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.

The Celebrated and Unknown in Paris

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After several years of splitting my time between New York and Paris, I’ve found that beyond acquiring another language, which is a feat in itself, I’ve learned to stop myself from generalizing, or even assuming that I know what I’m talking about.

It’s easy to become a shallow windbag if you’ve spent a few weeks living abroad, because you can pass off glancing familiarity as expertise to people who haven’t been where you are. Not that anyone really bothers about what you know. This has been a big revelation for me, who can be a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to self-knowledge: Few people, if any, care about your experience. Unless that experience involves them directly. Or unless it creates in them the desire to experience something themselves. But it doesn’t usually involve you.

For a brief few moments when I first began this continuing adventure in Paris, I thought that my growing superficial knowledge of French cultural touchstones would do more than allow me to comprehend various conversational allusions so that I could participate in discussions or understand headlines or references in articles. I believed that it would ennoble me somehow in the eyes of others, as if I had any control over that. But no one cares what I know, unless somebody happens to share the same appreciation for a cultural benchmark as I do. But such yardsticks are only interesting, really, to those who acquire them. And only if they help you know more about the world where you live. That is, if you choose to. It all depends on what you’ve decided actually matters to you.

Earlier today, strolling around the Rue Lepic near the Moulin de la Galette, I came across a group of visitors who were staring up at a marble plaque affixed to a high wall that indicated that the performer Dalida had lived in that house beyond the wall. Dalida, who committed suicide about 30 years ago, was a beloved singer in Europe and elsewhere in the world, though pretty much unknown in the United States. She’s become the subject of further recent news because of a film bio that opened last week in France. I myself became acquainted with her career only after I started living here part-time a few years ago, but I can do no more than appreciate at a remove her life, her death, her singing, and the tragedies that beset her – certainly not with the same passive fervor of the people who lingered beneath the plaque, for whom Dalida’s songs and Dalida herself surely meant something more than the name of a popular performer of another era. I know who she was, but who she was and where she lived mean little to me.

Living abroad for a few months a year opens me up to new discoveries and to possibilities, certainly, and my research into the culture here helps me place certain things in context, even if what I know has little resonance beyond that. But to think that way is to question the very worth of knowledge, and I don’t want to do that, though I admit that I sometimes substitute a facility with retaining facts for actual insights into human nature.

Still, I was more taken today upon seeing again the tomb of the director Marcel Carné, in the little cemetery of Saint-Vincent, near the Lamarck-Caulaincourt metro station in the 18th arrondissement. Perhaps this was because I was acquainted more with Carné’s work, such as his great film Les Enfants du Paradis, which concerns the nature of art, foolish love and your perception of your place in the world, than with the music of Dalida. Or perhaps this was because I chose to find it romantic that Carné’s onetime partner, an actor named Roland Lesaffre, was buried beside him.

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I ascribed a resonance to Carné, to his tomb and to his place in the little-visited cemetery, because of what many of his films have meant to me, while at the same time I passed without much regard the group of folks who looked up longingly at where Dalida had lived. Dalida’s life, her music, her death, were so much more to them than I could possibly comprehend. I could imagine their passion for her, but I couldn’t substitute my awareness of that with anything more than a respect for something that others felt that I did not. But that doesn’t matter: they couldn’t know what I felt, or have the same experiences I had of seeing Carné’s films, or of coming upon his grave in a lonely little cemetery on a chilly gray midwinter afternoon, a grave on which a few other visitors had placed used metro tickets, alongside a small plaque that read, à mon ami. I don’t know why, but those few tickets, similar to those I’ve seen placed on other tombstones in other French cemeteries, made me think, in a cheaper way than do Carné’s films, of the nature of longing and the impossibility of knowing someone else. But then, I read all of that into a few morsels of trash on a quiet grave. So what do I know?

Living abroad shows me the limits of my knowledge, of course. I actually do know more about certain things today than I did a few years ago, when I began to create a part-time life in Paris. I came to France because I’m ignorant of so much and I wanted to be less provincial, and because I’m curious, and because even though my experiences abroad are only mine, they count for something if they lead me to change, to become less judgmental, more open to the outside, more aware in general of the varieties of human experience. Such experiences at least provide me with a sense of who I am, as fluid as that knowledge or sense might be, and a sense of what I learn as well, when I take steps to experience life from another culture’s reference points.

