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Friday 3 February 2012

French Children Don't Throw Food


French Children Don’t Throw Food  (London, Doubleday).

To be released in the U.S. by Penguin under the title Bringing up Bébé


Without a doubt, this is the best book about France and the French that I have read in a long time. Whilst reading the book I was impressed by the lack of embarrassing howlers or glib, snap judgments and sheer improbability which are all too frequent in writings about France, either through an excess of francophilia or francophobia, or a toxic mixture of both. Ms Druckerman confesses some ambivalence about Paris and the French so perhaps this is what gives her the requisite detachment to analyse them.

It is also her subject matter itself which allows for an in-depth understanding of what makes the Frenchman tick. In the course of observing how the French raise their children, she plumbs the very heart of what makes the French French : the importance of food as THE great pleasure in life ; the almost paradoxical insistence on strongly codified forms of behaviour (a.k.a. civility or manners) combined with a considerable degree of tolerance for idiosyncrasy (a.k.a. minding-one’s-own-business). Most importantly perhaps, she shows to what extent French parents take their role seriously: nurturing, encouraging development, providing structure and giving their children the tools that will be necessary for them to take their place in such a highly structured society as France. There is a world of difference between the very French concept of ‘taking one’s place in society’ and a more brutal vision of ‘making one’s way in the world’.


I couldn’t help but smile at the pages in which she discusses the crucial importance of ‘bonjour’ especially where she mentions foreign visitors: ‘I think tourists are often treated gruffly in Parisian cafés and shops partly because they don’t begin interactions with bonjour, even if they switch to English afterwards. It’s crucial to say bonjour upon getting into a taxi, when a waitress first approaches your table in a restaurant, or before asking a salesperson if the trousers come in your size. Saying bonjour acknowledges the other person’s humanity. It signals that you view him as a person, not just as someone who’s there to serve you.’ (page 189) Or as I like to put it when speaking with hotel guests as they prepare for a day of touring: ‘One must greet the person before the function. If you treat a Frenchman like a vending machine, he will respond like one. Like an out-of-order vending machine.’ If there was any doubt of this, a little episode I witnessed at Versailles last summer made it abundantly clear : an American tourist (judging from her accent) walked up to one of the young women working in the gardens and without any form of preamble asked if a certain path led back to the palace, to which the warden simply but firmly replied ‘Bonjour, Madame’. The American repeated her question, and received the same answer. Twice. Then the penny dropped and the American looked at the young lady (it is important to look at the person!) and said ‘bonnjewer’, at which point the warden smiled and gave her all the information she required in very good and pleasant English. Bonjour is important in France. (Although in this instance ‘Excuse me’or ‘Pardon me’—even in English—probably would have served as well.) As Ms Druckerman puts it: ‘I’m amazed that people seem visibly put at ease after I say a nice solid bonjour.’

Stretching Horizons

She also devotes many pages to the careful, deliberate inculcation of the food culture in French children. It is the cause of one of my recurring difficulties in working with tourists : non-French parents come to us and ask about ‘child-friendly’ restaurants, meaning restaurants with some sort of ghastly ‘children’s menu’ probably involving foodstuffs that may at one point have been part of a chicken, but have since undergone such frightening transformations that one hesitates still to call them ‘food’. (I am reminded of Fran Lebowitz who once wrote: ‘Any cheese which must append the word “food” to its name is neither.’) We repeatedly have to explain to the somewhat incredulous parents that very few restaurants in Paris offer children’s menus because French children eat the same things as their parents, snails, garlic, game and all. The only restaurants which have children’s menus tend to serve worse than indifferent food and we feel that we cannot recommend them. Even if they do have chicken nuggets. Ms Druckerman explains how French crèches and parents together work from a very early age to broaden the children’s palates and teach them not only to be comfortable eating a wide variety of foods, but even to enjoy it. Good eating habits have extraordinary side effects : I was completely bemused by a scene in my local superette : two very young girls talked their dad out of buying them a packet of Twix because they felt it was unhealthy and they did not wish to over-indulge. (Yes, you read that correctly : the girls talked their daddy out of buying the bickies. I am still in shock.)

