Paris Is Closed

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The French can’t help but “faire la fête,” or to party, even when it’s against their best interests. Although President Emmanuel Macron last week urged all French to stay at home and avoid crowding up against each other in cafés, bars, restaurants and parks, the French did just that last weekend. Bars overflowed, restaurants hummed, parks filled with families and frolicking. So, in response to this very French need to ignore government advice, France has decided effectively to shut down in the wake of the pandemic. Parks are now closed. Restaurants, bars and cafés are shut. Only supermarkets, bakeries, butchers, tobacconists and, maybe, somewhere, wine shops, are open (there are certain essentials to uphold).

This follows the extreme measures that Italy took to fight against the propagation of the virus, especially in the face of an overloaded healthcare system. Macron spoke again Monday night, for the second time in a week. Without uttering the word “confinement,” he pretty much ordered citizens to stay put, avoid each other, stay at home and read.

A curfew began at noon today, so people had a few hours in the morning to further empty the half-empty supermarket shelves. Beginning at noon, in order to leave your house, you needed an “attestation de déplacement dérogotoire.” This is a sheet of paper you fill out and keep with you when you leave your house. You need a new one every time you go out, and if you don’t have a printer at home, you yourself can handwrite your own attestation, using the language from the form. On the attestation, you mark your name, age, address and reason for leaving, such as shopping, visiting the doctor or making a necessary family visit (though it’s forbidden to visit old people, who are, with the insidious ageism common to viral outbreaks, among the most vulnerable). The government has mobilized 100,000 police to ensure that the curfew is respected. You won’t be shot if you’re caught without your papers, as in a World War II movie, but you can be fined up to several hundred euros.

So, Paris is deserted. I got back yesterday on a not-crowded train from Toulouse (the train service, the SNCF, is cutting back severely on train travel to keep people from escaping to the country to spread the coronavirus among loved ones with rural homes). I had spent the week before visiting friends in the southwest, in Ariège, in the midi-Pyrenees region, which so far has been untouched by the coronavirus. But it’s only a matter of time.

In southwest France, as in Paris, and I imagine everywhere in the country, people are anxious, uncertain and disoriented. France isn’t alone, of course, in shutting down. But since so much of Parisian life is spent outdoors, the lack of people on the street creates an eerie unwanted quiet that could be mistaken for calm. It’s more like a stifled panic.

The panic sometimes shows, though. On returning to Paris yesterday afternoon, I headed to the local supermarket to pick up a few things for the next few days, not realizing that the strict curfew would be called for today (and not knowing that I’d be deciding to return to the States earlier than expected). At the Marché Franprix, on a little-trafficked side street off the Avenue Wagram, in the 17th arrondissement, I took a place behind three other people waiting to enter the supermarket. We stood about a meter apart from each other, as is now required. A heavyset old man pushed by us, leaning on his cane with one hand and carrying a large yellow shopping bag with the other. He tried to push aside the store manager who was standing at the door, letting people in one at a time, as customers left the store.

“Sir,” the manager said to him, “you can’t enter. Please wait in line with the others.”

“But I have priority,” the man insisted, his red face reddening as he raised his voice. There wasn’t much of a wait to get in, so the man had succumbed to the spreading fear of not having enough.

“You do not have priority,” the manager said. “No one does.”

“But I do,” the florid old grouch said, and tried to push his way into the store again. The manager pushed back.

“You’re not standing a meter apart from each other,” said a woman in line. In France, it’s always important to honor the rules, even new ones.

The man then shoved the store manager, who shoved back, and the older man fell onto the sidewalk, looking up in astonishment. We all stared at him for a long moment. Should we be nice enough to help him up and risk being infected? Or should we let him lie there, since he brought this on himself? Before any of us holding our precious places in line could act, the manager stooped down, grabbed the man’s hands, and helped him up. The man trudged back to the line — right behind me, as it happened — grumbling about what France had come to.

France has come to what a lot of other countries are coming to: a nauseating awareness that much is beyond our control and that we can’t predict what’s going to happen. Most of us can barely keep it together.

