French Kisses

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When you greet your friends in France, you’ll most likely “faire la bise.” Literally, you make a kiss. On seeing each other, everyone from burly French rugby players to slender waitstaff, from demoralized office workers to uptight gendarmes gives each other a brief peck on each cheek, as naturally as most Americans shake hands. La bise is a cross between an air kiss and an actual kiss. Your lips make brushing contact in the vicinity of the cheek and that’s it. Most friends and many acquaintances greet each other this way – both men and women. It’s a local custom that goes way back.

One of my friends, Jean-Paul, doesn’t do this with the men he knows. Only women. A retired stage actor, he perhaps wants to put behind him the instant overfamiliarity of the acting world. Or he’s simply decided to reserve his bises for the opposite sex, in the lingering hope that he’s still got it, even though there’s nothing sexual about the gesture. Perhaps he has a weird reticence about being even glancingly intimate with the same sex by “making the bise” with men. Whatever. Ever the actor, though, the subject of most of Jean-Paul’s conversations is Jean-Paul – and I have the impression that if he could plant a couple of bises on his own cheeks, he would.

Still, Jean-Paul is an exception to the local custom. It’s true that people do shake hands upon first being introduced, but after you say goodbye, or the second time you meet, you “faire la bise” for both hello and goodbye. After my friend Richard and I had gotten to know each other, he began stooping – he’s well over six feet tall, and I’m well under – to greet me with la bise (he even asked, after I extended my hand, “On fait la bise maintenant, non?” – or, why don’t we just cheek-kiss now?). In fact, some people ask, on meeting friends of friends, “On fait la bise?” to check that it’s okay to approach each other in that way even if they’ve only been introduced at a dinner or a party.

Some people even do more than the deux-bises greeting. My friend Roland sometimes plants as many as four on each cheek, back and forth, back and forth. He claims it’s what’s done in the part of Brittany he’s from. In fact, it depends. In much of France, the norm is two. In some mountainous alpine regions you offer three, and in the areas around Alsace-Loraine in the northeast, you make do with one. I’ve heard it can be as many as five in some parts of the country. But friends have told me that even the French themselves never know exactly how many bises you offer in the different regions of France. There’s even a website that shows you how many bises you greet someone with, according to each of the many dozens of French départements.

As my friend Pierre told me, “Tout cela rend la vie compliquée.” All of this makes life complicated. Especially when you enter a busy gathering where everyone stands up to “faire la bise” with everyone else. To make things easier, some people just wave to the crowd as they come in saying, “Salut, tout le monde,” or hello, everybody, while others do the rounds of la bise, dutifully pecking cheeks here and there until they can grab a glass of wine and sit down, at least until the next friend arrives.

If you’re going to spend a little time in France, you’re going to “faire la bise” or “do the kiss” pretty frequently with the people you come to know, and you’re probably going to become comfortable with it. Unless you’re Jean-Paul. Then only women will rate a bise. Or perhaps yourself.

French Strikes and Self-Worth

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Anyone who visits France or who spends time here regularly has faced strikes. It’s a fact of French life: at one point or another, your train will be cancelled or your flight delayed or your museum closed because a union has called a work stoppage of some sort.

The most recent strike, which began December 5, is slowly winding down after many weeks. The strikers – mainly railway workers – have been protesting proposed changes to the retirement system. What’s surprising isn’t the protests. People are uneasy that the government wants to replace the current system of 42 separate pension plans. These are confusing and they can differ according to profession, with railway workers getting a particularly generous retirement, which can include free bus and rail transportation for life and the possibility of retiring in one’s 50s. The different plans are considered inequitable. That’s a given. But what’s surprising is that so many people of different professions (including lawyers and ballet dancers) have protested while not a single one of them has seen any details of the proposed changes. The details will not be made public until later in the month. So, people are objecting to the idea of change rather than what the change may actually be.

This is very French. The French love to theorize and speculate – philosophy is an essential part of French high school education – and the idea of something can be more powerful than the reality. In fact, some people accept a dubious reality because the idea behind it is so powerful, such as the badly aging Pompidou Center. Sure, the idea of making the outside of a museum look like the inside of a factory probably seemed cool in the 1970s. But over four decades later, the museum, rather than gleaming as Europe’s greatest repository of modern art, resembles a dirty abandoned mill that hasn’t yet been reclaimed and restored by a new generation that has come to its senses. Still, as a French friend of mine said when I mentioned how unattractive and uninviting the Pompidou was, “But it is such a very good idea for a museum.”

