SOCIALISING WITH THE LOCAL
I think every wife has a right to insist upon seeing Paris.’—Sydney Smith
IT STANDS TO REASON that the people most likely to become your first friends are those with whom you already have some personal link: contacts from people back home, parents of other children in the bilingual schools, people you’ve met at your English-language church or synagogue, or even those you’ve found through the networking groups mentioned in Chapter 10. Everyone wants to know people from their home countries, and these people may form the core of your social life at the outset, as you share the same language and culture shock is minimised. If these people have lived here a long time, they almost qualify as ‘locals’, for although they may not be seen as ‘Parisians’ by the French, they certainly know the ropes and, in addition to including you in their Parisian lives, they can help you along. Their social customs, in fact, may well reflect aspects of both cultures, for newcomers tend to keep their own while also taking on those of the French. They may, for example, invite you into their homes for dinner sooner than the French might, but would still expect you to arrive at least 20 minutes late, which Parisians consider as being on time.
BREAKING DOWN THEIR RESERVE
But you’re determined to make some French friends, and rightly so. So how do you meet Parisians? It isn’t at all impossible to make French friends. It takes time, patience and effort. It takes being cool and collected, and standing some disappointments. But it’s all worth it at the end. If you comport yourself as someone the French want to know, you’ll already have met them halfway, but only halfway, and it is the other half—that famous privacy and reserve—that must be slowly overcome. Some people joke that if you want to make friends quickly in animal-loving Paris, just walk a dog!
Some foreigners have never met their Parisian neighbours; others have become fast friends with the person across the courtyard. Somehow, Paris brings out who you are and responds in kind. If you are someone who is easily irritated by small problems, Paris will no doubt irritate you most of the time, but if you see little problems as challenges, you will approach them with good humour. If you are a person who makes friends easily, you will eventually break down some of the barriers of Parisian reserve, but if you too are reserved in outlook, you will wind up—as is often the case with the Parisians themselves—not knowing the person next door.
Actually, the problem is not meeting Parisians, for you’ll also come across them in all the places you normally frequent. Yet, they’re busy with their own work and children, and when it comes to socialising, they already have their own friends and families. It’s a fact that the French are most comfortable and open with people they already know—extended families and lifelong friends. That leaves you to strike a delicate balance, indicating that you would like to know them better, but allowing them the space to go to the next step at their own pace. Frankly, there’s no easy answer on how to move from cordial acquaintances to friends. It depends, as with any relationship, on the individuals.
Nonetheless, there are ways—through inter-cultural groups and networking with people who have already indicated they are open to getting to know new people—and by making sure you let it be known you are interested in making new friends. You might suggest having a coffee sometime or a film that you’ve both said you’ve wanted to see. Start slowly, listen for cues and be sensitive to how far, at each point, they are willing to go.
Also, some deep-rooted traditions are being shoved aside, as younger generations are more casual, more flexible, and more international in outlook. Other traditions, however, remain rock solid. Again, take your cues from your new friends, and even if you know that changes are here and there’s no going back, they are slow and not always evident.
Art critic John Russell once commented, “It must seem that in Paris every door is marked ‘private’, every notice means ‘keep out’ (even if it doesn’t actually say it) and all information is classified.” But Russell’s is a generalisation, one that may not apply to particular individuals that you meet. And, keep in mind the Bob Dylan song, ‘The Times they Are a-Changin’.”
A PARISIAN FRIEND
It may take time to make Parisian friends, but once you have made them, they will be loyal for life, going out of their way for you, including you in group dinners at a bistro, in their walks at the Bois de Boulogne or at their evenings at the Opéra Bastille.
If you are from a culture that is immediately welcoming and effusive, but which doesn’t translate into deep friendships, you will be pleasantly surprised. Parisians are true friends. But this does not mean that you will be invited into their homes right away, for that takes time. And when you are, it doesn’t mean you may then drop in without being invited. It does not mean that you will use the familiar tu (you) to address each other. It does not mean that any of the social rules may be broken (even if you do not know what they are until you have broken them). And it does not mean you can be overly intimate, which is worse than not being friendly enough. The Parisians you come to know may enjoy your company and begin to be comfortable with you, but they are after all still French.
