French Toast

An American in Paris Celebrates the Maddening Mysteries of the French

Harriet Welty Rochefort

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

The French Connection
I arrived in France not just from the United States but from Shenandoah, a small town in Iowa. Tucked into the southwest corner of the state, near the borders of Missouri and Nebraska, Shenandoah was the center of my life until I was twenty years old. And small-town life in the Midwest has forever conditioned my reactions to what came after. Coming from Iowa, rather than New York or California, put a different spin on my experience. An example: Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, I just assumed that everyone in the entire world was friendly and straight-shooting. Quelle surprise! (What a surprise!)
French Toast grew out of two decades of living in France with a French husband, a full-scale French family-in-law, two half-French, half-American children, and a French stepson. Rather than just gently fading into French culture—that is, adapting—I have come to realize I feel more and more American. Increasingly, I find myself trying to explain to myself why the French are the way they are, and why, in spite of “going native” in the sense of having a French spouse, speaking the language fluently, and immensely enjoying living here, I don’t feel any more French than the day I arrived. This book stemmed from a desire to write it all down. In addition to being a cathartic experience for its author, French Toast will, I hope, be informative and enjoyable for each reader while providing a few keys to the complex character of the French.
As an Iowan freelance journalist residing in France, I have had a bird’s-eye view of the French for these past twenty years.
Sitting astride this French-American fence has given me a privileged position of being both participant and observer. Being neither fish nor fowl has given me a constant comparative view of both life in the United States and life in France, as well as perceptions about the French that tourists rarely acquire. For example, life with the French has put a whole new meaning on the word complicated. The simplest situation in France suddenly becomes something extremely complex and detailed. The French attention to detail—from the way one cuts cheese to the color of one’s panty hose—has never ceased to fascinate me.
Based on common and daily experiences, French Toast is a mixture of reflections and observations about life in France. These include all the faux-pas I have made in the past and continue to make (laughing too loudly, saying things directly instead of obliquely, cutting my lettuce leaves instead of folding them, just to mention a few examples).
More than anything else, I think this book reflects a whole range of different emotions—affection, wonder, and, sometimes, plain exasperation. I can’t relate to the way the French drive (although my American friends tell me I drive like a real Parisian and are they ever scared), but I would much rather get into a political discussion with the French than with my compatriots, because the French basically have mastered the art of arguing politely without getting unpleasantly personal. As one recently arrived American remarked, “You can get into a violent political discussion, which is followed by a big laugh and ‘Please pass the cheese,’ and you go on to something else.”
Come to think about it, it may seem contradictory, but I feel rather more at home sometimes with the French because of their refreshing lack of what they call “le puritanisme.” On the other hand, the minute I set foot back in the States, the tension I feel while living in Paris eases out of me as I enjoy the civility of people who aren’t afraid to be nice to one another even if their families haven’t known one another for the past two hundred years.
In sum, I took off my rose-colored glasses a long time ago. The illusions I came with—and there were plenty—have been replaced by a rather fond and amazed look at the French (including my own children, who are so French sometimes that I can hardly believe they are my own). What follows is not a sociological study of the French, but a straightforward and personal tale of what makes the French so French.
Meet Philippe
During this book, I interview Philippe, my French husband, to counterbalance my typically American point of view on the French. He deserves this opportunity. After all, he’s put up with my comments for the past twenty years, so it’s only fair to give him a chance to say what he thinks about what I think.
So who is Philippe, and is he typically French?
Although he was born and raised in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris, Philippe’s parents hailed from the south of France, the imposing mountains of the Auvergne and the softer scenery of the Dordogne. In spite of these rural roots, he is a “real” Parisian, having attended French public schools and then attending two years of prépa before going to a grande école (see the chapter on education to figure this out). Along the way, he also picked up a doctoral degree in economics. Extracurricular activities included playing his guitar in cafés and bass with a jazz group. Summers were spent on holidays in Spain, where he picked up Spanish, and trips to England, where he learned English with an English accent (which he had when I met him, but over the years it has been transformed into a more American accent). He has an uncanny talent for picking up accents and has been known to fool both Japanese and Arabs when speaking the one or two sentences he knows in each of these languages.
Philippe loves history, in particular the Middle Ages, and historical monuments. He loves to cook and is a hospitable host. He likes to read, play the piano and guitar, and paint in oils. He hates cars and the consumer society. He’s not all that hot for sports (either participating or observing). He likes our cat, and, believe me, not many people do. He likes America and Americans (hey, he married me, didn’t he?). Some people say he looks like former French president Jacques Chirac—an observation he is not so sure he likes.
Considering that there are Frenchmen who hate history, can’t stand reading, love cars, the consumer society, and sports, and are anti-American, can we say that Philippe is typically French? Let’s just say that he is very French and you’d have a hard time mistaking him for any other nationality. To begin with, he has a typical Parisian expression on his face—that is, Don’t mess with me, baby (which is great, because he scares the daylights out of panhandlers and all those people I have trouble fending off due to my big, naïve, ever-present smile). Second, he has a slight tendency to explode, only to calm down just as quickly. Third, he can carry on a conversation concerning just about anything, and fourth, he is very polite in that mysteriously hard-to-define and often inscrutable French way. Finally, like many Frenchmen, he can be France’s best critic. Deep in his heart, though, you know he couldn’t live anywhere else. He’s simply too French.