Remember when we wrote about Marcia de Sanctis‘s award-winning 100 Places to Visit in France? Remember our happy talk about Marilyn Yalom‘s acclaimed How the French Invented Love? Here is its opposite. Jonathan Miller offers a more curmudgeonly take on all things French. France: A Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Gibson Square Books) offers many reasons why the nation is going to the dogs, and you’d best stay home and avoid adding to its problems.
The British author is long familiar to me, long before the days he was a columnist for the London Times. Back at the Michigan Daily at the University of Michigan, he was one of the gods a class or two before me. During a return visit to Ann Arbor in September, we met again at the upstairs editorial room of 420 Maynard – where the old teletype machines for AP, UPI, and Reuters once clattered through the night. (His fierce advocacy made the Daily one of the early American adopters of London-based Reuters.)
He told me about his book, and he told me about his life in France. Then he sent the volume to me on his smartphone. It begins this way:
“I recently made an appointment to visit my lawyer. I was told to ignore the sign on the front door announcing that the office was on strike. It was a national day of action protesting proposed reforms to the legal profession. Instead I should knock discreetly at the side entrance and someone would let me in. The office was pretending to be on strike, while conducting business as usual. In France, not everything is always as it seems. In a country where people claim to be revolutionaries but are terrified of change, boast of their social model while condemning young people to mass unemployment, and claim to be the best cooks in the world, while a million people a day eat at McDonald’s, there is much that is paradoxical, even psychotic.
“When I bought my starter chateau in France 15 years ago, equipped with rusty O-level French, I was seduced by the beauty of the country, discouraged by the difficulty of communicating effectively with French people and understanding French media and political, economic and social discourse, and entranced by the otherness of everything.
And so the story begins. In 2014, the village of Caux overwhelmingly elected him to their local council. The first problem was kissing: “Who to kiss, how many times, when? When I was elected to my local council, with 10 male members and nine women, it was apparent that all the men were required to kiss all of the women at the start of every meeting. Some of the men, who had known each other a long time, also kissed one another. In our part of France, three kisses are the norm. Hence, before any business could be transacted, at least 270 kisses were exchanged. The maths are fuzzy but one can estimate that the population of France (65 million), each kissing, say, 10 times per day (this is just a guess), could collectively be kissing up to 3.5 billion times a week, exchanging some 182 billion kisses a year.”
Inspired by Ambrose Bierce‘s Devil’s Dictionary, Jonathan began an alphabetical list to catalogue the faults of the charming French.
Where to begin? The acclaimed author Michel Houellebecq? “He is hated by many of the French literati because he sells so many books.” Bernard-Henri Lévy? “The global brand of French public intellectual,” he wrote, noting that “Houellebecq, his frenemy, has written of BHL: ‘You dishonour even the white shirts you wear. An intimate of the powerful who, since childhood has wallowed in obscene wealth, you are… a philosopher without an original idea.’”
Thanks to Jonathan, I find that I have already made too many social mistakes to count: “If kissing is reserved for people who you already know, poignée de main (shaking hands) is ubiquitous and you will shake hands with anyone with whom you have even a passing acquaintance. Walking through my village to the bakery in the morning, I will shake hands with up to a dozen people. Failure to observe this ritual can be taken as an insult. Arriving at work, it is customary to shake everyone’s hand. I find this custom extremely agreeable as it establishes a direct and human contact that is a formal recognition of mutual respect. It is typically accompanied by the phrase comment allez vous? (how are you?) or more informally, comment ça va? (how’s it going?). … The handshake must always be accompanied by eye contact. Those who you do not know must also be acknowledged. At the very least, you must offer a bonjour (good day). If you ask a conductor at a railway station for directions without prefacing your question with a bonjour, he or she is likely to be insulted.”
“These rituals are indispensable social signals. When I am in England I reflexively shake hands with many people who do not expect it, evidence, I suppose, that I am going native. It goes the other way, too. Marie-Jo, a French friend who has lived for 20 years in England, tells me she once asked an official at the Gare du Nord for advice, forgetting the obligatory bonjour, and could tell at once that the official was distressed. ‘I felt ashamed,’ she later admitted. ‘It was as if I had ignored his humanity.’”
I am an American, however. We cut to the chase. Humanity be damned. I fear that after all my faux pas I will be turned away at the border.
Lest one think that the author has soured on the nation, his Vive la France! at the end will suggest that he won’t be leaving his chateau anytime soon. Quietly tucked away in the acknowledgements, he salutes the “glorious countryside surrounding Caux.”
“Walking the flanks of the ancient volcanos among the endless vines, the orchids, the wild fennel and the abundant fig trees, has been inspirational and therapeutic.” Yeah, he’s going to stay. And I’ll be back. The rest of you? Either cancel your plane tickets or pucker up.