The key to living in Paris is politeness, says The Economist’s bureau chief Sophie Pedder. She offers an expat's-eye view of the city for our Being There series ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2009
Everyone thinks that people in Paris are impossibly rude. The longer I spend in the city, the more I realise that this is untrue. In fact, they are impossibly polite.
Understanding this is the secret to an effortless life in the French capital. Mastering lift etiquette is a good case in point. I arrived in Paris a few years ago from London, where even colleagues would rather stare blankly at the closed doors than venture a greeting. In Paris, by contrast, there is a tightly observed ritual. When the lift doors part, you step in and say “Bonjour”. Everybody says “Bonjour” back. Whenever anyone steps out, you wish them a “Bonne journée”. They do the same. And that’s not all. If later in the day you bump into anyone again, you start all over again with (I’m not making this up) “Re-bonjour”.
At first, I found this exasperating. You approach a pair of shop assistants in the wonderfully chaotic DIY basement at BHV, the department store next to the Hôtel de Ville, who appear to have been trained not to interrupt their conversation as you draw near. In fact, they have perfected the art of not even catching your eye, while you wait in disbelief in front of them. I didn’t realise it then, but a “Bonjour Madame” would have brought their conversation to an instant halt, and located those 5cm masonry nails in moments. (If in doubt, it’s best to stick to Madame, not Mademoiselle, unless the shop assistant looks about 17; the French tend to use Madame as a term of respect for an older woman, not a factual reference to marital status.)
I soon worked out the value of the right greeting. Those studiedly grumpy Parisian waiters in starched white aprons and black bow ties? Any table in the brasserie is yours if you begin with “Bonsoir Monsieur”. The frosty lady behind the counter at the boulangerie? A “Bonjour Madame” will secure you an oven-fresh baguette.
All this takes getting used to. The first time a little girl in our children’s school playground came towards me and said “Bonjour Madame”, I looked around to see who she might be speaking to. It was me. Our French nanny is horrified by visiting English children who fail to greet her properly (Bonjour alone won’t do). I used to try to explain that this failing was in fact a cultural difference. “Peut-être,” she would say, which roughly translates as: I don’t think so.
The general French respect for formality and form is nowhere more finely observed than in Paris. Flowers don’t come in bunches with elastic bands, but in artfully arranged bouquets, with crackly layers of cellophane and tissue paper. Canapés at dinner parties are miniature culinary works of art. When my son was learning to write, his school report gave him marks for whether his boucles, or loops, of his joined-up letters respected to the millimetre the inter-line boundaries printed on the page. At the same time, he would bring back English exercise books filled with a chaotic caterpillar of mismatched letters. Why didn’t he use his neat handwriting in those books too, I asked him? He looked perplexed: “But that’s not how you write in English!”
The culture of elegance can be extremely stressful. One thing I’ve still not worked out is why Parisians don’t get dirty. My children come home from school with scuffed shoes and mud-splashed coats. Their French classmates, in round-collar shirts and corduroy, with dreamy names like Clementine or Aurélie, look as if they have just stepped out of a catalogue. Mothers at the school gate are always immaculately turned-out, silk scarf knotted just so. Children are taught from a young age to value look and appearance. In Parisian apartments, white sofas on parquet floors are there to be sat on, not used as gymnastics apparatus for infants.
Perhaps living amid the geometric elegance of Paris itself, with its tree-lined Haussmann boulevards and enchanting bridges, imposes an ordered form of style. Even now I find it almost an affront to spot a grown man dressed in belted shorts and trainers walking through the Place des Vosges, or across the Pont Neuf. Tourists in garish anoraks cluster around monuments and museums. But domestic, historic central Paris—the local boulangerie, the école maternelle next to the office building—still belongs firmly to the French.
Or maybe the answer lies beyond Paris, in the wider French mindset. From Descartes to Dior, the French have long prized rational order and clean lines. It is learned in school, where maths is rigorously taught from an early age and considered the most prestigious speciality in the baccalauréat school-leaving exam. My daughter’s English teacher here once tried to explain to me why they did so little creative writing in French in primary school: it takes so many years to master the strict rules of French grammar, she said, that there’s just no time left.
