Ephemeral Art in Paris

The Place de l’Étoile was closed to pedestrians so people could stroll around the Arc de Triomphe.

I was delighted to be on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and the Place de l’Étoile the other day. I wasn’t alone in that feeling, either. Parisians and visitors usually do what they can to avoid the chaotic traffic on the Place de l’Étoile that encircles the Arc de Triomphe. But on this day, we were actually thrilled to be there.

This Christo and Jeanne-Claude project, which involved wrapping the Arc de Triomphe in silvery-blue sheets and red ropes, not only stopped traffic (the Champs-Élysées and the Place de l’Étoile were pedestrian-only for the last couple of weekends), but it has made almost everyone who has come within sight of the shimmering wrapping on the Arc pause and look at the monument anew. That is the point: to see with fresh eyes.

The Arc de Triomphe project was supposed to launch last year, but with the ongoing pandemic, and the death of Christo in 2020 (Jeanne-Claude died in 2009), it was put on hold. But the French government was eager for it to go forward, judging — rightly — that people would appreciate the opportunity to look at something other than angry protestors and their disheartened fellow citizens weary of the ongoing pandemic, of economic uncertainty and of political maneuverings leading up to the presidential elections next March.

I visited the wrapped Arc de Triomphe several times on a recent sunny weekend. On the Saturday, the Champs-Élysées was closed to traffic in one direction (on the Sunday it was entirely shut to cars), and a series of temporary fences encircled the Place de l’Étoile, where firefighters (pompiers) were on call to check people’s health passes at several entry points. You needed to show you were Covid-free or fully vaccinated in order to join the pedestrians ambling about the Arc de Triomphe. It all went smoothly and the air was, remarkably, festive — a word you don’t use often in everyday Parisian life.

Blue-vested guides strolled about, offering a bit of information about the installation and, for those who asked, a little square sample of the material used to wrap the Arc de Triomphe. People took selfies and families photographed each other under the brilliant sunshine. It was the same the next day when I arrived with friends to see it. We had lunched near Palais Royal and took the métro to Georges V so that they could see the Arc de Triomphe in the near distance when we climbed the stairs to street level. “Wow,” said my friend Eric, noticing the groups of friends and families enjoying the avenue, which people usually avoid, since for the most part it’s busy with slow-moving tourists and lined with luxury stores that cater to wealthy travelers. “You never see it like this.”

Again, that was the point. I could feel the sense of release among people who were staring at the monument — as well as their suddenly smiling fellow Parisians — with an infectious joy. After so many dreary months of shutdowns and disappointment, we were given an opportunity to bask in the sun together, to discover a Parisian cliché from a new angle, to be happy in the thought that the world wasn’t entirely bleak, at least for now. The Arc de Triomphe project is up just until the first weekend in October — and its ephemerality made it even more special. No one would want it to last longer, in a way — for then we would become accustomed to it, as we are to the unwrapped Arc de Triomphe.

The wrapped Arc de Triomphe just before sunset, and before traffic was closed on the Place de l’Étoile.

Not far from the other end of the Champs-Élysées is the newly opened Pinault Collection, at the renovated Bourse de Commerce, just off the Rue du Louvre, near Les Halles. The building, restored and rethought by the renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando, pays homage to the original Bourse de Commerce building, and to its inspiration, Rome’s Pantheon, and instills in me some of the same wonder as that Roman masterpiece. Here, a bold example of ephemeral art enlivens the main rotunda.

Urs Fischer’s “Untitled,” is a wax copy of Giambologn’s “The Abduction of the Sabine Women,” that has been lighted like a giant candle, and that is slowly melting.

The Swiss artist Urs Fischer has reworked a piece of his, Untitled (2011), for this site. In addition to a series of wax sculptures that are lighted and melted — they are basically enormous candles — the showpiece is a is a life-size replica of a notable Mannerist sculpture by Giambologna, “The Abduction of the Sabine Women,” from 1579-1582.

Shifting light from the cupola of the Bourse de Commerce falls upon the mural that encircles the rotunda.

I have been to the Bourse de Commerce about a dozen times since it opened, and each time I notice the further inevitable disintegration of the monumental statue. And each time I stand before the statue in awe of its progressive deterioration. I kind of wished I could have seen the face of one of the Sabine women fall off — it’s now on the floor, looking up at the ceiling in wax indifference.

This installation will be up until the end of December, so the curators aren’t waiting for the “candle” to melt entirely before removing it.

But just as watching the wrapped Arc de Triomphe thrilled me as a temporary reimagining of a well-worn monument, seeing the dripping wax of the sculpture in the Pinault Collection as the heads and limbs melt induces in me an eerie sense of inevitability about the fleeting nature of art. Perhaps it’s not the art itself, but how I look at it that changes. Knowing it is ephemeral makes me appreciate that much more those brief moments when I am lucky enough to witness it.

