lundi 29 septembre 2008

A List of IMPORTANT Ways in which France differs from the US

In France,
1) When you ask for a pint of beer, the server doesn't ask what kind.
2) You can open a lot of cans (like a can of coffee grain, for example) without a can opener, just pull-tab, like a Coke.
3) Instead of turning a knob to open a door, sometimes you pull a lever horizontally.
4) Unlike in the US, there are no electronic flushers in toilets which detect when you're "done." (If you want the thing to flush, you have many options: you can to pull down a chain, pull up on a knob, push in on a button, millions of ways to flush, but all require some kind of effort on your part.)
5) You bag your own groceries.
6) An "entree" is an appetizer/ starter.
7) You can pop open a beer can on the sidewalk.
To be continued...

Essay I drew up 6/2/08 in MA on "French National Character" (a friend had asked me for a description)

My assignment: to describe the French national character. First, it is contradictory; so one point may be true and somehow co-exist with something at an opposite end. But let’s get into the generalizations, which is of course what they are; and therefore, they are generally true. And, as a (legal?) disclaimer, this will be a lot of rambling…

The French like to complain; this is in French called “râler”. The French are “râleurs”—never happy, and always willing to tell you about it. About anything. From small, unimportant things, like how long a line is in the supermarket (“Oh quel bordel! Rien n’est organisé dans ce magasin!”[What a mess! This store is so disorganized!]) to important ones (“Oh quel bordel! Cette guerre en Iraq…!”[What a mess this war in Iraq is]). Americans like to “take it easy,” and “not sweat the small stuff;” they revere people of calm, even temperaments. The French see nothing wrong with screaming, getting impatient, having fights, raising their voices; they’re not averse to extreme demonstrations of emotion. (In fact, they’d probably regard the strong, silent type man which is an American ideal as repressed).

At the same time, politeness is very important to them, as are signs of respect like using the formal “vous” or appropriate titles (Every French client I have calls me Maître, the title for a lawyer, no matter how long I have been working with them). For example, when you enter a bakery, you’ll have this exchange (the same as everyone else!) “Bonjour madame.” “Bonjour mademoiselle/monsieur.” [You would not ask “How are you today?”] “Comment pourrais-je vous aider?” “Une baguette s’il vous plaît.” “Très bien mademoiselle, vous desirez autre chose?” “Non merci madame.” “Merci mademoiselle/monsieur. Bonne journee a vous.” “Merci madame. Bonne journee a vous aussi.” France is (I think) where the formal pronoun has remained in use more frequently than in other countries. In Spain for instance, usted is used only very occasionally, to elderly people, but not to a strange shopkeeper. Addressing a French shopkeeper with “tu” would infuriate him (In fact, I made the mistake of doing this once, and the clerk replied irascibly “Who do you think you are addressing me that way? Pour qui vous prenez-vous? So the quick, hot temper is always there lingering… The French President recently was smiling, shaking hands to members of a crowd when somebody said something critical of him and Pres. Sarkozy’s expression changed in a matter of a second and he yelled at the man “Pauvre con! (You stupid idiot!)” When interviewed by 60 Minutes, everything was all fine and dandy until Leslie Stahl pressed Sarkozy about his personal life; he ripped off the microphones and said “J’en ai assez de ça! J’ai autres choses a faire! (Enough of this shit. I have better things to do.) This is kind of the equivalent of the “Dean Scream” – losing control of your temper, which is very looked down upon in the United States, both in personal life (anger management is big here) as in public life, and can, as in the case of Howard Dean, mean the death of presidential possibilities.

