Monday, August 24, 2009

TOP 10: French Challenges

It's been 20-some years since I've lived in France and over time I've come to appreciate and revel in the quality and philosophy of life so precious to those born into the culture. 

Still. . . There are those petite acts of politesse that don't come naturally to me and one in particular makes me uncomfortable. Just for fun I thought I would share these personal quirks with you. I do not rebel against them mind you, nor have they become reflexes, I perform the"rituals" because they are considered correct and I do not wish to offend unnecessarily. 

My TOP 10 Challenges:

1.) Bonjour et Au revoir: You may know that one is supposed to say those words upon entering and exiting a boutique where under normal circumstances I like to keep a low profile. But the greetings don't stop there: You're supposed to say hello and goodbye in the waiting rooms of doctors, lawyers and similar situations which entail entering a room full of strangers all by yourself. (This is the one that makes me uncomfortable. I like to slither in unnoticed.)

2.) Answering machines: I hate leaving messages in English, but in French I get all discombobulated. Sometimes I just say "Bonjour, c'est moi!" and friends figure out who called by my accent.

3.) Verbs: What can I say? I stick to present, past, future and still make mistakes. The other day the husband of a friend of mine told me it was time to move on to the subjunctive. Right.

4.) Lettuce: You probably know this one, but I'll tell you if you have a vicious hostess who doesn't rip up the leaves of her lettuce into reasonably bite-size pieces you are confronted with that wrap and fold technique so familiar to the French in order to never, never, never cut a piece of lettuce as long as you live.  It's tricky and sometimes even the most delicately constructed package can come apart allowing a corner to flip out and splash vinaigrette on your Chanel blouse (whatever. . .).

5.) Tines down: When setting the table and when the meal is finished. When the table is set, the forks are always placed with the tines facing the table. I've been given two explanations for this. One, it's less aggressive (what?). Two, it displays the stamp and name of the orfèvrerie, like Christophe, Puiforcat or family heirloom pieces for example. When the meal is finished the fork and knife are placed on the plate of course, but with the tines down thus signaling "the end."

6.) Fish: When a whole fish is beautifully presented on its purpose-made magnificent serving piece, I always say a little prayer that I will not be the first person offered the platter. Cutting the first piece, dealing with the serving fish knife and fork and figuring out how to cut from the back end by the tail, because I'm not supposed to cut from the front because I'm waaaaaay too polite to do that, is a trauma/drama for me. (You know, relatively speaking.)

7.) Wine: You probably know this one too. A woman never, ever touches the bottle of wine or the carafe, decanter holding same. That's a man's job. Yep. I've found the quickest, easiest way to get my wine glass re-filled is to start the conversation about "isn't it interesting in France only men serve wine" and usually, presto, my empty glass is no longer. 

The carafe d'eau is ambiguous.  Theoretically women can serve water, but not really or we ask permission or we pass out from thirst. My technique is when I want something a table I ask for it. I'll turn to the man nearest me and ask him to pour water for me. I'm more wily with wine.

8.) Salt and pepper:  This one I'm not sure about. When in the States at least when someone asks for salt, we pass the salt and pepper together, in France when someone asks for salt, they want salt. Period. I've read in etiquette books that that's the way it's done. I still pass both because I've seen lots of errors in etiquette books on French manners written mostly by non-French "experts." (I'll get to that in a moment.*)

9.) Sorbet: It's eaten with a fork. My friend Jean (American) says she finds it "amusing" and for years has been eating sorbet with a fork in the privacy of her own home without a French person in sight. When I asked my reason-for-living-in-France "what about the sorbet that melts on the bottom of the dish?" He said: "Eat fast or leave it." We eat sorbet with spoons when we're alone.

10.) The LBD: Truly, it is essential to find that perfect Little Black Dress. The world revolves around it. I have a confession to make: I still haven't found mine. (I have a long black evening gown, but looking like a fool at a dinner party is not one of my top priorities.) 

