Don't eat your soup with a fork....
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
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
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
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
(Paris Metro 25 Sept. 1979 by Harriet
Rules of the Game - French
preppies are bons, chics and a genre in demand
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
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.
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
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
Going back home.....
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.
|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.
" 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
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
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
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
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.
Paris Pages, October
2008, by Harriet Welty Rochefort)