Olivier Magny, a native Parisian, writes with an insider’s knowledge yet the unique ability to pull back and see the irony and humor of his own culture from an outsider’s perspective. His book, originally released in French and based on Magny’s blog, is a series of short observation pieces with titles like, “Crossing the Street in a Bold Way,” and “Thinking That Not Wearing White Socks Makes You a Better Person.” Magny’s spot-on observations had my husband and I laughing until tears were spilling from our eyes. I read aloud while my husband would nod and smile, then say, “oh, if this guy knows his stuff, next he’ll be talking about X.” Sure enough, the next paragraph would talk about X.
Magny helps decipher the opinionated, sometimes exasperating, but never boring Parisian psyche in a way that made him an instant best seller in France and convinced my husband that he’s a cultural genius.
Here are a few gems:
From Winning Conversations: “A conversation in Paris is both a scene and a battle. Parisians win conversations. That’s what they do.” (pg. 115)
I admit I sometimes enjoy the discussions/debates I have with my French friends. Even when they agree, they’re likely to take the opposing viewpoint, just for fun. But there’s only so much I can take before I want to crack open the booze and play beer pong or maybe watch a Will Ferrell movie (neither of which my French friends seem to appreciate).
From Crossing the Street in a Bold Way: “The only Parisians crossing at pedestrian crossings are old folks. The rest of the crowd standing there is made up of banlieusards, provinciaux, and tourists… (Parisians) have no fear and they demonstrate it. By engaging the road with brutal authority. Tourists mistake authority for insanity. Foolish!… Refinement in this dance is to cross the street while keeping your walking pace absolutely unchanged from one side of the road to the other. As in an urban bullfight, the closer you cross to the running car and the faster the car is going, the more thrilling, the more beautiful the move. Parisians caress cars.” (pg. 48)
Spot-on! I’ve seen this dance many times. I’ve even started to learn the steps.
From Not Exercising: “The only Parisians who occasionally exercise (usually though not to the point of breaking a sweat) are the ones who have at some point lived in America. There, they discovered a different reality where people can be both intelligent and in shape. So they run. Usually for twenty minutes a week. Maximum.” (pg. 129)
Yep. My Parisian friends repeatedly question me about why I work out daily, and assert that their 20 minutes a week of peddling a stationary bike is plenty. When I tell them about the importance of daily exercise and strength training and cardiovascular health (I’m a physical therapist), they shake their heads and argue that it’s just too much (See Winning Conversations). And that they walk, and that’s plenty. (Also an observation from Magny.)
From Complaining: “In Paris, enthusiasm is considered a mild form of retardation. If you are happy, you must be stupid. On the other hand, if you complain, you must be smart.” (pg. 135)
So that’s what’s going on!
Seriously, if you love the French but are perplexed about what makes them tick, or if you hate the French and want a great laugh, and definitely if you are somewhere between these sentiments, you will love this book.