ParisDiary by Harriet Welty Rochefort

(#4)

 Paris?

I've been a permanent resident of the City of Light for years, 34 years to be exact, but the seduction of the world's most beautiful city continues to operate. Whether strolling past the Eiffel Tower, sipping an espresso in a café, or ambling by the Seine, the charm never dulls, the glow never dims.

To live in Paris is to live with the constant jolt of beauty. Writer Joe Murray opined that "Paris should be declared as an international shrine...The people of Paris should work at no other job than simply that of being Parisians."That's a job I'm definitely happy to work at.

The Paris Diary, a selection of some of my monthly Letters From Paris on The Paris Pages, brings you one writer's musings on life in France.

And now en avant !

 

Still part of the Foreign Legion...

 After 20 Years in France, Still Part of the Foreign Legion  When people learn that I have lived in France for nineteen years, there inevitable comment is "Then you must have become French." My spontaneous answer to that question is, "No." But upon deeper reflection, I have to say that, while in many circumstances the cultural gap is, if anything, only greater, in others I feel that, yes, I have become "almost" French.
For example, how easy it proved to adapt to a country where ther is no pressure to join groups. The famous French spirit of individualism crops up everywhere, and nowhere more than in the attitude "I do what I want to do". This has its definite good points : nobody will bug you if you are a parent and don't want to join the PTA (my kids are 9 and 14, and I have not yet got the courage to join and probably never will). Not to mention book clubs or garden clubs or block parties, which don't exist here to my knowledge.

I have also come to accept - and love - other customs that seemed strange to me at first. For example I thought that you had to invite your husband's boss to dinner. I turns out that there is no iron-clad rule, and most of the time there is no pressure to do so.

I love, and am slowly getting used to, planning for a minimum of five weeks vacation a year and sometimes as many as eight. I am still not French, though, in the sense that I haven't quite got it down to barely finishing one vacation and then immediately planning the next.

I like the fact that "no" does not mean "no" in the way it does in Anglo-Saxon or Germanic countries. "No" invariably means that the person in question doesn't want to bother. However if you stand there long enough and wait him or her out, you generally get what you want.

This freedom to do (more or less) what you want has its good and bad sides. Like most foreigner, I take the goods for myself and look at the bads as a necessary evil I have to live with. Smoking, for example. The good side is that the French are finally starting to figure out that tobacco is somehow wrong, or at least disagreeable, and in some places, they are starting to put up no-smoking signs (the bad side is that this not widespread yet and that in most public places you'll invariably end up with someone smoking in your face - and the French smoke a lot). "But " says an American friend of mine who has also been here twenty years "at least they aren't puritanical about it. In the United States, they treat you like a leper." This confirms a particularly attractive Latin characteristic of the French - little or no moralizing. In this vein, most French people think Jim an Tammy Bakker and their public confessions of sin on TV are just plain grotesque and that Richard Nixon's downfall was a downright shame. After all, it's a well-known fact that all politicians cheat, isn't it? And as far a fads are cncerned, whether it is the nosmoking fad or the jogging fad, the French just won' go for it. They're too busy fighting among themselves to agree on anything.

As for fighting, I am far too Anglo-Saxon to actually enjoy a dispute, and I certainly could go without a fight a day to keep me in shape. On the other hand, I have grown to appreciate the fact that you can "have it out" with people without getting violent. As my French husband pointed out, verbal fighting is merely jousting, not to be taken too seriously. "It's no fun to pick fights with Americans," he says. "There is no intermediate level of aggression. It's either a big smile and be nice, or pick up a gun."

Indeed, it does seem like everyone is always fighting over something (the language lends itself to this - my American family has often been convinced that everything was going up in smoke when all my husband and I were debating was what wine to have with dinner). I walk out the door in the morning and get into my car...which is blocked by someone who has chosen to double-park rather than look for a space, because it's much more convenient to leave the car smack in the middle of the street. So then the hooting begins, and I search each store for the culprit. Then there's a little verbal skirmish as he or she slips into his or her car (sometimes guiltily with apologies, sometimes with none at all). I might, at any time thereafter, step in a large load of dog droppings because the citizens of Paris are notably unhindered by any kind of civic sense, and, as I drove (like a slowpoke) down the street, I am passed by irate drivers who race me to the next red light. Even before the light has turned, they are off.

