Writer, editor, writing coach, France aficionado, and family friend Janet Hulstrand produced a delightful little book earlier this year entitled Demystifying the French: How to Love Them and Make Them Love You. Having just finished this advice manual for travelers and others interested in living more successfully with the French, I found Janet’s take on how to understand these sometimes curious, somewhat frustrating, occasionally mystifying, but always interesting people to be delightful, informative, and useful all at once.
I also found that Janet had—either on purpose or unwittingly, I’m not sure which—captured some wonderful life lessons from her observations about the country she’s now observed and come to love as a visitor and resident for some 40 years.
The book is written as if you are sitting by the fireplace with a wonderful French wine and a good friend who is giving you a crash course before you venture out on your first trip to France. Janet’s writing is clear and, as one reviewer put it, “breezy and digestible.” She begins with five essential tips for “even brief encounters” that start with the all important, “Instead of smiling, say bonjour.” Say bonjour before you say anything else. Janet notes that she lived in France for years before she figured this out, and admits that she still will occasionally forget her own #1 tip to getting along with the French.
Following the five top tips, she moves into ten chapters to help understand the French mentality. Here you’ll learn about the country’s passion for complication as well as the (relative) unimportance of money. As with the tips, Janet provides background to flesh out her observations, often with hilarious asides and anecdotes. I certainly laughed out loud at the descriptions of which swear words Americans should avoid saying in France, even though the French will use them liberally in their conversation.
As I was reading this delightful guide, I found myself agreeing with a number of the ways in which the French have decided to live their lives. And while Janet may mention her feelings on specific topics with a comment such as “I think Americans could do with a little bit more of that kind of approach to life,” she doesn’t try to force the reader to accept that the French way is better. Rather, she simply wants us to understand the rationale behind what we may initially see as inexplicable behavior.
But stopping to seriously consider why we do what we do can be life altering. Why not take an approach to living that, upon reflection, seems not only perfectly reasonable, but better for us, for our communities, and for our planet? The following came to mind as I read Janet’s “demystifying” manual:
- Why not greet each and every person with a kind word and leave them with a cheerful au revoir (until we see each other again)?
- Why not throw out our assumption that everyone speaks our language and is just like us? Why not replace that assumption with a question that asks if they speak English before barging ahead in our native tongue (but not theirs)? Why not, in other words, treat strangers as we would want to be treated?
- Why not expect and support beauty in both our civic spaces and life?
- Why not lower our voice instead of speaking at a decibel level that ensures that everyone within 100 feet hears our conversation?
- Why not take our time? What’s the rush?
- Why not, instead of being self-absorbed or all wrapped up in what we do, work on simply being interesting?
This last one comes out of the chapter entitled “The Importance of Being Interesting,” and Janet begins it with this short story.
“Years ago, a friend of mine had a dalliance with a Frenchwoman. When they went their separate ways, neither of them was truly terribly upset—it was a casual affair, and it was over. But she did make certain to tell him before going on her way, that to her, he and his friends were ‘not interesting.’ (‘I know many peoples who are more interesting zan you!’ were her precise words.)”
Janet goes into some depth about the ways and whys of being interesting, noting that the French have a general respect “for education, for intellect, and for the importance of learning how to think rationally.” They don’t talk about their work and tie their self-esteem up in their jobs. Instead, they build on the philosophy courses that are a staple of all French high school curricula in order to produce “enlightened citizens capable of intelligent criticism.”
As I’m listening to what passes for political and rational thought by today’s Trump-dominated Republican party, all I can say is, “What a concept.”
Demystifying the French makes a great stocking stuffer this Christmas season for those who have gap year students traveling to France, who know friends or family heading to Paris, who enjoy good French food and want to find out more about the people behind those wonderful creations, or who simply would find unexpected life lessons in a small, delightful read a real treasure.
Have a good week.
More to come…
Image: Janet Hulstrand