So don’t stereotype people according to the one or two Parisians who might not respond to your overtures. Most Parisians will look at you as an individual, no matter what they think of the politics of your country. If they see someone who is trying to fit into society, who is genuinely open to understanding Paris and who tries to follow ‘The Paris rules’ (see pages 70–71), they will see you as an individual. With each person you come to know, you will have to judge petit à petit how much to tell and how much to ask. Err on the minimal side. The French are astounded when foreigners— especially the open, gregarious Americans—divulge too early in a budding relationship aspects of their lives that they tell only their oldest friends. Actually, they are just as curious as you are; they just don’t show it. It is best to wait for clues and hints from the other party, and gauge each situation to figure out what comes next. If something goes amiss, ask yourself first if there’s a code you have unknowingly violated. Yes, there are always more codes to learn; the difference is that with a friend, you have an ally in helping you learn them.
THE ART OF CONVERSATION
It’s important to understand that the French love to talk. They love informed, witty conversation on a variety of subjects. They love repartee and banter. One of the worst things they can say about a person is “but he has no conversation”. If you have dinner with someone, even in a restaurant etoilé (a starred restaurant), the dinner will almost be as much about the conversation as the food.
And even here, there are codes. Don’t talk about anything intimate: they don’t want to know any details about someone who is ill (not even the name of the illness), about anything dirty, about how pleased (or displeased) you are with your salary. Do not monopolise the conversation and, above all, do not complain or criticise the French—even if your friends are doing so themselves. What with all the uncertainties in the world, everyone has an opinion on politics, but that doesn’t mean you should express yours immediately—not about your home country, and especially not about France.
Do talk about things you have in common—films and books or an exhibit you’ve seen recently; travel; current events (if it is not against the French); an amusing anecdote about something you misjudged. Compliment the food, wine and surroundings. Have a good time. That’s what it’s all about.
People generally don’t split the bill in a restaurant. If you’ve been invited as a guest, your hosts will pay for the dinner. Be gracious, thank your hosts, and indicate that you’d like to reciprocate the next time. On the other hand, if you’re part of a small group that has decided to get together for a drink or have a meal in one of the inexpensive Asian eateries, then expect to split the bill or to indicate that you want to pay your share. Follow the lead of other people. Again, though, we have to say that the younger generations of Parisians, while still bringing a traditional air to their relationships, are generally more open, both in their conversation in their curiosity about new people and ideas. Judge for yourself in each situation; let it be known that you’re interested in knowing them more, and see where it goes.
IN A PARISIAN HOME
The French have long believed that they are the custodians of la belle vie—the good life. They also believe that part of this good life is adhering to accepted standards, what they call comme il faut, or how things are done. So, if and when you are invited to into a Parisian’s home, there are also codes to be learned, the sooner the better.
Your hosts will expect you to be on time, although their concept of this may differ from yours. People generally arrive between 20 minutes to half an hour after the time called for the rendezvous. Never arrive even two minutes early or 10 minutes after—you might be interrupting your hostess in the midst of dressing or doing something in the kitchen.
Expect some physical contact. Colleagues and acquaintances shake hands when they meet and at the end of the encounter. When you know people a little better, they may lean with their face forward, indicating that they have moved from the handshake to the bisous—two kisses, one on each cheek. In other areas of France, some people do three and even four kisses, but two is generally the norm in Paris. These are small, friendly greeting kisses and are often repeated at the end of the rendezvous. Women also do the bisous with each other, as do men who are family members or, sometimes, extremely old friends. Note that even if all the others know each other well and they se tutoient i.e., speak to each other in the more familiar second person singular tense, you shouldn’t follow suit until you are invited to—this may take years.
If it’s not a casual occasion and you are meeting people for the first time, especially older people or those more senior than you professionally, be formal. When introduced say “madame” or “monsieur”, or even the rather passé “enchanté (delighted)” and wait for the people to indicate how they would like to be addressed. Stand up when a woman enters the room for the first time. Be aware that if it is your boss who has invited you to dinner, it is only as a courtesy—he does not expect to be invited back and to become friends.
