Harriet Welty Rochefort’s “French Toast”

When people learn that I have lived in France a little over two decades, the inevitable comment is “then you must have become French.” My spontaneous answer to that comment is “no.” But upon deeper reflection, I have to say that, while in many circumstances the cultural gap is, if anything, only greater, in others I feel that I have indeed become “almost” French.

I have come to accept and love customs that seemed strange to me at first. For example, I thought that you had to invite your husband’s boss to dinner. You’re absolutely not to do so. What a relief! Nor is there pressure to join the PTA, or the church, or anything really.

I love, and am slowly getting used to, planning for a minimum of five weeks vacation a year and sometimes as many as eight. I am still not French, though, in the sense that I haven’t quite got it down to barely finishing one vacation and then immediately planning the next. But I am rapidly getting there. For example, in June I start panicking about what my sons will be doing for their Christmas vacation.

I like the fact that “no” does not mean “no” the way it does in Anglo-Saxon or Germanic countries. “No” invariably means that the person in question does not want to bother. However, if you stand there long enough and wait him or her out, you generally get what you want.

This freedom to do, more or less, what you want has its good and bad sides. Like most foreigners, I take the good for myself and look at the bad as a necessary evil I have to live with. Smoking, for example. The good side is that the French government has decided to do something about smoke in public places and the bad side is that many a smoker is choosing to ignore the no smoking signs and sanctions. In spite of the new no-smoking rules, it will be a long time, if ever, before you can be sure of going into a restaurant and not having some dude breathe smoke into your lungs as you try to enjoy your boeuf bourguignon.

Don’t bring up the sensitive subject of smoking unless you are prepared to argue about it at length. This happened to a friend of mine, who had finally gone out for an evening alone with her husband. At the restaurant, she remarked to the man next to her that she would appreciate it if he wouldn’t smoke his cigar in her face. That touched off a debate, on Americans, puritanism, smoking in general, politeness, that lasted right through the meal, while the man continued to smoke and my friend seethed.

As for fighting, I am far too Anglo-Saxon to actually enjoy a dispute, and I could certainly go without a fight a day to keep me in shape. On the other hand, I have grown to appreciate the fact that you can “have it out” with people without resorting to violence. As my French husband pointed out, verbal fighting is merely jousting, not to be taken too seriously. “It’s no fun to pick fights with Americans,” he says, and adds, with his characteristic Gallic sense of hyperbole: “There’s no intermediate level of aggression. It’s either a big smile and be nice, or pick up a gun.”

When in France, you have to know how to express your emotions, in other words, you have to know how to spend time dealing with others on a confrontational basis. This can be over simple things such as getting cheated on change or having it out with a taxi driver who is free but who is just not in the mood to take you to where you want to go. If you are a self-respecting French person, you get mad. As a phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon, even after twenty years here, I fume inwardly but just can’t manage to externalize it the way the French do so admirably.

One typical day, I was driving down a one-way street and what did I see in front of me but a small white Peugeot whose driver had left the car, with lights flashing, in the middle of the street. When the owner of the Peugeot finally showed up ten minutes later, instead of apologizing for the inconvenience, he deigned to look me in the eye, and asked: “What’s the matter? Are you in a hurry?” I’ll NEVER get used to this cavalier way of treating other human beings, no matter how long I live in this country.

The most extraordinary discovery I have made, after twenty years of living here, is that “being nice” is not high on the list of values. On the contrary, if you are constantly “nice,” you are seen as one big poire (sucker). Hence, since “being nice” is not something people set out to do, getting treated nicely is a totally unpredictable occurrence. As one observer noted, “Americans are nice to people they don’t know yet; the French are nice to the people they know.” That explains why you often see dogs in butcher shops (underneath the sign that says “NO DOGS ALLOWED”) and in restaurants, and smokers all over the place because no one feels any deep obligation to not bother people one does not know. Who cares?

