In the continuing saga of our parallel lives with the brilliantly talented Jeanne-Aelia at Through the French Eye of Design, this week’s chapter is full of surprises for me.
Surprises in the sense that I have become so accustomed to certain aspects of French life that I forgot some of the everyday habits on the other side, the side where Jeanne-Aelia is now living.
Background for those of you joining us for the first time: J.A. is married to an American and lives outside New York City; I’m married to a Frenchman and live outside Paris. Every Monday we compare our lives: what we like, strongly dislike, find extremely annoying or highly amusing here and there and what we miss from the place we once called home.
Each week we e-mail one another until we agree upon the material for our debate, then we go back to our keyboards and tap out our French/American takes on the topics. We do not see each other’s post until you do.
This week’s conversation includes:
1.) Ice. Yes, believe it or not this is a highly controversial subject.
2.) Café au lait or café crème or grande crème, whatever you would like to call it. It can be treacherous territory after the clock strikes 11 a.m. (No matter what time the coffee is consumed, however, it is never done so in a cardboard cup while running. Wait until you hear Jeanne-Aelia on this subject and she is soooooo right.)
3.) Supportive parents and high school diplomas. (You’ll see. . .)
4.) Letter writing — OK, note writing then. (The principle is: pen in hand, paper, envelope, stamp, outgoing mail slot. Not too complicated.)
Let’s start with ice. Who in the world could have a problem with ice right?
The French, that’s who.
They do not want to see those shimmering prisms of light floating in their water, their lemonade, their tomato juice and sometimes not even in their soft drinks. They will either alert the waiter before the beverage is proffered or ask for a spoon if it arrived too quickly to ward off the offending chill. They will then scoop the cubes out of the glass and if necessary ask for a receptacle into which they can be placed to melt.
When Jeanne-Aelia suggested this idea I thought: “What is she talking about?” Then I remembered, I see it all the time with French friends. She didn’t tell me this, but I’ve been told — even by a nutritionist — icy water freezes up the fats in the stomach, a rather repulsive image, but there you go. I’ve also seen Americans, not the English, ask for ice cubes. (I don’t seem to notice either way.)
My experience has been that a temperature slightly above that of the room in which the liquid is being consumed hits the spot if one is French. Beer is the temperature of the cave, not the refrigerator and contrary to what many believe Sancerre rouge and Bouilly are served “fresh,” not cold, but cool. Sometimes they are placed in ice buckets. (I’m waiting for the backlash on that digression.)
While we’re on the subject of liquids. . . Was that a smooth transition or what?
Let me tell you about my travails with café crème, which is one of my favorite beverages. Ahhh, let’s say hot beverages shall we?
Apparently one must observe certain cultural conventions in this country that if transgressed by an incult such as myself could cause shock and sarcasm. Let me be frank: I drink my café au lait (sitting down) anytime, anyplace — I’m a free spirit.
The French, except for exceptions whom I have never met, drink milk in their coffee for breakfast only. After 11 a.m.-ish it’s out-of-the-question to drink anything but an espresso. How would I know that?
You have no idea how many times waiters, arched brow and curled lip have said to me at four o’clock in the afternoon or after my dinner: “And would madame like a croissant with her café?” French humor.
To avoid some of this abuse I often say after dinner in a restaurant: “May I please have a petit pot de lait foid? SVP et merci. It seems to cause less consternation.
My long time friends simply place a tiny pitcher of cold milk on the tray with the rest of the coffee and tea paraphernalia before carrying the tray into the salon.
Before you ask, no I do not ask for milk if it’s not on the tray unless I’m chez Edith or Anne-Françoise. But they never forget.
No transition possible, but this is a cause near and dear to my coeur: the French education system.
The fundamental difference between the French way and the American way is Americans believe in positive reinforcement while the French believe in negative discourangement. The philosophy spills over to parents who often treat their children similarly in that regard. While an American might tell his or her children they could be doing better, the parent at the same time will find something positive to say like: “Wow, you’ve really improved in gym this year.”
The French schools mark low as a sort of reverse discouraging/encouraging tactic to push students to work harder. Furthermore children are often, although there seems to be some activity in the government to remedy this, required to choose the path their lives will take when they are 15-years-old by selecting the baccalaureat they will strive to attain from that point on, i.e.: math, language, etc. Math and science are the most highly respected.
And finally, the detail I find triste for French teenagers — who work so hard and suffer such stress that the pharmacies advertise special vitamins during the weeks leading up to and during the baccalaureat — after the exams, that’s it. They wait angst-filled weeks for the results until they find their grades on the Internet or by pages posted outside their school. At that moment they will know whether they can move on with their lives, try to retake some of the tests or repeat the past scholastic year.
For those who succeed there are no graduation ceremonies, no caps and gowns, no celebrations. It’s sadly anti-climatic.
Handwritten missives are not a thing of the past in France — not completely. Of course everyone chooses the easy e-mail way more often, but I have several friends who frequently write a few lines on paper or a pretty card with their fountain pens and pop them in the mail.
For me it’s the sweetest cadeau. Because I appreciate it so much and it makes me happy I should do unto others, but I rarely do except for holiday wishes, birthdays and de rigueur thank you notes. That is the extent of what my American friends are up to these days, but I find the remembrance of a birthday with a real card that requires one to slit open an envelope makes the day even finer.
It’s not a generational penchant either, my daughter receives letters from her French friends.
An old, old friend of mine in the States, quite famous in his field, set aside time in each day to write quick notes to thank friends and acquaintances for thoughtful gestures or commend an employee on the other side of the country for a job well-done.
Another friend suggested, keep the envelopes stamped and addressed, “you already have the engraved stationery.”
It’s true, it is the thought that counts. (I don’t care if it is a cliche.)