other than to observe the patent rift between the Republicans and the Democrats.  I don’t choose my friends by their politics so some are on on the left, some on the right.  Let’s just put it this way: If they’re too far on the right, we don’t talk politics.   If I lived in the States, which I no longer do, I would probably end up taking sides.  From a distance, it’s easier to de-dramatize, n’est-ce pas?

Frankly, since I live permanently in France, I am more prone to worry about what’s going on here.  No longer a tourist, I hold a French passport and can even vote in French elections. And pay French taxes.  What French politicians do affects me directly so I have to pay attention.  Which I do.

So here goes:   Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard all about President François Hollande’s philandering and break-up with his now ex-companion Valerie Trierweiler.  That kind of stuff is exciting and fun for the press to report on. What’s less glamorous but much more troubling is the current “ambiance” caused by a rift between the governing Socialist party and those who don’t agree with their actions (gay marriage and the introduction of courses on sexual equality in grade school) or methods.  Demonstrations and debates have ensued, but both are now firmly in place.  And who gets blamed for these societal changes? Hold on to your hats while I give you a couple of recent examples of “conversations” I heard in line in a big Parisian department store where I was lined up at the cash register to buy some clothes.

In the first incident, a cashier kindly offered to help out a woman who had a problem that apparently couldn’t be solved by the cashier in whose line she was standing.  “Come on over here and I’ll help you get this settled” she said and so the lady, an Arab wearing a head scarf, did and all was well.  Except it wasn’t.  A dumpy dumpling looking grey-haired woman in front of me yelled at the cashier:   “I’ve got a train to catch. Why are you taking her instead of me?” So far, this is normal behavior in a line – people in Paris are always yelling for one reason or another.  However, she didn’t stop there.    “And why are you helping an “étranger“?  she queried, and in a fit of impatience, threw her purchases down and trounced out.  Fortunately, the reaction was one of horror from the cashier and my fellow sufferers in the line which means that not everyone subscribes to this line of thought.

A couple of days later I was in the same store and this time a black guy got impatient, raising his voice to say to the person being waited on “You’re not the only one in the store”.  A lady standing next to me shook her head disapprovingly and, pointing to the black guy, said:  “Ah, all these “étrangers“.  That’s what we get for voting in a Socialist government.”  I wanted to tell her that  (a) if she thought that the only impolite and rushed people in France were nonFrench she should have another think  and (b) that I am an étranger too but she knew that from my accent and it didn’t count because I wasn’t black or Arab – but by this time I had only one idea which was to get out of that store.

Don’t get me wrong:  I don’t mean to contrast the “nice Americans” with the “mean racist French” in what I wrote above.  Each society has people who think that there are too many “foreigners” and blame whatever’s wrong in the country (in the case of France, high unemployment would head the list).  What I’ve remarked lately though is that while people used to dump on these foreigners in private, now they are doing it in public.  Their private racist thoughts are now out in the open!  Maybe that’s a good thing.  You can’t refute an argument unless it’s out there – and is it ever out there these days.

How will all this strife come out in the wash?  At the polls.  It will be interesting to see how the French vote in the coming municipal elections.  Will the extreme right gain votes in a landslide?   I wish I knew and I hope for France that the divisiveness will cool down or come to an end – just as I hope it will in the States. Looks like I’m an incorrigible optimist!

In the meantime, I find plenty of reasons to retain my joie de vivre and simply wish that all those people who blame the foreigners (les étrangers) for their unhappiness would as well. Don’t you?

 

 

The Little Black Dress

I always thought the French had a genius for wining, dining, romancing, and dressing and a lot of other things I couldn’t fit into the subtitle of Joie de Vivre, and the little black dress has to be at the top of the list.

Why?  For me, la petite robe noire is quintessentially French:  simple but elegant.  It’s THE dress you have got to have in your wardrobe, the one you’ll always find yourself gravitating to in answer to the perennial question:  “what shall I wear”?

As the American fashion writer and Paris resident Tina Isaac enthused:  “Black is timeless, no-brainer, works in all situations, day to night, 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 (thank you Chanel and Audrey), regardless of whether it’s deserved, and for all those reasons I would say it’s kind of the spirit of Paris, sartorialized.”

