Rules to Live By (if You’re French): Expat Edition

Given the legions of Anglos that have colonized Paris, the French need special rules to maintain our positive relations. Here are some helpful hints for Parisians when dealing with foreigners.
1. Do not allow others to mangle your beloved language (even if this means mangling theirs). When spoken to by a native English-speaker in perfectly understandable yet ever-so-slightly-flawed French, always respond in broken English. Even if your English is crap, they would much rather you insult them in their native tongue than be permitted to carry on in imperfect French.
2. If employed in the service sector, when attempting to serve a non-native French speaker, (e.g. procurea fresh baguette, take a dinner order), be sure to show how hard you are struggling to understand their French. How? Lean slightly forward and grimace while cupping a hand behind your ear. Feel free to interject a helpful, “QUOI??” Customers will appreciate your efforts at complete comprehension.

3. Unless you are on the metro or bus, do not apologize for anything — ever. Apologizing is very serious business and should not be taken lightly. It is a sign of weakness and worse — of being wrong — and must therefore be studiously avoided. If circumstances call for an apology (being late for an appointment with an Anglo, for example), use humor and charm to deflect attention from your error. Remember, we are only wrong if we say so.

4. Never hesitate to scold others’ children or provide parenting advice to complete strangers. This is particularly true if the strangers are not French as they have much to learn about how to behave in public. If you are not a parent yourself (or better yet, your offspring are now adults), your perspective and guidance will be particularly well received.

5. As you know, France is the only country in the world that produces good wine. When presented with credible evidence to the contrary (a Sonoma Valley Cabernet, for example) be sure to express utter amazement and share your opinion that it must have originated from French vines.

6. On the subject of cheese, see #5.

7. As a true Parisian, you love New York and London and would even like to live there (for a period). As for the rest of the U.S. and England (and their inhabitants), a bemused distrust is only natural. Notable exception: San Francisco.

8. It’s important to remember that not only are all Americans obese, they sadly know nothing about good food. Most subsist on a steady diet of KFC and pureed Big Mac milkshakes. If you find yourself in the presence of an American who appears unusually thin (for an American), be sure to tell her that “she is not like most Americans.” This compliment will make her day.

9. Last, never forget that Americans and Brits are rarely facetious or sarcastic. Always take them at their word so as not to cause offense. 😉


The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Yes, it’s that wonderful time of year again in Paris.

No, not Christmas, Bastille Day or even the holiday-packed month of May. The annual winter sales are here, bringing fabulous bargains on lust-worthy items coveted since September.

Sales (“les soldes“) happen in France twice a year. Winter sales run mid-Jan to mid-Feb and summer sales, mid-June to mid-July. Of course, any Parisienne worth her Repetto ballet flats will tell you that the real sale shopping starts a week or so before the government-mandated sales in a privileged world called “les ventes privees.” These would be the invitation-only pre-sale sales for in-the-know shoppers willing to sacrifice an additional ten percent reduction for the assurance of finding a coveted item in her size. 

Missed les ventes privees? Then know this: Once the official sales begin, all bets (and rules of decorum) are off. It’s chien-eat-chien in the race for the best items which, inevitably, are snatched up quick.

Depending on where you go, the shopping scene varies but the bottom line is the same: A Parisienne during the sales is a woman on a mission. She is meticulous, ruthless and willing stop at nothing to score that Vanessa Bruno coat at 40% off or that velvet Jacadi dress in a tiny size 3.

From the bourgeois ladies who strain for restraint while elbowing through the racks at Le Bon Marche to the outright madness of H&M, prepare to push, sort and stand in line if you’re going to succeed at the sales.

So what’s a wannabe savvy shopper to do? Create a plan of attack that goes something like this:

Phase One: Research – In the weeks leading up to the sales, determine which items will go on the “must buy” list. French women are not impulse shoppers. They hunt for and purchase classic pieces that will complement their current wardrobes. Thus, hasty grabs from the mosh pit, er, sale bin, are to be avoided through meticulous research and planning.

