Truly, I don’t hate France or the French, as a few of my new commenters suggest, but sometimes they make it so easy. Paul Rudnick apparently thinks so too. He hits a homer in this week’s New Yorker.
Here’s just a taste:
I am Marie-Céline Dundelle, and I do not need a book contract to reveal that French women are superior in all matters. …
To maintain my figure, I eat only half portions of any food, always arranging it on my plate in the shape of a semicolon. For exercise, at least once a day I approach a total stranger and slap him. And late each afternoon I read a paragraph of any work of acclaimed American literary fiction, which makes me vomit.
As for family life, Americans are far too concerned with a child’s self-esteem and accomplishments. The French woman knows that to build a child’s inner strength it is best either to completely ignore the child or to belittle him. As I was giving birth to my daughter, I refused to put down my copy of French Vogue. When it was over, I turned to my husband and remarked, “I have just had an unusually large bowel movement that will never be as attractive as me.” During my son’s thirteenth-birthday party, I ordered him to remove all his clothing, and I told the assembled guests, “You see? That is why we raised him as a girl.” My wisdom can be traced to the influence of my own mother. When I was five years old, I asked her, “What is love?” She took my small, flowerlike face in her slender hands and replied, “What do I look like, Yoda?”
French Children Don't Throw Food (When People Are Watching)
If I’m being honest, I’ve spent the last month or so quietly seething about author Pamela Druckerman’s new book, being published in the UK with the title French Children Don’t Throw Food. Admittedly, it has been a somewhat irrational reaction to a highly qualified journalist’s latest professional effort, and I can only conclude that it’s because I’ve had such negative insight to French parenting since moving to Paris a little over a year ago.
First things first: Last night, as Druckerman and I sat in our respective Paris apartments, she conducted a live Wall Street Journal chat about her controversial book. I offered a question, which she was kind enough to answer. Not wanting to pick a fight and out of respect for her impressive body of work, I restrained myself:
ME: As an American mother living in Paris, I can report that nothing is more talked about among my community of expat friends than your new book. Not lunar colonies, not anti-contraception pols, not even the strength of the Euro. And here’s what we want to know: What inadequacies, if any, do you notice among French parents?
DRUCKERMAN: I think there’s less of an emphasis on creativity. French schools, in particular, train kids to be analytical rather than creative. And I think French schools discourage risk-taking.
I’m trying to choose the best of both cultures (or of all three, if you count my husband’s britishness. Though mostly this seems to mean teaching my kids the art of being ironic about everything.)
I wouldn’t want my kids to be entirely “French.” I like the American optimism, the spirit of risk-taking, and the sense of infinite possibility. Even if the possibilities really aren’t infinite. But they had better eat like Frenchmen!
She’s right about the French schools. There isn’t an expat I know — and I’m lucky to have friends and acquaintances from all over the world, from Poland and Canada, England and Turkey, the Netherlands and New Zealand, among others — who isn’t concerned about sending their children to French state schools, where strict discipline, negative feedback and rote memorization rule the day.
Not without more than a little financial sacrifice, we, in fact, send our children to a private international school, where the language of instruction is French, but the approach isn’t. The student body, and therefore obviously the parents, represents many corners of the globe, and our differences are celebrated. Individuality at this school is nurtured, not buried in favor of head-down conformity the way it is at state schools.
Anyway, why has Druckerman’s book gotten to us so much? Because the evidence we’ve seen on the street, on the playground and elsewhere is that French — or at least Parisian — parents tend to disregard what the rest of us know is healthy for their children. Though the trend is slowly reversing, the French, for example, have the lowest breastfeeding rate in western Europe.
What’s more, they are much more willing to wage emotional and physical warfare with their children than my friends and I are (and remember, I’m representing not an American perspective but an international one). It obviously can’t be said that all French parents are the same, but what passes for acceptable here as a means to make children compliant is unacceptable to every expat parent, no matter the nationality, I know.
I’ve seen a woman on the sidewalk grab a teen’s hair and pull him to her violently, a woman beating her son in the car seat to make him shut up, and perhaps more damning than anything else, I’ve seen French parents simply ignoring their children. Entire coffee klatschs here are dedicated to recounting deplorable French parenting we’ve witnessed.
