Maybe you have scoffed a little self-righteously everytime someone says the French are tres romantic or tres rude! I mean, stereotyping-much?Or perhaps, you purchased your striped sailor t-shirts with red berets, but found consuming French culture only through capitalistic purchases a little vapid! Or you love Paris but don’t want to be like Emily when you get to Paris!
You, my friend, are ready to take your interest in the French to the next level then. Read these 5 books in order of their increasing intensity (or difficulty level) to acquaint yourself with a deeper understanding of the French.
These resources could save you a whole lot of head-scratching and social gaffes, although what’s a really fun year abroad without some hilarious awkwardness-stories to look back on. These were my saviours when I moved to France. On a side note, doing a bit of research before, is the minimum responsibility of anyone looking at relocating someplace completely new.
These books would help unravel some of the anthropological conundrums of the French culture and people. And who knows, they might even inspire some of you out there to open your horizons and seek discovery and delight through learning and understanding. If consuming only an external idea of French aesthetic is not you cup of tea, this list is for you.
Discover Paris through David Lebovitz’s delicious delectable recipes in this quiant book that deceptively packs sharp cultural observations accompanying the subject Lebovitz speaks best about: food.
The recipes include a devastatingly scrumptious sounding recipe for “Roast Pork with Brown Sugar Bourbon Glaze” that I have read many a times but have not got around to making yet. If Lebovitz could whip up all the dishes that he did out of his tiny Parisian kitchen, I really have no excuse for not doing enough in mine. But I blame those damn croissants. Always the croissants: I always end up having too many and then there is just enough room left for cheese and wine and some charcuterie. I save the cooking for another day!
Lebovitz’s sweet guide to Paris is humorous, packed with practical (where and how to show, the best patisseries, best place for meats etc) as well as esoteric (where not to pee in Paris, what not to touch no touchez pas) knowledge for those unacquainted with the French and French lifestyle.
Each chapter takes a languid pause with recipes by the great chef himself, and the whole effect of reading this book is akin to drinking a cup of hot chocolate on a rainy day. His wide eyed and sometimes incredulous ruminations on Paris are too earnest to pass up on.
Forewarning: please don’t read the book on an empty stomach!
Decode some perplexing French manners, myths and social conundrums. Any book or expert on France that’s worthwhile would begin with the most important survival tip: what is something you just cannot do without in France? Well, bonjour of course! The legit Francophiles already know what I am talking about.
Bon jour or good morning in French is the foundation to the entire system of homo-sapien communication in France, whether it is buying goods at a grocery, or making eye contact with your neighbour from across the hall, or even more important, meeting your future banker or baker for the first time. You have to start with bonjour to announce yourself, to introduce yourself or partake in life’s simple pleasures, like being able to get a coffee from a cafe without the barista glaring at you. If it’s someone nicer, they might signal your utter insolence with a furrowed brow and a polite and quizzical “Bonjour?”.
But why? And why are the French so into their rules with food, and can say shocking things with such cavalier panache? And are they all grammar nuts, quite unapologetically adept at pointing out when someone speaks French wrong?
Julie Barlow tackles mysterious questions such as these and better yet, answers them with illuminating lessons on French history, polity and society. She leads the readers to some very satisfying “Aha” moments of comprehension. Writing from the perspectives of parents engaging with the French education system, she invites us to engage with some very interesting questions, and we end up being dexterously tricked by Balowe into learning about the making of modern French republic, while being distracted by the humours portraits of daily life she paints.
Jeanne Damas, has been exalted to the ultimate millennial Paris It-Girl status. No, there is no actual title as such, but the sheer number of Paris fashion bloggers who have been inspired by her aesthetic on Instagram, is an unofficial indication of her place in pop culture today.
The woman herself is a genius in marketing and clearly, she is a cultural icon not just because of her face or style but because she epitomises the stereotype of the Parisan women: scrappy and woke, disarmingly bohemian but cuttingly witty at the same time, mysterious but if you say something intelligent, she might actually turn around and talk to you. Maybe.
