A Sense of the Past in Paris

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Sacré-Cœur from the Renoir Garden at the Museum of Montmartre. 

My friend Olivier likes to collect English-language phrases or expressions, although his English is often rather approximate. A few weeks ago he asked me the term in English for someone with newly acquired wealth who’s a bit ostentatious about it. “Nouveau riche,” I said. “We use the French.” But, I added, we sometimes refer to a certain discreet family wealth as “old money.”

“It can’t be very old in America,” Olivier said. I told him that money was money, old or new, if it did what you needed it to do. But that didn’t matter to him. His attitude is like that of many French: it’s important to know the provenance of your life, and if your family has generations of history with which you’re familiar, then your life and perhaps even your money have more relative value.

Olivier’s attitude is similar to that of a not-inconsiderable number of French, in that he wants to trace his family far, far back into the past, and would love more than anything to prove a connection to Charlemagne or even Clovis, the first king of the Franks. Lineage still means something for many people here, even if that lineage can be irrelevant to how you conduct your life in the present. But in France, who you were counts a lot for who you are. A “de” affixed to a surname still connotes a noble family, which can add luster to your résumé, especially in a country that despite its vaunted “liberté, égalité, fraternité” still harbors a deep respect for those accidents of birth that provide social standing and an aristocratic stature, however faded.

Even Parisians from elsewhere – and many Parisians are from somewhere else – are proud to let you know what region of France defined them. If you’re foreign-born you’ll always be a foreigner, and your sense of your own place – that is, your sense of how where you were raised affected who you became – is of less importance to the French because you weren’t born in France. The French aren’t any more or less xenophobic than are people of most nations – but in France defining yourself by your past or your family’s past is also a way of excluding those whose past isn’t as well-documented as your own.

Still, as interesting as it is to know where you came from genealogically speaking, it’s also  fascinating to see how the places where you live arose. Often from the pasts of others. And like your birth, you have no control over that past, even if you’d like to embellish it to favor yourself.

I thought about this the other evening when a group of us were celebrating the birthday of our friend Raoul. Raoul has a beautiful apartment in Montmartre on the chic Avenue Junot (where quite a few artists, singers and movie folk have homes – in French terms, very new money). From his living room, you can see the Sacré-Cœur, and from his dining room, the Eiffel Tower. The apartment where he lives – and which he inherited from a cousin – is in a building that was constructed in the 1920s, which is virtually yesterday in French terms. Definitely not old money.

Our friend Annie-Claude organized a soirée culturelle at the Musée de Montmartre, a five-minute walk from chez Raoul. The museum is dedicated to the history and spirit of this part of Paris, and it has old posters, paintings, an artist’s workshop and even an example of a typical zinc bar of the pre-war era that had been saved from being melted down for armaments during World War II by being hidden in a basement. We wandered around the museum with a sense of wonder at what we didn’t know about the neighborhood where several of us present have actually lived for decades. Raoul and company, like many Parisians, had rarely visited this cultural center, taking for granted an acquaintance with their neighborhood from what friends and family passed along to them.

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La Butte Montmartre et l’emplacement de l’avenue Junot, by Alfred Renaudin.

We came across a painting of the construction of Avenue Junot, at the turn of the 20th century, La butte Montmartre et l’emplacement de l’avenue Junot, a 1910 work by Alfred Renaudin, a little-known local artist. Everyone hovered around the painting, as if to touch the past just out of reach, evidence of the present being up the road but remnants of the past here before us in oil. The apartment building where Annie-Claude lives, just down the block from Raoul, was clearly visible on the upper left of the canvas. Raoul’s apartment was absent – it wouldn’t be built for another fifteen years or so. The region had been home to farmland and vignobles, and Montmartre was for a long while a quartier in progress. The world changes around you, even if you think you give yourself a sense of solidity by sticking to a story of how ancient your family is or where you’re from. We all do this, of course – but this tends to be more codified in France, since history is woven into lineage.

Still, it’s good to be reminded that things weren’t always there, regardless of how far back you believe your family line stretches. Someone is always new somewhere, even if someone else can still claim superiority because of supposed connections. Because we want to matter in the present, and because most of us struggle to be relevant even to ourselves, we look for ways to assert our worth and create histories to back that up. So we give credit to a past we don’t really know, we take pride in relatives we will never meet, we savor qualities we ascribe to those known unknowns. We’re all descendants of someone, and most of those someones are forgotten. Still, believing in those forebears is interesting if ultimately, irrelevant, unless you think that you are somehow better than those around you because you affixed a name to an abstraction from another age.

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An artist’s atelier at the Museum of Montmartre. 

I was thrilled to see that painting of an era just before my friend’s apartment was built, to consider a contemporary view of a dissolved past. I had a real connection with that painting, because it represented a tangible act of capturing a moment in time. It’s a neighborhood I know, and an artist caught something of life, or at least of place, for people he would never meet. The painting made me think less of descendants and ancestors than of the changes that occur around us while we aren’t actually looking at what we have, or when we aren’t trying to fashion a history to prove to ourselves that we matter.

 

A French Political Rally

I don’t know much about French politics, but I’ve come to recognize French politicians.

And recent affairs on the political scene here in France are a welcome relief, for a little while at least, from the horrific political sideshow acts in the U.S.

France is in the middle of a presidential election campaign, and while you can see in its unfolding some American inspiration, for want of a better word, in the use of social media among French politicians and a lengthening of the campaign season – it’s nothing like the grueling torture of an American presidential election.

The stakes are high in France, as they were in the U.S., as voters worry about their financial future and their personal safety, as people are being asked to choose between openness and closed-mindedness, between welcome and xenophobia, between voting “for,” in the words of the Parti Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, and voting against – that is, voting for those who are anti-everything, such as the far-right Marine Le Pen. Between choosing hope or hate. Unfortunately, with the rightward swing in national attitudes everywhere, hate plays far better than hope among people who prefer to blame others for what they believe is wrong with the way their lives have turned out.

The recent elections in the U.S. have added further urgency to the French political campaign – everyone fears the worst, and many on the other side of hate are doing what they can to elect someone who may be actually prevent France from closing itself off from the world, like its ally across the Atlantic seems to be doing.

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The U.S. is a big country, and everything related to a political campaign is bigger – especially involving money. But political commercials are unknown in France, which is a relief. Still, you can get your fill of politics on the many national talk shows devoted to the day’s events in France and I’ve come to recognize the usual guests who appear on these shows, too: journalists, political scientists (though I rather prefer the French word politologues) and academics who offer their conservative or liberal points of view.

Being French, they don’t simply toss out rehearsed one-liners – though they make their positions clear immediately – but they tend to talk and talk and talk around and about and up and down a topic or question, and they do what the French do best: enjoy hearing themselves speak. I enjoy hearing them speak too – I’ve become more French in that I am now more inclined to find entertainment value in listening to talking heads blow hot air at each other over the day’s news. This is probably because the French experts – unlike many of their American counterparts – actually know how to express themselves.

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As in the U.S., money has played a large part in the French campaign here, too – but unlike the enormous sums tossed around in an American election, the money that’s coloring this election is a misuse of public funds. The sums are significant – at least to the average French person who works for a living – a few hundred thousand euros in total – but money in France is different from money in the U.S. It’s respected, but not the summum bonum of a fruitful life for the French as it is for many Americans.

Still, money taints, whether euros or dollars. The Republican candidate François Fillon, who at best resembles an undertaker who hasn’t yet mastered the skill of faking empathy, has been accused of misusing funds to employ his wife Penelope in nonexistent jobs, to the tune of about €500,000 over the course of a decade, as well as his children (he employed one of his children for legal work as a lawyer, before she actually became a lawyer).

Fillon also more recently accepted gifts of custom-made suits, worth about €50,000, from a well-connected lawyer friend. In response to a question about whether it was appropriate to accept a gift from someone who might want to demand some sort of favor in return, Fillon said, “Et alors?” Meaning – “So?” This definitely didn’t play well with most people.

“They’re not even the best custom-made suits,” sniffed my friend Dominique, who’s left-leaning generally and definitely voting left in this election. Still, her point was that if you’re going to let yourself be corrupted by the finer things, at least let the bribe be worth your selling your soul. The larger concern is that Fillon sees nothing wrong in accepting gifts, or of using public funds to employ a member of the family (this latter is legal, if unpopular). This is troubling for many French voters, who are appalled at how out of touch Fillon is with the current distaste for the abuse of privilege, he the descendant of a stoneworker who has given himself the airs of a put-upon bourgeois.

“The real problem,” said Jean-Luc Melanchon, a far-left candidate who speaks very well but can be something of a self-righteous scold, “is that he doesn’t see that this is a problem.”

Marine Le Pen, herself an odious, smug xenophobe with the mocking sneer of someone who thinks everyone is beneath contempt (especially foreigners, and most especially Muslims), has also been accused of misappropriating public funds. But like her patron saint, the current lamentable holder of the American presidency, she accuses the legal system, rather than herself, of being corrupt.

To an American, such French political scandals are diverting, especially compared to the governmental horrors unfolding at home. But you can also find enthusiasm and actual joy in some French political events. Earlier this week, I went with a friend to a big “meeting” – the French use the English word for a political rally – of the Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon, at Bercy, a huge arena in the 12th arrondissement.

Hamon, who is trailing in the polls, behind the youthful Emmanuel Macron, the ex-finance minister and former banker who is expected to win in the second round of elections (he may very well become president), the detestable Marine Le Pen, and even the beleaguered François Fillon, has been unable to rally his party around his candidacy. He beat former prime minister Manuel Valls in the primary, but Valls has not given Hamon his support (he seems to be figuring out his next steps, regardless of who wins the election). The far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon has drawn away to himself a fair share of Socialist Part voters. Melanchon trails the other candidates in the polls – and he pretty much splits the left-wing vote with Hamon. But at the packed Benoît Hamon rally – or meeting – the mood was triumphant, hopeful, spirited.

Three French pop and rock groups played before the candidate arrived – Les Yeux Noirs, Debout sur le Zinc and General Elektriks – and they were surprisingly good, even for an American dubious of how entertainment is used at most political gatherings. Hamon also attracted some big names behind him, who spoke to the crowd about why they support him and his candidacy. These included the economist Thomas Piketty (author of the bestselling Capitalism in the 21st Century), the mayor of Paris, Annie Hidalgo, and the widely admired (though reviled on the right) Christiane Taubira, former Minister of Justice under François Hollande.

Hamon, who in public debates tends to be more soft-spoken than the righteous Melanchon and the strident Le Pen (though he’s more energetic than the morose Fillon), was evidently touched by the stirring show of support in the arena, which was filled with many young as well as older voters, and where many of those present waved flags for the Socialist Party, the European Union or the green party.

Hamon’s appeals for inclusion appeal to a wide swath of the population (even if Le Pen’s message of exclusion has fervent support as well). Hamon spoke with force and clarity. He urged voters to be engaged rather than to retreat into themselves, to be present for the world rather than to isolate themselves from it, to be part of a dialogue for positive change.

It was a real message of hope. But who knows if hope will sell come the elections in a few weeks? Hope certainly didn’t work in the U.S. last November (though resistance might be effective in the coming months, and Americans seem to have learned some of the finer points of mass demonstrations from the French). But although hatred may win an election, it’s become obvious that it cannot govern a country.

The French are about to choose, as Benoît Hamon said at one point during his roughly 90-minute speech, not only what kind of country they want, but what kind of people they wish to be. I am not French, but on this afternoon I found myself fervently pro-Hamon, and I want to be part of the country he wishes to lead.

A Visit to Caen

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With my friend Vin before the Hotel de Ville in Caen.

When I visited my old high-school friend Vin in Caen last week – my first time in that city – I became the tourist, even though I spend several months a year in France. You can always learn something about someplace.

Every March for the past few years Vin has been teaching for two or three weeks in Caen, in the Calvados region of northwestern France (it’s part of Normandy). We passed an afternoon together, and he helped me discover his personal Caen. Spending even a little bit of time in one spot makes it in some way your own. And most people want to share with others.

Still, nothing distinguishes individual personalities more than how someone shows you around. (Or how you react to what you’re shown.)

Vin is far more volubly enthusiastic than I am and he, as a professor, is used to holding forth on a topic. I’m more reserved, even if my enthusiasm is genuine, and I’m more accustomed to keeping my observations to myself. For Vin, speaking is a way of observing, or of considering what he sees while, for me, speech, as opposed to commentary, can be an afterthought to reflection, at least when I’m taking in something new.

When friends have visited me in Paris – which hasn’t happened too often (when I first started living in France, and was learning French, I discouraged visits during the months of my first stay, under the incorrect assumption that spending a little time with an Anglophone friend or relative would somehow impede my progress in French) – I generally walk around the neighborhood pointing out this and that, but I’m reluctant to fall into the attitude of a know-it-all (realizing that I actually know very little about most things).

This might be a result of my experiences with some of the people with whom I became acquainted in my first year in France. I remember, about a month after my arrival in Paris, walking around the 13th arrondissement with Jim, an expat whom I used to know, before a party to which I’d been invited. Jim expounded on everything from bus routes to local butchers, in a manner I found intriguing if a bit off-putting: he was both knowledgeable about certain points of quotidian French life and ignorant of the impression he made as a self-important pedant to a relative newcomer to the country where he had lived for a decade.

