How To Be Parisian
Longer lunches, easy elegance and passion aplenty. What’s not to love about life on the Left Bank?
I don’t think I’m supposed to admit this as an Englishman, but most of the men I have truly admired in my life have been French. I had a full-on man crush for Mr Albert Camus as a teenager. Was it the humanist existentialism or the way he held his Gauloises? I fell deep for Mr Arthur Rimbaud as a student, marvelling at the wildness of his poetry and the off-the-scale adventures. Now I cannot get enough of Messrs Claude Debussy and Erik Satie, with their elegance and profundity. And on through Messrs Jean-Paul Belmondo and Romain Duris and Serge Gainsbourg and François Truffaut and Eric Cantona and Gustave Flaubert and Daft Punk and whoever it was who invented the Breton top, Ossau-Iraty cheese and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I’m not supposed to admit this because the French really don’t need the ego boost.
When I was a student in Pau, I shared a flat with an archetypal specimen named Sébastien, who kept his Camembert in the cupboard (the stench!) and maintained that the French were better than the British in pretty much every respect.
“You have no philosophers, no painters, no literature,” he would contend.
“Erm, Shakespeare, Dickens, Eliot, Chaucer?”
“I have never heard of them.” I’m exaggerating only a little bit.
Most of what makes the French infuriating – the Wednesday closures, the wildcat strikes, the protectionism, the arrogance, the certainty – is also what makes them enviable. I mean, what’s not to like about a 35-hour working week? I would take that over the Anglo-American chained-to-your-desk culture any day. And then there’s the three-hour lunches and the peerless cinema and the wanton philosophising and sex in the afternoon. That’s not to diminish the American can-do spirit, British humour, German efficiency, etc. But we could perhaps admit that we’re a little bit jealous.
There’s a certain je ne sais quoi that they don’t teach you in GCSE French class; here then, MR PORTER shares the five central tenets you need to master to earn your Breton stripes. Manage these and the nonchalant Gallic shrug is yours.
HOW TO FAIRE L’AMOUR
The French – stereotypically, at least – approach love as a form of warfare, but sensual warfare. “C’est toujours la tendre guerre,” as Mr Jacques Brel (actually Belgian) once sang. It is a game of intricate enchantment and deception, involving moves and counter-moves, insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, guerrilla campaigns and collateral damage. And, famously, extra-marital affairs. This is the nation that invented the cinq à sept, where Ms Caroline Maigret, author of How To Be Parisian, advises women to keep their lovers on their toes by having an affair with their own husbands.
It can be infuriating, bewildering even, especially if you’re used to an easy platonic interplay between the sexes and “Bof!” is the all-purpose response to discovered intrigue. However, it can also be thrilling, a bit like being part of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. And it’s also quite egalitarian. No nation has produced so many famous lovers who were so prodigiously ugly: Cyrano de Bergerac, Messrs Gainsbourg, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gérard Depardieu, erm, Michel Houellebecq. It suggests that la seduction for the French is as much a matter of the mind as it is of the body and heart.
Don’t say: “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” (Too brusque.)
Do say: “On n’est heureux que par l’amour,” to quote Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
HOW TO DÉJEUNER
Over the course of our own empirical studies, each of us might conclude that Italian, or Japanese, or Korean food is the best. A Frenchman would not need to conduct an empirical study because French cuisine is the proof of its own superiority. If there is debate, it is more to do with the relative merits of Époisses and Vacherin cheeses, or the best boulangerie in Paris, or the degree to which the andouillette sausage (tripe-stuffed intestine) should pong of its origins. French cuisine has enough richness and variety to be a world in, and of, itself.
The thing to admire in all this is how deeply la bouffe is embedded in the national consciousness. The Parisian lunchtime remains an institution. A day in the office finds room for a two-hour lunch, deals are signed over a bottle of St Émilion and 35 hours is quite enough for a working week. Dare we point out that French national productivity is much higher than British or American?
