ParisDiary by Harriet Welty Rochefort

(#5)

 Paris?

I've been a permanent resident of the City of Light for years, 34 years to be exact, but the charm 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, it's always as if it were the first time.

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 coverage of current news in France - the debate over the Islamic veil, worker's strikes - from the perspective of a veteran freelance journalist and writer.

And now en avant !

March 2003 - On French-bashing (Letter From Paris)

 As I pen this column on a typical grey blustery March day in Paris, I think back to the weather I had during a recent three-week trip to the States. I got everything from banks of snow and below zero temperatures in Montreal and New York to sun and warmth in Tucson and Mexico. But no matter what the temperature, there were always blue skies. Somehow the North American continent never gets into grey the way Europe does.

It always strikes me as strange to erase miles in jet travel. One minute you're in sunny Tucson with its wide streets and hardly any sidewalks and the whole town surrounded by mountains and the next day you're in Paris with its narrow streets and crowded sidewalks and the Seine River as nature's gift. One day it's margaritas and dinner at 5:30, the next it's red wine and dinner at 9. One day perfect strangers are smiling at you (the States, in case you haven't guessed) and the next you are greeted with polite reserve. One day you're in a smokefree environment everywhere you go, and the next you are smoked on everywhere you go (this morning it was in a GROCERY store...).

But what is really odd is that when you live in France and go to the States, you read and hear almost nothing about France - unless France is acting up as it is these days. If it weren't for the Iraq controversy, the only thing I read about France the whole time I was in the U.S. was the sad news that the ebullient enthusiastic three-star French chef Bernard Loiseau had killed himself with a rifle.

That was it.

However, I heard a LOT about Jacques Chirac and the French government's unwillingness to join their American allies in an all-out right-now war on Iraq. Depending on who I was talking to, Chirac was praised or damned. One thing was sure: no one was indifferent. When I returned to France, my son and his girlfriend were curious as to what the Americans asked about the French and what they thought. I could only shake my head and state sadly that most Americans don't give a whit about what the French think. What the French think is not even on the radar screen! And that is undoubtedly why France irritates so much. It's the gnat making the elephant sneeze.

I mean, what is France? It's one of those European countries where you eat a lot, late, and ....let me see, what else do we know about France and the French? Oh yes, they invented this pretty plane, the Concorde, which drove everyone nuts with its noise but that was a few years back. They make really smelly, some say pretty good, cheese and drink lots of wine. They wear (or used to) berets. They eat baguettes. The women eat like horses but are pencil thin and chic. They have a lot of pretty scenery on a very small amount of land.

And after all, why should we know more than that? There are so many of those European countries. How can you even tell them apart? And what difference would it make if you could? As Donald Rumsfeld so charmingly phrased it: Old Europe is irrelevant. Well, not quite and certainly not to the people who live there. Though the French only have some 60 million inhabitants, they are way up there in terms of industrial powers (fourth at last count) and productivity. They have what is probably the best health care system in the world (rated first by the World Health Organization) and are one of the only countries in Europe to have a viable film industry. They have a lifestyle many envy, and they export more of their savoir-faire to the States than one might think (because French-owned companies take American names).

The French - and people like myself who have lived in France for a long time and partake of its many fine points - don't think the French are irrelevant. They can be cantankerous, chauvinistic, critical, cynical, cunning, crafty and cutting, but they are not irrelevant.

That is what was so insulting about Rumsfeld's cleverly chosen and dismissive words. It ruffled feathers because the subtext was: you are our ally and therefore you must agree with us on everything.

And that's where the French beg to differ. No, they say. We really really don't think it's necessary to rush to war with Iraq. Saddam is indeed a horrific dictator who gassed his own people. But bombing Iraq and its people to kingdom come is not the solution. Let's give the inspectors more time to do their work and try to resolve the conflict peacefully.

This, coming from an irrelevant gnat, was greeted with outrage. Who do those Frogs think they are? A bunch of ungrateful chimps, that's what. We saved their entire nation in WWII (true) and this is the thanks we get. Well, thanks but no thanks!

