An American in Paris Celebrates the Maddening Mysteries of the French
By Harriet Welty Rochefort
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Harriet Welty Rochefort
All rights reserved.
The French Connection
* * *
I arrived in France not just from the United States but from Shenandoah, a small town in Iowa. Tucked into the southwest corner of the state, near the borders of Missouri and Nebraska, Shenandoah was the center of my life until I was twenty years old. And small-town life in the Midwest has forever conditioned my reactions to what came after. Coming from Iowa, rather than New York or California, put a different spin on my experience. An example: Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, I just assumed that everyone in the entire world was friendly and straight-shooting. Quelle surprise! (What a surprise!)
French Toast grew out of two decades of living in France with a French husband, a full-scale French family-in-law, two half-French, half-American children, and a French stepson. Rather than just gently fading into French culture — that is, adapting — I have come to realize I feel more and more American. Increasingly, I find myself trying to explain to myself why the French are the way they are, and why, in spite of "going native" in the sense of having a French spouse, speaking the language fluently, and immensely enjoying living here, I don't feel any more French than the day I arrived. This book stemmed from a desire to write it all down. In addition to being a cathartic experience for its author, French Toast will, I hope, be informative and enjoyable for each reader while providing a few keys to the complex character of the French.
As an Iowan freelance journalist residing in France, I have had a bird's-eye view of the French for these past twenty years.
Sitting astride this French-American fence has given me a privileged position of being both participant and observer. Being neither fish nor fowl has given me a constant comparative view of both life in the United States and life in France, as well as perceptions about the French that tourists rarely acquire. For example, life with the French has put a whole new meaning on the word complicated. The simplest situation in France suddenly becomes something extremely complex and detailed. The French attention to detail — from the way one cuts cheese to the color of one's panty hose — has never ceased to fascinate me.
Based on common and daily experiences, French Toast is a mixture of reflections and observations about life in France. These include all the faux-pas I have made in the past and continue to make (laughing too loudly, saying things directly instead of obliquely, cutting my lettuce leaves instead of folding them, just to mention a few examples).
More than anything else, I think this book reflects a whole range of different emotions — affection, wonder, and, sometimes, plain exasperation. I can't relate to the way the French drive (although my American friends tell me I drive like a real Parisian and are they ever scared), but I would much rather get into a political discussion with the French than with my compatriots, because the French basically have mastered the art of arguing politely without getting unpleasantly personal. As one recently arrived American remarked, "You can get into a violent political discussion, which is followed by a big laugh and 'Please pass the cheese,' and you go on to something else."
Come to think about it, it may seem contradictory, but I feel rather more at home sometimes with the French because of their refreshing lack of what they call "le puritanisme." On the other hand, the minute I set foot back in the States, the tension I feel while living in Paris eases out of me as I enjoy the civility of people who aren't afraid to be nice to one another even if their families haven't known one another for the past two hundred years.
In sum, I took off my rose-colored glasses a long time ago. The illusions I came with — and there were plenty — have been replaced by a rather fond and amazed look at the French (including my own children, who are so French sometimes that I can hardly believe they are my own). What follows is not a sociological study of the French, but a straightforward and personal tale of what makes the French so French.
During this book, I interview Philippe, my French husband, to counterbalance my typically American point of view on the French. He deserves this opportunity. After all, he's put up with my comments for the past twenty years, so it's only fair to give him a chance to say what he thinks about what I think.
So who is Philippe, and is he typically French?
Although he was born and raised in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris, Philippe's parents hailed from the south of France, the imposing mountains of the Auvergne and the softer scenery of the Dordogne. In spite of these rural roots, he is a "real" Parisian, having attended French public schools and then attending two years of prépa before going to a grande école (see the chapter on education to figure this out). Along the way, he also picked up a doctoral degree in economics. Extracurricular activities included playing his guitar in cafés and bass with a jazz group. Summers were spent on holidays in Spain, where he picked up Spanish, and trips to England, where he learned English with an English accent (which he had when I met him, but over the years it has been transformed into a more American accent). He has an uncanny talent for picking up accents and has been known to fool both Japanese and Arabs when speaking the one or two sentences he knows in each of these languages.
Philippe loves history, in particular the Middle Ages, and historical monuments. He loves to cook and is a hospitable host. He likes to read, play the piano and guitar, and paint in oils. He hates cars and the consumer society. He's not all that hot for sports (either participating or observing). He likes our cat, and, believe me, not many people do. He likes America and Americans (hey, he married me, didn't he?). Some people say he looks like former French president Jacques Chirac — an observation he is not so sure he likes.
