Letter from Paris


After Six Gallic Years,
There's No Love Lost Here

Washington Post, 30 October 1995, E1 + E9

By Sharon Waxman

Special to the Washington Post

Near the end I started to hate them, with their tiny, even teeth and their pursed, pouting lips - generations of lips curling around the words "Oui, monsieur" or, more often, "Non, non, madame." I used to admire them, with their eternally slim hips and their perfectly tousled hair - the men with the sexy slouches, the women with the exquisitely arrogant stares. The way they held their wineglasses by the stem, pressed their Camembert to see if it was ripe. The way they fearlessly ate steak with a raw egg. But suddenly their ubiquitous dogs annoyed me, and so did their insistence that I stay off the grass in the parks. Before I found them exotic, cultivated, engaging. Now I found them surly, small-minded, bitter.

It was time to go.

Six years is perhaps, too long a time to live among the French, the most maddeningly idiosyncratic of civilized people. But for years I had yearned to do just that, to move at their pace, speak in their language, find the source ephemeral Gallic elan. Make a decent mousse, at the very least, or know a

++p. E9

Macon Villages from a Nuits-St-Georges. But after a period of initial intoxication, I found myself with a hangover. Their qualities had soured into flaws. They were vain and smug, childish and self-righteous. Conservatives pandering to the avant-garde. Intellectuals preening before a credulous public. Individualists demanding that the government take care of them. Leaders of a European consensus insisting; "Vive la difference!" And they were angry, frustrated that their empire was gone, their world influence diminished, their worth undermined, their contribution underrated.

What are we to make of the French! They hate the English but envy them their queen; they distrust the Germans but long for their steel-rimmed success. They are disdainful of Americans for just about anything you can imagine - our soap operas (which they avidly watch), our political correctness (which they slowly adopt), our death penalty, our obesity, our hairdos, our self-confidence, our pathetic optimism.


And yet. The French continue to intrigue. They possess, somehow, those unteachable, untouchable qualities that make them the undisputed world arbiters in matters of taste. They are, at their best, History and Civilization, Beauty and Grace and Art. Cezanne and Baudelaire, Yves Saint Laurent and Sylvie Guillem. Why is Paris the most breathtaking city in the world? And why is it all-seasonally populated with couples locked in passionate embrace? Why do French babies grow up into swan-like girls in short polka-dot skirts and sensitive boys who instinctively nuzzle their necks? Love is important here. Passion is a given. Beauty a necessity. In a new film, "La Ceremonie" by Claude Chabrol, a family sits at the dinner table. Son: "Is the new maid pretty?" Mother (British): "What does it matter?" Father (French): "Of course it matters. His question is very pertinent." (Later, the maid blasts the family with a shotgun. Beauty is important in France. Service with a smile is not.)

ln fact, the French are a perpetual work in progress. They presume their preeminence in everything from design to philosophy to cuisine to human rights. But even this is not enough to sustain the myth of national glory. The French must be first - or at least players - in everything, from nuclear arms to rap music to African politics to graffiti art. I'm not at all sure this is a bad thing, but it's an awful lot to expect from a country of just 53 million people.

The Half-Empty Glass

I've probably been hanging around too much with my friend Janice. Janice Storozum is an American artist who moved here in 1989, when France appeared to offer a romantic alternative to the poverty, crime and lousy economy in New York City. Turns out it was less romantic than she thought. Since coming to Paris, Janice has been mugged and beaten twice, and forced by what is known as "la crise" - the morose economy - to take a room-mate, slash the prices of her paintings and start teaching on the side. Then her cat died.

Even so, it's mainly the ambient pessimism in France that's pulling Janice down. "If I have one more student whining, 'I can't do it, I can't,' I'm gonna . . . " She couldn't even finish the sentence. "People here are such defeatists. I'm not used to this."

It wasn't always this way. The French consumed and cavorted their way through the 1980s just like Americans did, enjoying (unlike - Americans) six-week vacations, subsidized lunches, mammoth public projects and an unprecedented boom in Beaujolais Nouveau sales from Texas to Tokyo. Politically the French were unchallenged, confidently leading a gentle giant, Germany, toward European unification.

Then came the end of the Cold War, and German reunification. After that came the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when - though there was no threat of chemical warheads falling on Paris - the entire country rolled up and hibernated. Restaurants emptied; cafes closed; cabs sat idle. People were somehow nervous.

WAITER Since then, prudence has been the order of the day. A recession came along in 1993 to reinforce the attitude, and the return of economic growth at the end of 1994 has not perceptibly strengthened consumer confidence. Retailers complain that customers want to buy less at half price; the contemporary art market is dead and might as well be buried: real estate prices keep inching lower; the government warns that it will have to make serious cuts in its generous, far-reaching subsidies to deal with a $62 million budget deficit.

The French are in a funk, to borrow a term. Depressed, psychologically if not economically, uncertain what their country - and their continent - will look like beyond the year 2000. Will the Germans overshadow them once monetary union arrives? Will the war in the former Yugoslavia end, and why have the Europeans been powerless to stop it? And what about the ozone?

In an attempt to put a positive spin on things, the weekly magazine L'Express launched its redesign this month with these hesitant cover lines: "The happiness of being French today: HAPPY - despite it all." "It all" would include the armies of French unemployed (still above 3 million, or 11.5 percent), the terrorist bombings since July blamed on Algerian radicals, homeless beggars in streets and subways, the hike in the sales tax this fall, the failure of the Socialist government of the '80s, the unconvincing takeover by the right-wing government of the '90s, the growing power of the racist National Front party - "Touf, quoi," as they say. "Like, everything."

Refilling the Spirit

Of course, the French will snap out of it. That's what the revolutionary spirit is all about, and the French still have plenty of that. Why else would there be people like Gerard d'Aboville, who was crazy enough to row across the Pacific four years ago, and Guy Delage, who then felt compelled to swim across the Atlantic last year? The French people's long-cultivated idealism is a source of renewal.

But much remains to be righted, from the bloated public sector to the sprawling trade unions to the hopeless suburban ghettos. There are legions of farmers struggling to survive as technology renders them irrelevant. Too many young people graduate from university without a hope of employment. Change is sure to come, if only because the French themselves know they must find their place in the disorder that is the world's new order.

As for me, I have tried to learn to take the best of this country's considerable gifts and leave the rest. Certainly I will miss a place where journalists are allowed to write off movies on their taxes, where new mothers are expected to recuperate in the hospital for a week and a decent table wine costs three bucks.

But I won't miss attitudes like the one advertised on a billboard near my house: "The perfect woman is one who works just like a man, only looks prettier."

The other day, I took a cab and found myself in the company of a feisty Algerian-born driver who belted out Arabic tunes as she careered across the Seine. That was great. But this being France, she let her dog sit on the back seat, with the passengers.

What can I say? Vive la France


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