How to be French
Stephen Clarke’s expert tips for life in France
Imagine that you are sitting in the shade of a faded awning outside a country auberge somewhere west of Lyon (though this theoretical auberge could just as well be east of Bordeaux, south of Paris or north of Nice). You are sipping a blood-red local wine (though it could also be amber-gold or sapphire-pink) and devouring pungent pâté (or soft cheese, or black tapenade) with a slice of crusty bread. Life, you decide, is pretty pleasant on the whole.
As well as the above-mentioned tastes and smells, you might also be experiencing (for example) the soft tinkling of the fountain in a village square, the piping of a rooftop blackbird announcing that the day will be soon be over, the lilting accent of the waiter or waitress as they ask how you are enjoying the first course. Meanwhile, your eyes will – if you have chosen the venue wisely – be resting on a rural scene that has hardly changed in a century, except perhaps for the cars that pass by, the over-excited commercials on the local radio and the billboard for the hypermarket ten kilometres down the road.
All these gentle stimuli of the senses should be hints that there are certain things your brain should not be doing at this time. It ought not, for example, be wondering how well that glass was cleaned before your wine was poured. Or how many people handled the bread before you put it in your mouth. Or even what exactly went into that pâté. Not that the answers would be life-threatening – after all, the people of rural France often live to a ripe old age, especially if they give up smoking and over-generous aperitifs before it’s too late.
Most importantly of all, though, your relaxed mind should steer you well away from the temptation to ask the people around you certain questions. About politics or religion, for instance, subjects that might deliver some nasty surprises. It’s best to tell yourself that the waiter in a rural auberge is simply a friendly man who serves food to hungry travellers. He may well be just that, so why not give him the benefit of the doubt?
Because France is a place that survives – and stays eternally attractive to us foreigners – thanks to a lack of probing questions. The French are very good at not asking them. My French friends hardly ever interrogate each other about what they earn, how much their apartment is worth, or how their parents acquired their beautiful country house just outside Paris. In France, the answer you get might provoke jealousy or political comment, so why risk spoiling a convivial dinner?
The same principle works in the country as a whole. Despite all the economic gloom, France keeps chugging along. French banks lose huge sums to incompetent traders, but absorb the losses and carry on. Lots of people have well-paid jobs from which it is impossible to be sacked. France still pumps out its sublime cheeses, wines, perfumes and clothes, just like it always has. And how come Evian and Perrier are sold in every supermarket in the world, but never run out?
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No one knows exactly why or how this happens, and the wisest thing is not to ask, especially if you are only a visitor to the country. Sip the wine, savour the pâté, smile at the waiter and just enjoy.
Stephen Clarke’s latest novel is The Merde Factor (Century Publishing, £12.99). You can follow him on Twitter: @SClarkeWriter