Saturday, August 24, 2013

French Toastiness

Dateline:  June 2, 2013, PARIS, 75011.  (Finished August 24, 2013.)

I've been in Paris for almost two weeks, now--in a pleasant and pricey little flat in the 11th arrondissement--playing at being a "real" Parisian, though of course, such authenticity is actually quite beyond my reach.

It has been incredibly rainy and cold for almost my entire stay--record-breaking low temperatures for the month of May.  Somewhat depressing and demoralizing, I suppose, and definitely "damp," but overall, I've thoroughly enjoyed myself.  My Paris friends have overwhelmed me with hospitality--always accompanied by food, drink and good conversation.  So I was initially a bit shocked, last night, to hear a dinner companion complain bitterly about the coldness of the French.  Max, the source of this criticism, is an Argentinian, perfectly fluent in French and English, living and working in Paris.  Though he is much more authentically Parisian than I, he wants nothing more than to get out, because, he says (and this to me--a Francophile--and to our fellow diner--an American who has taken French citizenship), the French are simply cold and mean-spirited, possessing absolutely no real sense of "fraternité," and so hostile to their fellow creatures that they alone among civilized peoples have found it necessary to legislate human kindness, via their "good Samaritan" law.

Max offered this opinion without bitterness, in a quite matter-of-fact way, as if his judgment were little more than a mere statement of self-evident fact.  En France, sauve qui peut!  And those who don't like that way of life should, well, get out.

I have, of course, heard similar criticisms from others--but almost always from Americans (not Argentinians) and, especially, from Americans who do not speak French, who have never tried to learn anything about French culture, who have never spent longer than a week in the Hexagone. That such parochial and navel-gazing Americans should find France "intimidating" and "unfriendly," is not really surprising.  But the reaction of Max, a pretty worldly guy, DID surprise me.  Mostly, though, it was Max's conflation of coldness with hostility that got me thinking.

So what about it?  Are the French significantly more frosty than other national groups? And if so, is this frostiness a sign of some sort of gratuitous and unjustified hostility to other humans?

Well, I admit that I once might have answered a qualified "yes" to both questions. My earliest trips to France--even the entire year I spent there as an assistant d'anglais--yielded very little true contact and no enduring friendships with Hexagonals.  I'm pretty timid, so much of the fault may have been my own.  Still, the cool, albeit usually polite, "signals" sent me by those with whom I interacted were of the "let's not get too close" variety.  And so, though I'm not sure I regarded this aloofness as "hostility,"  I confess that I did sometimes feel--as Max suggested--as if my French colleagues and fellow students had inexplicably encased themselves in a sheath of ice.

Ice glaze.

Now much later, after I have finally come to know and love a good many warm, caring and generous French people--people who have become deeply cherished friends, I return to that image--ice glaze--but I interpret the metaphor quite differently at present.  In 1966, I thought--like Max--that the ice glaze was, as Max would say, a facade--not necessarily hostile, but nonetheless rather puzzling--erected seemingly for the sole and irrational purpose of keeping outsiders definitively "out."  Now, in 2013, I perceive that, in many cases anyway, the ice glaze was (and is) something much more positive--something more about the individual Frenchman's confident sense of self and of self-reliance, and considerably less about the outsider's merits or lack thereof.

BTW, here's what the National Center for Home Food Preservation has to say about ice glazing: ice glazing is a unique protection net for frozen fish, seafood, and chicken. In essence, it's a thin layer of ice, which, with the use of modern technology, embraces the product permanently and firmly and thereby protects the foodstuff from contact with air and prevents the oxidation/deterioration caused by such contact. In other words, ice glazing ensures that a product so treated will remain fresh and nutritious much longer than a more conventionally packaged product.


Yes, the French are a little like that, aren't they? A bit ice-glazed, but perhaps for the purpose of maintaining their cultural "freshness" and personal independence--the frostiness serving as a protective envelope to keep them safe from over-exposure and cultural/emotional "oxidation."  In other words, the average Frenchman is a pretty autonomous guy--sealed by his very culture--against rot and deterioration. As a consequence, once the ice glaze is melted (by sustained and/or fortuitously intimate contact), the result for the erstwhile outsider is a relationship that--like the flesh of the ice-preserved fish--is especially fresh, nutritious and free from the toxicity often induced by too many shallow and devitalizing "friendships."

The story of how my particular "break-through" took place is too long to be told here:  I'll save it for another post.  But, in conclusion, suffice it to note that I am now persuaded that Max was only superficially right: yes, the French can indeed be quite frosty.  But in the long run, Max was wrong:  once the ice glaze is melted, a "French connection" is likely to become intensely satisfying--a genuine friendship that can nourish the outsider deeply on the richness of French culture.  And so I am inclined to think that French frostiness--far from being hostile--is in fact a kind of necessary prelude to a very special French "toastiness."  So it has been for me, at any rate.

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