Nancy Mitford’s third Radlett novel, The Blessing, details the marriage of a French Marquis (charming, unfaithful, Gallic) to his English Marquise (beautiful, innocent, a bit thick). To rescue my credibility, I could call it A SEARING STUDY OF INTERRACIAL MARRIAGE IN POSTWAR FRANCE, but it isn’t. I can be edgy, really. Just not now.
Central to the book is Grace’s Nanny, who hates France and isn’t scared to show it. “Funny-looking lot, aren’t they? Not to fond of washing, if you ask me. Dreadful smell of drains, dear” is her definitive remark within the pages of this 1951 novel, and arguably, her attitude remained the definitive British verdict on the French.
That is, the real French. Not the Givenchy-drenched sexy lot. Exclude Bardot and Deneuve. Exclude Coco Chanel and a score of skinny-trousered hair-cutting room-tarting beauties (of all sexes) sniffing at fashion and defining Euro-cool.
Instead, think of the French, the massed and massive French, when not on strikes and before the bainlieues worked their way into film. Focus on the kind of dusty village dominated by trailing wires and being closed for August. Consider the lilies of their various fields. Now give me the knee-jerk preconceptions already creeping into your soul.
Don’t tell me you’re too young and too liberal to play. You may not sing the Dambusters when England plays Germany, believe that all the Dutch where clogs or that every Russian’s a depressed alcoholic, but even if you don’t share the common view of what makes a Frenchman French, you know exactly what that view includes. My summer students were forty (mostly) lovely kids from almost as many countries, neo-liberals with the occasional baby fascist. All of them could reel off the nuances of Danish/Czech/Lebanese national stereotypes just as soon as the strange Greek word (“What mean stereotype?” – a grammatical habit of which I could never break them) was explained.
We all know exactly What They Say (where ‘they’, of course, means ‘we’) about other nations in the big Eurotrash clan. So let’s talk about the French.
Exclude, for the sake of politeness and historical futility, any snide remarks with a military edge. Also, since the peer review would be exhausting, the notion they’re great lovers – actually, sod it, let’s talk about sex for a bit. Despite having lived in France like a nun in a wall, I can tell you that French teenagers will flirt harder with you than any other sort of student (withering sarcasm is more effective than a lecture, my sisters). Moreover, uniquely, Parisians have mastered the art of the sex shop. Their versions of the British frosted-glass nightmare are stylish, witty, and staffed by exactly the sort of cheerfully disinterested gay man/unbelievably well-dressed woman you’d want to sell you yr feminist adult goods. All without warning signs, PRIVATE SHOP in allcaps (far more of a tell than a few oddly-shaped things in a window), sweaty-faced men or hateful films.
The Parisian chain is called passage du desir and if anything so chic opened in Mittelengland tomorrow, there’d be great cultural conniptions. I know, because the Land of My Fathers has just opened an adult boutique called Romeo & Juliet’s.
Heterocentricity not exactly for the win, there, and they have made the cardinal error of placing terrifying rubber garb right at the front (not my thing, might be yours, difficult to explain to yr four-year-old why he can’t try on the exciting Policeman’s Outfit visible from across the street). Even so, I love the Shakespearean witticism and how much the shop has irritated the locals. Almost as much, in fact, as the Polish deli it replaced.
Anyway, in the spirit of Anglo-French relations and wishing I’d been born a small golden-skinned child sailing toy boats in the Tuileries, here are three of the worst accusations levelled at Parisians, and why they’re untrue.
1. Parisians are rude. Like the Rudeness of New Yorkers, this is a myth. My crowning childhood experience of Great French Loveliness (Year 9 skills fail; Vespa driver escorts father to Nantes hotel) may have occurred elsewhere, but if you tend to depend on the kindness of strangers, Paris isn’t a bad place to start. There are the students, old men and businessmen who rescue wheelchair, Chloe and self (in that order) whenever pavements veer or drop kerbs fail to drop. The charming vendeuses who welcome you to posh department stores where, in London, you’d be treated as student-come-lately dolescum (which, admittedly, I am). The nice old bloke somewhere in twentieth who made us breakfast in his hole-in-the-wall bar (would you want to wander into a locals-only British pub as a single, foreign woman?). And, finally, the absolute love of a man running the all-night bar beneath our flat, who went above and beyond the call of duty by peeling junkies off our doorstep at odd hours of the night. Parisians are kind.
2. Parisians will probably refuse to speak English to you – rubbish. I’ve read this in several guidebooks and quasi-guidebooks, including the otherwise excellent Paris Footprint (online version here). Poss. the embittered author fared poorly because she was American; I can imagine that might have been an issue five years ago. But everyone speaks brilliant English and is hugely willing to do so when your linguistic skills fail. Personally, my vocabulary gives out somewhere between ‘I am living with a vegan, succour me lest I perish’ and ‘do French women just not have periods? You call yourself a chemist?’.
3. Paris is dirty. Untrue. Admittedly, from time to time there really is a fearful smell of drains, and it might not sound like much of a compliment to say there’s much less dog shit on the street than there was. However (you have no idea how hard I’m fighting against a no poos is good poos pun) Paris is becoming a clean city. With the natty green rubbish bags set up as bins, the French capital is achieving what London, apparently, can’t: collecting litter without getting blown up. This might sound very prosaic, but not to anyone negotiating a pushchair or pram – and, by the same token, to anyone using or manoeuvring a wheelchair. With rubbish drop kerbs, a need-not-apply Metro and endless authenticity when it comes to road surfaces (I hate the flagged Rue de Rivoli so much I wheeled Chlo on a feverish circular diversion that encompassed a whole page of our map), this is a small but essential Parisian blessing. Also, fewer Parisians smoke; their leavings are constantly picked up by Parisian street-cleaners who apparently operate 24/7. They’re all black, and seem to get constant abuse from anyone they impede, even momentarily, confirming – along with the five-every-minute churches, that Paris, like France, is often run by big Catholic racists. Sadly not a myth, that one.
The city retains, of course, other and more trivial problems – the ridiculous prices in bars and cafes, the traffic, the air quality that’s like an industrialized Black Death. The pickpocketing that would make Barcelona blush.
But Paris is so beautiful – not like the non-stop epiphany of Rome, where every street shows you something more wonderful than you’ve ever seen at home, even if it’s a minor public fountain with a dog pissing up the corner. Even as proto-dolescum ex-students, you start to believe that Paris, cream-and-gilt and covered in sun, with its fantastically well-organised gay district, beautiful shops, and seamless supply of cake, really could be your playground. Even the Seine stinks less than the Thames.
After a fortnight, I wanted to stay forever. Holiday experiences aren’t the whole truth about a city, but I’m still wishing I were back there, eating falafel on Rue des Rosiers and pain aux raisins from the boulangerie Julien. Worryingly, my Francophile desires seem to revolve entirely around food. After this belated burst of travel-writing, perhaps I’d be better off as a food critic?
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.