Even at my advanced age, I continue to look for ways in which I can live my life better. Unfortunately, the operative word her is “look”, as I must confess that, while I’m always on the lookout, I seldom if ever put any of the swell new ideas into action. Hell, after five years, I can’t even manage to get my blog to look better.
Still, I read with interest a recent article on CNN about a young American woman who, while she didn’t quite manage to learn everything that matters in life in kindergarten, was able to figure out a few things during the six months in college she spent living with a family in Paris.
Jennifer Scott – lucky girl! – didn’t just get to live with any old family in Paris.
No, she wasn’t stuck in a boring, sterile suburb, let alone in a banlieue teeming with malcontents and rioters.
No, Scott was fortunate enough to live in a swank arrondissement, where she got to live with the French equivalent of the 1 percent, “an elegant couple she dubbed Madame and Monsieur Chic.”
Not that French 1 percenters would ever use a term as vulgar as 1 percenter.
Besides, in France, as I understand things, the 1 percent is more like 0.1 percent, and it has as much to do with pedigree as money.
Not that there aren’t things to be learned from other folks, and I certainly don’t want to hold pedigree and/or money against Madame et Monsieur Chic, let alone their chic. So I approached the article in a spirit of openness. After all, for Scott,
"Paris taught me not how to just exist, but to thrive and make every small moment meaningful."
It also gave her enough ammo for a book, now out, in which she catalogs the twenty things she learned from Les Chics. The CNN story listed five of them.
As noted, I’m always on the lookout for life enhancing ideas. And, despite what I wrote above, I do occasionally embrace them. Why, just two years ago, I took the advice of my sisters and started buying really good bras. So I thought I’d look through Scott’s list to see if there were any game-changers for me.
Live a passionate life
Now, I’ve noticed in the last few years that the word “passion” has really crept into the vocabulary of the younger set. It is no longer enough to love one’s family and friends, like one’s work, enjoy one’s hobbies, or enthuse about one’s cultural interests, political party, or sports teams. One must embrace everything with a passion that, in the drab and staid time of my youth, was reserved for the likes of Madame Bovary, or for those who followed big college football in the South.
Nowadays, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing of passion.
Oh, passion used to creep in the conversation occasionally in the old days. I once had a manager who told me that I would not be able to have a truly great career at the XYZ company unless I developed a “passion for securities.” Alas, I had to confess to her that, while it was possible for me (despite the passion-negating twin heritage of being Irish and German) to at least entertain the idea of being passionate about people and causes, securities – I believe the Collateralized Mortgage Obligation was just coming into play – was way, way, way down on my list. Besides, even at the time, I figured that if I were to develop a passion for securities, I would no doubt want to make money shorting and longing them, rather than helping manage products that analyzed them. So I ended up with a middling career, and some fond memories of this manager. (Among other things she told me was that she only wanted to have good looking guys in her group, and, thus, felt that she was somewhat stuck with me reporting to her.)
I find Scott’s example of passion to be even more modest than a zest for securities:
…every night after dinner we would have a cheese course and every night we would have Camembert because it was Monsieur Chic's favorite cheese. And every night without exception, before we cut a slice of Camembert for everyone, he would proclaim it to be the 'Roi du fromage' -- or the king of all cheeses," Scott recalled.
"He did it with passion. They turn the smallest things, the smallest rituals and they make them passionate events."
A couple of thoughts come to mind.
First, I must have different definition of “passionate events” than does Scott.
Second, if you turn the smallest ritual into a passionate event, then it seems that the largest rituals – you know, the ones that revolve around man-woman-birth-death-infinity – diminish in importance.
Maybe it’s the Irish-German thing, but cutting the Camembert just doesn’t seem to belong on the same plateau as, say, falling head over heels with the love of your life, getting into your heart’s desire college, or even seeing your team win the World Series for the first time in 86 years.
The Camembert passion, by the way, was prelude to an evening spent listening to classical music.
"They never sat in front of the television with a box of pizza and zoned out, never," Scott said.
Well, as someone who’s tried to watch French television, Les Chics have a point. But didn’t they ever want to throw on a little Charles Aznavour or Johnny Hallyday and shake their booties? Or watch a movie by that genius, M. Jerry Lewis, who is held in such high esteem by the French?
Cultivate an air of mystery
The French reticence when it comes to personal revelation is lesson number two. (Sounds plenty Irish-German to me, folks.) But part of what Les Chics and their friends kept mum on was revealing what it was that they did for work.
