Harriet talks about writing and living in France


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.


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!


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!




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.


This post started with a phone call from Radio Sputnik in Moscow. In case you didn’t know – I didn’t – Radio Sputnik in 2014 replaced the Voice of Russia.  They don’t seem to have a Paris correspondent and, as I’m a former journalist and an author who has written extensively about the French and French life, they call me from time to time for comments on big stories.    I’m always happy to help –  and of course there’s always a lot to say.

First, there were the terrorist attacks in Paris, in January 2015, then in November 2015.  One at the beginning of the year, one as the year was drawing to an end. The first aimed at Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonists and journalists for their mockery of Islam.  The second was a spree, targeting first a soccer match attended by French President François Hollande, secondly, innocents enjoying a balmy Fall evening on the terraces of cafés, and lastly, music-lovers gathered at the Bataclan concert hall.

Both attacks were terrifying and horrific and for a time, the French united in sorrow and solidarity.

But it was only a brief pause and little by little “real” life came back with a vengeance.  People put terrorism in the back of their minds (although almost everyone on the metro subconsciously looks around for suspicious packages or suspicious behavior).  Dissatisfaction with the Hollande government recently came to a head over a proposed labor reform which was rejected by the unions and Hollande’s own constituents.  Hollande, they say, no longer represents the left. They took to the streets, camped out at the Place de la Republique, and in true French fashion went on strike.

The strikes though – metro, trains, garbage and probably a few I’ve forgotten – turned ugly with hooligans and leftist extremists violently smashing shop windows and attacking the police. Protestors, led by the Communist trade union, blocked the oil refineries and soon gas stations had little to no gas.  People had a hard time getting to work and businesses lost contracts and money.

To add to the stress, May was a depressing, sun-deprived, rainy month – so rainy that the Seine rose to 6 meters, the highest in 30 years.  In Paris, both the Orsay Museum and the Louvre closed their doors while workers scrambled to move artworks to higher floors. Outside Paris, damage was considerable and grave, leaving many people homeless and some of the great museums and castles endangered.  The emblematic Chateau de Chambord, a Unesco World Heritage site, is surrounded by water.

As I write this, the sun is out for the first time in days.  The level of the Seine will lower. As for the strikes, who knows? They are an inevitable, and fatiguing, feature of French life.

The Euro 2016  will start on June 10.  Terrorism experts are on the alert, for how can you control “fan zones” where thousands of people are milling?  Stress again!

A somber picture? No, real life. The one that we had to get back to after the January and November tragedies.  They haven’t been forgotten and shouldn’t be.  Floods will happen, unpopular government measures will always occur, and terrorism shouldn’t be a fatality.

All this being said, I simply hope the sun will continue to shine, the level of the waters will decrease, the strikes will stop (they will – summer vacation is right around the corner and I have NEVER seen anyone in this country strike in summer…), and terrorism will be eradicated.  Wishful thinking perhaps, but pourquoi pas?  One can always dream of a better world.

The Seine at its highest level in 30 years

The Seine at its highest level in 30 years

Of ice cubes, Cherry Coke and other French things

For quite some time I’ve been wanting to write and speak about changes in France and got a great opportunity to do so at the recent International Media Seminar in Paris where I have been invited to speak for the last few years on my favorite topic: the French.  The talk is about cultural differences and I always start by saying that though Americans may think that the French are pretty much like them, they are dead wrong.  The French, I say, are raised differently, have a different education, a different history, hold different values and have different behavior and different reactions.

That’s still true.  But this year I added a slide on “How France Has Changed”.  I did this because one day I started comparing the France I knew when I first arrived here in the late Sixties and the France I know now and realized that change has happened without my really noticing it.

When I arrived in France, grocery stores didn’t carry peanut butter, chocolate chips, hamburger buns (are you kidding? there were no hamburgers!) or Philadelphia cream cheese.  There were no Nachos and very few snack items because the French didn’t snack.

At the movies, there were no vending machines, no drinks and no popcorn. You went to the movie for the movie, not to eat.

In newspapers and magazines, you never saw a word of English.  Now it’s unusual to make it through any article without stumbling through a thicket of English expressions or words, sometimes horribly misused.  Or mispronounced:  French TV anchors talk about “low cost” flights but it comes out as “low coast”.    That’s ok – few Americans can get their tongues around  “ratatouille”.

For years, tourists complained that the French didn’t speak English, that they didn’t have air conditioning or ice cubes, that they weren’t friendly.  Well, not to worry now. The other day I was in a restaurant with my 5-year-old French granddaughter. She ordered a soft drink and the waiter brought her the bottle and a glass filled with ice cubes.  Her little face crumpled as she looked at me and said “but Nanie (her name for me), I don’t drink ice cubes”).  Of course she doesn’t – she’s French!  The French waiter, hearing my accent, assumed she was American so he brought out what Americans want.

That little incident showed a lot about cultural differences.  Tourists want “authentic” France but they also want the comforts they have back home. Therefore the “natives” give them what they want and slowly the country changes its tastes as well – which is why there is now a giant hamburger craze in France.