When in France, you have to know how to râler, gronder, enguirlander, engueuler (this list is long). In other words, you have to know how to spend time dealing with others on a confrontational basis (this can be over simple things such as getting cheated on change or bigger ones like having it out with a taxi driver who is free but just isn't in the mlood to take you to where you want to go). If you are a self-respecting Frenchman, you get mad. As a phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon, even after twenty years here, I fume inwardly but just can't seem to externalize it the way the French do so admirably. "Tête de veau (calf head)," my husband yells at another driver as we slalom around a traffic jam. Cowering in the seat beside him, I'm sure I have just seen my final moments. Mais non. The other driver shouts something even worse.

On one recent day, I was driving down a small one-way street, and what did I see in front of me but a small white Peugeot whose driver has left the car, with lights flashing - in the middle of the street. When the owner of the Peugeot finally showed up ten minutes later, instead of apologizing for the inconvenience, he deigned to look me in the eye and ask, "What's the matter, are you in a hurry?"

The most extaordinary discovery I made, after ttwenty years of living here, is that not only is "being nice" not high on the list of values, but, very frankly, if you are always "nice," you are seen as one big poire (sucker). Hence, since "being nice" is not something people set out to do, getting treated nicely is a totally unpredictable occurrence. As one observer noted, "Americans are nice to people they don't know yet;the French are nice to the people they know." Hence, you see dogs in butcher shops (or worse, restaurants) and smokers all ov er the place because no one feels any deep obligation to not bother people one doesn't know.

"The Frenchman," wrote Henry Miller, "protects the vessel which contains the spirit." And the French have a wonderful expression for the way they deal with life. Ils se défendent. They defend themselves against the unknown, against others. If you get a crowd of French people who don't know each other, the results can be excruciating or hilarious. An American friend of mine, who didn't know any better, threw a big party composed entirely of French neighbors who didn't know one another, at her apartment - by the end of the evening, no one had said a word. The basic suspicion of others, which govern social life, is very French, and so, if you live here long enough, you soon learn to be on your guard and defend yourself. Where else but in Frence could you hear someone remark to a new acquaintance who is getting too familiar "On n'a pas gardé les cochons ensemble" ("We didn't keep the pigs together"). Or "Est-ce que je vous demande si votre grand-mère fait du vélo." ("Did I ask you if your grand-mother rides a bike?"). Private life is really private life.

 The French love to challenge authority. If it is there, it is to be contested. I used to be shocked that the only sign of national unity I could see in France was the solidarity against authority. I'll never forget the first time I was driving down the highway with my husband and a driver in the other lane flashed his lights at us. "Something must be wrong", I said, "No," he replied serenely,"that means there is a police car up ahead." which there was. Since that first episode, I have had repeated experiences of this type. The general rule of thumb seems to be "solidarity against the state" - and very frankly when you see the way many French cops act, (snotty as if they'd love to throw you in jail if they could only think up a way), you've got to hand it to the French for warning each other against them. One day I was in a car with a French friend who had run a red light she hadn't seen. When the policeman drew up alongside the car, instead of getting small and humble, she started bawling him out. Having got out of the situation without a ticket, she turned to me and laughted. "You've always got to be on the offensive, otherwise, it's all over."

The problem with all of this is that it starts to rubb off after a while. An American friend who has been working in Paris for the past fifteen years admits that the glorious feeling of doing exactly the opposite of what you are supposed to do has finally gotten to him. "When I go back to Montana to visit", he says, "I find myself speeding on the highway and breaking the law just to show that I can."

In spite of all the things that I appreciate about the French and even the ways in which I myself feel "almost" French, there are still a number of things that daily prove to me that I will never, ever be French.