Another point (and by the way, these are in no particular order) is that, for the French, oftentimes there is only one way of doing things, one method. Phrases used very often are “Ça ne se fait pas comme ça. Il faut… Il ne faut pas… On ne fait pas… On doit… On ne doit pas…” [That’s not the right way to do it; one must; one must not; one does not do this; one does not do that…] For example, there is, for the French, one right way to cut certain parts of a cow. A Frenchman in an American supermarket one time said “What is the butcher doing? I’ve never seen such craziness! On ne coupe pas le boeuf comme ça. [Beef cannot be cut like that.] These rules are spoken in Absolutes and treated like doctrine. There are many rules in French society, especially around food, around culture. You must have learned by heart certain poems or songs by a certain age. You can never eat bread with another starch (rice/ pasta). Children must have a daily snack at 4 p.m. Families must eat dinner together at 8 p.m. You never eat salad before a meal. The list can go on and on. Then there are the things that, while not necessary, are close to required. You must eat yogurt, fresh fruit (and a comment will inevitably be made on how ripe/sweet/good it is), cheese (and inevitably a comment must be made on its smell, taste) after your main course. I don’t believe there exists a vegetarian in France! You sit when you eat; you do not eat while talking on a cell phone or walking in the street. You take at least an hour, more like an hour and a half for lunch, and it must be balanced: typical lunch fare at a business cafeteria will be a small piece of pâté to start, beef stew with potatoes and carrots in a wine sauce for the entrée, and some yogurt and/or salad and/or a small desert to finish. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a glass of wine with lunch with colleagues and colleagues eat together during the lunch break (the main meal) and talk during the hour. Then, they have an espresso. There are things you must know, a certain “connaissance” and “culture” that one should have, that makes French people feel very guilty because it’s impossibly high to live up to. The rules and rigidity around education and culture go back to the French tradition of grandeur: their sincere belief that they are in some ways the most civilized people ever (those that have written the greatest literature, have built the most beautiful architecture, designed beautiful clothes, taught the world about food, etc… this is la grandeur française dating back to Louis XIV whose court all countries wanted to imitate). This is why in France people vandalized McDonald’s all over the country, believing that they were protecting French culture, against what they called “mal’bouf” (gross grub), a literal and figurative imposition of American culture. The French believe in making their cities and villages beautiful; Parisian buildings cannot surpass a certain height (no matter how much money developers and the city would make from it). Flower beds are planted in center squares and well-kept each season. Every day, pastry is made according to strict guidelines and laid out for the pleasure of the customers to view. New sculptures by acclaimed architects/artists are erected, and keeping the city beautiful is always a big part of any mayor’s platform. The French care about urban planning decisions (A huge debate, in the late 1980s/ early 1990s, which divided families erupted over whether Pres. Mitterand should erect I.M. Pei’s pyramid in the famous Louvre Pavilion).

So, this is why the French just cannot accept so many ways of American life. They cannot believe that school children do not recite poetry in elementary school, that they do not learn philosophy in high school, that they eat meals alone in a bedroom (a table is the only place where one should eat) rather than together with family/friends, that they would decide to build a building in a city based on how expensive the building is, not whether it is beautiful or symmetrical with the city’s proportions. They have very high standards and rigid beliefs about what “counts” as cheese (cheddar will not pass!), wine, a sauce to accompany a platter, what is a beautiful city, a well-designed building or well-decorated home.

The Frenchman idolizes the intellectual, not the businessman. The vast vast majority of French presidents have been public intellectuals (great writers, people who attended crème de la crème institutions and had vast knowledge of poetry, history, etc). The French are uncomfortable with money. They are not particularly interested in making a lot of it, and mock those who flaunt it. They’re not, in general, very materialistic, not into buying fancy cars, or showing off flashy symbols of wealth (They think this is tacky.) In general, they’re not entrepreneurial (a recent survey of French youth said a majority aspires to work as bureaucrats in some capacity in the French government)—This also has to do with the security that this type of job provides in an unsteady economy. But in general, culture is very important to the French, reading novels, talking about history.

Heavy emphasis is placed on diplomas and where people graduate from dictates their future to a large extent. At 18, you’ve made it; you’re life is complete and you really don’t need to do much more to prove yourself if you are accepted to the bastion of French intellectualism (L’Ecole Normale Superieure, where Sartre, de Beauvoir and many others went)… There are equivalents in government and science, again getting back to the rigidity aspect. If at 26 you come into your own, and begin showing great talent or spirit in a certain domain but lack the proper diploma, you will be hard-pressed to find a job in that arena. That is where American life differs tremendously: Americans judge people by their results, their product, their drive, their ambition, and give them a chance even if they don’t have the “right” diploma.