Although the authoress does not delve into the later stages of raising children, one should note that the approach French parents adopt towards culture is very similar : they do not assume that only the blandest, least challenging pap is suitable for their children’s enjoyment. They believe that a parent has a moral imperative to introduce his or her offspring to a wealth of cultural experiences so that the child can then find its own way and learn to enjoy these ‘finer’ things. I am always struck by the fact that wherever one goes, to whatever God-forsaken end of this earth, if one steps into the local church or museum, there always seems to be a French family there and as often as not they are the only ones there. They stroll about, the parents dutifully reading from their guide book and pointing out the salient features for their children’s benefit. As for the children, they take it in: they listen, they ask questions, they pay attention and either enjoy it or at least have learnt to master the boredom and pretend interest. By contrast, when our non-French clients come to the hotel with children, they almost always assume that a visit to the Louvre is out of the question because the children ‘will not appreciate it’. Obviously, armed with that assumption, it is quite certain they will not.

That famous French arrogance

The third, and perhaps most important insight Ms Druckerman acquires from her study of French parenting is how the children learn very young to be self-reliant and really quite independent. When you have read this book, you will understand whence comes that noticeable French self-assurance which sometimes is interpreted as arrogance (and sometimes truly is!) but which also is the source of that je-ne-sais-quoi, that Gallic poise which on the right occasions is so irresistible. It also helps one understand why forthrightness to the point of near brutality is a mark of friendship (well, partly at least...), as well as the peculiar pudeur of the French which has nothing to do with modesty but rather is their reluctance to unveil all their most private emotions to strangers, and many other mysteries of the French make-up that the non-French occasionally have trouble dealing with and/or appreciating.

If I had to suggest any one book as an excellent starting place to understanding the French, this probably would be the one, whether one has children or not. And it is both funny and well-written to boot!

Wednesday 6 July 2011

La Séduction : How the French Play the Game of Life

La Séduction : How the French Play the Game of Life

By Elaine Sciolino

NewYork : Henry Holt & Co., 2011

338 pages - $27.00 – Canada $ 31.00

ISBN : 978-0-8050-9115-1

Reading books about the French, especially written by my fellow Americans, is one of my péchés mignons, my secret indulgences, because I delight in the unexpected perspectives they occasionally offer on daily situations that I take for granted after so many years of living here. At other times, I am simply dumbfounded by the bizarre portrait of France and her people that emerges from some of them.

For all her many observational skills, Ms Sciolino’s book verges on the bizarre. I recognise many of the quirks of Frenchness she points out, all the more so because her neighbourhood was the next one over from mine, just a hop and a skip from the Victoria Palace. I am familiar with the places she mentions : I have dealt with her fishmonger in person, I frequently walk in front of her butcher shop, etc. And, although I myself am not in any way intimate with the people she interviews, many of my friends and acquaintances do belong to the same circles.

The problem is that she has trouble marshalling all her observations into a coherent whole: the book is an odd hotch-potch of anecdotes, portraits, historical titbits, facts and factoids mashed together, sometimes without any recognizable rhyme or reason. In places she is irritatingly silly, for example when she states that President Sarkozy deliberately chose to address the French parliament in Versailles so as to wrap himself in the grandeur of a royal palace. The President’s ego indeed may have enjoyed the palatial pomp, but the decision to address the parliament in that specific venue was not his : the French president is constitutionally barred from addressing parliament anywhere else. (Until 2009, he was barred from addressing it in person. Full stop.) As a journalist, she should have known that.