The French will never get me to abandon my perhaps naive belief that the customer is always right. I'm always shocked when a haughty salesperson drives me out of a store. However, after twenty years of experience, I still don't know how to deal with this. My French friends do, though. The other day, one of them went to buy a steam cooker for fish in a grand magasin. After finally locating the department, he told the saleslady that he was interested in buying an aluminium steam cooker, not the stainless steel one she was showing him. "I don't talk to people who eat in aluminium!" she replied. My reaction would probably have been to slink away, muttering to myself. My French friend drew himself up and glacially ordered her to get her boss. Moral of the story : always go to the top.

I know I'm not French because I like to laugh loudly and have fun. I like to let myself go. And that would seem consistent, for I am an American. It has often been explained to me that Americans (according to the French) are les grands enfants. We aren't cynical or jaded, so we can have fun and see the world in naive terms. Aren't we lucky ? I still have a hard time picturing Euro-Disneyland in the land of cynicism- but who knows?

Language, ironically enough, is another thing that separates me from the French, for in spite of fluency, I am plagued with an accent. And your accent follows you everywhere... For the past twenty years, every time I open my mouth and say more than two words, people say "Are you American or English?" In France, you can have an accent, and of cours be French (many naturalized French have accents!), but you know in your heart of hearts that, until you speak French without an accent, you can never really be French.

Another language difference is the highly developed art of understatement. When you drink a glass of the most fantastic Bordeaux you have ever had in your life, you don't raise the glass and exclaim "Wonderful!" You sniff it, sip it, and then say, with a considered frown, "Ca se laisse boire(it's palatable)". The French speak in negatives rather than positives, so rather than saying the weather is nice, they say it is "pas mauvais". If a French person sees a newborn baby, he will say "Il n'est pas vieux, hein?". If you're really guted, you learn to combine understatement with the negative form. For example, the orther day, my son got 19,5 points out of 20 on a math test. His teacher wrote "Pas mal... (not bad)". You have to be French to understand this "second-degree" humor. That is to say that in any case the teacher might have put "Not bad" but since the grade was so good, it was funnier and more creative to put "Not bad" rather than just "Great." Get it?

But on to something more subtle still. Even if you have the language down pat, as many people do, accent and all, there is the whole othe problem of codes. For example, you should known that when someone is calling you "Cher ami" it doesn't necessarily mean "Dear friend", - it may mean "Drop dead, sonny", depending on the intonation of the speaker and his accompanying facial gestures. All of this is, of course, exquisitely polite. The French have unwritten codes that are extremely strong and persuasive. Like the Japanese, the French have developed these codes so that no one loses face. If, for example, someone calls you while you are in the middle of dinner, you don't say anything so gross as, "I'm eating. Can I call you back?" You let the person talk, and at some moment in the conversatiobn you say something like "Oh yes, I just saying to so-and-so at the dinner table", and hope that the caller will get the hint (which he will if he is French).

Okay, so I'm not French and never will be. Even small differences underscore this fact. If I open two windows to create a cross breeze, I'm accused of causing a "draft" (the open and closed window controversy extends to public transportation - if there is a dispute, the closed window will always win, even in stifling heat!). At cocktail parties, I invariably find myself backing into plants or the nearest wall because, as an American, I need more space. If I cut a leek, I just hack it any old way, whereas my French mother-in-law maintains that it must be decapitated and then sliced lengthwise into four. I I still squirm at conversations that take a Rabelaisian turn. I'll never forget the dinner conversation in which the sizes of the sexual organs of two newborn babies were being compared just as if we were discussing the weather.