Rules and conformity are the dominant note. Until fairly recently, you could only give your children names from an official list. Even today, pure-bred dogs born in any given year must be given names that start with an officially designated letter of the alphabet. This year it is the letter e.
I should make a confession, though: technically I don’t actually live in Paris. The tranquil bend on the Seine where we live, with its 17th-century château and former royal hunting forest, is 14km west of the city centre. It’s 18 minutes from the Champs- Elysées on the rer rapid underground, and when English friends visit, they say they are staying in Paris. But real Parisians find that weird. For them, Paris proper is ringed by the périphérique, covering an area so small that, superimposed on London, it wouldn’t reach from Islington to Fulham. Even today, you have to enter Paris from the périphérique through portes, named after the gates that once guarded the walled city.
Paris is a protected territory, kept alive and preserved by real Parisians. You can walk down the rue du Pré-aux-Clercs on the left bank, and hear the click of stiletto on cobble, or the clatter of shutters thrown open under zinc rooftops, such is the quiet. I love the way that this Paris has hung on to a way of life elsewhere long gone: the small movie houses, the family-run booksellers. Within steps of the Seine there are artisan food shops offering fresh oysters, wild pheasant, unctuous regional cheeses or hand-made chocolates boxed up in silky ribbon. When they were smaller my children used to love sailing little wooden toy boats in the pond in the Jardins de Luxembourg, with a crêpe afterwards for goûter.
But there is a sense of unreality about this world, which I suppose is part of its charm. Just outside the gardens of the Luxembourg Palace, built by Marie de Médicis, the RER B line runs directly north to Seine-Saint-Denis, where KFC fast-food joints are spreading, hip-hop events are a sell-out, and Malians, Senegalese and Algerians rub shoulders in sprawling flea markets. The RER A, which I take each day, is a journey through the different worlds of greater Paris. It starts at the Peugeot factory in the working-class suburb of Poissy, picks up those of us in the posh suburbs, transects the rain-streaked tower blocks of multi-ethnic Nanterre, passes under the designer stores of the Champs- Elysées—and ends up in Disneyland Paris.
Most of our Parisian friends would never dream of taking their children to Disneyland. Their Paris is defined, walled, sheltered by the périphérique. Their kids can ride the authentic painted horses on the Belle Epoque manèges (carousels) of Paris, so why head to a rival, invented fantasyland? They don’t see the France that has opened its arms to American-style living—vast hypermarkets, multiplex cinemas, drive-in McDonald’s—in a way that would shock the left-bank guardians of good taste.
Well-off Parisians may cling tightly to their city, but they abandon it all the same at the weekend, and in August. We soon learned not to invite Parisian friends to dinner on Saturday night: they are away in country homes, in lower Normandy or Burgundy. In the summer they ship their children out to grandparents. This seems to be why they don’t mind cramming their large numbers of children, scooters, tricyles and pushchairs into small upper-floor apartments.
Once you have mastered mid-week entertaining, Parisian dinner parties are a joy. Because renting property is common, and debt rare, you can sit through an entire dinner and never once discuss house prices, or mortgages, or the credit crunch (seriously). Nor even school fees: private schools, mostly Catholic, are state subsidised.