Invented by Coco Chanel almost a century ago, the little black dress is now on high display at the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art and Culture until September 22 so if you’re in Paris, put it on your list.  Now for a confession:   I’d tell you what you’re going to see but I haven’t been myself.   It’s on my  to-do list, that’s for sure.  I do however know a lot about the exhibition simply from reading a recent article in the International Herald Tribune by its authoritative fashion writer, Suzy Menkes.  According to her,   “this collection is far more than an homage to past grandeur”.  André Leon Talley, a contributing editor at American Vogue and the force behind the exhibition, emphasizes the versatility of the little black dress, showcasing a variety of mannequins by designers from Yves St. Laurent and Balenciaga to Marc Jacobs and Stella McCartney.

As I said, I haven’t been to the exhibition yet – and I’m on vacation and can’t get a picture up which is really a pity –  but all you have to do is visualize the diminutive Edith Piaf belting out her passionate love songs in her little black dress and you’ve got your image. In fact, did you ever see Piaf in anything but the little black dress?

The little black dress is simple and elegant, but also versatile.  The exhibition shows it in all its various interpretations, from classic to modern.  The more I think about it, the more I think I’m going to rush to the show and then go buy myself a new black dress for my (very small) collection.   It’s one purchase where you truly can’t go wrong.  As Stella McCartney says in the book accompanying the show (which I will mostly surely buy as well):  “The little black dress is something to rely on – to fill you with confidence and ease.”

What more can one ask?

 

 

 

 

Have the French lost their joie de vivre? Mais non!

So, are the French depressed or not?  Have they lost the joie de vivre the entire world envies them, or at the very least, associates with them?

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in Paris for haute couture week, gave the subject her attention in an article entitled “Goodbye Old World, Bonjour Tristesse” that appeared on July 6  and I’m starting to lose count of the number of people who have forwarded it to me.  They think – as they should – that since I wrote an entire book on the subject of  joie de vivre, I’d be interested in her take on the matter.

You bet I’m interested, for at least two reasons.  One, of course, is the subject.  Two is that I’m a journalist as well so enjoyed looking at how she constructed the piece, seeing who she interviewed, what quotes and polls she chose, and what her slant was.

As usual, she’s entertaining.  (That’s what she’s paid for!)  She writes well and reports well (if she’s at the Times, these skills are a no brainer).  The tone is typically, in my mind, New York Times Arch, ie, if I’m telling you this, That’s The Way It Is.  After all, the Times is the journal of record so the journalists must be right, non?

The French are always fun to report on and if you’re a reporter for the Times, it’s even more fun because you can get in a few cheap shots and no one will accuse you of being Fox News for God’s sakes.  To wit:  “The French,” she proclaims, “are so busy wallowing in their existential estrangement – a state of mind Camus described as ‘Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?’ – that they don’t even have the energy to be rude.”  I was smiling until I got to the last few words.   Well, I see why she couldn’t resist, but still.  “The French are rude” stereotype is just so tiresome.

To back up her point that the country has fallen into a state of depression, Dowd interviews fashion designer Christian Lacroix’s dentist on the avenue Hoche.  For those of you who are not all that familiar with Paris or its social classes and spheres, interviewing Christian Lacroix’s dentist for his thoughts on joie de vivre is like interviewing  Marie-Antoinette about which cake she’s going to distribute to the people. He says that his patients are bemoaning such horrid things as, and I quote, ‘not going anymore on holiday to Egypt’.  Oh, please.

The entire article continues in this vein – the dentist muses that the French people probably “think too much” and that the “happy stupid” don’t see the problem after which he, according to the reporter, gives (what else) a “Gallic shrug” and pronounces that none of this is “the end of the world.”  Does this mean that if you’re happy you’re stupid? I admit I didn’t quite get it.

For Dowd,  the French are stuck in a sentimental time warp (all of the French? one wants to ask) which prevents them from moving forward.  She cites a BVA-Gallup poll which revealed that the French were even more pessimistic than Afghans and Iraqis!  She did not cite a poll that showed that while the French are indeed pessimistic about externals, they are extremely happy about their private lives.

And she leaves us dangling with sociologist François Dubet’s comment to Le Monde that “If France doesn’t get all the Olympic medals and all the Nobel Prizes, the French consider it hopeless.”

Too bad she didn’t take a nice long look at that comment for it’s the crux of the matter!

