Cultural Differences Abound

Written by kvfawcett on June 22, 2010 – 10:30 am -

After living in another country for years, people tend to lose touch with what’s really happening at ‘home,’ no matter how tuned in they think they are to what’s current and what’s not.

I was taken aback by an article that recently appeared in the New York Times, still considered the paper of record in the U.S.  After reading Etiquette in New York City, I found myself having to do a reality check.  Have I missed something by living in France so long?

There’s no question I’ve lost some language fluency because I’m continually surprised by how frequently expressions, such as “How great is that?” are sentence structures I’ve never heard. Is it correct English?  I’d guess not, but evidently a question can be a declarative statement.  Excuse me?

No wonder foreigners doing business in France tend to be baffled. They encounter an entirely different set of do’s and dont’s. Until a few years ago, it was considered impolite to conduct businss at lunch. People toasted the signing of a ‘deal’ with good food, bottles of good wine and perhaps, a cigar. Few French are drinking much wine at lunch and forget lingering over cigars since it’s illegal to smoke in France in enclosed spaces.

It’s been years since I’ve wondered how and where people chew gum, mainly because it’s done so infrequently in France. There must be gum chewers since it’s for sale, but not in 122 flavors, shapes and sizes. The French may smoke (and yes, the numbers are edging up), but I rarely see many actually chewing gum—unless they’re desperate to stop smoking. In all of my years in France, I can’t recall anyone popping bubble gum.

I know some must chew gum, because on rare occasions, it’s been stuck to the sole of a shoe. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. Even though most dog owners really do observe the clean up after your pooch rule, if I step into anything, it’s invariably—well, gum doesn’t come in that color.

The Times article also discussed appropriate decorum when it comes to questioning over-30-year-old couples, if they plan to have children. In France, that’s the type of question you don’t ask unless you’re a very best friend or a mother or mother-in-law who’s looking for trouble.

In Europe, one learns not to question marital status and certainly doesn’t pry into something as intimate as a person’s breeding habits.  Thank you very much, but people simply don’t go there, anymore than they ask how much a colleague makes. They may surmise or even know, but salaries among executives are rarely lunchtime conversation.

Other differences in protocol: people shake hands in France, and it’s not up to either the man or the woman to initiate the action. When I go across the street to the café to grab a coffee, the barman and I shake hands.  Who opens the door for whom isn’t necessarily a feminist matter or a crime against women. I open doors for women who are older than I. Ditto for men if they appear either frail, weak, or are carrying bundles of groceries.

Robin Worrall, who lives in Copenhagen and was raised in the open doors for women school of manners, admits he had to get used Danish customs. “Perhaps some Danish women have come to believe that having the door opened for them somehow implies they’re being thrown back into the mire of inequality by having a man behave in this ‘old fashioned way’ … or perhaps they’re just saying ‘hey guys we can open the door ourselves thanks’. Either way because the picture is rather confused, Danish men (mostly) appear to have given up on the courtesy front. On the other hand, a Brit in Denmark can still get away with opening the odd door or two … and get a smile for his trouble!”

The gate to the building where I live in Paris is so heavy that anyone who opens it more than twice a day doesn’t need to go to the gym. All of the residents open it for other inhabitants and it has nothing to do with whether or not you’re polite.  It’s more about brute strength.

When it comes to who exits elevators first, few Parisians who live in old buildings have much choice. Elevators are miniscule, so who gets in last, exits first. If not, people may live and die together or be squished to death in the process.  The hell with gallantry. It’s called survival.

As polite as the French may be most of the time, Métro or subway etiquette appears to be universal. Who wants to be stuck in a car that pulls out of the station where they want to exit? People do push and then push some more.

“Je veux sortir, s’il vous plaît,” is invariably replaced by “Je pars,” forcefully said. People want out when they want out and who cares if neighbors are pushed in the process?

I was raised reading the © 1955 version of my mother’s bible, “Emily Post’s Etiquette” (it’s very much the worse for wear) and learned all of the must-do’s and don’ts. Then I proceeded to break most of the sacred rules. Come to think of it, I did the same thing when I moved to France. Manners are very important – but manner dictums do change.

The longer I live in France and the more I travel, the more I understand about other cultures. Conversely, I’m always a bit confused. But, there’s one thing that’s certain: cultural mores are an endless source of fascination. The puzzle is never precisely solved.  And that’s OK.  It makes life more interesting.  Please feel free to chime in as to what you perceive to be correct etiquette and what’s not.

© Paris New Media, LLC

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Posted in Around the World, Paris |

Do as the French do… or not?

Written by kvfawcett on June 22, 2010 – 10:23 am -

The French government has declared war on alcoholism, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with drinking wine. Nor is the campaign targeting the group that begins imbibing before the noonday sun shines and continues drinking throughout the day. It’s really not focusing on the group sitting in cafes à la Peter Mayle’s books, most especially “A Year in Provence” that motivated so many to move to that part of France. Mais oui, what’s wrong with having a Pastis after finishing your morning shopping? Nothing if you don’t have to work or drive and do so moderately.

