Friday, November 28, 2008

Bandes Dessinées—Comics and Then Some

Who would have though that the French would be obsessed with comic books? Certainly not me, until I moved here and noticed that in any town of any noticeable size, there was at least one bookstore entirely dedicated to bandes dessinées, or BDs as they are called for short. Aside from noticing the crowds in the BD section at just about any Fnac bookstore, I never really followed up on this observation until just recently, when I wrote an article on the subject for a magazine. After having spent a few weeks boning up on Corto Maltese, Monsieur Jean, and Isaac the Pirate, I can now report that I have been converted to the cause. Because this peculiar literary form, when put in the right hands, can produce true works of art—or at the very least, excellent entertainment. We’re not talking superheros here. Nor are we really talking graphic novels, which are getting a lot of attention in the US, but seem a lot grimmer than their French BD cousins. American graphic novels also tend to be longer than BDs, which are large hardbound “albums” of about 50 pages. Then there’s the subject matter, which covers, well, just about everything. While there is a large volume of adventure series—ranging from the legendary Tintin, which is aimed at kids, to Largo Winch, which most definitely isn’t—there is also humor, history, science fiction, pornography, heroic fantasy, journalism, biography and even a BD version of the Bible.

And then there’s a whole bunch beautifully written and drawn stories that I don’t know how to classify except to say that they are part of a more recent, more thoughtful approach towards what they call here “the 9th art.” The most well-known of this bunch would probably be Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which was recently made into a movie, but there are dozens, if not hundreds of other good writers (my personal fave for the moment is Joann Sfar, the author of The Rabbi’s Cat and Vampire Loves) out there who deserve international attention.

Many of these authors got their start at Le Festival International de la Bande Dessinée, a gigantic comics festival that takes place every January in Angoulême. Feeling intrigued, but don’t read French? Check out the English translations at NBM Publishing, Pantheon Graphic Novels, and Drawn & Quarterly, for starters…

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Drinking (coffee) Again

I was in Southern California last week, and it occurred to me that you could do a comparative culture study based on what goes on in a café. It was also interesting to note how your mind can get warped one way or another depending on what side of the Atlantic you live on. As I entered a Peet’s Coffee in Irvine with my brother, I had a difficult time suppressing the urge to scoff, loudly, at what passes for a café in SoCal. “Harumph!” I wanted to snort, “you call this a place to enjoy coffee, you heathens? Putain, everyone is drinking out of paper cups! How can you possibly enjoy a good cup of coffee in a paper cup!” Ah me, it was only a short few years ago, that I too, marched triumphantly through the streets of New York with my paper cup in hand, sipping out of a hole in the plastic top, feeling at one with rush hour. Of course I didn’t have time to sit down and drink my coffee, I was BUSY. Being busy is an end unto itself in New York City, and nothing quite says Working Girl like that paper cup. But wait, there I was in Southern California and not only was I not busy, but neither were the people in Peet’s. In fact, it was the weekend and they were all sitting down drinking out of…paper cups. With plastic tops. Now this used to make sense to me, or rather, I just didn’t worry about it. But now that I'm coming from another place, literally, it makes no sense at all. Let’s think about this. You are inside, not moving. What’s with the plastic tops? Are people really so sloppy that they risk spilling their doppio pumpkin frappucino on the carpet? And without getting too militant here, isn’t all that plastic and paper a little, well…wasteful?? Oops, I forgot, I was in Southern California, the epicenter of non-sustainable living. As I glanced around the parking lot filled with monstrous SUVs I remembered that this was The Good Life, the one that will be obsolete in about 50 years when there’s no more cheap fuel. What will the folks in Orange County be doing then? Jogging to work? But that is a subject for a different post, on a different website, preferably one like Grist.

But let me get back to Peet’s. I like Peet’s. Heck, I went to U.C. Berkeley, just up the street from the orignal Peet’s. I remember the delicious smell of the beans roasting and the line around the block every morning. And if the company has gone commercial and is now a chain, Peet’s in Irvine still serves a good cup of coffee, even if it is in a paper cup. And at Peet’s in Irvine I learned a remarkable thing: if you ask, they will actually serve your coffee in a ceramic demi-tasse! I felt so…well, Euro when I did this (I’m sure my brother was cringing), but I have to admit, it made me happy. And as I looked around at my fellow coffee drinkers, I saw that, in fact, they seemed like a pretty happy lot. Maybe I missed the unique atmosphere that reigns in a French café, where your waiter could most often be mistaken for Lurch and everyone seems to be in the midst of a deep, but thoughtful, depression. But I had to admire the seemingly boundless energy that oozes from Southern Californites, even on a weekend morning. People were bouncy, chatty, and dressed in workout clothes—you wouldn’t have been surprised if an impromptu aerobics class erupted between the tables. Even if I would be hard pressed to call most of the drinks they were sipping “coffee” (espresso drenched with syrup and soymilk? Eww!), and even if I still think waiting in line and having your name screamed out by someone you don’t know takes the romance out of things, I’ll admit there is something compelling about the experience. I’m not sure what, but there is definitely something.

Monday, November 10, 2008

On Symbols and Elections

One of the less fun things about living overseas is that you often find yourself becoming a symbolic representative of your home country. Suddenly, regardless of what you may think of the political situation back home, people around you hold you personally responsible for the current administration’s shenanigans. Having moved to France in 2000, right at the beginning of the Bush regime, I have experienced more than my share of barely suppressed sneers, wary looks, and borderline hostility when I happen to mention that I am American. It was particularly ugly around the beginning of the war in Iraq; in recent years, with Bush’s popularity sinking to ever new lows, the mood changed and lately I’ve been allowed a second chance despite the color of my passport.

It really did get old after a while. At first you'd get all fired up and work up a good 10-minute speech whenever someone gave you that accusing look, including lots of phrases like “hey, I didn’t vote for him” and “you mustn’t believe that all Americans are behind that idiot.” But then you just got weary. You'd see the entire conversation coming a mile off and all you really wanted to do is go home and eat some Oreos (if you could find them). It all seems so silly. How can any halfway intelligent person really believe that you represent 260 million people? And yet they do. America is so much more than a country to people overseas. It’s a myth. It’s really hard to convince people that it is, in fact, populated by real human beings and not characters in an action film. A friend of mine who has been living here for some 20 years got so sick of this conversation that when people asked her what she thought of Bush, she just gave them a devilish look and responded “I think his ears are really sexy.” I’m not sure what this did for her social life, but it certainly stopped the conversation cold.

Thank God, Buddha, Vishnu and who ever else is up there, Bush is gone and Obama is, miraculously, moving into the White House in January. Aside from being stunned that we managed to elect a inspiring leader who seems to really care about regular folk, Obama’s election comes as a huge relief to me: not only can I finally feel proud to be an American again, but I also no longer feel pressure to apologize or explain every time I mention my nationality. It’s barely been a week since the elections, and already I sense an attitude change over here; now everyone who knows I’m American wants to congratulate and celebrate with me. This is really nice and a welcome change, but it does make you wonder…after all, I’m still the same person I was before November 4. For that matter so are 260 million other Americans. But now that there is a good guy in the White House, suddenly we are all good guys. Does this really make sense? I know this election was all about change, but have we as people really changed? Now there’s a question that I can’t even begin to answer, and that is best reserved for more qualified political observers, like Frank Rich, who wrote a great column on the subject (and the election in general)in the New York Times, "It Still Felt Good the Morning After."