French lessons worth learning

Within the subtle and not so subtle differences between my California upbringing and my past 10 years in France are found lessons rich in style and substance. (The substance, alas, often has to do with weight gain.) These lessons have taught me the essence of French style and thought. Best of all, they almost always make me smile.

Lesson No. 1 is that two nation-states dwell together here. One is France, and the other is Paris. If you've been to one, you may not have been to the other. Great cities have a similar feel; life in a city is more about living in a huge population center than about discovering a nation's identity. I found France only when I moved out of Paris and into the heartland.

Adding to one's initial confusion here, are many special traits that you won't find anywhere else in the world. To sort them out and feast on them means giving France the time it requires to explain itself to you. Adopt the best of these traits, and soon you'll think you've found heaven on earth. In fact, you probably have.

We're not talking about gasoline for your little automobile here, which will cost around $5 a gallon, of which $4 are taxes the French are so desperate to raise every year. Nor do we mention the television tax, an annual sting if you own a TV. No one here has proposed an Internet tax, as of last week.

More pleasantly, however, have you ever heard of the two-hour lunch? Maybe with an elective one-hour nap to follow? Is that lazy, crazy, or simply brilliant? Go ahead, try it. Watch what happens. Two hours gives you time to slow down the workplace pace, freshen up, visit with friends, cover the conversational tidbits of the day, and forget the office.

The leisure of it will thrill you, once you get over the guilt. Don't worry about the boss. He's at home eating lunch, too. The rules of the game include the rule that everyone must do it at the same time. Try finding a bite to eat anywhere in France after 2:30 in the afternoon, or before noon.

Go ahead, try.

When I grew up, no one took two hours for lunch, ever, unless he was incredibly rich or unemployed. A sandwich on the run was de rigueur.

In France, we're talking about a mandated luncheon with friends, hot food, several courses, and two desserts if you feel like it. There's none of this passing you a plastic bottle of water as you run by on your day's marathon. Rushing any meal is barbaric in French eyes. In most towns, it seems the entire population has vanished between noon and 2 p.m. It creates two days out of what we used to believe was only one facing us each morning.

Try a nap after one of those huge French luncheons, or just take off your shoes at home, stretch out, and read for an hour. Now go back to work for the day, and see how you feel. Simply sensational, is our guess. Would you be surprised to learn how much more successfully you work during Part 2 of your day in France, getting as much or more done, and in happier spirits?

Ah, but try calling anyone in France to ask for an appointment to see them. This involves the French rite known as "let me consult my agenda." OK, that's not unfair for busy professionals. But in France everyone sees themselves as a true professional that way. They first tell you that all of next week is "impossible" to squeeze in even a moment for you. French dignity requires that they explore not less than a couple of weeks ahead.

When you begin to weep on the phone over the urgency of it, they check their agendas again. In your heart you know it's impossible for them to be that busy, but to protest would be to destroy the magic of this cultural trait.

To agree to see you the same day is essentially impossible for them, emotionally. Perhaps they fear you'd conclude they are unloved or lazy or have no true French life to live.

No, you must pronounce yourself pleased that they can see you a week from Thursday. This is accomplished with audible gasping and strange lip-suction noises as they struggle on the phone to make room to see you. You would think you had asked them to do something illegal, even though the only things truly illegal here are bank heists, anyone towing your car away when you've a pet inside it, and a right turn on a red signal.

You'll love the French on Sunday mornings. Sunday begins with every American in France asking: Where is everybody? In church? Home in bed? Not necessarily. Churches here seem to be filled for weddings, funerals, and special holidays, primarily. No, the French are up at the crack of dawn on Sundays and then race out their doors to vanish for several hours. They've all gone to stand in long lines at their local bakeries, of course.

This is to get ready for the Sunday meals, the emotional climax of the week. To get their decidedly fresh breads for just that day's dining (two dozen varieties, and counting), or those French pastry desserts that define desire. Who ever heard of Weber's or Langendorf's bread in a plastic bag for a week? Not us expatriates. You think we want to lose our residency permits?

I've had sweet, gentle French nuns give me a shove or a sharp elbow in a bakery line, which would do credit at a Nordstrom's clearance sale in Los Angeles.

Start learning to carry a baguette on a motor scooter or the bus. Walk back to your home with pretty decorated boxes filled with pastries to make strong men weep. Carry them proudly, like badges of French courage and tenacity, into Sunday morning's glorious air.

Of course, miniversions of Sunday occur almost every day of the week, starting at 7:30, when the bakeries open. The French just do it with more panache on Sunday mornings, when you can meet everyone in town - in line.

We could go on, but there is danger in that. You might come over, take our place in line at the boulangerie-patisserie, and refuse to go back to Hermosa Beach or Fresno or Daly City. Like the rest of us.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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