Monday, March 1, 2010

Transatlantic Parallel

Together again: Jeanne-Aelia Desparmet-Hart in New York and moi in Paris (or, in the two cases, just outside the big cities). 

Every Monday, as those of you who are familiar with our partnership and our series, Transatlantic Parallel, we tell you about our experiences -- the good, the bad and the unfortunate -- coping with the cultural challenges of living on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Each week we choose our topics for debate and then set to it. We never communicate with each other from that moment forward.  We share our points of view with you at the same moment we reveal our positions on the subjects to each other: in our posts. You will find hers at the divinely sophisticated blog Through the French Eye of Design.

Today's Line-up Includes:

1.) Flowers. (Who could imagine there might be a controversy on this subject, n'est-ce pas? You'll see.)

2.) Tipping, whether you wish to or not.

3.) Fidelity. (Yes, we've dared to dabble in that debacle.) 

Flowers:  Flair or Faux Pas?

One would think it impossible to give flowers improperly or at an inopportune moment. One would be wrong.

Many of you know and abide by the flower giving rules and regulations for dinner parties, but for the purposes of review Jeanne-Aelia and I decided to address the issue once again. (Also it gives us an opportunity to put pretty posies on our posts. I haven't seen hers as yet, but I can only assume she's done something sumptuous.)

Out of all the sometimes complicated rules of etiquette in France, this one is quite simple.

1.) Never walk through the door and hand your hostess a bouquet. No matter how absolutely divine the offering, no matter if it came from the chicest florist in all of France; it's not the moment. Your timing couldn't be worse. Your hostess is giving a dinner party (remember[?] that's why you're there), she does not have a moment to arrange or probably even the place to put your fantastic flowers. She has already planned her bouquets and placed them well in advance of your arrival. 

General advice: Don't annoy your hostess. (And if you give her roses from your garden, make certain all thorns are removed.)

2.) Depending upon the size of the dinner party, the formality, whether the hostess is assisted by a household staff, flowers should be sent the day before the soirée so that she can arrange them at her leisure and give them pride of place if she so desires. For a smaller dinner or a household with help, flowers could be sent early the morning of the party.

If you're at a loss for an appropriate gift in this context, a box -- the more beautiful and expensive the better -- of chocolates are always appreciated. Usually they will be opened and shared when the coffee is served in the salon.

(Painting by De Scott Evans.)

A Few Tips on Tipping

When in France, note the words, Service Compris, on your check whether for a tasse de café or a grand diner. Translation: Whether you were treated like a slug or a sophisticate, you will be giving your waiter 15 percent of l'addition

You can reward good service, but you cannot punish bad service the way one can in the United States for example. At times this can be extremely frustrating because as many of you may know we are sometimes not treated with the respect and courtesy we so rightly deserve in this country. 

(All I can say is it's a good thing there is no service charge in certain Parisian boutiques, if you catch my drift.)

If one is overwhelmed by the gentillesse and efficacy of the service, one should always add more to the service compris. For a moderately priced meal, leave about five Euros, for an extravagant affair (or a particularly pleasant experience) a reward of an additional 10, and if you're feeling magnanimous, 15 percent more. My feeling is a sublime dinner, perhaps even romantic, which also provides an occasion to dress-up, where every detail is perfect, the experience is worth every centime because ultimately one is paying for a memory. Memories like these are priceless and pay for themselves over and over in the recounting. 

The Burning Issue: Whose Affairs Are They -- Ours or Theirs?

Before plunging, actually warily wading, into the murky, mucky miasma of marital fidelity let me take a stand: I'm all for it. Personally, I couldn't live without it. It would break my heart.

However -- wait, wait hear me out -- having lived in France for two decades has given nuance to my fierce outrage on the subject. 

Recently I've read many blogs in which women whom I highly admire have talked about the lack of moral character and arrogance of entitlement rampant in the public displays of deplorable behavior on the part of many American politicians and one golfer. Fine. No one can dispute these facts. 

The French think we're being ridiculous, bordering on the laughable. Furthermore they maintain the private lives of public figures are private affairs, even if they entail affairs. If they in no way interfere with the affairs of state, we do not have an inalienable right to know.

