SIXTEEN THINGS I LOVE ABOUT THE FRENCH (AND A FEW I DON’T)

 

The French are different from Americans. Vive la différence. There's much about France for an American to love. My love started as a high-school student in 1954, living for a year in Croissy-sur-Seine outside Paris, while my father worked for the Marshall Plan. Attending the American Community School near the Bois de Bolougne, I played on the basketball team against French teams, which meant traveling through the City to various lycée gyms. Slowly, the beauty of Paris sank in. Deeper, I felt intuitively drawn to sidewalks cafés full of energetically talking people. And I was joyously stunned seeing men and women passionately kissing in public

Over the following sixty years I’ve returned to France often. During four decades, I was an occasional hotel-occupying tourist, usually in Paris. Then, in twelve different summers (from 1997 to 2013) my mate Naomi and I exchanged our house in Berkeley for roughly a month for a French family’s home: Twice in Paris; four times in different coastal towns in Brittany; twice in towns outside Montpellier; and once each in Bellecombe-en Bauge in the Savoie mountains above Lake Annecy, and in Nice, and in the Pays Basque, and in St. Chamas, a small town forty miles northwest of Marseille. Each exchange has been a dream. We’ve made friends we meet whenever we can when we return to France.  We’ve learned to speak French well enough to carry on conversations, from politics to books to the personal, without using English. My love of France and the French has deepened, although I’ve developed some dislikes too.  I’ll start with some likes.

1) Their passion for their language. The French love of their language is astonishing and impressive.   A devout reader as well as a talker and a writer, I’m naturally interested in language. French friends have taught me deep concern for language can be.

In Bellecombe in 1999, we became friends with Bob and Mado, an older couple who’d moved there from Lyon more than 20 years before. During most of our subsequent French home exchanges we visited them for a coupe of days. If I were forced to define Bob and Mado in terms of class, I’d say that they were working class and very classy. One afternoon at their house they disagreed over the proper usage of a French word. Each held strongly to his or her opinion. Within moments, each had pulled out his or her large, heavy French dictionary, vigorously arguing their view.  I can’t recall the word, nor how the dispute was resolved, but I’ll always remember the fervor each brought to precise understanding of French.

To many French, speaking and understanding their language well is a vital component of living.  They concur with quiet pride when I declare that French is the most beautiful of languages. Mado explained that some French language rules exist because otherwise spoken words would have an unpleasant sound. Language is so important to the French that many major politicians write books to demonstrate their graceful verbal skills and literary abilities. An inarticulate, word-fumbling President is inconceivable in France.

Knowing the French passion for their language, I appreciate friends, as well as an occasional shopkeeper or bartender, who correct my French. They know I understand that’s it’s a compliment for them to correct me. I speak French well enough so they believe that I, like all lover of their language, must want to do it as well as possible.

2) They can be intensely romantic. We've heard the myth: The French are Lovers. Here's one tale about that. In Brittany I asked a couple we’d become friends with how they met. He was a high-ranking employee) in the National Finance Department. She was perhaps fifteen younger than him. They’d been happily married for over twenty years. Chuckling at my question, they paused, then nodded agreement that he could tell us. “She hadn’t paid her television tax. [In France, you must pay a yearly property tax each TV.] She’d been called by the tax people, then sent a couple of letters. “Threw them away,” she laughed. “So,” he continued, “It was kicked up to me. I wrote her a stern letter—You better pay the tax or else…. blah, blah …  or call me. So she called me…” He paused, looking loving at her, “and I fell in love with her voice. … I told her that she needed to come to my office so we could discuss this personally.”

Hard to imagine an IRS agent telling a similar story.

3) Sidewalk Cafés. The New Jersey suburb I was raised in didn’t even have a restaurant, let alone a sidewalk café. The Parisian café magic I first absorbed as a teenager still enthralls. Sitting outside at a café, sipping a grand crŹme (roughly, a cappuccino), reading or watching people pass, remains one of the most satisfying of French pleasures. Plus, once you’ve ordered, you can stay as long as you like.

