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