If there’s one thing I learned as an American living in Paris, it is that mediocrity is unacceptable. It is for idiots and my fellow 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.
- Eating out on a budget does not have to mean sacrificing quality. Check out our list of where to eat in Paris on a budget.
- While we’re comparing the two, which place has the best sweets: New York or Paris?
- Why not experience the best of both worlds by finding out more about Voilà Vegan, a new cookbook from an American pâtissière in Paris.
- Experience French quality at its finest with the best croissants in Paris.
Written by Tory Hoen for the HIP Paris. Looking to travel? Check out Plum Guide and our Marketplace for fabulous vacation rentals in Paris, France or Italy. Looking to rent long or short term, or buy in France? Ask us! We can connect you to our trusted providers for amazing service and rates or click here. Looking to bring France home to you or to learn online or in person? Check out our marketplace shop and experiences.