Cafés serve as gathering places, not solely a place to consume coffee. Parisians have their favorites, usually in their neighborhood. One classic café type is the flČneur. [“FlČner,” the verb, is inadequately translated as “ to lounge, saunter, stroll, loaf.”} A flČneur (male), or a flČneuse (female) is a city creature who delights in the pleasures of ambling through urban streets, talking, looking, laughing, enjoying and, of course, partaking of café life. As does the flČneur’s spiritual kin, the Bon-Vivant.

4) French cuisine.

The delights of French cooking are hardly secret. French domestic cooking is usually a living tradition. Recipes are passed down for generations.  Cooking well is an egalitarian pleasure, available to all (except, perhaps, the most poor). You don’t need to be rich. Family Dinners, or the big Sunday lunch, are times for gathering, enjoying conversation and eating/drinking with pleasure. No rushing.

A culture that puts eating well at its center has done something very right. Eating well means, to use the now-standard phrase, “living in the present.” Enjoying a meal is being alive to your actual existence, taking time to nourish yourself and feel the pleasures you have by doing so.

Before my family lived in France, my frugal, Irish-American mother regarded food as essentially fuel. In France, she continued to spend as little as possible on food. A French family of four—two young children—lived in the tiny second-story flat over the garage of our Croissy house. France was still post-World-War-II poor; the husband had a demanding job and didn’t earn much. My mother was astonished when she learned that the wife often bought more expensive food than Mom did. Discussing this with the wife, Mom grew more astonished when told that the family spent over 50% of their income on food. “How can you spend so much?” Mom asked, as politely as she could. Now the other woman was astonished, “But you have to eat,” she proclaimed—meaning eat well.

Eating well starts with shopping well—buying fresh baguettes or other  bread daily, and frequent visits to other local stores, perhaps a fromagerie (cheese) patisserie (desserts), boucherie (meat) poissonier (fish) or to a traitteur,  roughly a high-end, to-go delicatessen, offering treats like lapin ą la moutarde (rabbit in mustard sauce) or celerie remoulade, all prepared by the proprietor. Each stop commences with friendly personal exchanges of greetings—by name if you’re known; if you’re a stranger, it’s “Bonjour Monsieur,” “Bonjour Madame.”

There’s more food shopping at neighborhood open-air street markets. Some Paris areas have open markets most days, offering everything from fresh vegetables to meat and fish to Moroccan or to Arab dishes to exotic spices. Some markets are immense, like the one in Paris’ Belleville district. Others street markets range from mid-size to small. But every Parisian neighborhood has at least one.

Then there’s supermarkets. Some purists might bemoan supermarkets’ competition with neighborhood stores, but most French seem happy with the combination.  After W.W.II, the small-store lobby prevented supermarkets from opening in France. The fight to finally allow them was lead by a priest, distressed by the high prices poor people had to pay because of the small stores’ monopoly over food distribution. Eventually, supermarkets arrived. Some  actually are super, offering bountiful choices, from  delicious pates to fresh vegetables and fruits to meat and fish, and a patisserie and a vast cheese selection.

French meals, whether at home or in a restaurant, are normally healthy as wall as delicious. While some traditional French haute cuisine remains rich in cream and butter, the culinary trend is distinctly towards less fattening food. Moreover, portions are modest by American standards. You leave a restaurant meal feeling satisfied, not stuffed. Traditionalists are understandably troubled by the increase in fast-food joints and the weight gain they lead to. Joe Bové became a hero to many French for leading the well-publicized dismemberment of a planned McDonalds near Montpellier. Yet despite some ominous signs that French food culture is waning, my sense is that it is so deeply entrenched that it will last and evolve.

I want to note two particular French-food favorites.

5) French Cheese with Red Wine. Charles DeGaulle famously observed, “How can anyone be expected to govern a country that has 325 cheeses?” Or perhaps the number was 355—I’ve seen several different numbers with that quote. They do surely have LOTS of varieties of delicious cheese. During our first French home exchange, our Parisian family introduced me to the tradition of a cheese course after the main meal. Talk about a duck to water. Then Bob further educated me on the necessity of eating cheese. “Un repas sans fromage,” Bob proclaimed, “est comme un jour sans soleil.” [A meal without cheese is like a day without sunshine.]  Moreover, he preached, I must drink red wine (never white) with cheese.

