Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Rama Yade Rocks

While Sarkozy was working full-time defending himself and trying to position himself as an open-minded leader who is leading Libya down the rose-strewn path to democracy, a real hero (or heroine) appeared in the person of Rama Yade, the under secretary of human rights and foreign affairs. She most certainly doesn’t fit into the usual government format. For one, she’s young, dynamic and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. While everyone was going purple with rage at the lurid spectacle of Qadaffii trying to go legit, she actually stood up and said what everyone was thinking. “Colonel Qadaffi must understand that our country is not a doormat on which a leader, terrorist or not, can come and wipe off the blood of his crimes. France must not receive this kiss of death.” Though she remained more or less mute during Sarkozy’s other human rights indiscretions (his congratulatory call to Putin, his human rights-less visit to China), Yade certain made up for lost time, and this week has found herself on the cover of Le Point. Read Eloi Laurent’s guest post on Harvard professor Arthur Goldhammer’s blog, a fascinating article about this unusual politician (by the way, Goldhammer’s blog is a great place to go when you get lost in the labyrinth that is French politics).

First Qadaffi, Now Carla

One thing you have to give President Sarkozy—he isn’t boring. After the five-day-long Qadaffi circus, complete with Bedouin tent, this week we are being treated to his very public affair with ex-model pop singer Carla Bruni. Yesterday they were photographed together (with their obvious consent) hand in hand at Euro Disney. What a romantic setting! Is this a ploy to get everyone’s attention off the fiasco that was Qadaffi’s official visit? The visit that saw the Minister of Foreign Affairs gleefully run off to Brussels to avoid having to have dinner with “The Guide”? Or maybe it was to get us to forget the unforgettable interview on France 2, where in a mish-mash of incoherent rambling, Qadaffi explained that he had no actual power and that all decisions in his country were made by the Libyan people? My favorite part was when The Guide announced he wanted to meet with French intellectuals. At the reluctant gathering, Qadaffi informed his listeners that Christ wasn’t actually crucified, it was a look-alike who was nailed to the Cross.

Monday, December 17, 2007

My Beautiful Préfecture

I may seem like a law-abiding person, but it’s all a facade. For two years I have been toting around a carte de séjour (the French version of a Green Card) that—gasp—sports an incorrect address. Yes, despite the fact that the small print on the card informs the holder that you have only eight days to report your new address to the Préfecture when you move, I defiantly neglected to do so for two years. I have my reasons, the primary one being, as anyone who has ever had anything to do with the immigration service here can tell you, it is a royal pain in the clavicle to have anything to do with the immigration service. A secondary reason was that it didn’t seem like such a big deal. That was, until I tried to get an international drivers license. A usually simple procedure, my attempt was foiled the moment the kind and caring fonctionnaire (civil servant) at the Préfecture, for whom I had waited for two hours to see, noticed my administrative crime.

It took me a few months to gather the courage to stand in line again, but I finally decided the time had come. After a two hour wait, I was informed that if I wanted to change my address on my card, I needed to make an appointment. I was then handed a sheet with the long list of documents I would need to bring and a rendezvous for a date two months later.

Today was the day. I rustled up all my documents and put them in a folder. Yesterday, I dashed into one of those photo booths at the supermarket and got four identity photos that made me look like an escaped convict. The regulations for identity photos were recently revised and now it is actually forbidden to smile in your photo. Thus, it is next to impossible to look anything other than uncomfortable and unpleasant in your photo, i.e., like a criminal. After my husband attached a sticky to my photos with WANTED $500,000 REWARD on it, I decided to redo them in the booth at the Préfecture before my appointment. I went upstairs, and before too long, I was at the window— always a tense moment. Would I succeed in fulfilling the desires of the angry goddess on the other side of the glass? Had I forgotten some essential element of my dossier, even though I went over the list 900 times? She slowly looked over my paperwork. I failed to please her. I didn’t Xerox the back of my old carte de séjour, just the front. But there was worse to come. She sighed. The photo. You couldn't see my ears in the photo. It seems that ears are essential to one's national identity. I would have to get the photos redone. I stormed downstairs, steam pouring out of the offending orifices. Again, I wrangled with the photo booth. In my furry, I pushed the wrong button and paid four euros for a set of photos that made me look like I was half asleep. Certain she’d never be happy with eyes that weren’t sufficiently open, so I paid four more euros and managed to come up with a photo with fully exposed eyes and ears.

When I ran back upstairs, my kind and caring fonctionnaire was drawing the shades to her window. I tapped hard and she informed me that she was leaving for lunch. I protested that I had just some photos and copies to give her. She gave me a long, all-suffering look. “A person has to have their lunch, after all!” My exposed eyes must have scared her, because she relented and finished up my paperwork. I suppose I should feel triumphant, but all I can think about is that I forgot to give her my self-addressed stamped envelope. What new crime have I just committed?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

To Latke, or not to Latke?

