The ABCs of life in France
In my 33rd year in Paris, here is an ABCs of life in France (the French call that an abécédaire, from the Latin abecedarium, which gave us the English rarely-used-outside-of-academia “abecedary,” which is sometimes employed to denote not only the document containing the alphabetic list but also the teacher or learner of the contents of the document, who can likewise be referred to as an “abecedarian”) of random fascinating facts and figures about France and Paris that for the most part are inhaled, absorbed, stumbled upon during decades of presence as opposed to learned in lectures, browsed in books, witnessed on websites. In other words, to know this stuff, ya gotta be here:
Here’s I to P, more in 2 weeks!
A to H, was 2 weeks ago! Here’s the link
is two-for-the-price-of-one Intellectuals/Ideas: They really do still exist. Those philosophizing café-sitters solving the problems of the world in long, flowery, gesture-graced prose and sometimes even poetry for hours on end. They are not a relic from the revolution-fomenting Enlightenment (think: Le Procope), the between-the-World-Wars angst (think: Le Dôme), or the student-uprising ‘60s (think: Au Petit Suisse). They are today’s France as well. When much of the world is communicating in 280-character vacuousness–even when they themselves spend a bulk of their time communicating in 280-character vacuousness–the French continue to love losing themselves in impassioned, weighty, long-winded, contentious, everyone-talking-and-screaming-at-the-same-time, argument-for-the-sake-of-argument, “grape juice”-fueled debates. (The only thing different now is that they can’t smoke while doing so–unless they sit on the café’s terrasse, and that might soon change, too!)
is for jazz: Whatever they think of current U.S. doctrine, Parisians of, as one says, “a certain age” have no end of gratitude for two American deeds: intervening in World War II and sending over jazz musicians–who were not “sent” at all but escaping the hideousness of segregation, and whose 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s artistry was to the Saint-Germain des Près district what the Beatles were to Liverpool.
is for K7, which is pronounced “cah” (the French name for the letter “K”) and “sette” (“sept” is the French word for the number 7). Together they are to “cassette” what “B4” is to “before” and constitute a shorthand rarely if ever learned in Miss Johnson’s high school French class back in Wyoming.
is for love: Paris. France. Love. Romance. French kiss. French tickler. Oh-là-là. Right? Wrong. Over seventy years ago, all across the country, Americans sat in movie theaters transfixed by newsreels of the Liberation of Paris. The Champs-Elysées. Beautiful young people dancing in the streets. L’Hôtel de Ville. GIs grabbing women by the waist, the shoulders, the buttocks, sweeping them into tangoesque backbends, kissing them with passionate joy. The banks of the Seine. Girls tossing their brassieres into passing tanks. Even nuns doing unselfconscious little jigs on the sidelines. This would be like the French viewing a five-minute video clip of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and thereafter embedding in the national consciousness the immutable conviction that every American walks around holding long heavenward ropes at the ends of which float out-sized polymerized gas-packed Rockies and Bullwinkles. The only thing remarkable about love à la française is the degree to which the French experience it as unremarkable. How anything “romantic” could have merited the designation “French” is as much a mystery as how anything fried-potato could have attracted the same adjective (the “French” fry ostensibly was born in Belgium and grew up in the United States). It’s not that the French are bad lovers, or hung-up lovers. It’s just that they throw their bras into tanks once in two thousand years.
is for music: It’s nearly impossible to walk more than several blocks in at least the center of Paris–and often in its outlying districts as well as in the French provinces–without coming across a little poster advertising a concert in a church: chamber music, visiting gospel singers in gorgeous pastel robes, choirs, instruments-plus-choirs, solo musicians, solo singers, mini orchestras, all sometimes enhanced by pre- or post-performance dinners, scholarly lectures, Q-and-A sessions. The more spectacular the venue (Notre Dame, Sacré Coeur) or historic (Sainte Chapelle, Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Prés) or charming (Eglise Saint–Louis-en-l’Île, Eglise Saint–Julien-le-Pauvre), the richer the experience. And the same phenomenon that makes these the best places to hear a concert is what makes them the worst: the architecture, which, for all its cavernous majesty, muffles the musical notes then sucks them up into the vaulted ceiling faster that you can say église.
is for nation, which is different from country: Sometimes when French people say “my country” they mean the nation of France. But sometimes they mean “the part of France where I was born and grew up and where my perfect mother cooked perfect meals for our perfect family under perfect skies while we spoke about the perfect state of the cosmos”–a Gallic version of “hometown.” This could be the entirety of Burgundy or a little patch of Normand farmland and anything in between. Mon pays (“my country”) is always uttered with nostalgia in the voice and reverence in the eyes. And a subsequent pause……to let all that long-lost flawlessness wash back in. This can be stunningly confusing to the uninitiated: “Where are you going for Christmas?” — “To my country.” — “Oh! I thought you were French.” — “I am French.” — “Well, you’re already in your country.” — “No I’m not. I’m in Paris.”
is for opera: Occasionally, you will pass a construction site and the workers will be humming…… arias from operas! Not always. Sometimes they’ll be humming the last TV-commercial jingle they heard before leaving the apartment that morning. Or not humming at all. But I challenge you–wherever you come from (except maybe Italy)–to find a bunch of concrete-caked, muscle-bound, shirtless, sweaty mecs (“guys”) accompanying their I-beam installation with Don José’s love pledge to Carmen or Cho-Cho-San’s lamentation about Pinkerton! This isn’t considered high-brow culture but merely culture générale (“general culture”)–to be aware of, to be proud of, to partake of whenever the blessed occasion arises.
is for party–and pushy–and presumptuous–and periphery–and polka-dot–and pantaloons: “Bonsoir! Je m’appelle Marie. Comment vous appelez-vous?” (“Hi! My name is Marie. What’s yours?”) is what you won’t hear at a party. Unless the party goer just got back from an academic year abroad in any number of countries or has been binge-watching U.S. TV series. This would seem… well…pushy and presumptuous. Hanging at the periphery of the reveler-mobbed room until someone (usually the hostess and/or host) comes over to escort you into its midst and introduce you all around is the way to go. Your wearing polka-dot pantaloons might go a long way to helping them notice you.
by Shari Leslie Segall, a writer in Paris