Don’t get me wrong — I love America. But I was hooked on France after my first summer study trip. I live there full time now, and my current life includes working days in Paris and country life in nearby Normandy on the weekends. And after many years of assimilation to expat life, I still conjure some vivid impressions of cultural differences.
Cafe Society Culture
The daily rhythm of French life revolves around regular stops at vital neighborhood hubs: your favorite local café-bar-restaurant.
Early morning day-starter: petit déjeuner is un grand crème aka café au lait and a scrumptious flakey croissant.
And ooh-la-la, that smell of hot steam and espresso, blended with Gauloises cigarette smoke (yes, the French still do) and diesel fumes invariably produces a vivid déjà vu, jolting me back to that specific corner café where I refined French conversation skills, instead of going to classes.
Somehow, cafe owners know everyone (and everything), and provide privileged concierge-like services: you can leave your apartment keys for a visiting friend; if your dog escapes, they know where to find him. They have the latest gossip, who’s sleeping with whom and which apartments are soon to be available.
As a backdrop for neighborhood life, non-stop all day and evening, both regulars and new characters come and go: From petit dejuner, lunch (often long and lingering), business meetings, lovers’ rendezvous, an afternoon apéritif, rugby celebrations or little concerts by local musicians. Outdoor tables afford world-class people watching. And flirting — considered a national pastime here — where eye contact often leads to light banter.
The Chic Factor
As for the famous chic-factor of French women, it never fails to evoke primal shopping binge urges and I recede to self-consciousness with one glimpse of a super-chic woman pouting into a jewel-like compact, applying sultry crimson lipstick while showing off well-toned legs (one walks everywhere in Paris) impeccably clad in ultra sheer to the point of almost invisible hosiery and sexy high heels.
The Food (also a national pastime)
Cafés also allow you to observe the mystery of some French who seemingly inhale mounds of crispy French fries and exotic desserts without putting on even an ounce. Food is a national obsession here in the best sense of the word, and frequently, details of last night’s menu is the first topic of morning conversation.
Manners are an issue. Did I forget to mention that the French are highly critical? My friend Marie-France sometimes berates dinner guests, browbeating about the intricate rituals of dining. On salad: “NEVAIR cut lettuce with your knife.” And, “Use knife and fork to remove every morsel of meat from chicken bones.”
Big dining faux pas: sitting down at a table between meal service and expecting coffee-refills.
Lively and well-informed conversation about food and politics tends to dominate table talk, with sports and sex also popular. Especially when flirting, the French stand much closer and look you right in the eyes. They are literally in your face. Maybe this is why the French converse so quietly. But when they lose their temper, expect a booming tirade.
So much more to tell: travel, fashion, beauty-grooming, sex. We’ll save it for next time. Now it’s off to the café.
All books are available at amazon.com. Click on title to learn more.
Parisian Chic Look Book: What Should I Wear Today?
by Ines de la Fressange
Parisian Chic City Guide
by Ines de la Fressange
A Year In The Merde
by Stephen Clarke
A Year in Provence
by Peter Mayle
My Life in France
by Julia Child
A Moveable Feast
by Ernest Hemingway
This Side of Paradise
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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