Rochefort, the mother of two Franco-American sons, and a former English-language teacher at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques, is intrigued at how the French got to be the way they are. It may be the effect of centuries of Roman Catholic dogma about original sin--children here are seen as congenitally flawed creatures who need to be straightened out by adults.
Rochefort remembers taking her boys, now 17 and 21, to primary school and dropping them off with a cheery, "Have fun." French parents, meanwhile, were solemnly instructing their offspring to "sois sage"--"be good."
Public schools are highly competitive and tough in France, and teachers are uncompromising about standards. Her younger son, who had a problem with his vision, was told he was a "zero" in art. When they are 16, students are already being assigned readings from philosophers such as Plato and Descartes. One key to the wide-ranging French intellect might be that in school, there are no multiple-choice quizzes, only essays.
What still puzzles Rochefort is that the French can be monumentally impolite when they want to be but as discreet as the Japanese in circumventing delicate situations so as to avoid a loss of face to the other person. That ability to switch from rudeness to exquisite courtesy also flummoxes many Japanese; a Japanese psychiatrist, she points out, specializes in treating his countrymen here who are having a hard time coping with the French.
In separate chapters, Rochefort deals with the mysteries of French food; the French woman; sex, love and marriage; money; ornery and charming Parisians; the French standard of politeness; and the French educational system.
Then there's criticism, which may be the real national sport.
"In France, intelligence means criticism. You've got to criticize to be considered intelligent," Ambassador-at-Large Jean-Daniel Tordjman, who spent nine years in Washington, said recently.
The French enjoy arguing and don't take it too personally. Rochefort says she has provoked embarrassed silences during her return trips to the United States by arguing passionately like the French citizen she has become.
One discovery that shocked Rochefort in her Iowa-bred primness was the relationship between the sexes. Men in France will make love with their shoes and socks on in the heat of the moment, and will even buy underwear for their girlfriend or wife. Women in France do not wear unisex business suits and tennis shoes.
"The sexual tension, the recognition that one person is a man and that the other is a woman, permeates life in France," Rochefort notes. "There is none of this, 'Oh, we're doing business, we're all neuter' stuff."
She approves--but admits it has taken her two decades to get used to billboards of women in their brassieres and men in tight briefs. And though French men and women may flirt outrageously, she says, it doesn't mean they're seeking any follow-up.
Since she met her husband-to-be in a Left Bank cafe, where he was glowering over an ongoing divorce with his first wife, Rochefort has accumulated a fascinating catalog of the do's and don'ts of French society.
To Americans, her conclusions may seem as strange as if she were describing the folkways of New Guinea headhunters. For transplants to France, the challenge is simultaneously acquiring the hard-edged smarts you need to go head to head with other drivers around the Arc de Triomphe, and enough of the French social graces so you don't laugh or talk too loudly when you are somebody's guest.
Rochefort decided to put her experiences and thoughts on paper "because I told myself, 'Uh-oh, I'm becoming a native.' I may have acquired a French veneer, but it's not me." She has kept her U.S. citizenship, and home still means America. But she couldn't imagine living anywhere but Paris.
For where else on Earth, Rochefort asks, could you eat finer food? And where else might other people at a dinner party not feel obliged to make small talk to help a newcomer feel welcome?
* Harriet Welty Rochefort, "French Toast: A Humorous Tour of What Living in France Is Really Like," Anglophone S.A., Montreuil-sous-Bois, France. Available in North America through Mosaic Press, 1252 Spears Road, Units 1 & 2, Oakville, Ontario L6L 5N9 Canada, (800) 387-8992. Also expected to be available this month at Dutton's, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 476-6263.
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GALLIC GRACE: A QUIZ
What constitutes savoir-vivre in France, the country where the term (Meaning the ability to meet all situations with "poise, good manners and intelligence") was coined?
Here are a few potential snares from Harriet Welty Rochefort's book "French Toast: A Humorous Tour of What Living in France is Really Like"-- and her advice:
1. The right time to invite your boss home for dinner is:
a. Soon after you are hired.
b. A year after starting work,
2. At the dinner table, it is taboo to talk about:
3. In France, one should never:
a. Drop in unexpectedly, even upon a good friend.
b. Criticize how a friend is dressed.
c. Push forward in line.
d. Shout or make obscene gestures at other drivers.
4. When a hostess offers a round of fruit juice after dinner, dessert and coffee, what does it signify?
5. How is soup properly eaten?
6.If a man is said to be mignon (cute) or conscientieux (conscientious), what might the speaker really be trying to say?
7. The unwritten rule of Parisians is:
a. "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything."
b. "Never let the sun go down on your anger."
c. "Always get even with the appropriate response."
8. Why should you never offer anyone in France chrysanthemums or carnations?
4. It's time to leave.
5. Sipped from the end of the spoon (and not the side).
6. "Cute" could mean "naive." "Conscientious" may mean he's an imbecile.
8. Chrysanthemums are usually reserved for cemeteries. Carnations are said to bring bad luck.