Las but not least, I'll never be French because malheureusement I have never been able to find the Frenchwomen's secret for looking sexy even when they're standing around in old blue jeans and T-shirts. Is it because the old jeans are just tight enough without being vulgar and the T-shirts have just the right cut? I remeber the awe with which I watched my friend Chantal, who lived next to me in a chambre de bonne in our student days, as she waltzed up eight flights of stairs in a navy pea jacket she had transformed from a former long coat, with a scarf tied just so. She could have stepped just out of the pages of Vogue. Not to mention Sandrine who, although pushing her middle 50s, is the sexiest woman I know - bu if you dissect what she has on, you cannot figure out how she has arrived at the total effect - and you certainly would never ask. So just what is that little je ne sais quoi that elevates simplicity into style? After almost twenty years, I'm still trying to figure it out. It should keep me going for another twenty, at least.

(European Travel & Life - November 1990 by Harriet Welty Rochefort)

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Profile of a cheese shop owner (Letter from Paris, on Paris Pages, March 2008)

FRENCH CHEESE, PLEASE :

PLEASING YOUR PALATE WITH A PIECE OF FRENCH HISTORY

 When third generation fromager François Priet isn't behind the counter of one of the three cheese shops he owns in the east of Paris,
he's likely to be on a nearby golf course, fishing salmon or pike in Ireland, or stalking boar or deer in Poland.

" I like to be outdoors and walk, " he says simply.

For a man who likes chasing boar and golf balls, the grey-haired, blue-eyed 42-year-old cheese seller couldn't have a better job.

He makes his living hunting - the best cheeses he can find - and it keeps him on the run.

On a typical day, by 5 a.m. he's already at the giant food market in Rungis making the rounds, talking with cheese suppliers, selecting and placing orders for the cheese he'll put in his shops. By 10 a.m. he's back in the first fromagerie he opened in 1991 in the working class but slowly gentrifying 20th arrondissement of Paris. Sandwiched between a butcher shop and an Italian delicatessen, the boutique is fairly small but stacked with a dizzying array of carefully arranged cheeses, artisanal for the most part.

The first thing he does before attacking the rest of the day is fortify himself with a strong cup of coffee and a piece of cheese (what else ?). Camembert or Brie, he specifies.

Bear in mind that when François Priet says " Camembert " or " Brie ", he's talking about a raw milk cheese redolent with the smell of the pastures the cows grazed in. It will be a Camembert or Brie he has lovingly chosen for his customers. In no way will it resemble the standardized Camembert or Brie in the nearby supermarket. " Supermarkets ", says Priet, " don't have the same cheese or the same clientèle. "

After the Brie break, Priet removes his work outfit, a dark blue knee-length coat with François Priet, Votre Fromager stiched in light blue on the left hand pocket, and goes to check out his other two stores. Having started the day so early, after lunch he tries to slip in a well-deserved siesta before re-opening the shop at 4 pm until 8 pm. When the last customer has left, he's still not finished. Only after he's attacked the inevitable paperwork does he leave the premises around 9 pm. No 35 hour work week for him.

" I work 35 hours a week, " he jokes, " in two and a half days. "

Working hard is nothing unusual for this Normand who represents the third generation of a cheese family. Priet's grandmother had her own cheese shop in Normandy in the Fifties at a time there were no supermarkets ­ and not as many cheeses. " In those days, " says Priet, " there were perhaps fifteen to twenty cheeses which were produced locally. "

His father carried on the family tradition with 17 shops divided between Normandy, Paris, and various markets. By the time Priet decided to set up his own business, the world of cheese had changed. " Cheese people know much more about their profession now and there are many more new cheeses all the time. "

Priet took advantage of this new tendency to change the stock in the shop he'd purchased from a fromager who offered a standard choice of industrial cheeses and mostly very young goat cheeses. He brought in tasty raw milk cheeses, new cheeses with shapes and odors his clients hadn't seen ­ or smelled - before. Part of the pleasure of his job, he says, is explaining where the various cheeses come from, how they are aged, and how old they are. He takes pride in noting that his clients, many of whom he knew when they were tots, are " amateurs avertis " (informed amateurs). Many know exactly what they want ­ a Camembert not too ripe or on the contrary very ripe, a Comté that is young and fruity, or, on the contrary, an aged Comté with a sharper taste.