The French view this differently. For them, being an ally or friend means being frank and warning the friend of impending danger. That's why they are sincerely surprised at the uproar caused by their dissent. "But we're your friends!" they say. Friends are supposed to tell each other when they disagree! In fact, this is one of the most significant Franco-American cultural differences I have found after living in France for three decades. In France, if your friend is wearing the wrong color of lipstick or making stupid decisions about her life, your duty as a friend is to intervene - vigorously. In the U.S. if you tell your friend her lipstick's the wrong color or she's messing up her life, you may find yourself without a friend.

A February 27 letter to the editor of The International Herald Tribune from Frenchman Bernard Vincent of Orleans, France bears this out: "In the controversy about what my country, France, owes to the United States, I would like to speak for France, for very few do so in the American press these days. I do not mean to say that the French have no debt toward the United States. Without the landing of American troops in Normandy, our "liberation" would not have been possible. Anyone who has visited Omaha Beach and the American cemetery nearby, and has cried there, knows that. Yes, we do have a debt. But it does not ensue that we ought blindly and forever to applaud whatever the U.S. government decides. Gratitude is no synonym for automatic conformity or subservience. To disagree on an issue, however important, is neither to betray, nor to act ungratefully.
To which I will add that, without the political, diplomatic, financial, and military assistance of the French during the War of Independence, the United
States might still be a British possession or protectorate. It should, in particular, be remembered that at the final and decisive battle of Yorktown,
Virginia, there were more French than American troops. In the allied forces besieging the British Army and General Cornwallis, there were indeed 10,000 American soldiers, 9,000 French infantrymen, plus several thousand French soldiers and sailors aboard the French fleet then blocking the Chesapeake Bay in order to prevent the British naval forces from approaching the scene of battle. After this we never asked the American people or authorities to publicly manifest their gratitude, nor to grovel at our feet and slavishly support our diplomatic errors. There is no justification in resorting to the issue of gratitude as a one-day argument."

France's dashing gray-haired Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin expressed the same sentiment in an interview with Elaine Sciolino of The New York Times (International Herald Tribune, March 8-9, 2003). Discussing his anti-war position and differences with the U.S., he told her that "To act like I do, you have to know how much I love America".

Not only is the definition of friendship different, the boundaries of what can and cannot be said are different. The French are vocal. It's part of their culture. They like to argue. They value dissent. They can disagree violently over politics but remain friends. What I saw on my recent visit to the States very frankly chilled my bones. I found a very "for" or "against" atmosphere in which debate was ruled out. Discussion with people who agreed with you was no problem. Discussion with people who didn't was impossible.

9/11 is still fresh in the collective mind - as well it should be. People are understandably sensitive and not open to hearing anything that smacks even vaguely of being unpatriotic or anti-American. Those supporting the war with Iraq don't want to hear dissenting opinions from other Americans, and they certainly don't want to hear them from the French!

So it was that I found myself dealing in innuendos, beginnings of debates that never took off because neither side wanted to up the ante. Two examples:

At a restaurant in Tucson, a family friend told me he'd like to order Roquefort dressing for his salad but didn't want to give his money to the French. I remained silent because I saw that he was so hopping mad our "discussion" would probably become a fight. Banker friends of mine in New York City laughed hard over the cover of the New York Post (the one showing the French and German Foreign Ministers as weasels). Wasn't it funny? I didn't think so - I thought it was tabloid garbage and did nothing to encourage an intelligent discussion of our Franco-American differences. By tacit mutual agreement, we switched the conversation to our children and vacations.

As an American married to a Frenchman, I was and am very troubled. Our countries are allies, friends. (But does ally mean vassal?) Given the current state of Franco-American relations, the media (Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times) have sent their reporters out to see just what a dangerous place France is and if it's safe for Americans to come. Will Americans be chided, spat on, ripped off, aggressed? The media certainly hopes so. It makes a good story. A friend of mine, the correspondent of a well-known U.S. paper whose name I won't cite because I'm sure she'd like to keep her job, told me that her editor assigned her to stake out tourist places in Paris and ask Americans if they had been victims of anti-American acts. When she reported back that none had, the editor was most unhappy. He sent her back out again! Franco-American relationships CAN'T be good. Find something!