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The cloister of the Men’s Abbey at Caen.

I fear slipping into a similar bordering-on-unpleasant explanatory mode when I’m describing to a visitor what I find interesting in a Parisian neighborhood, though I make a point of trying to learn for myself the history of the buildings, parks, streets and homes wherever I live, even if I’m only there for just for a few weeks.

I know that most people won’t share my enthusiasm for having uncovered trivia about a certain area I like – most people are only enthusiastic about what they discover on their own – so I tend to keep this sometimes-useless knowledge to myself, unless it involves something vaguely notorious, such as knowing the house where a celebrated 19th-century courtesan lived. To wit: Caroline “La Belle” Otero – dancer, actress, lover of kings, breaker of hearts, causer of suicides – inhabited a charming Mediterranean-style house on the Rue Fortuny, around the corner from the apartment where I stay in the 17th arrondissement. Knowing this makes the still-pretty house just slightly more significant, since what was once the residence of a self-made woman who lived large and died quite old is now home to a small financial-services firm that’s of interest only to those who make heaps of money there. Its past lends piquancy to its present.

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The cloister at the Men’s Abbey at Caen.

Despite my own reluctance to shower trivia upon the occasional visitor who asks my opinion of my neighborhood, when I visited Vin in Caen I was eager to hear his impressions of a city he likes, one he’s had the good fortune to return to over the course of several years. His daughter Elizabeth was also visiting him at the same time – though for a longer stay than my afternoon – and so Vin’s natural dynamic professorial enthusiasm was further heightened with a strong dose of fatherly pedagogy. He was delighted to tell both of us what he knew, in the refreshing, garrulous manner of someone who loves discovery and who takes great joy in your discovering something with him.

We met at the Église Saint-Pierre and wandered off to lunch, then hit the Hotel de Ville, with its beautiful Abbaye-aux-Hommes and its church of Saint-Étienne where William the Conqueror is buried. Vin described various historical details that I never would have found out during a self-conducted tour of my own, and provided a brief commentary on some unusual liturgical features in the stained glass and among the stations of the cross.

Afterward, we saw the chateau of Caen and took in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which has a marvelous Perugino that would likely be passed over by swarming tourists if it were at the Louvre but that in a regional museum is given pride of place, while visitors have the chance to look at a masterwork in peace.

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From the ramparts of the Chateau of Caen.

Along the way, between church and chateau, Vin provided us with some tidbits of Caen’s history, and his association with the university where he teaches. He showed me the rare medieval houses that somehow withstood wartime bombardment, and drew my notice toward the unassuming (or, more plainly, dull-looking) modernist apartment building where he had temporary quarters. I also learned, for instance, that a damaged part of the chateau (most of Caen was obliterated during World War II) was probably caused by a grudge-holding English soldier who dropped a bomb into one of the towers to avenge the Norman Conquest of 1066. That’ll show them.

This is, of course, the kind of enjoyable if apocryphal detail that a professor slips into a discourse in order to pique the lagging interest of overtired students and, of course, I fell for it. Whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t matter here: your takeaway of a place is often a result of the lore rather than the facts (see: La Belle Otero).

And the person who gives you the commentary of a place can be as important as the place itself. A difference between how my friend Vin described where we where, and how my former acquaintance Jim recounted some facts about Parisian life, was attitude. One wanted to share his knowledge, while the other wanted to impress you with his. I learned from both the professor and the pedant, but I appreciate more the professorial enthusiasm than the pedantic snobbery. Even if I don’t quite know how my enthusiasms will land the next time I recount to a friend something of interest about where I live, I’ll try to share rather than to show off.

 

 

 

At the French ‘State Fair’

The agricultural sector in France is, like many sectors elsewhere, struggling. I heard a woeful farmer declare on a radio broadcast at the start of the Salon de l’Agriculture in Paris, which ended a few days ago, that he often asked himself what purpose his work served, or what was the point of his profession. He wasn’t speaking about feeding the world (this was a given), but of his own place in society, as agribusiness overtakes the small farm and farming itself becomes less a profession and more of an industry. Each of us can ask this question of ourselves, of course (none more so, perhaps, than an ex-journalist who writes about his own experiences abroad), but for those in farming, it’s a pressing concern: how to earn a living in a changing world, and whether what we do is worth it.

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Nevertheless, the Salon de l’Agriculture gives you a sense of still how important to the French are land, sowing, tilling, growing, raising, harvesting – farming as a practice, but more so farming as an idea. Many urban French are removed from the rural towns or villages where they were born, but they still harbor a deep affection, or perhaps something stronger – an inchoate connection with a deep generational history – to a place they would no longer want to live, but whose valor they want to maintain, even if it’s only by telling themselves they will buy locally when they think of it.