France’s stop-drinking campaign is aimed at teenagers, an increasing and alarming number of whom are binge drinkers.

Their alcohol of choice is hard liquor, often gin, vodka, calvados, or something that can be masked with mixers.  After three, four, or more drinks, teens find themselves on the floor wondering what they’re doing and where.  Or, they know and drink to get drunk. Are you surprised since France is a country where many children grow up drinking watered-down wine when dining with their parents?

The French government has banned gas stations from selling alcohol, and clamped down on clubs, where the entrance fee gives people carte blanche to drink until their faces fall off. Too many were abusing the privilege, and many claim that French teens were becoming more like those in Nordic countries where heavy drinking is more the norm.

A study of French 16-year-old teens that was released two years ago reported that drinking is on a rapid rise. According to the French Monitoring Center on Drugs and Addiction, one in five boys and one in ten girls admitted to having ten drinking episodes each month. If that’s what teens will admit to drinking, you’re pretty secure in surmising the statistics are under-reported.

Yes, there are random Breathalyzer tests. But all too frequently, the right ( or maybe that should be “wrong”) people aren’t stopped. Or it’s too late and crashing into another car or an inanimate object may stop them. Parents hope there will be a designated driver. Still, overdoing drinking doesn’t foster good behavior or healthy liver function.

By no means is France alone in fighting this battle of the binge drinker. However, it has a different idea as to how to combat the problem. A government commissioned report is advising that university students attend wine tasting sessions so they can learn about drinking in moderation, an undeniably French solution to the problem.

A committee is advising that conducting wine tastings during lunchtime would enable students to learn about wine. Jean-Robert Pitte, a former director of Paris’s Sorbonne says, “Hopefully, this would lessen the Friday and Saturday night freak-outs that are occurring with greater frequency.”

Jean-Pierre Coffe, a television anchor says, “Universities should give young people an education in wine as well as in academia,” questioning why there’s sex education in schools but none about wine. Not everyone is happy with this suggestion and some feel that it’s a ploy on the part of the wine industry and students shouldn’t be drinking at lunchtime.

Even though there’s a movement to raise the drinking age to 18 in the E.U., the reality is many teens begin at a far earlier age. Alcoholism has become a serious problem and rarely (if ever) does anything good happen after someone has had too much to drink and especially if they drink and drive.

People are fully aware that kids in the U.S. are known to drink—and how.  Since the legal age for drinking everywhere in the States is 21, teens need to persuade older friends to buy liquor for them or use a fake ID, available everywhere for very little money.

Restaurants and stores that sell alcohol to underage buyers can lose their licenses, and you’ll see people (who are clearly over 21) being carded and are serious when it comes to not allowing underage people to drink, even if they’re with parents.

In addition, if an establishment serves someone alcohol and he or she ends up causing an auto accident, the establishment’s owner is legally responsible and can be prosecuted for serving the driver too much: ergo, the last drink that caused the client to go over his or her alcohol limit. Many bar owners and restaurateurs claim this isn’t fair since people may look as if they haven’t been drinking when they arrive in the restaurant when they clearly have, and all it takes is another drink and boom, they’re so drunk that they’re menaces to themselves and others – most especially if they climb behind the wheel of a car.

You can’t help but wonder whether or not binge drinking is a function of age and simply a sign of the times.  It used to be that beer was traditionally the drink of choice among teens where they’d get ‘pissed.’ That was bad enough and can certainly have the same effect. But teens drinking hard liquor, with the main intent of getting drunk and consequently losing control. is causing many adults to think and think hard. Some claim it’s a phase. Others say teens are boozing it up to mask the pain of the fact that life is more difficult in this day and age and their getting jobs isn’t by any means guaranteed.

When you think about it, teens drinking too much is nothing that’s new. How many young adults, in developed countries, haven’t been exposed to too much temptation in the “let’s drink” department? And it’s more difficult for teens not to succumb to peer pressure.

But who guessed the French would be passing legislation to curb drinking to excess. It’s all to the good but hey…..

If you have children, or grandchildren, who are drinking to excess, how are you and your community dealing with the problem? It’s real and not going to be swept under the rug.

© Paris New Media, LLC

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Up in the Air

Written by admin on June 16, 2010 – 11:56 am -

If you’ve been wondering what’s it’s been like, George Clooney had an easy time when it came to being a road warrior.

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. George Clooney had a great time—believe me. He wasn’t trying to fly his way around volcanic ash or sleep on a cot in an airport for six days. Airport hotels? Heaven on earth given the alternatives.

Goorge Clooney could watch TV in his hotel room or the bar without being bewildered and depressed by cancellation notices, dire forecasts, and overflowing toilets. Nor did he have to deal with people sleeping everywhere or children crying. His life was good—or kinda.