Whether customers are in the mood for a St. Maure, St. Marcellin, Echourgnac, Chabichou, Comté, Camembert, Mont d'Or, Petit Fiancé, Abbaye de Citeaux, Fourgerus, Soumaintrain, Langres, Roquefort or Fourme, they'll find them in the store (depending on the season, of course), along with the discovery du jour, artisanal cheeses from small producers such as " L'Estaing de brebis ", which sit proudly with their more traditional brethren.

" The world of cheese isn't static. It's always changing. So my shop should always be changing as well. I'm always interested in finding new cheeses as long as they are artisanal and made with raw milk", Priet tells me, remarking that on any given day there are up to 200 different varieties of cheeses in the shop. The day of our conversation, he made a quick count, scanning the shelves with the eye of a master. " Today we've got about 150 different cheeses, " he concluded, " of which 120 are raw milk. "

His preference for raw milk cheeses is not surprising, for, he explains, they are the cheeses that are living entitites and hence have the most authentic tastes. " A pasteurized cheese will always be the same, whereas a raw milk cheese can attain excellence one day and might be not as perfect the next ­ but when a raw milk cheese is at its height " He raises his eyes to the sky with the expression of a true gourmet and connaisseur.

What is Priet's favorite cheese ? He smiles and shakes his head : " That's a horrible question. " And then, replies, as would any self-respecting fromager who knows his stuff : " It depends on the season. Comté and Beaufort in the winter, goat and sheep cheeses in the spring, goat again in summer, a good Mozzarella. " But for Priet, the best cheeses come in autumn when they take on their full flavor and are, in his words, " formidables ".

And will there be a fourth generation Priet cheese shop ? Priet says he has no idea, that his four children, who range in age from 19 years old to 19 months old, will choose for themselves.

One thing is sure ­ for Priet, selling cheese is more than a job, it's a mission. " I feel that I'm here to maintain our French cheese history, that my job is to keep this national heritage. "

Which means that whether you buy a big hunk of Beaufort or a small slice of Roquefort in his shop, you're not only pleasing your palate. You're putting a piece of French history on your plate.

To cheese

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Apartment hunting, crime in the metro and graffiti on trees (Letter From Paris, March 2002)

 I'm looking for an apartment in Paris (anyone doing this should immediately get her/his head examined) and decided today would be a good day to get acquainted with some of the neighborhoods I am considering. I would like to tell you that these neighborhoods are the coveted 5th, 6th, and 7th but alas, my budget and space requirements lead me to more plebian parts of Paris. As I say, I thought it would be a good day but it turned out that the Seine was at such a high level that all the roads were closed ! So there I was, stuck in a particularly abominable traffic jam thinking " Paris is a great place to visit. What am I doing living here ? " And then my eye caught something I have never ever seen before in this city : graffiti scrawled on a TREE ­ not one tree, mind you, but SIX trees. One sees so much graffitti in this city that one hardly even notices any longer but frankly, scribbling on nature's finest gift to man? In moments like this, I really want to flee to more civilized places. Any suggestions, dear readers ?

Not only that, but my morning paper informed me that crime in the metro has risen by a whopping 24.29% (how do they get these figures ­ let's just say almost 25% which, anyway you put it, is a lot). The only thing I can say about this is : watch your handbags ! Adopt the weary jaded and suspicious look most Parisians have on the metro (as opposed to the joyous innocent look of tourists having fun) and you'll be less likely to be spotted as a potential victim.

But just in case this is starting to sound like gloom and doom ­ today the sun came out (this is an event !) and all got right with the world again. I walked to the Bois de Boulogne and around the Lac St. James where I stopped off for a small cup of dark expresso. I'm such a regular that when the girl behind the counter sees me coming, she starts making it. I stood, sipping my coffee, looking at the beautiful lake and the trees and the people jogging or walking their dogs or just sitting on the benches and erased all my dark traffic jam thoughts. I thought, not for the first time, that Paris is great ­ especially without a car.

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Order Harriet Welty Rochefort's books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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