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The Salon de l’Agriculture is a little like a French national version of a U.S. state fair – albeit with much better food (you’re as likely to find a deep-fried candy bar or a butter sculpture at the Paris fair as you are fresh oysters, foie gras or choucroute garnie at a fair in Iowa). But rather than being held in a fairgrounds somewhere out of town as U.S. state fairs are, the French farm comes to the city to make the fair: the Salon de l’Agriculture takes place at the huge convention center (or the parc des expositions) at the Porte de Versailles, in the 15th arrondissement. Paris is the capital, of course, but holding the fair in Paris is also a way of stressing how important is agriculture in all senses to the French national character.

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One of the many restaurants at the Salon de l’Agriculture, this one with an oyster bar. 

I’ve always been a city boy, and so I love state fairs, or even citified salons de l’agriculture. The Paris fair focuses on the different regions of France, each highlighting a particular livestock – cattle, milk cows, goats, sheep, pork – and the products derived from each, such as sausages and cheeses, as well as the fruits of the earth, such as confiture and, of course, wine. As with American state fairs, you can see demonstrations (of a sort) of cattle or pork traipsing around a hay-strewn pen under the watch of their breeders (I have no idea what such displays are meant to show other than perhaps the robust health of the specimens, but I was delighted simply to see the beasts lumber about). And you can wander around in relative proximity to the animals you only whiz by on the autoroute if you’re off to spend a rustic weekend somewhere.

I stopped by one stand to watch some chicks hatch – this exhibit was devoted to chickens, of course, and you are always aware of what will eventually befall the cute little hatchlings. You’re not at an agricultural fair to ignore the purpose of farming or the raising of livestock. Similarly, hard by the cattle and livestock pens was a beautiful display of freshly butchered meat, ready for purchase.

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At another stand, for the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, I sampled and bought a piece of aged comté.

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Later that day, when I was picking up an additional cheese for dinner at my local cheese merchant, I mentioned to the saleswoman that I’d also bought a comté at the fair, rather than, as usual, from her store. She said, with alarm, “Mais c’est une arnaque,” meaning it was a swindle. She said that the booths at the fair preyed upon tourists such as me. Well, I told her, I was a tourist for the day, but I still wanted to do my part to support the local industry. Anyway, une dame d’un certain âge had bought some cheese from the Comté guy just before I did, and this elderly lady seemed to me to be the very picture of a traditional Parisienne who could in an instant tell a con artist from a genuine merchant. Although this store, Alléosse, on the Rue Poncelet in the 17th arrondissement, is excellent, and sells wonderfully fragrant comté cheese that can be as old as 41 months (Alléosse prides itself on its affinage, or its aging of cheese), the cheese I had bought (which was simply labeled “vieux,” or old) from the vendor at the agricultural fair was also first-rate. Perhaps I’d lucked out.

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The exhibit for Ariège, in the southwest, showcasing its local products. 

But everyone is a tourist of sorts at the Salon de l’Agriculture – the farmers and cheesemakers and winemakers and experts in horticulture who come to Paris, and the Parisians who come to the fair to see their work. Not to mention the politicians, who almost all make an appearance at the Salon de l’Agriculture, to show solidarity with the farming bloc, as it were, and to support this idea of France as a country ruled by ideas but nourished by those who work the land. Many in the agricultural sector, apparently, support the far-right Marine Le Pen, whose xenophobia, racism and “France first” platform appeals to people who think that closing oneself off from the world is the way to succeed in it.

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Socialist-party presidential candidate Benoît Hamon gives an interview during the Salon de l’Agriculture. 

When I was at the fair, the socialist-party candidate, Benoît Hamon, was also there. I caught a glimpse of him as he gave an interview, but when he descended from a platform to walk among the stands, he was lost amid a crowd of journalists wielding microphones and cameras – as fairgoers jostled each other to glimpse him, and as they all moved in a mass toward one or two stands for an awkward photo opportunity.

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The back of the presidential candidate Benoît Hamon’s head, lost in the crowd of journalists, at the Salon de l’Agriculture.

I moved on from the political spectacle, such as it was, to take in more of the stands, and to savor samples of chorizo, chocolate, cheese and sablés.

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The Salon de l’Agriculture is, of course, also a delight for families with children, who love animals as much as anyone who doesn’t have to tend to them.

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And like a born urbanite, I took a selfie with a cow – because, why not?