Entertaining at Home
You may have codes of your own, but it is the French codes you have to learn when entertaining Parisian friends in your home. Some things you’ll like; some you may never get used to. Don’t fight it.
– People are not usually invited over just for ‘drinks’. But lately le cocktail-dinatoire (from about 6:30 pm to about 9:00 pm) is gaining in popularity, which is in effect drinks with enough interesting snacks to constitute a meal. Also, the French don’t often have a buffet, where dishes are placed on the table and people can help themselves.
– Don’t serve too many ‘nibbles’ before dinner, just champagne or fruit juice and a few nuts. The French save their appetites for dinner.
– Since your guests will straggle in late, don’t prepare a dish that needs to be eaten at a certain time or one that will require you to stay in the kitchen cooking at the last minute.
– Young children will not eat with you and your guests unless it’s a family dinner or lunch. If teenagers do, they are not to monopolize the conversation.
– Dress appropriately for the occasion, even if you are doing the cooking. Also make sure that your dishes are ‘dressed’, with parsley or sauces.
– Use cloth napkins, even for lunch.
– If you are unsure of which wines or cheeses to serve, ask the caviste at the wine shop or the fromager from the cheese shop for advice. The cheeses should be at room temperature. Take them out of the refrigerator at least an hour before you are to eat them.
– Learn to eat everything with a knife and fork, even fruit. With a fruit course, make sure your guests have the appropriate cutlery. When serving salad, lettuce leaves should be small enough to eat; otherwise you will notice that your guests fold but never cut them.
– Coffee is served after the cheese, fruit and dessert. Offer coffee, decaf or an infusion (herbal tea).
Don’t bring flowers. Your hostess probably already has fresh flowers, and she wouldn’t want to spend time arranging a bouquet that you’ve brought. If you want to do something with flowers, send an arrangement before or after. If you decide for some reason to bring flowers, do not bring chrysanthemums, which are generally put on graves, or carnations, which supposedly bring bad luck. It’s best to ask the florist to send an appropriate bouquet.
Bringing a bottle of wine used to be frowned upon, as it seemed to insinuate that the host’s wine cellar was not adequate or, worse, created a confusion if the host had already carefully selected wines for the evening’s meal. Now, however, with a casual dinner among friends, people often bring a bottle of wine. Your host will most likely put it aside for another time or may decide to include it in the dinner right away, if it is appropriate for the meal.
When your host shows you into the living room, stay there. Don’t ask to see the rest of the apartment and don’t wander around on your own. Don’t go into the kitchen and offer to help the hostess. Just stay where you are put. Don’t help yourself to the drinks that might be sitting on the sideboard and don’t play the piano, if there is one. Just wait and talk with whomever else is there, or if you’re alone pick up a magazine or look at the pictures on the walls or the view out the window.
If there’s something you cannot eat, make sure your hostess knows it in advance. Don’t use the dinner table to discuss your allergies or dislikes. Eat what is served to you; it’s rude to leave things on your plate. Your hostess will ask if you’d like more: in general, you may take more of the main course but not the others. Don’t help yourself—even if platters are on the table—unless instructed to do so. Generally, there will be two glasses, one for wine and the other for water. Your host will be generous in pouring, but it is best always to quench your thirst with water and to sip the wine for the taste. The myth of free-drinking French is just that—a myth.
If you have arrived on the métro, you may certainly ask to wash your hands before eating dinner; otherwise, avoid using the toilettes or leaving the table at all if you can help it. And for heaven’s sake, don’t announce where you’re going; just indicate your question quietly to your host who will show or tell you where to go. Afterwards, sit back down at the table without referring to your absence.
Keep your free hand on the table. This stems from ancient times when people carried swords and daggers. Keeping the free hand on the table showed you meant no harm to the others.
If the dinner runs late, and the host asks whether anyone would like an orange juice or some other non-alcoholic drink, it is time to go. Don’t offer to help with the dishes. Just thank your hosts, comment on something that was particularly delicious or enjoyable, then go home.
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