This week was Hannuka and though I’m not a particularly religious Jew, I do like a good latke. Brown and crispy around the edges, smothered with applesauce and dabbed with sour cream. I’m not a big stickler for tradition, my needs are few: A couple crispy latkes around the dinning room table, some candles in the menora, a few turns of the dredel and I’ve done my Hannuka thing. I know it’s not a major holiday, I know its hopelessly lackluster next to the blinding glare of Christmas, but I’ve always liked the holiday and I am doing what I can to pass along some Jewish heritage to my son, which isn’t always easy when you are married to a Catholic (albeit non-practicing) and living in a Catholic (also mostly non-practicing) country.

I’ve discovered that Jewish heritage is a relative concept. For one thing, the majority of Jews in France are Sephardic, which is interpreted here as meaning from the North African countries of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, where there have been substantial Jewish populations for many centuries. When the French finally left North Africa, most North African Jews left too, and many came to France. At first I was fascinated. Here was a entire community of Jews who actually knew how to cook! Who knew Jews ate couscous?! And here’s another amazing thought: here are thousands of Jews who never experienced the Holocaust and up until recently lived in relative harmony with their Arab neighbors. Ergo, Jews without a victim complex. What a concept!

But when Hannuka comes around, well…like I was saying, I get this yen for latkes. What can you say to a Jew who doesn’t even know what a latke is? Suddenly, I am no longer charmed by Sephardic melodies, I want to hear a Yiddish fiddle. I want to hear wry, sardonic jokes. I want to hear somebody, somewhere, say “oy gevalt” and mean it. I want to go to the Lower East Side and eat something heavy and leaden that my stomach will remember for days. But I’m in Paris. There is no Lower East Side. In fact, as near as I can make out, there is not a latke in sight—I’m not even sure the Ashkenaz make them here. So what’s a girl to do? Hit the Internet recipe sights, of course. There’s a great recipe for Maxine’s Latke’s on epicurious.com.

I am happy with my latkes. They are light and minimally greasy. I proudly serve them to my family. My husband is utterly unimpressed. My son was under the impression I was going to make the sweet doughnuts that the Sepharads make. He refuses to eat them. I get miffed. He won’t even taste one! The scene degenerates and at the end I find myself drying my son’s tears and telling him “it’s OK honey, you’re still a good Jew even if you don’t like latkes.” I feel like a Bad Mother. We all talk about something else. We move on. But I did stubbornly serve them to my in-laws the next night, who were polite but far from enthusiastic. It seems latkes just can’t quite hurdle ethnic boundaries. Oh well. I guess for cultural communion I’ll just have to wait for my next trip to New York.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Bumming Around Bercy

When I first moved to Paris, like most Americans, I was only interested in Old Stuff. That means anything that was centuries old, be it architecture, art work, books, gardens, people, whatever. I mean, that’s the main reason we come here, right? To bask in history, to soak up an antique atmosphere, to revel in walking around a city that did not spring up overnight and where something that was built in the 1930s is considered modern. Americans get tired of New. We are drenched in it. New gets old after a while. And so, we travel the world in search of Old. Authentic Old. We get prickles up our spines the moment we encounter an object that is older than the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s why we all rush to see the Old Stuff in the Louvre, on the Boulevard Saint Germain, or at the Place des Vosges. Old is just so, like...wow…old!

So at first, I just couldn’t be bothered with Bercy. Just a glance at the four corners of the Bibliothèque Nationale François Mitterand, whose towers loom over the neighborhood, gave me the shivers. How could anyone dare to stain this beautiful city with such ugly modern architecture? In fact, just looking east from the Pont d’Austerlitz would make me shake my head in despair. Too much New. Too many hard angles and mirrored glass. Too many weird ideas that should have never left the drafting table. Like the Ministry of Finance, a long, horizontal affair that juts out over the Seine like a misplaced cruise ship. Even the park hiding behind it, the Parc de Bercy, was far too modern for my tastes. Too much geometry, not enough heart. I didn’t want straight lines. I wanted curlicues. I wanted the Belle Epoque, dammit, I wanted Old!

That was before I realized that the Belle Epoque wasn’t that old after all. In fact, most of what we see today was built in the 19th century, after Baron Haussman ruthlessly tore down acres and acres of medieval Paris in the name of modernity. In the name of New. In fact, many of those beautiful Belle Epoque buildings are younger than those old brick ones in downtown Manhattan. Not that that makes them any less beautiful. But it does make you think. So the other day, yesterday to be exact, I gave myself a chance to reconsider the Parc de Bercy. It was a rainy day and I had a couple of hours to kill while my son and his friends and their mother were watching Ali Babba on Ice (I kid you not) at the Palais Omnisports, which is right at the entrance to the park. I wandered around and noticed that even in the rain, in the winter, it was lovely. And that the rigorous geometry of its design is actually an homage to the classic French gardens of yesteryear. And that even modern design, when left to talented French hands, is elegant and delicate and esthetic. And that the Parc de Bercy, despite being new, is exquisitely French, just as French as the gardens of the Tuileries. And that maybe it’s time to think of France as a modern country, and not merely a subject for coffee table books.

Friday, November 30, 2007

It's a Riot!

