God, Man and French Chefs

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"Excrement!"

The conversation in the rather up-market "Les Bouchons de Francois Clerc" came to an immediate halt. Everyone had heard the booming voice in the kitchen. Someone was "losing it"…

I will do my best to translate, without offending your refined sensibilities, dear reader: "C’est une catastrophe! This place is a bordello filled with the excrement of fat porcine animals of low intelligence who prostitute themselves."

It was a remarkable stream of cussing, which went on for several minutes. I had heard nothing like it, even when Pierre skinned his knuckles while trying to fix the tractor.

Maria laughed. Other diners looked at each other awkwardly…or down at their food nervously. Had the man lost his mind? What had he done to the food? We could imagine tomorrow’s headline in the leftist newspaper, Liberation:

"Diners Poisoned as Chef Goes Mad!"

I could even imagine the article’s slant: sympathy for the poor chef who had probably been asked to work more than his usual 35 hours and was justifiably indignant over the working conditions, or perhaps over the condition of the carrots he was given to work with…along with a certain unstated contempt for the dead bourgeois customers — who had driven the poor man mad.

This was my first experience with a chef gone berserk. But they must go crazy all the time. French diners are very demanding. And very critical. They take food seriously.

At least a couple readers have wondered why I make my home in France. To some, living in France in the time of Chirac has no more appeal than serious dental work in the time of Colbert. But in reply to the question, I respond that life, like theatre, is lived as either tragedy or comedy. An American in France sees the comedy in things. We are like Chevy Chase in his movie European Vacation, too ignorant to worry about what the chef puts in the soup…and too romantic to care.

And there is another reason — which helps explain, or perhaps illustrate, many of the ideas you find in my writing…which I will explain. The French take many things seriously. Maria and Sophia recounted their experiences at school, Maria doing wickedly accurate impersonations of some of the characters at the Institute de la Tour…and Sophia reporting, in depth, on the strange goings-on at the Ecole Actif Bilingue.

Poor Diane! Maria reported that her friend broke down in tears as her teacher evaluated her work in front of the entire class. Apparently, each of the students is asked to stand as the teacher tells her how she is doing. The pressure is intense. Teachers in France do not worry about a child’s self-esteem. Students are criticized sharply, almost mercilessly. It is hard to feel sympathetic towards a 14-year-old boy. But Maria’s account of how teachers picked on the only two boys in her class brought me close.

I have also heard parents criticize their children in a manner that would seem harsh in America. But parents are expected to spend a lot of time pushing their children to do well in school. So much depends on getting good grades in France…the whole country seems to be run by people who did well in secondary school, took competitive exams and got into the elite "grand ecoles" such as E.N.A., the school of administration that prepares most of France’s high-ranking business and political leaders.

"The enarques [as graduates from E.N.A. are called] are untouchable," says a friend of mine, asking not to be quoted. "There are always scandals in France — and people going to jail. But the enarques never go to jail. Because the judges are enarques too."

[I am secretly hoping that maybe Henry will make it into E.N.A...and will make me untouchable too.]

Sophia’s school is completely different from Maria’s. It is a school for foreigners, and perhaps redundantly, for misfits. Sophia is there because her French is not good enough for the regular schools. Unlike the younger children, she has had to learn French the hard way — by studying it.

There are four major groups in Sophia’s school. There are the French — who are usually hard cases — the "Arabs," the "Koreans," and the "Anglo-Saxons." Thus do school children divide the races of mankind.

"Instruction is supposed to be in English," Sophia told us. "But nobody speaks English except us, the Anglo-Saxons. The rest speak various things that sound a little like they might be English…but I usually can’t understand a word."

Curiously…

"But the Koreans," as Sophia’s schoolmates refer to all the East Asians in their school, "who barely speak English, seem to be the only ones who get good grades."

This little insight by Sophia triggered a recollection in her sister:

"Dad," she asked, "How come you and Mom argue about such silly things? I mean, I heard Martine’s parents arguing about money…or maybe it was over what kind of car they were going to buy."

"But you and Mom," she continued, "last weekend…I mean who ever heard of parents arguing over…who was that…Darwin?"

Ah yes, Darwin. Well, that.

"Maria, we weren’t arguing," I protested, trying to close ranks with Elizabeth, "we were just discussing it."

And Koreans?

Yes — we had mentioned Koreans, too. I had actually. East Asians seem to work harder; and intelligence tests suggest that they are smarter than Anglo-Saxons. Or the French. In Darwinian terms, they seem to have a competitive advantage. How come the whole world is not full of Koreans? Because, I had pointed out to Elizabeth, Darwin’s theory is flawed. It was a silly point…but a silly argument needs silly points.

Who could take an argument over Darwinism seriously? Even worse, who could take Darwinism seriously? Still, it is fun to argue about it…

Uh oh…I’m going to miss my plane if I don’t leave now.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.

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