That the French want to be great, that they want to go back to the good old times when France was glorious, that they are unhappy to be one among many in Europe, that they want to be special and stand out, that people are dissatisfied about this, that or the other is normal.   But I think she missed what was so incredibly and indelibly French about his comment (and actually what was French about all the comments of the people she interviewed).  The French simply cannot bear to be bored.  The Spanish, the Irish, the Greeks, and many other countries are suffering from unemployment and various problems (just look at the Americans and health care) .  Everyone’s got problems but when the French have them, the whole world knows about it.  It’s not for nothing that the national bird is the rooster whose vociferous crow leaves no man asleep.    The French are drama Kings and Queens.  I know: I’m married to a Frenchman for whom even the smallest of matters is One Big Deal.  Everything,  and I mean everything, is a subject for discussion and debate.

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So you know what?  This whole discussion about “liberté, égalité, and morosité”, this whole debate about the French being down in the dumps, and have they or have they not lost their joie de vivre is PROOF of their joie de vivre!   The French love nothing better than a nice big attention getting controversy.  Hey, they even got a New York Times reporter on the case of joie de vivre and yours truly devoted an entire BOOK to the subject .

Bravo les français.  While everyone’s having serious discussions as to whether your renowned joie de vivre has gone the way of the dodo, you’re having a glass of white wine in a romantic restaurant with a white tablecloth, looking into the eyes of your loved one,  or you’re on a beach somewhere enjoying the benefits of your generous paid vacation time, or maybe you’re even in a hospital but it’s ok because you don’t have to worry about outrageous medical bills since you’re covered.

You’re out there somewhere enjoying your joie de vivre.

And you’ve outwitted us all once again.

 

 

 

When “second homes” are first in the heart

C’est les vacances!

Everyone knows that the French are world champions of the watered down work week and the wondrous six week minimum paid vacation.  But did anyone ever stop to ask where les français GO en vacances?  Ask no more!

They go to their résidence secondaire (second home) if they’re lucky enough to have one.    It may be at the seashore, in the mountains, or deep in the countryside, it may be a castle, a studio apartment, or a trailer home, but whatever and wherever it is, the home away from home is a very French thing.   With three million “second homes”, they have twelve times as many as the Germans, and more than anyone else in the world!

I discovered the “second home” concept early on when Philippe, who was courting me assiduously, invited me to his parents’ country house an hour west of Paris, not far from the beautiful cathedral of Chartres.  Although they had a lovely, spacious apartment near the Gare Montparnasse in Paris, the résidence secondaire, which his father bought during the War to get his wife and small children out of the capital, was a haven not just for the family but for the many friends who were invited to partake of the bounteous repasts served by my mother-in-law, a wonderful cook and one of the most hospitable persons I have ever met (I once heard someone accuse the French of being inhospitable –  the person obviously hadn’t met her!).

The Rochefort “second home” was built in the 1860s. With its low sloping tiled roof, from the outside it looks like an illustration of a fairytale cottage in a children’s book.   Inside, the rooms are small but each has been lovingly painted and decorated and cared for.  The house is only a few doors down from the village church, and only steps away from the mairie where my father-in-law served many terms on the City Council.   Television rapidly changed social life in the village;  my mother-in-law told me that when she was young,  the main entertainment on a hot summer evening was sitting in front of your door and chatting with the villagers out for a stroll. Imagine that in this day of internet!

My in-laws braved the Paris traffic every single week-end to arrive at the country place, air it out, go to the next village to buy groceries, come back and start some serious cooking and repairs around the house while assorted grandchildren and cousins and friends played in the huge yard and the more adventurous little ones crossed a wee bridge over a small brook that ran through the property (every once in a while a clumsy soul would end up in the water). Our youngest son spent most of his time sneezing and wheezing because of various allergies (to the country?!) but it didn’t make a dent in his pleasure.

As for Philippe, he’d hit the couch, open a magazine, close his eyes and generally fall asleep.  After a stressful week at the office (he’s one of those French persons who worked 80 hours a week, not 35) the country place was perfect for relaxation.  While he napped, I would watch my mother-in-law’s doings in the kitchen and from her learned a precious thing or two about French cooking.  No, not written recipes – they were in her head and she was incapable of transcribing them. My “lessons” were in the watching and the observing and the smelling and the tasting  – all of which I did a lot.

On summer nights we’d set up a huge long table on the terrace.  The children were always with us but I distinctly remember that my in-laws, who loved them all dearly, didn’t tolerate any acting up. They were welcome and expected to eat what was served and behave.  And they did, I think, because they were so happy to be there (and were allowed to run off and play once they’d finished the cheese course – they were sure to return for the dessert.)