For many French, pension reform is a very, very bad idea. It doesn’t matter, actually, that no details of the plan have been revealed. The plan, whatever it is, can only be detrimental to a hard-fought French way of life. And yes, the protests, as many have noted, are decidedly class-driven. As elsewhere, people in France are fed up with brazen income inequality. Many young and not-so-young French have seen the financial and social advancement that benefitted their parents fade away in the face of dehumanizing globalization. Many others feel hopeless at the continuing erosion of services outside big cities, such as weaker public transportation or less-available medical care.

I understand this. What’s a little harder to understand is why the French consider President Emmanuel Macron to be the cause of all current unhappiness. The abiding hatred that many French have for him is puzzling to me. It’s true that Macron can seem lofty and distant, blithely professorial rather than warmly collegial, more at home reciting facts than connecting with people – a particular know-it-all French trait that the French tolerate in each other or when talking to foreigners but don’t seem to like in their elected officials. But have the French seen what’s been going on overseas? They envision a more restricted retirement funding diminishing their future way of life, while an American wonders why they’re always so upset, given that they already have excellent free healthcare, free education and five weeks of annual vacation guaranteed by law, among other things most Americans can only dream of.

It’s true that Macron tends to ignore quotidian concerns as he addresses larger issues – such as how the government will pay for the retirement of future generations given how expensive the various pension plans are. But he doesn’t speak, at least in the minds of many French, to what’s going on for people in how they go about their days: having enough money to live on now and when they’re older. The French are theoretical, but even their tolerance for abstract ideas has its limits when it comes to paying the monthly bills.

The strikes have been inconvenient for many, including me, but I am nevertheless impressed by this fervent French commitment to protest. It’s true that Parisians have naturally grown tired of the strike after a month and a half, but they understand the importance of expressing oneself this way. I sometimes value myself so little that I see something noble in this innate French sense of self-worth. It says something about how much the French think of themselves that people will take to the streets to assert their own value even before they’re aware of what exactly will hurt them.

Un Dîner d’Adieu

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At a pause during a dîner d’adieu at Raoul’s apartment a couple of months ago, on the chic Avenue Junot in Montmartre, I stepped out from his living room onto the balcony, to catch a final glimpse of the Moulin de la Galette and the domes of the church of the Sacré-Cœur. I had just taken a last look at the perfectly framed Eiffel Tower through Raoul’s dining-room window. I was saying goodbye to a home I would never see again.

Raoul had sold his apartment, which he had inherited from a cousin twenty-five years earlier, to live full-time in the house where he grew up in Blagnac just outside of Toulouse, on the banks of the Garonne River. Like many French, Raoul feels a stronger pull for the terroir of his youth than for the city of his adulthood.

I myself have never felt grounded to a particular place. I am often an outsider in my own life. Although I am at home in both Paris and New York, I am still rootless and roaming. My personal relations are part-time and sometimes at a distance. My visits to my family are rare, fleeting and without engagement. I am not really a part of anywhere. I chose this. I didn’t let this happen by accident. I wanted to expand my horizons by creating a life in France, but I realize now that I probably also wanted to enable a rootless one. I possess little except evanescent experiences and then sometimes reluctantly. I deny myself ownership of what I see, feel and do, since I often consider that I’m not worth the effort to create anything lasting, be it a home, a relationship, or a career.

At the same time, I cherish those chances to live beyond who I am, to be present in the rare moments of belonging that I have found in the homes of friends in New York and Paris, who live as I wish I could, but never will, who are grounded and secure in themselves, who have built lives that matter. I have not yet learned what Montaigne called the most certain sign of wisdom, to know how to belong to oneself. I do care what I am to myself, as Montaigne advised, but only so much.

Several years ago, I spent six weeks in Raoul’s apartment, while he spent six weeks in mine in New York. I made myself at home chez lui, inviting French friends up to see the kind of apartment, with the kind of views, that impress even seen-it-all Parisians. Despite its cramped kitchen and wonky plumbing, Raoul’s was my ideal of a Parisian home: carved molding on the walls and ceiling, marble fireplaces and mirrors in every room, long windows that diffused the city’s shifting northern light onto the old parquet and worn furniture. It informed my sense of what it was to live abroad, to be part of another city. To have a different sort of life, a little like the one I have created in borrowing other people’s homes.