There is no doubt that French children are more behaved when they are being judged by their behavior than their American counterparts. French children know their parents don’t mind exercising very unpleasant means of punishment should they fail to mind their Ps and Qs. But here’s what happens — and again, this is such a universally accepted truth among everyone I know that it’s offensive to us to see this style of parenting held up as the ideal: French kids don’t have fun at home, they don’t have fun at school, so when they get to a neutral place like the playground, where their mothers or nannies talk on the phone or take smoke breaks, they are often prone to act like wild animals.
Truly, many Parisian parents regard the park as a place where they can simply ignore their children, and children know that just about anything goes there. They will shamelessly take toys from their peers, assault other kids savagely, literally climb on top of younger children, brazenly disregard the direction of other parents, and look at you with seething hatred in their eyes.
French parents can be so hands-off at the playground that they don’t even make themselves available to comfort little ones who have just fallen or been the victims of older, angry, aggressive children. Pretty much every time we go to the park I comfort a small child whose parent is AWOL.
So, not to put too fine a point on it, but while French parents may be able to get their children to sit at the table for dinner without throwing food or other unpleasantries, it looks to me like many of them are raising angry little monsters who resent their parents’ methods.
I consider myself a normal mom, and guess what? I’d rather my kids be at their worst at home than unruly, inconsiderate world citizens when I’m not watching.
All of this is not to say there aren’t other valuable things I could learn from the French. Now excuse me while I go microwave some chicken nuggets.
“Let’s just start off with the breath. The oral care standards of Parisians are utterly unlike any I’ve ever known. Thanks to their pack-or-more-a-day cigarette habits, every other person smells like smoke-cured human bacon. You smell coffee, but not the fresh stuff in the cup—the smell of it in someone’s mouth four hours later. Then there’s the repulsive odor that wafts from the RER train system. If Satan farted, it would be a little like this sulfurous cocktail of burning photocopies and fried electrical wires. Sure, the gourmand perfume of fresh croissants, butter, and baked flour spills onto the street. But take a few more steps and you’re smacked in the face by the equally fresh smell of dog shit. If you close your eyes, you discover the marketing of Paris—that whole “city of light” garbage that’s eagerly swallowed by tourists—is really nothing but a lie.”— Chandler Burr, in GQ, naming Paris the smelliest city in the world. Read more.
It was odd to read A Moveable Feast while traveling through the Pyrenees during the holidays, down through southern France and into Pamplona. Because we couldn’t get away from Hemingway’s memory. It seemed everywhere we went there was a pamphlet touting his erstwhile presence or a cafe named in his honor.
I have mixed feelings about the book, as he betrayed the trust of his friends, though I guess in his defense he wasn’t given the opportunity not to publish it. He was, after all, dead. Knowing that F. Scott Fitzgerald was insecure about the size of his member and that Gertrude Stein begged her lesbian lover with pleas of “pussy, pussy” seem like details that not only do I not have a right to know but also ones that aren’t the slightest bit enriching.
At any rate, he gets this right about Paris:
…Nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.
Excuse me while I go translate my cell phone bill….
For the two of you paying attention — chiefly my mother and I suspect that creepy guy I went out with once in college who now works for the CIA — you may have noticed I’ve been absent from this space for a while.
There was the barrage of Christmas commitments, a family journey down to the Basque region and into Pamplona, Spain (the Pyrenees mountain goats send their very best New Year’s wishes), and then the annual struggle to stave off existential thoughts, finally culminating in resolutions that I have, against all predictions, so far kept. They can be summarized thusly: grow the mind, shrink the body. So Saturday there was The Great Gatsby and a multitude of stomach crunches. Yesterday there was French study and some Dickens. Today there was a nice run, pushups and … a self-help book about sleeping better. What can I say? It was a free download. Some days are better than others.
There is also a new project, which is calling me. More soon….
Notice the two different shades of purple and the perfectly matched tights. This is simply not something with which I can or want to compete.
And here’s what I was wearing. I’m in the wrong neighborhood. I should really be down by the river smoking cigarettes and passing the time at Shakespeare & Co. But the people over there are dressed so shabbily!