I feel like I really should write a post about the riots, since my American friends keep asking me about it. Sigh. Why is this the only kind of news about France that makes it into the US press?

Well, The word on the riots is that they are over . . . they only lasted a couple of days, but were a lot nastier than those in 2005. And like in 2005, they were in a distant suburb so they didn't have any impact on anyone who doesn't live there. One of the many sad things about it is that the people who got their cars burned and schools and shops destroyed are the struggling neighbors of the rioters. I didn't follow it all too closely, but it seems there is a huge amount of hate towards the police out there, a situation that has not been rectified since 2005. For some stupid reason, there are no beat cops who get to know the people in the hood and are familiar faces. Instead, the police cruise around in cars and stop people at random and demand their papers. I gotta say, even the police in Paris are not particularly approachable. You'd never ask them for directions. They travel in packs—there are always at least four or five of them—and they don’t give you the impression that they could give a good goddam where the Louvre is. I'll give them one thing though—their uniforms fit a lot better than those of US cops. Anyway, President Sarkozy seems to think the rioters were just a bunch of thugs, which could be partially true, but doesn't seem like a particularly constructive observation. But then, this is the guy who made the papers in 2005 by calling people scum. In the States, a politician who made a nasty comment about members of a minority group would be forced to apologize or resign—here, he gets elected president. So much for French multi-culturalism.

OK, now that I've totally depressed everyone, I'm going to move on to my next post on a completely frivolous subject.

Face Time

I just did something I have no business doing: I got a facial. I haven’t had a facial since sometime in the last century, so it’s not like I indulge frequently in this sort of thing. Still, it feels so naughty. Facials are so unjustifiably expensive. How can anyone justify paying that kind of money to get goo slathered on their face? Then again, it was a special deal wherein you buy 50 euros worth of products and get a free facial. Of course, if you buy beauty products in a salon, 50 euros isn’t going to get you far. As it turns out, I ended up paying 74 euros for a little bottle that is supposed to change my life.

Financial issues aside, if you are going to have a facial, France is the place to have it. This is a place where the female form is a semi-sacred topic, and every tiny village seems to be endowed with an institute de beauté. Also, they do it really well. Every beautician seems to know everything there is to know about every pore of your skin. The act itself is particularly seductive: low lights, massage, soothing unguents, and reassuring words lull you into an absurd dream state where 74 euros seems like a normal price for a pot of face cream. “Why haven’t I done this sooner?” you wonder, “I can actually feel my skin rejuvenating!” The beautician speaks with such assurance, and you feel so soupy, that it’s hard to even think of bringing up minor issues such as whether a “lifting” cream actually does anything, or that you read in a consumer magazine that it doesn’t.

Perhaps what you are really paying for is the experience itself. Having someone fuss over you for an hour. You wonder what life must be like for people who can actually afford to do this on a regular basis. And for a few glorious minutes, you are one of those people. Suddenly, you are no longer Wanda the Working Stiff, but Rachelle the Ravishing Socialite. That is, until you get home and notice that the pink eye shadow that the beautician told you would bring out brown in your eyes actually makes you look like the Easter Bunny. That’s when you realize that you could have bought a set of dishes for the same money, and enjoyed it for a lot longer.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Hallelujah, the strike is over

And there was much rejoicing.

And the SNCF and the RATP communed with the CGT and the other unions and they were One. And a ray of light pierced the gloom at the Gare Saint Lazare, illuminating the platform, and Behold, the trains began to move. A band of angels descended from the grimy skylight strumming harps, as a heavenly chorus began to sing. Radiant railway employees joined in, as did the crowd of no-longer-desperate commuters. Soon the music of the spheres was complemented by screeching railway breaks, announcements on the loudspeaker, and blowing whistles. Passengers were heard to say “excusez-moi” and “pardon” as they mounted their trains. Smiles were seen and laughter was heard. The entire station began to glow, and everyone in it was bathed in an other-worldly light. Soon the Gare du Nord, Montparnasse, and other stations were glowing too, while clarion blasts began to emanate from Métro stations. A rosy hallow crowned the Eiffel Tower, and manna poured down from the heavens.

And it was good.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Strike Two

I suppose with today being Thanksgiving and all, I could say that I am thankful that the SNCF (the French national railways) and the government have finally started seriously negotiating an end to the strike. This means that the trains are/should be running more often, in particular the ones that will get me to the Gare du Nord tomorrow so that I can go visit friends in Germany. The métro, however, is still striking up to their ears, and the commuters have had it up to their eyeballs. Everyone is complaining, way above and beyond the normal French penchant for griping.

I think what it all comes down to is this. No one minds a strike. Strikes are part of what makes France, France. Strikes are an expression of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité. Strikes are Gallic performance art. What people mind is when strikes make people who have nothing to do with the issues at hand suffer. I tend to agree. I mean, what ever happened to worker solidarity? Why should Joe or Josette Shmoe have to lose money/time/customers because the railway workers want to retire before everyone else? Joe and Josette are workers too. If transit employees really wanted to show which side they were on, they would simply let everyone on the trains and buses for free. This would have the dual benefit of totally pissing off the government and making everyone a big fan of transit strikes. But no. When this scenario is suggested by callers on TV panel discussions, the labor experts just scrunch up their faces and talk about something else.