“The French man,” wrote Henry Miller, “protects the vessel which contains the spirit.” Perhaps only the French could have invented the expression for the way they deal with life: ils se défendent. They defend themselves against the unknown, against others. If you get a crowd of French people who don’t know each other, the results can range from excruciating to hilarious. An American friend of mine, who didn’t know any better, threw a big party, composed entirely of French neighbors who didn’t know each other. By the end of the evening, no one had said a word. This basic suspicion of others, which governs social life, is very French, and so, if you live here long enough, you soon learn to be on your guard and defend yourself. Where else but in France could you hear someone remark to a new acquaintance who is getting too familiar “on n’a pas gardé les cochons ensemble” (“We didn’t keep the pigs together”).

Although I said I would never be French, I applied for and was granted French nationality just a few months ago. Why? Because in the end if I’m here it’s because I want to be. (Also, the US government finally gave the green light which allows citizens to have double nationality so you can believe I jumped on that one). So, although I’ll never BE French, I now am the proud possessor of a French passport and a French identity card. From now on, when I criticize or praise the French, one could say that I am criticizing or praising myself as well. But I digress.

In spite of all the things that I appreciate about the French and even the ways in which I myself feel “almost” French, there are still a number of things that daily prove to me that I will never, ever be French.

The French will never get me to abandon my perhaps naive belief that the customer is always right. I’m always shocked when a haughty salesperson drives me out of a store. However, after twenty years of experience, I still don’t know how to deal with this. My French friends do, though.

Language, ironically enough, is another thing that separates me from the French, for in spite of fluency, I am plagued with an accent. And your accent follows you everywhere. For the past twenty years, every time I open my mouth and say more than two words, people ask “are you English or American?” In France, you can have an accent and of course be French (many naturalized French men have accents) but you know in your heart of hearts, that, until the day you speak French without an accent, you can never really be French.

The French have such a thing about their language that they will do perfectly abominable things such as making overt fun of your accent. What I hate the worst are the Instant Imitators. These are the people who hear you say two words and then imitate those two words with your accent, for example, très bien. “Très bien” they parrot with a perfect American accent in French. This may seem hilariously funny to them but I am NOT AMUSED to hear my own accent thrown back in my face.

One evening I was at a dinner with an eminent French doctor who did this for the whole duration of the meal. By the end of it, I was out of my mind with rage and humiliation. On another occasion, I put up with a French man’s horribly accented English without saying a word (I was brought up to be polite) and when his wife joined us and we started speaking French, she started imitating my accent.

Being on the receiving end of that for the past twenty years has put me in a pretty aggressive state and I must admit that when I see it coming I start yelling (in French): “DON’T EVEN START DOING THAT. I WON’T TAKE IT.” It doesn’t make me the most popular person at the party, but at least it makes things clear.

Polite cultivated French people (generally those who speak another language and know the difficulties entailed) say “Oh, I really love an American accent” or, better still, lie: “You hardly have any accent at all.” I LOVE those people.

Accents are a problem unless you speak French with a FRENCH accent. But let’s say that you DO speak perfect French with a French accent. You’ve still got to get down the subtle art of the lingo such as expressing a positive thought in the negative.

Another language difference is the highly developed art of understatement. When you drink a glass of the most wonderful Bordeaux you have ever had in your life, you don’t raise the glass and exclaim “Marvelous!” You sniff it, sip it, and then say, with a considered frown, “Ça se laisse boire” (It’s palatable). The French speak in negatives, rather than positives so rather than saying the weather is nice, they say it is “pas mauvais” (not bad).

If you’re really gifted, you learn to combine understatement with the negative form. For example, the day my son got 19.5 out of 20 on a math test, his teacher wrote “Pas mal” (not bad). You have to be French to understand and appreciate this “second-degree” humor. That is to say that in any case the teacher might have put “Not bad” but since the grade was so good, it was funnier and more creative to put “Not bad” than just “Great.” Get it?