Managing Covid Controls in Paris

The Hôtel-Dieu, on the Île de la Cité in the 4th arrondissement of Paris.

My backpack became a little lighter this week. I no longer have to carry around my passport and my American vaccination card. I obtained a passe sanitaire, a French health pass, whose QR code on my phone shows that I’ve been fully vaccinated. This will come in handy, especially since everyone will soon need to show their vaccination status to enter restaurants and take long-distance trains.

While I have not encountered any problem in Paris when showing the vaccination card I received when I was vaccinated in New York, I still felt it would be more efficient to try to use the French system, since I’m here for a while. I had heard that it might be possible to use your American vaccination card to obtain a QR code that you could scan into the French Covid-tracking app, Tous Anti Covid. I asked at a pharmacy in my neighborhood if this could be done, but was told, “pas encore,” since the government had not yet given the go-ahead for pharmacists to create a QR code based on one’s American vaccination status. Then I learned from a site dedicated to helping Americans find their way in France that the Hôtel-Dieu, on the Île de la Cité in the 4th arrondissement of Paris on the parvis of Notre-Dame, had dedicated a room to doing just that. So off I went.

France and several other countries in the Eurozone are making an effort to bolster tourism during these uneasy pandemic times. American tourists are arriving, and I’ve heard a smattering of American accents here and there, such as at the Louvre. The streets aren’t swarming with tourists as in other summers, but that’s to be expected since Covid isn’t going away anytime soon. Still, things seem almost normal. There’s even been the usual round of angry chanting protestors on weekends – what is France without protests? – which might presage an anti-Macron movement like the infamous “gilets jaunes,” or yellow vests, of a couple of years ago, or might indicate a general unhappiness about having to comply with health measures on behalf of others. Maybe both.

And while demonstrators gathered in cities around the country last weekend to protest both the passe sanitaire and the possibility that vaccinations will become mandatory, the majority of the French are okay with the health pass, and also with being vaccinated (and at this moment, 64% of the French are at least partially vaccinated). Really, who doesn’t want the pandemic to end? A sizable minority, to judge by television news shows that are hungry to stir things up during the slow summer news season. This too seemed like France being itself.

Despite protests about liberty and personal freedom, despite whatever nonsense is being propagated about the safety and side-effects of the vaccine and despite the alarmist stories about the difficulty that restaurateurs may have in ensuring the their clients show their health pass, the passe sanitaire will likely become part of daily life for the time being. The French tend to become resigned to change once the possibility of it has become a reality. They resist change with a passion, but they’ll deal with it once it’s passed into law, as long as they can continue to complain about it. Outrage, like change, is both inevitable and constant.

Notre-Dame is under restoration; the Hôtel-Dieu is just to the left of it.

I’m all for the passe sanitaire, especially if it makes getting around easier. But I couldn’t find any official reason behind the French government’s suddenly deciding to allow Hôtel-Dieu to offer QR codes to Americans who show their vaccination cards. Information on government sites (French or not) is generally confusing, often out-of-date and usually contradictory. I’ve learned in France not to question why things are done, especially if something can help you in some way. I was grateful for this opportunity to make life a tad simpler.

As expected, the manner in which the whole procedure unrolled at the Hôtel-Dieu was a bit unorganized. This QR code process just began a few days ago, so they were figuring out the best way to get Americans in and out with a minimum of fuss. There were slight glitches. First, the guard at the entrance sent me the wrong way (he thought I was looking to be vaccinated). Then he told me to turn right after the lobby and to enter the little office that had been set up for providing QR codes. One of the workers there scolded me for entering and said in the aggravated, dismissive tone that’s customary among French functionaries, that I needed to wait in the lobby, behind me. It was then I saw that about 10 other hopeful Americans sitting patiently on a stone bench built into the lobby wall. So I took my seat among them.

The Hôtel-Dieu is apparently the oldest continuously operating hospital in the world. It was founded in 651 and rebuilt several times, the latest between 1867 and 1878, when the Baron Haussmann was remaking Paris. It looks quite lived in. It doesn’t quite resemble a hospital as much as the oversized administration building of some fantasy epic in an alternate reality. If it weren’t for the occasional sight of white-coated doctors strolling through the hall, you could have been in any imposing ages-old government building. In a way, it felt as if we were waiting to get our papers stamped so we could proceed on our pilgrimage. Which kind of made sense. We were all on a quest for enlightenment.