Because the fact is, the strikers are victims of the same sort of administrative rigor-mortis as the government. This is the way they have been doing transit strikes ever since the government first started trying to reform retirement policy in the public sector, which from what I understand was several decades ago. One of the more disturbing aspects of French strikes is that every time a strike is called, you have the feeling you are watching reruns. The same sectors scream about the same issues, and in the end, nothing seems to get resolved. What’s more, nobody seems to understand what exactly is going on. If you ask your average French person what the underlying issues are, usually no one can get much farther than what they have read in the headlines, and most will simply shake their head in despair and say “I have no idea, I just want it to be over.” Because for some reason, despite the barrels of ink being spilled on the subject, and the endless analysis in the media, no one seems to be able to clearly, objectively explain what the two sides are arguing about.

Clearly I’m getting just as cranky as everyone else about all this. I nearly blew a gasket when my husband’s nephew tried to tell me that the students were striking because the proposed university reforms call for “American style” universities run by private enterprises. I told him that unless I’ve been brainwashed by Martians, I am certain that American universities are not run by private enterprises and that if anyone suggested such a thing there would be even more students in the street over there. After an hour or so of Internet research I managed to find an explanation of the proposed university law…as near as I can figure, what’s got everyone riled up is the concept of fundraising, which is virtually unknown over here. Oh I don’t know. I just want it to be over.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Striking Out

Strike season is in full swing in France, and now that the transportation strike is almost a week old, it’s getting, well...old. Before I go further, however, I think I should make a few things clear. First of all, let’s define what a strike actually is in France. Unlike American strikes, which are rare, no-holds-barred, nitty-gritty affairs where no one in the affected sector works or gets paid; French strikes are frequent and almost always some form of work slow-down where services continue to operate, but at a reduced level—not enough to bring things to a grinding halt, but just enough to really mess up your day. Whereas in the US strikes mean impenetrable picket lines, fevered slogan chanting, teeth-gnashing, and a rash of rentals of the film “Norma Rae,” in France strikes mean political posturing, media hoopla, massive inconvenience, and endless rounds of TV panel discussions.

In France, you’ll hear the Average Joe or Josephine complaining almost as loudly as the striking workers, since it’s usually the general public that takes the brunt of the inconveniences. For the striking workers, on the other hand, you get the impression it is their hour of glory. Not only do they finally get to be front and center in the political debate, but they also get to make idealistic statements that are actually heard and bring up issues that are actually discussed. And when the parties finally come to the table, the first issue to be hammered out is how much the workers will be paid for the days they were on strike. This is not to say that strikes are a fun-fest for affected workers, or that they don’t have very legitimate beefs (and very few options for making their voices heard other than striking). This is just to point out that there is a difference in intensity and aura between French strikes and their American counterparts.

One essential ingredient of a French strike is the manif. This is short for manifestation, or demonstration/protest march. Contrary to what you may hear in the US news, manifs are usually quite peaceful, if noisy, and include loud music, chanting, and even the occasional dance step. At this point you may be asking yourself what is the difference between a manif and a rock concert, and at times I would be hard-pressed to tell you. Depending on the intensity of the demands and the length of the strike, manifs can have almost a festive air. When I lived in Avignon, one sunny day hundreds of joyous school teachers and other civil servants blocked the streets for hours, and when the whole thing was over they all repaired to the nearest café to partake in an apéro (early evening drink).

But to get back to the current transport strike. Well, at first it didn’t bother me too much. Strikes are announced in advance, so with a little careful searching of train schedules, I got around. And a lot of people took the first day or two off, so the trains were almost less crowded than normal. It was kind of a challenge to find a route in and around the city, but one that you could easily rise to. And then, there are all those Velib' bike stands (see my Oct. 2 post "Velib' Liberates Paris") where you can borrow a bike to get to where you need to go. Some of the Métro lines are almost functioning normally, so it wasn’t really too bad. But then, the other night, I found myself on the Number 4 line at 10pm on a Saturday. Trains on this line were running once every 40 minutes or so and a crowd of rowdy young people (am I really so old that I’m calling them “young people?”) had gathered on the platform. When the train finally came, those of us who could wedged ourselves into the overstuffed car. For the youngsters, all in various states of inebriation, it was clearly an adventure. For older bags like me (notice I said “older,” not “old”) it was a royal pain, and for people who have to commute to work I’m sure it’s a major drag.

