There’s a kazillion books about France out there — cookbooks, travel guides, memoirs, histories, you name it. But if you’re going to buy one book before you move to Paris, make it Polly Platt’s French or Foe. Were it not for this book, I would not have learned that it is absolutely necessary to say ”Bonjour Madame” (or “Bonjour Monsieur”) upon entering a shop, nor the importance of asking for help by starting with the key phrase, “Excusez-moi de vous déranger.” Platt calls the latter the “five magic words” and she’s right. They automatically establish the relationship in which you the client recognize the expertise of the shopkeeper. As Platt notes, “this is the charm that warms the hearts of impatient Parisians on the street, of inquistorial telephone operators, and even of those most preposterously maddening of creatures, bureaucrats in post offices and police headquarters.”
Platt decodes French culture and codes of behavior in the home, workplace, and marketplace, reaching back into history to help newcomers understand why things work the way they do. Some of her advice is a bit dated (for example, sending calling cards to follow up a dinner invitation) but even that offers insight into French customs and ways of doing things. She covers the territory from the minute (don’t bring chrysanthemums as a hostess gift as they are associated with funerals) to broader cultural themes (like the French hesitancy to admit blame or take risk).
As you transition to life in France, you will at times find it frustrating and difficult. Platt’s advice won’t solve all your problems but it will sure get you off on the right foot.
French or Foe is available from Amazon; any independent bookseller worth his salt will also order it for you. Although Platt passed away in 2008, her Web site is still active and includes a number of articles and interviews.