From France, with love: an endless saga

Every year around June they return from France, typically from the city of love, Paris — suddenly knowing everything there is to know about French art, fashion and table manners. They sport berets, swaddle their necks in scarves, casually sip red wine and survive on pain au chocolat. On a given day, they might pepper their speech with phrases such as “au contraire,” urge you out the door with an “allons-y” or describe paintings as “very much à la Monet.” They are, in short, nearly insufferable.

I should know. To a handful of disgruntled Berkeley students and Southern California residents, I was their recently repatriated francophile friend. And goodness knows, I was not shy about it. But for those on the other side, you may be wondering: Can your friend really distinguish the tannins and blackberry notes in your Safeway merlot, or is she being as needlessly pedantic as Michael Sheen in “Midnight in Paris”? What’s true and what’s total bull-merde? Allow me to help with some of your basic questions.

It’s still the same cheap wine (but from France)

As far as wine goes: Unless your friend recently came into possession of a small fortune, they were subjected to the same cheap raisin juice as the rest of us (I’m looking at you, 1.99€ Vieux Papes) — though granted, the quality in France is generally superior.

They greet with their cheeks

Are they for real with that double-cheeked greeting kiss? What is a “beezu”?

A “bisou” on each cheek (“faire la bise”) is indeed a common method of greeting in France.   

The scarf, a fashion staple item

Can they wear a scarf better than I? Yes. Better than the average windswept-yet-flawless French metro-goer, not a chance.

Not really fluent

Do they actually speak “le français” now? According to the French, who can sense an American accent from 3 kilometers away, that’s an emphatic “NON.” According to their mother and various other proud relatives, they are fluent.

Love at first (virtual) sight

How legit was that French boyfriend or girlfriend? The French are notoriously difficult to befriend and even more difficult to date (contrary to popular belief, being American abroad isn’t actually that cool). If your friend snagged a significant other in France, it didn’t happen because they serendipitously reached for the same Flaubert novel at Shakespeare & Company. Have no illusions, their “amour” was either the product of a Tinder match or a figment of their imagination.

They’re not as snobby as you think

So the French really are snobby and don’t like Americans? That’s a more complex question. As in any country, France has a mixture of haughty and nice. Once, an employee at the local supermarket yelled at me for forgetting to weigh my produce — but then the 10 people in line behind me waited patiently as I ran frantically to and from the scales, even helping to unknot my scarf when it became tangled in a woman’s shopping cart. C’est la vie, one is tempted to say.

Proper etiquette for Afternoon Tea

How well do they really know Proust? They know only this: Madeleine cookies dipped in tea are crucial to his novels and alluding to this fact will garner approving nods at a any Parisian dinner party.

In reality though, neither France nor the French can be summed up, generalized or faithfully imitated after a matter of months and, deep down, your recently repatriated francophile friend knows this. What they are expressing is pride in having experienced France — the feeling that they’ve mastered something challenging and elusive, a sense of being deliciously cultured — even if all that amounts to is knowing the difference between camembert and brie. So, at least for the time being, let them have their little joie de vivre.

Contact Madeline Zimring at [email protected]