Parisian Codes: Observed and Unobserved

By: Katie Petersen

When I woke up groggy for my last day in Paris, I knew I was late. The sun streamed through the white curtains to warm my face; no blaring alarm greeted my ears; and my roommate was nowhere to be seen. I jumped out of bed and ran to check my phone, afraid of the missed calls and messages I was sure to see from the friend I was supposed to meet early that morning. Instead, I was relieved to see she had just woken as well. “Breakfast in our pajamas?” she asked.

When we met minutes later in the modern-chic hotel lobby, where fresh croissants and orange juice awaited us and Parisians in black strolled past the wide windows, something didn’t seem right. Maybe it was the perfectly put-together passersby outside, or the buttoned-up manager who greeted us, but we didn’t quite feel at ease in our pink and blue, baguette- and beret-dotted pajamas.

We would have done well to remember the words of our professor from the other night, who had said, “You’d never put your sneakers on and teach a class [in France]; we’re kind of conservative in this way, and Americans tend to be much more relaxed.”

The manager was smiling, but tongue-in-cheek, as he complimented our attire. We ate our croissants quickly, then returned to our rooms (where the pajamas belonged).

We learned this lesson, about the governing codes or convenances in France, throughout our week in Paris. Later that day, I (a dog-lover) was delighted to see a dog accompany its owner onto the metro. But the man next to whom the owner sat was not as thrilled. He threw a questioning look down, eyebrows furrowed, when he noticed the new four-legged transit rider, a look which grew to distaste and impatience when the dog began exploratorily sniffing the man’s shoes and pant legs. In short order, he rose from his seat and shifted to stand by the door instead. It seemed this rule was about personal space. There may also be another, official rule about pets on the metro.

But whether related to dress or interactions, all decisions in France appear to be dictated by these convenances about what is appropriate and what is not. Princeton Dean Rebecca Graves-Bayazitoglu, who lived in France after graduating college, SAID that here, “there is a much greater distinction between public spaces and private space.”

Pajamas, for instance, are private and should not be worn to a public breakfast. Puppies, even cute ones, should not be brought on the metro because they might intrude on someone’s personal space. When I saw the dog, I thought of my other professor’s admonition earlier in the week because I had brought a to-go cappuccino onto the metro. “It could spill,” she had said, relating an incident when she had spilled her own cup of coffee on the floor of the metro. The disapproving stares of several other riders had met her. “I cleaned it up,” she said, an unnecessary assurance.

In America, I consider myself a relatively private person. I don’t wear pajamas to school; I’ve only woken up late and run to class in my slippers a handful of times. But the French taught me new lessons about private life and with those lessons, gave me a greater appreciation for the experiences I had in Paris. I am grateful for every smile I received, knowing now that smiles are not for the general public in France. I understand, now, how much of an honor it was to be quietly invited to enter the kitchen of our Saturday-night bistro and taste-test the sauces being prepared for our group.

The convenances of Paris certainly took some getting used to. But because I am familiar with them, the eight days I spent in France now feel like a treasured opportunity to break them: to see the behind-the-scenes, the private life, of Paris.

No Secrets at Versailles

By: Katie Petersen

In France, Princeton Dean Rebecca Graves-Bayatizoglu says, “there is a much greater distinction between public spaces and private spaces.” This cultural norm appears to have deep roots, as even Marie Antoinette was desperate for that division, according to head curator of the Museum of the Château de Versailles and of the Petit Trianon Bertrand Rondot.

Rondot explains in the stairway of Marie Antoinette’s Trianon that the queen longed for privacy – naturally, he says, because “this was the center of family life in the time of Marie Antoinette.”

This is where she raised and educated her children, put on plays for them and others in the family theatre, and taught them about the nearby-country lifestyle. She was eager to give them a normal childhood, and the house matched her aims: architect Gabriel-Ange Jacques had constructed the residence beautifully but unassumingly, as its original inhabitants were first one, then another king’s mistress.

Antoinette even had movable mirrors installed that could open to let the sunlight in during the day and then close to keep out prying eyes at night.