La Séduction as a way of life

Ms Sciolino’s premise is that French behaviour in social settings is motivated by the need to ‘seduce’, to charm or ingratiate oneself through fine wines, elaborate politeness, careful grooming, exquisite food and habitual recourse to all that is pleasing to the eye and the senses, which more business-like Americans find frustrating and time-consuming. Oddly, towards the end of her book she spends much time talking about the indifference verging on rudeness of her fishmonger, the unwillingness of the estate agent to cut a deal when Ms Sciolino tries to convince her that it would be wasteful for her to remove all the kitchen cabinets before vacating her flat, the pointedly uncompromising position taken by Mr. Dominique de Villepin against the United States on the subject of the war in Iraq. If indeed the need to seduce and charm is the mainspring of French social interaction, how does she account for such egregious failures to do so? She does not.

For me, she is trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, or, as the French would put it, she is looking for noon at 2 p.m. Seduction is a tactic which the French have honed into a very efficient tool, a fine art even, but it is not the raison d’être of French society any more than it is of any other. The goals of the French are quite the same as those of any other people : raising families, accumulating wealth, securing one’s position in the social hierarchy, feeding oneself, looking to one’s health and occupying any spare time in ways that are enjoyable. Perhaps the reason she came to mistake one of the tools for the goal itself is because, at least according to Bernard-Henri Levy whom she quotes, Americans are afraid of being seduced and led astray, so they become wary and defensive. Either that or she simply has read too much Henry James.

It’s not all about les fesses

For whatever reason, Ms Sciolino has difficulty getting her mind out of the bedclothes. Without wishing to appear unkind, she comes across as rather dour and more than a little priggish ; too much of her book is spent obsessing about sex, marital infidelity, pornography and pick-up strategies. From her description of France, the country would appear to be entirely inhabited by rutting gastronomes whose only goal in life is to hop into bed with anyone who passes within reach.

It is true that the French have a rather different attitude to sex than Americans. As Edith Wharton put it nearly 100 years ago in French Ways and Their Meaning, they have what she called a very grown-up approach and consider that sex is one of the pleasures of life. They are not afraid of saying so and they think this is a good thing : if sex were not pleasurable, the human race would have died out after the first generation ; that any of us are here today is owing to the fact that our parents were inclined to sex. There is something almost neo-Victorian in the way Ms Sciolino broaches this topic : she goes on at great length about how men express their desire for women, but seems genuinely surprised, upset even, that French women seem to enjoy the attentions of men. While reading some of the comments that seem to scandalise her, I was reminded of my friend Marthe Eidelberg, who belonged to a very different generation but whose attitude was much the same as the one expressed by Ms Sciolino’s interviewees. Marthe had left France as a youngish woman in 1940, fleeing the Nazi invasion and she had settled in the United States ; we became good friends when she was quite elderly, in the 1980s. One day she told me that the one thing she missed was the appreciative gaze French men have for women ;she could only recall one instance of having felt it in New York and when she turned around to see who was looking at her, it was Maurice Chevalier.

Ms Sciolino seems unable to wrap her mind around this concept and I cannot help thinking that some of her interviewees sensed this and decided they would have her on : many French women (and some men), positively relish disconcerting anyone they perceive as overly prudish by exaggerating their own ‘liberated’ and free-thinking attitudes. Whilst my friend Marthe missed the admiring, appraising gaze of the French male, she certainly would not have enjoyed anything so unsubtle as whistling from construction workers as some of Ms Sciolino’s interviewees claim they do, probably to tickle what they saw as her American-style, feminist priggishness. I surmise that the lingerie designer Chantal Thomass was being similarly cheeky when she took off her top to show Ms Sciolino her lacey, racy brassiere : as a mature businesswoman, surely this is not what she does as a matter of course during her business day. No doubt she was enjoying herself at the expense of Ms Sciolino and of her functional ‘American’ undergarments : a superbly executed and very Parisian joke, of which our authoress was the unsuspecting butt.