On cold winter nights after a long dinner we’d sit by the fireplace and perform a ritual: one of us would go to the cupboard to fetch thimble-size glasses into which my father-in-law would pour the Rochefort pear alcohol production. Yes, OUR pear production.  Every year in the fall we’d all get in the tiny kitchen (total workspace: one counter) and cut up a thousand pounds of purchased Williams pears (for there were no fruit trees on the property) in four, then put the pieces one by one into two wooden barrels where they would remain until spring when the distiller would come along, all red-nosed because he’d been inhaling (or drinking) too much strong alcohol. With his copper still, he’d transform the pear juice into alcohol that would take every hair off the chest of even the hairiest man.  But we love it and it’s good.  Every time I uncork a bottle (by the way, a thousand pounds of pears only yields about thirty bottles), the smell of the wood in the fireplace and the country air and the happy faces of the friends and family in the room pop out and float in the air.

Nostalgia’s one benefit and there’s another: our minimum-80-proof pear alcohol will kill any germ that comes near it.  Extremely useful when you’ve got a cold.  But buveur beware: don’t drink it like water which I rashly did one night with a friend. Result:  I have never been so drunk in my life and my unsuspecting friend swore off alcohol for five entire years. I now sedately take a sugar cube and dip it into the glass (what the French call a canard, a duck) to get the pleasure of the taste but none of the  side effects.

So many memories:  of my mother-in-law mending our clothes and caring for her geraniums and asking me at breakfast what we might eat for lunch (I’m under the radar in the morning and couldn’t engage with her on that one), of my father-in-law buttering slices of pain d’épices and bringing her breakfast in bed which she shared with the grandchildren who had piled into it with her,  of all those meals that went on for hours with much laughing and talking (trust me, no one in that family ever said  “Im not hungry” or raided the refrigerator – meals were at the table and twice a day like clockwork).

I could write so much more about those magical days in the country place – and so could, I would imagine, any French person who has one.

Why?  Because those French “second” homes are often first in the heart.

 

(The above entry is adapted from and based on excerpts from “Hanging Out Without Feeling Guilty” in my book, Joie de Vivre).  All material copyrighted.

 

 

Writing about the French

Now here’s a question to contemplate on a stormy day in Paris as I gaze at my dark green, almost black “jardin” and watch the rain pelt down on the flowers whose petals I just lovingly cleaned up:  Why do people write about the French?  I thought about this after receiving the following question, one of many I answered for an online interview in A Woman’s Paris. (Advance warning: the question is flattering.)   Here goes:  “Your trilogy, French Toast, French Toast, and Joie de Vivre  have had a huge impact on Francophiles, travelers and expatriates living in France. What do you think it is about your books that make readers connect in such a powerful way?”

I replied, and I think it’s true, that “one reason may be the general fascination with the French.”  I mean, who writes about the Swedish, the Danish, or even the Brazilians?  Why are we all so utterly obsessed, enthralled, or enraged with the French? Why are we so interested in what they do, how they dress, how they act?  What is it about them?  Is it because the French remain so thoroughly themselves in spite of globalization? Is it simply because more people visit France (it’s the top tourist country in the world with 81 million visitors a year)?  Whatever it is, there’s a veritable cottage industry of books about France, the French, Paris, the Parisians, French food, French style, hey, even French toast and joie de vivre!

Other than the general fascination with the Frogs (pardon my French – and incidentally, does anyone out there know why the French are referred to as grenouilles?), I have had an intense personal fascination with them, starting with my French husband, a man who continues to make me laugh and never bores me even after forty years of marriage (is it because he’s French or because he’s who he is?).  At any rate, il faut le faire.   But back to the question about my trilogy:   If people identify with or are amused in any way by my books, it may be because I invite them into my life.  Years after my first book was published, readers continue to ask how Benjamin and David are doing and tell me how much they loved the interviews with Philippe.  Their reaction warmed my heart and showed me that the book touched people beyond Francophiles.  I think they identified with the general problem of adjusting to marrying into a culture rather than visiting it, raising children, making four-course meals in a tiny kitchen, learning the lingo.  And the specific overriding matter at hand:  the subject of all my books is the surprising, stunning, and egregious difference between the French mindset and the American one and the process of adaptation (or not).  As I always warn American students visiting Paris:  “We think we are alike but we are absolutely not.” I then proceed to enumerate all the ways in which the Americans and the French differ – and it’s a shocker.  The authors we read, the thoughts we think, our attitudes toward religion, sex, food, our sense of humor, the list goes on and on.

