Stanley Karnow '45, NF '58, IOP '71, who would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and correspondent, moved to Paris in 1947 and soon began his career as a reporter for Time and Life. He stayed in the City of Light until 1959. Paris in the Fifties (Times Books, $25) is a memoir of those years. Here's a soupçon of it.
Obsessive politeness was a mark of breeding. It was de rigueur for a gentleman to kiss a lady's hand and for her to reciprocate with a calculated blush. Every French schoolboy was familiar with the gallantry of Monsieur d'Auteroche, the commander of the French Guards at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745, who announced as their English adversaries advanced: "Messieurs les Anglais, tirez les premiers." Courtesy also reached down to lower-echelon Frenchmen. Shopkeepers never failed to welcome their customers with a cheerful, singsong "Bonjour, m'sieur, 'dame." The French purloined an English term for one of their most immutable rituals--le handshake. My concierge, my mailman, and the waiter at the neighborhood café religiously clasped my hand. I once went camping with a group of French students on a Normandy beach; they shook my hand before we crawled into our tents at night and after we woke up in the morning.
But politeness to the French was not synonymous with generosity, much less kindness. They could be conspicuously avaricious and rude-- as anyone would testify who witnessed them quarreling over a legacy or jockeying for a bus seat. It was precisely to restrain their baser instincts and lend a measure of order to society that, through the centuries, they developed the precepts of good manners. "Otherwise," a French acquaintance told me, "we would sink into savagery."