Have you seen “Emily in Paris”? It’s fun, but oh-la-la! the exaggerations!
The story is about a young social media whiz sent at the last minute to fill in for a French-speaking senior colleague. Our heroine, Emily, is neither senior nor able to speak French. She doesn’t even have experience in the same sector as the Paris office she’s sent to. But she bubbles over about how she’s going to teach them. No wonder they aren’t happy with her.
France doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but le Black Friday is gaining popularity, right behind Halloween.
It’s nowhere near as crazy as in the U.S. For one thing, France has soldes–sales–twice a year, starting in mid-January and mid-July, and they last for six weeks, with bigger markdowns (and less choice) as time goes on.
The French are pros at faire le pont—taking a bridge day between a mid-week holiday and the weekend—but with no Thanksgiving, the Friday after is just another workday.
France doesn’t have many malls of the Mall of America, “Clueless,” senior-speed-walker genre. The centres commercials usually are anchored by supermarkets, there usually are no food courts and they’re just much smaller. I will admit it can be efficient to hit 20 stores without setting foot outside when you have a deadline to find something AND it’s 20 below zero. Happily, the weather here is not as brutal so I don’t miss the lack of malls at all.
At the end of the summer soldes, my shopping buddy and I did the rounds in Toulouse. I was limited to leche-vitrine (window-licking, which is the wonderful French term for window shopping), but I got vicarious thrills by her spending. We strolled around the center, where many of the streets have been closed to traffic, except for bikes, which are now ubiquitous, and (parked) food carts. I love strolling in Toulouse. It’s a big city but not in a dangerous, pushy way, except on the périphérique. It’s mostly clean, with beautiful architecture, interesting boutiques, lovely little parks and squares, and a fun sprinkling of eccentrics to make hicksters smile. Don’t you want to go into a shop that has flying bare-breasted women nibbling on grapes over the entrance (see the top photo)?
Despite our best efforts to cover the entire downtown, a couple of items on the list hadn’t been found, at least not in the desired fit. On the way home, I asked whether she wanted to check out the factory outlet center in Nailloux. Why not, she said.
It was a real mind trip. I had a similar experience going to the French-owned American-style Italian restaurant chain. I thought I was in the Midwest. We drove up a hill with waving fields of wheat on either side of the divided highway. At the top of the hill, we turned toward the flapping flags, and came upon a wonder of an American-style “outdoor” mall, designed to look like an old-fashioned main street rather than the dolled-up strip mall such things really are. They have none of the climatic convenience of a real mall and none of the charm of a real downtown. A few, like Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, are pretty enough, but a little sterile, with no real link to the surrounding city.
Anyway, Nailloux Outlet Village is one of them. Vaguely Spanish/Mediterranean/medieval (fake half-timbered) architecture. Music piped to its sterile sidewalks. Oceans of parking. Familiar brands: Levi’s, Nike, Samsonite…Also many French names: Little Marcel, Princesse TamTam, Comptoire des Cotonniers, Gérard Darel….and more.
My buddy scored jeans that fit and some running shoes. We had ice cream in the “plaza.” I had a hard time speaking French and an urge to call up one of my friends back home to come on over and meet us. Le Temps des Cerises aside, it felt like an island of America.
These outlet villages are all over France. Here’s a link to a list. For all my complaining about the architecture, there are bargains to be had.
And there’s even an outlet village not far away, in Spain, north of Barcelona: La Roca Village.
Haven’t been there yet. Going from France to Spain and thinking I’m in America might make my head explode.
I’ve had culture shock many times, but this one took the gâteau.
A few years ago, a restaurant was built on the edge of a parking lot of a Carcassonne strip mall. It was intriguing, because the whole strip-mall restaurant thing is not very French. As it rose, it felt as if it were a mirage transported from the the middle of America.
Yet, it turned out to be an Italian restaurant. In France. My kid had bugged me from the building’s foundations being poured that we HAD to go. When I first stepped inside, I had a hard time to speak French. English came out. It was stronger than any logic, because the throng waiting to be seated all were chatting in French. But my brain was telling me I had stepped into suburban U.S.A. It was the oddest thing.
Parking lot location: check.
Non-commital modern yet somewhat Mediterranean architecture: check.
Upbeat pop music: check.
Soaring ceilings: check.
Roaring decibels: check.
Open kitchen to give us the impression of authenticity: check.
Mob of people waiting to be seated: check.
Where were we? Was it really Carcassonne? It certainly wasn’t French. It certainly wasn’t Italian–it was Italian as imagined by Americans. Except that the chain IS French: Del Arte is part of Groupe LeDuff, which was founded by the now-multibillionaire Louis LeDuff in 1976.
Helpful photo of la Cité on the back side for those who are completely disoriented.
Groupe LeDuff started with la Brioche Dorée (the Golden Brioche), and has added other chains, including Bruegger’s (the bagel chain), Timothy’s World Coffee, Mimi’s Cafe, La Madeleine, among others. Almost 2,000 restaurants, in 90 countries.
The food was OK. Not great, yet far from terrible. As one often gets in parking-lot restaurants like Olive Garden and Applebee’s and Carrabba’s. And at the beginning, the whole concept was so unusual for here that it drew crowds. Concept aside, good–no, GREAT–food is easy to find here, along with authentic authenticity. I don’t want to slam Del Arte–it isn’t bad at all. Just meh.
Obviously these were taken at an off-hour. Because the parking lot is full during meal times.