I fail to see where making millions of working people suffer on their way to and from their jobs is going to win the strikers any fans, but I guess popular support is not what the strike is all about. When it started it was about when train workers get to retire, then it spread into the universities, where students are unhappy about reforms, and now the teachers are walking off their jobs to protest...well, I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ll have to entertain my 5-year-old at home tomorrow and there still are no trains to the Gare St-Lazare.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Blowing Leaves

Please excuse the lack of in-depth commentary in this post but I’ve got to get something off my chest. It’s leaf-blowers. Today I would like to examine leaf-blowers as a metaphor for all that is wrong with modern life, in particular, suburban modern life. I live in the suburbs of Paris. Oh I know, that sounds glamorous, but believe me, it isn’t. In the 1970s and 80s, ugly concrete apartment buildings started sprouting up all over what were once sleepy towns and villages like mushrooms after a spring rain. I should know, I live in one of them. To be fair, these apartment buildings are for the most part quite comfortable and a heck of a lot more affordable than those cute little stone houses, which now go for millions of euros. Many of said apartment buildings have a little landscaping around them, and ours has a lovely view of the local race track.

But here’s the thing. It’s autumn, and the leaves are falling. For some reason, it has been decided by our proud local developers that not a single leaf shall soil the pathways, lawns, and flower-beds of the résidence. Hence the leaf-blowers. Maybe I’m crazy, but aren’t fallen leaves part of the autumn experience? In fact, isn’t there a famous French song entitled Fallen Leaves? Isn’t walking through piles of leaves, or jumping into them, one of those cherished childhood memories shared by many of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere? Do we really care if there are a few leaves strewn across our path?

Apparently, the powers that be do. They have decreed that everyone in the neighborhood must suffer the noisy blasts of leaf-blowers at all hours of the day. Autumn is no longer the season of colors and fallen leaves, it is the season of endlessly whining leaf-blowers. I am a writer. I work at home. In addition to leaf-blowers, my neighbors get to listen to me whine about the noise. And I can’t even imagine the ordeal that the guy who operates the bloody machine goes through. Here in France, where lawsuits are not the national sport (but strikes are, stay tuned for the big one Wednesday), I see lots of leaf-blower guys working without earplugs. So let’s recap. In order to preserve the pristine environment of our sleek suburban digs, the developers have hired battalions of leaf-blower guys, whose machinery is noisy, polluting, and dangerous to worker’s health. Now instead of enjoying the quiet spectacle of falling leaves, we are regaled with unpleasant noise and smells. All so that our living area is spotless, so we can show the world how perfect and superior we are. Not only that, the cost of this unnecessary enterprise is added on to our rent. Are we to stand here, helpless, as more and more suburban communities around the world are afflicted by this plague? No! I call on you all, fellow residents of suburbia, to rise up against this oppression! Down with leaf-blowers! Long live the rake!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Ce n'est pas trés catholique...

I like Catholics. Really, I do. I’m even married to one. But living in a Catholic country can be a strange and mystifying thing sometimes. Take, for example, the cathos (pronounced “kato”). In the bourgeois suburbs just to the southwest of Paris, an area I am far too familiar with (OK, I admit it, I live here), you will occasional run into a family that simply does not fit into any of your preconceptions of France or being French. For one thing, the members of this family are virulently un-chic. They are, if fact, dressed like something out of a 1950s issue of Life Magazine. The mothers, who are generally sans make-up, tend to favor cardigans, practical shoes, below the knee skirts, and prim pearl necklaces. They are often preternaturally blond and fair, with freckles. Their children, and there are many of them, also have a distinctive look. The girls are usually miniature versions of their mothers, wearing dark sweaters, white Peter Pan collars and Mary Jane shoes. The boys—I kid you not—are often wearing knee pants. Even in the middle of winter, their little calves are stubbornly exposed to the elements. The fathers are less striking, just conservative versions of middle class men with purposefully bad haircuts. As anachronistic as they may seem, they do not seem to feel the slightest discomfort in a world of skin-tight jeans and exposed navels. In fact, they carry themselves with a lofty, somewhat smug air, and have warm, condescending smiles at the ready.

At first, I just stared. “Who are these people?” I wondered, “and where in the world do they find knee-pants in this day and age?” My friends patiently explained to me that these were cathos, i.e., devout Catholics. “But I don’t get it,” I protested, “my mother-in-law is practicing and she doesn’t dress that way…and why are so many of them blond?!” “Well, you see,” they went on, “many of them are breton, from Brittany, a rather damp, cold place where there are lots of, conservative, well, cathos.” “But it’s like a cult,” I sputtered, “they all dress alike! Is there some sort of special store where the sell clothes and equipment, like for girl scouts?” This induced chuckles, but no further information.

I still don’t entirely get it. Not only that, there is a housing complex right near where I live that its full of them, so some of the kids (that is, those that don’t go to private Catholic school) go to my son’s school. In fact, this complex is owned by the French military and is housing for army personnel. It consists of couple of apartment buildings ringed by a bunch of houses for large families. That is, for the cathos. Because, it seems, the military is infested with them. One of my son’s friends lives in this complex, so I’ve had the weird experience of walking into a gated community where dozens of children are running around, most of whom look like escapees from an episode of Leave it to Beaver.