Not wanting to miss the drama, I managed to arrive in Washington, DC in time for my granddaughter’s seventh birthday on the 24th. My flight wasn’t impacted in the same way as people who couldn’t take off last week and until Wednesday of this week. That’s when the airports officially opened in most of the E.U., even though flights were departing from some parts of Europe, depending on the day and the hour.

Please don’t think I’m making light of a dreadful situation. Rest  assured most people have concerns over the impact of volcanoes and climate change. But after all, volcanoes are natural and happen—honest—every day; they just tend to be smaller and politer. In any case, let’s hope we’ll never experience this type of travel disruption again.

Not only were the lives of passengers and flight crews disrupted, but planes weren’t where they were supposed to be. When the skies were declared safe, many flights were cancelled because there simply weren’t aircraft to transport people from here to there.

Robin Worrall, who writes special reports for The Danish Centre for Energy Savings in Copenhagen, was heading to Washington, DC. His initial flight from Denmark to London was cancelled. Luckily he was able to get a connection and made the first scheduled United flight to leave the U.K. on Thursday the 22nd, just when the ban was lifted.

Worrall admits to feeling a wee bit guilty, as well as lucky, as the plane departed, because he’d had a reservation on that specific flight. People who’d been stranded since the time Heathrow closed on the 14th surrounded him.

The flight attendants were in excellent spirits since many of them were returning home. They welcomed everyone as the passengers were boarding. Some commented about how expensive London was compared to the U.S. At least their housing was covered during the paid but unwanted furlough. That wasn’t the case for many others who had no option but to wait it out. No matter what was the reason for their trips, it was as if people had been handed “get-out-of-jail and pass-go-collect-$200” cards.

Before the DC-bound flight took off, the captain assured everyone that United wasn’t taking any chances. Off they went and after a few minutes, everyone clapped. The French aboard naturally shrugged and said, C’est normal. You’d think the plane would have had every seat filled, but much to Worrall’s surprise, there were two empty ones next to him in the Economy Plus section of the cabin. “I was lucky in every way,” he said. “The flight over was pleasant and we landed only eleven minutes late.”

Bonjour Paris’s events‘ editor Lisa Buros didn’t have the same luck. She and her fiancé were headed to the U.S. for their dream wedding, only to have to call it off because the guests would have arrived in time, but they wouldn’t, since their flights from London were cancelled and cancelled again.

Lisa adopted a stiff-upper-lip British attitude and has rescheduled the event. “We’re going to have a hurricane wedding in Las Vegas and do anything we please.” she said. The pair can’t wait to be surrounded by family and friends. Gee, this type of agony might have split some couples up. But I suspect this one will be dining out on this story for many years. And then some. No doubt the grandkids will roll their eyes.

As for me, I managed to make it to my granddaughter’s birthday and on time. But, I would have flown half way around the world to do so—and darn near did.

Please post your stories if you were inconvenienced by the volcano or were waiting for anyone who was. Let’s hope this will be the one and only occasion you’ll have the opportunity to rant this way.

If you were the recipient of an act of kindness while stranded, please share that as well. We’ve been hearing those stories too. Someone was musing as to whether or not there will be romances (even weddings) resulting from chance meetings in airports.

© Paris New Media, LLC

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Life in Close Quarters

Written by admin on June 16, 2010 – 11:52 am -

It’s become a growing trend. Rather than being cramped in a hotel room, an increasing number people are opting to rent apartments when they come to Paris or cities. They may be on vacation, but even business travelers are going the rental route if they’re going to be in the city for more than a few days.

When Americans rent Paris apartments, invariably they’ll echo the same refrain. They wonder how people can live in such tight quarters. Many rental apartments are in the 40-50 square-meter range; multiply by 11 for the number of square feet.

Besides a living/dining area combination, a kitchen and a bedroom, there’s usually only one WC (toilet) and one bath (a tub and/or a shower) plus a sink.

Sound good? You bet. This size apartment isn’t terribly unusual if you want to stay in central Paris. But the agent or ad states the apartment is large enough to accommodate four people. Few Europeans flinch nor will people on a very tight budget.

Americans tend to have different expectations, unless they’ve sailed together in an under-30 foot boat and have experienced truly close quarters. People from the U.S. expect to be able to spread out unless it’s a family of four or very good friends—and then, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice had a king-size bed.

Well, hello, and welcome abroad! The American way of life including living in big houses or large apartments isn’t the norm. City dwellers in many parts of the world don’t have excess space to burn. But here’s the bottom line: A week or two spent living in what seems to be half the space or less than you need can be an illuminating moment. I can’t predict that you will shout Hallelujah or just Eureka, but you might learn something about how to live.

This idea is already taking hold in the States. I don’t know how many magazine articles I’ve seen recently about how to adapt to small quarters and live with less and more efficiently. Then there are the television shows that focus on downsizing, and designers and space planners engineering small spaces so they fit their clients’ lifestyles. With the advent of the green movement, many groups are advocating that people should downsize in order to conserve resources.