And if I recount my experiences or even the silly little things I come across, it’s to show that a middle-aged man of no great accomplishment can actually achieve something, even if it’s just a hint at self-awareness. And also that the random facts acquired in a foreign city count for much, even if for now they’re manifest only in the realization that I still want to know more about the everyday wonders of the wider world, because although these might matter only to me, my knowing them will affect how I matter to myself.

French Tarts and Traditions

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The other night over a dessert of the ever-present galette des Rois – a January staple in France – my dinner host Jean asked me if in the U.S. we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany in this way. He was wearing a paper crown atop his head as he said this, having found the fève, which is the word for a bean but that has come to mean in this context the little token hidden in a slice of the galette des Rois. The person who finds the fève becomes the king or queen of the day (a temporary Magi, as it were) and the right to wear the silly paper crown, which most people actually do, at least for a minute or two. (And most galettes des Rois come with their own little crowns.)

As for celebrating the feast of the Epiphany, I replied that it wasn’t marked in the U.S. by any cultural observation, except perhaps in certain regions, or in certain families depending on their ethnicity or religion. In any event, while the French widely celebrate the feast, they do it in a culinary rather than a devotional way through offering the galette des Rois, a tart made of puff pastry with a frangipane filling. This being France, food traditions remain much stronger than religious observances.

The galette des Rois is also a way of prolonging the holiday season well into the gloomy month of January, a freeing of the spirit through pâte feuilletée.  As a result, you are served desserts of galettes des Rois for several weeks, either the classic frangipane or a variation – with apples, or lemon curd or even a circle of brioche in the form of a crown. Each of them comes with a little fève, and these fèves are often quite charming examples of craftsmanship. They’re about the size of Monopoly tokens, and can range from semi-abstract representations of animals to detailed cartoon figures (the Simpsons, Disney princesses, J.R.R. Tolkien characters) to portrayals of buildings or cars or sometimes household fixtures such as lamps. They are collectible (though I have no idea how you’d display your cherished collection of your series of half-inch figurines). There’s even a French word for a collector of these seasonal fèves, a fabophile, and the collecting of fèves: la fabophilie. But this is just a local version of the human tendency to hold onto things of no value.

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A sampling of fèves from galettes des Rois, with a sample paper crown. 

What really holds is the tradition, even as the customary Epiphany galette des Rois season stretches beyond that day into several weeks, until February 2, with la Chandeleur, or Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation, when you move onto serving crêpes or beignets. And even the making or eating of crêpes has its own ritual.

But then, everything here has its own ritual, its own long history, its own regional variation on that history and ritual. And these rituals, particular to France (or to Europe), remain essential to the national cultural lexicon. Some of these appeal to me, having been raised in a country that doesn’t really hold by ritual, especially culinary ones. This is fine – you can become too hidebound by tradition, just as you can become wearily accustomed to tearing things down to rebuild. America is too new, too large, too diverse and maybe too disputatious a country for a seasonal tradition such as the galette des Rois to become planted in the public imagination. In America these days no one can even agree on what a patriot is, so it’s hardly likely that a simple tart with a rich cultural history is likely to be a national touchstone for moving from darkness into light.

French friends often ask me if Americans note such-and-such date or eat such-and-such dish or maintain such-and-such tradition as do the French. Dates, dishes and traditions are far more important to the French than to Americans, who aren’t likely to ask the French similar questions (putting aside a general lack of curiosity about other countries and cultures among many of my compatriots). Like France, America has its regional specialties, local customs and family traditions, but unlike France, America is less culturally homogenous at the national level. And far less in thrall to how things were done, or less likely to uphold ways of doing things for the sake of doing them. The United States is a country where immigrants and different nationalities hold onto their cultural identities despite assimilation, whereas in France you’re expected to respect above all the idea of Frenchness that exists to some extent in maintaining those French traditions, no matter where you’re from.

Since I’m often something of an outsider in most situations, I can appreciate the upholding of traditions such as the galette des Rois that create a commonality of experience. It’s not that eating the galette makes me feel French (which would be impossible), but that living for a while in a culture where eating such things is a mark of respect for what’s gone before allows me to seem less apart from my own sense of self. I borrow this or that tradition just as I borrow the Paris apartment of my friends, so that I can live in France temporarily and craft an interim home out of something that isn’t mine. I share in someone else’s cultural tradition to create a memory of belonging, since I don’t really belong anywhere,  nor do I own anything other than those fleeting experiences. I live a borrowed life in a way, but then, who doesn’t?

