One of the pleasures of reading David Lebovitz’s new book, “The Sweet Life of Paris”, besides the scrumptious recipes (absinthe cake, fromage blanc soufflé, dulce de leche brownies), are the spot-on observations he makes about what it’s like to live as an ex-pat food writer and Chez-Panisse-trained chef in the City of Lights. Lebovitz writes an entertaining blog that, like his book, does not merely concentrate on food topics, but he is of the belief that to know the culture of a place, you really have to know its people.
Having spent a couple of years living in the French capital myself, I found myself nodding my head as Lebovitz attempted to answer the question: what is a Parisian like? We all know the expected answer –that they’re arrogant and rude, and almost a year ago, we wrote about how the French were the world’s rudest people. We also have heard that the French think of themselves as truly special and unique, with a rich culture of literature, art, music, fashion, food, theatre etc., that is the envy of the world.
Given this internal view of the external (sorry to sound like a French existentialist), it’s no wonder to most French people that they should have to conform to fit in to others’ ways of life when they should be protecting their own. Makes sense, in a way. But what always used to frustrate me was the almost daily reminders that, even with the world seemingly coming to visit the city all the time, Parisians seemed unwelcoming and ungrateful to all those (especially the ugly Americains) who came to their city. I remember standing many times near the Place St-Michel, a bustling pedestrian spot in the 6th, and watching countless tourists visibly lost or confused, and not a single Parisian stopping to assist or answer questions.
Can’t say something properly in French? You will be corrected instantly.
I used to joke that most French people speak English fairly well, though not as adeptly as the Germans or Dutch. But they’ll pretend to not know what you’re saying, and would probably lay on the ground near death before they actually uttered a word in English. Not because they can’t — it’s because they’re so self-conscious of their accent and how they come across. It’s all about how you present yourself, how you are perceived that matters. This is why I, and as David Lebovitz admits in his book, would never walk outside –and be seen—wearing sweatpants to take a simple walk or run an errand.
The Cartesian Reflex
The process of being French means that you surrender to the blazing powers of acculturation. You say “Bonjour” and “Au revoir” when you enter and exit shops. You use especially polite language. You embrace people with kisses on the cheeks (this one I liked) when you see them, and then when you walk away, and so on.
Lebovitz also adds that while Americans are by nature self-deprecating, the French simply are not. In fact, they just aren’t self-critical and are sensitive to how others see them. It’s a Cartesian reflex, perhaps: they are careful to point out what one should do, how one should behave because they have accepted this as such –in short, life “comme il faut”, as if it were a subjunctive mood of prescribing, which, in their eyes, it is.This is the country that invented the term “chauvinistic” –attributed to a fiercely loyal Napoleonic-era soldier, Nicolas Chauvin, who never truly existed except in phony legend. This is the country where all significant cultural life has always been completely centered in the city of Paris.
To get an authentic feel for the ways of the French, here are some TV commercials that have been running in France since 2007. They have since spawned a lot of interest worldwide and some have even been translated into English. The ads for Le Parisien, a French daily newspaper, are of course tongue-in-cheek, and are meant to show glimpses of the average Parisian in various mundane situations.
At the end of each ad is the tag line, “Le Parisien, il vaut mieux l’avoir en journal” (the Parisian, it’s better to have him as a newspaper). Why the punch-line? See for yourself for this apparently regular displays of rude and condescending behavior by Parisians. Two notes of interest: first, I witnessed something very similar to the one with the Japanese tourists near the Place des Vosges one afternoon; second, while quietly standing in line at my local Felix Potin mini-grocery, a woman carrying bottles of Badoit barreled herself in front of the line without a care in the world.
Oh yeah –I forgot to mention: the French do not wait in line.
The Business Card
The Check-out Line