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.