In France, the little pleasures make a big difference

Posted: Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Many aspects of French culture and custom delight me but none more than the concept of the "petits plaisirs." Lacking a definition of the "little pleasure," I offer my own: an everyday occurrence or act made infinitely more enjoyable by a small action, nuance or the attitude with which it is done. This may be an exchange, as in a conversation. It could be a meal and, since this is France, many petits plaisirs understandably involve food and drink. A shared understanding or a discovery could be a petit plaisir. Likewise, a small gift and the way it is presented. The list is endless. And so are the petits plaisirs our family has experienced throughout our French adventure.

While on spring break in Aix en Provence in southern France, we took a day trip north to the little town of St. Rémy. In search of (what else?) a good midday meal, we bypassed the brasseries and outdoor restaurants intended for tourists and tentatively opened the door to a small, family-owned creperie just off the main street.

What happened next was one of those magical moments that can't be planned or replicated. It was an entire series of petits plaisirs. After being pleasantly squeezed into a corner table and ordering the local cider, we spent the next two hours savoring crepes filled with goat cheese or sausage and caramelized onions followed by dessert crepes holding homemade applesauce, black current sorbet or raspberries and chocolate sauce. We drank more cider (we draw the line at Shane who, at age 11, still drinks Orangina). We ordered coffee, and we admired the dog lying underneath the table next to ours. No tourists here, a room full of locals doing what is best done by the French - lingering over a good meal.

I like to think that some action on our part pleased the proprietors, such as not being in a hurry or enjoying the several dogs (for those not familiar with France, dogs go everywhere, including restaurants and grocery stores) or our obvious delight in the culinary offerings. For whatever reason, a rapport was established such that when we finally departed, the wife kissed our children warmly on both cheeks and several tables of diners bid us farewell. Ah! ... petit plaisir.

Robin and I were invited to dinner recently. I dashed down the street to pick up some flowers to take to the hostess, selecting a bouquet of tulips.

"Un petit cadeau?" the woman asked, "Is it a gift?" When I indicated yes, she took apart the simple bouquet and began creating a more elaborate one, complete with greens and ornamental berries, wrapped in tissue and tied with a ribbon. I am embarrassed to admit that my initial thoughts concerned expense and time, as I waited, wishing I had answered "no" to her initial question. But 10 minutes later, when she presented me with a lovely gift bouquet at no additional cost and with a pleased smile on her face, I remembered the "petit plaisir" and gratefully accepted the flowers.

In specialty shops, the owner is often the sole employee. When a purchase is made, even if just a bar of nice soap or a simple toy, the owner will ask if it a gift. If so, the item is placed in a colored paper sack that is folded over, a piece of ribbon is curled and affixed with a sticker that holds the package together. Petit plaisir.

Some time ago my husband, Robin, discovered a wine shop down the street and is now well acquainted with the owner. They discuss the nuances of local wines and the exchange usually ends with Robin asking for a recommendation. In this manner, he found a Touraine rouge that is now his favorite regional table wine (about four euros a bottle). When Robin expressed this preference to the shopkeeper he responded, "It is important to discover the little pleasure," as he placed his shop label on the bottle and slipped it into a decorated paper bag.

This is a French lesson that I hope to pack up and take home with me. On rushed days or days when the news is particularly distressing, perhaps I will open that paper bag decorated with ribbon and sticker and remember the importance of the petit plaisir.

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