Regarding my post about “acceptable prejudice,” I am here to tell you that many of the stereotypes Americans have about France (at least Paris) are true. For example, if you were to assume that you were going to be treated coldly in Parisian stores, you would be correct. However, I have found many counterexamples in my month here. It is amazing how much speaking their language, or at least trying honestly to, will do for you. And there are people who are just flat-out nice. About an hour ago, I stood at the Nicolas (wine store) outlet on the Boulevard Saint-Michel and had a wonderful conversation, in English, with the young clerk on duty. He could not have been more welcoming and helpful. I hope somebody who works for Nicolas reads this blog and looks up the name of the man working in your Boul’Miche shop at 1700h, and sends him a macaron or something. That guy is a keeper. He treated the French customers in line in front of me with genuine kindness. French sales clerks like that make up for the jerks I’ve dealt with.
Still, the point is, an American who lands in Paris will in general not fail to notice a certain froideur when it comes to customer service. The stereotype comes from somewhere.
On the upside, the stereotype about France and wine is true too. One of the great pleasures of the month I’ve spent here is having enjoyed many bottles of quite good wine at fantastic prices. Tonight Julie and I are going to have another bottle of a cremant de Bourgogne that cost only $11 at Nicolas, but which tastes as good as sparkling wines I’ve had at more than twice the cost. I also bought another bottle of Mercurey, a red Burgundy that we enjoyed with Fred the other night, for about $19. It’s really delicious, and gave me more pleasure than bottles I’ve spent much more on in the US. At the moment, I’m enjoying a glass of simple white vin de pays from the Loire Valley. Inexpensive, but truly special.
Another positive stereotype that’s true, gloriously true: the bread really is as good as you’ve heard. Better, even, because you probably haven’t heard how spectacular the butter is, and when you smear it onto your toasted baguette … man!
A negative stereotype that is unfortunately easy to confirm: the French smoke like chimneys. I may have mentioned it earlier on this blog, but the most shocking thing to me is how when it comes to smoking, France is a “Mad Men” world. It’s like the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report has never been translated. We’re staying near the Sorbonne, in a part of the city that hosts lots of students, so perhaps what we see on the street in our everyday life is unusual, re: rates of smoking. But I don’t think so. And it’s not at all unusual to see 12 year olds with cigarettes. Today at Versailles, we passed a group of schoolkids on a field trip. The kids looked to be about 13. Some of them were following their teacher, smoking away. Nobody cares here.
I do think I mentioned earlier that an American friend living here told me that one major difference between US and French societies today is that smoking has become a class marker in the US, but it is by no means so here in France. That seems clear to me too, at the end of our time here. Our six year old daughter asked me the other day why so many people smoke here, and I told her that it was just like this in our own country when I was her age. I told Julie later that it must seem incredibly strange to my own parents, who have been smoking since they were teenagers, to see how everything changed around them regarding smoking.
“Imagine you and I as old people,” Julie said, “living in a time when coffee was stigmatized. Let’s say we had to go out on the street to drink coffee — that you couldn’t do it inside. Let’s say that our children looked down on us for drinking coffee. Don’t you think we would be confused by all that? That’s what your folks must feel like.”
True. I welcome what has happened in the US regarding smoking, and I hope it comes to France (it sort of is; you can’t smoke in cafes anymore, at least not in Paris). Still, it’s striking to observe how a social revolution that has gone very far in our own country has made almost no dent here. The old stereotype of the French as cigarette fiends is very much true. I wonder why smoking is still widely accepted here, but not in the US. Anybody have any idea?