New York Times, March 23, 2008 By ELAINE SCIOLINO
PARIS — “Every man has two countries, his own and France,” says a character in a play by the 19th- century poet and playwright Henri de Bornier. In five and a half years living in Paris as an American correspondent, I have tried to make the country my own, knowing that I never will completely fit in, but always will be fascinated. So as I finish my stint as Paris bureau chief and move on to a new beat here, it seems a good moment to offer eight lessons learned.
1: Look in the Rear-View Mirror
To begin to understand France, you have to look back. The French are obsessed with history. Part of this feeling is a genuine affinity for the past, part a desire to cling to lost glory, part an insecurity that comes with a tepid economy and the struggle to integrate a growing Arab and African population.
Marie-Antoinette regularly makes the covers of magazines. So does Napoleon Bonaparte.
No anniversary is too minor to celebrate. In my time here, France has marked the 20th anniversary of France’s sinking of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior, the 200th anniversary of the high school baccalaureate diploma, the 60th anniversary of the bikini and the 100th anniversary of the brassiere.
For the 100th anniversary of her birth in January, Simone de Beauvoir was celebrated with half a dozen biographies, a DVD series, a three-day scholarly symposium and a cover of the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur with a nude photo of her from the back.
[!]2: An Interview Is Sometimes Not an Interview
Their love of history doesn’t mean the French always render it accurately. It has long been common practice for journalists in France to allow their interview subjects to edit their words. “Read and corrected,” the system is called.
I once took part in an interview with Jacques Chirac, when he was president, in which he said it would not be all that dangerous for Iran to have a nuclear weapon or two. That certainly was not French policy. So the official Élysée Palace transcript left out the line and replaced it with this: “I do not see what type of scenario could justify Iran’s recourse to an atomic bomb.”
The practice of doctoring the transcript has continued under President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Last month, the president lost his temper when a bystander refused to shake his hand at the annual agricultural fair. (A polite translation of what he said would be, “Get lost, you stupid jerk!”) The incident, captured on video, was seen by millions on the Internet.
According to the daily Le Parisien the next day, Mr. Sarkozy later expressed regret in an interview, saying, “It would have been better if I had not responded to him.” But the paper’s editor soon confessed that the words of regret were “never uttered.” They had been edited into the transcript by the Élysée Palace.
3: The Customer Is Always Wrong
It is hard for French merchants to admit they are wrong, and seemingly impossible for them to apologize. Instead, the trick is to somehow get the offended party to feel the mistake was his or her own. I’m convinced the practice was learned in the strict French educational system, in which teachers are allowed to tell pupils they are “zeros” in front of the entire class.
A doctor I know told me he once bought a coat at a small men’s boutique only to discover that it had a rip in the fabric. When he tried to return it, the shopkeeper gave him the address of a tailor who could repair it — for a large fee. They argued, and the doctor reminded the shopkeeper of the French saying, “The customer is king.”
“Sir,” the shopkeeper replied, “We no longer have a king in France.”
4: Make Friends With a Good Butcher
With food as important as it is here, one of the most important men in your life should be your butcher. Mine, Monsieur Yvon, is more than a cutter of meat. He is a playful spirit in a rather sober neighborhood — and the exception to the customer-is-always-wrong rule.
In his tiny shop on the Rue de Varenne, between the Luxembourg Gardens and Les Invalides in the Seventh Arrondissement, Monsieur Yvon has donned a necklace of his homemade sausages to get a conversation going. At Christmas, he and his team of butchers put on elves’ hats with blinking lights. He offers passers-by free charcuterie and glasses of Beaujolais nouveau every fall. He is so deeply trusted that when avian flu struck France, his poultry sales went up, not down.
Monsieur Yvon has cooked my Thanksgiving turkey when it was too big for my oven and taught me how to make the perfect pot-au-feu. I have watched him lovingly choose just the right pair of center-cut lamb chops for an elderly client. Were they to be cooked today or tomorrow? Grilled or sautéed?
Even when he bears bad news, his explanations are delicious. Once I ordered a 16-pound turkey and got an 11-pound bird instead.
