Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The French: What's Not to Love?

So they have a particular affection for the word "non," and speak to one another with a hostility that would make a mafiosa blush. But, there are still so many things to love about Parisians and the city they call home.

Here are some of my top picks:

Beauty is king, er queen: If Parisian society is devoted to one thing, it's Beauty. They seek it and foster it in their everyday lives and take time to savor it. From Paris' museums, shop windows and immaculate jardins to the way its citizens dress and set a table, the cult of Beauty is everywhere. To truly love Paris requires a devotion to Beauty. Without it, you're just missing the point.

Talk sexy to me: Everyday Parisian banter is filled with sensuous, amorous words and phrases. A woman doesn't just like a new handbag, she falls deeply, madly in love with it and justifies her purchase with a simple phrase, "C'etait un coup de coeur!" I have learned from French friends that almost any action is justified if motivated by a "coup de coeur." After all, who are we to deny the heart what it wants?

The French don't just like a film (or book or concert or vacation spot), they adore it. (Unless, of course, they can't stand it.) Words like seduisant (seductive), douceur (softness), beaute (beauty), tendresse (tenderness), volupte (voluptuousness) and the mother of all Parisian mots -- plaisir (pleasure) -- are sprinkled liberally throughout casual conversation, advertisements and of course, les liaisons amoureuses.   

They are passionate: And I don't mean just in the boudoir. Most French people I know have something in their lives they are truly passionate about. My neighbor loves nothing more than to create hand sewn accessories and home goods. She speaks with contagious passion about her inspiration, her fabrics, her new projects. Whether it's their work or more likely, a favorite pastime, most Parisians are deeply devoted to something that brings them, yes, plaisir.

They are opinionated: Ask any French man or woman for their views on just about anything and you are sure to get a self-assured earful. They are taught from a young age that well formulated and forcefully articulated views are essential. They love to debate, discuss and generally jabber. At a dinner table or outside the ecole maternelle, sharing ideas is what they love most.

They are honest. Brutally honest: When a French person says something, they usually mean it. An invitation to dinner is a real invitation, not just something to toss around in conversation. They can be slow to open up and tough to read, but once they do, they mean it. They are not afraid to disagree and wouldn't think of catering an opinion to your feelings. If a salesperson thinks a dress is unflattering, she'll tell you so. After all, she doesn't care if you buy it or not. In fact, she'd rather lose a sale than let you leave with something pas belle/beau. (See first point).

The food: Obviously. As everyone knows, France is the land of fab cuisine. In fact, you can't fall over in Paris without hitting something delicious. Rich chocolates, fresh bread, buttery pastries, sweet fragile macarons, duck confit, cassoulet...not to mention le fromage. If you don't love food, you won't love Paris.

They celebrate food. They're not just good at creating wonderful cuisine; they are joyful about eating it. If you want to see a Parisian smile, wish him "bon appetit." Or better yet, have a picnic. I have picnicked with my family all over the city and we are always met with encouraging smiles when food is laid out around us. A meal is something to be savored, not rushed and never skipped.

The flower shops: When you purchase flowers in Paris, you will be asked if they are pour offrir (to give as a gift). Your response? Absolument! The florist will cut, arrange and wrap les fleurs so beautifully, even the pickiest Parisienne will be impressed. There's no extra charge for this service, so be sure to say your flowers are pour offrir, even of the lucky recipient is you!

They love a good protest. Parisians have a proud history of taking to the streets. Who hasn't traveled to Paris and been greeted by a strike or manifestation of some kind? While many people find this tradition annoying, I love it. Demonstrating for your beliefs is an empowering act; the French are equally vocal when it comes to fighting for what they want or opposing what they don't. They even have clever, artistic ways of expressing it.

They are romantics. I once watched a young woman on the bus pull a small bottle of perfume (Hermes, bien sur) from her bag. She sprayed a touch behind each ear and carefully placed it back inside a creased white envelope. As she turned the envelope over, I saw the words, "Pour toi..." scrawled across the front. She grinned at the words and tucked the envelope back in her bag. Romantic gestures are big in Paris.

Their health care system. France's national health care system is perhaps the finest in the world. Need to see a doctor any time of day or night? No problem. Appointments can be made within the day or week and if you need to see one urgently, they'll come to your home (for a fee that is mostly reimbursed by national health insurance). Yes, it's expensive -- France spends 11% of GDP on health care (the most in Europe) but somehow spends less per capita than we do in the U.S. Go figure. The French live healthier, longer lives (average life expectancy is 81 years, despite all that smoking) largely thanks to an effective system that emphasizes accessible preventive care.

They were green before anyone had heard of eco chic. Lights in public places are kept on timers. They have long preferred blow dryers or those weird rolled hand cloths to wasteful paper towels in bathrooms. They've been recycling en masse for decades and have always brought their own bags (or carts) to the grocery store. France has also pioneered certain recycling technologies; recyclable waste from the U.K was even processed in France for a time. Their citywide borrow-a-bike program, Velib, was launched in 2007.

They still have shops like this. Walking along the rue du Cherche-Midi recently, I spied this craftsman restoring an antique book. Using tools that looked at least a hundred years old and traditional methods passed down through generations, he delicately inlaid gold leaf into the book's refurbished leather binding. Paris is filled with specialty craftspeople and ateliers devoted to the preservation of the old and creation of the new. Watching him work was in itself a thing of beauty!

And a few more...

1. The cafes. For the price of un cafe or un verre de rouge, you can linger for as long as you like. People-watch, read, write, day-dream -- whatever. You're in Paris. 

2. They are serious about vacation. Six weeks per year is fairly standard. And guess what? They actually take their vacation. Not using one's allotted vacation time is seen not as the hallmark of a devoted employee but of a crazy person who needs to get a life.

3. French men wear scarves, slim cut trousers, velvet blazers and even fur and somehow manage to pull it off.
So he's not French and he's not wearing fur, but he does look pretty cute. (That's my Greg, by the way).
4. There is no such thing as a bad hair day. Just twist those strands into a messy bun and voila! C'est chic. In fact, being overly groomed, blow-dried and, well, clean-looking, is the sure mark of a tourist. (I usually look like a tourist).

5. The hot chocolate. Melt heaping spoonfuls of decadent dark chocolate, mix in just a touch of frothy warm milk, pour into a verre and sip. Simply perfection.

I could go on and on but I'd rather hear from you. What are some things you love about Paris and the French?