This is the kid who, last weekend, when we asked him what he’d like to do Sunday, said, “I’m thinking the Arc de Triomphe!” And here he is in class holding his Giacometti-esque sculpture. Yes, those teachers — God love ‘em — hustled the kids onto the Metro and took them to see an exhibit of Alberto Giacometti works at the Pinacotheque de Paris, then had them do their own art at school. They’re FOUR! I love this but haven’t graduated from entertaining him with bubbles and LEGOs, so thank God for the educators who know how to make the sweet, runny-nosed children we drop off every day into little sophisticated art lovers and artists.
Speaking of art, tomorrow is the first Sunday of the month, which means the Louvre is free and that you can get a solid 10 minutes alone with the Mona Lisa if you know which little-known entrance to use when the doors open. I, of course, have not yet been alone with her, because I’m not keen on making the 8:05 a.m. 72 bus on a Sunday morning to make it happen. The Louvre is the new Grand Ole Opry: It’ll be there when I want to take someone from out of town.
Mr. UN holds out hope every first Sunday that I will get my ass out of bed, but I prefer slothdom on the Sabbath. If ever I do manage to join him and the boys on this adventure, it will only be because I want to go to the Apple store underneath the Louvre when it’s not mobbed by skinny French twenty-somethings who look exactly like Waldo (or Wally in the UK). Except the “Where are Waldo?” books in France are titled, “Ou est Charlie?” Lightning McQueen is different too: Flash McQueen in France. These revisions seem neither French nor better, but what do I know? I’m just a girl who hasn’t yet been to the Louvre.
From what I gather after 10 months in Paris, understanding how to get on with Parisians — as opposed to the French generally — takes a trip in the way-back machine. Destination: seventh grade. For example, it took months before our gardien, a somber-faced aging man with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Champs-Elysées (in fairness, if I had to windex — no, Windex®! — the foyer doors for a living, I might have one too) and a tendency to leave his fly unzipped, would return my “bonjour.” This sent my slightly co-dependent ego into a state of worry and self-doubt.
This is a likeness, at least in my head, of the gardien.
"What have I done?" I asked my friend Molly one day, as we side-stepped the discarded condoms during our walk in the Bois de Boulogne.
She just shook her head as if to say, “Bless your little heart.”
Molly has been here 10 years, is married to a delightful French man (perhaps the only one in all of Paris), speaks the language fluently and is still considered an outsider in these parts. But she does know the ways of their world.
"It’s just how they are. Start being really clipped and see what happens."
So instead of smiling brightly and trying desperately to win a simple salutation from the gardien — let’s call him Sad Sack, or better, Sac Triste — I began to offer only the slightest acknowledgement. The chilly treatment warmed him right up and ushered in an era of chit-chat.
"A l’ecole?" (Going to school?) he’d ask with a smile as I unstuffed the boys from the elevator (Nicholas calls it the "Alligator") one morning. "Oui, a l’école. Bonne journée." When I saw Sac Triste with his grandson at the park, we’d exchange smiles and "Ca va"s like we were old family friends.
Until the other day.
I’d just returned from a grueling trip to school with the boys, both of them screaming, one hanging off each hand, for the entire four-block walk. This is notable because of the way Parisians regard such behavior. The French, you see, have a Victorian view of child-rearing, which is to say they believe kids should be seen, not heard. They ignore them, or beat them senseless, or both, from an early age, which creates a disincentive for small people to act up. That’s why they grow up so damn grumpy. In short, they frown on public temper tantrums. So as I walked into my apartment building, I’d already been accosted with all manner of shrugs, eye rolls, head shaking, etc.
Sac Triste was doing his Monday morning polishing and such, then stopped me to ask in French whether I was the one who’d placed a bag of beer bottles next to the glass recycling bin instead of inside it. It took asking him to repeat himself to understand what he was saying. That annoyed him, and only convinced him more that I was the culprit.
"C’est vous?" (It’s you?) he accused, as he demonstrated the placing of a bottle into the bin as though I was mentally impaired.
"Non, pas moi," I said. He rolled his eyes and told me I really needed to learn French.
Suck it, Sac Triste.
Nothing was going to convince him that he was wrong. Which is another malady of the French, an utter lack of self doubt.
