Lacunae

I have been asked how I could have written a book about France without writing about food. I think the answer is simply that I felt it had been done so often before – and in some cases very well – that I didn’t think there was much point. What I did hope to do with this book was to nail some of the things that people don’t know about France, rather than tell them once again what they already know.

I would like to respond to one aspect of the food issue, though. And that is the argument that France’s food culture is dying. This may be true in pockets. Even though France’s highly protectionist laws have prevented the death-by-franchise of her town centres, she has still recognised the need for supermarkets. Even so, I think it’s a little early for us to mourn the passing of French cuisine.

The fashionable thesis, of course, is that France is being invaded by American culture and fast food. Ever since Donald Morrison’s 2007 article in Time, proclaiming that French culture (including her cuisine) was dead, the schadenfreude at the idea of the demise of French art de vivre has been irresistible to Anglo-Saxon journalists. Again, I think that they’re gloating too soon.

In my experience, remarkably little has changed over the past 20 years when it comes to food in France. In Britain, on the other hand, there has been a food revolution, manifested principally through a back-lash against its uncontrolled industrialisation. It is we who have changed. There has been a gastronomic rennaissance in Britain and America over the past 10 years and like all revolutions it is the bourgeoisie that has both driven it and benefited from it. In Britain at least, it’s as if the middle classes have finally woken up to the fact that you can get pleasure out of food. The French have always known this and they still do.

What has changed, though, is a certain drop in standards when it come to the overall quality of restaurants in France. This is a reflection of the much larger problem of commercialisation, which is, I suspect, part of the inevitable capitulation to the lure of the Anglo-Saxon economic model. There is also a kind of gastronomic apartheid between restaurants patronised by locals and those patronised by foreigners. The big problem is that tourists are generally not discerning like locals are and therefore won’t send a dish back to the kitchen if it’s not up to scratch, so standards fall where they can.

Since chefs in Britain conquered television, their power and status has increased in proportion with their earnings. British Gastronomy is now a booming industry and consuming the right food or being seen in the right restaurant is now yet another source of status and glamour. In France, this is still not the case. For the French, food is still one of the more effortless pleasures of daily life. Parisians will still find a restaurant in their quartier that they like, with a head-waiter they like and an ambiance they like and they will stick with it – often for decades (witness that old lady sitting at her table in the corner, feeding morsels to her lapdog or that old bloke dripping soup down his chin). In my local village where I now live in the Cevennes, farmers and artisans eat in the café every day and know what they’re going to get: local meat (no need to trumpet its organic origins; they drive past it running about in the fields on their way to work every day); vegetables that taste of something; local cheese and some clafoutis or tarte – all prepared by somebody who learnt to cook from his mum and who does not feel the need for frills or possessive pronouns on his menu.

7 thoughts on “Lacunae

  1. Forgive, Lucy, the following being off-topic. I thought you might find it of interest, though.

    Over in France a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I had our ears well and truly bent by an old friend. Without being ‘in love’ exactly, the friend, a lady of mature years (and who should have known better) was passionately involved with a man, a man who returned her affection with a rare show of bad manners, ‘désinvolture’, and intellectual superiority – which combination had the undesired effect of merely fanning the flames of her ardour. She saw through all this, could not help herself, and was obsessing about the guy…. so much so indeed that she had sought the professional services of a psychiatrist.

    ‘Ah, but weren’t his fees prohibitively steep?’ was my disingenuous inquiry. Not so. It was refundable by the ‘Sécu’. Then I thought of your ‘Secret Life’ and asked, all innocence, ‘Does this guy prescribe drugs that relieve the symptoms at all?’ No, came the reply, her guru didn’t mix psychotherapy with drugs. It was one or the other. He had outlined his approach in great detail. (Psychoanalytical, though not exactly Freudian, and certainly not Jungian or any of that malarkey) The man was a real life-line: she could make appointments at short notice, any time she felt in need of a session.

    This lady, normally so argumentative, a real ‘frondeuse’ if ever there was one, habitually up to her neck in some dispute or other, appeared now putty-like in her therapist’s hands. No, it hadn’t been at all easy to become his patient. She’d had to listen to all his (pre-emptive) disclaimers, talk about her problem – something, she’d been surprised to discover, she’d found difficult. (Her… inhibited!) She’d had to prove that she was worthy of his attention – or, as he put it, ‘We cannot automatically assume that I can do anything for your particular case’. So she’d gone away and produced a long piece of writing for his perusal. Only when his patient had gone through a succession of hoops did her therapist accept her as his patient.

    No rocket science was needed to see she’d surrendered the initiative to her therapist. A chap she defended rather too fervently. Another point: we cannot help reflecting that another, less articulate, less intelligent, less university-educated patient might well have found it hard pass the doctor’s stern test. What if it had been a North African with weak French and/or cultural and religious ‘baggage’? But then another aspirant patient might have been less gullible. And might too have had less generous medical ‘cover’.

    My wife and I have known the lady for decades. This gives us an advantage over the doctor, and we’d prescribe firm words, such as: ‘Do stop going on about yourself: it’s all so narcissistic, so self-indulgent. And this talk about feeling ‘suicidal’, aren’t you being just a touch self-dramatising? And this man of yours, you don’t really love him at all, do you? Hell, you’ve admitted as much. He’s got under your skin, that’s all.’ Instead, she’s now therapist-dependent and God knows what’ll happen when the guru goes on holiday…

    In ‘Secret Life’, you wrote that the French like their ideas BIG; that, for this reason, Freudian mumbo-jumbo goes down a treat in France: an explain-all (with added sex!), even if not a cure-all. You suggested that, because of the predominance of such ‘nébulosités’, more recent and effective therapies based on cognitive and behavioural theory were rejected as prosaic, limiting, and (quelle horreur!)… Anglo-Saxon.

    You quoted Jacques-Alain Miller: ‘Because psychoanalysis is not a medical procedure, it is difficult to evaluate its success’. Presumably, this does not prevent Dr Miller from seeking payment for his services…. To be frank, Lucy, the sheer half-bakedness of it all leaves me rather speechless. Well, well, Molière’s imposter-doctors continue to thrive.

  2. Thank you, Charles! That is hilarious. I’m not one of those people who mistrusts or despises shrinks. In the right hands, the right person can be helped a great deal. But quasi-Freudian high priests do thrive in France where the emphasis is invariably on the ‘process’ – endlessly narcissistic and endlessly gratifying – and not the rather prosaic cure. Your story encapsulates the whole shebang.

  3. Lucy,

    I was probably one of the first Americans to read your new book The Secret Life of France. My husband, my college-aged son (who attended a study-abroad program at Oxford during July and early August),and I had spent the last of June and early July in France and England.

    We spent the first five days of our trip in Paris, the last seven in England. I learned of your book in a magazine article while I was on the train from Oxford to York. Having just left France, I was keenly interested in your book. I purchased it at a bookstore in York, and finished it on the plane back to the United States. I enjoyed your book, and I’ve decided it is a “keeper”.

    I am about as fascinated with the French as I am with the British. I confess to being an Anglophile and would speak with a British accent if I thought I could get away with it. The truth is I would be immediately detected as a phony and laughed off the planet! Southern girls like me have difficulty eliminating drawls from our speech!

    I have studied French for a few years, as I think it is the most beautiful language. I was quite surprised however, that, with my first utterance of a French word, the Parisians could detect that I was an American, and would begin speaking English to me. At first, I was quite confused by this, as I always understood that the French were very proud of their language and had great resistance to speaking any language but French.

    Although I found it frustrating that the Parisian workers responded to my French in English, I had convinced myself that they did so in the name of efficiency (these workers deal with throngs of tourists all day long, and don’t have time to assist me in beginner’s conversational French). However, after having read your book, I realized that maybe they spoke to me in English because I had butchered their lovely language so badly. That was saddening for me, as I really want to become proficient in French. Oh well, I’ll keep practicing.

    I must confess, that I cringe when I see icons of American culture in England or France. A Starbucks in Paris seems so out of place, as does Krispy Kreme donuts in England (some young kids were actually passing out free Krispy Kreme donuts at Paddington Station). I like the fact that England and France have their own fantastic bakeries and coffee shops; this is what makes them so charming to me. Seeing American franchises in European countries seems way too commercial.

    I was also sad to learn from your book that the French don’t like Americans very much. I must confess, I didn’t realize this, and was glad I didn’t know this until AFTER I had left Paris. I hope that our new president will alter our image to the rest of the world, and then maybe the French won’t automatically assume I am a greedy, rude, war-loving American (I don’t think I am any of these, but it appears to be the default perception of Americans as viewed by the French).

    April

  4. Thanks, April, for your encouragement.

    And don’t be disheartened. French anti-Americanism is a feature of France’s post-’68 intelligentsia and definitely on the wane. The younger generation are must less dogmatic and far more open to outside influences. I have no doubt too that they’re heartened by the advent of the Obama Age.

  5. Hi Lucy

    To your point about restaurants, I think some of the differences between the French and English restaurants can be explained by their ownership patterns.

    I claim no particular expertise in this area, but I remember reading a piece that showed how restaurants in the UK are much more commercial, in that the owners pay high rents and usually don’t last very long as a consequence, restauranting not being a very profitable business for most of them.

    In France on the other hand, most restaurants have been in the family for generations, and there’s no rent to pay. As a result, they can make it pay on an income that in the UK would be insupportable.

    What are your thoughts?

    Manek

  6. Lucy —

    This is just to congratulate you on your wonderfully open-hearted, revealing and entertaining book. Of all the many, many books on France by a range of expats that I have read across the years your exuberant ‘Secret Life’ is a true original.

    I see a reference to ‘ill health’ in the blog. I hope that
    you have successfully overcome this particular challenge and can carry on writing with your perception, wit, common sense and courage unbroken.

    Bestest —

    Marion

  7. Thank you, Marion, for your good wishes and encouragement. I am on the mend, thanks, in part, to the French healthcare service, which I have found to be truly remarkable.

    All good wishes to you.

    Lucy

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