That apartment is now part of my past – it is part of the past of all of Raoul’s friends – some of whom have become mine too. We dined there in groups or simply en famille, as Raoul would say, with him and his companion Philippe. Birthdays, New Year’s Eve, Bastille Day to watch the fireworks over the Eiffel Tower. Over the years Raoul has even hosted several dinners for me before I’d return to New York – a dîner d’au revoir, or see you again, rather than, as the other day, a dîner d’adieu, or farewell.

So, I bade farewell to his home, which is now another Parisian memory in a city that lives on remembrances of things past.

I’m sure I’ll see Raoul in Blagnac. His house there, old-fashioned and sturdy, bears the weight of another time, the traditions of another place, the security of attachment born of property and inheritance. I like it there.

But because it isn’t a home that might remind me of something I would wish to have, were I someone who I am not, it has never stirred in me the temporary reverie of belonging that I felt in his Parisian apartment, which now also belongs to another time, but one that at least, for a few faded moments, was also mine.

Postcards from Paris

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This will be the first summer when I don’t send my sister Liz a postcard from Paris.

People don’t really write postcards these days, preferring to share digital snapshots, but Liz wasn’t on social media and my sister Deb often reminded me that it would make Liz happy if I remembered her this way. So, each time I arrived in France over the last several years I would find for Liz an image of the Eiffel Tower or a Parisian street scene, offering her a faint, idealized idea of what I might see as I went about my day, far from her in New York.

When I saw Liz at family functions, she thanked me for thinking of her from abroad. We didn’t really engage with each other outside of Christmas or the occasional birthday or graduation cookout. She didn’t get out much, her manic depression having shrunk her world to a small unlovely apartment in Queens. In a way, I was the wider world for her. In a way, she was the world I might have been reduced to if I had not escaped the demons of my own addictions or if I, like she, had succumbed to mental illness.

“What’s new in Paris?” Liz would ask whenever we’d meet, as if she’d been there before and was checking up on familiar sights. What she was really asking, of course, was that I help broaden her perspective by telling her about the France I’ve come to know and the French I’ve met and befriended and fallen in love with. I kept my answers vague and short. I’m not a natural raconteur. I’m private with my family, even with my friends, and I tend to play down events in my life. I’m not sure if this is because I undervalue my listener, or myself, or my own experiences. With Liz, I let my brief postcards do the talking. That is, I said little beyond the surface.

But I did send her postcards, at least. In France, I also send thank-you notes, to people who’ve hosted me for dinner. My friend Gilles, who’s a bit old-fashioned, refers to these only half-joking as my lettres de château, the formal letters you’d write to your hosts after spending some time as a guest at their home. In any event, thank-you notes of any sort, like postcards, are rarely written and sent today.

They’ve been important for me, however. Committing even the most anodyne phrases to paper is a sign of respect for people who’ve taken the time to make you welcome. In writing these cards, I also practice my written French, without having to reveal anything of myself other than that I enjoyed dinner (though I also send notes even if dinner wasn’t all that good). These letters have proved successful and my French friends appreciate them. My friend Odette and her husband Renaud have hosted me for dozens of dinners at their apartment, and Odette tells me that she keeps my thank-you cards as a way of noting my progress in a language I’ve only come to learn in recent years. “You’ve even developed your own style in French,” she said, “like a true writer.”

I usually say nothing in these notes, but I nevertheless manage to say it elegantly which, in France, can actually carry more weight than deep pensées about the state of the world.

My sister Liz sent me a thank-you note in April. I was able to attend her 60th birthday, which my six other sisters had organized, since I was just back in New York after two months in Paris. I sat next to Liz at dinner and, as usual, revealed little about what I had done between January and March, except to mention some places I’d visited and the week I spent seeing my boyfriend in southwest France. Never enough, but more than I usually allow myself to share.

“I was so glad you could make it for my birthday,” Liz wrote in her large, childish script. “Thank you being there to celebrate with me.” I didn’t know that her simple words of thanks would be her last to me, and my family hadn’t expected her to die last month – of causes we believe were related to her manic-depression too-long untreated. But at the time, I sensed on reading her card that she wasn’t merely writing empty phrases, a practice I had perfected. She really had been happy I was there. And I am grateful that I had a chance to see her shortly before she left this world.

Even if I’d known how little actual time remained for Liz, I’m not sure I would have been more forthcoming with her about what I’ve learned and loved in my recent years in France. Probably not. I keep such things too close to me. It’s easier to communicate by postcard or thank-you note than by revealing who I really am. I think Liz knew that. She was my sister, after all. I did not know the extent of the suffering she’d endured these last 25 years, nor did she share with me the state of her troubled mind. But she knew I thought of her when I sent her postcards. This wasn’t much, but it was as much of me as I was able to share. I hope she thought that was enough.

Unnamed Flavors in France

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The semiweekly market in Foix, Ariège.

At a little open-air market in Foix, a small city in Ariège in the mid-Pyrenees region of southwestern France, I came upon a cheese stand selling local products. I’ve become fond of the area’s bethmale, a firm and tangy cow cheese, and its cousin toudeille, which can be made from cow, sheep or goat milk, or a combination. I picked up a bit of each from the seller. Then, tasting a delicious sample from a heavy wheel of cheese that the fromager was displaying on the counter, I bought a little bit of that too. I asked the vendor its name.

“There’s no name for it,” he said. “It’s simply a cheese from the Pyrenees.”

France has hundreds of cheeses, many named for their regions – the bethmale comes from a valley of that name where the cheese was first produced – and I was a little surprised that France, land of relentless categorization and insistent codification, allowed such a fine-flavored cheese to remain nameless. But some things, such as handmade local products sold locally by locals to locals – and to the occasional visitor – apparently fall outside the purview of the entrenched French bureaucratic mindset.

If I wanted more of that cheese the next time I visited my friend Jean in Foix, I’d have to be there on that same market day and find that same stand and hope that the same fromager would have that same anonymous cheese. But since cheese is a living thing it’s also ephemeral, and the cheese would not be exactly the same as the one I tasted. Besides, the cheesemaker’s supply depends on what is available to him and what he chooses to create. So, even if I wanted to find that cheese again, I’d have to rely on chance rather than count on certainty. I have come to expect certainty when I’m in France, because the French do so many things a certain way, though apparently with some exceptions, such as the making and naming of regional artisanal cheese.

I didn’t come to France to find certainty, however, but to be unsettled, or to find a place where being unsettled seemed more normal than it did at home in New York. I have a tendency to forge habits – a necessity when you work for yourself – that can become routine and that can insulate me from discovering what’s beyond my immediate view. This happens even in Paris, where so much remains unknown to me, even if so much is now comforting and familiar, though still beguiling. Although I finally feel that I belong, in a city where I will still always be a foreigner, I sometimes take for granted my growing familiarity with French culture, which can lead to complacency. So, even the trivial act of tasting a new and unnamed cheese created in me a slight and momentary sense of imbalance that not everything can be labeled. I’d had to appreciate a specific taste without knowing the name of what I’d tasted beyond the generic, and had to savor the moment, knowing that it would probably never be repeated. I was looking for a sure thing, but I had to accept uncertainty.

I’ve always lived in uncertainty, for my future, for my work, for who I am, for who I want to be and for what I’m worth. This is perhaps why the routines I create to establish order in my day often lead me to relying on habit that maintains stasis rather than using it as a springboard for leaping into the unknown. I remind myself that I must push myself to change, because I know that it’s too easy to become used to what I have, even if it’s not what I want. This is why I first began to build a recurring temporary life in Paris, so that I would have a series of set dates when I would have to move from one place to another. This would necessitate some sort of disorder in me, and I’d be shaken out of whatever everyday isolation I’d fallen into, an inadvertent apartness that I somehow cultivate, because I am by nature someone who prefers to be alone, as much as I long to connect. Perhaps my solitude is a way of remaining unknown, and perhaps unnamed, somehow there and somehow elusive, like that cheese I’d bought.

I was in Foix again a few weeks after I’d sampled that unnamed cheese, and I saw the same cheesemaker. I didn’t notice if he was displaying a wheel of cheese that might be similar to what I’d tasted before, because I was rushing to catch a train. But I overheard a group of English tourists being led through the market, who were marveling at the varieties of mainly local cheeses on display on that and other stands. “There are so many cheeses,” gushed one woman to the guide, “how can you remember them all?”

“Impossible,” she said, her French pronunciation making it seem both a fact and a challenge. “But you should try them.”

The trying, I thought, is the answer: I never know what I have when I have it, since it’s always later when I appreciate the time, the place, the food, the people, because I belittle the validity of my responses to whatever it is I encounter. That’s why I must try again and again, not simply to recreate an evanescent experience, though that will remain a frustrating constant in my character, but to thwart the self-abnegation that holds me back from appreciating the fullness of life.

And all that from a slice of cheese.

 

 

 

Culinary Exactitude in France

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When I first served some new French friends blanquette de veau, a classic French dish, a few months after I arrived in Paris, I was told that my version wasn’t really French, as tasty as it was, because it differed from the classic preparation that millions of French grew up eating. I realized that certain French classics must be prepared in a particular way in order to be worthy of the classic name. And if you’re an American serving French food to the French, you’ve got to be careful of doing anything that strays from the standard recipe.

So, I began to call any vaguely French dishes that I served something else. If I prepared a slightly different version of blanquette de veau that included peas or fennel – something green that wouldn’t appear in a classic version of the dish – I’d call it simply a veal stew. My French friends would then be able to enjoy what I’d cooked without the cognitive dissonance of eating one thing while knowing in their hearts that it was not exactly the name by which they’d known blanquette de veau all their lives.

The French can be literal-minded when it comes to cooking. Maybe because France is a nation of bureaucrats, and the French live in a society in which you are expected to follow certain customs, such as saying “Bonjour” when you enter a store or an elevator, the French are easily thrown by change. Since the French long ago codified their cuisine, any deviation from the way dishes have been prepared for generations may lead to suspicion. Especially if it’s not a French person who’s deviating from the culinary norm.

I once watched an episode of a competition show, La Meilleure Boulangerie de France, or the best bakery in France, that illustrated this in a different setting. One of the judges, an unimaginative stickler named Bruno Cormerais, who himself won a national award for his baking prowess, goes strictly by the book of accepted baking practices. Part of the competition involves making the pastry or bread most popular with customers. One baker in the south of France, an American who runs the bakery with her French husband, served the judges her brownies. The jingoistic judge criticized her choice, saying that while her brownies were good she should have demonstrated her baking skills with something more typical, regardless that her customers asked for her brownies all the time. The poor baker’s crime in this competition had been to offer something non-French at a French bakery.

The other night, I offered my guests a chicken that I’d braised with tomatoes, leeks, mushrooms, carrots and some leftover white wine. I’d mentioned to them that it was a very sort-of poule au pot, simply because it was a chicken I’d cooked in a pot but, unlike a poule au pot, it didn’t have potatoes or turnips or an onion studded with a couple of cloves. Sure enough, one of my guests said, on seeing the final dish, “When you told me it was poule au pot, I was confused.” I said that I’d never claimed it was an actual poule au pot, but something I’d come up with for a dinner à la bonne franquette, an expression the French use to mean a meal that is simple, unfussy and sometimes improvised. But even the passing reference to a poule au pot was enough to cause my friend Raoul’s bureaucratic brain to buckle slightly under the weight of unmet expectations when the poule wasn’t made au pot in the way it usually is.

Perhaps a French person cooking something similar to what I’d served wouldn’t have thought to mention the term poule au pot, since he or she would have known it was nothing like that dish, and instead simply called it tonight’s chicken. If he were planning to serve a poule au pot, he’d have made a poule au pot. I guess I want more wiggle room in using the names of French dishes. But then, that’s probably because I sometimes want them to be something other than they are.

Of course, I know that I do the same thing when I see French versions of American food in Paris. So, perhaps, I’m as literal-minded as I claim the French are.

There’s a very successful chain called O’Tacos here, whose tacos, if you could call them that, look and taste nothing like what you’d get at a taco truck in the U.S. (for example, the “taco” sauces you can choose from include harissa, mayonnaise and something called samurai). The frozen-food chain Picard held a recent monthlong celebration of American food, selling French versions of mac-and-cheese, pulled barbecued pork, bacon cheeseburgers, and even a birthday layer cake, among other dishes. Picard’s American food didn’t seem, to judge from the packaging, quite like the real thing you get in the States. I tried the mac-and-cheese – which the box claimed to be the best, authentic version of mac-and-cheese – just to see how closely it resembled one of the many versions you can get anywhere in America. While it was serviceable, it just didn’t taste like real mac-and-cheese.

Maybe if Picard had given it another name such as gratin des macaronis à l’américaine, I myself would have expected less of it and been willing to enjoy it more. A simple name change can make all the difference.