Trust me - I'm an American in France and I've had no problems. Neither have any of my friends. The only trouble with coming to France right now is the fear struck into your heart from reading the news in the States, news which for the most part is pure hype. The concierge at a hotel many Americans stay at reported that his American clients told him they were afraid to come to France because of what they had been hearing and reading in the U.S. press and on U.S. TV. Once they got here, they found to their delight that there was no cause for fright.

Maybe the question should be: Is it safe for the French or supporters of France or Americans married to French people to travel to America these days?

Safe, yes. Pleasant, no. Malheureusement.

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February 2002 - Reflections on Some Sharp Words for the States and musings on the East-West Paris Divide (Letter From Paris)

I love to read newspapers and am very fortunate in that I can read both The Herald Tribune, which is delivered to my door every morning, and Le Monde which I buy every evening along with my baguette. Reading in both languages opens doors, for you get the actual words and context of a story in a way you don't when they have been translated and re-cast in another language. An example in point: French Secretary of State Hubert Vedrine's comments this month on America's becoming too unilateral. He called the Bush administration's exclusive focus on the war on terrorism "simplistic". After reading the report in Le Monde, I waited for the predictable comments and, sure enough, in they came. A few days later, a very on-the-defensive Robert A. Levine, described as "an economist, defense analyst and former official in the U.S. executive and legislative branches", wrote an article in The Herald Tribune stating that "the United States and France do have different national interests. And on those interests, the United States will continue to act as a unilateral superpower. It will because it can." Hey dudes, we've got the guns and you don't! What Levine is basically saying is that "if you're not as powerful as we are and you don't agree with us on everything,, don't criticize". He - and the Bush administration - seem impervious to the fact that allies would like to be consulted, not told. But for Levine, "telling" the French and not consulting them is logical. For, he writes: "the French role in the Middle East, or with regard to Russia...is truly not very important to us." Well, here I am sitting in France, reading that what this country, the fourth economic power in the world, does or thinks just doesn't matter. And now everything begins to make sense. No wonder the attitude of the U.S. toward its allies is: "Don't call us, we'll call you." They don't really count! Oh well, Robert, even though France is is peanuts to the U.S., I still like living in this country which, thanks to you, I now realize is "truly is not very important".

One of the things I like the most about Paris is that just by taking the metro or bus (or a good hike) you can totally change your environment. I thought of this one Sunday in February when I was invited to a " literary tea " on the Parc Monceau in the most incredible apartment. The home of the Menier family (a French chocolate fortune), this apartment is now rented out (probably for a small fortune but I didn't dare ask). It features marble accoutrements, floor to (high) ceiling bookcases, and most of all, lovely large French windows looking right on to the Parc Monceau.

 I had often looked in to the windows of apartments like that while walking in the park but never dreamed that one day I would be inside one of them looking out. Time for tea and we changed neighborhoods in the twinkling of an eyeas we drove from this exclusive area to the ethnic area of Bellevue where our son lives. If you've got a hankering for Chinese food or couscous or deli food, this is the place to come. I even saw a " Chinese Kosher " bakery here one day !

I keep thinking of how different parts of Paris are these days as I go hunting for the house or apartment of my dreams. One real estate agent I was with commented that she was surprised that since I lived in the west of Paris I would be looking in the east of Paris. " West doesn't go East " she commented and although I laughed, I think there is some truth in this. East probably doesn't go West either. Traditionally, the East of Paris has been composed of working class people with leftist views. The west is composed of white collar workers with conservative views. In between the two is the Latin Quarter whose inhabitants like to think they are very liberal. The other characteristic of the Latin Quarter is that the people who live there consider it a Very Big Deal to venture out of it. They consider a trip outside its confines a real adventure.

One day I visited an apartment in the 20th arrondissement which is about as East as you can go in Paris. Since I arrived early and it was time for lunch, I sat down in a Vietnamese restaurant and ordered a steaming bowl of " Phô " with noodles. I could have been in New York given the ethnic mix of French, Africans, Chinese and Arabs. That was definitely " East ".

The apartment was exactly as advertised. The only thing the owners didn't mention was that there was a stone wall right in front of the living room windows. Nice view, folks ! Go west, young lady. Right back home - until the next visit, that is !