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Selfie with cows.

I’m going to show the photo to the woman at the cheese store, and let her know that although I was indeed a tourist ready to be plundered by rapacious farmers, I had a wonderful time.

And of course, a Parisian fair simply wouldn’t be a fair without at least one representation of the Eiffel Tower, such as one in fruits and vegetables.

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I’m already looking forward to next year’s fair.

French Attitudes to Food

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The French arrive hungry. When you invite friends over to dinner in France, they will generally eat what you serve. Special requests are rare and, apart from a Parisian aversion to certain foods that they consider to be too spicy (it doesn’t take much heat at all for French palates to feel an overwhelming peppery burn), your dinner guests consume pretty much anything you prepare for them.

This isn’t to say that food trends don’t exist here as elsewhere. At supermarkets and boulangeries you can find a range of gluten-free this and that – pasta, breads, crackers. At the same time gluten-rich bagels have become something of a culinary thing in Paris. One new bagel place on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in the 8th arrondissement, is packed at lunch.

Overall, what distinguishes French dining from American eating is the French attitude not only toward being a guest at someone’s home for dinner, but the French relation to food itself. Many Americans expect you to cater to the whims of their palate or the demands of their diet, while the French only expect you to feed them, and assume you’ll do your best to prepare something that everyone will enjoy.

This isn’t a new observation, of course – the French have always been known for honoring food as something worthy of one’s time rather than as mere fuel or a sinful indulgence. But I notice, as someone who likes to entertain guests for dinner both in Paris and in New York, that the French are far less demanding of what they eat when they’re at your home than are Americans (or New Yorkers). The French are far more likely to clean their plates. And they are far less likely to worry about what their home says about them than about how they can best offer a gracious evening to the people they care about. I’ve had wonderful dinners in tiny, cramped Parisian apartments at which everyone was grateful to squeeze in around a rickety table – bit it’s rare to find that kind of accommodating spirit in Manhattan. Several of my French friends live in the sort of apartments you’d never be invited to in New York – out of that Manhattan fear that you’ll be judged by the limitations of your real estate rather than the expanse of your spirit.

Many Americans fear what food can do to them, as if nourishment is medicinal, or as if food itself is a toxin consumed only with extreme caution. The French aren’t afraid of food. They want to appreciate what food can offer, both in terms of taste and history, and they uphold diverse regional culinary traditions. I don’t want to generalize too much about French cuisine overall, however. Fast food thrives in France, and industrially prepared shelf-stable or frozen dishes are a part of many people’s daily diets, while foreign cuisine (Italian, Asian) is often more of a free-wheeling approximation of what you get elsewhere than a true representation of different culinary customs and tastes.

But my own attitude toward food has changed as a result of my splitting my time between France and the U.S. For one thing, I eat more bread in Paris than I do in New York – how could you not, when first-rate baguettes are available everywhere, are relatively inexpensive and are pretty much an essential component of a meal?

You think less of avoidance in Paris than of incorporating something into what you eat day to day. And you worry less about potential ill-effects of something as simple as a crusty baguette than of why you would deny yourself something that has such deep flavor. I remember one lunch with a visiting New Yorker friend who, after some gentle urging, reluctantly sampled the bread placed in a small basket between us on the table at the little local restaurant where we were eating. Her face lit up with joy at tasting something so good (and for her, so rare), although this didn’t entirely offset her guilt at indulging in the sort of carbohydrates that she forbids herself from eating back home in New York.

It’s a matter of what you want from your meals: mere sustenance or actual enjoyment (even though they’re not mutually exclusive). Or whether a dinner is a chance to show off or an opportunity to spend time with friends. (These aren’t mutually exclusive either.) I certainly have not adopted a more virtuous culinary attitude since spending more time in France, but I have come to realize how much easier it is to spend time with friends if you’re worried less about what they might or might not eat and more about what you really want to share with them. That being said, I don’t mind accommodating my friends who prefer not to eat certain things. But the difference is that in France, you generally don’t think about asking what people do or don’t eat, because people you invite to dine don’t generally demand special treatment.

I have also learned to be a little more French as a guest:  you arrive hungry, so that you can appreciate the importance of honoring the efforts of the host by eating what’s served. Even if it’s not very good (which happens). But you’re not there for the food as much as for the person who prepared it.

Authenticity and Experience in Paris

 

The Île Saint-Louis is like a film set for Paris. Beyond iconic monuments such as the Eiffel Tower, the Île Saint-Louis’s narrow streets and well-tended buildings from centuries past are what you expect to see when you come to the city, an idea of authentic Paris made real.

