Forty-plus years of living in Paris, first as a student then as the wife of a well-known banker and historian, have given Harriet Welty Rochefort the ability to look at both sides of the French-American cultural divide with a sharp analysis that’s both trenchant and humorous.
She’s published three books that I think of as cultural dictionaries. In them, she translates French culture in a way Americans can understand, even if we sometimes can’t quite comprehend. The French are different from us Americans (and from Germans, the only other European culture I know well enough to judge). But at the same time they’re much like us. Or we’re like them.
I met Harriet late last year at one of Patricia Laplante-Collins’s Sunday soirées. Patricia had invited her to be the guest of honor and presenter of a slide show based on her most recent book, Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing like the French. I also got to meet her husband Philippe, who retired as a banker then went back to the Sorbonne for his doctorate in history, and their friends Ron Rosbottom, the Amherst professor who had just published the outstanding When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, and his wife Betty, a noted cookbook author. (When Paris Went Dark is fascinating, and is on my list to be reviewed soon.)
Harriet’s focus is the differences wrapped within the similarities. There are plenty of both, and they seem pretty well matched in plusses and minuses.
An American tourist will generally cast the differences in superficial terms: a surly waiter (some are, most aren’t, and even those warm up if you are nice to them), or fashion. Here’s Harriet’s take on that:
“An American woman might, for example, get the dress, makeup and hairstyle right, but she can’t change her wide-open, trusting, smiling, innocent American face.”
Bingo. And the same goes for her American husband. We stand out, and we need to be conscious of that, since we’re guests in their home.
Dress aside (and that does seem to be less important year by year), the French are known as one of the most pessimistic people in Europe. Harriet’s take on that again:
“After watching the nightly eight o’clock news on France’s Channel 2, I want to immerse my head in a bucket of Bordeaux.”
I watch that newscast, too (it’s on the web at France2.fr. Be prepared to follow quick French) and it does seem to focus on the negatives of the day, but that’s pretty much TV news everywhere these days.
Les Petits Plaisirs
Harriet’s choice of chapters summarizes the culture differences well. There’s an important one on “Romance, French Style,” and one I especially liked entitled “Small is good: Les Petits Plaisirs.” Several deal with the special differences and attractions of French women, and she wraps it up with “How I Became A Little Bit French.”
Joie de Vivre is a charming book, informative at the same time it entertains. I give it five stars. If you’re already a Francophile you’ll enjoy it immensely; if you’re just thinking about a visit you should consider it as well.
Thomas Dunne Books. Kindle edition $11.99, hardcover $19.17. I reviewed the Kindle edition, which I purchased. Its Amazon page is here.