Why are there so many cathos in the French military? Well, why are there so many born-again Christians in the US military? It’s the same mentality I suppose. Still, it seems so strange. Who would have thought the French could be so straight-laced? I thought it was genetically impossible, but no. Perhaps the dark underbelly of French culture is actually….prudish?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Tomatoes—the Sequel

Now I've done it. I went back to the open-air market this Sunday, and as usual, I went to the butcher. It was freezing cold and my family was waiting for me to get home and make lunch (yes, I have bowed to cultural pressure and actually fix a Sunday lunch), but I really needed to buy some meat to stock up the freezer. The butcher greeted me with a knowing smile, and waited for an opening. We chatted about this and that as he ground meat and sliced steaks, and then I mentioned that he must have a lot of work since theirs is pretty much the only butcher stand in the market. "There used to be six of us," he started, and before I could say "steack haché" he had launched into a long and involved discourse on the dwindling supply of butcher shops and how the kids these days aren't interested in working that hard, and the changing times, and lots of other stuff that frankly I couldn't understand because he took a quiet confidential tone and it was very noisy in the market. It was interesting, but I'm not sure that I want to get into a detailed discussion about the economics of the meat market and taxation of small businesses every time I want to buy some hamburger. I can't complain too loud, though, after all, I started it last week (see post below).

I have to admit I have a weakness for talking to the merchants at the open-air market. Now that my French is finally decent enough to be able to be able to catch most of what's going on, I like to get in on the running commentary that usually swirls around the stands, a combination of jokes, cooking advice, gossip, and simple math as your bill is totaled up. It's not all selfless camaraderie—the sellers know that the stronger the connection they make with the client, the more likely he or she is to become a regular, which is important when there are 6 other stands all selling the same green beans. Still, I really admire the people who work in the market. They have a killer of a job—they wake up before dawn, lug dozens of cases of produce or other foodstuffs into a truck, drive dozens (sometimes hundreds) of kilometers to get to work, then unload the truck, set up their stand, and then spend 5 or 6 hours selling their product at breakneck speed to hundreds of customers who are all impatient and need to get home. Some of the people I've spoken to never have a weekend (they work several different markets) and rarely take vacations. And yet, many of them truly seem to enjoy their work. If you ask them, they'll say, with a mixture of pride and resignation, that it's not an easy life, but it suits them. They throw themselves into their demanding lives with a verve that makes me almost jealous. They shout, they laugh, they curse, but most of all they seem incredibly alive. When I think of my own tepid forays into the job market, I feel pretty wimpy in comparison...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Le Divorce

Finally, a scandal that shocks even French people. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his wife Cécila, are going to get divorced. Hard to imagine the fallout if such a catastrophe should fall on an American president during the first six months of his or her mandate. As it is, it’s kind of hard to imagine what’s going to happen here. It’s not as if it wasn’t pretty obvious from the beginning that the royal (sic) couple were on the rocks. In fact, they were splitsville before the presidential campaign, and many found their miraculous reconciliation during the campaign season a bit convenient. Personally, I wondered how much he paid her. After all, she didn’t even vote for him (she stayed away from the ballot box on election day), and she looked utterly peeved during his inauguration. She stayed peeved, too. After a few well-planned photo opportunities, and a spectacular moment where she went to Libya to negotiate the release of the Bulgarian nurses, she pretty much disappeared from public view. She bowed out of an invite to the Bushes, saying she had a sore throat, and she didn’t even meet with the grateful Bulgarian nurses—perhaps to avoid running into her husband.

According to my sources (a well-dressed grandmother in the park this morning) Mr. Sarkozy is not exactly the wounded party, seeing has how he jumps anything in a skirt (hey, I don’t know, maybe she’s got the inside scoop). Though the tendency of politicians to make whoopee where they shouldn’t is anything but new, it’s still kind of amazing to think that for once, a political wife is not going to suffer in silence. On the other hand, this is the president’s wife. I mean, couldn’t she have waited until he finished his term? Or at least his first year? Interestingly, whereas Cécilia has looked cold and hard in just about every photo taken of her in the last year, suddenly this week she looks soft and gorgeous on the cover of Paris Match. What could this signify? An attempt to win public sympathy? Or a sincere personal renewal? In any case, her media-obsessed husband has not hesitated to use even this personal tragedy for his own purposes: in choosing to announce the divorce today, he has managed to turn attention away from today’s general strike which paralyzed traffic and many public services.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Decline and Fall of the Tomato, and other food tragedies

I’ve got to stop getting involved in political discussions with vendors at my local open-air market. Sooner or later, I’m going to get bopped on the head by an impatient customer behind me in line, waiting anxiously for their épaule d’agneau. It doesn’t take much. All I have to do is say, for example, how much I like a certain rather raggedy-looking cut of steak (araignée) that the butcher offers. “It’s not particularly beautiful, but it sure tastes good,” I say. That gets him started. “Exactly,” he says, "you won’t see this one in the supermarkets. You see, madame, customers are being trained by the supermarkets to buy according to what looks good. They offer nice, neat packages of pretty meat. But what about the taste?” Then we’re off and running. I nod my head vigorously and he goes on about how fruits and vegetables are getting more and more perfect-looking, and losing more and more flavor (“when something looks that perfect,” he confides, “you know something is wrong”) and I chime in about how in my country you go into a supermarket and see mountains of gorgeous, but tasteless fruit. Soon we are both bemoaning the rise of the perfectly round, utterly beautiful tomato that has a skin so tough you have to poke it with an ice pick and flesh so firm you could use it as a baseball. Before you know it, the butcher is providing me with arcane information on European Union regulations that the big industrial food groups are using to force the little guys’ hands. I look behind me sheepishly and apologize to the man behind me, who far from being annoyed, looks amused and says “I love it!”

