As a few of you know, my wife and I are living in Paris at present, and the city is never in short supply of mind-boggling art and architecture, and fascinating people. It’s been a rich experience for which we feel fortunate and grateful.
Generally, I’d say that most Parisians we’ve encountered have exhibited many characteristics of Old Money, regardless of their family backgrounds. Clothing is low key. Jewelry that would prompt a second look is rare. Manners are prevalent, and almost a necessity, in a city where many people walk, bike, or take the metro to get around, often in limited space.
Class distinctions are visible at certain times, but behavior is moderated: the French know their history well, and the memory of aristocrats losing their heads tends to leave conspicuous consumption and poor form to the expatriates from Russia, the Middle East, and China who populate some parts of the affluent first and sixteenth arrondissements.
One of the more entertaining and revealing encounters have been a couple of dinner parties we’ve attended. The food and wine have been, needless to say, extraordinary, both in their taste and originality and also in their simplicity. The hospitality has been heartwarming, and the insights into the way the French think has been an education unto itself.
One friend, an acquaintance while we lived in the states and now a friend, is a card-carrying member of the haute bourgeoisie. His family includes industrialists and serious, under-the-radar influencers in French society who have cast a long shadow in the city and in the country for a century or more.
If you met HB, as we’ll call him now, you’d pin him as a modern-day French aristocrat: classically educated, multilingual, culturally sophisticated, carelessly elegant in his attire, thoroughly self-assured, and completely charming. But he’d be quick to correct you. He’s not an aristocrat. He has friends who are, but he’s not one of them. He’s in the class just below. Such precision is typical of the French.
He shared a story about his childhood. His friends didn’t like coming to his family home in Paris to socialize. He was hurt and asked them why. They told him plainly that they didn’t feel comfortable sitting on the furniture because it was identical to pieces they’d seen in local Paris museums.
That struck me as a little arrogant when I heard it, but a confidante later pulled me aside later and offered me a more rounded perspective on HB: in the early 1980s, he had objected to some unjust policies of the French government (I remain unclear as to what exactly they were). In protest, HB hopped the security fence at Charles de Gaulle airport, sprinted to a nearby airplane, and chained himself to the landing gear, bringing operations at the airport to a standstill. Understandably, the incident–and the perpetrator–attracted nationwide media attention to the issue and apparently reforms were soon being negotiated.
More discreetly, HB had strode the halls of power in Paris around this same time, probably with that same arrogance, using his family name, position, and not inconsiderable will to cajole and coerce France’s medical community to increase its funding for HIV/AIDS research. It was his feeling, which he apparently shared quite freely and quite loudly, that France should not only lead Europe, but the entire world, in this pursuit. Not surprisingly, the money was found, the research ramped up, and several life-saving and life-preserving vaccines were formulated as a result.
These stories and more echoed from art-anchored walls to high, crown-molded ceilings as the conversation bounced from one subject–and language–to another with dizzying speed. Utterly disregarding the mores of American etiquette with élan, our cigarette-smoking and wine-quaffing dinner companions casually discussed and dismissed the eyebrow-raising sex lives of their elected officials. My wife and I managed to limit our reactions to wide eyes and the occasional “Really? I had no idea.” This was true on some many levels, as we actually had no idea about (or interest in) the sex lives of French politicians, and that we had absolutely no idea of how to respond as we learned about it. You just can’t unhear something, I kept telling myself, trying to forget…
Our French friends were only slightly amused by the palace intrigue and winks and kinks, completely comfortable with what they considered to be a part of human nature, and accepting of the respectable facades that the politicians presented to the public. “Why would I care who ****** is sleeping with?” boomed HB as he railed against the establishment. (Later, I had to remind him that he was a member of this very same establishment.)
Independently wealthy and international, this group of pencil-thin millionaires would probably never be affected one way or another by a change in government policy or personnel. Their assets, chateaus, and wine cellars would remain undisturbed for the foreseeable future. Still, as French citizens, they hoped, stoically and a little sadly, that at least one of their elected officials would address the country’s challenges with candor and courage, for the good of people less fortunate.
With that sentiment coat-tailing like the climbing, spiraled smoke from a last, lone cigarette, the conversation paused.
“We do have that in common,” I said. And then it was time to say goodnight.