No, they were happy to discuss books and film, but they didn’t go in for the old confessional “overshare [of] details about their personal lives."
In fact, according to Scott, when in France, it’s rude to ask someone what they do for a living.
Now, I’m cool with not oversharing, especially as we get deeper and deeper into a world of TMI. But isn’t inquiring about what someone does a pretty fundamental question to ask of a new acquaintance? I mean, it’s not like asking them how much is in their 401K, or what their sexual fantasies are.
But, I guess, French of the chic class have a different relationship to work than us grubby, ugly Americans. If tout le monde attended the same posh schools, live in the same posh arrondissements, and have the same passionate relationships with Camembert, that’s all you need to know.
Look presentable always
I will say that, in the nicer ‘hoods in Paris, where I will confess to staying when I’m there, the people do look pretty darn chic. So maybe I’ll take this life lesson up, and, next trip to Paris, pack only chic navy and black clothing, and Hermes scarves. (Note to self: find knock-off Hermes scarf.)
Then again, in the lesser areas, where I have been known to wander on occasion, the French look just like a) French working stiffs, or b) Americans.
But that would not be Madame Chic, for whom:
…looking presentable was a way of honoring the people she came in contact with everyday.
Personally, I was not thrilled when the guy who grew up next door showed up at my mother’s wake in grubby cut offs and a tee-shirt. Nice he came on his way home from work, but…
So I do get that looking presentable can be a mark of respect. And self-respect.
But I actually see plenty of women like Madame Chic in my neighborhood. And my mental reaction is always the same: don’t you have anything better to do with your time than get dressed up like that to run your errands? Is it really a mark of respect for the guys at the hardware store or the PO, or is just sort of showing off that you have the money for fab clothing, and – I guess thanks to that husband who makes oodles at what, to the French, would be an unmentionable job – you don’t have to work.
Admittedly, we’d all no doubt be better off if, like Madame Chic, we had “10-item wardrobes” made up of really, really, really nice things.
So, second note to self: buy really good black suit (on sale, after first of year).
But, no, unlike Scott, I’m not going to wear my best clothes on a daily basis.
Honey, I’ve seen how those snobby French-sters can cut you down with a look if you’re not chic enough for them, even if you are wearing perfectly presentable clothing – I’m not talking Mr. and Mrs. matching khakis, windbreakers, sneakers, and fanny packs here. I’ve caught that looking down the Gallic nose with a superior sneer when they overhear that strangled French coming from the mouth of a clearly non-chic American. (If I were the nasty type, I would have muttered something like, ‘Thanks for the Statue of Liberty, but who bailed you out, Monsieur et Madame Collaborateur?’)
Don't forget the simple pleasures (and do not deprive yourself)
For Madame Chic, this was baking a strawberry tart. For Monsieur Chic, it was that Camembert. Oo-la-la. (Is the French text OLL?)
Another example Scott cited was someone taking great pleasure from cleaning out her pocketbook. Well, I like cleaning out a junk drawer, so same-same.
But I don’t think there’s anything special about the French savoring the simple pleasures. Even though I’ll give you that they don’t do a gulp and go when it comes to having a meal.
Make life a formal affair
Scott was impressed by the formal manner in which her host family lived. They were always elegantly dressed, their apartment was beautifully furnished and they maintained graceful rituals.
Nothing about whether anyone ever cracked a joke about, say, Monsieur Chic cutting the cheese. Or whether Madame Chic ever came back home from her baguette run and realized that she’d stepped her elegantly-shod foot in dog merde. Nothing about whether anyone in this family actually enjoyed day to day, formal, ritual life with each other.
Maybe you have to read the book, but Madame and Monsieur Chic sure sound bloodless, emotionless, humorless, and, quite frankly, passionless to me.
There’s something to be said for being self-contained, but I think these two ought to get outside that box now and again.
Meanwhile, Scott, on her very chic-looking, very well put together blog, reveals what rings her pasionaria chimes:
She lives passionately in Santa Monica
Where she shampoos her makeup brushes once a week, and where:
A good nail polish evokes passion in me...
Well, I’m pretty fond of OPI’s Mrs. O’Leary’s BBQ, but I can’t say that it exactly evokes passion in me.
No can do.
Must be the Irish-German blood.
Labels: culture, other places