I think they like talking to me about this stuff because a) it’s a subject dear to them, and b) they are tickled to find out that there are Americans who like food (from what I’ve gathered, most French people think we all greedily gulp down MacDonald’s and Tastee Freez seven nights a week). What they don’t realize is how distressing it is for food-loving Americans to come to France and find that even here, in the El Dorado of gourmet cuisine, modern living is threatening the ability to eat well. Supermarkets are everywhere, fast food is invading, but mostly, no one seems to have the time or energy to cook anymore. It’s enough to curdle one’s béchamel. It’s not all doom and gloom, mind you—there are still lots of open-air markets, local farmers, and eager shoppers, but it is a little scary to see that people here are starting to eat like…well, Americans.

I could go on and on about this subject, but fortunately, a lot of other people have already done so, like the folks at Slow Food, and the radio host Jean-Pierre Coffe, so I won’t—at least not here. But that probably won’t keep me from talking tomatoes with the vegetable vendor at the open-air market, I’m afraid….

Monday, October 8, 2007

Rugby: What is it, and is it contagious?

Those of you back in the Old Country are probably unaware of the Rugbymania that has consumed France for the past several weeks. After losing out on the Olympics, and crashing and burning during the last soccer world cup, France is putting its all behind the Rugby World Cup, which it is currently hosting. People who before would never deign to mingle with the rugby crowd, like President Nicolas Sarkozy, are suddenly showing up at games and cheering at all the right moments. Rugby players, most of whom could easily be cast as The Hulk, are showing up on billboards selling clingy athletic wear. My favorite is Sébastien Chabal, a bearded, long-haired player who is a dead ringer for an early Cro-Magnon (see photo). Paris

But wait a minute, what is this game? It looks, to the uninitiated, like American football without helmets or other protection. In short, a bloody, gruesome brawl. In fact, it is an ancestor of the beloved American pastime, and though there is some quibbling about rugby's exact birth date, it seems to have emerged in the mid-19th century. Not ever having been able to master the rules of football, I cannot explain the exact differences (if you really need to know, look here). But I can tell you that usually within the first fifteen minutes of watching a match on TV, I get up and leave because I just can't stomach watching dozens of super-sized athletes fling themselves on top of each other, and wondering if the guy on the bottom of the pile is going to live to tell the tale. Paris

That was until last Saturday. That was the day when there were two major upsets in the quarter finals: the first being the English beating the Australians, and the second—even more dramatic—the French beating the New Zealand. The New Zealand team, the All Blacks, is a team that is known for it's impressive pre-game Maori war dance, which usually a prelude to death and destruction on the field. The dance/chant, known as the "haka," is wild enough performed by ordinary mortals; when 15 gargantuan rugby players do it you wonder how the other team, which is standing about a yard away, manages not to pee in their pants. (See the YouTube video for the full effect.) This was one time when the French talent for resigned indifference really served its country. While the Bleus didn't exactly look overjoyed, they did manage to keep their dignity. What followed was pretty amazing, even for a sports-challenged viewer like myself. Everyone had been sure that the French were going to get creamed, and yet...the score got closer and closer until it was neck and neck (not that there are any necks to be seen amongst the players), and then, at the last minute, they pulled ahead and won! Shrieks of joy were to be heard all over the apartment building, not the least of which in our living room, where my husband, whose family is from the rugby-worshiping southwest France, was going ballistic. Paris

So now I have to admit that I am eagerly awaiting the game this Saturday, when the French and the English will duke it out. I will watch in wonder as the two teams push and shove each other around the field, and as the ball miraculously emerges from the bottom of a heaving mass of bodies, and how it then is deftly passed around at lightning speed by players who may look like mastodons, but have the agility of panthers when, well, push comes to shove. Have I compromised my values? Or is this simply another example of my going native? Only time will tell....Paris

Friday, October 5, 2007

Thinking of having brain surgery during your stay?

I have yet to see Michael Moore's film, Sicko, but from what I understand I could qualify to be one of the people he interviewed. Back in June, I had a golf-ball sized tumor (a meningioma) removed from my brain here in Paris, and though my insurance didn't pay for my laundry, it did pay for a cleaning lady to come and clean my apartment during the first three weeks post-op. OK, to be honest, it was my supplemental health insurance. Still, I must say, I felt very well taken care of by the French version of Social Security. Not only did I get to pick my surgeon and my hospital (considered the best in France for neurosurgery), but I got to be operated in a facility that was established by Louis XIV. In the left-hand corner is what La Pitié-Salpetrière looked like in Louis' day. Today it resembles a small city. The neurosurgery building is brand new (those 17th-century buildings are lovely, but would your really want to have brain surgery in one of them?), I had a private room, and the nurses were great. I was particularly grateful to them for their willingness to dispense nerve-calming drugs the night before the big op. My surgeon was a wonder, and I feel a special bond with him now. After all, how many people can you say literally delved into your mind? The rest remains a euphoric blur, a mix of relief and heavy anesthesia (there are those who claim I am still feeling the effects). All this, and all I paid for was the TV and the telephone. No insurance forms, nothing. Just in case someone tries to tell you that you can't good care under socialized medicine...Paris Paris

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Velib' liberates Paris

It took me a while to be willing to try Velib', the new rent-a-bike program now available all over the streets of Paris. I loved the idea: anyone can pick up a bike at any metro station or anywhere else there is a "borne" or stand, of bikes, ride around for a half an hour, and then leave it at whatever Velib' stand they want. And that first half hour is free. Not only that, the bikes themselves are extremely cool, a sort of futuristic Uber Bike that makes you feel like there is nothing more high-tech and advanced than a bicycle. But for me there was a problem: traffic. I have nothing against Parisians in general, but once they get into a car, these otherwise reasonable people become a hoard of aggressive louts with little concern for the lives of their fellow man, woman, or child. Merely driving in this city sends me into a state of extreme anxiety, now you are expecting me to ride a bike?

The program went into effect while everyone was on summer vacation. Then, when we came back—quelle suprise. Everywhere hip urbanites were scrambling to mount the silvery Velib' saddle. Suddenly, bike riding, an activity once relegated to idealistic fools and old men in berets, was utterly cool. Men in business suits, women in stiletto boots, and teenagers in strategically weathered jeans were all proudly sailing through traffic, hair flowing in the wind. Because, of course, no one is wearing a helmet. That would mess one's hairdo. So to recap: now thousands of people are willingly taking their lives into their hands every day, riding through crazy traffic on bikes, helmet-less. And what's more, they look like they are having fun. So much fun, that I really, really wanted to try.

After giving myself a million reasons why it was better to walk from Gare du Austerlitz to Luxembourg (this is a walker's city! I'll be there in a matter of minutes!), I spied a stand on a quiet street filled with glistening bikes. My feet hurt. There was no one around. No one to breathe over my shoulder as I tried to figure out how to use the machine that unlocks your bike. I slipped in my credit card. I followed the instructions. The green light started blinking. It was too late to turn back. I detached the incredibly heavy two-wheeler from its post, and sallied forth. And low and behold, it was wonderful. At first I carefully stuck to the small streets, but after a few minutes I was charging along a bus lane on Blvd St-Michel. Maybe it's the weight of the bike, or the glamor of it all, or just the sheer joy of riding around the streets of Paris without being a slave to public transportation, but I forgot about my fear and before I knew it I was on the Ile de la Cité and figuring out where to have lunch in the Marais.

I know what you are saying. Ah ha! This is going to be useful. What a great way to get around Paris when you are a tourist. But alas, there is a problem. To use the system, you have to have a credit card with a chip in it. French cards have it, American cards usually don't. Now it seems to me that some American cards, debit cards, for example, have chips. But I don't know if they work. So if anyone out there finds out, feel free to let me know. Not that I'm trying to be helpful or anything...

Monday, October 1, 2007

Starbucks attempts to invade Paris

In keeping with the spirit of this blog, there is nothing new about the subject of this post. Starbucks first set it's sticky, mochachino-stained fingers on Paris a couple of years ago, much to my horror and the seeming indifference of the average Parisian. I, a stalwart advocate for the preservation and advancement of the classic smoke-filled Parisian café, felt pain and agony for the local corner cafe owners, already an endangered species in many of the more upscale parts of the city. To my great relief, Starbucks has not seemed to have made a huge impact on this city, where the very idea of take-out coffee is strange and somewhat disturbing. It is mostly young people who are smitten with the place--the fact that it is American and modern makes it cool and hip, much like MacDonalds (yes, believe it or not, MacDonalds is cool here).

Still, there is something about the Starbucks presence that intrigues me. How does the average Parisian deal with the dizzying array of choices presented at the take out counter? This is a country where coffee basically comes in black, decaf or "au lait," and where a cappuccino is still pretty exotic. Starbucks has managed to convince Americans that it is perfectly normal to order a "skinny regular vente" when asking for a cup of coffee. Their marketing depends on it. But what happens here? Will they ever get French people to believe that a sugary milkshake is java? I forced myself to enter the giant Starbucks in front of the Gare St-Lazare to find out. Sure enough, there was a big sign behind the counter explaining very carefully how you too can become a demanding American Consumer. A chart with arrows shows how to choose your milk, your coffee, your syrup (!), your size, etc. Maybe it will work, but it just seems so very un-French. An abundance of choices usually throws the French mind into a state of paralysis, and who in their right mind would ever think of putting soy milk in their bodies, let alone their coffee! Only time will tell...