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Le sweet parisien

If David Lebovitz is to be believed, Paris and chic Parisians might have more in common with my hometown in India and its citizens, than I would have imagined. Take (some of) our notoriously smelly streets, for instance. While many alleys and walls offer my countrymen (well, some of them, to be clear) the convenience of porta potties, they offer un-pretty views together with overpowering foul smell. Imagine my surprise when I read that Frenchmen, gorgeous, dapper Frenchmen, believe in the same right to expedient public relief.

When men do get the urge, they simply pull up to a little corner of la belle France and take a break. If you’ve searched your guidebook to find the historical significance of those corners of semicircular iron bars guarding historic buildings, now you know: they’re to discourage men from relieving themselves on history.

The problem’s gotten so bad that the authoritirs in Paris came up wih le mur anti-pipi, a sloping wall designed to “water the waterer”, by redirecting the stream, soaking the offender’s trousers.

Or, take line-cutting, which Lebovitz insists is “rampant” in Paris, “so much so, there’s a word for it: risquillage or ‘taking the risk'”. Based on my own experiences in India, I’m inclined to believe that my fellow Indians don’t really believe in the line, or to be more specific, they don’t really believe in the kind of line that a queue represents: people standing one behind the other. They are a lot more comfortable standing next to each other, forming a different kind of line. They also believe in their elbows, and Parisians evidently share this belief.

In The Sweet Life in Paris, acclaimed baker and cookbook writer, David Lebovitz, shares his “delicious adventures in the world’s most glorious and perplexing city”. Except, his escapades are not sweet and delicious. They are about being a stranger in a strange land, and the intricacies of having to understand and adapt to cultural differences. They are amusing, tangy and definitely delicious. The Sweet Life in Paris is a memoir of the most mouthwatering kind: one with recipes, though the stories themselves are about cheese, shower curtains, the French health care system, French housecleaners, and everything in between. It is Lebovitz’ humorous guide to dressing, dining, eating cheese, drinking streets, and navigating streets like a Parisian. Le sweet parisien.

To life in a foreign country you need to learn the rules, especially if you plan to stay [sic].

Paris, fascinating Paris, may be all that it stands for – glamor, sophistication, and melt-in-your-mouth macarons. But who said it was going to be  convenient, easy, or just like back home in America? Why, the Parisians even eat their bananas differently.

Watch a Parisian eat a banana: the skin is carefully peeled back, the fruit is set down on a plate, then eaten slice by painstaking slice, using the tines of a fork with the aid of a knife.

When searching, unsuccessfully, all over the city for a 110 cm shoe lace, administering hypodermic injections to his stomach (French doctors expect you to do it yourself, apparently), or complaining that “the coffee here is among the worst I’ve ever had”, Lebovitz always speaks of Paris with some brand of affection, perhaps in the same way that I kvetch about the abundance of aggressive stray dogs in my beloved hometown. Lebovitz’ central thesis can be summed up in the overused maxim, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, or at least try to keep an open mind and expect differences, even if you won’t eat a banana in the painful Parisian fashion.

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