Svelteness, style, and sex appeal: why do the French so effortlessly possess these qualities, and why can’t America get on board? Harriet Welty Rochefort knows the tricks of the French trade. A native Iowan who moved to Paris after college and married a Frenchmen, Rochefort is the author of French Fried: The Culinary Capers of an American in Paris, French Toast: An American in Paris Celebrates the Maddening Mysteries of the French, and the soon to be released Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French (St. Martin's Press, October 2012, $24.99).
She spoke with Travel + Leisure about not being an Ugly American, the best way to exercise in Paris, and why being a little “off” in considered sexy in Pah-ree.
Q: What advice do you give people traveling to Paris?
A: There’s three things. One, you should hang out in cafés as long as you can. Two, don't be loud, whether you’re on the street or in a restaurant. And three, get out of the Left Bank rut and try the 10th arrondissement (Canal St. Martin) or the 11th where all the savvy chefs have emigrated.
Q. What is most compelling about France right now?
A: What I consider the French paradox—and I don't mean how they can eat foie gras and drink red wine and not get fat or have heart attacks. The current French paradox is that although the French are in a collective depression—a real slump—polls asking the French about their private lives show they are immensely satisfied, positively filled with joie de vivre. Go figure!
Q. So why don’t Frenchwomen get fat?
A: They're watching themselves like hawks! And they never talk about weight gain. Instead, they do something about it. For a Frenchwoman, between eating a croissant and fitting into a beautiful pair of slacks, there's really no choice.
Q. Speaking of style, why do the French get it right?
A: French women (and men) don't like matchy outfits and they have the self-confidence to take a designer jacket, mix it with a Monoprix top, a favorite valuable bracelet from the maiden aunt, a pair of really sexy shoes and make it all come together. One Frenchman told me that while he finds American women healthy and beautiful with their pearly teeth and long legs,"they're too perfect, not subtle enough.” The French don't shy away from imperfection. Au contraire, for them, something "off" is what makes a person interesting.
Q. Your advice on avoiding restaurant Siberia?
A: Smile and speak a word or two of French. It works wonders. So will dressing nicely—no baseball caps, too-casual wear, or sneakers. That’s what lands you in restaurant Siberia. And no talking on the phone while at the table.
Q. What is there on your list that you still need to do?
A: I need to walk to the top of the Eiffel Tower for the exercise (but hell will freeze over before I do).
Tina Isaac is Travel + Leisure's Paris correspondent.