Peccadilloes, tolerance and sexism

The French may be notoriously tolerant of human foibles, but there are limits and the French language does contain words of strong disapproval for those who seem unduly obsessed with sex or only interested in bedding new partners, in ‘scoring’ as we would phrase it in American English. (I’m glad to say, I cannot think of an exact French equivalent to that regrettable phrase, sex qua target practise.) Our authoress never seems to have encountered this, possibly because she was in such shock at French women’s reactions to what they would consider polite and enjoyable expressions of interest, that she seems never to have queried whether there were lines that should not be crossed : for the record, the pinching of bottoms, the unsolicited rubbing of genital areas against someone’s anatomy as well as outright rape are not acceptable in polite French society, as some politicians currently are discovering.

Perhaps it is Ms Sciolino’s freely admitted American feminist perspective which sees women always as victims of sexism that explains her statement, without any substantiating quotes from any of her French interviewees, that in France tolerance of sexual peccadilloes applies only to men and that political women are expected to be chaste. In so doing she completely ignores the case of Rachida Dati (who is mentioned in other contexts): whilst minister of justice, Ms Dati gave birth to a child out of wedlock and steadfastly refused to name the father, merely stating that her private life was ‘complicated’, leaving everyone to construe that as they chose. There were a few days of hullabaloo and lurid speculation then we all got over it.

Ms Sciolino seems to have found Frédéric Mitterand’s memoirs particularly distasteful, what with his descriptions of encounters with rent-boys in Thailand ; no doubt many French people outside the ‘literati’ of the Rive gauche would concur that this was not in the best taste. It is however less shocking to them than, say, a politician who, having wrapped himself in a cloak of condemnation vis-à-vis another man’s foibles, turns out to be himself a serial cheater and divorcer who then goes on to convert to Roman Catholicism. It would be unthinkable for anyone with such a twisted past to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate in France, unlike the United States. As Edith Wharton put it, the French place great store on intellectual honesty and whereas they view discretion as compatible with this as well as being a necessary social skill, they consider patent self-righteousness and obvious hypocrisy both morally offensive and strategically unwise.

Ms Sciolino finds the openness with which French men express their enjoyment of the physical beauty of women to be ‘patently sexist’, but she does not seem to grasp that it is a two-way street : French women comment quite readily on the looks and fashion sense of French men. (I was the only boy in an all-girls school, so I know!) It is puzzling that one so observant as Ms Sciolino, whilst frequently noting how well-dressed are the men with whom she is dealing, should fail to wonder at why they take such obvious care of their appearance. The answer is the same one the women give : because ‘on ne sait jamais’ : one never knows whom one will meet and what opportunities may arise from chance encounters. Although our authoress, as is her wont, seems to consider only the sexual implications of this statement, any French person knows that simply  because sexual possibilities are included, it does not follow that these are at the forefront : there is a world of delights and possibilities out there and not all of them are centred on the space between our thighs. French men, like French women, are keenly aware that they will be subjected to appraising and appreciative gazes and must live up to high standards of appearance, out of respect for themselves and for their audience, of either sex. (When I first returned to the US as a young adult, I was incredulous at how on a Friday or Saturday night young American women will get all dolled up to go out on a date whilst the men escorting them are turned out in shapeless jeans and t-shirts. In France, no self-respecting young woman would stand for it : if she has to make an effort to look good, so does he. Or else they both opt for ‘le style grunge’.)

