In France, no detail is too small to overlook or minimize. It seems that everyone is an artiste and connaisseur with an opinion, and they do not hesitate to share it.
It was 2003. The 90 years-old apartment we had just purchased needed everything! Painting would come first. We asked our building’s gardienne (formerly known as a concierge) and she gave us a recommendation. We had not moved in yet. The walls would first need to be sanded down, meaning weeks of plaster dust, followed by painting. We sent the painter a photograph of our living room in the United States that was finished in an ochre shade using a technique called sponging. He knew exactly what we meant, and he duplicated it perfectly. Then came the wood trim. He asked that we let him know what color we wanted.
On my next visit to Europe, I brought a sample chip of white paint from home and gave it to him. He refused to use it because that shade of white, according to him, was “incompatible.” I’m a guy. I thought white was white! He said to come back the next day (I was staying at a hotel). When I returned the next afternoon, he had taken a palette and painted ten shades of white on the wood trim He described their nuances in order: eggshell, cream, snow, lemon, pearl, salt and so on. It was too much responsibility for me. He was not just a house painter. Despite not wearing a beret and a white smock, he was an artiste! All the dabs looked the same to me, so I told him to pick his favorite and use it. He seemed happy and obliged.
After remodeling our apartment, we turned to decorating. I bought some prints at an auction and took them to the frame shop down the street. Their reputation is excellent. The shop was a husband and wife operation. Madame was on duty that day. I selected the matting and a simple black frame that would make the prints stand out under the lighting in the hallway. She refused to frame them in black, saying it was trop sombre. As we were arguing, a woman who lives in our building came in the shop and sided with Madame. After I explained the color of our walls and the lighting, she relented. I now make sure that Monsieur is on duty before taking art to be framed. He never argues with me.
Our next visit to Paris was in the winter. It was freezing and I had forgotten to bring a scarf from the states. We were walking in the St-Germain-des-Près neighborhood and I stopped at a clothing store. Before I could ask about colors, I saw the 400-Euro-price tag and decided to shop in a less-trendy neighborhood closer to home. The prices there were reasonable. I asked the salesclerk if the scarf came in Burgundy, a popular color at the time — at least in America. The clerk replied, in French of course, “Not in Burgundy, but we have it in Bordeaux.” I checked to see if he was smiling at his joke but he was absolutely serious. I bought the scarf.
Burgundy and Bordeaux are two of my favorite red wines. Later at a wine bar I ordered a glass of each and compared them. There may be a slight difference in color … but I still can’t figure out how it would show on a scarf. To the French, the distinction was important.
When we finally moved in, we invited friends over for drinks. We like the French concoction known as Kir, a combination of a dry white wine, usually Burgundy and Crème du Cassis, a sweet, dark liquor made from black currants. It’s legend can be traced to the city of Dijon, where the mayor, Felix Kir, who was also a priest, named it the official drink of the city during the war after the German occupiers confiscated all the red Burgundy. An enhancement is Kir Royale, made with Champagne instead of wine. It is our choice to serve guests. We already had the Crème de Cassis. I went to Nicolas on Rue Cler for the bubbly. I told the proprietor I was making Kir Royale and he pointed out a 20 Euro bottle. The display next to it had a much better brand marked down from 30 to 18 Euros and I picked out two bottles. “Non!” he shouted, “that is too good for Kir!” I looked for a hint that he was kidding: He was serious. Realizing that our neighborhood wine expert would not be a good enemy to have, and not wanting to be classified as an uncouth American, I thanked him for the advice and bought the higher priced but lower quality Champagne.
I no longer mention Kir when I’m buying Champagne!
Then there was the sommelier who said to us after we made our selection, “I cannot let you drink that wine with that cuisine!” and recommended another (but not a more expensive) bottle. He was not being condescending —he wanted us to have a great dining experience. The food and wine were a perfect pair. They would probably say the same thing to a local, who would thank them for their advice. Never argue wine with the French. Wine is a religion they have studied since childhood.
When we tell our French friends about these encounters, they shrug as if to say “So, what’s your point?” They see nothing unusual about these exchanges. After all, they too are artistes!
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris.