Modern, practical savoir vivre

What subjects should be avoided over a seated dinner? What’s the best way to ask for a raise? Published in Greek by Fereniki Editions, Christos Zambounis’s «Savoir Vivre» takes the traditional stance of propriety, cleanliness and elegance, while offering up-to-date solutions for sensible, proper, everyday behavior. «I think that savoir vivre is fashionable these days. When I first published the book, I thought that it was destined for a very limited readership, who were interested in these things,» says Zambounis. «The book’s large response means that there is a social phenomenon following decades of leveling and self-centered behavior. I believe that there is a trend for some kind of order. When I started, I felt that I was on my own. This is not the case anymore.» How did this need for civic order come about? While the author points to the rise of neo-conservatism and political correctness, the book’s content is free of theoretical allusions. «My aim was to write a contemporary guide, involving situations which we are faced with nowadays; savoir vivre went through a huge transformation in the last 30 years, due to the feminist revolution,» says the author, citing the fact that these days, women go out unescorted and pay their own bills at restaurants. Besides the battle of the sexes, technology has also added its own behavioral twist: the Internet and its communication tool of e-mailing, for instance, have created a new «techie» language, as well as rules of cyber-conduct. And then there’s the question of the Greek character. «Behavior in this country is generally characterized by slackness,» says the author. «In US or British codes, for instance, the rules are very strict. In Greece, where guests are never on time, the international practice of a half-hour aperitif session – in order for all the guests to arrive – is given an extension. Or, in many cases, people don’t bother to RSVP.» Codes of civil behavior, both private and public, goes back to antiquity, when in case of a divorce, men had to return the complete dowry they had received at marriage, with an added 18 percent. These days, estranged spouses are advised to take whatever they brought in the first place. Born in Thessaloniki in 1960 and raised in Veria, Zambounis studied economics in Athens and pursued postgraduate studies in Paris and Washington. In between career decisions that involved academia and the globetrotting adventure of diplomacy, he ended up in journalism, writing for magazines such as Point de Vue, Figaro Magazine and Paris Match, while also acting as correspondent for various Greek publications. After spending 15 years in Paris, Zambounis was invited to co-host a show on Greek television; for the last two-and-a-half years, he has been editor of celebrity magazine Life & Style. «When I returned to Greece, I was faced with a cultural shock. The change from Paris to Athens was significant,» he says. «Yet I didn’t see this change as a negative one, but rather I reacted by saying, ‘Let’s have a look and see what is considered good manners in our country.’» There was also a publishing vacuum, with the last edition on savoir vivre going back to 1953, penned by Eleni Halkousi. Rather than simply translating a foreign edition of contemporary good manners, Zambounis opted for writing his own, embarking on a four-year writing and research effort. In the end, he came up with 3,000 entries of correct behavior – and is already preparing an enriched, fifth edition. In the book’s pages, some tips seem to have a sense of universality: During lovemaking, for instance, no matter how passionate the relationship might be, there should be no marks left on anyone’s skin; ladies usually leave their watches behind when attending a reception, because time stops when the feast begins; no one should ever insist on how poor they are. Yet in Greece, some world rules can be relaxed: at the taverna, for instance, diners are allowed to hand-pick fries and use their cutlery to eat from someone else’s plate; at bouzoukia, members of the audience should avoid throwing flowers when the singer or the dancers are performing on stage, it could cause an accident; also, when visiting Mount Athos, men should be properly attired, which means no shorts or short-sleeved shirts. The author further offers a few practical suggestions for entertaining others: When organizing a cocktail party for 50 guests, hosts should have the following: 500 cold canapes, 250 hot snacks (such as mini-spinach pies and cheese pies) 250 petits fours sucres (mini-fruit tarts or chocolate eclairs, for instance), five bottles of whisky, 24 bottles of champagne, eight bottles of sparkling water, six 2-liter bottles of mineral water, 10 liters of fruit juice and 100 ice cubes. Breaking the code When the time comes for the rules to be broken, says Zambounis, the only way to do it is with great style. «In general, men should not wear fur,» says Zambounis. «Yet there is a certain element involving personal style – the late gallery owner Alexandros Iolas and fashion designer Dimis Kritsas, for instance, always had a way of wearing fur.» Personal elegance is one thing, but Greece is a country which vehemently opposes any kind of oppression. «This book was written with a sense of humor,» says Zambounis. «It should not be considered as a ‘bible’ of rules, which, if unrespected, one might find himself being thrown off the cliff.» Does savoir vivre ultimately makes us feel better? «Savoir vivre is like the rules of the road. If you don’t stop when the other driver has priority there will be a collision,» says Zambounis. «If you don’t take savoir vivre rules into account, there will be friction and misunderstandings. Ultimately, it’s about common sense.»