When Bill Clinton was in the throes of his international embarrassment, as the sole American amidst all our French friends I was the target of non-stop questions about why everyone was so worked up over his misdemeanor and his public flogging in the court of impeachment. The only explanation I could offer was that we hold our leaders and "heros" to high standards. We expect them to have a superior moral code and be examples of unimpeachable behavior. We do not expect them to lie to us, to trick us (to make fools of us?).

Still, no one understood. What they did get was Hillary staying with him. At no moment did they see her decision as a reflection of personal ambition, but rather a perfectly normal, though extremely unpleasant, response to an unfortunate situation. In other words, the reaction of an intelligent woman.

I've had this conversation many, many times over the years and most of my French women friends, with the notable exception of one who has a solid, loving marriage, believe men should be forgiven for "unimportant" dalliances because the family, what has been built as a couple and the affection that remains between them is the foundation of a marriage and an affair cannot be the explosion that will destroy everything that has been created together. And, there are the women who say: "I don't want to know. If I don't 'know' I do not have to do anything."

These are not women who, economically speaking, need to stay with a spouse who strays.

I swore when I started this blog I would never discuss politics or religion, but let me just say this, which I consider apolitical:  I don't want to hear anyone's sordid sob story. On that point, I agree with the French. It's humiliating not just for the wives and families but for the country. These are the types of news stories the press around the world love to gobble up and spit out over and over and over. 


Marsi said...

Tish, no need to mince words with us about adultery. Please, speak your mind!


(Love the cool pyrotechnics of the A, by the way.)

Celebrity adultery -- chewed, swallowed, and digested by a hungry public -- just is not all that interesting. Once in my 30s, I began to realize, and truly believe, that each couple's marriage is their own, and as such, who am I to comment? Just as a seemingly bad marriage (such as Bill Clinton's) involves both explicit and tacit agreements between the parties of the couple, so, too, do loving marriages. What is intolerable in one marriage is acceptable in another. And as I said, who are we to judge? When things become intolerable for either party, likely it will end. But if, when, and how are no one else's beeswax. As I've aged, I've become far less judgmental about the "should's" of other people's lives. Seems to me that I have plenty in my own life to keep me rather occupied ....

I was so, so, so glad to know the "box of chocolates" rule when we were invited to dinner at my husband's cousins' house in Paris a few years ago. The box from Cacao et Chocolat was a hit; our cousins are in their 80s and don't get around the city as they once had and were delighted to try something new.

I love to look at flowers in postings. I get a daily email from Aquarelle that I read just to fill my eyes on the bouquets every morning.


hostess of the humble bungalow said...

I am ever so guilty bringing flowers upon arrival to a party...but I arrange them ahead of time in a vase (my favorite creative hobby!) and bring them all ready to be placed wherever the hostess desires and in my experience it has been accepted with grace....thoughts on this Tish?
as to adultery...I believe it is in bad form to air dirty laundry in public, so I am with you all the way!

JMW said...

Sorry, I have trouble with the casual way the French look at fidelity. I am curious, though, is it considered okay for the wife to stray as well? Or is it a double standard?

LPC said...

No wine as a present upon arrival? Under the same philosophy, the wine has already been planned?

Tish Jett said...

Marsi, Well said as usual.

Dear Hostess, I would think Your hostess would be delighted by your gift. I think she would be even more delighted if you could somehow get it to her before you walk through the door, although I think you show enormous kindness and consideration by arranging your flowers -- and in a vase!

Dear JMW,

I hope I made it clear that I agree with you. Yes, of course wives have their affairs as well and I think there is a bit of a double standard. Women are supposed to be the rocks, the perfect wives and mothers so they are held to a higher standard.

I suspect the French have no more affairs than Americans when you get right down to it. I have no statistics to substantiate this (and may be completely wrong), but I think their reputation has grown out of the kings and their mistresses and a certain mystique has rippled out from that. There are more and more divorces in France, but it is always the safeguarding of the family that is paramount. I neither condone nor condemn. It's a choice -- not mine certainly, but it's their life.

Dear LPC, Yes of course, wine is perfect. Chocolates just popped into my mind. But don't expect your bottle to be served on the evening of the party. It very well might not be because the wines have been planned and opened. There is no obligation on the party of the host to open yours.

Friends brought champagne chez nous the other night for a little dinner and we did open it -- right after everyone finished ours.

Et voila.

Clarity said...

Wow flowers to fornication. You've certainly covered a lot of ground today.

I agree about sending the flowers earlier, although, the giver delights in presenting these personally.