As I waited, one of the people handling the QR code process taped up on the wall by the stone bench a printout that said, “QR CODE COVID.” It was the first sign that this was official. The ad hoc sign didn’t indicate that this was the waiting area, or that you’d need your passport, your vaccination card and the Tous Anti Covid app installed. Still, it was something. Every few minutes, a few more Americans arrived, probably like me tired of carrying their passports and vaccination cards with them and hoping to get their QR codes, and took their place on the stone bench. I was called in after about a half-hour of waiting.

Once inside, it took about five minutes. A young woman examined my passport, and then entered onto a French government health site my CDC vaccination information (lot numbers, dates when the shots were administered). For some reason – likely a demand by French health authorities – she also asked which arm had received the shot and whether I’d had any secondary effects (answers: left arm, and none). In any event, I was soon given sheets of paper that showed the QR code and the information entered into the French health system. When I scanned the code into the app, it reacted with a shower of balloons, a charming way to celebrate my activating the passe sanitaire.

I felt as if I’d somehow succeeded in navigating the French bureaucracy. But in these uncertain times, it was also a satisfying victory during life under Covid.

Navigating French Covid Life

In line at the Louvre, once health credentials have been verified. You can only enter the museum (and get in the line) if you’ve shown you’ve been vaccinated or tested negative for Covid.

A couple of weeks ago, I was down in Arcachon, on the Atlantic coast south of Bordeaux, to visit a friend who’s vacationing there. We hadn’t seen each other since last February (2020, that is), but it was as if we had been together only days before, so easily did we fall into familiar conversation.

I can’t say it’s been quite as easy reconnecting with the country as a whole, though.

I’ve been back here for a month, arriving just a few weeks after the French government allowed vaccinated Americans to enter the country. I’m delighted to be once again immersed in the culture, though it feels a bit different, like running into a friend who’s gone through something that makes him a bit jumpy.

It’s the little things. Even the simple act of standing at a counter to get a quick café at the local bar-tabac is now forbidden. You have to be seated to order. This isn’t a big deal, but it makes life here (as elsewhere) less spontaneous than it had been. Still, you deal with it.

Over the past couple of weeks as a new, more contagious and potentially deadly Covid variant propagates thanks to the stubborn unvaccinated, the French have imposed stricter measures for controlling viral transmission. That means you have to show your “passe sanitaire,” or health pass, which appears on the French app “Tous Anti-Covid,” which has a QR code that displays your vaccination status. Most of us Americans don’t have that particular app, which in any event doesn’t yet work with American QR codes that some people received if they were vaccinated at pharmacies. The Centers for Disease Control card that most of us got when we were vaccinated at vaccination centers doesn’t have a QR code. But at least under the new regulations, the CDC vaccination card is valid proof, since it indicates the date of your second dose (this is the important information). This allows you to get into a museum, a movie theater and, soon, a restaurant (even the terraces outside the restaurant). I’m glad I had my card laminated; it’s getting much more use than I had thought.

Hand-sanitizing stations are everywhere, such as bus stops, in metro stations, at the entrances to department stores and supermarkets.

In some parts of France, such as Perpignan and the surrounding area, people have to wear masks on the street, just as in the bad old days at the height of the pandemic. Here in Paris, mask-wearing is mandatory in stores, museums, movie theaters and on public transportation. As in New York and other cities in the U.S., many restaurants here have erected makeshift outdoor terraces, some of the complementing their existing terraces, to make up for lack of space inside, and to keep up the illusion of social distancing (though, as always, social distancing doesn’t deter the ever-present cigarette smoke of nearly every other patron from infesting every outdoor table). Still, you deal with it.

Paris is known for its restaurant terraces, but Covid conditions have led many restaurateurs to add to existing ones or create their own, such as this one on the Rue Cardinet in the 17th arrondissement.

As in the U.S., there is a very vocal and large minority of anti-vaccination types, who have taken to the streets not only to criticize increasingly more stringent measures to combat the spread of the virus, but the growing likelihood that vaccination will become mandatory for more and more people. The protestors (last weekend about 150,000 people marched throughout France, not a huge number, but not insignificant) don’t seem to realize that if it weren’t for so many people already having been vaccinated, they wouldn’t have been able to gather on the streets to protest their lack of liberty. They’d have still been confined to their homes, wondering when it all would end.

But it’s hard to combat feelings with logic. For some reason, the French are general vaccine skeptics, which is more a matter of principle than practice. It’s the philosophical bent where the French prefer conceptual approaches to the actual thing. The idea of a vaccine is good. This is, after all, the country of Louis Pasteur. But the actual vaccine – well that’s something to get all huffy about.

But I’m vaccinated, and I’m happy to be here, even if I have to “porter un masque” when I want to go the Louvre.

Paris Is Closed


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


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


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


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


“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


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


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.