That being said, the French love life’s pleasures: low and high—sexual pleasure, the pleasure of the company of others, of intellectual discussion, of wine, food, travel, music, theater, art, laughter, wit, family, reading, political conversation, hiking, exploring nature. As clichéd as it sounds, they always make time to live, to “take the time to smell the roses.” In France, people say that the Germans live to work, while the French work to live. The French will tell you “Ici, en France, la vie est douce. They think of living as an art which must be learned, practiced and mastered.

Also, the French are known for being romantics for a reason. It has been a tradition since the middle ages to court a woman (beginning with the “Roman de la Rose”), with poetry, flowers, little gifts, compliments, to treat her beauty as sacred, to honor the female, to persuade her to feel emotion and sentiment. The French say “L’homme propose; la femme dispose” [The man proposes; the woman agrees]. Romance, love between two people (whether married or not) is for the French the best that life has to offer, and life to their thinking is poor without it.

To go along with this, the French don’t like moral restrictions. Infidelity isn’t particularly frowned upon (“Ça fait partie de la vie” [It’s a part of life] would probably be the response). They don’t want to be told that cigarettes are bad for their health, or that drinking causes liver cancer (My great uncle, who just passed away at 87, who enjoyed his pastis/ win/ gin used to say “We have to die of something, it might as well be of something we enjoy.” And President de Gaulle said “Americans commit the same sins we do, but at least we enjoy them.” That said, they are not very excessive drinkers, eaters, partiers… At 4 a.m., Paris, unlike Madrid or even New York, is asleep. There is alcoholism like everywhere else, but drinking is hardly ever the goal of a party. Typical socializing happens in small groups of friends around dinner, and involves conversations for many hours.

The French are very opinionated and independent. Where an Italian might say “Ah! Uguale!” (It doesn’t matter, either way, whatever…) A French person will debate to the hills, argue a point, political, literary, what have you, he will have something to say. With that comes a bit of a contrarian spirit, so if the whole world is Americanizing, it’s probably not something they’re going to support. They have very clear, strong opinions on most any subject you put before them.

They are contemplative, curious—It is said that “The French are thinkers; the Americans doers.” They travel often, to exotic places, and bring detailed guides to learn about the place’s history and traditions, commenting on the people, the architecture, and appreciating the visit to other parts of the world, but, of course, complaining about the foodJ. They are pessimistic (no “can do!” “Go for it!” “You’re the best!” mentality/ more of a glass half-empty mentality). They are doubters, questioners, and this makes them anxious, depressed, lacking inner peace and complacency as a people. (That’s probably why Woody Allen has always been hugely popular in France while Americans find him annoying). Again, President de Gaulle once said “Le bonheur c’est pour les cons [Happiness is for stupid people]” while Jefferson wrote in our Declaration of Independence that our national goal would be to pursue happiness.

They look more towards the past than to the future, to regrets, missed opportunities (lost or impossible love between lovers or even between parent and child is a common theme in French song). If you tell them you are sad about something, they will indulge you in your nostalgia or your melancholy, allowing you the right to be sad (An American would probably try to lift your spirits, or give advice on how to improve your situation); Simone de Beauvoir said Americans had almost made sadness illegal or taboo! The French are very analytical and critical (what they call “l’esprit critique”) of everything, for example, government services, so for example, they are considered to have the best health care system in the world, but you’ll regularly hear French people complain that they have to pay even a miniscule co-pay.

They depend heavily on the government, and expect the government to serve them, to protect them, almost like children. This, I think, distinguishes them the most from Americans. Rather than a situation being an individual’s fault, taking personal responsibility, that American tradition of personal accountability, of the yeoman farmer, doesn’t exist in France. Like teenagers would if parents take away allowance, they rebel in the streets in throngs if the government tries to make even a minute change in social protection like raising the price of higher education from 400€ yearly to 450€ (a small sum). A very strange relationship to authority indeed. They mistrust their bosses, always demanding more union protection. Ironically by demanding more protection from the state, they make themselves victims, with no power, which gives them less liberty than Americans, in my opinion (Tho’ a sick person in France would never die because he didn’t have health insurance, so the American in that case doesn’t have much liberty either…).