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French elections

 French elections - The tie that binds In case you think the French aren't paying any attention to the U.S. elections - think again.
As the most powerful nation on the earth gets ready to choose its new leader, every major French newspaper, magazine, radio and TV station is primed to cover the event, whether live from various points in the States or in Paris studios with carefully selected American guests and French political commentators.

The French are obviously interested in every aspect of the race ­ from profiles of the candidates to negative advertising to the intricacy and complexity of the Electoral College. As an American in France, it's fun to watch the French try to explain the latter. It's roughly the equivalent of trying to explain the French "grandes écoles" system to Americans ­ nobody understands it but everyone's sure there must be some good reason for it.

Once the straight part has been done, the fun ­ the French take on life in America ­ begins. In a special 36-page pre-election issue, the French daily Le Monde in collaboration with The New York Times gave readers a taste - no, a smorgasbord - of America. On the menu, an interview with a typical American family, a story about Native Americans and an article on a new generation of chefs "made in USA".

Although the story on the typical American family touched on how the parents would vote, the French reporter zeroed in on certain cultural differences. "Laura drank a 'chocolate chip frappuchino' in a glass as big as a European flower vase," the journalist wrote at one point, emphasizing how big everything in the U.S. is. (The French drink strong espresso in tiny porcelain cups).

And when asked what worries the family could possibly have in the prosperous Clinton era, Jamie, the mother, replied: "Getting enough sleep." (The French, who now have a 35-hour work week, have a hard time relating to that problem).

Finally, the reporter's observation that the family "tries to eat dinner together", something "rare" in suburban America, underscored another important cultural difference: 90 percent of the French eat dinner together ­ sitting down ­ every night.

That's for the typical American family: Silicon Valley is another favorite for French reporters who are drawn to it like bees to honey. It is, of course, the quintessential symbol of American prosperity. Additionally, approximately 15,000 young French men and women currently live and work there. (As the French economy improves, though, some of them are now returning to France.)

Over these past pre-election months, French viewers have seen both the upside of the Silicon Valley success story with its instant millionaires - and the downside with reports on working mothers who live in shelters because they can't afford the astronomical rents.

Other reports from the States show families with three cars, four garages, several computers and phones, giant TV screens and mammoth houses. Although it's never asked, the underlying question is clear: Do people really need all that? Especially if to get it and keep it it means that your main preoccupation is "getting enough sleep".

Which brings us to the question of where it's better to live - France or the U.S. - a subject addressed in a recent issue of the French weekly magazine Marianne.

In the "what's better in the U.S." column, the journalist pointed to the ease with which one can change jobs, the constant renewal of policymakers, nonexistent unemployment and diminishing poverty, universities and laboratories which attract researchers, a judicial system legitimized by local democracy, a press which really does its job, fans who don't tear up stadiums, and convivial relationships with neighbors and merchants.

And those are only a few of the things on the "what's better" list.

Is there anything left? Fortunately, yes. In the "what's better in France" column, it's thumbs down for a system which doesn't take care of those left out by the Internet boom. It's also thumbs down for the "politically correct" movement in the States. Both phenomena are unknown in France, mainly because the Internet boom hasn't come of age yet and because the French are too independent to adhere to any one line of thought (they're too busy fighting with each other to want to be or talk or think like each other). The journalist gives a resolute thumbs up the French public school system and the TGV (fast train), the Social Security system, and the shorter work week.

As for the elections themselves, the French are mystified by the low voter participation (it's 75 percent or more in France compared to 50 percent or less in the U.S.), the lack of any real difference between the parties, the colossal amount of money spent on the campaigns and the focus on scandal (George W.'s arrest for drunken driving 25 years ago) and personality and popularity (the appearance of both candidates on Jay Leno, David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey) at the expense of a real debate on issues.

One of those issues is the death penalty, abolished in France under the late President François Mitterrand. Former Justice Minister Robert Badinter, head of an international campaign against the death penalty, will present a petition against it to the next U.S. President.

No matter who gets elected, America will continue to fascinate the French - for better or for worse. Writing in Le Monde, columnist Pierre Georges explores this relationship: "One can't spend a half a century, as children of the war, owing them what we owe them and not come out unscathed."