Which reminds me:  I’ve got to go prepare a speech for a group of 17 students from Missouri Southern State University visiting Paris and us later this week.  Not only will they get to see a Parisian apartment (they will find it small but, trust me,  by Parisian standards, 96 square meters for two is heading toward vast) and get to hear my spiel on les différences culturelles,  they’ll also get a glance at our resident Frenchman, Philippe (they can decide whether or not he looks French. The jury’s out).  After the talk and some viennoiseries,  we’ll repair to the nearby Père Lachaise cemetery to contemplate the graves of the illustrious  (Chopin, Piaf, Balzac, Colette, and Jim Morrison to name but a few).  Any guess as to whose burial plot is the most well-known and sought after?    After the tour of the tombs, a couscous lunch awaits us at our local Moroccan restaurant.  If that doesn’t give them a slice of Parisian life, I don’t know what would (well, the Arch of Triumph and the Eiffel Tower but they’ve surely been there, done that).

So, why write about France and the French?  Let me tell you after our little talk, tour, and couscous.  I’m sure those students will find zillions of “French” things that are different – and I can’t wait to hear what they say.  It will be grist for my mill  – and, who knows,  maybe another book about the French.  Encore un?  Mon Dieu!   Well, that’s what I mean about writing about the French.

Irrésistible!

 

The full interview in A Woman’s Paris can be found at the links below:

French Impressions: Harriet Welty Rochefort’s “Joie de Vivre” taking pleasure in the small things (part one)
French Impressions: Harriet Welty Rochefort’s “Joie de Vivre” comes when you least expect it (part two)

 

 

The Passing of a Fine French Lady

If you’ve read my books or heard me speak about my life in France, you’ve heard about my French mother-in-law (belle-mère in French, a prettier term than the English one by far).  She passed away last Sunday at the age of 98 so this is the moment to pay tribute to an exceptional and much-loved lady who peopled my life and my books.

When I married her son Philippe forty years ago, I was filled with the usual qualms all daughters-in-law everywhere have about their mothers-in-law.  Would we get along? Would we agree? Disagree? Have fun together or not have any fun at all?  In addition to those general questions, I had some particular ones, considering that I was American and my mother-in-law French.  Would our cultural differences bring us together or divide us? To take a practical example, would it be a problem if I didn’t set the table the French way? Burst out in loud American laughter?   And another practical question: what was I to call her? Should I use the informal  tu or the formal vous?

The latter questions were quickly solved.  I called her by her first name, Marie-Jeanne, and I addressed her with the formal “vous” as she did with me.  Tu is more familiar and creates less of a distance, but  I have always remained convinced that the formal vous was the perfect form for us.  And it certainly didn’t keep her from affectionately calling me ma petite Harriet or ma petite fille.

What will I remember about my mother-in-law?  Of course, her wonderful cooking, but above and beyond that, her incredible and sincere hospitality.  15 for dinner?  No problem.  The deal was, though….so as not to make her nervous, Philippe would only tell her at the last minute.  “Oh my goodness,” I exclaimed the first time he announced he was bringing a group of friends and hadn’t told his mother.  “You have got to give her advance warning!”  He, who knew his mother well, smiled and replied:   “No way.  She’ll do better if we just hit her with it.”

And she did. She didn’t even register shock as the 15 friends filed in.  She greeted each by name, with a smile and a bise, then proceeded to the kitchen to prepare a simple delicious meal that would fill many hungry stomachs.  On these last minute occasions, she’d often make the Rochefort potato omelette I wrote about in French Fried.  She’d produce a fresh head of lettuce, make a homemade vinaigrette, find something in the house that would serve as a starter (her starters were always so lavish that in the beginning I thought they were the meal), ask husband Henri to run to the fromager so she could put a dazzling variety on the cheese plate.  Even with no warning, her meal was so skillfully done and artfully presented that it looked as if it had taken days instead of minutes. She always wanted people to feel at home, and they did, staying late into the night, laughing and talking.