Don’t say: “I’ll just eat at my desk, thanks.”
Do say: “Ami, remplis mon verre.” (“Fill us up, mate.”)
HOW TO DO LES VACANCES
The main thing we can learn from the French attitude to vacationing is that they can’t get enough of it. You can go on holiday on Monday mornings, Wednesday afternoons, lunchtimes even. Sous les pavés, la plage (underneath the pavement is the beach) ran the famous slogan of May 1968. Where there are two public holidays in a row it is de rigueur to faire le pont, in other words, “make the bridge” and take off all days in between. And you must certainly shut up shop for the whole of August, depriving all the tourists of the choicest restaurants and emporia.
Which is not to say that the French are an idle people – non. A holiday may be an excuse to cycle up Mont Ventoux in Lycra. It may be time to teach your two-year-old how to ski in Chamonix, so that foreign pretenders will always feel a little inadequate as they whizz past them. It may be time to explore Corsica, or kayak through the Dordogne, or work your way around each vineyard in the Côte de Nuits. Or simply to contemplate the clear blue skies of Provence, rosé in hand. Reflection is hard work.
Don’t say: “Oh, I’m just doing mini-breaks this year.”
Do say: “See you in September.”
HOW TO EXHIBIT PANACHE
Panache is a display of impudent, unanswerable brilliance; va-va-voom in modern parlance. As Mr Edmond Rostand’s hero Cyrano de Bergerac exclaims, “There is something still that will always be mine, and when I go to God’s presence, there I will doff it and sweep the heavenly pavement with a gesture: something I’ll take unstained out of this world... my panache.”
Panache is more peacocking than mere flair. De Bergerac was a brilliant swordsman with mad poetry skills, but his panache was embodied in his enormous nose. The Juventus and Les Bleus midfielder Mr Paul Pogba does something similar with his continually evolving cockatoo of hair. He dignifies it by being such a classy footballer.
Panache also has the quality of enigma. It is Mr Rimbaud changing the face of French poetry as a schoolboy, scandalising Paris with his gay affair with fellow poet Mr Paul Verlaine, before giving it all up at 21 to become a gun-runner in Abyssinia. It is Mr Belmondo’s defiant last stand in À Bout De Souffle. It is Mr Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in the 2006 World Cup final, praised by the philosopher Mr Jean-Philippe Toussaint (also Belgian) as “a decisive, brutal, prosaic, novelistic act... where beauty and blackness, violence and passion, come into contact”.
Don’t say: “I’m terribly sorry, would you mind, there’s a good fellow, sorry sorry, thanks, sorry.”
Do say: “En garde!”
HOW TO FAIRE LA FÊTE
There was a time when the world laughed at the French for their terrible pop music and their French-exchange dance moves, Mr Johnny Hallyday and a singing baby. How we laughed! They may have had visionary painters and smouldering philosophers, but rock ’n’ roll was the domain of les anglo-saxons.
Pas encore. From Daft Punk to Phoenix, Justice to Mr Sébastien Tellier, French musicians have been responsible for some of the choicest party soundtracks of the past decade. One of the world’s most highly decorated DJs – Mr David Guetta, naturellement – is French, while Mosey (aka Mr Pierre Sarkozy) has proved that even ex-presidents’ sons can send Ibiza wild. Meanwhile, we’ve revisited French pop history and come to a disquieting conclusion: “Bonnie And Clyde” by Mr Gainsbourg and Ms Brigitte Bardot is objectively the coolest sound anyone has ever made.
The key to French party-cool, it turns out, is to embrace a certain naffness. Don’t try to be too cool for school. Think the “One More Time” video. Think Mr Guetta’s lounge at Ibiza’s airport. Think French-exchange dance moves.
Don’t say: “I think I’ll sit this one out.
Do say: “J’ai la pêche!” (I have the peach; ie, I am super-excited right now.)