Okay. Now, the French have traditionally been energy conscious because of the high cost of electricity. As an American, I applaud this and turn lights off and the heat and air conditioning down no matter where I am. It’s become such a habit that I turn out lights even in hotels where utilities aren’t the issue. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t.

They utilize space very differently even in other rich countries. Few people have enormous family rooms with media centers plus workout equipment discreetly tucked into a corner. People tend to buy less because closet and storage space is at a premium.

Many people in the U.S. are spoiled. I count myself among them. But the idea of having a big house for which to care has become increasingly less appealing. Having had those pleasures and responsibilities in both France and in the U.S., it’s no piece of cake, and for the few times a year guests want to stay (and vice-versa), booking a room in a nearby hotel is more sensible.

When someone shows me their château or mansion, heating bills and maintenance costs immediately shoot through my mind. The next question is who is going to clean the digs? It’s amazing how some people don’t appear to factor in that someone is going to need to be responsible for cleaning the premises or, perhaps as I did, work at full gallop in order to pay a housekeeper and a gardener or two.

How many people spend their weekends and time when they’re not at work pushing vacuum cleaners and scrubbing floors? If they have children, their time is spoken for. Sadly, most children aren’t into being neat or mopping floors.

If you live in a small apartment, there are so many ways to maximize space. If the ceilings are high enough (which many are in France if the building is more than 100 years old), you might add a mezzanine. Even though built-in furniture can be expensive, IKEA and other stores lessen the cost. Even if you don’t buy a thing, purchase a catalogue and use it as a textbook in addition to providing inspiration as to how to utilize every inch.

Europeans might partition rooms by using screens to separate space or have beds that go up and down on a hydraulic lift. In addition, having furniture that’s moveable can allow flexibility when entertaining. Consider sectional seating that can be shifted, and thank goodness for mirrors that make spaces look larger.

But please, whatever you do, if you’re coming to Paris, please don’t send an email complaining about the size of your rental apartment. If you’re space driven, ask the owner or the agent for the precise number of square feet (or meters) of your temporary home and go (and pay for) bigger. Or, hey, you might consider renting a suite at The Meurice.

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Some People May Think the French Are Rude But…

Written by kvfawcett on June 10, 2010 – 11:53 am -

Some people may think the French are rude. But they certainly aren’t Bonjour Paris readers. Nor did the readers of last week’s article here and in the blogosphere of social networking. There’s no way everyone can be a Francophile.

Our email box looked as if we were offering a free trip to Paris that included two first class air tickets, ten days at the The Marriott on the Champs Elysees and breakfast, lunch and dinner at two- and three-star-rated Michelin restaurants.

Each comment was read and re-read. To be honest, they supply inspiration and serve as an incentive for all of our contributors. We’re conveying the message that the French aren’t rude. Or if they are, it’s a lapse and the exception rather than the norm.

Frequently repeated comments:

It makes an enormous difference if visitors attempt to speak some French—even if their accents are terrible. No one should assume the French speak English, but you should be able to say Bonjour, merci and s’il vous plaît.

If you treat people with courtesy, they’ll respond in the same way. Don’t think if you raise your voice, the French will be charmed. They won’t be and you’ll have a harder time dealing with them. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

Visitors should have the courtesy of familiarizing themselves with the cultural differences between their native country and France. Don’t expect things to be identical to what you experience at home. If that’s what you’re looking for, don’t bother making the trip.

Gwyn Ganjeau said, “I think many Americans go to France and expect the French to be the same as us—but with an accent. But there are significant cultural differences. Reading about those before my first trip was like receiving the secret code. I learned there were so many ways I could have inadvertently been considered a stereotypical ‘rude American.’”

Another person commented that as a former New York City resident, she’s found Parisians not to be any different from other big-city residents.

Some observations:

Amy Gruber commented, “I think Parisians are delightful. Let me give you one of example from my six-week-long stay in Paris last year when I didn’t meet one rude Parisian. One morning, I was waiting outside of a shop, which was late opening. A woman arrived and we began talking. The owner’s phone number was written on the door and the woman phoned her to let her know clients were waiting.

“Then, she asked me what I was looking for. When I told her what it was, she said she had seen something similar at a nearby store. She couldn’t remember its name and asked me to wait a few minutes. Ten minutes later, she returned with the card. Did she have to do that? Not at all.”

William Cover posted that they’d rented an apartment near the rue Montorgueil. Each time they would purchase something from the merchants, they attempted to speak a bit more French. “A small gift of a rose or flowering plant was also a big hit with our favorite vendors. A young girl sales clerk at Stohrer’s, with whom we became friends, spoke some English. She appreciated our trying to speak French. If we passed by, she would say ‘Coucou!’ and wave. When it was time to leave she used her fingers to signify tears going down her cheeks. That was followed by a big hug. We exchanged email addresses and she always writes, ‘Miss you! Kiss Kiss!’”