So that’s my take. Much more to say, but this is enough for now. Needless to say, in the end, it’s a country I love deeply and which never fails to entrance, enchant and seduce.

Quotes from "La Gouvernante francaise" by Henri Troyat (Academie Francaise)

I'm too lazy to translate them for now, so you will have to do the work.

Novel about a French woman who is a governess in a bourgeois Russian family at the start of the Revolution (1917).

"Sans doute ai-je une trop haute opinion de l'harmonie dans un couple pour accepter l'a-peu-pres conjugal."

"Plus on sait de vers par coeur, plus on est heureux dans la vie. C'est une musique qui vous accompagne dans la solitude, une consolation de tous les instants..."

jeudi 25 septembre 2008

"La Gitane" Restaurant in 15eme is da bomb!

Seared liver, stewed kidneys, and escargots all in typical small (no elbow room) type restaurant wins my gold star:)!

La Gitane restaurant in the 15th arr. in Paris.

mardi 23 septembre 2008

A Democrat (Obama, of course) Pulls Punches Against Republicans (Finally!)

In this clip, Obama uses a winning strategy: strongly slamming McCain on the economy.

dimanche 21 septembre 2008

"Les Bienveillantes" - Commentary and Link to Discussion Forum

It's very gory (at least the first 100+ pages) - Also according to this wikipedia article ( , a "little" about Littell : He's of Jewish extraction but doesn't identify very much w/ Judaism (In fact he criticizes the politics of Israel). What interested him more than the Holocaust in particular was the topic of mass executions and genocides in general - He did humanitarian work after college in Bosnia - He got his degree from Yale, after spending most of his life in France, getting the bac in France.Apparently he wrote the novel in under 120 days after a few years of extensive research.

If you want to listen to a discussion where he is featured (you'll see that he speaks perfect French, and has some interesting things to say), you can click on this "Diffusion des savoirs de l'Ecole normale superieure" (The discussion is hosted by Ecole Normale Superieure) - you have to click "telecharger" and then wait for it to load - Littell starts speaking about his book about 1 hour in, so just scroll the little button over if you want to skip over Julia Kristeva's introduction (which is boring and tedious in any case)...

You can see him talk about the book - The guy is pretty bold-- he says at the ENS, with regard to genocidal murderers (of which the protagonist of his book is one), that nothing physically distingues us (that is, civilians) from them, "On est tous comme les bourreaux. On chient, on baisent, on mangent, on pissent, on respirent. On vit tous dans un corps qui ne suit pas les desirs de nos cerveaux."

jeudi 18 septembre 2008

Chris Rock on Black & White C-Students

"America is a nation in the middle - a nation of B and C students. But let's get real: a black C-student can't run no fuckin' company, ... a black C-student can't even be manager of McDonald's! Meanwhile a white C-student just happens to be the President of the United States of America."

Hilarious Chris Rock on War on Terror, etc.

"Celebrity News is a trick to get your mind off the war [...] I think Bush sent that girl to Kobe's room; Bush sent that little boy to Michael Jackson's house; Bush killed Lacy Petersen; Bush was fucking Paris Hilton in that video,... all to get your mind off the war!"

"Bush lied, ... we have to go to Iraq because they are the most dangerous regime in the world. If they are so dangerous, why'd it only take 2 weeks to take over the whole f'in country, shit! You couldn't take over Baltimore in 2 weeks!"

"No decent person is one thing. I got some shit I'm conservative about; I got some shit I'm liberal about. Crime I'm conversative. Prostitution I'm liberal!"

"I ain't scared of Al Qaeda, shit I'm from Brooklyn[...] Did Al Qaeda blow up the building in Oklahoma? No! Did Al Qaeda put Anthrax in your mail? No! I ain't scared of Al Qaeda... I'm scared of Al Cracker!"