By Patrick F. Cannon
Within view of Notre Dame Cathedral on the Ile de la Cite in Paris stands an ancient building, one of whose stately rooms overlooking the River Seine serves as the meeting place for the Academie Francaise, protector of the sacred French language. Members of the Academie are called the “immortals” because of their eminence in the countries public and cultural life. Established by Cardinal Richelieu in the 17th Century, no word may enter the language without their approval (they are at particular pains to root out “Americanisms”).
At a regular meeting not long ago, as they ran through the alphabet, they paused to reconsider the term “savoir faire.” While they knew it as a quality only the French have, they decided to seek specific examples. One of the newer members, a novelist whose own work even he didn’t understand, decided to give an example.
“Here we have a young married couple, Pierre and Marie. They live in a charming cottage in a small village just outside of Paris. Pierre, a junior executive at the Ministry of the Interior, goes into Paris every morning by train. He leaves his office at promptly 1700 hours to take the 1730 train to his village and walks through his front door at 1815, where Marie awaits him with an aperitif. One day, however, the Ministry had a power failure, which could not be remedied until the late evening. The Minister decided to bow to the inevitable and let the staff go home at 1230.
Pierre thus is able to catch the 1330 train and is delighted that he will be able to surprise Marie by coming home early. He arrives at the village station at 1400 and strolls home, whistling happily as he goes. When he enters his cottage, he calls out “Marie!’ but there is no response. Ah, he thinks, she has gone shopping. He decides to change into country clothes and climbs the stairs to the bedroom. When he opens the door, he is surprised to see his Marie in bed with another man. He stares open mouthed for a moment, then says “excuse me” and closes the door.
“There,” exclaims the noted novelist, “that man has savior faire!”
“No, no,” responds an older man further up the table. He is in the uniform of a Marshal of France, which he earned by once almost winning a battle. “That’s fine as far as it goes, but there must be more. Let us take the same situation. Pierre returns early, only to find his dear wife Marie missing. As you suggest, he climbs the stairs to change his clothes. He opens the door to find Marie in bed with another man. And yes, he says “excuse me,” but before closing the door he adds “please continue.”
“Now that is savoir faire!”
Everyone now looks satisfied, but at head of the table, a weak and reedy voice intrudes, emanating from the oldest member of the Academie, a 99-year-old former president of the Republic. “We have not yet arrived at the essence, which requires further refinement. To continue the narrative, young Pierre arrives home early, hoping to pleasantly surprise his darling Marie. And not finding her, yes he decides to change into his country clothes, perhaps thinking to stroll in the nearby countryside. So, he climbs the stairs and opens the bedroom door, only to find dear Marie in the arms of another man. “Excuse me,” he says, “please continue. And the man in bed with Marie does continue. Now, that man has savior faire!”
Exhausted by their labors, the Immortals adjourned for the day.
Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon