Question Dr. J: As a diplomat, you have lived in several different countries. What aspects of your daily routine remained French, regardless of the country you were living in, and what habits or rituals did you pick up from your stays abroad?
Answer Valérie Lübken: I would like to start by emphasizing just how much this topic has preoccupied me throughout my career: as a diplomat, how do you find the right dose of, on the one hand, representing your country abroad, and on the other hand, integrating into the life of the country you are working in? It’s a question of balance between finding comfort – physical, human and intellectual – that comes from „being part of the local culture“, and maintaining a necessary distance from the representation and the defense of the image of the country for which we work every day?
I would say that my answer to this question has been chiseled by my experiences, and the parallel evolution of my professional and family life. Things happened naturally with the birth of my daughters in the United States to whom I instinctively wanted to pass on my French culture during our stays in Los Angeles and Washington DC.
Three major aspects of my life have always remained “French,” regardless of the country where I have lived:
1. The rhythm of the days, the “temporality”
Even after many years in the United States and Germany, I continue to get up later, I take a longer time to eat, and I take a break for sports around noon. I work best in the late afternoon, and I love going out late and living in the night. For example, I was rather frustrated during an exchange with the German Embassy in Vienna where I had taken over the position of press adviser for a few weeks. The press meetings started at 8 a.m. on Fridays, and we always finished by 2 p.m. at the latest. Afterwards, I wandered the streets of Vienna aimlessly, and felt a vague sense of guilt…
2. The second aspect is a lot more typical and expected, but I have to mention it: the food
I paid a fortune in Arizona to eat a little cheese, or traveled miles to LA to find foie gras (which is banned in California, by the way).
I have to mention the French ritual of long dinners with friends that extend into the evening without a set time where guests have to leave. During these meals, we recreate the world, as they say, and we discuss politics, a behavior considered impolite in the United States, for example.
3. Finally, French literature. It is an anchor for me when I miss France. It is my buoy, my compass.
Let’s say that I read foreign literature when I’m in France and a lot of French books when I’m away from France!
The habits that I have adopted now come to me unconsciously, but here they are:
- I love the American warmth in human contacts and especially when meeting new people. This is so important, and we still don’t always manage this in France.
- And then… I adore German bread and the habit of having a solid breakfast in the morning!
Question Dr. J : When I cross the border into France, I walk differently, talk differently, I react differently to jokes, comments, criticism, etc. How are you different when you are in France? And do you feel different when you do get to be in the Hexagone?
Answer Valérie Lübken: Yes, I am different in France, especially when I approach people. Things are less formal. I am less careful. I often use humor to solve problems, and it works most of the time. Even with serious topics, I use a touch of irony that I know how to mold and navigate when the cultural environment is more familiar to me.
But I must also admit that, as soon as I arrive in France, I instinctively adapt a more „grouchy,“ critical tone, an attitude that “everything is going badly,” when in fact, this is only a façade: life is beautiful, but you are not allowed to say this!
Question Dr. J: If asked to name a few people who, for you, represent France, which persons would you mention? What politicians, artists, writers, scientists, etc. are typically French, or could best represent France today?
Answer Valérie Lübken: There would be dozens of them, but let me start with the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, as well as the European deputy, Nathalie Loiseau, for their beautiful European convictions, Annie Ernaux and her sarcastic declarations, but also Simone Weil, Pierre Soulages, who continue in their own way and beyond their disappearance, to represent France and its history, Thomas Pesquet, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Alain Ducasse and many others.
I am very proud of all the foreign artists or artists of foreign origin who have succeeded in France and made it their homeland. They are perhaps the most typically French.
Question Dr. J : The French are known for their “savoir vivre” and that “je ne sais quoi” that makes them special. What advice would you give to all those who, like me, stand in awe of the “French way” and strive to be just a little more like the French?
Answer Valérie Lübken: The French Way for me is the attention to detail, small nuances that, without necessarily being flashy or expensive, attract attention, make you cheerful and beautiful, or enhance an interior or an outfit.
This lies in the charm of finding those hidden little gems, accessories from a flea market (a scarf, a belt), or in incorporating contrasts, for example, between the top and the bottom of an outfit – a chic dress with more sporty boots – or wearing bright lipstick with barely any eye makeup.
Very small things that mark and express a personality.
Written by Valérie Luebken; Translation by H. Runte