Antiviral France

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Before dinner at my friend Philippe’s apartment the other night, no one shook hands. No one attempted to “faire la bise,” or kiss, either. As soon as I entered, I was directed to wash up before greeting everyone. Uncertainty in the wake of a new coronavirus has required a new standard of social etiquette.

Still, I think I was the only one among the guests to have had a flu shot (I realize that the Corvid-19 and the seasonal flu are not the same), even though the flu strikes and kills many more people than this new virus has so far. It’s the unknown that causes fear. A low-level panic has set in. Even the decidedly non-sensationalist early-evening discussion show, C’est Dans l’Air, or it’s in the air, devoted every single program last week to the virus, the government’s response and, of course, the part that the media and social media play in spreading true and false information as well as alarm. This news show was only serving the public. The French love to complain. It’s in the national character. But the French are like everyone else in that they love to worry.

The Louvre is closed. Its staff fears further propagation of a virus that has infected about 200 people out of a population of almost 67 million in France, and the Louvre is a crossroads of potentially infected visitors from everywhere. A couple of large sporting events in France were canceled. My friend Jean, who works for an organization that helps train young people to enter the job market, had to meet at the Toulouse airport a returning group of youths whose planned internship in Italy was curtailed because of the virus. Their re-entry spurred alarm among parents in his small provincial city, everyone fearing they’d fall ill and die by coming into passing contact with one of the returnees. But in Paris my gym was as busy as usual. The metro the other morning was as filled as it always is. Still, there’s a feeling that anyone might be a carrier. It makes me wonder what it must have been like back in the 1930s and ’40s, when French neighbors suspected each other of being collaborators or worse.

Over dinner last Saturday, the coronavirus was, naturally, a topic of conversation. France might even be at greater risk for infection than other European countries outside of Italy, I said, citing a survey published last week by the French polling firm Ifop, that found that a third of French don’t wash their hands after using the restroom and half don’t before eating. On my mentioning this, my friend Pierre said in a huff that there were probably lots of people in middle America who didn’t bathe or wash their hands regularly. That may be true, but it wasn’t the point.

French personal hygiene aside – although the lack of cleanliness in Paris is a major topic of the mayoral elections coming up in a couple of weeks – I get a sense of impending disaster in the air. This might be the combination of a very real threat of a pandemic, coupled with a lack of control everyone feels about how their lives are playing out as people in office bicker for personal gain oblivious to the real hardships that ordinary citizens face. The government is pushing through a reform to the pension system, despite resistance from a majority of the French, and there’s another threat of crippling transit shutdowns. But government arrogance and workers’ strikes are almost common in France. The Corvid-19 may be beyond anyone’s control.

No one shook hands or kissed goodbye the other night. But I did make sure to wash up when I got home. I’m not one to panic, but you can never be too sure.

A Taste of French Cheese

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During my first couple of months in Paris, my lunch was often a half-baguette slathered with brie or camembert, which I’d wolf down before heading off to my French-language class.

I was in thrall to the deeply flavored cheeses I’d only just discovered at a supermarket around the corner from the apartment where I was then living in the 14th arrondissement, before I found the cheese shops in the neighborhood. These cheeses tasted like nothing I could get in the U.S.

Today I don’t consume cheeses in France with quite the same abandon as I did then, but I do eat more cheese in Paris than I do in New York (just not so much at one sitting). Cheese is a significant part of a French meal. My Parisian friends might not always offer a first course to their dinner guests, but most do make sure to have a cheese course before dessert.

In France you generally purchase the cheese you’re going to consume for that day, or perhaps the next. Cheese isn’t something you buy to keep for weeks, unless it’s a wedge of parmesan. That said, my friend Philippe V., who takes French thrift to an extreme, sometimes asks people over for a dinner “à la bonne franquette” – that is, potluck – to finish scraps of the weeks-old (and sometime months-old) cheeses he’s found lurking in his fridge. I sometimes offer to bring over newly bought cheese, just in case what’s there is inedible.

As with much in French life, there’s a certain way of doing things, and this applies even to a cheese course. You generally stick to odd numbers of cheeses: one, three or five (my friend Roland has served as many as seven). You mix firm, soft, mild and tangy styles, with cheese made from cow, sheep or goat’s milk. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, however. A platter of small rounds of various chèvre is what my friends Jean-Paul and Dominique usually offer. You could also serve a single camembert or a brie.

Some friends of mine use up leftover cheese by making it part of their breakfast. They might spread remaining camembert on a baguette from the night before and have it with their morning coffee. Apparently this is a delicious combination.

For a simple cheese course, I might include a ripe camembert, a firm comté and a blue-style cheese such as a Roquefort. Once I referred to a Roquefort as a blue cheese but my friend Jean F. corrected me. “It’s not a blue cheese,” he said. “It’s Roquefort.” Here we go, I thought: the French love of categorization and putting you in your place. But Roquefort actually differs from blue cheeses because Roquefort, and only Roquefort cheeses, are aged in the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. This is a distinction Americans don’t usually learn or even much care about. For us, a blue cheese is a blue cheese. And for us, Roquefort is a blue cheese.

Not in France, where you grow up recognizing the differences. From a very early age the French taste many cheeses, getting to know styles from different regions and what makes each unique. Even at pre-schools (écoles maternelles), where children are served a multi-course lunch, a local cheese is always included: camembert from Normandy in the north, Roquefort from Aveyron in the south, comté from Franche-Comté in the east.

As for comté, I look for ones that have been aged for more than 24 months, which have a nutty flavor and a sometimes-crumbly texture (especially those that are aged for 38-40 months). In the U.S., most comté is six or nine months old, and has less character than aged comté. Older comté cheeses are rarer, don’t ship well, are harder to come by and available only in late autumn for a couple of months. Sometimes instead of a comté I’ll choose a Salers, which is a semi-hard cheese from the Auvergne, in central France. It’s a little like a Cantal, but saltier and tangier. I might offer a brie de Meaux or a brie de Melun instead of a camembert. Brie de Meaux is an unpasteurized brie, as is brie de Melun. The brie de Melun is much sharper in flavor, sometimes even with a hint of ammonia, which tastes too much like an accident to appeal to me.  I also have a fondness for creamy goat cheeses such as Saint Marcellin or rocamadour, which come in small rounds that flatten and spread as they come to room temperature, lying in fragrant, oozing white puddles on the cheese plate. In any event, you’ve got a lot of cheese to choose from.

You generally let cheese come to room temperature before serving, though Roquefort is better held in the fridge until just before serving, since it can get too soft.

The cheese generally comes after the main course, alongside the salad. My friends are of two camps: some take salad first, then cheese, while others take both at the same time. Some eat the morsels of cheese with a knife and fork or use their fingers for a wedge of camembert, while others prefer cheese with a bit of a baguette. A French cheese plate doesn’t have the usual froufrou you see on cheese platters in America: no grape leaves or mounds of fruit.

We Americans generally have cheese before dinner as an appetizer or during a cocktail party. It’s a different way of organizing dinner, although I’ve come to prefer the French way of serving cheese, as part of a meal. You’re less likely to fill up on cheese before you sit down to eat. Still, in New York I don’t offer a cheese course with dinner. It would feel off somehow. Although it’s best to respect local customs I sometimes try to see if a French approach might work in the States. When one of my sisters was hosting a family gathering she had me bring cheeses, I asked her when she was going to serve them – before or during dinner. I could sense her rolling her eyes at me over the phone. “During cocktails,” she said. “Like normal people.”

A Fresh Breeze in France

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Breezes and gusts are deathly for the French. They fear drafts. As soon as the temperature dips and the wind rises, out come the wraps and scarves.

The French still believe that “courants d’air” cause colds, sore throats and who knows what other upper-respiratory maladies. They don’t want to hear that viruses cause colds. Even at a time when a pandemic is threatening the world, people still insist that they can become ill from a little bit of moving air.

My friend Pierre showed up one night positively swathed in scarves, since he believed he was coming down with a cold because of a cool breeze that brushed over him from a subway tunnel earlier that day. I said someone sick probably coughed on him or that he had touched something that someone with a cold had touched. No, he insisted: ”C’était l’air froid du métro.” When you talk health with certain Parisians who should know better you get a dose of stubborn folk beliefs.