“The royal family was seeking privacy from court-goers,” Rondot explains, who were just a short walk away at the main palace.

But nothing was truly private for the royal family. “Paparazzi didn’t exist at the time,” Rondot says, “but people were always watching the royal family.” For instance, when Antoinette moved in and disliked the “revealing” paintings in the hamlet, she commissioned new paintings of the courts in her home country of Vienna. According to Rondot, the Parliament heard of these plans and stepped in: ultimately, the members did not allow Marie Antoinette to remove the originals. The paintings, bared breasts and all, remain in the Trianon today.

Rondot concludes, “it was a nightmare to live in Versailles” for Marie Antoinette. “It was a public life every day.”

Living in the Present, Learning from the Past: Catherine Pégard

By: Katie Petersen

Catherine Pégard considers herself lucky because, she says, “this is my third life.”

Standing in a conference room minutes away from the gold-plated iron gates of Versailles, Pégard explains that she has lived and said goodbye to two lives already: those of a journalist and political advisor. She is now the President of Château de Versailles, responsible for everything about the more than 300-year-old palace. But she hasn’t truly said goodbye to who she’s been.

As she says, “You are not the man you are at the moment. You are the man you were before.”

She was a political reporter from 1977 to 2007 and spent much of that time as journalist-editor at the major French magazine Le Point. Later, she served as advisor to President Nicolas Sarkozy, who appointed her to the presidency of Versailles in 2011.

When she left journalism in 2007 to be Sarkozy’s advisor, she says, “I knew that it was probably forever, even though I loved that job.”

And she was careful to not blur lines with old colleagues by sharing about her new job. As Elaine Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief for the New York Times, says: “She was correct, and very strict, and once she went to work with the government she was loyal to the government.”

However, Pégard also qualifies her status: “If you are a journalist, you stay a journalist.” Although she left her press pass behind, she brought the lessons from journalism with her. One was learned through interviewing, and found to be equally important in representing the public: “You can’t just work alone in your office,” she says. “If you want to know something, you must go talk to the people.”

Another was objectivity. “Anytime he [Sarkozy] asked me anything,” Pégard says, “I told him what I believed, and that’s it.” In fact, she believes that Sarkozy picked her as an advisor because he thought “I would be free to say what I want with him.”

She also found that in politics, as in reporting, accuracy is important. “You must be as close as you can to the truth.”

When Sarkozy appointed her as President to Versailles in 2011, she was surprised “because I was not supposed to come here.” But as it turned out, her previous lives had been preparing her all along.

“What you need to be a journalist, you need at Versailles,” she says. To Pégard, that includes the previous lessons as well as being “curious and inventive.”


It also requires solid narrative ability: “You must understand what the story is and you must tell the story.” She describes Versailles as “the history book of France,” quoting Victor Hugo, but says, “the story continues.”


Naturally, she hadn’t learned everything necessary to run a palace by the time she arrived at Versailles. She spoke about the chateau’s Twitter account, which her team started recently, and said, “we are very proud of that, especially me, because I learned to do that here. And now I tweet every day.”
She says about Versailles, “You must always think of what it was, but you must also think of what it is,” because if you don’t, “then it is a dead museum.”
Perhaps the same can be said of a human being. While Pégard may have lived multiple lives already, she’s still learning like the rest of us.

A Taste for the Local

By: Katie Petersen

At 4 a.m., as boxes of fish were transported through the warehouse and the display areas along the main corridor sat largely empty, it appeared that the merchants were preparing to open the fish market. But no: “They’re wrapping up,” informed Bérengère Banquey, head of Public Affairs and Governance for Marche de Rungis, the largest wholesale market in the world. The wholesale buyers of Paris have already purchased their fish for the day, and it is now en route to cafés, restaurants, and seafood sellers all over the city.

Rungis, which sits on the outskirts of Paris now, was housed in the center of the city under the name Les Halles in the 12th century. It was called the “Belly of Paris” by Émile Zola in his novel Le Ventre de Paris, set in the 18th century. With the rise of the supermarket in the 20th century, the central market was declared unhealthy, disorganized, and too small. It was moved to its current location in the beginning of the seventies, according to Banquey. The market is now largely hidden from public view, and all visitors must have a special pass to enter the facilities. Today, people miss being able to see the sources of their food, says Joanna Beaufoy, a research assistant in Paris.

Supermarkets, therefore, aren’t the place to shop for many. “As a Parisian, you would never buy your produce from the supermarket, because it’s just plain bad and expensive compared to so many other options,” Beaufoy claims.

Rungis distributes mostly to smaller sellers, like independent produce stands. The supermarkets have their own distribution markets, Banquey says. Sometimes, they pay to use the storage facilities at Rungis, and even purchase food from the market. But not often.

For the most part, Banquey says, “you come to Rungis if you’re a restaurant, and you want to have really good food.”

The model that Rungis operates on is favorable for quality, according to Banquey. She explains, “it’s about what the consumer wants to buy instead of what the supermarket wants to sell.”

This also leads to greater traceability. The market was not subjected to the 2013 horse meat scandal, in which many products labeled as beef were found to in fact contain horse, because, as Banquey says, “the process is completely transparent.”

A butcher in the veal district confirmed Banquey. “Traceability,” he says, “is to follow the veal from the slaughterhouse to the customer.” The butcher not only knows from where his meat is sourced, but plays an active role in preparing it. He visits farms, examines livestock, and notifies farmers of what products he’s planning on selling six months in advance.

He says the model also leads to greater customer involvement. “Sometimes the customer wants a special cut, and we cut what they need.”

Some (Americans) might be put off by the transparency in food sources – the enthusiastic butchers surrounded by fresh, red meat. However, when asked among the hanging carcasses if she was shocked by anything when she began working at Rungis, Banquey answered simply: “No.”

She allowed, “But I’m French.”

Going, Coming, and In-Between: Perspectives on French Culture

By: Katie Petersen

Princeton Dean Rebecca Graves-Bayazitoglu’s journey to France was a long time coming. Her grandparents had moved from the Quebec area to Maine long before she was born to work in paper mills, and had brought their French with them. They would speak their difficult-to-understand dialect of French whenever they wanted to have a conversation their granddaughter wasn’t privy to, Graves says. Additionally, an uncle who was an important mentor for her was a French professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcestor, Massachusetts.

By the time she had the opportunity to fly to France for schooling, she was so excited that she could not be deterred by a friend’s concern over the possibility of the plane crashing. “At least I’ll die going where I want to be,” she exclaimed, and took off.

From his home city of Lille, France, Princeton Professor Florent Masse had fallen in love with America and New York City through cinema and other cultural snapshots from across the Atlantic. He still remembers his first English class when he got to the French equivalent of middle school. “I had been waiting for this,” he says, relating how learning English opened a new world to him. Because of his knowledge of the language, he was able to spend several summers in America with host families, learning English and practicing theatre. He now heads a program of his founding combining French linguistic and theatrical skills at Princeton.

Berengere Sim, a research assistant for journalist and author Elaine Sciolino, is Franco-Scottish but grew up all over the world. She attended school outside of the traditional schooling system and as a result, knows both French and English perfectly and can speak multiple other languages as well. Because of her unique education and background, however, she is the “black sheep” of her friends in France.

The three shared their perspectives on French culture, especially as compared to American, with a group of students visiting Paris.

Everyone defines themselves by their work in the U.S., and my experience in Paris was while that was really important, it wasn’t the case,” Graves said. Instead, it’s “important to cultivate a passion.”

On divisions in social circles, Masse shared that “there’s class in the U.S. as well, but it’s diluted.”

There’s a difference in social expectations of dress as well. “You’d never put your sneakers on and teach a class; we’re more conservative in that way,” Masse explained, but in the U.S., its all about comfort: you can go to class in your slippers.

Ultimately, “difference is sort of punished and looked down upon instead of celebrated,” Sim said. “I don’t really know if I’ll ever be French enough for France.”

