New York City—“Whatever you do,” warned Jérôme over a glass of Sancerre and a salade niçoise at a Manhattan-style “French” bistro around the corner from my office, “Don’t turn France into a museum.” I knew just what he meant—the black-and-white pictures, the “quaint cafés,” the “très chic” shops, and the familiar bonhomie. It was perfect advice, especially for an editor beginning to put together The France Issue.
Jérôme Neutres is the 39-year-old French cultural attaché to the United States, which means that he’s sort of a diplomat for promoting the culture of his own country abroad. Jérôme’s a cool, modern fellow with a relaxed, easy charm—not that I want to turn the real-life Jérôme into a cinematic character out of a Truffaut film—and he wants to make sure that Americans don’t turn his country into a diorama under glass. “I often find myself in the position of saying to people, ‘So, you want to see Marie Antoinette’s bedroom, do you? Yeah? Well, go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at 82nd and Fifth Avenue, because that’s where you’ll find it.’” (He’s right: Her daybed, bergère, and fire screen are just 40-so blocks away in the Wrightsman Galleries at the Met.)
Avoiding the obvious and the clichéd was very important to us when we put together this issue, which is why Jérôme was just one of the many “authorities” we brought in for advice and consent. In fact, we enlisted as contributors everyone from Steven Erlanger of The New York Times and the novelist James Collins to the designer Christian Lacroix and the food critic François Simon, Le Figaro’s enfant terrible. We highlighted classics “that still matter” but also introduced less familiar people and places. Our BlackBook section, for example, is devoted to what’s new—and not—in Paris. In REDISCOVERING FRANCE, some 22 writers, reporters, artists, and personalities dispatch all sorts of tales, from overnights in the haunted Château de Brissac (now a hotel), in the Loire Valley, to truffle hunting in Provence, which I visited for the first time last summer. It was my own personal “rediscovery,” considering I have visited the country probably a dozen times but had never been to the region. Close, for sure, but never there exactly. Fortunately, I was introduced to one Bernadette Murphy, a UK-born travel guide who now lives in the town of Lourmarin (e-mail email@example.com). I regret to say that I had only one day with Bernadette, but even over the course of an afternoon she took me well beyond the familiar lavender fields to places like the bistro Le Jardin du Quai, tucked away in a cobblestoned quarter of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, and to the tiny village of Lumières, near Goult, for brioche-scented candles and handstitched linens by shopkeeper Edith Mézard. One of the most memorable moments was visiting the French Resistance museum in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, a place I would never have found without Bernadette’s customized care and sensitivity to what the Story family would find particularly interesting.
Through the likes of Bernadette, Jérôme, and all the other living, breathing experts, we’ve tried to capture something of the intimacy, authority, and particularity of traveling in France, circa 2009.