Choosing one’s company

A whole side of French behaviour that seems to have eluded Ms Sciolino has to do with the complex groupings within French society, although President Giscard d’Estaing did his best to warn her. Each stratum, each milieu has its own codes and rules, and members of the different strata generally prefer not to mingle with those of the others. Much of what she identifies as a game of seduction—the elaborate politeness, the subtle irony, the displays of culture and conversational skill—are in fact tools to assay what each person’s upbringing and background are, the better to determine whether such persons are ‘fréquentables’, whether one can be seen to associate with them or not. Old money prefers to hang out with old money ; bourgeois intellectuals prefer to indulge in verbal skirmishes with other bourgeois intellectuals ; impoverished aristocrats prefer to reminisce of faded glories with other impoverished aristocrats ; the plain-speaking, industrious working-classes prefer the company of other plain-speaking, industrious, etc. The differing rituals of politeness, topics of debate, literary or philosophical allusions, all serve to advertise where one is coming from and where one’s allegiance lies, like a very subtle, elaborate and drawn-out Masonic handshake ; thus does one discover whom one can trust and with whom one can do business. Had our authoress been a little less obsessed with the below-the-belt side of things, she might have realised that any sexual pairings as a result of these displays, whilst enjoyable and welcome perhaps, are almost incidental. So far from being a strategy of seduction, much of French social interaction is a subtle strategy of exclusion, of separating the wheat from the chaff as it were. When it is properly executed, those of any given group will recognise their own, yet those who have been found wanting are given no reason to take offense so the mood of the gathering will not be ruined. No one will be hurt and no bridges will have been burnt. Those excluded may just wonder why they are not invited back ; then again, they may not. Painless, effective and therefore extremely efficient, as well as being elegant. Now that truly is the French way.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Parisian Chic : A Style Guide by Inès de la Fressange, with Sophie Gachet

Parisian Chic : A Style Guide

by Inès de La Fressange, with Sophie Gachet
239 pages - Paris : Flammarion, 2011

US $ 29.95 / Can $ 34 / UK £ 19.95 / 25 €
ISBN : 978-2-08-020073-0

 Back in the 1980s, I remember welcoming Miss de La Fressange to the Westbury Hotel in New York on several occasions. She was absolutely beautiful, but she was also one of our more pleasant clients : quietly unassuming, polite, completely sensible and down-to-earth. Beautiful within and without. I am delighted to see that, judging from her book Parisian Chic, she appears not to have changed.

More than just a list of addresses, the book purports to be a style-guide, which in itself is a perilous exercise : after all, it requires a healthy dose of self-assurance—to say the least—to attempt to lay down the fashion law for other women and save them from lives of misguided fashion disasters... Yet Miss de La Fressange manages it well, partly because of who she is (her place in the fashion firmament requires no justification) and partly because she has opted for a whimsical, playful approach, all the while emphasising that rules are there to be broken (including her own, one assumes) and stressing that no one is immune from the occasional fashion disaster and or, in her own words, ‘we are all just steps from a fashion faux pas’.

Fashion precepts

One way of describing Parisian Chic is as a sort of Fashion Sense for Dummies, but with gaiety and colour and without condescension. A certain cringe-making cutsiness is unavoidable in places (e.g. the fly-leaf which sports a space provided for writing the owner’s name under the caption ‘For my new best friend.’) but all in all it is a quick, enjoyable read and most of it is very sensible.(I do hope some kind soul will have the thoughtfulness to give a copy to Sarah Jessica Parker. Please. Pretty please. Someone must save that woman from herself.)

The general principles are to the point and undoubtedly grounded in Parisian style sense. If properly understood, they would save many women (and some men) from making woeful spectacles of themselves : ‘Chic means never having to buy a complete outfit’ ; ‘Never look rich’ ; ‘ [the Parisian] has faith in her own talent as a fashion stylist [...] She sweeps fashion aside’ ; ‘Counterfeit is counterfashion’ ; ‘The secret of great style is to feel good in what you wear’, ‘Nothing looks worse than a girl tottering about on unmanageable heels’ ; ‘All you really need is loads of self-confidence... and a smile’, etc. Of course, having a face and a figure like those of Inès de La Fressange probably would go a fair way to boosting said self-confidence, but do not let’s quibble. The basic dicta are unassailable and, considering how many people seem not to have yet grasped them, they definitely bear repeating.