Although I come from a country whose culture is commercial, I like the culture of a country such as France whose traditions are often stronger than that, or where at least the respect for tradition hasn’t been entirely erased by the pursuit of wealth.

“I’m surprised you don’t observe Epiphany,” my friend Pierre said at that dinner the other night. “You Americans celebrate everything.”

“It just seems like that,” I said. “Most American holidays are really just a way of organizing the calendar around sales.”

Joyeux Noël in Paris

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I interpret my interpretations of places, people, cultures. As much as I try to avoid second-guessing myself, neither do I want to fall into certainty. Living between Paris and New York upends my tendency to think I’ve got it all figured out. One of the reasons for my dividing my time between Paris and New York has been to avoid what Montaigne calls a contraction of the mind, by never stopping to be content with what I know or what I think I know, but always to aspire and go beyond, to see if I understand correctly, or to question my assumptions about what I’ve seen. This holds true even for holidays.

Since I divide my time between New York and Paris, I usually just miss Christmas in Paris. I tend to arrive at the start of the New Year, when it’s more likely that the apartment of my friends Bob and Loraine in the 17th arrondissement, where I stay, will be available. The city remains decorated for the holidays usually until the end of January and you can get a continuing sense of the not-quite-faded festive season. In fact, the holidays fade gently if inexorably in Paris, as the height of winter loosens its hold, when the carnivalesque lights are gradually removed as if they were bright recollections receding from the memory. In the U.S., the Christmas season starts early, drags on and then it’s done with. It begins in earnest after Halloween but it’s over just after the ball drops at midnight on New Year’s Eve. In New York the holidays are pretty much declared dead as soon as the second day of January falls, when you begin to see the sad skeletons of Christmas trees lying strewn amid their fallen needles on the sidewalks, as if the families who had hung their stockings with care couldn’t wait to get rid of any tinselly vestige of having actually celebrated.

But I like landing in Paris as Christmas lingers, in the dark days of early January, in the shadow of other people’s celebrations. As much as I tell myself I enjoy the holidays, I’ve always marked them as someone who’s there but not there, a stranger to my own enjoyment, perhaps. So arriving in Paris just when the year is new, when the revels are ended, seems more suited to my frame of mind. I like this time of year, but I allow myself to be alienated from it somehow, as if I’m not worthy of living in a moment of joyous connection with someone else. So in a way I can appreciate the faint melancholy of the early days of the month, the twinges of regret for the year gone by, and the temporary newness of the familiar, as well as not being present for events to which I would not have been invited anyway.

And yet, I marvel at the lights, the décor, the insouciant glee (even sometimes the anxiety) of this time of year. Paris can be as luminous at Christmas as any other big city, but it remains somewhat staid, although along the Champs-Elysées the decorations can appear more extravagant than those in New York, apart from the incandescent year-round mayhem of Times Square. But Paris is overall quieter, even down to its traditions. You certainly have Christmas trees, or sapins de Noël in France but they’re generally smaller (and scrawnier) than what you find in the U.S. Over-the-top isn’t really a French trait, and this applies to Christmas as well as many other holidays.

You don’t get Christmas cards for the most part in France. You send cards (if you do still send cards) to wish people a bountiful new year. Christmas is for being with loved ones around a table, perhaps one where you have un repas bien arrosé (a meal with wine freely flowing) rather than foisting one’s artificial merriment on acquaintances and strangers. And where families in the U.S. are more likely to congregate around Thanksgiving (though, of course, Christmas is for families too), Noël in France is when you see your parents and siblings. Not the only time, of course, but an important one.

And yet, France being France, the season of good cheer is not unbridled. The U.S. has endless uplifting Christmas movies and holiday specials, as well as raunchy comedies and even violent horror films to mark the season (it is America, after all). But while France certainly has no shortage of Christmas concerts, you’re far less likely to be showered with the pabulum of false bonhomie than you are sometimes in the States. It’s more probable that you’ll look forward to a showing, perhaps, of Le père Noël est une ordure (or Santa Claus is garbage, though ordure can also mean excrement). It’s a movie that involves a bungling suicide-hotline service on Christmas Eve, sudden violence and disastrous infidelity, deaths accidental or not, and a sense that no matter whether the season says we’re to live in peace, reality says that life is cruel and comedy is crueler. I certainly warm to its puncturing of Christmas pieties.

I realize that even as I become more attuned to the niceties of French local traditions and cultural habits, I haven’t become more French than American (I’m still a sucker for sentimental holiday fare), and although I am not fully at ease in taking it easy, I can appreciate how Paris continues to bide its time even as New York gears up for the next big thing. And I’m more open in my outlook as a result of seeing how life plays out differently and similarly in Paris and New York, whether that’s during the holidays or not, though I have yet to come close to mirroring the French appreciation for the art de vivre. But that’s unrelated to knowing how to live in France, and more about learning to live in one’s own skin.

The Living Dead in Paris

 

In many French villages you’ll find a cenotaph that suggests you pause and remember the fallen soldiers among the citizenry. The fallen are, in fact, everywhere. In a country often ravaged by conflict, history is made up as much by the recurrent annihilation of its inhabitants as by the splendors and miseries of its kings and courtesans. And in a country such as France, where the patrimony of former glories is as revered as the uncertain future is feared, you can’t escape the sense that long-ago holds a stronger sway than the unfortunate reality of now.

The memory of a past we never experienced can be more powerful than the present. We live in an age of monuments to the dead and the slaughtered, to the fallen, the half-forgotten – no more so than in Paris, where building plaques remind you of notables who thrived or perished there, of semi-anonymous “morts pour la France,” those victims of conflict or those everyday fatalities of war or of terror, those liberators, those ordinary souls made significant by dying for a cause, their own or others’.

More than memorials – or perhaps more than the statues of former greats standing in squares and on boulevards – the dead accompany you on your walks, they take up residence on the walls where you live. On buildings everywhere you’ll find a notice of illustrious occupants from days gone by, whether in Paris or London or even (though less frequently) New York. But in Paris especially, as much as you’ll see a plaque telling you that a composer or writer or scientist lived in that very building you stroll past on your ordinary day, you’ll be reminded of people who were gunned down there or who were pulled from home on that very spot and sent off to die during war.

I’m as interested as anyone in who lived where I live, who worked where I work, who thrived where I get by. But I’m more likely to recall actual encounters or sightings than to take comfort in knowing that valiant resistance fighters were gunned down by Nazis near where I stay in the 17th arrondissement or that Debussy wrote Pelleás et Mélisande near the little grocery where I sometimes buy butter at a pinch since on a Sunday it’s the only store open. Death is constant but life overtakes death, regardless of how much you wish to remember what others did on your behalf long before you were born.

The building across the street from my apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan has a plaque noting that Rachmaninoff lived there for a while toward the end of his life. But more memorable to me was seeing the actual, living Barbra Streisand leaning out of a window from that same building, while below, between takes, a cheery Jeff Bridges snapped photos of the film crew on the street in front of my apartment house, as Pavarotti’s version of “Nessun Dorma” poured out of speakers, during the filming of one of the final scenes of Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces.

In Paris, I was more taken by recognizing at a sidewalk café a supporting actor from the eerie French series Les Revenants than really appreciating the significance of the building housing that café being the place where, according to a marker affixed to the wall just above the awning, a group of children in the 1940s was sent to internment camps, where they all perished.

But this is normal, this muddling of priorities of what you’re supposed to feel as the world whirls around you. The dead are too much with us, late and soon, and our fleeting encounters with the celebrated living are more remarkable for their rarity amid the humdrum. Still, in Paris, and perhaps France as a whole, a culture of ancestor worship and an upholding of certain traditions hold sway, as in Japan but without the spiritual underpinnings. But it’s there in France, in the culture, in the cuisine, in the architecture, in the tempered cynicism of people who barely deign to accept the way the world is now since everyone knows that before it had held such promise.

I come from a place where violence is glorified but where death is swept aside. Not that Americans don’t remember their dead, but it’s not as if you’re reminded of who has died while you go on about your day. We need to make an effort to accept the inevitable that we’d rather forget until it comes upon us. And not always even then. Not so in France, where a respect for certain ways of life or living comes from acknowledging the weight of finality, the reality of the cemetery in the center of the city or at the edge of town, the family plots, the heritage, the betrayals and the unspoken stories. You keep on doing things as they’ve been done because while you tend to forget the people who did them, you know that you’re at least doing something that had once been done well by someone you’ll never know, but whose memory you keep alive even as you forget why the thing was done in the first place.