Nearly 30 years ago, a political candidate who later became president of the United States, included in a campaign speech his desire for a “kinder, and gentler nation”. He was referring, in part, in his own words “to protect our environment, to safeguard our national heritage for future generations”. When I first heard that phrase I thought he was referring to cultivating a sense of civility that had existed when I was growing up but seemed to have disappeared. In moving to France we appear to have rediscovered both his vision and mine.
US citizens who wish to live in France have to apply for a visa at one of the consulates from New York to Los Angeles and several cities in between. Among many of the documents that each of us had to submit to the consulate in Miami was a handwritten letter stating that “on my honor I will not engage in any paid activity during the validity of the visa.” In other words, the French government was asking me to confirm, as a gentleman, that I would not violate one of their rules. Each year when you wish to renew your request to continue living here, this statement of respect must be included along with what we might think of as more typical items such as proof of address, proof of income, and the fee.
These handwritten, on-my-honor documents are not limited to government offices. When we bought this house, we each had to provide a handwritten statement that we were not taking out a mortgage to make the purchase. To open our bank account at the branch at the end of our street, we had to agree, in our own handwriting, that we would honor the bank’s rules. Even when we went to cancel our renter’s insurance we had to write out a similar certification that we no longer lived in the landlord’s house.
One of the major complaints that we read that American tourists make about French shopkeepers is that they are rude. In reality, we can now understand why that same statement could be turned around and said of the customers. The culture here is to first at least acknowledge the other person with a “bonjour” and only then begin conducting your business. When we ride the city buses, almost everyone greets the bus driver upon entering and then says “thank you and goodbye” upon leaving. In waiting rooms, at restaurants, and even standing in line at the grocery store we typically hear “bonjour” from someone new who has just entered the area. At our homeowners’ association meeting recently, one of the guest speakers arrived late but that did not stop him from going around to each person present to offer a handshake and a “bonjour”.
Food, of course, is an important part of life here so it was not really surprising to see a recipe for a poultry version of the traditional Pot-au-feu (kind of a beef stew) that calls for “one beautiful hen and eight pretty carrots”. Even cooking ingredients lists and preparation directions have a classy sense to them. We’ve found a kind and gentle place.