The other night, my friend Bob invited me to dine at the Brasserie de l’Isle Saint-Louis with friends of his who were visiting Paris. The restaurant is in view of the cathedral of Notre-Dame just over the Seine, and located across the street from the landmark ice-cream boutique Berthillon. Everything was post-card pretty and movie-set quiet, as if an assistant director had just called “action” before the filming of a scene. You could almost ignore the family of three who sat begging on the cobblestones at the foot of the Pont-Rouge.

Bob had chosen this brasserie because he’d eaten there often when he had lived and worked in France. He wanted to introduce his friends to a place he knew personally. For most of their other meals, his friends had chosen recommended restaurants that the noted food writer Patricia Wells had included in her book, The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris.

Like a lot of visitors to Paris, they had put greater store in the printed opinion of someone they didn’t know rather than the personal suggestion of a friend who knew the city as a resident. But authenticity is how you find it, or what you make of it or what you decide it should be for you. Like facts for certain imbeciles in public life, authenticity can mean several things. But unlike alternative facts to the savagely ignorant, authenticity really can be a matter of opinion.

The Brasserie de l’Isle Saint-Louis is unpretentious, and although frequented by tourists it isn’t the sort of must-dine-at restaurant you’re likely to find listed in a guide to haute cuisine. It’s simple, the food is decent, the staff are kind, the prices are moderate. It’s the kind of restaurant I myself prefer, living here as I do several months a year. I wouldn’t call it authentic – because what would that mean in any event? But I’d call it my idea of what I like in a restaurant in Paris.

But then, I sometimes tell myself that I’m not after authenticity as much as those who visit might be. But this would be wrong: however I define what I prefer, or whether I call it authentic versus touristic or real versus fake, it’s my impression that matters in such things. Just as the impressions of my friend Bob’s visiting friends mattered to them concerning what they wanted to take away from their dining experiences here. They had decided that it was important for them to experience Paris, or Paris dining, in a particular way – and Bob’s suggestions for where they all might dine together were sometimes at odds with their wish as visitors. Ticking off a restaurant on a list authenticated something in them relating to their experience of being in Paris, and they would have been disappointed if they hadn’t been able to dine at Chez l’Ami Louis, even if when they did it turned out to be overpriced, overheated and overcrowded. But Chez l’Amis Louis had been on their list, and they had eaten there and they were satisfied, if not by the restaurant itself as by having “done” it.

Just as what you consider to be authentic cuisine results from cuisine that has been codified to reflect traditions of preparation and memories of taste, so too are experiences organized according to predetermined hopes or expectations, if that experience is contingent upon meeting what you’ve determined to be the mark of satisfaction for your trip. You might not actually get within 20 feet of the Mona Lisa, but at least you’ve “seen” it since you were in the room with a few hundred other selfie-taking tourists. You might not actually enjoy the food you were served at a highly rated restaurant that you’d read about in a celebrated guide to local cuisine, but at least you could say that you’d been there. Your memory of visiting trumps your experience of actually studying the painting or eating the food.

Like my friend Bob does with his friends, I recommend places that I want to share with others. But I have to let go of my own expectations of what they themselves decide about the restaurants or sights I urge upon them. I want to share what I love, but I cannot convince anyone to share in my own enthusiasms.

As an American in Paris, I have seen how France protects its patrimony and its traditions, and how it seeks to determine what is or isn’t French. But that determination of authenticity regarding culture, cuisine or even nationality is, after all, artificial. Nothing is authentic, in the end, because everything results from someone’s opinion of what authenticity should be. That isn’t to say that reality isn’t real (though that too can depend on your perspective), or that we shouldn’t resist the current pernicious public tendency to downplay truth in favor of propaganda. But the enjoyment of the current moment – regardless of how difficult it can be to enjoy anything during a time when sensible people live in anguish over the state of the world – is as authentic as whatever the guardians of cultural propriety determine it should be.

The other day, I happened to be at the home of a friend in Montmartre, and in looking out his window at just the right moment I caught sight of a shimmering rainbow that arced from Saint-Denis, just outside of Paris, to the other side of the church of Sacré-Cœur, near my friend’s apartment. Rainbows, like experiences, are fleeting. I can share the photo, but not the event, but that’s usually the best any of us can do.

This isn’t the same, of course, as telling people that they simply must dine at such-and-such famous restaurant in order to fully appreciate what it is to visit Paris, but then, even if you’re disappointed in what you find when you’re actually there, your experience itself will be authentic. That rainbow was ephemeral, but my observing it was real. It was an authentic moment for me, but it will always be a slightly distant one for anyone who wasn’t there to see it. I still wanted to share it, however, which is the point. My Paris isn’t yours, but our experiences are still valid, however we authenticate them to ourselves.

