Tuesday, July 29, 2008

French exceptions and paradoxes

The famous French exception is the 'high fat diet and red wine' mystery despite overall excellent health in the general population. Another famous one in my circles as a psychologist is that 1) France is the number one consumer of antidepressants which is often correlated with 2) French universities traditionally only teach the psychoanalytic viewpoint of psychology. This one is famous because proponents of non-psychoanalytic techniques think that there is a link.
And I will add to the pool of these exceptions: strangeness in kitchens and hospitality.
First off, kitchens. France is known to be a world center for cuisine. Yet, most kitchens here are absolutely useless! When you move in, the kitchen is usually unequipped (whether you rent or buy) and you must get yourself the essetial refrigerator and stove. Moreover, I don't think I have ever seen a more poorly designed kitchens in one country -- lack of light and space, not to mention miserly counter space... it is a wonder the average person cooks. That is my first strange personal French exception.
The second one concerns hospitality. While France may lead the world in cuisine (but not kitchens, see above...), they are lousy at extending minimal hospitality. As university people, my dh and I are often called to do presentations or thesis defenses at universities all over France. These usually include some travel and then we need to do our 'thing' whether it is give a talk or serve on a thesis jury. When it is a thesis jury, the experience borders on that of a marriage -- families show up, a group of people is assembled, and the doctoral candidate presents his/her work to the audience as well as the thesis jury members. This is usually followed by a small cocktail hour. It is often preceded by a lunch for the jury members. But aside from that, it is a lonely and depressing enterprise for a jury member. We must travel, sometimes spend the night (or two) and aside from the thesis 'festivities' we must forge ahead on our own, staying in impersonal hotels and eating alone in restaurants.
My dh and I do things differently. First off, most of our colleagues are foreign, so we invite them to stay and to eat with us, either at home or away. And this is not considered unusual or odd. But recently I had the occasion to invite a French colleague, and he was not only touched but amazed at the idea. This is a very well-known professor for whom I have a great deal of respect, and when I invited him he responded warmly that in all his years of participating on jury defenses, he had never had such an invitation. Although he had already made his own plans to see friends in our region, he regretted that he couldn't accept our offer, and commented that not only was it a considerate and thoughtful level of hospitality, he suspected it had to do with us being American.
He is no doubt correct. But isn't it an odd exception -- a country that is known for cooking and excellent entertaining... can't be hospitable.

Be our guest! Be our guest! Put our service to the test
Tie your napkin 'round your neck, cherie
And we'll provide the rest
Soup du jour
Hot hors d'oeuvres
Why, we only live to serve
Try the grey stuff -- It's delicious
Don't believe me? Ask the dishes!
They can sing, they can dance
After all, Miss, this is France
And a dinner here is never second best...*

Nope. But don't hold your breath for the hospitality!

*From "Be our guest", Beauty and the Beast, Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice.

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