Even the war didn’t stop that.  Although there was a curfew and Germans were patrolling right in front of the house, Marie-Jeanne and Henri would sneak out the back door, cross a little brook, and go to their neighbor’s place to play cards until late at night when they’d silently creep back home.  They knew all about joie de vivre even in the worst of times. . Although she didn’t live in the past, Marie-Jeanne  would tell me stories about the war that made me realize what a dreadful time it was in every way – and realize that if food is so important to the French, there’s a reason. They hardly had any! The first time I peeled a potato, she was astounded.  “I can see you’ve never been through a war,” she said, not unkindly, and proceeded to demonstrate how to get the skin off the potato while leaving some potato…

As for my French, if it’s as good as it is, it’s due in part to Marie-Jeanne who corrected my mistakes rarely and gently.  Not only grammar mistakes but usage.  One day I told her that I had bien bouffé at her table.  She laughed and told me that bouffé is for animals, not people.  Humans say diné.  I could cite countless other examples of little tips like this that got me out of trouble and helped me speak decent French.  I also got a primer in Perigourdin expressions which my mother-in-law used frequently.  Born and raised in that beautiful region in southwest France, she spoke that melodious dialect fluently although she didn’t want people to know it when she came to Paris and became a Parisienne.    She referred to the small balls of soft white bread I would separate from the crust as tapous.  (I understood  that doing that was not très élégant and stopped, retaining only the word as a souvenir of this bad habit).   My huge bowl of coffee was a bachou (basin).   I would often insert these words into a French phrase and even French people didn’t know what I was talking about!

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Marie-Jeanne may have looked like the grandmother we all imagine, with her white hair, sparkling blue eyes, and soft skin (I once asked her what cream she used and she told me she had never used anything other than soap or water) but she was a strong woman who kept her household running smoothly.  She planned meals and cooked and served and cleaned up, mended all our clothes, took care of the grandchildren, tended her plants, and especially, made sure the ambiance  was good. She once told me that keeping things on an even keel and extinguishing potential conflicts was important.  She did that well and graciously and with a smile.

Frankly, I owe most of what I know about France and the French to Marie-Jeanne and her son who, I often told her, she raised right (and well before Women’s Lib).     This is a man who never leaves a trail of dirty clothes on the floor, who can cook and sew and iron, and who, like his mother, thinks of others before himself.  Pas mal, as the French say.

Mothers-in-law more often than not get a bad rap. Sometimes it’s deserved, sometimes not.  Was mine an exception?  I don’t know.  All I know is that for me she was truly une belle personne and a  belle belle-mère.  Now that she’s gone,  I’m happy I often told her so.

 

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Crazy about chouquettes

Today I triumphantly marked 62.9 in my daybook.  62.9 may not mean anything to you but for me it means “under 63″ – kilos, that is.  And “under 63″ is where I want to be.

Oh, I was so proud of myself (not that I’d been dieting-the loss was mainly due, I think, to a bout of stomach flu which turned out to have some unexpected side benefits).

Proud of myself until the chouquettes came along.  It was my husband’s idea:  he’s always ready for a sweet and brought home an adorable little white sack from the bakery filled with the little devils. How could I resist?

H and chouquettes

Wikipedia describes them like this:  A chouquette is a type of viennoiserie consisting of a small portion of choux pastry sprinkled with pearl sugar and sometimes filled with custard or mousse. A chouquette can also be dipped in chocolate or covered in chocolate chips. The chouquette did not originate in a specific region of France.

Funny about the chocolate chips – I’ve seen chouquettes for years but never with chocolate chips.  Then I read David Lebovitz’s column on chouquettes and decided that maybe some Anglophone wrote the Wikipedia entry, for Lebovitz strongly comes out for chocolate chips on his.

I prefer the plain variety with that tantalizing pearl sugar and no filling.  The best chouquettes are neither crisp nor mushy. They’re light and sugary and airy (and you can always fool yourself by thinking that they are somehow less caloric because not filled) and in my book, worth every calorie.

Philippe and I contemplated our 100 grams of chouquettes, which made about twelve, and rapidly got down to the none too tedious business of scarfing them up.  To our credit, we saved four for the goûter, the French afternoon snack.

Do I make my own chouquettes?  Good heavens, no!  That would ruin the fun of going to the local bakeries and finding out which ones have them.  For some odd reason, some bakeries have them every day, others only on certain days.  My favorite patisserie on the rue des Pyrenees, Gana, run by the daughters of Bernard Ganachaud, the originator of the delicious flute Gana, only makes them on Wednesdays and Fridays.  The waiting, the deferral of pleasure, only makes them better.

