Many years ago I read an incisive article about the French culture in a coffee table magazine by an American woman who’d lived in Paris for 20 years or so, having married a Parisian and raised children there.
Having lived in Europe myself, including many regions of France, for a couple dozen moons, and having the pleasure of meeting hundreds of fabulous French folk, I was rather eager to learn of her far more experienced take on it.
With sharp insight, she addressed the American misunderstanding that the French are rude to Americans. Roughly, (wish I could quote the article exactly, but it is filed inscrutably away in some folder in storage) she explained:
The French are kind to people they know and rude to strangers.
While Americans are kind to strangers and rude to people they know.
Her marvelous succinct and accurate summary was a bulls-eye; a home-run. It mirrored my experience in France – and the US of A. She had beautifully illuminated the vast distinction between the two cultures in how they treat those familiar to them versus strangers.
Like other quotes of wisdom, her concept burned into my memory as insightful and reasonably accurate – a useful generality. This is even though I’ve yet to visit Paris. (My friends will tell you I’m not easily confused with a City enthusiast.)
With the passing of some years and many events I found myself at a book signing in the astoundingly wonderful Thunderbird bookshop and cafe in my hometown of Carmel, California. While listening to the author of a new book, I was reminded of that article.
As the long line of fans subsided, the glorious Bookshop operator May Waldroup introduced me to the author, Harriet Welty Rochefort. I soon rather eagerly mentioned how her talk that afternoon reminded me of that article and the ideas that were burned into my mind.
To my slack-jawed astonishment she smilingly replied “That was my article.”
Many times since I’ve enjoyed telling that story, along with other vignettes of my youthful sojourn to Europe and foray into French culture. One facet many enjoyed was how I worked my passage to Europe across the Atlantic on a cattle boat to Cadiz in 1975. (350 dairy cows.)
Many more years along, my life calmed down enough to actually peruse the author’s book “French Toast.”
Can you imagine my astonishment and delight when I read on the book’s back cover – that the author Harriet, first arrived in Europe on a freighter – to Cadiz !
What semi-elegant serendipity !
It gets even better. Her book harmonizes so many times with my own French/Belgique neophyte and starving traveler experience of loading up on the first course of a meal – only to slowly discover – there are 4 to 6 more courses to come !
What a joy / relief to find I am not the only one making goofy mistakes.
Somehow I feel this woman, this terrifically insightful, interesting and cheery woman (friends describe us both as overwhelmingly or perpetually “enthusiastic”) and I are destined to meet again in our sometimes startlingly parallel lives. (and not merely because we both enjoy Squid.)
For you who wish to gain further valuable insight to the French (and maybe Americans as well) here is Harriet’s, and her perfectly Parisian husband’s, beautifully captivating website. Go Harriet !
PS Harriet’s writing is so familiar and comforting for me, however like icing on a cake, her husband’s poignant wit adds a hilarious reason to take the time to enjoy “French Toast.”
And here’s one place you can get her fun book —