That said, if you happen to fall ill in France, you are likely to be treated well, without having to mortgage your home. Several years ago, when I was visiting friends who had rented a summer place in a small town in the Alpes-Maritimes, I bumped my knee badly during the night, hitting it against a fountain in a little courtyard. I was afraid I’d broken something, and my hosts managed to get me an appointment with the local doctor, who charged me €25 for the visit, apologizing for the amount, since I wasn’t part of the national health system. That was less than my copay.

One of my sisters fractured a tibia a few years ago during a visit to Paris when she fell trying to navigate a narrow, curved staircase at her hotel. At the recommendation of the hotel’s concierge, her husband took her to the American Hospital in Paris – where many of the doctors speak English, and where her leg was set. My brother-in-law told me that before my sister could be treated the doctor felt he had to let them know the price of the procedure, since the hospital didn’t honor American health insurance.

“It will be expensive,” the doctor said in an almost-sheepish way. “It doesn’t matter,” my brother-in-law said. “Eh bien,” the doctor said, “it will cost you €180.” That would barely cover the price of a Band-Aid at U.S. hospitals. “I think we can afford it,” my brother-in-law said, shaking his head at what was considered expensive in France. It’s a matter of perspective.

A doctor’s office in France looks nothing like what you’d see in America. No receptionist. No nurse. No trappings of the big business of medicine. Once you’re buzzed in, you’ll likely find a bare-bones waiting room that could be anywhere (like many waiting rooms, actually). You assume your appointment has been registered somewhere, since you’ve been buzzed in, though no one greets you.

Eventually, a doctor, dressed casually as if settling down to watch television after a long workday, will pop out from behind a door, speak your name and ask you in. You have your examination in his office – which looks more like a college professor’s than a doctor’s – you pay your €25 (usually in cash) and you’re sent on your way.

It’s all very civilized and low-key. Maybe that accounts for the persistent beliefs about falling ill: there’s nothing remotely clinical about your general practitioner, and even though the French national healthcare system is among the world’s best, the French still hold onto old ways of thinking about falling ill.

Not everyone believes that drafts cause sickness, of course, but those who do are often immovable. My French tutor Bernard told me that one hot summer day after he’d managed to wrestle open a window on a stifling hot commuter rail line, a woman seated on the aisle, away from the window, insisted he close it again. “Je ne veux pas attraper froid,” she told him. She didn’t want to catch a cold. He asked her if she’d prefer to die of heat. “Vous préférez mourir de chaleur?” She shrugged at him, he said.

The French are always cold, too, by the way. So heat wouldn’t get to her. There’s even a word for someone who’s cold, frileur or frileuse (the celebrated French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon created a work, “La Frileuse,” showing an old woman who embodies this). So, even if this woman didn’t care about being hot, she was still wary of catching cold from an open window in summertime. Bernard knew there’d be no convincing her otherwise about the reality of deadly courants d’air.

To ‘Tu’ or Not To ‘Tu’ in France

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“Did you hear what he said to me last night?” Philippe was on the telephone, appalled. He was referring to my friend Daniel, who had just met Phillippe at a dinner I’d hosted the evening before. “He used vous after I had addressed him in the tu.”

I hadn’t noticed – I’d been too busy concentrating on the ebb and flow of the conversation to hear the implied slight from using the vous form.

“I’m sure it was nothing,” I told him. “It was not nothing,” Philippe said, put out as if someone had insulted his mother.

This was a bigger deal than I’d realized. Philippe went on to say that it was simply not good form. Philippe must have assumed that because he’d used tu with someone he should have been addressed in the same way.  “Philippe,” I said, “aren’t you supposed to ask someone if you can use the tu form?”

At least, that’s what I’d been doing when I’d meet people at parties: “On peut se tutoyer?” or “Can we use the tu form?” The answer was almost always yes (the one time it was a no I decided that the person I’d asked was a jerk and resolved that if we were ever to speak in English, that I’d insist he address me as Mister Hughes). Nowadays, I listen to what others are saying, and get the gist: if everyone uses the second-person singular, then I do, too.

I called Daniel to ask about what had happened and why he’d had the audacity to vouvoyer someone after the tutoyer opening. “Did I do that?” he said, all innocence. “Maybe I thought your friend was very vieille France.” The term “vieille France” refers to someone old-fashioned, stuffy and even somewhat provincial.

