Awed by this lovely and intelligent review of French Children Don’t Throw Food/ Bringing Up Bébé:
By Michael ERWIN on Friday 3 February 2012, 12:17 – Books
French Children Don’t Throw Food (London, Doubleday).
To be released in the U.S. by Penguin under the title Bringing up Bébé
Without a doubt, this is the best book about France and the French that I have read in a long time. Whilst reading the book I was impressed by the lack of embarrassing howlers, glib, snap judgments and sheer improbability which are all too frequent in writings about France, either through an excess of francophilia or francophobia, or a toxic mixture of both. Ms Druckerman confesses some ambivalence about Paris and the French so perhaps this is what gives her the requisite detachment to analyse them.
It is also her subject matter itself which allows for an in-depth understanding of what makes the Frenchman tick. In the course of observing how the French raise their children, she plumbs the very heart of what makes the French French : the importance of food as THE great pleasure in life ; the almost paradoxical insistence on strongly codified forms of behaviour (a.k.a. civility or manners) combined with a considerable degree of tolerance for idiosyncrasy (a.k.a. minding-one’s-own-business). Most importantly perhaps, she shows to what extent French parents take their role seriously: nurturing, encouraging development, providing structure and giving their children the tools that will be necessary for them to take their place in such a highly structured society as France. There is a world of difference between the very French concept of ‘taking one’s place in society’ and a more brutal vision of ‘making one’s way in the world’.
I couldn’t help but smile at the pages in which she discusses the crucial importance of ‘bonjour’ especially where she mentions foreign visitors: ‘I think tourists are often treated gruffly in Parisian cafés and shops partly because they don’t begin interactions with bonjour, even if they switch to English afterwards. It’s crucial to say bonjour upon getting into a taxi, when a waitress first approaches your table in a restaurant, or before asking a salesperson if the trousers come in your size. Saying bonjour acknowledges the other person’s humanity. It signals that you view him as a person, not just as someone who’s there to serve you.’ (page 189) Or as I like to put it when speaking with hotel guests as they prepare for a day of touring: ‘One must greet the person before the function. If you treat a Frenchman like a vending machine, he will respond like one. Like an out-of-order vending machine.’ If there was any doubt of this, a little episode I witnessed at Versailles last summer made it abundantly clear : an American tourist (judging from her accent) walked up to one of the young women working in the gardens and without any form of preamble asked if a certain path led back to the palace, to which the warden simply but firmly replied ‘Bonjour, Madame’. The American repeated her question, and received the same answer. Twice. Then the penny dropped and the American looked at the young lady (it is important to look at the person!) and said ‘bonnjewer’, at which point the warden smiled and gave her all the information she required in very good and pleasant English. Bonjour is important in France. (Although in this instance ‘Excuse me’or ‘Pardon me’—even in English—probably would have served as well.) As Ms Druckerman puts it: ‘I’m amazed that people seem visibly put at ease after I say a nice solid bonjour.’
She also devotes many pages to the careful, deliberate inculcation of the food culture in French children. It is the cause of one of my recurring difficulties in working with tourists : non-French parents come to us and ask about ‘child-friendly’ restaurants, meaning restaurants with some sort of ghastly ‘children’s menu’ probably involving foodstuffs that may at one point have been part of a chicken, but have since undergone such frightening transformations that one hesitates to still call them ‘food’. (I am reminded of Fran Lebowitz who once wrote: ‘Any cheese which must append the word “food” to its name is neither.’) We repeatedly have to explain to the somewhat incredulous parents that very few restaurants in Paris offer children’s menus because French children eat the same things as their parents, snails, garlic, game and all. The only restaurants which have children’s menus tend to serve worse than indifferent food and we feel that we cannot recommend them. Even if they do have chicken nuggets. Ms Druckerman explains how French crèches and parents together work from a very early age to broaden the children’s palates and teach them not only to be comfortable eating a wide variety of foods, but even to enjoy it. Good eating habits have extraordinary side effects : I was completely bemused by a scene in my local superette : two very young girls talked their dad out of buying them a packet of Twix because they felt it was unhealthy and they did not wish to over-indulge. (Yes, you read that correctly : the girls talked their daddy out of buying the bickies. I am still in shock.)
Although the authoress does not delve into the later stages of raising children, one should note that the approach French parents adopt towards culture is very similar : they do not assume that only the blandest, least challenging pap is suitable for their children’s enjoyment. They believe that a parent has a moral imperative to introduce his or her offspring to a wealth of cultural experiences so that the child can then find its own way and learn to enjoy these ‘finer’ things. I am always struck by the fact that wherever one goes, to whatever God-forsaken end of this earth, if one steps into the local church or museum, there always seems to be a French family there and as often as not they are the only ones there. They stroll about, the parents dutifully reading from their guide book and pointing out the salient features for their children’s benefit. As for the children, they take it in: they listen, they ask questions, they pay attention and either enjoy it or at least have learnt to master the boredom and pretend interest. By contrast, when our non-French clients come to the hotel with children, they almost always assume that a visit to the Louvre is out of the question because the children ‘will not appreciate it’. Obviously, armed with that assumption, it is quite certain they will not.
That famous French arrogance
The third, and perhaps most important insight Ms Druckerman acquires from her study of French parenting is how the children learn very young to be self-reliant and really quite independent. When you have read this book, you will understand whence comes that noticeable French self-assurance which sometimes is interpreted as arrogance (and sometimes truly is!) but which also is the source of that je-ne-sais-quoi, that Gallic poise which on the right occasions is so irresistible. It also helps one understand why forthrightness to the point of near brutality is a mark of friendship (well, partly at least…), as well as the peculiar pudeur of the French which has nothing to do with modesty but rather is their reluctance to unveil all their most private emotions to strangers, and many other mysteries of the French make-up that the non-French occasionally have trouble dealing with and/or appreciating.
If I had to suggest any one book as an excellent starting place to understanding the French, this probably would be the one, whether one has children or not. And it is both funny and well-written to boot!