The French are going to go proctological on America in the Security Council this week, leading to a fresh round of pop-cult French-bashing. I’ve done quite a bit of it myself, and think most of it is justified. The Iraq policy of the French government is arrogant, hypocritical, and cynical, and they deserve almost all the abuse they’re getting. Almost. What’s being lost in the justified anger at the French is the uncomfortable fact that there is quite a bit to admire about France and its culture. Sorry, but there it is.
You hear people who have never been to France, and don’t know the first thing about the great things about France and the French, speaking with such confidence about the utter worthlessness of that country. When I hear my fellow Americans writing all of France and French culture off because of its disagreeable and arguably immoral politics, I think of the Yankees I know who believe there’s nothing of any worth whatsoever in the south because of the legacy of its racial history. That is, I hear chauvinistic ignorance passing itself off as moral superiority. France is full of such people who say and believe similar things about America and Americans. People of intelligence and discernment everywhere should resist this sort of thing.
Look, I find it impossible to defend France’s politics or its diplomacy, but that’s not why I go to France every chance I get, and will go again. France is a deeply wonderful place to visit, and a place where the people know a great deal about how life should be lived. It is a country for grown-ups. And they damn sure know how to eat.
France first existed for me in the stories of Lois and Hilda, two elderly great-aunts who lived in a little cabin at the end of a pecan orchard, and with whom I spent most of my days before I was old enough for kindergarten. They had been Red Cross nurses stationed in Dijon during the Great War, and filled my head with stories of France and the French. On the day the armistice was announced, a jubilant French soldier grabbed Hilda on the Champs-Elysees and kissed her madly. In her rapturous telling, I could feel the force of the kiss, and the world spinning around her, six decades and half a world away.
Years later, in high school, somebody handed me a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his memoir of living in Paris in the 1920s. And I was gone. The idea of living in a funky Parisian garret, and spending my days in cafés writing, talking about ideas, drinking wine, and chasing women struck me as the best possible way to live. I took up French, and became enamored of the language’s lithe, lyrical beauty. In college, I tried my best to see every French movie that came to the dowdy art-house theater near campus, not because I thought they were particularly good movies, but because I wanted to see France, and hear the French language spoken.
Why? Easy: The French had style. They were so much sexier and cooler than anything I saw in my life. Of course, I had a romanticized and by then outdated view of France, informed by Lost Generation literature of the 1920s and French New Wave movies of the 1960s. It didn’t matter. When you’re stuck in Baton Rouge, young and bored and restless and suffering from a fierce case of wanderlust, there are worse things than losing yourself dreaming of Paris.
To see Paris with all those images in mind is to set oneself up for disappointment. It didn’t happen. By the time I got there, the Brasserie Lipp was pretty much a trap for American tourists with clichéd Hemingway fantasies, and money to spend indulging them. Didn’t matter. Paris was everything I could have hoped for. The handsome boulevards, the bookstalls along the Seine, the winding cobblestoned streets of the Latin Quarter, the churches, the cafés, and the women — my Lord, are there any women more gorgeous than French women? That summer of 1988, my best friend Paul and I would sit at café tables nursing our beers, marveling over how impossibly sophisticated the girls walking by seemed. We felt like big thick oafs. Later, spending a week on the Cote d’Azur, in the best hovel our “Let’s Go” guide could find for us, we thought we were in paradise. Oscar Wilde said that when Americans die, they go to Paris, but he wasn’t quite right; as far as Paul and I were concerned, when bookish American college boys die, they go lay out with the bronze topless goddesses on the beach in Nice. You sure can’t do that in Baton Rouge.
For me, the Ur-France experience came at the end of that trip, when I’d left Paul back in Germany, and had two days to spend before my flight back, and was by myself and down to my last francs. I was wandering around near the red-light district, and stopped at a tiny, dumpy boulangerie to buy half a baguette at the end of the day. It was what I could afford. I took the demi-baguette, and sat down on a stoop to eat it. Maybe it was because I was tired and hungry and sick of lugging around a dirty backpack, but that cheap stick of bread, so crisp on the outside, and pillowy soft within, was one of the best things I’d ever eaten. This bread came from a dull little shop in a crappy part of Paris, but I doubt there’s a bakery in the entire United States that can make one as good. I could have cried from contentment.
Fast forward 15 years. I am sitting by the fire in a pub on Smith Street in Brooklyn, nursing a whisky and reading Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik’s terrific book about living in Paris with his wife and son in the 1990s. I come across this line: “Many people who love Paris love it because the first time they came they ate something better than they had ever eaten before, and kept coming back to eat it again.” The author then recounts his first visit to Paris 25 years earlier, with his mom and dad and siblings, and settling in to eat a cheap meal at a diner near their budget hotel. “The prix-fixe menu was fifteen francs, about three dollars then. I ordered a salad Nicoise, trout baked in foil, and a cassis sorbet. It was so much better than anything I had ever eaten that I nearly wept.” I read that and thought, Yes, he gets it.
Though I’ve been back to France many times since then, and had the money and the taste and the good sense to partake of its richer pleasures, that moment on the stoop in the red-light district reminds me what I love most about that vexing country. No matter how low-down you go in France, you can always get something good to eat. Everybody knows that the French are the world’s best cooks, and there’s a reason for that. In France, they know that good food and good wine are inseparable from the good life. The more time you spend in France, the more you come to appreciate that for all their haughtiness and snobbery, these people still know how to, as we say in Louisiana, pass a good time. (N.B., Where do you go to find the best food and the most distinct and fun-loving culture in the United States? That’s right, French Louisiana. God forbid you should take up their public ethics, though.)
I think there’s a conservative point to be made here. The French are an old country, and the love they have for their culinary traditions, and its unparalleled excellence, come from a profound respect for tradition and culture, for civilization. When they make fools of themselves beating up the neighborhood McDonald’s, I find it hard to condemn them, because we all live in a world that doesn’t ask What is beautiful? What is delicious? What is worthy; we live in a world that asks only, What is quick and easy? Many of the French resist this modern, very American impulse. They do it in bad, stupid ways sometimes, but their instinct is right. As someone who grew up in a disposable culture, the effort the French put into aesthetic excellence never fails to move me, and makes me want to learn from them.
Now, this doesn’t mean they aren’t treacherous creeps. In many ways, they have put their own civilization at risk. They have discarded their Catholic religion. They have let so many Muslim immigrants into their country that they now find it difficult to stand up to Islamic terrorism. In their pride, they are trashing their relationship with the only country capable of fighting effectively for Western civilization and its values against the barbaric Islamic onslaught. If more of our troops die trying to fight Saddam in the sandstorms that have now begun in the desert, it will be partly France’s fault for causing these delays. Tarte tatin or a good bottle of Bordeaux can cover a multitude of sins, but not these, not this time.
But I can’t hate France, and when this ugly time passes, I’ll be back. I’ve got a little boy of my own now, and rather than just tell him about the wonders of France, as Aunt Lois and Aunt Hilda did for me, I’m planning to take him there one day and show him. I want him to see the cathedral at Chartres, the experience of which first stirred me to seek Christian faith (wondering what kind of religion would inspire men to build something so magnificent to the glory of God). I want him to see the castles of the Loire Valley, the vineyards of Bordeaux, and the graveyard at Normandy, where so many of his countrymen died to make France free. I want him to see Paris, the world’s most beautiful city, and the bridge over the Seine where his father kissed his mother one warm spring evening when they were first in love, and to walk over to Berthillon on the Ile St-Louis to taste the best ice cream in the world. France is for him to love too, and not even the perfidious pomposities of Dominique de Villepin can take that from him.