“So that’s how you automatically address people who use tu with you,” I said, drily. “I don’t remember him using tu,” Daniel said. I didn’t quite believe him – the French might be blithe about things like punctuality and smoking in your face, but never about confusing tu and vous.

This whole tu-vous thing is a lot for an English speaker to take in, whether learning French or other languages where there’s a distinction between plural and singular and informal and formal second-person conjugations. I first got introduced to the tu-vous balancing act early during my initial stay in France. In an email, using my stilted beginner’s French, I asked my new friend Renaud and his wife over to dinner shortly after I’d met them. Renaud had written back suggesting that we tutoyer. “C’est plus facile,” he’d said.

This was true. It was easier, since I didn’t have to mentally conjugate in the second-person plural the half-dozen or so verbs that I then knew.

The tu form is used between friends, between parents and children (and children and parents). Sometimes even between spouses, according to a few friends who remembered their grandparents employing that old-fashioned form in the family.  On television, presenters address each other with the vous form. At the office, people generally use the more formal vous form, though a Parisian acquaintance of mine who works in film said that on movie sets, it’s usually announced on the first day of shooting that everyone will be using the tu form, to promote a certain informality among the team. English speakers would never expect to hear something like that. It shows how important terms of address are in France (if you’ve ever seen a French formal letter, even a simple one to a utility company, you’d recognize the ridiculous way that people still sign off, as if they were courtiers in Versailles).

I’m told that today more and more people in France tend to be less hidebound by convention and that they more easily use the tu with one another, but the formal and informal aren’t exactly easy for the French, either. The French also find it odd that the English language doesn’t give you an easy way of signifying levels of respect, intimacy or social standing, of putting someone at ease, or – and this is way more French – putting someone off.

“How do you indicate respect to someone you just met?” my friend Karine once asked me. She was learning English and would come to me with questions.

“You’re polite,” I said. “Or you say, mister or Ms. or miss.”

“But how do you speak to someone you’ve just met, and you don’t know?”

“You’re polite,” I said again. “You use their family name. If they want to be informal, they ask you to use their first name.”

“So, there’s no difference in the words you use,” she said. I had the feeling she wanted to find out how to be polite and at the same time insulting, in the classic French manner.

“No difference. Just politeness,” I said. “Really,” I said, seeing her look of stubborn confusion, “there’s no difference between you, singular, and you, plural, in English. No one in English expects to hear that kind of thing.”

“Then what do you do?”

“You do nothing. Nothing at all. Be polite. We don’t make those kinds of distinctions.”

She remained puzzled. I could read her thoughts: How to cope with a language that won’t let you show your disdain by employing an informal or up-close-and-personal tu in a situation that called for the formal vous?

I’ve learned that using the tu form not only means that you’re on easy terms with someone, but it may show that you’re in a position of power or that you’re contemptuous of the person you’re speaking to. Not too long ago, French police were told that they were to use the vous form with suspects they’d brought in for questioning rather than try to intimidate them with the tu form. This new regulation was apparently a very big deal.

An exchange from an excellent French police series has stayed with me, because it shows the power of the two verb forms. In an episode of Engrenages, during a heated argument, the police captain addresses a beautiful, self-serving and morally conflicted lawyer using the tu form.

At one point, the lawyer loses her patience at this treatment: “How dare you use the tu with me!” (“Comment osez-vous me tutoyer!”) “I say tu,” the captain replies icily, “because you are detestable.” It’s more forceful in French: “Je te dis ‘tu’ parce que tu es détestable.” Ouch. Or, as the French might say, “aïe!”

With Daniel and Philippe at dinner, the play between the tu-vous was a subtler kind of putdown. Daniel was probably mocking what he saw as Philippe’s fussiness or in response to Philippe’s use of démodé expressions. It was the vous as riposte to perceived snootiness.

As an American, however, I can’t even begin to play those kinds of games with forms of address. Maybe that’s why the French consider sarcasm to be typical of American or English humor. We can’t use verb forms as a weapon.