One mystery, however, baffles all newcomers. How do young working Parisian women, raised to read balance sheets not cookery books, keep up the tradition of domestic divahood after a day in the office? The answer, I soon discovered, lurks behind discreet glass walls on high streets even in the smart 16th arrondissement: Picard gourmet frozen food. This is gastronomic fare: coquilles Saint-Jacques with sauce au Sancerre, or moelleux au chocolat. Restaurant quality, it is dinner-party ready, and gets served in the most unlikely places. The guests probably all realise—but Parisians are far too polite to say so.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hôtel de la Bretonnerie A rare mix of 17th-century charm and reasonable prices in a central location. No restaurant, but the cafés and bistros of Le Marais are just a step away. 22 rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie, 75004 Paris. + 33 (0)1 48 87 77 63; www.hotelbretonnerie.com
Le Montalembert This boutique hotel in the smart 7th arrondissement is all clean lines and chic neutrals, and mercifully chintz-free. The downside is tiny rooms (like most in Paris) and steep rates. 3 rue Montalembert, 75007 Paris. + 33 (0)1 45 49 68 68; www.montalembert.com
WHERE TO EAT:
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Gastronomy in Paris can be stuffy, but not at this master chef’s first Paris restaurant, which now has two Michelin stars. You sit on bar-style chairs, facing the bustling open kitchen, and pick from a tapas-style menu. No peak-time reservations, so get there early. 5 rue de Montalembert, 75007 Paris. + 33 (0)1 42 22 56 56.
Chartier A former working-class dining room opened in 1896, this no-frills restaurant has a cheap menu from central casting (escargots, pavé de rumsteack, etc). So wonderfully noisy, even children feel welcome. 7 rue du Faubourg Montmartre, 75009 Paris. +33 (0)1 47 70 86 29.
The centre is so compact that much of it can be explored on foot. But don’t linger on the Champs-Elysées: while the perspective is breath-taking, the tacky gift shops, pricey cafés and big-brand shops are best left to the tourists. Take the metro instead to St-Paul, in the Marais, and wander along the narrow back streets off the rue des Francs-Bourgeois and the exquisite Place des Vosges. Or head for the left bank, starting at Saint Germain-des-Prés metro, with a coffee at the Café de Flore (172 Boulevard Saint-Germain. +33 1 45 48 55 26)—far less touristy than Les Deux Magots next door. Don’t miss the little Place Furstenberg, hidden off the rue Jacob—magical when lit up at night.
A good way to sightsee is by the Batobus—a hop-on hop-off water bus— which has eight stops along the Seine; buy tickets on the spot. Or join the craze for Vélib rent-a-bikes. Docking stations are on most side streets: you need a credit card to leave a deposit and buy a day (€1) or weekly (€5) pass. Check the chain and tyres before pedalling away, and simply click the bike into any docking station when you’ve finished. Taxis, however, are maddeningly hard to hail. Find a rank and prepare to wait.
WHAT TO SEE:
Eiffel Tower Visiting children insist on it. The view is actually as good from the Arc de Triomphe or Notre-Dame, but the sheer scale of the 325-metre iron structure is well worth seeing up close. Don’t spend hours queuing for the lift, though: if the children are big enough, walk to the first floor, and take the lift from there.
The Catacombs For jaded teens who think they’ve seen it all. The bones of 6m Parisians, some guillotined, are disturbingly displayed in a labyrinth of tunnels. 1 avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014 Paris. +33 (0)1 43 22 47 63; www.catacombes-de-paris.fr
Musée National Picasso Paris is so rich in museums it is hard to make recommendations, but this is one of my favourites: the story of Picasso’s artistic journey is told in the elegant setting of an hôtel particulier. Hôtel Salé, 5 rue de Thorigny, 75003 Paris. +33 (0)1 42 71 25 21.
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris Housed in the 1930s Palais de Tokyo, this museum has impressive exhibitions such as the recent Dufy retrospective—and far fewer people than the better-known galleries. 11 avenue Président Wilson, 75016 Paris. +33 (0)1 53 67 40 00.
If pressed for time, shop in the elegant department stores: Bon Marché, on the left bank, or Galeries Lafayette and Printemps on Boulevard Haussmann. If you have time for fun, amble round the boutiques on the rue des Francs-Bourgeois, in the Marais, or in the side streets around Saint Germain-des-Prés. Even if you aren’t buying, it is worth admiring the window displays of gourmet treasures at Dalloyau (63 rue de Grenelle, 7th) or Ladurée (21 rue Bonaparte, 6th), or the sensational cheeses at Barthélemy (51 rue de Grenelle, 7th).
(Sophie Pedder is Paris bureau chief of The Economist.)