Late-Breaking Bulletin: Frenchmen Don't Wear Berets

Frenchmen sell berets. But Frenchmen don't buy them. Tourists do. In order to indicate they've been in France. One possible theory is that Frenchmen sell berets in order to spot foreigners more easily.
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Just a few words about the French and French-American relations.

The most crucial thing for an American to know about the French is this: Frenchmen do not wear berets. This is so important that it bears repeating: Frenchmen do not wear berets.

Perhaps in some far-flung corners of the country, a few older Frenchmen do wear berets, but for the most part Frenchmen do not wear berets. You can walk across Paris from the Porte de Clignancourt to the Porte d'Orleans, from ,the Bois de Boulogne to the Bois de Vincennes, and you won't see a single Frenchman sporting a beret. You might see a Frenchwoman in a designer's fancy interpretation of a beret, but even that is unlikely.

Most Frenchmen, even in the coldest weather, go around bare-headed or give in to tight-fitting knitted caps of the sort Americans and Englishmen also wear. They wear scarves, and consider themselves warmly dressed, but, no, no berets.

Frenchmen sell berets -- or at the very least people living in France sell berets. For instance, there's a van at the western end of the Tuileries that -- along with refreshments and other souvenirs -- carries them in assorted colors, including hot pink.

But Frenchmen don't buy them. Tourists do. In order to indicate they've been in France. Tourists don't wear them while in Paris or other parts, though. They realize that wearing a beret immediately identifies them as foreigners. Indeed, a possible theory is that Frenchmen sell berets in order to spot foreigners more easily.

Frenchmen and Frenchwomen do have other ways of spotting tourists -- American tourists, certainly. The French, you see, know that when you enter a shop or restaurant or any space where the public is served, a fellow French person will, depending on the time of day, instantly say Bonjour, madame or Bonjour, monsieur or Bon aprés-midi, monsieur or Bon aprés-midi, madame or Bon soir, madame or Bon soir, monsieur. The greetings are considered basic manners. On leaving, the French say, Au revoir and/or merci. Basic manners, again.

Americans, who over the years have maintained the French are unfriendly, think so because they've failed to grasp this essential amenity. Observe it, and the French become friendly faster than you can tip a beret. Though no one tips a beret, because no one wears one.

Another thing Frenchmen and Frenchwomen don't wear is couture. Just because France is still a leading origin of clothing design doesn't mean the average citizen is decked out in Yves Saint Laurent or Karl Lagerfeld. Actually, the average Frenchman or Frenchwoman doesn't have much style sense. Anyone hopping a bus or riding the Metro to hunt for high fashion will search in vain for anything that looks as if it just rose from the pages of Vogue or Vogue Hommes International.

Last week, a woman on the arm of a distinguished looking man crossed Boulevard Saint-Germain in a smart and very expensive-looking black jacket with puffy dark fur sleeves. She wore narrow black trousers and had her black hair pulled back into a chignon. She might have just come out of Sonia Rykiel's nearby shop, maybe not. She did appear to be someone who not only follows fashion but knows how to adapt it to herself -- rather than the more prevalent other way around.

She was trés chic, but unique in a town where Madeleine Vionnet, perhaps the greatest women's clothing designer of the twentieth century, established the highest wardrobe standards--standards that deserve to be honored but aren't often enough.

Which brings up something else Americans might keep in mind about the French: the concept of the joli laid, or the jolie laide. The rough translation is that there's a kind of beauty in ugliness. A man described as joli laid is thought to be handsome despite not having conventionally good looks; the same idea for a woman described as jolie laide. To get the full strength of the meaning requires only giving a thought to Nicolas Sarkozy and the appeal he has for Carla Bruni.

So what's the point here? The point is that stereotypical thinking -- the sort of misguided attitude that leads people to suggest French fries be renamed "Freedom fries" -- is inevitably destructive in both the short and long run. And what's more stereotypical than assuming the French wear berets or regularly dress as if sauntering down fashion-house runways or recognize one definition of beauty? Long as anyone adheres to such beliefs -- as a way to get an easy grasp on an alien culture -- relations are doomed. Done in by nothing more than a simple beret.