Restoring Saint Denis

By: Katie Petersen

Amid the famous Gothic architecture and stained glass Christian scenes of the Basilica of Saint Denis, something is missing. Some things, actually. High on one window, a wooden board panel replaces a piece of the colorful story. On the opposite wall, an entire rose window is substituted by translucent white glass. Outside and high above the heads of ogling tourists, the left tower is nowhere to be seen.

Some window panels are being repaired because the glass itself is damaged (most are from the 19th century, with some dating back to the 12th, according to PhD student and Saint Denis tour guide Elliot Boulate). Some, like the rose window panels, have been temporarily replaced because their supporting structures have become unstable.

When asked if the tower and stained glass panels will be restored and reinstated soon, Boulate is not optimistic. He is clearly passionate about the history of the church, but says, “Even if we have a very dense historical monument and very old, we are not one of the top tourist place in Paris, so we don’t have a lot of money for that.”

He gestures to a statue of Charles V in the corner as an example: “We thought for years that the lions at his feet had been destroyed. In fact, they have been discovered again; it was in a private collection in the UK and it will be sold at Christie’s [one of the world’s leading auction houses] next summer.” At first, this sounds like great news. “But we don’t have any money to buy them,” Boulate laments, “so it probably will be the British museum that will be the acquirer for those lions.”

A lack of funding stems from a lack of traffic, Boulate explains, so “we are trying to attract more and more people.”

To that end, while some of the classic pieces like stained glass windows and Gothic towers are missing, the church has been creatively bringing in other attractions.

A recently introduced art exhibition, entitled “Mater: Reines de France,” or Mother: Queens of France, features local Saint Denis women draped in silky, white fabric as modern reinterpretations of the classice ‘mourning mother.’
Additionally, Boulate shares, the church organizes a classical music concert in June dubbed the “Festival of Saint Denis” and hosts guided school tours to raise revenue.


For the sake of preserving history, the curators of the Basilica of Saint Denis are looking to bring new life to a final resting place for French royalty.


By: Katie Petersen

Professor Elaine Sciolino seems to know everyone on the rue des Martyrs, and she has to say hello to them all.

La rue des Martyrs is Sciolino’s home turf and the subject of her 2016 book The Only Street in Paris. It also happens to be historically rich, authentically quaint, and increasingly gentrified at once.

As she leads the group of Princeton students, intensely jet-lagged but propped up by café au lait, Sciolino stops in to say bonjour to virtually every shop-owner.

That’s the rule, she explains. “Stop in for a chat even if you’re not buying; never, ever be rude,” she prescribes in The Only Street. Naturally, “this means I cannot be rushed. It can take thirty minutes to walk a few hundred feet.”

Or more than half an hour, if you’re not only catching up with a friend but also introducing a group of students to Paris. Sciolino takes the time to share with the owner of a produce stand that one of her protégés is writing about tomatoes in Paris. Without hesitation, the man grabs a knife and selects a small, lumpy, red and green tomato from a pile. He carves pieces for the whole group to try that are so sweet they taste like candy.

The tour makes another stop in a small Italian market, where a printout of Sciolino’s book cover hangs prominently as one of the shop’s claims to fame. “This is my favorite place on the rue de Martyrs, because it’s a little bit of Italy in Paris,” says Sciolino, who hails from Buffalo, lives in Paris, and is of Sicilian origin.

The owner is – no surprise – delighted to see her. “You see how it’s different than Princeton?” Sciolino asks, turning to the students. “You come in, they know your name, you say bonjour. This is the spirit that I want you to take back to Princeton…so that you come in here and you feel at home.”

That is the spirit that the street is fighting to retain. A law dictates that small shops like these that close down can only be replaced by other artisanal businesses.

That’s not to say that new businesses don’t pop up. Some, like the carefully curated olive oil shop Première Pression Provence, are more recent additions and feature a steeper price tag. “This is an example of the new artisanal rue de Martyrs,” the owner says. “There’s a lot of little shops specialized in one thing, and a trend of people looking for something real, something special.”
If they’re looking for things real and special, the only street in Paris is a good place to start.