Random Observations in France


On Air France, after the meals and drinks are served, they leave the drink bar out so you can serve yourself. They leave boxes of fudge bars out for people. People mill about and talk when the seat-belt light isn’t flashing. It’s the little things that make life more humane. Or maybe when you’re more humane, it comes across in the little things. (As well as the big things, like paid maternity leave and the best healthcare in the world.)

French electrical outlets are hermaphroditic.

French people are really distinct—in their vibe, their whole affect, and of course their language. One of the differences seems to be an overall lower level of hostility, particularly among men.

Embedded in the French language is a gentility and an elegance that is distinct from English. Some of it is the sound. For example, we both say chauffeur, but the French say it more elegantly (less r). Sometimes French is so elegant it’s comical. We passed a hardware store and I had to laugh at how wonderful the sale items sounded. At other times, the elegance is so incongruous with the content of what’s being said that you kind of wish it wasn’t so damn elegant.

Appreciating the beauty of French, but not fully understanding the language, it becomes easy to imagine that everyone around you is having an amazing conversation about beautiful things. I find it nice to be out in public yet be on vacation from other people’s banal thoughts and/or your negative judgements of other people’s thoughts. I’m already getting the sense that, once you start to understand more, the vacation is kind of over.

I live in a place where those who speak a different language are part of a servant class. Yes, it IS like a sci-fi movie! Sadly, for a lot of white people in California, speaking something other than English is looked down on, even despised. I find it delightful to be in a place where speaking something other than English has an entirely different feeling. In France, not knowing what someone else is saying is not a sign of your superiority. I know that sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. Ridonkulous even.

Last night I ate a dish made with goat cheese, and that fact was explained to me as if I lived in a cave (and not a cheese-aging cave). I got the impression that if I took some of these French folks to SF/Oakland, they would be shocked to discover how great the food is (including the French food). Being here, I actually have a new appreciation for the foodie’s paradise we live in.

For a Californian, being a snob or a traditionalist about a single regional cuisine seems like a strange way to live. We have a million cuisines interacting with each other all the time and we’re totally open minded about new dishes and combinations—that’s our raison d’etre. At a soirée here, I described one of my favorite French-inspired dishes from the Caribbean restaurant Cha Cha Cha in SF called Chicken Paillard, and in the middle of describing it, my host reacted dismissively: “That’s not French.” Okay. Back to your croissant then (which apparently isn’t French, either, it’s Austrian).

Later, at that same soirée, as my hosts ate duck—the specialty of this region, which prides itself on duck confit and foie gras—I introduced them to an important American phrase: Fuck a duck. They loved it! Fuck a duck!!! I gave them the two classic deliveries. Boiled over frustration—FUCK A DUCK!!! And quiet exasperation—Ah, fuck a duck. The phrase was repeated around the table in laughing contemplation. You’re welcome, France.

On this point about food, I think I’ve experienced a few instances (very rarely) of what some might call French rudeness. In most cases rudeness is of course completely individual with nothing distinctly French about it. Other times, I got the feeling the person really just needed me to respect the French culture, and by extension them. Maybe in French rudeness there is some insecurity that creates an insecurity-superiority vortex? In any case, these instances have been rare. By in large, I find the French people to be very warm indeed.

People are living less in their phones here. They also write more checks. I haven’t seen this many checks written in front of me since like 1995. Vive le cheque!

So far, my favorite French expression is d’accord. It literally means “of accord” or “we are of accord” and also seems to be used like “ah, ok” or “ah, I get it”. They use it very liberally, multiple times in a given conversation. It’s a great phrase, d’accord. I wish we had something like it.

I now understand why a classic education in England and New England includes French. A good chunk of our language comes from Français obviously. In hindsight, it seems like a glaring omission from my own education. My graduation requirements stipulated I take multiple years of the same language (and as a Californian I was steered to Spanish) rather than years of different languages (which is what I would’ve preferred).

Van de Camp’s baked beans are apparently still a thing here. There was a bucket of them in the steam table at the hotel. Oui, it was the coup de grace.

They call drip coffee sock juice. Also, when you cast your gaze across a coffee bar, you discover they apparently don’t have cream or little creamers, instead they have little packaged condensed milks. Kinda gross. Want some condensed milk in your sock juice? Par excellence!

Last night I walked to the elevator and arrived at the same time as another fellow. After a bonjour, I pressed the button and we stood there waiting in silence. I wanted to break the silence, but my inability to speak stopped me. And I thought of all the times, back in America, where I stood in silence with a stranger by choice. Here, being forcibly mute, I realized how much I take being able to speak for granted. Maybe when I get home, I’ll be a little chattier.

So concludes my first three days in France. The Festival BD Colomiers is in the bag. Today we have an Ultra Chômeur book signing in Toulouse—a city known as La Villa Rose because it’s made from a pink stone found in the region. My goal for the day: try cassoulet. Tomorrow we drive to Paris.