Chouquettes for me are emblematic of what I write about in my chapter “Small is Good: Les Petits Plaisirs” in Joie de Vivre:  “In France, small things procure big joys…Small is good.”

Oh, and how.

David Lebovitz wrote about chouquettes and shared his recipe with chocolate chips (but, word from The Purist, try them without).

 

Frenchwomen don’t talk about diets

One of the most exasperating – and admirable – things I have discovered about Frenchwomen is that they are slim – and don’t talk about diets.  Yes, if you asked me to list a few of the things I appreciate about Frenchwomen, way up at the top I’d put “They don’t stand around helping themselves to foie gras or petits fours while saying, “Oh, this is ruining my diet.”

I kid you not – in the forty years I’ve lived in France I’ve never heard such a thing.  So what does that mean?  To me, it’s very French. It means “I’m living the moment, so why spoil the pleasure I’m having now with a guilt trip?”  It means “This food is good” and “I’m not into denial (certainly not while I’m eating) and I know that I’m not going to indulge every day.”

And they won’t.    You can be 100 percent sure that the day after the foie gras or petits fours those lithe ladies will be sipping bouillon, but they would never say that.  Now, take a closer look.  Even while treating herself, the Frenchwoman may not eat all that much of the foie gras, but she’ll have a nice taste, that’s for sure.

Writes Mireille Guiliano in her bestselling book French Women Don’t Get Fat : “Frenchwomen simply do not suffer the terror of kilos that afflicts so many of their sisters in other developed countries.  All the chatter about diets I hear at cocktail parties in America would make any Frenchwoman cringe.”  So what do Frenchwomen talk about while gathered round a tantalizing buffet?  She replies:  “..what we enjoy: feelings, family, hobbies, philosophy, politics, culture, and yes, food, especially food (but never diets).”

This may sound too good to be true (maybe she’s making it up?) but I can assure you, dear reader, that it’s true and that it starts young.  Today I was talking to my 3-year-old French granddaughter on the phone.  She recounted in detail her “goûter” which is a scheduled afternoon snack all French children have.  She was thrilled to tell me she was eating chocolate but, she qualified, pas beaucoup.  Why? I asked.  Solemnly she informed me that it wouldn’t be good to eat too much of the chocolate.  OK, she’s only 3 but she’s already got the concept of les petits plaisirs that Frenchwomen (and men) carry with them throughout their lives.  Moderation!

Attention!  The fact that Frenchwomen don’t talk about diets doesn’t mean they don’t go on diets.  Don’t think that because they enjoy themselves at a dinner party or cocktail party sans guilt, they’ve dropped the ball.  They watch their weight like a mother watches her child on the playground-constantly. If they see they’ve gained a few grams or a pound or two, they do whatever they need to get it off-vite. But they keep all that to themselves so as not to spoil their or anyone else’s pleasure at a party or any occasion where there’s good food and drink. So refreshing – so adult!

That’s what I love so much about France, the French, and Frenchwomen. They put food in its proper place: one joy among many others.  On this score as on many others, vive la joie de vivre.

***This article is adapted and excerpted from “Having It All: The Pleasure of Being a Frenchwoman” in my latest book, Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French

 

A love affair with Paris cafés

One of the things I love most about Paris is that anytime I get restless chez moi I can run out the door, cross the street, and go sit in a nearby café.  This is definitely something I did not do when growing up in a small town in Iowa (not exactly a café culture, although we did, believe it or not, have a real French restaurant run by real French people but that’s another story).  Just watching other people, imagining their lives, gets my mind off my own preoccupations.  But of course I don’t go to cafés solely for negative reasons: I go to meet friends, do some writing, see new faces, get new ideas.

People are always asking me what my favorite café is.   I invariably answer their question with another question:  What time of day are you talking about?  Some cafés are perfect for early morning coffee and writing, others for afternoon tea with a friend, yet others for a relaxing end of the day drink.  So many cafés (40,000 now down from 200,000 in the 60s but still…), so little time!  One of my favorite cafés is right at the entrance to Les Jardins du Palais Royal near that unusual metro station entrance that looks like colorful glass balls (some people hate it, I like it).  But strange phenomenon:  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve arranged to meet people there and can’t remember the name….ah, yes, it’s Le Nemours. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.