As for the Firey "A". I think the reason politicians and co. should be held to a higher standard is that their behaviour does filter down to people - it does spell a new norm. For example when BC did his thing, it did directly affect high school students' attitudes to "doing" more and added to peer pressure.

As for saving the family, why should the woman salvage what the man obviously had less respect for than his own libido and ego? I really think certain liberalised attitudes are more antiquated and degrading to women than we admit.

Duchesse said...

Flowers: I agree with one caveat: If trudging around a strange city and you pass a divine florist, AND have no idea if you will find exquisite choc, flowers OK. Buy something that doesn't need arrangement, such as an orchid.

Affairs: The American public, to generalize, loves 'naughty' details, and the press exists to sell, so it provide the dirt about Monica Lewinsky's dress.

In many other cultures (not just France), discretion is prized over publicity.

In these cultures, when affairs are tolerated, there may be "rules" or agreements, for example, not having an affair with someone in your immediate social circle, or a wife would not tell her women friends she is having an affair, placing them in the position of socializing with her husband and acting like they don't know.

As Marsi says, couples make their own agreements.

I deeply hope my husband does not seek other company, but if he does, I don't want to know till I see some strange woman in black, weeping at this funeral.

Tish Jett said...

Ah, Clarity, how delicate. I never thought of the post as flowers and fornication. Now there's an irresistible headline.

Chere Duchesse, You are hilarious. I hate to dig myself any deeper in this hole, but here goes: We have a friend -- I've never liked him or her either for that matter, but not for this reason -- who said the rules must always be, never in the same parish.

JMW said...

Tish, I apologize if my comment sounded curt. I'm just fascinated at how some societies treat that topic. So, then of course I spout off something with tones of judgment. Typical American, huh? ;)

Morgane said...

you're right , we don't care about personal affairs concerning our politics or anyone 'on the lights" after all everybody do what he wants with his body!

for the service compris i think it's more a parisian way that a provincial one, here in Brittany the rule is simple : good service , nice people , good food = pourboire... Bad , rude one or awful food = we keep our money !

Mostly i receive wines from my friends but often we don't serve it ... They are already planned - exception for champagne : we always serve it : i love to share it with my invités....
Have a nice week!

knitpurl said...

Glad JMW brought up the double standard question. I have one comment: To quote Marsi, "each couple's mariage is their own."

Flowers, chocolate and wine, well a thought from the States: All 3 are welcomed in my part of the world, not at one time of course. But I think the idea of special chocolates is the best. A hostess can always open them and place them out post-dining. To me the keyword is "special" not something from the local supermarket chain...
xoxo on a beautiful day, Carole

Tish Jett said...

No, no JMW,

I didn't think you were curt.

It was sweet of you to write back thinking you were, however. It's a complicated subject.

Jeanne-Aelia Desparmet-Hart said...

Very well done Letitia. You amaze me with your way with words; your choice of images is always so perfect. And your point of view so well put. Bravo comme toujours.

BigLittleWolf said...

You are a brave, brave soul for dipping a toe in the fidelity-infidelity waters.

I was married to a European during the Clinton mess, and was bombarded non-stop by my European in-laws (and all my French friends) in exactly the same manner as you. They found the American prudishness and impeachment proceedings the height of absurdity. And hypocrisy.

And the fact is, I agreed with them then, and I agree with them now.

Perhaps not a popular position, particularly on this side of the Atlantic, and in no way an endorsement of infidelity, but the French viewpoint is one that I believe is rational. It exercises a larger, longer-term perspective on a painful and complex topic.

Another wonderful post.

Deja Pseu said...

I'm so with you on the fidelity issue! I really don't care which politician or celebrity has a mistress/mister on the side, as long as they're not one of those hypocrital and sanctimonious "Family Values" types; in that case let the schadenfreude flow like wine!

I also agree about flowers. Nothing worse than putting finishing touches on dinner only to have to stop and dig out an appropriate vase. We often show up with a bottle of wine if we know the hosts will enjoy.

Judith said...