“It was the fault of the foxes,” he said gravely.
“The foxes?” I asked.
“Yes, the foxes.” It seemed that the electric fence surrounding the turkey pen had shorted out and the foxes had had a field day.
“They only ate the big turkeys,” he explained.
5: Kiss, but Be Careful Whom You Hug
The French need no excuse to kiss. The first time I was kissed by a Frenchman was on July 20, 1969, the day a man landed on the moon. I was a student with a backpack, arriving at the Gare de Lyon. The newspaper seller kissed me on both cheeks because I was an American.
The ritual double “bisou” — the two-cheek kiss — takes some getting used to. There is nothing sexy about it, but it can be awkward, especially for my adolescent daughters when they are required to kiss strange men.
Mr. Chirac never seemed to relish the formal, jerky air kisses. He is more of a hand-kisser. He knows how to cradle a woman’s hand in his, raise the hand to chest level, bend over to meet it halfway and savor its feel and scent.
Mr. Sarkozy is unpredictable. When he’s in a bad mood, he might offer a curt “Bonjour” and a cold handshake. With those he likes, he gets really close and hugs. They sometimes hug back, as did Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, during a visit this month to the Élysée. But the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has made it clear through her aides that she is not a hugger and needs her space.
6: Don’t Wear Jogging Clothes to Buy a Pound of Butter
Rules govern even the smallest activities. I was making chocolate chip cookies one Saturday afternoon and ran out of butter. Dusted with flour, still in my morning jogging clothes, I dashed out to the convenience store up the street. The problem was that it is not just any street. It’s the Rue du Bac, one of the most chic places to see and be seen on Saturdays. I heard my name called and turned to face a senior Foreign Ministry official, dressed in pressed jeans and a soft-as-butter leather jacket, wearing an amused look, and carrying a small Nespresso shopping bag.
We went to a corner cafe for a drink. The Swedish ambassador and his wife stopped as they were riding by on their bikes. Both were in tailored tweed blazers, slim pants and loafers. Then Robert M. Kimmitt, the deputy treasury secretary, walked by.
He and my foreign ministry friend joked that my style didn’t match the setting. I made the point that it was my neighborhood and I could dress however I wanted. But as my French women friends told me afterward, jogging clothes (shoes included) are to be removed as soon as one’s exercise is over.
7: Feeling Sexy Is a State of Mind, or: Buy Good Lingerie
In her close-fitting sweaters and pants and tailored leather jackets, Eliane Victor is both stylish and alluring. The retired author and journalist is in her late 80s.
For French women, being sexy has nothing to do with age and everything to do with attitude. Arielle Dombasle, the actress and cabaret singer married to the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, dared to expose her breasts on the cover of Paris Match and took off her clothes in a song-and-dance revue at Crazy Horse in Paris. Some people feel she tries too hard. But give the lady some credit. She’s turning 50 and has a Barbie-doll body.
A 600-page sociological study of sexuality in France released this month concluded that 9 out of 10 women over 50 are sexually active. The sexiest French women seem naturally skilled in the art of moving, smiling and flirting.
Chic French women prefer to peel and polish rather than paint their faces. Too much makeup, they say, makes a woman seem older, or worse, “vulgaire.” “The most beautiful makeup for a woman is passion,” Yves Saint Laurent once said. “But cosmetics are easier to buy.”
French women spend close to 20 percent of their clothing budgets on lingerie. But you also have to know how to wear it. When the Galeries Lafayette department store inaugurated its 28,000-square-foot lingerie shop in 2003, it offered free half-hour lessons by professional striptease artists.
8: When It Comes to Politesse, There Is No End to the Lessons
Never use the word “toilette” when asking a host for directions to the powder room; try to avoid going there at all. Never say “Bon appétit” at the start of a meal. Don’t talk loudly. Never discuss your religion or your money at dinner. Eat hamburgers, pizza, foie gras and sorbet with a fork. Always say “bonjour” to the bus driver, and to fellow passengers on elevators. “Pas mal” doesn’t necessarily mean “Not bad.” It can mean “Great!”