by Harriet Welty Rochefort
A minuscule espresso, a petit piece of chocolate, a morsel of sharp cheese, a half-filled glass of wine: the French prefer tasting and sipping to gorging and guzzling. Small is good.
Small Size, Large
When I came to France, I discovered small. It seemed that everything was diminutive, and the word petit was everywhere. I go on a petit tour around the block to drink a petit café. Then I may do a few petites courses (small errands) before I wend my way back to my definitely petite home sweet home. On the way I might sample a piece of fromage, but it won’t ruin my appetite, samples being petit (as in thumbnail). Time for dinner? The meat or fish and accompanying vegetables barely fill, and certainly don’t overlap, the plate. My wineglass is not filled to the brim.
Do you wonder why the French aren’t fat? Here’s the answer: portions are petites.
In America I hop into a huge car, drive for miles, do some mega-errands, fill up the roomy trunk with goroceries, and return to my sister’s large house with its three-car garage and put the food away in a giant kitchen with a monster refrigerator that makes ice… When I go to a restaurant, there’s so much food left over, the waiter asks if I’ll want a box (I don’t). My large glass of wine will be filled close to the top. If I drink Coke, even the small size looks huge to me, and the minute I finish, the waitperson rushes to the table to give me a free refill.
In America, “big,” even supersize, is what we’re all about and what we like. That’s normal; you can tuck all of France into the state of Texas and there will be plenty of room (about 20 percent!) left over.
The French have big as well, such as grand and grandeur used in phrases like la grandeur de la France or grand reporter or grand patron, grandes écoles or grand prix. Grand is above us, awe-inspiring, sometimes puffing up with importance whatever it is that is thus described, whereas petit is sympathique and down-to-earth. Babies, for example, are très petits, and when you particularly like someone, they are suddenly transformed into petit or petite. My mother-in- law always referred to her Swedish neighbor as “la petite Suédoise”—even though at five feet ten inches the lovely woman towered over her. Petit is not always sympathique. A mec, for example, is a “guy.” However, if you call someone un petit mec, it is definitely not nice. You’ve just labeled him “pathetic.” Got to be on your toes when it comes to these petites différences!
The only problem with petites boutiques is that they are sometimes so itsy-bitsy and so teensy-weensy you have to be exceedingly careful, especially if you’re a clumsy American like me. In a booth at the flea market I once broke two crystal glasses when my handbag accidentally hit them. I briefly entertained the thought of running hysterically into the street and disappearing into the crowd, but since the noise made my guilt obvious, I owned up and apologized profusely. That time I got off the hook—the owner realized she’d put the glasses and tray in a perilous position. Generally, though, the rule is that you pay for what you break. So, dear reader, beware of pint-size places! I now clutch my handbag as close to me as possible and in a petite boutique pretend I’m walking through a minefield, not a store.
Les Petits Détails
The simplest French table will have pretty place mats or a jacquard tablecloth and a bouquet of flowers. The tomato salad is rid of its seeds and doesn’t go to the table unless it’s got a sprig of parsley. And speaking of salads, the homemade vinaigrette or mayonnaise is not hard to make and is a detail that transforms an ordinary dish into a delight. Details count!
Un Petit Coup de Fil, un Petit Moment, une Petite Fête
Philippe says that when he speaks English, sometimes his phrases come out “funny.” He’ll say, “Okay, I’ll give you a little phone call,” which is the French equivalent of the English “Okay, I’ll call you.” But it’s not the same: “a little phone call” is the translation of un petit coup de fil, which is friendlier, has a warm ring to it. We’ll also spend un petit moment together or have ourselves une petite fête. The petit moment and the petite fête convey a special intimate moment, just the two of us doing something we’ve concocted together.
Les Petits Fours
I have this thing about petits fours: I love them. The literal meaning of petit four is “small oven.” The main thing to know about these Lilliputian-looking savories is that they are sweet or salty, and either miniature appetizers or, if presented in great quantity and variety, a stand-up meal (kind of a French version of tapas). Most buffets feature them—but there are petits fours and petits fours. . . . The best memory of petits fours I have was when Philippe’s company organized a private evening at the Pompidou museum for the top management and their wives. We had the museum to ourselves, and after a private tour of the artworks with our own personal curator (imagine!), we drank champagne and feasted on the most ex- quisite sweet and salty petits fours I’ve ever tasted. I believe that night they were from Dalloyau, but they could have been from Lenôtre—both pâtisseries specialize in making petits fours for such events. I read that Napoléon was behind the creation of the petit four. He was tired of sitting at the table and wanted a simpler way to be among his guests. Thank you, Mr. Bonaparte!
Almost every French bakery has an assortiment of petits fours and mini-viennoiseries that present three main delights: they’re a delight for the eye, they’re a delight for the taste buds, and they’re a delight for the figure because you can have your taste of sugar without ingesting your calories for the day. When I want a taste of a pain au chocolat or a pain aux raisins but not the whole thing, I opt for the minisize pastries, about the size of my thumb, as opposed to the normal ones, which are about the size of my hand. In one bite I get the pleasure (the taste of the butter, the chocolate melting in my mouth) without the pain (of added kilos). How’s that for joie de vivre?
Le Petit Beurre
Speaking of small things to eat, le petit beurre is a simple butter cookie you can buy in any grocery store. Invented in 1886 by Louis Lefèvre-Utile, the “real” or véritable petit beurre, which has many imitators, is still produced today in Nantes with the B of petit beurre right in the middle of each biscuit. It’s an enormously popular cookie, which can fit into the palm of your hand, and often the first one given to a child. It’s always fun to see if the tot bites right into it or goes at it methodically corner by corner. ((We gave one to Hannah, our only Parisian granddaughter, and waited to see her plan of attack. She grabbed it, took a quick look, and immediately went for the corners. Now, what would we have done if she’d gone for the center? What would that have meant? Nothing! Watching Hannah happily munching on her petit beurre was just one of those petits plaisirs.
Un Petit Coup de Rouge
Whether red wine or white wine, in France the glass is filled to no more than two-thirds…a big glass at each course would end up being too much. In addition to that, filling a glass to the brim is considered . . . vulgar. As far as getting buzzed, I’ve been at dinner parties and cocktail parties where we all have a lot to drink but no one gets drunk. Maybe because the glasses are small and it’s embarrassing to ask for twenty refills? The idea is to taste and savor the wine, not swim in it. In France you don’t see the kinds of spring-break scenes you see when U.S. college students let loose in Cancún. . . .
Un Petit Noir
“What would you like to drink?” In a café, un petit noir is the response you’ll most often hear. It’s a wee cup of black coffee, strong and black. No milk. If it had milk, it would be un petit crème or une noisette… Sometimes, le petit noir isn’t even all that good. I’ve had better coffee in Italy. The whole point of le petit noir, though, is that you don’t drink it on the run. You drink it sitting down and can make it and the lounging, thinking, and dreaming last for hours. Think of it: two euros may seem expensive, but if you can occupy a table on the terrace of a café in the heart of Paris watching the world go by for an hour or two or more, it’s definitely a bargain!
Mon Petit Lapin, Mon Petit Chou, and Other Petits Animals and Vegetables
If someone calls you his little rabbit or little cabbage, feel flattered. These are terms of endearment. My father-in-law called all of us mes petits agneaux (my little lambs). My son calls his son mon petit loup (my little wolf).
Only certain animals and vegetables qualify, though. For example, I’ve never heard anyone say mon petit cochon (my little pig) or even mon petit chien (my little dog). But you can call a little girl ma petite chatte or “little kitten.” A cabbage (mon petit chou) is a common term of affection, but I’ve never heard anyone called ma petite tomate (my little tomato). As for fruits, even though they’re sweet and good, you never hear anyone referred to as “my little banana” or “my little apple.” C’est comme ça (that’s the way it is).
La Petite Robe Noire
The classic black dress is always spoken of as the little black dress, not the black dress. Because it’s referred to as la petite robe noire, it takes on a positive connotation. The little doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. On the contrary, it’s a must. Sexy and chic at the same time. Only the clever French could transform a simple piece of somber clothing into a universal emblem.
In his book La Première Gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules (The first sip of beer and other minuscule pleasures), Philippe Delerm writes about many of the pleasures that make up French life, ones we all too often take for granted. I loved his comments on the once-a-week treat French people indulge in on Sunday. If you ever pass a bakery on Sunday, you may wonder about those long lines of people. The story goes that a Russian paper featured a picture of one saying that there was a bread shortage in Paris. On the contrary, those patient people are waiting for their weekly indulgence in a sweet. (In traditional French families, dessert during the week is fruit and/or a yogurt.) As Delerm writes, and as I know from experience, deciding which cakes and what kind (small cakes? one big one? fruit? chocolate?) is one part of the pleasure. The next is watching the bakery lady carefully place the selection in a white cardboard package and tie it up with a ribbon.
I love sitting on café terraces watching the world go by, I love going into stores just to look, I love all our vacations (and this being France, they are numerous), I especially love the French attitude toward time. You don’t always have to rush; there are moments when you can and should slow down. It did, though, take some adjustment, I must admit. Early on, when I thought I needed to purchase an object missing from my kitchen or bathroom, I had to have it right now. Très américain. Once, when I was in frustration mode about something I didn’t have and “needed” to get, Philippe said, “I don’t know what the fuss is all about. I’d rather contemplate what I don’t have. Not having it and wanting it is even better than when you finally get it.” I almost fell on the floor in the face of such a revolutionary thought. For me, the getting is the point!
The German occupation and the disaster it wreaked in France surely had something to do with a heightened appreciation of life. Now rather dated, Encore un que les Boches n’auront pas (another one the Nazis won’t get) was an expression often used during World War II to invoke the idea that while the Germans might have overrun the country, they couldn’t rob the French of minute moments of pleasure.
Une Petite Promenade
Even in places that aren’t particularly attractive or your idea of Paris, there’s always something to see. In addition to that, for me Paris holds specific memories in certain places, and the fifteenth arrondissement, where all of Philippe’s family lives, is one of them. As I headed toward Pasteur, I found myself directly in front of the building on the boulevard de Vaugirard where my in-laws lived for forty years before downsizing and moving to an apartment not far away.
As I stood in the street gazing first at the wrought iron-work on the entry door and then up five floors to the windows of their former apartment, the memory snatches came fast—of my vigorous seventy-year-old father-in-law bounding up the stairs two by two instead of taking the old- fashioned elevator; the elegant Haussmannian apartment with its high ceilings, spacious entry hall, and three capacious main rooms looking over the street; a long, long hall that led back to the kitchen and bathroom and two bed- rooms, one for my husband, one for his sister. I remember many things about that apartment, notably that the wallpaper got changed regularly since my father-in-law, being in the business, liked to test his products. I also had an image of my stepson, at age three, accidentally tripping over a valuable Chinese vase, which miraculously remained intact. And how could I not summon up all the savory family meals prepared by my mother-in-law? Standing there, I could almost smell the pot-au-feu.
Down the boulevard Pasteur and on to the avenue de Breteuil I strolled, with the view of the rounded, golden dome of the Invalides in front of me. School had let out and conservatively dressed mothers walked and chatted with their children. In the central area, young people lolled on the grass, and old people sat on park benches enjoying the afternoon sun. I took a left and ended up at the École Militaire. A stop for coffee at the appropriately named Les Terrasses, and then I descended into the metro. It was a beautiful day and the petite promenade was definitely a petit plaisir. I hadn’t thought for one second about what I had to do when I got home. In France, where you’re surrounded by beauty, you can have moments like this every day, strolling or sitting or contemplating. They do wonders for the morale. La joie de vivre!
And now, au revoir. I’m happy to have spent this petit moment ensemble (this little moment with you).
Interview with Philippe
HWR: How does it feel to be a citizen of a small country?
PhR (climbing onto a chair to look impressively grand): We don’t enjoy it. We want to be big. That’s why we’re arrogant. It’s the ruse we found to forget that we’re small.
HWR: Talk about complicated!
PhR: Not really. When you’re petit, you have to be smart.
Harriet Welty Rochefort grew up in Iowa, came to France after graduating from college, and never left. She is the author of three nonfiction books about the French : the bestselling French Toast (hailed as « the gold standard of books about the French » by Diane Johnson, author of Le Divorce), French Fried and Joie de Vivre, all published by St. Martin’s Press. A freelance journalist writing on business, culture, travel and lifestyle for major newspapers and magazines, she taught in the international journalism program at the prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and regularly speaks on Franco-American cultural differences to various university study programs and other groups. She has just completed her first novel.Harriet lives with her French husband, Philippe, in Paris.
This article, an extract from Joie de Vivre, was previously published in LOOFE, read more Loofe!