6) Profiteroles. The queen of desserts (not the king, because the noun is feminine). Nothing low-calorie here: Ice cream in delicate pastry puffs, topped with warm chocolate sauce and whipped cream—an ideal combination of indulgence, elegance, and sweet. Their popularity has now reached the U.S., where you find them occasionally on restaurant menus. They taste almost as good as they do in France.

7) The Land. Geographically, France is blessed. The country is beautiful and varied—coasts on the Atlantic and Mediterranean, mountains of the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Massive Central, lush farmland and gorgeous rivers.  There must be ugly parts of France, but I haven’t seen them. All of our exchange regions, as well as other areas I’ve travelled in, including Normandy, the Loire Valley, the Dordgne, and Strasbourg, have been delightful, not only beautiful but with some lesser know but very appealing elements.

First, they have no poison oak or ivy—a boon for lovers of hiking in mountains, through woods, or on other less-traveled outdoor routes.

Secondly, there are coastal walking paths on most of the ocean coastlines of France. Unlike the U.S., where “private property” rights foreclose walking on almost all ocean-front land, in France you can stroll by the sea for miles on “sentier côtiers,” coastal paths accessible to all. The paths were originally “chemins des douaniers,” custom-inspectors’ paths. The right of the King, or Napoleon, or the Republic, to prevent smuggling overrode private ownership.

Modern France retains this tradition, reinforced by a more recent law, “la loi de 1976 sur la servitude littorale.”  Roughly three to five yards of the edge of coastal land is held as public right-of-way. Behind that is private, whether fields, farms, houses, or immense walls of rich estates. Occasionally, for whatever mysterious reasons, private owners or businesses have been allowed to creep to the edge of the land, forcing the sentier to briefly turn interior. But this is the exception.

Friends told us that the finest hour of Mitterand’s socialist rule in the 1980s was when a government minister personally drove a bulldozer into an access-blocking wall Brigitte Bardot had erected on her sea-front land in the Riviera. The minister got his publicity, workers finished the job, and the point was made. THIS land is our land.

8) The French refuse to give up their vacations. The French regard their four or five week summer vacation, and a couple of more weeks during the year, as an essential component of Liberté. Several friends have revealed their fear that “Globalization” is in reality a cover for the imposition of American workaholism. French stubbornness about their vacations can create hassles, as the majority proves every year by insisting on taking their vacations in August, despite all attempts to persuade them to vacation at less crowded times.  Anyway, let Americans boast about how long and hard they work and take only a week or two off a year. The French will continue to opt for, and fight for if need be, a saner balance.

9) They don’t have a lawyer-ridden personal-injury accident system. No insurance company hobgoblins or killjoy lawyers deciding you can’t play here or swim there or do whatever because of possible liability or lawsuits. Kids bounce merrily on public trampolines. Cities sponsor street parties without massive insurance costs. Their accident-compensation system is simple. As our American friend Mark, who owns a home in Brittany put it, “If you get hurt they’ll take care of you and if you die they’ll bury you.”

10) They have sane gun laws. There’s no NRA in France. No powerful gun-lobby insists that individual possession of machine guns is a core right of Liberté.

11) Government support of public events. French governments, national and local, pay for spectacular collective, communal events that would be highly unlikely to get public funding in the U.S. One prime example is Paris Plage, a “beach” created in August every summer on the highway on the Right Bank of the Seine. For a month, all car traffic ceases on three miles of this major Parisian thoroughfare. Temporarily replacing the highway are tons of sand, palm trees, beach chairs, cafes, water-sprays, food purveyors, and many other treats. Originally a one-year project, the Plage was a spectacular success, loved by Parisiens and visitors. So the Plage became an annual event. Each year, new treats are added or varied: more water-sprays and fountains, a swimming pool, a climbing wall for kids. There’s dancing and Tai Chi classes and strolling entertainers,  and much, much more. And always the pleasures of strolling by the Seine—at a “beach”—with thousands of other amblers.

And it’s FREE!

Of course, France is not paradise. Here are some flaws which particularly trouble me.

The rigidity of the education system. The French education system is state-centralized and tightly-controlled—with often-distressing results. Here’s one example.