Well, needless to say, this idealised Parisian woman is inaccessible, even to Parisian women! And not only are such characterisations of women reductive, they are harmful in the way in which they give primacy to a certain kind of fragile sensuous femininity to above everything else. That is why, this book is a stroke of genius from Damas, to turn the tables and use her platform to highlight real everyday Parisian woman.
“We have never met a single stereotypical Parisienne who lives with her cat on boulevard Saint-Germain and spends the day lounging around on a sofa while browsing a collection of short stories by Simone de Beauvoir”.
Instead of chasing a caricatured ideal, the book features everyday women and their everyday fabulous lives in Paris through words, homes, listicles, and beautiful photograps. There is an unguarded intimacy in both the prose and portraits of the beautiful people. For someone like me, who left her tiny hometown and lived young and alone in a big city, this book captures the quintessential joie de vivre of not just being in Paris, but of being a woman alone in the city: fierce, alive and free.
The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, from the Revolution to the First World War by Graham Robb
This 400+ paged book is about France. Not Paris, France. France. Too often, we have seamlessly equated being a Francophile to being a Paris-ophile. But as you would find out, Paris is not France. Far from it! Actually don’t ever even mention this comparison even in passing, even as a joke: it’s one of the biggest synecdochical inaccuracies one might ever make on French soil. And it is French soil, not Parisian soil.
But you wouldn’t need this vital information from me, if you read this gem of a book from Graham Robb, which is a “social and geographical history” of the country where, “‘France’ and ‘the French’ would mean something more than Paris and a few powerful individuals.”
The Discovery of France traces the evolution of the nation through its places and what and how they used to be. He peppers his part-travelogue, part-narrative history, with funny anecdotes and portraits of people he met during his travels. Along with providing some stunning travel inspiration, it is also amazing to be acquainted with the vast regionality in France, each region having their own distinct evolution story in terms of language, culture, cuisine, and even worshipping different pagan saints. Robb even speaks on behalf of “the sixty million others”, or the sixty million domestic mammals in France(according to the 1866 census)!
He ends the book by highlighting the undiscovered France of today’s era: the impoverished French suburbs where racial and ethic minorities live in overpopulated and rundown neighbourhoods. These places have been kept away from the popular narratives of French cities, but Robb asserts why we need to know the history of how Republics come to be formed. Today, when “assimilation” and “failure to integrate into French society” are used to cover up racism and xenophobia, there is clearly an attempt to invisibilise and erase the history and truth of diversity in this great Republic.
Yes, 1997 was almost a quarter of a century ago, but hear me out: culture has no expiration date!
I would recommend this book to anyone in a heartbeat but notice that it is number 5 on the list. So this book is to be read once you are already somewhat familiar French customs and habits. Another caveat will be that some of the statistics are outright obsolete since the past 25 years have seen remarkable change in the French way of life.
What Zeldin manages to capture about France in this book is how the cultural processes of human connections and interactions happen France.
He decodes the distinctly French way society gets encultured. The conversations he recounts with people from different walks of life and different parts of France really offer a true slice of life from France.
This book is a solid read even today, and more-than-withstands the test of time. It is still my go-to resource on the history of baguettes, berets and French intellectual culture.
There are some savage quips: “France’s leading intellectuals have a role that in Britain is shared by the Church of England and Her Majesty’s Opposition”.
Some pragmatic like, “A foreigner who comes to work in France needs to have a very thick skin”.
And some downright profound, “In distinguishing French people into types or groups within their nation, the only classification that I find satisfactory is between the warm and the cold. Warm people are those with whom I feel I have established human contact and with whom I can share emotions; cold people are those who hide behind masks and whom I do not feel I have really met.”
In the end, Zeldin paints a humane picture of a diverse nation he loves, while being unforgiving in capturing a realistic snapshots of it, sans filters, with zits and all other imperfections. The picture might not always be pretty but it is rich, interesting and human.
So my intellectual Francophile, with that, this list ends. But curiosity doesn’t! Or shouldn’t. It is in asking “Why?”, that one arrives at authenticity. Just try it. Ask “Why” when you learn something new. And then go seeking answers! It is the thrill of discovery that pushes us beyond our comfort zones, our countries, outside our skins. France is just an excuse. Seek answers for the curious cat in you.
You have one too. Trust me.