Author Stephen Clarke, with whom I fear I’m desperately in love, says it better than I ever could in Talk to the Snail:
When Dealing with a Frenchman, you need to be aware that there is a voice in his head. It is constantly telling him, ‘I’m French, I’m right.’ Even when he’s doing something that is quite obviously illegal, antisocial or just plain stupid, he is sure that right is on his side….
Observe a Parisian driver when he or she comes up against a red light. ‘How dare this coloured bulb assume it knows best whether it is safe to cross this junction,’ the driver thinks. ‘It’s obviously safe to go through, there’s nothing blocking my way except a few annoying pedestrians.’ He ploughs through, certain that the universe is on his side.
My fumbled protestation wasn’t all there was to cast doubt on my guilt. There are eight chambre de bonne, or maid’s quarters, on the sixth floor, which is unfortunately the floor directly above ours. These are single rooms used less these days by domestic workers and more by students and other short-term residents who, as best I can tell, are aspiring rock and porn stars.
They party, hump and smoke copiously, which is not mere conjecture on my part. I hear the first two activities frequently, and have daily evidence in my geraniums of the third. In fact, retrieving the butts from my flowers is just part of the house-keeping routine around here, like cleaning the toilet or taking out the trash.
That’s an idea: Maybe the next time I take out the trash, I’ll leave it beside the bin.
…which is why I didn’t write today about my run-in with our building’s gardien or all the cigarette butts populating my geraniums, courtesy of the folks upstairs (unrelated). By tomorrow, I either will have found serenity or my inner bitch. Guesses?
The photography here (click on the headline) is better than I can muster using my dinged smartphone while simultaneously wiping someone’s nose. Anyway, it’s only a matter of time before I see some miserable, gorgeous mom sporting these. And as far as I’m concerned, if she’s willing to cripple herself, she can sleep with anyone else’s husband she chooses.
So Saturday morning, as we were drinking coffee and trying to pretend the boys weren’t tormenting one another in the adjoining room, Mr. UN says, “You know, Monday is an Islamic holiday.”
"Hmmm," I replied, without the slightest enthusiasm. "So?"
"I have the day off."
While Mr. UN will be working Thanksgiving, a non-religious holiday celebrated by but one of the UN’s 192 member countries, he enjoys Islamic holidays recognized in all corners of the globe.
"So what are we doing here?" I asked.
This is where my stateside friends are wondering what planet I inhabit. “Why would you want to leave Paris?”
Because for every Parc de Bagatelle, Louvre and melt-in-your-mouth croissant, there are 1) the ubiquitous smell of human piss, 2) judgmental old bags who don’t understand why two-year-olds occasionally cry and — OK, I’m just going to say it — 3) the nauseating stench of crotch sweat on the overcrowded Metro. The School Calendar Masochists (pretty sure that, or Masochistes du Calendrier Scolaire, is the official name) must feel this way too, which is why for every six weeks of school, there are two weeks of vacation.
So I asked Mr. UN — who is between weeklong trips, the next to China — to rent a car, and I started throwing random clothes in a bag. Before the coffee was cold, we had a gite reservation an hour north of Paris, and I was frantically sending the car seats down the elevator.
I can now report that Giverny, home of Claude Monet, is stunning, and that the French countryside, especially with fall colors, is capable of readjusting even the most wretched soul.
“I was also sick of my neighbors, as most Parisians are. I now knew every second of the morning routine of the family upstairs. At 7:00 am alarm goes off, boom, Madame gets out of bed, puts on her deep-sea divers’ boots, and stomps across my ceiling to megaphone the kids awake. The kids drop bags of cannonballs onto the floor, then, apparently dragging several sledgehammers each, stampede into the kitchen. They grab their chunks of baguette and go and sit in front of the TV, which is always showing a cartoon about people who do nothing but scream at each other and explode. Every minute, one of the kids cartwheels (while bouncing cannonballs) back into the kitchen for seconds, then returns (bringing with it a family of excitable kangaroos) to the TV. Meanwhile the toilet is flushed, on average, fifty times per drop of urine expelled. Finally, there is a ten-minute period of intensive yelling, and at 8:15 on the dot they all howl and crash their way out of the apartment to school.” (p.137)