Considering that there are Frenchmen who hate history, can't stand reading, love cars, the consumer society, and sports, and are anti-American, can we say that Philippe is typically French? Let's just say that he is very French and you'd have a hard time mistaking him for any other nationality. To begin with, he has a typical Parisian expression on his face — that is, Don't mess with me, baby (which is great, because he scares the daylights out of panhandlers and all those people I have trouble fending off due to my big, naïve, ever-present smile). Second, he has a slight tendency to explode, only to calm down just as quickly. Third, he can carry on a conversation concerning just about anything, and fourth, he is very polite in that mysteriously hard-to-define and often inscrutable French way. Finally, like many Frenchmen, he can be France's best critic. Deep in his heart, though, you know he couldn't live anywhere else. He's simply too French.
* * *
When you grow up in a small town in the southwest corner of Iowa, probably the most exotic thing you could possibly think of would be France. That is, of course, if you were of the bent to think of exotic places and people. And I was.
As a youngster, I loved my family and friends, had no particular yearnings for anything other than what I had. What did I have? A warm, safe, loving environment far from the pressures, stress, and aspirations of city life (we didn't even know what or where the prestigious eastern colleges were, let alone aspire to go to them). At the same time, I was fully convinced that destiny was going to tap me on the shoulder and I was going to get out of there and go a long way away. That I knew.
I remember standing at the top of the stairs of our beautiful Victorian house and hearing a knock at the door. I was convinced that it was someone who had come for me, someone who knew that I should be somewhere else, someone who would whisk me away to a strange and foreign land. My heart quickened at the thought. It was only the mailman — and he didn't even have anything for me!
But I continued to know that I would end up somewhere exotic. A banal existence was not for me, child of the cornfields. (Well, not really, although both sides of my family had been in farming forever; my father and one of his brothers were the first to go to "town," so I didn't grow up in the country. Still, my grandparents and uncles all farmed the land around us.)
The special thing that finally happened was that, after the death of my paternal grandmother, my grandfather remarried a woman who was a professor of French at Grinnell College. She was to have a capital influence on my life, telling me all about France, where she had lived for a time, even marrying a Frenchman, whom she eventually divorced. She brought me books about France, taught me French words. With her beautiful white hair and blue eyes and the breath of foreign air she brought with her, she totally won me over. From age eight, I knew I had to go to France, if only to have a look and come right back home.
After college, when everyone else was headed toward jobs or marriage, I headed straight to France. Actually, I hopped on a boat in San Francisco, jumped off in Acapulco, got back on a freighter in Veracruz and traveled to ports in South America, the Canary Islands, and Spain before hitting my final destination.
I loved Paris. It was all my stepgrandmother had told me, and more. The first night I was in Paris, I boarded a bateau-mouche to cruise down the Seine; the air was soft and warm, a man spoke some unintelligible words to me in French, and I was conquered — by the sound of the language, the way people walked and moved, even the air, which seemed different. I felt I had walked into a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. Later, I would find Paris too noisy, too traffic-filled. But that first heady moment was a strong one. I felt I should savor that moment, leave Paris in my mind as a beautiful memory, and head for a new destination — South America. I was on my way when I met Philippe.
It's not that he swept me off my feet. In fact, when I saw him, I thought that in my entire life I had never seen anyone with such a scowl on his face. In spite of his expression, though, he had one of the driest, funniest senses of humor I had ever encountered. This very typical, totally chauvinistic (he denies this charge) Frenchman became very good company. And then we married.
As my husband periodically points out, I chose to come to France, and to stay. I did not arrive kicking and screaming, someone's bride, wrested from her native land. I came of my own free will and am free to leave anytime I decide I don't like this place anymore (he says this on days when I am making critical noises about my adopted land). True, but it's not so easy. Wherever you live becomes your home, whether you like some of it, all of it, or not much of it. My home is here and I love living in France, but that doesn't mean that my thoughts about the French are not ambiguous. The cultural gaps, which seemed small twenty years ago, grow larger, not smaller, with time. When you've signed on for the long haul, you start to have a definite opinion on matters you didn't really care all that much about and didn't have to deal with initially (in my case, the French family, education, attitudes). You are both appreciative and critical of the host culture in a way you wouldn't be if you had remained safely at home. Even the word home takes on a different meaning. Once when I spoke of "home," I was referring to the United States. Now, I realize "home" is where I live — that is, France.
As far as I can see, American couples living in France have a very different perception of France and the French. France is an interlude in their lives, but they retain their Americanness as a couple. They are a united front. The adjustments they make to the culture are the ones they wish to make, not ones they have to make.
