ParisDiary by Harriet Welty Rochefort



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 !

Don't eat your soup with a fork....

Don't Eat your Soup with a Fork - And Other Conseils of French Politesse  Want to win the prize for faux-pas? Here's what to do : when you're invited out to dinner, show up carrying a large bouquet of chrysanthemums (reserved exclusively for cemeteries), come an hour too early or too late (a quarter of hour before of after the time announced is acceptable).

When seated at the table, excuse yourself and say "I'm going to the bathroom" (you're supposed just to slip discreetly away), leave half of everything you eat on your plate, cut the salad with a knife and a fork, serve yourself wine and look ostentatiously at the label, and leave before midnight, having yawned loudly, without bothering to cover your mouth.

Those are only a few of the pitfalls of dining out in France. While politesse in France, as in any country, covers a multitude of formalities ranging from hand-kissing to curtsies, table manners are definitely he first "must" for foreigners- and the French themselves- to master. The list of what and what not to do is so impressive that for many foreigners, getting through a dinner in France is like picking one's way through a minefield.

Most of the things you need to know about dining out are negative. Don't offer carnations - they bring bad luck. Don't take the hostess flowers - send them before or after. Don't show up with either spare friends or animals without asking first.

The latter may seem obvious. But, says Princess Beris Kandaouroff, an Englishwoman who is the author of "The Art of Living - Etiquette for the Permissive Age" and the hostess of several French TV programs on etiquette : "I once invited the owner of a zoo to my house and he showed up with a lion. Imagine the pandemonium a lion can cause in a house with other pets!" While most people don't run around with a lion on the loose, the arrival of a stranger in a house to whom one is invited can cause trouble. "Always give the name of the extra person" warns the Princess "it may just be the very person the hostess or one of the guests doesn't want to run into."

The number of mistakes you can make at a dinner table staggers the imagination. The first thing to know is that once you get to the table, you should never leave it except in dire stress (and even then you are to fade gently away).

The second thing you should be aware of is le respect du pain. From the time he learns to chew, every Frenchman is taught that bread is not to be wasted. Hence, bread is served already cut and you take just what you will eat. If there is a baguette on the table, you break it and not cut it. And of course, bread is placed on the table, not on the plate. Inveterate crust-eaters are advised to be on the look-out for crusty pieces. Under no circumstances should bread be used to sop up sauce (even with a fork). This rule is violated daily by millions of Frenchmen en famille - but when out, it is best to resist temptation.

According to the Princess, the only foods that a guest can refuse are oysters and curry- and even then, a hostess shouldn't serve these dishes without inquiring beforehand about her guests' tastes.

Leaving food on the plate is tantamount to telling the hostess that the food was awful. Woe be the guest who leaves sizeable proportions of uneaten food on his plate.

The French have perfected the art of eating with knives and forks - and therefore, one should know that picking up a leg of chicken (or eating the meat off a pork chop, etc.) is definitely gauche. The French go so far as to eat fruit with knives and forks. Says Linda Castoriano, an American who has lived in France eight years with her French husband :"I was in a restaurant once and saw a lady eating a banana with a knife and a fork". Il faut le faire.

Some manners are definitely Latin. For example, good manners in France decree that hands should be on the table (lest, of course, there be any hanky-panky going on under it).


At the table, salad should never be cut with a knife - but if the leaf is really too big, one can choose between trying to fold the lettuce over and over again with the fork - at the risk of having it pop up and unfold just as it gets to the mouth - or as a last resort, cut. If you're having to fold a lot, the hostess is to blame for having served such large pieces.

Someone should, or probably has written a novel about how to cut cheeese. According to the Princess, grutère is cut lengthwise and round cheese is cut by making round wedges. Roqueforts and all blues are cut so that the last person doesn't end up with all the white. Wrappings and labels are not to appear on the cheese. Some French people go so far as to scrape the skin off the camembert and roll it into chapelure before serving.

The table napkin is not folded after finishing the meal. A small compliment may be given to the hostess once during the meal, but generally food and recipe talk at the table is considered a crashing bore.

If you have survived the table tests, you can go on to other typically French things such as the kissing of hands. Asked if people still do that in this day and age, Princess Kadaouroff replied :"I don't know anybody who doesn't". Nevertheless the baise-main is off limits for unmarried women, women wearing gloves and women in public places.