But on to something more subtle still. Even if you have the language down pat, as many people do, accent and all, there is the whole problem of codes. Of all the ways in which I know I’ll never be French, this is the main one. I will never be able either to understand or deliver veiled codes. That art of double talk which the French have to perfection is, for the moment at least, beyond my grasp. For example, you should know that when someone is calling you “cher ami” it doesn’t necessarily mean “dear friend” and could very likely mean “drop dead” depending on the intonation of the speaker and his accompanying facial gestures. “A très bientôt” which literally means “see you very soon” actually means “I hope we never see each other again,” as far as I can figure out. “Ma chère petite dame” (my dear little lady) also means “boy, are you a creep.” All of this, of course, is exquisitely polite.

Then there is the use of the word petit in general. Everything, it would seem, is petit. I, for example, am ma petite Harriet, although I am not exactly what you would call petite by any stretch of the imagination. But unlike cher, petit is generally positive, as in a bon petit vin (a nice little wine).

Nor will I get used to French friendships which go beyond the limits we impose upon ourselves in American friendships. A French friend will tell you that your stockings are the wrong color for your dress; she won’t hesitate to criticize because you are her friend. The implicit agreement I have with my American friends is quite the contrary: you’re my friend so I do everything in my power to make you feel good, and ignore what is not so good.

When a friend of mine was having some real problems, my husband said to me: “Why are you being so nice to her? Why don’t you bawl her out? If she were my friend, I wouldn’t let her keep doing those things.” I had to explain that if I “bawled out” my friend, I wouldn’t have the friend much longer. For him, as for many Frenchmen, you’re not a good friend unless you intervene actively in the other person’s life. I call this overstepping the boundaries: he calls my type of friendship indifferent and tepid.

Negativism. The French really are a rather negative lot. Even when things are going well, they find a way to talk about le mal français (the French sickness). Many books by French men have been written on that mysterious subject. One of the reasons I’ll never be French is that I am convinced that almost everything is possible if you want it badly enough. My immediate reaction is not “no” but “yes” or “why not?” This is definitely not French.

Rules. I’ll never be French because I will never get used to the systematic breaking of rules. I think of the butcher shop where I buy meat. Before me in line was a lady with a little white poodle dressed in a red coat. Behind the cashier’s stand is a sign that says very clearly “our animal friends are forbidden,” and in case no one can read there is a picture of a dog with a big cross painted over it. This, however, does not dissuade people like the lady with the red-coated dog from entering the store. Nor does the owner make a big fuss. After all, rules are made to be broken.

Last but not least, complication… and criticism. As a Dane who has been living in France for almost as long as I have remarked: “I have never in my life seen people who can take the simplest thing and make it so complicated.” Amen!

As for criticism, “in France, criticism is considered the supreme demonstration of intelligence,” wrote high-school principal Marc Guiraut. I personally find that too much criticism, or mean criticism, can be stultifying and negative. But then that is my American point of view.

Okay, so I’m not French and never will be. Even small differences underscore this fact. If I open two windows to create a cross breeze, I am accused of causing a draft. At cocktail parties, I am always backing into plants or the nearest wall because, as an American, I need more space. I still squirm at conversations that take a Rabelaisian turn, and there are plenty of them.

Last but not least I’ll never be French because unfortunately I have never been able to find out the Frenchwoman’s secret for looking sexy even when she’s standing around in old blue jeans and a T-shirt. Is it because the old jeans are just tight enough without being vulgar and the T-shirt has just the right cut? I remember with awe my friend Chantal, who lived next to me in a maid’s room in our student days, as she waltzed up eight flights of stairs in a navy pea jacket she had transformed from a former long coat, with her scarf tied around her hair, just so. She could have stepped out of the pages of Vogue.

Not to mention Sandrine, who, although pushing her middle 50s, is the sexiest woman I know. If you manage to dissect what she has on, you still cannot figure out how she arrived at the total effect, and you certainly would never ask.

So just what is that little je ne sais quoi  that elevates simplicity into style, an art the French have mastered not just in clothing but in almost every detail of life? After almost twenty years, I’m still trying to figure it out.