Of course fashion is a social construct, which means that at the same time as I say her points are valid, one does have to admit that they are valid in a specific city and amongst a specific set. This is where the book becomes slightly more problematic. Miss de La Fressange is a thoroughly modern French woman of a certain age, with impeccable taste and living in a certain milieu ; I know many like her and they are what I think of as today’s true Parisienne : down-to-earth, managing careers and families whilst retaining at all times and in all places a sense of simple, effortless yet slightly rebellious elegance. Underpinning the entire book is the idea that today’s elegance is not the same as the bourgeois elegance of a previous generation kitted out in Chanel suit + pearls + Kelly handbag, etc., what she calls the ‘ladies-who-lunch’ look. And when she gets down to specific suggestions, this becomes ever more apparent. As I read, I was reminded of my father talking about his Okie mother : he sarcastically used to say that her answer to any problem in life was ‘to roll it in cornmeal then fry it in lard’. For Miss de La Fressange, the equivalent solution would appear to be ‘dress it up in a blazer, jeans and Converse sneakers’. It is a pleasing and defensible look, but it is also very much the look of a specific time, place and milieu ; it may not be appropriate at all times and everywhere.

Her Address-Book

After the general precepts and the helpful hints, Miss de La Fressange shares her favourite addresses and the English edition has the thoughtfulness to provide the addresses in London and in the United States when they exist. Somewhat oddly, for some shops with multiple addresses, only one address has been provided and this might send shoppers scurrying half-way across the city to find a shop that they could conveniently have located much nearer to wherever they happened to be had there been a simple mention that multiple shops existed. The most egregious examples are Petit Bâteau and Éric Bompard for whom only the Champs-Élysées addresses and telephone numbers are given, when there are ten Petit-Bâteau and twelve Éric Bompard shops in Paris. (And who still goes to the Champs-Élysées to shop, anyway???)

Although Miss de La Fressange feels she must nail her anti-snob colours to the mast by repeating the axiom that there are great fashion finds at Monoprix (a rather mid- to low-brow department store chain very well represented throughout France), she doesn’t actually include it in her address-book. (I first heard the Monoprix refrain some twenty years ago from my friend Dik Brandsma, who used to design the Variations line for Yves-Saint-Laurent ; that notwithstanding, I don’t recall ever actually seeing him in a Monoprix store or spotting a Monoprix label on anything he owned...)

Interior Design

Once Miss de la Fressange has given her general pointers on fashionable dressing, she moves on to interior design ; this is the least satisfactory portion of the book. Primarily this is because, whilst most human beings are put together in much the same way, the houses and flats they choose to inhabit vary wildly and so it is nearly impossible to give any general, useful tips. What is the interior design equivalent of ‘blazer, jeans and Converse sneakers’? That depends on how much space you have, how many children, how high your ceilings are, etc. As a result, this portion of the book is of necessity more vague and less helpful. The few addresses she gives seem focused on bric-à-brac chic, but that does seem to be putting the cart before the horse : knowing where to shop for the bric-à-brac is well and fine, but where do I get the actual furniture the bric-à-brac is supposed to complement? It is a bit like telling one where to buy a belt when what one really needs is a pair of trousers...

Hotels And Restaurants

The last portion of the book makes a few suggestions for restaurants and hotels. Of course I don’t know if I shall ever be able to forgive Miss de La Fressange for the unpardonable sin of not including the Victoria Palace Hôtel in her suggestions, but I would also quibble with a few of her restaurant suggestions, such as Le Bon Saint-Pourçain. I once tried to make enquiries there so as to send a client, but the owner was so abominably rude I decided it would be a very cold day in hell before I ever attempted that again. You see, unlike some tourists, I don’t consider being subjected to unprovoked, verbal abuse by an uncouth local to be an integral part of enduring Gallic charm, because I know that in this astonishingly polite country, it isn’t supposed to be that way. (Perhaps with the exception of the occasional taxi driver.) On the other hand, I suppose that if I had even half the charm of Inès de La Fressange, le patron of the Bon Saint-Pourçain might find his way to being more engaging...

All in all, Parisian Chic is a delightful read and no doubt would delight many women as a gift for any and every occasion. Or for their fashion-aware daughters when they hit that awkward age where they confuse what is suitable on the runway with what is appropriate in real life. Perhaps I shall buy a stack of them and hand them out like sweets at a few Sweet Fifteen parties...