There were so many additional comments, many having to do with political differences, the Americanization (rather than globalization) of France and other perceptions as well as misconceptions. The reality is that people everywhere have the right to, and do, disagree.  I so wish people would travel more so they could experience people on their home territory and acquire first-hand knowledge of different customs.

Bonjour Paris’s Margaret Kemp, who writes each week for the site, said she believes as most food lovers do, that many of the world’s ills could be solved by sharing a meal together, adding that “French cuisine is alive and well and showcased in every corner of the globe.” Perhaps food could be the common denominator.

There were so many thought-provoking comments….  to be continued

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Are The French Rude?

Written by admin on June 6, 2010 – 5:23 pm -

For years I’ve been denying the French are rude. People simply don’t understand cultural differences. Tourists who come to France should remember they’re guests. It’s their responsibility to learn about French culture and mores, before making grand pronouncements that they’re not well treated as soon as they land on Gallic soil.

There have been times I’ve nearly waged battle over what I believe to be massive misperceptions. Some people assume I’m a representative of the French Government’s tourist office since my mantra has been: smile, shake hands, say “bonjour” and “merci” and don’t assume your being here and spending money entitles you to jump to the front of the line.

The analogy I’ve made is Parisians tend to be like people who live and work in Manhattan and don’t necessarily make nice-nice to strangers—you know, the ones who look lost and ask for directions, in a foreign language no less, about how to travel from the lower East Side to the upper West Side without changing subway lines.

Imagine my upset when the results of a telephone poll conducted by the CSA (France’s Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel) of 1000 French adults, who live outside of Paris, were made public.

The findings were devastating. But there had to be a reason. It was a sample of those who were willing to take the time to answer the questions, undoubtedly because others were too busy. How many times have you said no to a telemarketer or a survey-taker because you had other things on your plate—like dinner? I’m skeptical of the results, but here they are:

Parisians were found to be: arrogant, aggressive, snobbish, flirtatious, chauvinistic, feel they’re superior to people who live outside of Paris, and—dig this, Lotharios who hang out on the Champs-Élysées picking up women. It didn’t mention whether or not women were guilty of picking up men.

Thank goodness, “Marianne,” a political magazine ran an editorial alongside these findings. It was quick to say Parisians are under substantially more stress than people who live in other parts of France. Many have longer commutes to their jobs, work longer hours and, if the truth be told, they tend to be unpleasant to one another.

In addition, Parisians may have tourist fatigue since the city is a major tourist destination. Among the French, people from Brittany frequent Paris more than people from other parts of the country.

In spite of the fact that I constantly defend the French, Parisians are different from residents from other parts of France. When I split my time between Paris and Provence, I was constantly irritated by how long it took me to accomplish the most mundane things. I’d go into town to buy newspapers, bread and a few other things and it would invariably be a two-hour foray when I was in the country.

Why did people want to discuss everything and anything? I’d look behind me (when I finally got to the counter) and wonder whether or not these conversations were really necessary.

If I ran into a neighbor, it was considered rude if we didn’t stop for a coffee or a pastis. If I had a drink at 11 a.m., well, so much for the rest of the day. What I had to remember was that many of our neighbors were retired and that’s precisely the reason they settled in Provence. They were doing what they loved, and bless them. But I wasn’t into planting gardens (that was my husband’s passion) and please please, let me get home so I could access my passion Bonjour Paris.

As someone who loves to travel, we all have to learn that people march to their own drummers and at different paces. No matter where you go, rhythms are different.

When I spend time in Washington, DC, my pace slows down compared to Paris. Another thing I’ve learned is that no matter where I am, taxi drivers tend to be rude. It may be because they’re tired from having to fight traffic, busy listening to the radio and invariably are carrying on phone conversations— rarely these days in a language I understand.

My question (I’m ducking) is do you find Parisian rude? If you do, how could they change their behavior to make you more comfortable? Most people (and certainly ones in the hospitality industry) speak English. What can tourists learn from Parisians?

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Paris Windows

Written by admin on March 26, 2010 – 11:35 am -

It’s rare I have revelations in the true sense of the word. But recently, I realized I’ve seen and experienced so much of Paris simply by peering out my windows. And looking into them.

If this makes me sound as if I’m a voyeuse, it might be deserved. I’ve never considered myself one, but perhaps I should reconsider. Spending hours looking out of my apartment’s windows has given me insights into how the French live. It’s a very personal microcosm on Parisian life.

This view isn’t unique to France unless you live in the country or far enough away from neighbors you’d need to sneak around for a look-see or resort to binoculars.

However, when you live in Paris, few people have clear vistas. That’s one of the city’s charms. People talk about its rooftops and, yes, they’re lovely and do change according to the light, the weather and shadows. But they remain essentially the same if you live in central Paris. Rooftops aren’t living theater unless your thing is watching birds and where they perch.

