The Last Page: Don't (Do) Touch

The difference between France and America comes down to a simple truth: you are what you (don't) squeeze

I've been asked to explain the difference between France and the United States in about a page. Easy.

There's the language, of course. We use homespun American phrases like "laissez-faire" and "c'est la vie," while they flourish fancypants words like le week-end, le hot dog, and le marketing.

But the key difference is more palpable. In America, we squeeze the Charmin. In France, they squeeze the cheese.

America, which invented jazz, saved Europe from fascism, and put a man on the moon, is the land of sensuously soft toilet paper. France, which gave the world Chartres cathedral, the Enlightenment, and Impressionist art, seeks perfection in ripened milk.

Yes, I know, the supermarket guy in the TV ad actually says: "Please don't squeeze the Charmin." But then he himself goes ahead and cops a furtive feel. Indulging in this forbidden pleasure, he looks out at us with a bashful smile and a playful shrug, as if inviting us to go ahead, too.

Oh the sweet surrender of that squeeze, fingertip and palm sinking into curvaceous plenitude. Puritan cruising the hygiene aisle, the American abandons his inhibitions. Please don't squeeze the Charmin indeed. The warning is really a come-on.

And the Frenchman fondling his fromage? Actually, he doesn't. He will ask for a Sainte-Maure de Touraine, and he will specify plus frais (moister, milder) or plus sec (drier, more sharply flavored). But, before buying, he's not allowed to touch the cheese himself. It's the fromager, the cheese guy, who performs this operation. Fixing the customer with an appraising glance, he surveys his collection of Sainte-Maures and then selects a specimen, lifting it with finesse and applying a subtle, decisive pressure.

It's clinical, like a doctor feeling for swollen glands. It's loving, like a mother caressing her baby. It's artistic, like a sculptor fingering his block of marble to divine the face of an archangel within.

That is to say, it embodies the entirety of civilization. Probing the mold-dusted surface of the Sainte-Maure, the cheeseman is reassuring himself that with every sale (what we Americans call cha-ching!) he's channeling the centuries-old traditions and hierarchies and classifications and craftsmanship of all cheeses, and their regions, and the rich histories of those regions, their princes and artists, architectural treasures and natural splendors--he's holding the whole culture in his hands. He, the fromager, assumes responsibility for the patrimoine, a word that could be translated as "heritage" but that carries the force of George Washington, the Grand Canyon, and the Super Bowl all rolled into one.

And the customer, unlike his American cousin, complies. This social ritual follows religiously observed rules. The priest proffers, the communicant receives, the miracle transpires: a cheese becomes France.

And there you have it: France, a civilization-encrusted miracle held together by rules. There's a fastidiously right way and a boorishly wrong way to do absolutely everything, from serving cheese to giving kissy-kisses. "Ça ne se fait pas," they say. "That's not done."

America, by contrast, is the land of anything-goes. Rituals? We improvise, the less formal the better. In place of le patrimoine, that accumulation of traditions and social contracts, we have a supremely individualistic principle, reborn with each American, dependent on nothing but personal desire. It's the American Dream: a license to pursue happiness, no prerequisites, no restrictions, no expiration date. Don't squeeze the Charmin? Sez who? It's a free country.

They've got civilization, a certain savoir-vivre, and incredible cheese which they're not supposed to touch. We've got freedom, an ethic of success, and excellent toilet paper that we can paw to our heart's content.

As a happy American who loves living in France for extended periods, I must say that both systems appeal to me, and both can make me cranky.

I feel, well, squeezed.

Dan Laskin, Kenyon's publications director and the Bulletin's associate editor, lived in France during the fall 2004 semester. His wife, Professor of French Mary Jane Cowles, is in France for the 2004-05 academic year directing the Sweet Briar College Junior Year in France program.

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