I don’t go to Le Flore or Les Deux Magots simply because I’m a reverse snob and avoid going where everyone else does.   I admit, though, that it’s easier to meet people in a landmark café simply because you can remember the name and everyone knows where it is (the Café Marly at the Louvre is a case in point – I mean, how can anyone not find the Louvre?).

We’re gifted with a plethora of cafés near our apartment in the 20th.  On the rue des Pyrenees there’s a popular one called “Les Ours” (The Bears). Very appropriate for the Pyrenees!  There’s the Rendez-vous des Amis which I frequented assiduously until its charming owners retired and a new guy came in, installed a TV set, and kept it on all day.  Au revoir, Rendez-Vous. I headed down the street to the Ramus (named after a sixteenth century French philosopher, no less) which doesn’t have a TV set, or at least one that’s turned on, for the good reason that it is located at the upper entrance to the Père Lachaise cemetery and is often the spot families and friends choose to repair to before or after funeral services.  You know they’ve come from, or are going to, a funeral because they’re generally in large groups and dressed in black.  Sometimes the people are very sad and silent, sometimes, like the other day, they’re drinking wine and exchanging banter and jokes (maybe they think the dear departed would not have appreciated long faces?).

Cafés are good for glad and sad and great for romance as well.   The real reason I love cafés?   I met Philippe in one – and yes, I can easily remember its name – Le Select on the Boulevard Montparnasse, the gathering place of writers and artists like Picasso and Hemingway. Très romantique!

Recently while having a drink there, we watched as a dark-haired young fellow made a play for an attractive sophisticated blond sitting alone.  They chatted a few minutes before her boyfriend walked in the door. The disappointed suitor immediately returned to his seat and left shortly afterwards. So why do I think that wasn’t the end of the story?

Because that’s what Paris cafés are all about – the “what might happen” factor.  Romance is in the air – and you never know.  You might just meet your future partner in a Paris café…. 

 

 

 

 

 

Bonsoir Lune – Teaching my French granddaughter Goodnight Moon

When our children were little, I delighted in reading to them in English –  in spite or because of the fact that they were immersed in a French speaking world.  Although my husband spoke very good English, he’s French, and his French family and most of his French friends did’t speak English. Our children attended French public schools and didn’t study English in school, opting for German, Russian, and Italian.

There was a good reason for that:  I decided that they’d learn English from me!  After all, I’m their mother and therefore English was their “mother tongue”.  Right?  Well, not necessarily.  When I would speak with them in English in the street, for example, one of the two would invariably tug on my arm and supplicate me, in French, to “parles comme tout le monde” (speak like everyone else, ie, speak French!).  Not to worry:  Their pre-school and elementary school embarrassment at their mother’s “funny” way of speaking ceased as they became teenagers. Now they  could boast that their mom knew or could at least figure out the words to some of those horrid hard rock songs they listened to (horrid in my opinion, not theirs).  Suddenly English became “cool” and although they still didn’t study it formally, they benefitted from trips to visit their American family in the States. (One of the reasons I absolutely wanted them to speak English was so they could communicate with their grandmother, their aunts and uncles, and my friends).

Their learning of English was a natural process, no stress, and although French is their mother tongue in the sense of being the language they grew up using the most, they are totally at ease in English.

If it’s not exactly their “mother” tongue, it’s definitely their “other” tongue.

 I never had any doubt about that because I was with them every single day and “on the job”. And now for a confession:   I admit I have doubts about their children, though.  Both sons married French women (who speak English) and in both households French is spoken 99 per cent of the time.  They all encourage me to speak English to the grandchildren – and although I’m happy to do so, even thrilled, I hesitate to tell them that it doesn’t come naturally the way it did for them.

But I try.  And although I didn’t have much hope, trying was all it took.  Three-year-old Hannah, on every visit, makes a beeline for “her” books, especially and above all, Margaret Wise Brown’s famous classic, Goodnight Moon, her absolute favorite.  She pronounces  “mouse” and  “house” perfectly and pores over every page.  She says “goodnight bears” and “goodnight chairs” with nary an accent (well, maybe a teeny one).

One evening when her parents were here and putting her to bed, she kissed us all good-bye, as all little French children do, and as she passed through the living room in her mother’s arms, held up her little hand and waved goodnight to the room with a gay and resounding  “Bonsoir salon“.  It wasn’t in English but I liked her instant translation.  I was proud of her.

Like my sons, English won’t be her mother tongue. But, like them, it will definitely be her “other” tongue.