I once met an Englishwoman who lives in Strasbourg – she worked at the European Council there pre-Brexit – who told me that she addressed everyone with the tu form. “They don’t care,” she told me. “I’m English and they let that kind of thing slide if you’re so obviously not French.”

This is true. One afternoon I helped an elderly woman across a busy stretch of road in Montmartre. I wished her a good day, but used the tu form, as a matter of habit. “Je te souhaite de passer une bonne journée, madame,” I said. Then I realized my error and quickly apologized for being too familiar with her.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” the woman said to me. “Ce n’est pas grave. Vous êtes Américain.”

Hello in France

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The bonjour is important in France.

Whether you speak with someone at a store, a ticket booth or on entering a bus, if you don’t say “bonjour” – or, later in the day, “bonsoir” – you won’t get very far. It’s one of the rules of French life: you say “bonjour” to the person you see when you enter a store, a bakery or a restaurant, when you step into an elevator when other people are already in it, when you buy a ticket for a movie or a train, when you greet the ticket seller or the driver. You won’t be punished by saying nothing, but you may receive a look of semi-exasperated gallic disdain.

Not too far into my first stay in Paris, as I was still getting comfortable communicating in my meager French, I was with two French friends to see a forgettable Gerard Depardieu movie, and made the mistake at the ticket booth of simply asking for one ticket and laying a €10 note on the counter.

“Bonjour,” the ticket-seller said, eyeing me with suspicion. I didn’t get the point, and again asked for one ticket. “Bonjour,” he repeated, a bit irritated at my incomprehension. It finally sank in. “Bonjour,” I said. “Alors, on commence,” he said. “Now we can begin.” Jeez, what a jerk, I thought. I mean, I was buying a movie ticket, not entering a discussion about Madame Bovary. But I’ve come to learn that certain types of comportment are drilled into the French early on. Saying bonjour before beginning anything else is one of them.

The bonjour has become more habitual with me, but I still have to remind myself to speak it at odd moments. I sometimes start with “Excusez-moi,” if I need help at a boutique or in the train station. As often as not the person to whom I speak usually responds with “Bonjour,” before saying anything else, which makes me go through the whole “Bonjour, excusez-moi” rigamarole before I can actually get to the point of my request. The other day, I needed to check whether my metro tickets were still valid after having a problem at a turnstile and, being somewhat pressed, I turned to the representative at the information counter at the entrance and asked politely if he could check my tickets. Not politely enough, apparently. He smiled at me and said, “Bonjour,” as if he had all the time in the world. “Oh,” I said, after a moment, “bonjour.” I mean, really. But like the ticket-seller years earlier, only with a friendlier demeanor, the representative was only upholding what he considered to be a valuable French tradition. He said, “Bien, monsieur. Je suis à votre écoute. Que puis-je pour vous?” Now, sir, I’m all ears. What can I do for you?

You’d think there’d be more important things to consider than whether you utter “bonjour” to someone, but in France the little things count for a great deal. Part of me appreciates that, since people can be so vile to each other these days. Part of me gets exasperated with the fake politeness. The thing is, the French are no more friendly or unfriendly than other people, but if you don’t observe the unspoken rules of basic interaction you get nowhere. Well, you get somewhere but more slowly than if you’d simply given up and said hello first.

At the same time, saying “bonjour” doesn’t mean you make small talk. The French have certain unspoken rules of etiquette but they don’t engage in chitchat as many Americans do. It isn’t unfriendliness as much as it is reserve. I hear acquaintances ask of each other, “Ça va?” – or how’s it going? –  but I’m not likely to say that to someone I’ve just met. After just meeting someone, I may occasionally ask, “Comment allez-vous?” But I leave it at that, once the pleasantries are done with. (By the way, the French equivalent of, “Nice to meet you,” is, “Enchanté,” or enchanted – and not in an ironical way.)

Perhaps the French insistence on saying “bonjour” forces people to acknowledge that someone else is there. It may seem like nothing to people like me for whom isolation is second nature and an “excusez-moi” is just a way of getting someone’s attention so my request can be handled. But maybe I need, or we all need, even a microsecond of greeting and eye contact. There’s little enough real connection in life, so I should probably be grateful for a hello.

 

 

 

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.