Recently, two Subway sandwich outlets also opened in Carcassonne, one in the center of town and the other in yet another of the strip malls that blight the periphery of town. I was following two couples of Americans down the main pedestrian street, overhearing them talk about lunch (it’s easy to overhear Americans, in part because I understand what they’re saying with zero effort and in part because of the volume of normal American speaking). I thought about telling them of a couple of options. I consider myself an ambassador for Carcassonne and want even strangers to have a good time here. Before I caught up to them, they swung into Subway.Subway is fine. I have eaten plenty of Subway sandwiches in the U.S. But why would a person go all the way to France and then eat the same thing as back home? It isn’t as if there’s a big risk of ordering something disgusting by mistake. Most French sandwiches involve some combination of ham, cheese or hard sausage, or else some sort of tuna salad, chicken salad or shrimp/fake crab salad. With lettuce and tomato. On awesome bread. What’s to fear? Eating local specialties is one of the key ways to explore local culture.
A plain white shirt with a twist, at La Brune, an interesting boutique in the center of town.
The same thing is true with other shops. The world is becoming more and more similar. On the one hand, it’s kind of cool that tastes are shared by so many people. Can you hate somebody who wears the same jeans and T-shirts that you do? (I suppose so, but it does make people seem less foreign–and hence more relatable–than when each little region had its own traditional dress.) Now you can get the same clothes at Zara or H&M in Amsterdam as in Abu Dhabi, Astana or Austin. That’s great–if you see something new in a magazine or on Instagram, you can buy it easily, even if you don’t live in a fashion capital. On the other hand, the little boutiques with really cool, unique stuff are going under, unable to compete on price and unable to change stock as fast as the fast fashion giants. Fashion is supposed to be about expressing oneself, but it’s increasingly about following the herd.
It’s something to consider, whether you’re traveling or shopping and dining at home. Do you seek safety in the numbers? Or do you stand out from the herd?
After living here for so long, I forget which things I found different about France. Maybe it’s because I’ve been a francophile since my first Madeline book.
The culture shock has been urban vs. rural rather than Anglo-Saxon vs. French. We arrived from New York City to a village of 700 next to Carcassonne, which itself is no metropolis at 45,000 (not counting the 2 million tourists each year).
I found it hard to adjust to strict hours for everything After living in the city that never sleeps. The stores open at 10, and even the supermarkets don’t open until 8:30 and close at 8 p.m. Smaller shops close between noon and 2 p.m. Many people still go home for lunch. Everything is closed on Sunday. Run out of milk on Saturday night and you’re out of luck until Monday morning. In bigger cities, there are more options.
At the same time, people are clearly lucky to have an incredible level of stability in their lives, thanks to this inflexible schedule. Work hours are written in stone, often 9 or 10 a.m. until noon and 2 p.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., for a 35-hour workweek. No scheduling software that dictates at the last minute that you’ll work late tonight and early tomorrow. Dinner time is dinner time. Nothing is open, hardly anybody works late. They go home to their families.
Sundays are dedicated to a big, multigenerational family meal. There might be outings, to a vide grenier (a kind of mass garage sale) or biking or hiking and picking mushrooms or wild asparagus in the woods or visiting one of the many village festivals.
You can tell the value system by what professions DO work on Sundays: bakers, florists (so you can take a bouquet when you go to the in-laws’ house for Sunday dinner), restaurants. Basically it’s about eating. Everything else can wait. And what is eating but an occasion to share a pleasure with friends and family?
I would like to say all this shows the French aren’t into mindless consumerism, but they have succumbed as much as anybody else. There are solderies selling the same cheap, cheaply made junk you find in the aisles of big-box stores elsewhere. The only difference is that homes here are smaller than in the U.S., which generally puts a cap on how much stuff can fit.
While I consider myself a city person, I have to admit there are some lovely qualities about French village life. There’s a softness to the people here. A niceness. Yes, I said it: French people are nice. Also a slowness, because why stress? There’s plenty of time. It’s definitely life in the slow lane.
Maybe I settled easily into my adopted country because its values appeal to me. Family first. Good public schools. Good health care for everybody. Clean environment. The system works pretty well and things are in pretty good shape. Competence and professionalism are rampant. When frustrations arise, they usually stem not from ineptness on the part of a bureaucrat or shopkeeper or customer service representative but from that person’s unbudging adherence to some set of rules that might make sense some or even most of the time but that allow for no exceptions. This becomes less surprising when you look at how French verbs are conjugated: there are general rules, and then not so much exceptions but ever-more-specific subsets of rules. No one-offs. The rules are written in stone.
This Gallic certitude, this ability–even penchant–to say non, is inextricable from the French savoir vivre, knowing how to live well. Some rules of French life:
Everything should be made as beautiful as possible. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but aesthetics count, whether it’s how you dress or how you serve dinner or turning down the lights in the evening and lighting a candle for ambience.
Take your time. The French won’t be rushed (maybe behind the wheel, but that’s a different story). Stop for a drink at a café with friends. Linger at dinner. Do your beauty routine.
Smell the roses, literally. Use your senses to pull pleasure from every opportunity. The French are particularly strong in the taste department, but not limited to that.
Of course these things can be done anywhere. If you want to feel French this weekend, then put together a good meal of honest food–it doesn’t have to be fancy but it shouldn’t be heavily processed–and share it with some people you care about. Set a pretty table. Take your time to enjoy it all. Voilà!