And that's why, as America turns out to vote, the French interest in the elections is anything but tepid.

The tie that binds may at times be tenuous, frustrating and complex - but it's definitely there.

(UPI - November 7, 2000 by Harrier Welty Rochefort)

To French society

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January 2002 - Meeting Sarkozy, the Mayor of Neuilly (Letter From Paris)

As I sat at my desk contemplating signing up for gym or taping my mouth shut after having eaten so much over the holidays, the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a friend of mine who teaches English. She told me she had a great idea. It would be nice, she said, if I would sign a copy of my first book and bring it to the office of the Mayor of Neuilly, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was her latest pupil. It would be a great arrangement for both us ­ she'd get him in touch with one of his constituents and I'd get some publicity for my book. Sure, no problem, I said, and turned up at the appointed time. He didn't, though, and while we waited she told me how when she had started lessons with him a year ago, he could hardly say a thing and that now he was making rapid progress. " He's never late, though, " she said, just as he came rushing in.

 You have to know Neuilly and French politics to appreciate this story. Neuilly is the most affluent suburb of Paris and an excellent springboard for an ambitious politician to make a jump for the presidency. Nicolas Sarkozy, whose father was a Hungarian refugee who, so the story goes, rode into France under, not in, a train, is clearly intending to do so. Meeting the fellow who may be the future President of France was, then, no small matter. Believe me, if he becomes President one day, I won't let him forget our little rendez-vous !

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December 2001 - Christmas in Paris and a French tune for Judith (Letter From Paris)

December could be summed up as hectic and heartwarming.

Hectic. We all know about Christmas shopping and the Christmas rush. It's no different in Paris. Well, it's a tad bit different in that weather-wise we are not favored here with a white Christmas. It's almost always a gray Christmas, sometimes a rainy Christmas, but never a white Christmas with snowflakes gently falling to cover the ground. I'd like to say that all are filled with Christmas cheer but I fear that ­ worldwide ­ everyone is just in one big rush to get the shopping done, the gifts bought, the tree up, and none of these acts are accompanied by any particular manifestations of smiling and good will to all. In fact, to tell the truth, the crowds are mammoth and the traffic terrible. People walked around looking preoccupied and worried. Would they have their gifts bought in time ? And Christmas dinner ! It's the biggest most important dinner of the year, not counting New Year's Eve which is often celebrated in restaurants. But for Christmas dinner families are at home and (other than for the children) the meal is as important as the presents. Oysters on the half shell, smoked salmon, foie gras, turkey or goose with the stuffing, chestnuts, various purées, salad, dessert and all kinds of wine and champagne are on the menu and have to be bought and served in style on this night of nights.

When you're just about to tear your hair out thinking about all there is to do before the big day, you might stroll, as I did, past the displays in the windows of the Galeries Lafayette and watch the children watching the animated Santas. Their innocent delight brings some needed perspective on the holiday hassle.

 So much for the hectic part. I'm always amazed at how calm things get once you forsake the beaten track. One day right before Christmas I drove to a part of the 14th arrondissement right behind Montparnasse where for some odd reason there was nary a soul. I strolled down the street and fell upon a store whose window was tastefully decorated with the most beautiful accessories ­ cases for glasses, pretty little velvet purses, beautiful brooches, gorgeous silk scarves. I entered and spent a wonderful half hour poring over the tasteful merchandise, then wandered next door to stock up on tea at Le Palais des Thés and drove home with the redolent odor of their special cinnamon Christmas brew perfuming my car.

Heartwarming. My husband's son and wife arrived with the newest arrival to the family : Judith Rochefort, age 3 months. Judith brought a dimension to our Christmas we hadn't had since our own children were small. I knew I'd become very French when I took her in my arms and sang a French standard for children : " ainsi font font font les petites marion ettes ainsi font font font trois petits tours et ils s'en vont " complete with hand movements. I also gave her my rendition of " Rock a Bye Baby in the treetop " all the while wondering about that line " and down will go cradle baby and all ". Oh well, it will be years before she can understand it and by then I'll have come up with an explanation.

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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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