Parisians rarely close their shutters unless they’re away and, if they’re home, why pull down shades or close curtains unless they want to darken their bedrooms when they’re sleeping. The French, at least in my quartier, don’t appear to be instilled with the same sense of modesty as Anglo-Saxons.

When I first moved into our home 20 years ago, many of our neighbors were older and lived predictable lives by the clock. The kitchens were functional, but that was about it. Many of them had racks where people would hang laundry to dry.  Many French didn’t believe in dryers because of the cost—they were expensive to run—and they could possibly ruin clothes.  No self-respecting French woman would put underwear in a dryer because undies are a true investment. Some people had maids and left the laundry to them.

Five years later, some of the apartments’ residents began dying off. If they were living in some of the smaller apartments across the courtyard where my bedrooms and kitchen are situated, more than likely a younger relative would move into the premises. As a rule, the French don’t like to sell property because of inheritance taxes and they feel better owning bricks and mortar.

Contrasted to Americans, most French didn’t redecorate for the sake of redecorating. Family furniture was cherished. Much of it was period and may have been recovered, while the walls were given a fresh coat of paint—but that was it.

The surprising thing is I didn’t know the name of my neighbors even though we were a part of the others lives. One couple had a cat and our kitties were brought to the window each morning to say hello.

There was a deaf woman who lived across the way who would always smile. When she first moved in, she had a lover. When they broke up, my heart ached for her. After approximately a year, another woman moved into the apartment and it was apparent their relationship was more than platonic.

We’d bump into each other on the street and always nod and smile but we never knew one another’s name. When the apartment was sold, I was sad when she moved out. A woman, who has covered every wall with purple wallpaper with tiny flowers, has bought it. She dresses and behaves to match the décor.  In other words, boring.

Babies have been born and I’ve seen them grow up. One teenager, whom I’d watched since she’d moved into the apartment with her parents, made the family’s apartment headquarters for all of her friends.  They’d come home after school, go into the garden and light up and they weren’t smoking cigarettes.  I did know the parents and debated as to whether or not I should tell them what was taking place while they were at work because the air was being permeated with smoke from cannabis and you could get a contact high. After a few weeks of ongoing parties, I did tell them and questioned my decision.

In recent years, many of the apartments have been sold and the area has made more than a few contractors and architects rich. Designer kitchens equipped with high-tech appliances and super chic bathrooms are now the rage.

New owners are gutting the apartments, and after they’ve completed the rehab, frequently decorated with Italian furniture mixed with antiques, they entertain. But they never close the curtains.

Which means you can see things at all times of the day and night, including parties.  They could be parties anywhere, except the French serve far more champagne and far less food.  I’ve attended so many of them, but from afar—across the courtyard or the street.  I’m tempted to organize a block party, but that would be so very un-French.

Discussing the know-your-neighbor-but-not phenomenon with the building’s guardienne, she laughed and told me that everyone refers to me as the American who’s always sitting in front of her computer. They’re right.

However, that doesn’t mean I miss so many of Paris’s nuances. Still, I’m becoming increasingly tempted to throw that party. If no one shows, so what? I’m betting it will be a mob scene since so many French have become increasingly Americanized.

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Formal French Functions – as in Soirées

Written by admin on March 19, 2010 – 2:52 pm -

Recently I offered the use of my apartment to an American friend for a reception.

Jerry heads a global think tank, The Millennium Project, that does admirable work in the field of future studies and research. It was a no-brainer to host a gathering chez moi and was the least I could do. It required minimal work or wear and tear.

Even though all of the attendees would be guests of this group and I wouldn’t know a soul, what did it matter? It would be an opportunity to meet new people, the majority of whom I assumed would be French.

As it turned out, people were from all over the world. In that way, it was similar to parties in Washington, D.C., where it’s rare to meet someone actually born there. Only one guest was a native Parisian, but many had lived here for the majority of their lives. Each person had a mission and that was to make the world a better place through committed dedication and not simply talking the talk.

The one thing the women had in common is they all wore black. If you’re in Paris during cold weather and want to look Parisian, black is it no matter what the fashion gurus are trying to have us believe.

The evening was a success. But upon reflection, I realize it might have gone more smoothly had my American side not surfaced.

Two weeks prior to the “cocktail”, custom-designed and elegant invitations were sent. So far so good, right? No, probably wrong. Call it the Green movement or laziness, they were sent via cyberspace. The invitation composition program is ingenious and tracks who’s received the invitation, whether or not they’ve opened it and even allows people to RSVP on the spot without having to send an extra email or pick up the phone to respond.

Don’t get me wrong. The French are incredibly Internet savvy and use it with a vengeance. They send mails, and on-line communication isn’t the enigma it was ten years ago.  The French have not only taken to computers but they’re frequently glued to iPhones, Blackberries—and lord help you if you’re not a master at texting.