With a Franco-American couple, on the other hand, there is always a push and pull — over what language to speak, over what schools to put your kids in, over what religious instruction to give them, if any. Over attitudes. I call the French negative, weighed down by history. My husband says Americans are positive to the point of being naïve because, justement, they have no sense of history.
My first reaction to anything new is always "Fantastic!" My husband's is "Why change?" We meet a new couple and I say, "Aren't they nice?" And my husband will say, "They're rather nice" (assez gentils), which means that if he could get to know them over the next two hundred years, he'd have the time to judge.
I am overwhelmingly enthusiastic, my husband less so. I don't suspect everyone I meet of having ulterior motives; my husband is always on his guard. And so on. This doesn't mean he's not a great guy, but we find we do have different viewpoints. Fortunately, we have moved beyond the point of taking sides on who is "right" and who is "wrong." We just chalk up a lot of misunderstandings to cultural differences.
You come here and you think that (apart from a few details) France is more similar to the United States than many other countries. After all, you could have gone to China or Japan. But in truth, living in France is almost as different as living in China or Japan. Because as the years go by, you, the American immigrée, discover that cultural differences run deep below the surface and that what once appeared to be minor quirks are actually major differences.
French Toast is the story of what those cultural gaps turned out to be.
The French and Their Food
* * *
The most awesome experiences in France revolve around cuisine. It's one thing to partake of wonderful French food prepared by eminent chefs in four-star restaurants and quite another to turn out full-fledged French meals in your own home twice a day. Fortunately for me, my husband's mother, sister, and aunt are all wonderful cooks and hostesses and generous with their knowledge.
Catching on to French food was both easy and complicated. Easy because I had excellent teachers right in my husband's family. Complicated because, well, deep in my mental pantry, I have a hard time trying to think of what to serve for two full-scale four-to five-course meals a day, seven days a week.
My French sister-in-law doesn't seem to have this problem. In the family country house, where there are always at least ten people at the table, I watch with wonder as she casually composes each meal. "Now what shall we have for lunch?" she'll query, thinking of all the possibilities and combinations. And before I have the time to say, "Nothing," which for my French in-laws would be unthinkable in any event, or "Every man for himself," which would also be out of the question, she has come up with an answer. Or a possible answer: Her final choice will depend on what looks good at the market that day.
An example might be pâté to start with, then magret de canard (breast of duck) cut into little fillets, accompanied by fresh peas and new potatoes, followed by a big green salad with a delicious homemade vinaigrette, and finally a big plate of wonderful cheese (Brie, Camembert, a chèvre, a blue d'Auvergne) and then ice cream, cake, or fruit, depending on what went before.
I could report that my sister-in-law goes to this trouble only on weekends, but it's not true. What I just described was a Saturday noon meal. On Saturday night, she proposed a different menu, composed of fresh asparagus with a sauce mousseline, a potato omelette (a family specialty) accompanied by a beautiful lettuce (real lettuce, not iceberg) salad, cheese (again), and a tarte aux fraises (strawberry pie). Whatever the spread is, my sister-in-law is afraid we aren't getting enough to eat. What?!
I am in awe not just of how effortlessly she pulls all this off but also of one thing that has never ceased to intrigue me: SHE NEVER WEARS AN APRON. Not only am I incapable of dreaming up daily menus like hers (but I'm improving, maybe in another twenty years?); I can't get near a kitchen without staining my clothes. My perfectly manicured and made-up French sister-in-law stands around in a silk blouse and high-heeled shoes as grease spatters about her but never comes within a centimeter of her.
As an American in a French family, I quickly caught on to the system of courses: the first, the main, the salad, the cheese, the dessert, all of which follow one another and aren't served together. Being an American with a sweet tooth, thinking of what to serve for dessert never posed a problem for me. I also adore the cheese course because it's sheer pleasure to select what you want out of the tremendous variety available — the more pungent, the better. The winner on the odor score is the Boulette d'Avesnes, a beer-based vache (cow cheese) rolled in a red pepper dust. If you can swallow a hunk of this stuff, you can down anything cheesy in France. Philippe perversely loves to bring home a Boulette, especially when we're expecting guests. It's a test of character. Remember de Gaulle, who asked rhetorically, "How can anyone govern a country with four hundred and fifty different cheeses?" That may not be the number, but the point is that there are so many kinds, the number changes every time the story is told. (Continues...)
Excerpted from French Toast by Harriet Welty Rochefort. Copyright © 2010 Harriet Welty Rochefort. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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