Ottawa Citizen

The French have a talent for living well


I love France — it is one of Europe’s most diverse, tasty, and exciting countries. It brims with the good life and a special appreciati­on for culture, music, art, food, and wine. But Americans can feel pretty dowdy when confronted with the casual sophistica­tion of the French, who are matchless when it comes to just about anything suave and urbane. In my early days of touring France, I used to worry about being a cultural bumpkin — but now I embrace it. After all, I travel to learn.

Take cheese, for example, which I used to think of as a yellow square wrapped in plastic. It was daunting when I first faced a French cheese course — even more so when it was offered as dessert and arrived on a chariot de fromages (cheese cart). But that cheese board — on which every gooey, stinky, and mouldy product was the happy creation of a local artisan — was my invitation into l’art de vivre — the art of living.

For the French, the art of living is not just a pleasing expression; it’s a building block for a sound life. With five weeks of paid vacation, plus every Catholic holiday ever invented, the French have become experts at living well. It’s no accident that France is home to linger-longer pastimes like café lounging, fine dining, and barge cruising.

As a guide, it’s fun to introduce people to the finer things of French life, especially when it’s something they’re afraid of for no good reason. As I travelled with a group in France this summer, we timed it just right for snail season — but not everyone was eager when I ordered up several dozen of the little guys. After a little coaching on fork technique, I got all but one traveller to try an escargot — and they all responded with a yummy thumbs-up.

While it’s easy enough to push one’s gastronomi­c envelope, handling the French language is another thing altogether. My lack of anything like fluency doesn’t matter — the French people value politeness just as much as they take pride in their language.

I get fine treatment everywhere in France just by using the simplest of French pleasantri­es.

If you begin every encounter with bonjour or s’il vous plaît, and end it with merci and au revoir, you’ll earn a smile.

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