One of the worst faux pas you can make in France is to drop in on a friend, even, and especially, your best one. Says a high-placed interpreter at the Quai d'Orsay : "The French don't like to have unexpected visitors. When they entertain, they like to be seen at their best. Otherwise, they like to be left alone when at home." Says the Princess :"Even your best friend may have a secret." Phoning after 9 p.m. and before 10 a.m. is also to be avoided.

Anothr gaffe you can make is forgetting your French friend's name days. On the given day, Marie or Pierre or Henri should get at least a phone call if not a little gift. If you're not up on your saints, go out an buy a calendar. Name days are as important to the French as birthdays are to the rest of us.

Offer lillies of the valley on May Day and don't forget to not only wish everyone you know a Happy New Year, but shake hands at the same time. Never say bonjour without following it by Monsieur or Madame and never say "M'ssieurs Dames" - definitely low-class.

Another no9no is to call people by their first names upon first meeting them (or even ten years after, in some cases). A American who has lived in France 20 years sums up the French love of titles in the following story. "One day my husband was talking with an acquaintance of some ten years, the president of a large French company. When asked what the real difference between France and America was, my husband decided to be frank : Well, Monsieur le Président, if we were in America, I would be calling you Georges, not Monsieur le Président". According to the wife, this was the end of the conversation and the relationship. A bit exceptional - but when in doubt, never hesitate to use a title.

What is politesse ? According to a French woman who works in protocol in a large international organization, "The Englishman is more sincere in his politeness than the Frenchman. The Englishman is polite to everybody whereas the Frenchman reserves his politesse for the people he knows. Just look at how people act in the metro and in department stores." According to the interpreter at the Quai d'Orsay, the French are "more sensitive to little acts of thoughfulness (a phone call after a dinner party, a small gift) than are Americans."

Curiously enough, there is no French Emily Post or Amy Vanderbilt. Perhaps because everyone already knows how to act? More likely because in France ça se fait and ça ne se fait pas are the passwords to politesse. If you're lucky, you'll marry into a French family and find out the hard way. If not - relax - being a foreigner is your best excuse.

(Paris Metro 25 Sept. 1979 by Harriet Welty Rochefort).

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 The Rules of the Game - French preppies are bons, chics and a genre in demand

Dear Muffy,

What a hoot! Here I am just bumming around in good old Paris on winter break from Wellesley, and guess what? The French have gone absolutely overboard for all that old preppy stuff! I cruised over to Angelina's tearoom, on the rue de Rivoli, and do you know what I found? The place was packed with all these French people in plaid skirts and tweed jackets, chatting very quietly about the "right" schools. Meanwhile, at Carette's, the tearoom on the Place du Trocadéro that Mummy loves, it looked like a loden cloth convention; everybody had one of those cute green coats. Isn't that a stitch and a half?

Remember when that ridiculous Official Preppy Handbook came out in the U.S. six years ago and sold more than a million copies? It had all that junk about what shoes to wear and what prep schools to attend. You simply couldn't get into Brooks Brothers because all the nouveaus (hey, listen to that fractured French!) were fighting to buy button-down-collar shirts. How rude. Then the British came out with the Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, named after those elegant young things who shop around Sloane Square in London. Now the Parisians have joined the crowd with a guide for their own preppies and Rangers: BCBG, Le Guide du Bon Chic Bon Genre, by Thierry Mantoux, who works at the Saint Louis Crystal Co. (the outfit is 400 years old and it is not in Missouri). Bon Chic Bon Genre (B.C.B.G. for short) sort of means elegant and well mannered and is what the call preppies here. The term isn't really new, and it wasn't always fashionable to be B.C.B.G. But now it seem that everybody here is trying to look and act just like the British gentry, Muffy. Do you remember how inconvenient it was when our lifestyle became a fad? Well, Mantoux's book has already sold about 100,000 copies, and there's going to be a paperback edition next month.

I met this très straight guy named Adrien in the Bar Saint-James (acceptably B.C.B.G.), and he explained the whole business over his fruit juice while I got absolutely wrecked on Dom Pérignon. Adrien explained that B.C.B.G have nothing to prove because they already know and possess everything that's important. They have been around for simply ages and have their own way of dressing, talking, growing up and going to school. You get the feeling that one can become rich, but one is B.C.B.G

Money is O.K. for B.C.B.G. to have, particularly if it's Mummy's or Daddy's money, but the real important stuff is family background, education and manners, which take longer. Real B.C.B.G.s hate showing off. A non-B.C.B.G. would say something tacky like "I bought this château ten years ago". A real one would just tell you that the house has been in the family a long time. A B.C.B.G. simply never discusses money or personal problems, never wears loud colors and is never seen on the Champs-Elysées during the week-end.