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A Fear of Loathing in Paris

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“What a soft, easy, and wholesome pillow is ignorance and incuriosity, on which to lay a well-ordered head.”

Those words aren’t mine. They come from Montaigne, in an essay he wrote several hundred years ago on the nature of his experiences in life. He speaks of the necessity of trying to know yourself, and the impossibility of ever truly getting there. What’s essential is that you make the effort: that you allow yourself the humility of knowing you’ll never be as smart as you hope or believe you might be – even as you look within, to process what you’ve seen or lived in order to arrive at a sense of who you are that’s free of self-delusion, as much as anyone can be. “A man must learn that he is nothing but a fool, a much more ample and important instruction” than knowledge itself.

Of course, Montaigne could be speaking about our terrifying present, when so many people around the world lay their heads on pillows of ignorance. When so many are proudly, resolutely, fiercely ignorant. This is nothing new, in a way. Montaigne goes on to cite Cicero, who knew a thing or two about political opportunism, shifting loyalty, tyranny and manipulation: “Nothing is worse than that assertion and decision should precede knowledge and perception.”

Sound familiar?

The presidential election season has begun in earnest in France, and a lot of French voters are worried about the alarming rightward turn in politics. They’ve seen the results of recent elections in Europe and in the U.S., and they fear that a similar craven disregard for basic human decency will come to the fore if a right-wing politician is elected, giving a seal of approval to demagoguery, xenophobia and intolerance. What’s even more troubling is that this rightward swing is surging in a country that in its history has often suffered greatly from the evils that oppressive governments inflict on their citizens.

But history doesn’t matter to the angry and uninformed.

I was in Paris for a few months during the U.S. presidential election, and my French friends would ask my opinion on what was going on, often amused at the exuberant folly and vulgar spectacle of American politics, where entertainment, whatever that consisted of, trumped information, however you defined it. Now, on my return with a new president in power, they no longer seek my opinion, but offer their sympathy – and they also worry aloud that something similar might happen in France. Anyone but Marine Le Pen is what they say (granted, my friends aren’t supporters of her party, the National Front). They hope that “la France profonde” isn’t as determined to sabotage itself along with the rest of the country as did “l’Amérique profonde” last November, but their hope is watered with the growing fear of a new reality of disorder.

At the same time, apart from my sickening apprehension at what’s happening at home and at what might happen in France, I look at recent events around the world, especially in the U.S., and at the delusional power-grabbers responsible for them, and I wonder what it must be like to believe you’re always right.

Living for a few months a year in France I’ve been lucky, if that’s the word, to learn how wrong I often am. And rather than use that as a reason to belittle myself or to blame others, I have come to believe that such awareness helps me gain perspective. Not only on how I see the world – it helps if you live elsewhere from time to time to be confronted with something beyond your own preconceptions – but on how I see myself in relation to the world.

Your relation to the world is not an either-or thing, unlike what many moronic, cruel-hearted politicians and not a few dimwitted regular folks believe. But then if you consider yourself and what you believe in relation to the world and what it believes, you’re already thinking beyond yourself and are more likely to want to learn from different points of view and different cultures.

I know that at best I’m rather a fool, but at least I’m a fool who admits to foolishness and still welcomes experiences that nudge me in the direction of awareness, appreciation and acceptance. If not actual knowledge and understanding, which are always somewhat elusive. But at least they’re within reach if you are aware that you’re not always right. And at least I know that I’m neither knowledgeable nor particularly wise. This awareness is all that I can control.

I’ve actually grown into something approaching humility thanks in part to living in France, learning French and engaging with people of another culture – I’m no longer, as Montaigne wrote of himself, tortured by the arrogance of only trusting and believing in myself – that is, in what I think I know. The arrogant self-believers are the very ones who “establish religion and laws,” Montaigne said. This also sounds all-too familiar today, doesn’t it?

I cannot impose my humility, such as it is, on anyone else, nor can I reason with the unreasonable so that they begin to see things from a different point of view. But this isn’t as hopeless as it might seem – resistance can be effective in the face of evil, as the French themselves discovered when their country was last weighed down by arrogant and self-believing oppressors.

Unfortunately, more people are likely to recall the distant idea of resistance than the looming actuality of oppression. So the know-nothings tend to win, at least until their appalling ignorance becomes a liability and the resistance turns real.