Great post---thanks for the hostess gift advice. But, as far as using Bill Clinton for an example, you lost me. It wasn't about privacy, salacious details etc. It was about his lying (and sticking his finger into our faces while he lied to the American public if you saw his speech). Lying is a character issue. That's why he was impeached---he lied to a Grand Jury! He lost his license to practice law in Arkansas as a result. He was not a celebrity. As President, he failed to uphold his duty to his country.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Tish dearest,

First of all, thank you for visiting my blog! I am honored actually, you an accomplished writer and one-time editor, making the time to visit...that is so kind! And secondly, I LOVE YOUR TIPS ON FRENCH LIVING! These are very important and wonderful things to know about les français, especially when one wants to go there and not make any gaffes or faux pas! Beautifully written, grasping my attention, your Transatlantic Parallel Mondays are just a delight!

Bisous mon amie! Anita

Marsi said...

Dear Cherie:

You are stranded on a deserted island. What are the five beauty or personal care items you must have with you to keep your chic intact?


Julie@beingRUBY said...

Hi Tish
Interesting subjects and some that I have little experience with. For example, we don't tip here in Australia unless it is to extend gratitude for good service. That is, it is not an expectation, and the wages are not lowered to accommodate tips. Hence the first time aussies travel OS they are bound to make many mistakes. I wonder how rude they think we are? Re the flowers.. we are so casual here I doubt anyone would mind receiving flowers at the door.. although I do see your point of the inconvenience so I must remember.. chocolates!!! Finally... the scarlet letter A!!!... hehe always loved that symbology, when you think about it A has always been referred to as the best!! the winner... it is quite an oxymoron in a single letter ... don't you think? .. haha sorry side tracking Well I am not married nor in a relationship but I think a little infidelity would be unforgivable. I don't however agree with it being public domain.. so there you have it.. my humble opinion.. hehe.. Have a great week xx Julie

myletterstoemily said...

because i have to entertain frequently, i completely
agree with you on the flowers. please do not make
more work for me wheni am a teensy bit preoccupied
with your comfort and happiness already.

about infidelity, i love ruth graham's answer to a
nosey reporter who asked if she would divorce
billy for having an affair.

"divorce? no...murder?yes" :)

muummmmeeeeee...... said...

What an interesting post! Thank God I don't live in Paris...I'd be faux-pas'ing all over the place! So far as the infidelity issue is concerned, if my husband had an unimportant dalliance I wouldn't write any sob stories but I'd probably stretch myself to penning his obituary...

...I thought I'd already commented on this post Tish so if another one pops up I apologise!

Shelley said...

Tish - great post, as usual. I, too, got blasted with questions about why American's were so annoyed with Clinton. One colleague, from Romania, laughted and said more people would vote for a 'manly' man such as him...or something to that effect.

I am often handed flowers at the door when entertaining and it is a challenge to find a vase and water for them (I obviously hang out with the lower social classes, but bless them they mean well). I'm odd, I know, in that I'm not that fussed about chocolate, though Bill likes the stuff.

aaonce said...

Although I have been slow to comment on this series--I finally went to your counterpoint's blog and immediately fell in love with the concept!
Question: would you consider talking about the challenges that you each faced when moving to the different countries (how did the administrative issues differ)?
-Also how do you each view the way service is handled? For example, I was watching a video Ines did and she actually walked into an umbrella shop (what a concept!!!) where she was able to get an umbrela made or repaired. We, of course, have nothing of the sort on this side of the Atlantic. I realize you have touched this issue in a small degree-but it would be interesting to see how these differences were viewed through both sets of eyes.
P.S. I have nothing new to add to the Scarlet letter discussions, just know that I love it and you sure do know how to get us talking!

aaonce said...

Instead of "how you each view how service is handled", change that question to "how you each view the services offered". Sorry, my morning cafe has not kicked in yet.

Duchesse said...

I'm back b/c remembered one of my favourite joke (from my Parisienne GF):
A recent survey studied the behaviour of the French male after making love.
5% repeat the experience
15% have a cigarette
80% drive home

BigLittleWolf said...

Ah Duchesse - loved your comments! (Do drop by chez moi and spread a little cheer, if you're so inclined! And any friend of Tish's, as they say... no chocolates or wine required. As long as you don't mind stepping over teens and navigating around stacks of books.)

materfamilias said...

Wow! So many comments already on such a great topic! I have to say that I very much appreciate the French/Parisien system of tipping (service comprise -- we've been impressed by the continuity of servers at restaurants we've visited over the last 5 or 6 years in Paris (obviously, they can count on a reasonable wage so turnover is low) and at their professionalism. While they may not be as perkily friendly as we often see on this side of the pond, neither are they trying to bond all evening in an attempt to hustle a bigger tip.

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