 The names are a riot, Muffy.It's proper to call your daughter Florence, Capucine, Emilie and Tiphaine; but Odette, Chloe or Deborah seem to be out. For boys, it's Alexis, Henri, Thibaut and, of course, Adrien; but never Albert, Alfred, David and Jonathan. B.C.B.G. children are flung by their parents into rugby, polo, ballooning, field hockey and scouting and steered away from such dangers as television, chewing gum and jeans. A solid B.C.B.G family has a member in the military or the Roman Catholic priesthood; pacifism and anticlericalism are definitely out. B.C.B.G. sex is extremely discreet, if you know what I mean. But they still marry each other in church, and the brides wear white. Adrien says the B.C.B.G. life style became popular, ironically enough, when François Mitterand, a Socialist and definitely non-B.C.B.G., was elected President in 1981. Premier Laurent Fabius is B.C.B.G., however, as is former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Adrien, like a lot of B.C.B.G.s is a "nap"- meaning someone who lives in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly or West of Paris in places like Auteuil and Passy. The kids are prepared for elite schools like the Ecole Polytechnique, Sciences Po (as in Politics) or the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (E.N.A. for short and its influential grads are known as énarques). Young B.C.B.G.s gravitate towards jobs in finance or government. Bo--ring! But that's the B.C.B.G. style. They eat at solid restaurants like Julien, Chez Jenny and Le Petit Machon, drive aging Renaults and 2 CV 6 Citroëns and wear clothes that your grandmother would love.

They're really into loden green and navy blue. They hate our colors like lime, green and pink. But they do wear our favorite tennis shirts with the little alligator. Adrien says he couldn't walk without his "Weston's", clunky British-made shoes like his daddy wears. He shops at Mettez, on Boulevard Malesherbes, and Berteil, on Place Saint-Augustin, when he absolutely must have new grey flannels. Adrien says you spot a real B.C.B.G. woman at 20 kilometers because of her Hermès scarf- the bright one with horseshoes all over them. But that's about it for color; the rest is plaid and Austrian dirndl skirts right out of The Sound of Music. The only acceptable jewelry: perfect pearls and a ring bearing a coat of arms.

Just when Adrien and I were about to partir back to his place on the Rue de Passy to see his Daumier drawings (he just hates abstract art, and Andy Warhol is passé), someone really not our kind came over and asked, "Hey, how can I get to be a B.C.B.G.?". Adrien was too reserved to respond but told me later, "It's easy, just wait four or five generations." Well, gotta run now, Muffy. Adrien and I are going off for the week-end to a chateau he says has been in his family for a long time. See you in four or five generations.

Love and stuff, Corky.

(Time, March 3, 1986 by Harriet Welty Rochefort)

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Going back home.....

You can't go home again - or can you ? It's a hot late September day and I'm in my hometown of Shenandoah, Iowa, for a class reunion.
Standing in the parking lot of the Day's Inn chatting with a former high school classmate, I stare at the adjacent cornfields and the huge blue Iowa sky. People passing by, whether we know them or not, salute us with a friendly " hello " and big smile.

" Sure is different from Paris, " I say, in a state of shock (no self-respecting Parisian smiles or says " bonjour" unless he or she has known you and your family for roughly the past thousand years - not to mention that there are no cornfields in Paris and the horizon is dotted with world-famous monuments).

" You can say that again ! " he agrees. (He didn't say " you betcha " !).

I have now lived in Paris longer than in my hometown so am well-placed to answer a question I am often asked, both by Americans and the French. Which country do you like best ? America or France ?

And here's my answer : I love America when I'm in America and I love France when I'm in France. When in America, I don't think about France and when in France I don't think about the States. Very convenient.

It wasn't always this way. Before I woke up and smelled the (French) coffee, I was one frustrated lady. In France, I yearned for a huge American house with extra bedrooms, huge washers and dryers, a mammoth ice-making fridge, and chocolate chips. When in the States, I pined for French style (as in to-die for store windows, tastefully wrapped gift packages, the French touch in general) and those long, convivial, savory French meals which are now a part of my everyday life.