Imagine what you could do for the rest of your life with the one Coco Chanel is wearing.

I can't decide whether I'm miserable about my lack of success or whether I'm just not a LBD femme. I haven't stopped looking and if I win the lottery I know a tiny couture maison to which some of the best dressed women in Paris turn for their LBDs and other wardrobe wonders.

*I don't care what you've heard, been told or read -- you MUST trust me: One never says "bon appétit" at table before a meal. A waiter might say it to you in a restaurant, but at a dinner party it's déclassé. Many French people say it, but Nadine (de Rothschild) would counsel against it.  As my other best friend (and also a baronne like Nadine -- except by birth and not by marriage) says: "How would someone from another country know this? They hear it all the time. Of course we never think twice about it when it's said by an etranger."

You know this, but I shall repeat it because I see it and I want you to know the best of the best. Whatever sauce left on the plate after the meal is finished, stays on the plate. No matter how tempting, one must not clean up with a piece of bread.

Once again you are witness to another detour, aside, digression, but if I don't plow ahead with something that jumps into my mind unbidden it could be lost forever and that would be tragic. 


knitpurl said...

These were delightful as were the posts of last week. I hope those of you who can, will influence Marsi to blog too. Her responses on this site are always thought provoking.

Tish, keep that sense of humor rolling. Let's see, #3 and moving on to subjunctive verbs and #9 with "eat fast or leave it" from your special person in France were hilarious.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm a wackadoo but I always liked the tradition of greeting and saying goodbye to shopkeepers. It made the whole experience more
personal. Still searching for my LBD though.

Bonjour Madame said...

I am not a fan of salad leaves that spring out and spray dressing on my blouse. I'm famous for this. I swear I need a bib when I eat salad.

I named my blog Bonjour Madame because of the absolutely delightful exchange I would enter into when I entered a place of business in Paris. I loved hearing them say it to me. It was always said so perfectly with just the right speed and a hint of cheerfulness. My first post was all about this.

This was a very useful post! said...

Gosh, now I feel terrible. I promise to try to appreciate the "hello's" and "goodbyes" in boutiques, but I don't think I can ever resign myself to that uncomfortable moment when I open a door into a room full of strangers and I'm supposed to say "bonjour."

Stephanie, that's so sweet. It makes me feel even worse.

BTW my husband is on your sides -- whole-heartedly.

Kristi said...

I know the LBD I want -- deep vee necks in both front and back, knee length of a wool material and though it may be a sheath, needs darts to make a waist or I have a funny looking backside. Well I found my dress -- by St. John's for about $800. Not happening. I have a DV Furstenberg dress like this but it has funky darts in front so I am selling it and buying another dress I saw online. If this doesn't work, here's my plan and one I would suggest to you: Have a tailor make your perfect dress for you ...
Kristi said...


I agree, a seamstress or a tailor is the best answer for everything. Now, the big question is finding one or the other. Among Frenchwomen it's one of their best kept secrets.

I can't decide how I want the neckline: V, round or all the way to the neck. I know the form and the length. Next dilemma, the fabric. Do we need two?

Hmmm. . . Problems, problems, problems.

Marsi said...

I like to eat my salads with chopsticks for the very reason you described, Tish: you never end up wrapping or cramming lettuce leaves.

Bet that would raise eyebrows in Paris, non?

I do have an LBD that I love. It's a simple, three-season black wool jersey sheath that has a yummy little row of ruffles at the hem. It's not a fitted sheath -- no waist -- so I can wear a t-shirt or turtleneck underneath it without adding pounds to my look. But before I found this dress two years ago, I wandered the LBD Wasteland for ages. It's not easy to find perfect.

Marsi said...

I say "bon appetit" before I serve a meal to my boys all the time ... except I do it in a deranged Julia Child falsetto.

Let me guess: that would go over great in Paris, too, huh? said...


It's absolutely hilarious you say "bon appetit" at home, especially a la the divine Julia Childs.

It must be a laugh-a-minute chez toi.

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