There are now food trucks in the streets of Paris and soon, doggie bags.  The French being French (still), restaurant owners have promised that if they do adopt this very unFrench custom, they will serve the remains in a beautiful “gourmet” box.

Let me see:  have I forgotten anything?  I have not yet seen graham crackers or Saltines or Root Beer in my local grocery store but am sure I will soon.

No wonder worried French top chefs and culinary experts worked so hard to get French cuisine and French food customs (ah, those long  and wonderful meals where no one wondered about gluten and talking about getting fat was forbidden) on the list of UNESCO’s cultural heritage protection list.

They NEED protection!

Gourmet hamburger joint in Paris

Vying for title of worst American mom and worst French dad

After the tragic events of the past two weeks in Paris, it feels good to lighten up which is what I did this morning when reading an article about a “world’s worst mom” http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/advice-from-americas-worst-mom/?_r=0.

The mom in question is Lenore Skenazy, a New York mom of two, who earned the title after reporting in a newspaper column that she had allowed her youngest son, then age nine, to take the subway alone. The poor lady was so raked across the coals – she was even threatened with an arrest for child endangerment – it’s lucky she’s alive to tell her tale of being a “worst mom” and counsel parents who won’t let their kids be kids.

I immediately identified with Lenore. When our oldest son, B, was ten years old, his father had the bright idea of having him cross all of Paris on the metro – alone – to visit him in his office at the Tour Montparnasse (metro, elevators!) before going on to an activity vaguely in that neighborhood. The total trip involved several complicated changes and I admit that, while I’m laughing now, I was anxious at the time.

“He could get attacked! Kidnapped! Or worse! ” I remember yelling when I got wind of the idea. “Mais non!” my husband smiled as if he knew something I didn’t. In the end, Mr. Ten-Year-Old did indeed cross town all by his little self, my husband was very proud to introduce him to his co-workers (good thing there was someone to introduce, I muttered), and no harm done other than in my wild imagination.

Little did I know, but that was just the beginning. When Mr. B was a teen-ager, he would come home at ungodly hours and you know what? His Dad would FALL FAST ASLEEP while my eyes were stuck open until I heard the door click and his footsteps. Then I slept (a GOOD MOM would have at least bawled him out when he got home – I was simply relieved).

D, his little brother, if anything, was even worse. This was in the ancient days before cell phones and when I brazenly suggested that we might ASK HIM FOR THE PHONE NUMBER of the place or places he was supposed to be, his dad and older brother looked at me like I was certifiable.

I was worried for sure (as in biting my nails to the quick worried), but my husband wasn’t and I figured this was a guy thing. Eureka – a guy thing. OK, I thought, so let them work it out. I swallowed real hard and decided to let these boys be boys. Definitely world’s worst mom material.

We parents always feel guilty. To this day I regret that I was on radar in the morning and never fixed a proper breakfast for our two offspring. I (we) never woke them up for school either. If they couldn’t haul their bods out of bed, well, they’d be late and have to suffer the consequences. I (we) didn’t help them with their homework either. They were, fortunately, autonomous and if they got a bad grade, well, it was their bad grade. (same for good).

Helicopter parents we were not.

In my case, this was because I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone so if you wanted to get away, you just took your bike and rode as far as you wanted. Total freedom! Little risk of getting kidnapped since everyone was watching and would report exactly where you were to your parents (same for being sassy or not smiling at a grown-up – you’d hear about that when you got home, believe me).

In my husband’s case, once again, and I don’t care if this sounds macho, he was a guy. Guys were supposed to get into scrapes, stay out late, scare the devil out of their parents. They weren’t supposed to be protected and coddled. Fall off your bike? So get up and try again, already! My husband’s father was very strict (as in children could not speak at the table unless spoken to – isn’t that WONDERFUL?!!) but he had incredible indulgence when it came to normal kid screw-ups. My favorite story is when Philippe was about eight and went to a field of pumpkins and carved his name on every single one of them. When the pumpkins grew and grew so did his name (duh). When the irate pumpkin owner came to see le père Rochefort, he apologized and paid for the damaged crop, but had a hard time keeping a straight face. Kids will be kids!

When I read about helicopter parents, all I can do is shake my head with pity for their poor children. It’s important to dream, to do nothing, to NOT have play dates, to not worry if you’ll go to Harvard. When I was a kid growing up in my midwestern town of 5000, my main activities were l) getting on my bike and 2) taking daily trips to the public library to find books, curl up in a chair, and transport myself far far away to lands I could see only in my imagination, 3) spending time with my friends having a good time – period. We had activities but believe me, we didn’t know the meaning of the word “over scheduled”. (Oh, yes, there was ONE girl in town who was an obsessively perfect student whose parents never let her waste a minute; she would memorize Latin words while brushing her teeth and we thought she was really weird).

Oh, by the way, our sons, who gave me more grey hairs than I can count, were excellent students and what I am most proud of is that what they did they did on their own. They grew up to be fine young men and now have children of their own who, I am sure, will give them the kind of nightmares they gave us. Somehow, I have the feeling that they’ll be watchful and responsible but not “helicopter”. How could they be with the parents they had?

So anyway, do Philippe and I get nominated for world’s worst mom and dad?

Gee, I hope so.