Phase Two: The Set Aside – On the eve of the sales, ask a sales clerk to set your coveted items aside. She’ll agree to do this not because it guarantees her sales commission (there is none) but because it makes her feel important. The next day, while others are scrambling for that last pair of Isabel Marrant bottines in a 37, you’re handing over your debit card, ready to head next door for un petit cafe. If the advance set-aside fails, dress for success by wearing items that can be quickly shed for that hasty outside-the-dressing room try-on. Do not be shocked if other shoppers are seen stripping in public in order to avoid the queue for the dressing rooms.

Phase Three: Prioritize – Once the sought-after purchases are made and the first frenzied sale week has passed, allow yourself one or two trendy, impulse buys. These items are now a healthy 50 (or even 60) percent off, so that sequined tank or leather mini-sac is no longer a reckless splurge.

                                            (I seriously love this jacket. Buy now are wait until it hits 60% off…?)

Phase Four: Preen – Fab clothing and accessories secured, now is the time to show ’em off. Subtly incorporate sale finds in to your everyday look, being cautious not to wear head-to-toe sale buys. Like sporting an entire ensemble from one designer, a complete outfit scored at the sales is, well, pas tres chic.

So, good luck! And remember, unless you’re groveling in the Zara sale bin, subtlety, sharp elbows and self-control are still your best accessories.

New Year’s Resolution: Let Them Play (and Eat Cake)

Before we moved to France, I had lots of illusions about what parenting would be like here. Kids wouldn’t be so scheduled and micro-managed; each and every Saturday wouldn’t be slavishly devoted to soccer. Kids wouldn’t spend their afternoons strapped in the back of a minivan shuttling between swimming, karate and piano.

Parents would be OK with kids learning to read at six or even seven. They wouldn’t wring their hands over what exactly was going on every minute of their kids’ preschool day. Were they spending enough time learning letters? Numbers? Were “preliteracy” skills being emphasized? Were they following a schedule? Was there enough structure to their days?

These were worries that preoccupied me (and almost every other mom I knew) in our Boston area town. Even though my kids were barely three and five, much of our “free time” was spent on scheduled activities — getting to them, participating in them, and rushing home from them. It took me a while to stop and ask myself why, exactly, where we doing all this?

If I was honest with myself, I would have admitted that the kids didn’t really like it all that much. They were often far happier spreading their toys out on our playroom floor or chasing each other around our neighbor’s house next door.

As I look back on our happiest times in Boston, I recall winter hours building snowmen and forts, summers in the backyard with friends splashing in the inflatable pool and afternoons inside shaking toy maracas and tambourines. Memories of Music Together, Mini-Gym and the like just don’t come close.

When we moved, I felt ready to try another way.

Since our arrival in France nearly a year ago, I’ve learned that yes, there are certainly many differences here but when it comes to scheduling, programming and over-managing our kids’ lives, the French are as guilty as we are.

French children don’t attend school on Wednesdays, a time-honored tradition that dates back decades. But for most French kids, it’s the busiest day of the week. Schedules are packed with lessons and classes, the most important of which is often English. The activities are undoubtedly different (my son’s school offers chess and mime). But many are the same: dance for girls, soccer (“le foot“) for boys. Almost none of my kids’ French friends are ever free just to play on a Wednesday.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for encouraging kids to learn, to explore what excites them and find outlets to develop their passions.

But I’m also in favor of just letting them play. Is there anything as magical as the games children create when given time and space to let their minds wander? The more I get out of their way, the better my kids play and the more creative they get. A game of “mom and baby” morphs into hide n’ seek which soon becomes pirates or knights or “Batman and Poison Ivy.”

Yesterday, we spent more than an hour in a little park tucked away in the 15th arrondissement. We were in the neighborhood to do errands and the kids needed to burn off some energy. The park was simple, just one slide and a few benches under the barren trees. But to my kids, it might as well have been Disneyland. That one slide was all they needed for an afternoon of fun. They must have climbed it a hundred times, their scarves becoming “crocodiles” that chased them as they slid through an imaginary swamp. It was something to see.

When I let them be, they learn how to work out their differences, share, take turns and explore their imaginations. The more I meddle, the more they fight and bicker. Quite simply, they learn to love each other more when I’m not hovering about.

As they get older, extra-curricular activities will matter more. Learning new skills and developing their abilities will be important and appropriate. But for now, while my little people are still so young, I’m making a simple parenting resolution: Get out of their way and simply let them play.