I'd be sitting there in France, ticked off because my Parisian apartment was so small compared to the American house I grew up in, the dinner hour was so dratted late, and French teachers were too hard on my kids. Back in the U.S. on vacation, I deemed the houses way too large for people's needs (who needs a three car garage ?), the dinner hour way too early, and American teachers way too soft. A definite lose-lose situation.

One fine day I experienced an epiphany (the result of years of yoga ? writing an entire book on the subject of living in France ?) and since then have spread the word in the many speeches I give on intercultural differences. Here's the deal when it comes to living or even traveling in another country : observe the differences, list them if you will, but DO acknowledge them and DON'T judge.

So there I was standing in Iowa, my feet almost in a cornfield, savoring the big sky and friendly atmosphere. Had I been by myself, it would have been just another trip home but this time I was accompanied by my French husband, a Parisian to the core of his being, so I got the fun of seeing his reaction to things he found typically American (ok, those of you living on the coasts can now stop reading as " typically American " might be " typically Midwestern " - but I don't think so).

What was typically American for my husband ?

Number one : Patriotism. At the class reunion, we pledged allegiance to the flag, hand over heart. American flags were everywhere, windows, storefronts, porches, and even car dealerships. The French are patriotic (some say chauvinistic) but they don't express it with their flag the way we do.


Number two : Our American (Midwestern ?) exuberance and high spirits. At the class reunion, classmates who finally recognized each other let out wild yelps of glee to the point where the room reverberated like the landing strip of a major airport. The French for some reason modulate their voices even at class reunions (I know-I've attended a few with my husband). Don't ask me how they manage such restraint. In any case, my husband was quite amazed by the decibels.

Number three : Donations. " What's that basket for ? " my husband asked, indicating one that had been placed on a table near the door. " Oh, that's for donations ", I replied. " Donations for what ? " he asked. " No idea, but I think it's to cover extra expenses, " I said, throwing in a bill. My husband was taken aback, not because he's tight with his euros or dollars but because in France, where people pay fully one and a half times more taxes, they feel like they've already done their donating.

Number four : The high school annual. I don't need to explain the importance of the high school annual to my American readers. My French husband had never seen one. Do you know why ? Because in French schools, there are no extra-curricular activities. That includes high school annuals, football teams, glee club, the marching band, you name it. School in France is simplyschool !

Number five : Obesity. This is a sad thing to write but you just can't ignore it. There are overweight people in France ; in fact, more and more French children have weight problems. However, it is nothing compared to the obesity that is rampant in the States (and not just the Midwest).

Number six : The almost total lack of interest of Americans in the outside world. My husband was shocked to see how hard it was to find news about other countries in U.S. papers. French newspapers and magazines have their faults but one they don't have is in their extensive coverage of world news.

Some differences are postive, some negative. In any event, it was a pleasure for me to be on my territory for a change, and not on his. For once, I led the dance. He was on his best behavior but I DID have to keep him from driving the French way as I was afraid we might get lynched if he applied the Parisian parking technique (bump the car behind you and then the one in front of you) on an unsuspecting American driver.

All in all, my French husband did quite well in this foreign environment. We even almost bought a house which brings me to point

Number seven : The price of real estate. Of course you can't compare the price of real estate in Paris to the price of real estate in Shenandoah, Iowa. Still, it was a shock to see that we could buy back the beautiful five-bedroom Victorian house I grew up in, complete with stained glass windows, marble floors, and thick oak doors, for the price of a teeny tiny studio in Paris. I have to admit I was tempted for about five seconds. But as the title of a famous book wisely surmises : " You can't go home again ".

Instead, when I can't get to sleep at night in Paris, I take a mental tour of my hometown. I walk from my house on Center Street (which is not in the center - failing expected expansion, it's on the eastern edge of town). Down West Thomas I go to Main Street where I head straight for the George Jay drugstore, angle for one of the eight counter seats, and order one of their famous malts.

It's fun to travel on a magic carpet from my bed in Paris to the childhood haunts of my small town in Iowa. You can't go home again ?

Yes, you can. In your dreams.

(The Paris Pages, October 2008, by Harriet Welty Rochefort)

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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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