Michelle, grand-daughter of Bob and Mado profoundly wanted to become a doctor. An excellent student, compassionate and humorous, she would have made a fine médecin. There is one yearly national exam for entrance into French medical schools. Roughly ten percent of the applicants pass. The percentage is controlled to prevent over-competition (as the government and practicing doctors define it). Michelle did not succeed the first time, although she came close. Applicants can only take the exam twice. She did not pass the next year either. Her dream of becoming a doctor was dead. There are no other ways possible to go to medical school in France. In the U.S., with its diversity of medical schools and entrance requirements, she would undoubtedly have been able to live her medical dream.

The lack of an entrepeneurial tradition. It’s far more difficult to start a new small business in France than it is in the U.S. A young computer programmer spoke of his admiration of Silicon Valley, bemoaning the impossibility of he and some colleagues creating their own business in France. They would not be able to obtain any start-up financing or loans from banks or the government or venture capital firms. Unless, he added you had connections (“branché) or were a graduate of a prestigious Parisian university (called the “Grandes Écoles”). So while corporate business may prosper in France, many potential small entrepenuerial businesses never get a chance. One result is the country’s persistently high unemployment rate.

Racism. The riots in poor ghettos in 2005 manifested a reality that troubles many French—the country’s failure to cope with its immigrant/arab/black population. As a teenager in Paris, I was shocked by the dismissal, even contempt, some French openly displayed to Arabs. Decades later, overt racism may have diminished, but the core problem has grown. France now has millions of non-white citizens and residents. Most are poor; unemployment runs 30% or higher. Many non-whites are housed in shoddy apartment buildings in dreary suburbs, out of sight from central cities. French friends tell me that little has been proposed by French political leaders to try to ameliorate these problems. Well, at least rabidly-Anti-American French intellectuals (yes, some remain) can no longer smugly sneer at U.S. racism, and prattle on about how they’ve always welcomed black American jazz musicians.

The Government’s Adherence to Nuclear Power. A large percentage of French energy comes from nuclear power. The state bureaucracy is heavily committed to nuclear energy and resistant to exploring other options. As a result, France is far behind other European countries, Germany for one, in the development of alternate energy sources, from wind to solar.

I can’t end negatively. Back to things I love.

12) What French Women Can Do With a Scarf. They can wear one in hundreds of ways, each time looking elegant, or dashing, or whatever is the desired effect. Scarfs are a key component of French women’s flair for style, a flair that doesn’t diminish with aging. As many gray-haired French women demonstrate, older women can remain beautiful.

13) Joie de Vivre. Love of life, delight in conversation, an interested, curious mind. a ready sense of humor. Finishing a delicious home-made dinner, Bob quipped, “Ah, une autre repas que Thatcher n'aurait pas." [Ah, another meal Thatcher won’t have.] And happily, most French people I know admire the openness and adventurousness they find in Americans. So we join in their joie de vivre and merry times are had.

The Glories of France. The French love their “gloire.” Historically, gloire was often seen in military terms (think Napoleon, Louis the XIV’s wars). Fortunately, gloire has many saner manifestations. Here are three favorites:

14) French Painters. One of France’s greatest gifts to world culture. The Impressionists, and so many others: Millet, Delacroix, Ingres, Bonnard, Redon, David, Daumier, Lorain, Corot, on and on. The ultimate, to me, is Monet’s Water Lilies (Les Nymphéas) in the Orangerie— paintings astonishingly rich and varied, a work of absolute genius. Once, examining them up close I observed, “Amazing. Monet painted the greatest abstract painting ever, long before anyone else conceived of the concept.”  And the greatest abstract painting ever is only one great aspect of Les Nymphéas.

15) French Writers. Another gift to world culture. Those I’ve in English include Franćois Villon, Voltaire, MoliŹre, Baudelaire, Montaigne, Collette, Balzac, Mme. De Sévigné, Hugo, Flaubert, Dumas, Maupassant, Zola, Rimbaud, Proust, IrŹne Némirovsky, Simenon, Simone de Beauvoir, and Romain Gary. And in French, thanks to my French class: Pagnol, La Fontaine, Camus, J. M. G. Le Clézio, George Sand, and others.

16) Paris.  One more Hurrah for the City of Light, endlessly fascinating, with far too many charms to list favorites. Hemingway got it right, “Paris is a moveable feast.”

Vive la France.

[2006] [2014]