Five magic words help ease the way

Times Staff Writer

Anyone who feels uncomfortable in France (Francophobes excluded) ought to read Polly Platt. Her books, "French or Foe?" and "Savoir Flair! 211 Tips for Enjoying France and the French," start with the premise that this is an excellent country but it takes some getting used to.

Platt first made me aware I was doing everything wrong when I visited Paris. I would walk down the Champs Elysees smiling and greeting people, as if I were in St. Louis. In shops, I said I wanted this or that, and I was ignored. When Parisians refused to help me with a problem, I went away meekly.

Pretty soon, I figured the cliches about the mean, arrogant French were true. I kept returning, of course -- how could one avoid this most beautiful and cultured of cities? -- but I didn't always feel good about it.

Platt, who was born outside Philadelphia, will acknowledge that the cliches are partly true. She felt some of the same pangs I did when she moved here in 1967 with her Serbian husband, Ande. Soon she met others -- mostly the wives of American and British businessmen transferred to Paris -- who, though living a dream in the City of Light, wished they could just go home.

Determined not to take apparent slights personally, Platt sought the reasons for the behavior of the French, then started a consulting firm to teach ex-pats about them. The French are fundamentally different in history, upbringing and motivation. Still, Platt says, savvy travelers who wouldn't go to Japan without practicing how to bow come here assuming that France is just like America, except for the great restaurants. It isn't.

The French smile at people they know, not at strangers. Shopkeepers expect a little small talk, and all you need to start getting along in France are five magic words: "Excusez-moi de vous deranger" ("Excuse me for bothering you").

"Bombs may fall or the house may catch fire," Platt writes in "French or Foe?," "but the French people will not shorten this formality by so much as a syllable."

When I moved to Paris several months ago, I knew I needed to talk to Platt. I found her looking perfectly French, in jeans, a jacket and artfully tied scarf, even though she was packing to move from her apartment in the chic 7th arrondissement to her country house in the Lot-et-Garonne. We went to a cafe, where I could question her at length.

Question: How did you end up living in Paris?

Answer: I moved to Vienna with my Austrian husband, my first adventure in marriage. He was a charmer. Everyone was outraged when he ran away, leaving me with three daughters, from 4 years to 3 months old. I was ready to move back to the U.S. I had my tickets and everything. But then I met Ande at a party. He was a widower with two children then living with his Romanian in-laws in Paris. That made five cultures in one family [American, Austrian, Serbian, Romanian and French].

Q: Where in Paris have you lived?

A: We started out in Ande's old apartment in the 16th, near the Bois de Boulogne. But then I discovered the secret of the 7th. I hadn't realized that behind the closed doors are gardens and courtyards.

Paris is a disease. Every year you live here it gets worse. It's partly the beauty, partly the spirit of the French, which you simply can't penetrate if you don't speak their language.

Q: How did you begin to penetrate?

A: It was Ande, really. He came up with the five magic words.

I'd been using his [last] name [which is] "Grchich." When I had to give it to a French person, they would say, "There are no vowels. It's impossible." I was about to go back to using Platt, but then Ande explained I was doing it all wrong.

He told me not to tell them the name right away, because the French have to be psychologically prepared to accept things. I was to say, "I have a very difficult name," to intrigue them. When pressed, I should keep refusing. Then, when I finally told them, they'd get excited.

Ande knows how to do this, how to go into the butcher and say, "I'm sure you sold my wife something really tough today." The French love to be provoked. They love the unexpected. They love to practice their wit.

Q: Do you think France and the French have changed in the last 10 years or so?

A: They are smiling more. In certain stores, the service has improved. The dog poop problem is better. There are more bicycles in Paris. But I still stand by the things I said about them in the books.

Q: What are you writing now?

A: I'm working on a book about international marriages. I get e-mails from American women about this dream they have of coming to France and marrying a Frenchman. I'm going to tell them what these relationships are like, what really happens. The list of things that makes them difficult is a long one. American women are not used to thinking in nuances, talking in circles and having their way, the French way, through what I can only call manipulation.

Getting along with mother-in-law is a problem, and maybe the whole cult of gastronomy should top the list: two-hour lunches running to four on weekends, all the ceremony and urgency of eating the perfect whatever-it-is.

I'm lucky the second time around, but I think marrying a foreigner should be against the law. You don't have the same set of references.

Susan Spano's "Postcards From Paris" are posted at www. latimes.com/susanspano. She welcomes comments at postcards@latimes.com but regrets that she cannot respond to them individually.

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