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Those Flummoxing French

An American in Paris discovers some quirks about her adopted land--the art of the insult, the argument and flirting, for instance. In her new book, Harriet Welty Rochefort shares her insights into . . .

January 02, 1998|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Harriet Welty Rochefort, an Iowan married to a Frenchman, once made the colossal blunder of making her father-in-law a sandwich for lunch. He gazed at the bread-encased object as if it were some unknown life form.

When told he would have to pick up the thing with his hands to eat it--like a caveman with his kill--the elderly man rebelled.

"Well, why don't we just get down on the floor and throw bones over our shoulders while we're at it?" he asked.

Since that faux pas more than 20 years ago, the sandwich and even the hamburger have landed on Gallic soil and put down deep roots, but Rochefort remains convinced that the French are different. And more than a quarter-century spent living among them--an experience she has distilled into a wise and devastatingly funny book--has done little to shake Rochefort's sense of surprise and wonder.

For instance, how does her sister-in-law, to Rochefort the flawlessly made-up and manicured epitome of French feminine chic, manage to whip up a five-course dinner in high heels and no apron and not spatter her silk blouse?

How do you deal with salespeople who can be very rude? When one of Rochefort's acquaintances went to a French store to buy an aluminum pan for cooking fish, instead of more expensive stainless steel, the saleswoman turned up her nose, saying, "I don't talk to people who eat in aluminum."

Do the French dislike Americans? Or, disliking one another, are they simply unwilling to make an exception for foreigners?

When somebody calls you cher ami, does it literally mean "dear friend," or, as is often the case, "drop dead?"

Do you eat a round Camembert cheese the same way as a rectangular slab of Gruyere?

Finally, what are the ground rules for relations between the sexes? Should you shower before making love? (No, in the opinion of the author's husband, a Paris banker and graduate of the elite Ecole Centrale.)

Rochefort offers answers by the score in her book, "French Toast: A Humorous Tour of What Living in France Is Really Like," and fields online queries through a cyberspace column, "Tell Harriet" at http://www.paris-anglo.com. Even longtime foreign residents of France have become grateful readers.

"She has been able to zero in on the joys, annoyances, frustrations and the wonderful things about living in France and the French mentality that I've never been able to verbalize or put into perspective," said Marilyn August, a correspondent in the Paris bureau of the Associated Press who has lived in France for 20 years, is married to a Frenchman and is the mother of two children.

August, who speaks fluent French and specializes in covering French cultural affairs, calls Rochefort's book a "wonderful trouble-shooter" for recent arrivals and partners in Franco-American marriages alike. She has already lent her copy to four people.

*

The French have a saying, "Those who love well punish well." That seems to sum up Rochefort's often conflicting feelings about her adopted land, where she has lived since 1971.

The seed of interest was planted when her paternal grandfather married a woman who was a professor of French at Grinnell College in Iowa. At 8, Harriet already knew she had to see France.

"France is such a dream to Americans," she said over a lunch of lemon chicken and Alsatian white wine at a Thai restaurant in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. "I get mail from readers saying they envy me, that they want to come here. There's a whole mystique about Paris that you don't have about Bonn or Frankfurt. Where else would you want to end up?"

That doesn't alter some stubborn truths about France that Americans, in particular, may have a difficult time understanding.

For instance, she says, anybody in France who is unfailingly nice to others is taken for a poire--a sucker. When her brother visited from the Midwest and was taken to visit a beautiful Paris garden, he congenially said "hi" to one and all; everyone concluded that there must be something wrong with him.

In France, Rochefort says, the generalized smile is "something reserved for dolts."

"If you live in France for any length of time, you need to cultivate the art of being vache," she counsels in "French Toast." "Vache [yes, it means cow!] is a word that encompasses the concept of petty, mean, spiteful. . . . It is knowing how to send the dart without being transparently offensive."

Example: When visiting someone's home and being shown the drapes, one would say: "Oh, I like those living room curtains. I put the same ones in my little girl's bedroom."

Being vache is not the same as being frank with your friends, a French trait that Rochefort still finds disconcerting. An American friend will say, "You look great," she says, while a French friend will unhesitatingly tell you your beige pantyhose are all wrong for your black dress and your eyebrow pencil has left a greasy streak across your forehead.

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