French lessons

By Julie Harris

The French are the experts when it comes to all aspects of culture. Julie Harries explores Auckland's Gallic connections in a quest to gain some quintessential French style and attitude.

Owner of Patis Alex Roux and waitress Amandine Petit. Photo / Dean Purcell
Owner of Patis Alex Roux and waitress Amandine Petit. Photo / Dean Purcell

From fashion to cuisine to art, the French seem to have culture all sewn up. Just think Chanel, Yves St Laurent, Auguste Escoffier, Manet, Monet and Renoir to name a few notable French trailblazers.

The French maintain a reputation for being tops in style and elegance - and don't forget l'amour ... Then there's the attitude, the famous shrug that says "huh ... so what!"

Strolling around Auckland, it's easy to hear many French speakers enjoying the Kiwi lifestyle and bringing their culture for us to share.

This means there's plenty of opportunity to get a slice of "je ne sais quoi" to up the ante in our elegance and attitude quota.

Style

Ooh la la ... "Style ... is our culture," says Amandine Petit, a young and beautiful French woman originally from Paris, now working at Pastis Restaurant on Victoria St. "Women learn to be chic and dress well because [they] are competitive. Style in France is everywhere, not just in what you wear."

Pastis' owner, Alex Roux, agrees. "Style is part of the culture and we French are very proud of it," he says. After 10 years in New Zealand, away from his native Toulouse, he explains that the difference between the two countries is that in France culture is part of everything.

"It is so important there."

Sisters Helene and Isabelle Henry, visiting from Paris, say that "you buy clothes, not style".

What is more important is to "look at yourself and create your own style ... but with an eye for the classic".

They say they don't try too hard and nobody needs to once they get to know themselves well.

It seems the French do this so naturally, as it is instilled in them as children. All that's needed is "just a simple dose of confidence", says Alex. "New Zealanders have their distinctive culture and are considered exotic overseas."

Helene says that when you dress, "you must think you are beautiful and unique. Forget the latest fashion and go for your own look."

So it's not the fishnets, tight skirt and beret then ... ? And she goes on to say that you don't need to buy clothes and accessories from Paris to have style.

Attitude

Pick up a bit of French attitude. Down at the Grey Lynn headquarters of French and New Zealand good relations, the Alliance Francaise d'Auckland, is Paris-born Aude Shortland.

Aude maintains that the French attitude is due to a belief that one should expect the best, both of oneself and others.

"Particularly when it comes to food and service in a restaurant. You should expect the waiter or waitress to know exactly what is on the menu, what the dish is like, and more. Restaurant staff are trained in France to a high standard and as the customer, you have the right to expect that great level of service. Don't accept anything less."

Alex explains: 'It's French pride rather than arrogance. I never want to disappoint anyone, everything has to be perfect. It's because in France we are so self-sufficient and proud of what we achieved."

But it's that shrug that bothers a lot of people ... is it one of disdain? "No," says Isabelle. "It's used to say 'I don't know, I can't do anything about it'."

"Kiwis are very polite compared to the French; we are more passionate," says Helene. And it seems that the passion is a driving force behind the attitude (remember, the French knocked down a gate or two as well as chucking out their royals with a passion).

Language

It's not just the words but the whole culture. It's fighting talk when the senses are aroused. When politics gets in the frame, Aude says "everyone speaks their mind". It seems the French love nothing more than to hammer it out over dinner.

The repartee is essential as quips and put-downs are thrown about, Helene says. "Everyone speaks their minds and it keeps things lively and fresh."

The romantic-sounding accent that so easily speaks of love combined with rebellious talk seems to be a paradox. Isabelle says, "It still comes down to passion. Everything is done with a passion!"

If you want to learn French, the Alliance Francaise welcomes new learners and visitors.

If you are concerned about your level of understanding, pas de probleme! Here you can munch on croissants and verbs for weekend breakfast meetings as well as enjoy lots of other opportunities to mingle and hone your skills with native French speakers.

And it's no problem trying out on unsuspecting French waiters at Pastis. Alex points out that although people come essentially to dine at his restaurant, he likes to hear Kiwis practising French.

Etiquette

Even the word is French - they must have invented the art of social nicety. So do Kiwis offend when they visit France? Do our French compatriots shiver when a Kiwi forgets to kiss each cheek and the embarrassed kisser is left with a mouthful of hair or ear?

Helene and Isabelle reckon their French charm gets them through any faux pas, like spreading jam on their toast directly on the table, leaving the side plate literally to the side. And they agree that most Kiwis have the grace to laugh off the missed-kiss thing.

The correct etiquette of having your dog served steak tartare at the table, as seen occasionally in France, sounds disturbing, but the tale is quelled by Alex, who says, "We have good relations with our pets but not that good."

His little dog sits quietly outside the restaurant and appears very polite.

Another quirky compulsion, if you're French, is to have a Gauloise cigarette glued to your mouth.

Alex says: "Yes, there is more smoking in France, but things are changing."

Live what you learn

Practise your knowledge in the many French restaurants and cafes that have sprung up in Auckland over the past few years.

La Cigale holds a French-style market at weekends in St George's Bay Rd, Parnell. Great for a one-stop-shop for French produce, clothes and to check out stylish items for your home.

Join the Alliance Francaise for books, hiking trips, coffee, classes and social events to expand your language - and kissing skills.

Practise the attitude at Pastis and while you sip the sauvignon blanc Petit Bourgeois, squint your eyes to focus on the trees and traffic outside. You can almost feel as though you're on the Champs Elysees.

We can buy the same clothes from many cities, but what makes us unique are our differences: our languages, our cultures and the ability to enjoy and share them together.

Vive la difference!

C'est bon!

Local spots for a taste of France.

* Alliance Francaise d'Auckland - for language and friendship. 9a Kirk St, Grey Lynn, ph (09) 376 0009. Visit the website for information about classes and events.

* Pastis Restaurant - for the best crepes and bistro meals . 128 Victoria St, Auckland Central, ph (09) 309 4264. Open Monday-Saturday for lunch, dinner and drinks. Read the restaurant review here.

* La Cigale - for fashion, antiques, food and wine. 69 St George's Bay Rd, Parnell. Open Monday and Tuesday 9am to 5pm, Wednesday to Friday 9am to late (bistro starts 5.30pm), Saturday market 8am to 1.30pm, shop 8am to 3pm, Sunday market 9am to 1.30pm, shop 9am to 2pm. Read the review here.

* Boulangerie L'Epi - for bread and pastries. 64 Michaels Ave, Ellerslie, ph (09) 579 5240

* C'est Fromage - for cheese. 5 Maskell St, St Heliers, 5 McColl St, Newmarket, 585 Remuera Rd, Remuera.

* The French Cafe - for classic cuisine with a contemporary twist. 210 Symonds Street. Newton, ph (09) 377 1911. Dinner Tues-Sat. Read the restaurant review here.

* Philippe's Chocolate & French Pastries - for pieces of heaven. 293-295 Great North Rd, Grey Lynn, and 11 Mt Eden Rd, Mt Eden, ph (09) 376 1754.

- NZ Herald

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