Ride on any métro (it’s amazing the signal can reach that far down) and you’ll see people typing away rather than reading newspapers as they used to do. Come to think of it, perhaps they’re reading their news on-line.

In the case of this event, people didn’t respond to the invitation. I’ve always found the French to be très correct, but why weren’t they saying whether or not they were attending? It was baffling.

When it came to saying yay or nay to the reception, perhaps it was because the invites were cyber-sent during winter vacation when the recipients had other things on their minds. Or maybe they were holding off in order to see what was on their agendas for that day.

There was no reason to bother fretting (or in my case, obsessing) because there wasn’t a darn thing I could do except buy a few extra bottles of wine and faux-champagne for Kir royals, which would be served in flute-shaped glasses.  People could opt to drink hard liquor, but not ever one person asked for scotch, gin, vodka or anything with high alcohol content.

The French usually don’t serve tons of food at cocktail receptions. Nuts, olives, a few hot and cold appetizers usually do the job. Guests are expected to go out to dinner after an event and usually plan on doing so. The evening was so interesting and people were so involved in exchanging ideas and meeting one another that they didn’t drink and run.

This is where my American side comes into play. The idea of people leaving a party of mine hungry goes so against my grain. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons Americans tend to have problems with their weight since they rationalize that anything they eat while standing up, or that’s been passed (or grabbed off a plate) doesn’t enter into the calorie intake quotient.

If you’re of the Martha Stewart generation, it was only polite that guests could go home without having to stop for dinner or cook before going to bed.

Do you think it’s a fundamental difference between the French and Americans that cocktails mean cocktails and not dinner? Now that I think about it, my French friends tend to bring a bottle of wine or some flowers to an event (don’t believe that those are no-no’s) while my American friends frequently offer to bring food and, even if you say no, frequently arrive with something edible.

I know I always ask what I may cook or bring when I’m in the States. I don’t when I’m in France; perhaps it’s simply yet another cultural difference.

As someone who’s always curious and fascinated by cultural differences, I know that no matter how hard I try to stay au courant, it’s hard (O.K., impossible) to keep up with rapidly changing trends as the developed world becomes increasingly global.

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How I Know I’m Not French But Then…

Written by admin on March 12, 2010 – 4:33 pm -

May 1st is the twenty-second anniversary of my moving to Paris. It’s hard to believe I’ve been here so long and how many things have changed—especially me.

I’ll never be French in spite of feeling very much part of the culture and loving so many aspects of life in France. The global insights that accompany relocating to a new country are both mystifying and enlightening.

No matter how long anyone remains in a new country, no one assimilates one hundred percent even if they’re totally comfortable in their adopted home. Scratch the surface, and invariably you’ll unearth a raw nerve.

For example, strikes are irritating and will always be. Even if they’re announced (as they’re legally supposed to be) and you plan accordingly, there are times when the best made schedules will crash and burn.

How well I recall the day I spent at the Gare de Lyon not going to Provence, even though the departure board showed my train would be pulling out of the station within the next 30 minutes. Sure. Had I been smarter, I would have returned to the apartment after a couple of hours. But that would have ensured the train would leave within minutes of my climbing on the bus heading to Boulevard du Montparnasse.

During strike season, working at home has its advantages albeit isolating. There are days when I stay put with my computer—even though I know it’s important not to become a hermit. I may become lazy (or absorbed) and sometimes have to force myself to get up and go.

I’m still irritated when I can’t accomplish things during the vacations and days off that are a part of French culture. One of the things about being an American in Paris is that French holidays aren’t necessarily holidays because I’m working with people in the U.S.

Ditto for American holidays. When all of the U.S. is observing Thanksgiving, I’m invariably working or preparing a Thanksgiving dinner to be served after 8:00 p.m., when friends are available. I’ve never heard of a multi-national corporation telling its American employees to take the day off even though some U.S. expats do return home to eat turkey and the fixings with their families.

More likely, Americans wait until the Christmas holidays to make a beeline to the States. It’s well known that not a whole lot gets accomplished during Christmas and New Years even if you don’t observe them.

But wait. I’ve done nothing but cite negatives. After all these years, more of me is French than American. For example, it’s hard to see into my closet because ninety percent of my clothes are black and it feels as if I continually buy the same ones.

The moment the sun appears during the dreary months of January and February, I make a mad dash outside to soak up a few rays. After all, if nothing else, we all need vitamin D, and if you’re someone who feels better after absorbing natural light (and who doesn’t?), you can rationalize the escape is precisely what the doctor ordered.

My French self is really evident in how and when I buy clothes and housewares. If something isn’t on sale, forget it. Retail has never been my thing (yes, I miss discount stores that are in practically every U.S. shopping center) but unless I’m desperate, I never buy anything unless it’s discounted.

Food has assumed more significance since I’ve moved here. Iceberg lettuce is no longer a staple. Don’t laugh: that was one of the few fresh vegetables you could always count on finding in a U.S. supermarket more than twenty years ago. Discovering French cheeses was a revelation. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven—and will unless I eat substantially less of it because of my cholesterol count. Unlike the French who eat tiny portions, my innate reaction is (was) to pig out.

Wine is an affordable commodity. It’s easy to experiement with different ones and you don’t have to spend more than a few euros per bottle. It’s not a major budget item and I’ve developed an anti-snob attitude and rarely spend more than ten euros per bottle in the grocery store when I buy it. What’s dinner with a glass or two of red wine? It’s good for your heart and it’s my contribution to France’s wine economy.

Flowers are a must in where and how I live. This isn’t a new phenomenon. I used to buy inexpensive ones at sidewalk vendors in Washington, DC, but soon nicknamed them graveyard flowers since they always died within 24-36 hours. There are incredibly expensive florists (ergo, artists) in Paris where you can drop a bundle. But there are also chain stores where you can purchase flowers that don’t make you feel as if you’re robbing a bank. My most recent purchase was forty white roses that cost ten euros and gave me ten times the pleasure.

This may seem odd, but the French are incredible when it comes to packaging. It’s a sense of aesthetics that brings me such intense pleasure. If you purchase something and say it’s a cadeau, the vendor usually wraps it as if it’s worth a million dollars using tissue, cellophane paper, ribbons and imagination.

Yes, there are irritations when living in France and it’s not for everyone. But, it’s captured my heart and part of my soul.

(c) Karen Fawcett

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Life in France and Some Challenges

Written by admin on March 12, 2010 – 3:04 pm -

Many Bonjour Paris readers question if there’s a way to beat the French system. Well, oui et non. If you’re going to live here you need to acclimate yourself to the country’s customs, recognize there are cultural differences, and grin and bear it.

If you’re trying to get a Carte de séjour (a legally required resident’s card if you’re from a non-EU country and plan to stay in France more than six months a year), the rules say loud and clear (and in black and white) that you must apply for one before you leave your country of residence.

Some Americans have come to France, bought a house, even married a French spouse, only to be told they must return to the U.S. if they want to become legal. During the process, which can easily take six months, they’re not entitled to enter France. It goes without saying this can cause more than a fair bit of aggravation.

A freelance journalist, who’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times, was ousted from Paris and sat in the U.S. waiting and waiting for his papers to be stamped, sealed and delivered. He wasn’t asking for a work visa since he wouldn’t be working for French companies. The French government isn’t quick to hand out work permits to people who might take a job away from a French citizen and who can blame it?

Then system D comes into play. Another friend married a Frenchman, for love and not for papers, only to be told she had to leave the country and it didn’t matter whether or not her husband might miss her—much less his children whom she was helping to raise. This came as a shock since she’d inquired at the French Consulate in New York City and was told not to worry.

System D, which stands for débrouiller or disentangle, came into play. Perhaps it was due to her screaming and her husband’s persistence that the mayor of the town where they live intervened and she didn’t have to return to the States. One never quite knows exactly what takes place. This is why I advise people to seek the advice of a lawyer, who will cost money, but hopefully can save you more in time and aggravation.

Don’t get the idea the French aren’t frustrated by French red tape and stalling, even in domestic life. One taxi driver told me he no longer makes dates with his brother, because he’s consistently late and doesn’t bother to call or excuse himself when he arrives. His compromise is that if they’re going to see one another, his brother has to come to his apartment—and no, not for a meal. Claude said his wife was done with serving overdone food and had gone on strike. You can’t blame her.

When we had a home in Provence, dinner guests frequently turned up more than an hour late, which did nothing for my cuisine or my disposition. My late husband was far more forgiving than I, and ultimately assumed kitchen duties and hoped I would open the door.

Those dinners went on forever and more than a few times, I’d rudely say goodnight at 11:30 and excuse myself. When people say goodnight after two-plus hours in the U.S., I’m surprised. When I lived in Washington, D.C., invariably I ended up walking around the block for 15 minutes so not to arrive early.

In France, people don’t show up precisely on time because invariably the hostess won’t be dressed. As a result, when I’m in the U.S., I have to readapt to the on-time habit.

Another shocker in France: If you call an office and try to leave a message, forget it. You’re usually told to call back and when you do at the appointed hour, the phone line is invariably busy. During an appointment yesterday, I voiced how frustrated I was over not being able to leave a message and having no alternative but to put my phone on automatic redial. The recipient of this minor diatribe explained his office receives 600 phone messages per day and it would be impossible for the staff to field all of them.

Much to my amazement, my response was that if he didn’t want to hire more personnel, his phone system should have voice mail for individual employees. He replied he’d look into it since he found it frustrating when he was out of the office that he was unable to contact his staff by phone.

Go figure and take the good with the bad. If you live abroad or for that matter in the U.S., please register and post your frustrations. But I keep thinking that the French would do themselves a big favor by figuring out how to apply System D to all facets of their lives and, instead of tying everything in red tape, get to the point.

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