If there’s one thing I learned while living in Paris, it is that mediocrity is unacceptable. It is for idiots and Americans—it is not for the French. I was once walking up my street when a particularly agitated French woman came charging out of a little cheese shop. She was perturbed in that very French way: shaking her head and quietly fuming, as if someone had just done her a grave disservice. When I got close enough to hear what she was griping about, she uttered the phrase: “C’était tout à fait médiocre.” It was completely mediocre.
She was talking about the cheese, or maybe about the shop itself—its merchandise, its presentation. Whatever it was, it had greatly offended her, and she uttered the word “mediocre” as if it were the most vitriolic insult she could possibly conjure up. Mediocrity—the ultimate shame.
The incident seemed indicative of a larger theme that reiterated itself in myriad ways while I was living in France, particularly when it comes to food. In the United States, bigger is often equated with better, and mediocrity is sort of the norm. When something exceeds mediocrity, we’re often pleasantly surprised. Conversely, the French have higher expectations and stricter standards, particularly when it comes to edibles. Quality and moderation trump quantity and excess. If it’s not good, vendors do not sell it, people do not buy it, one does not eat it… or wear it… or tolerate it. I have drawn a little chart to help illustrate relative tolerance levels.
Notice the difference in the size of the “Acceptable” zones on these spectra. Notice the American “Go For It!” attitude, in comparison with the French commitment to “Only If It’s Worth It.” Maybe that’s why French people are so svelte. They would rather starve with dignity than survive on canned cheese.
Of course, this is not true across the board. Crappy products are available everywhere in the world. But in general, French people are discriminating. Now that I’ve lived in Paris, I try to be too. Although sometimes I still get the urge to shove my face into a vat of peanut butter. Artisanal peanut butter, obviously.
- Amy Thomas on finding peanut butter in Paris
- When something is “médiocre”, it often becomes a “scandale”.
- Perhaps we should add mastering “C’est médiocre” to the 10 rules to being Parisienne
Written by Tory Hoen, for the HiP Paris Blog. Rachael Woodson is an American photographer who lives in Paris. Her work has been exhibited at Révélation 4 in Paris, The Visual Arts Gallery in New York, and featured in Shots Magazine and on DailyCandy’s website. Her work can be seen at www.rachaelwoodson.com. Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, Provence, or Tuscany? Check out Haven in Paris.