In Harriet Welty Rochefort's France, teachers berate mediocre students in front of their classmates, people who smile at strangers are assumed to be imbeciles, and sex is an appropriate topic for dinner conversation (though money is not).
It's a country of men who don't shower often and svelte, well-coiffed women in high heels who cook gourmet meals twice a day every day, pack their husbands' suitcases, and know not to laugh too loudly at dinner parties or offer their opinions when the menfolk are discussing the issues of the day.
But it's all for the best, according to Rochefort's new book, French Toast: An American in Paris Celebrates the Maddening Mysteries of the French (St. Martin's Press). Her informal, first-person account explains that France is also a place where doctors make house calls, university tuition is free, and it's still OK to light up in a restaurant.
Rochefort, who grew up in Iowa, moved to France in 1971 after meeting her future husband during a trip to Paris she took upon receiving a master's in journalism from Northwestern. Her experiences provided grist for a column in the now defunct European Travel and Life. (She still addresses cultural issues in a cyberspace column, "Letter From Paris," which appears on the Paris Pages Web site at www.paris.org/Kiosque.)
Among the book's descriptions of the faux pas Rochefort has committed over the past 28 years (such as the look of horror on her father-in-law's face when she served him a mere sandwich for lunch) are reminders that her observations are not scientific, that she lives in the upscale Paris suburb of Neuilly, and that her two grown sons and one stepson are, of course, brilliant.
The book does offer practical advice, like how to cut various types of French cheese, when it is appropriate to send flowers, and how to formulate insults and compliments that are tres effective.
Most French travel books are written by people who are not immersed in the culture, says Rochefort. "They're by people who come and stay a bit and don't make it their life. They don't speak French all day long, or have children who go to French schools or relatives who are French."
Each chapter ends with an interview with Rochefort's bank-executive husband, Philippe, who has extricated her from many an embarrassing situation. He provides acerbic answers to such questions as why store owners cheat their customers ("Shopkeepers are made to steal from other people. Otherwise, they would be professors of ancient Sanskrit at the Sorbonne") and why the French are rude to strangers ("The person you don't know may be an enemy. How many times have you been invaded? I myself have been invaded twice, first by the Germans, then by EuroDisneyland. You can never be too careful").
Rochefort, who is currently on a book tour of the States, says that she can temporarily "relax and laugh loudly and do a lot of things I can't in France because people look at me weird." She'll sign copies of her book Tuesday at 4 at the Book Stall at Chestnut Court, 811 Elm in Winnetka (847-446-8880). It's free.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Davis Barber.