Friday, September 16, 2011

The Ties That Bind

Imagine the scene:  A televised presidential debate between six male and female candidates from the same party.  But here’s the hitch—two of the candidates lived together for 25 years and had four children!  Sounds like a doofy plot for a situation comedy, right?  Well, no, that actually happened last night on French TV (read this article in The Guardian for more).  

How do they do it?  How do François Hollande and Ségolène Royale manage to remain civil to each other during a presidential debate when their very public split up a few years ago is still in the minds of one and all?  And here I thought French politics couldn’t get any weirder after the president divorced his wife and married a pop star one year into his mandate.  Of course, this is all private stuff and nowhere near as pertinent to the country’s future as the current campaign financing scandals or the state of the French economy.  Still, you can’t help but wonder what is going through their minds during the taping

FRANÇOIS:  Oh God, there she goes again, always getting on her high horse.  Reminds me of the time I left the roast out overnight.  You’d think I’d betrayed the Republic.  Ha, she’s one to talk about betrayals…whose that creep she’s with now, anyway? Damn, she looks good in that suit.  OK, focus now, gotta focus…

SÉGOLÈNE:  OK, keep a straight face…did he just say the word ”fidelity?”  My ass!  Hey, Fifi, it looks like we’ve gone off our diet—isn’t that collar just a little bit tight?  You never could keep away from the camembert.  Time to run back to Dr. Dukan, chubby….Woah there girl, breathe—just breathe and flash that devastating smile….

And then there’s the kids—

THOMAS:  So are you going to watch mom and dad debate tonight?

CLÉMENCE:  Hell no, I had to listen to that all my life.

It boggles the imagination…

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

French Newspapers—The Space-Time Continuum

When you buy a newspaper in France, you enter a time warp. The laws of physics no longer apply. If up-to-the-minute reporting is what you are after, you may be in for a surprise.

Say you want to buy Le Monde, France’s most prominent national paper, on a Tuesday. You go to the newsstand Tuesday morning, but the only Le Monde available is from Monday. That’s because Le Monde comes out at 3pm. So you wait until 3pm and buy the Tuesday paper, but the news in it is from yesterday. In fact, many of the articles on the front page are news analyses of events that happened earlier in the week.

But that was the easy part. When you look at the paper you bought on Tuesday afternoon, it is dated Wednesday. So in fact, you are reading a paper with news from the past that appears to come from the future.

It gets worse. Let’s say you want to get the weekend edition, which has the magazine in it. You waltz up to your local news vendor Saturday morning, full of optimism. But no, the weekend edition, i.e., the Saturday edition, came out Friday. Now you have to wait until 3pm again (it’s still Saturday, remember) to get….the Monday edition. There is no Sunday paper.

Feeling frustrated, not to mention jet lagged, I tried other papers. Libération comes out on the morning of the day it’s supposed to be, but the articles have all the newsy urgency of a late night discussion over a bottle of wine. France Soir, despite its name, comes out in the morning. I don’t have the courage to try the Journal du Dimanche, for all I know, it comes out on Wednesday.

Which leaves me with Le Parisien, which is the Parisian equivalent of the New York Daily News. It comes out when it’s supposed to, is dated logically, and actually has the latest news. It may not be of the highest journalistic value, it may not have Le Monde caliber writers, but it gets high marks for living in the present.

Actually, the most newsy newspapers are the ones you get for free on the Métro, i.e., Métro and 20 Minutes. Which also seem to be the only newspapers that are thriving in this Great Newspaper Crisis era. But to tell you the truth, I have pretty much given up on the French newspapers for up-to-the-minute events. For that, I either go to the Internet, or more frequently, the radio. That old-fashioned thing with the dials does a great job in France, where there are excellent stations like France Inter and France Info.

So let’s hear it for the radio. It doesn’t cost anything, it doesn’t need to be recycled, and you don’t have to put on your glasses to use it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On Crêpes and Groundhogs

Tonight I made crêpe batter for the very first time. Up until this point, I have shirked all crêpe-making duties, pleading ignorance. After all, my husband is much more qualified than I am. He grew up in Nantes, which is in Brittany (the Crêpe Capital of the World), and I grew up in Southern California. And while I feel very confident choosing a ripe avocado, when it comes to crêpes, I am daunted. Because in France, everyone has his or her special crêpe batter. Not that it’s all that hard to make, but everyone has a recipe that he or she has inherited from Tante Mimi, or Oncle Marcel, or, in our case, Mamie Georgette.

So it was with great trepidation that I embarked on my crêpe-making journey. I’m delighted to report that so far, I have come out of it unscathed, aside from a lightly grated knuckle, a casualty of the lemon zesting process. I say “so far” because we haven’t made them yet, and who knows what heinous crêpe making crime I will be accused of once the batter hits the pan.

Why am I making crêpes tonight, anyway? Because it is Chandeleur, of course. For reasons that are shrouded in the mists of time, February 2 is French National Crêpe Day. According to Wikipedia, Chandeleur is basically Candelmas, a Christian holiday that celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple. The road from Jesus to crêpes is tortured, however: Wikipedia puts forth a theory that Pope Gelasius I offered pilgrims crêpes when they came to celebrate the holiday in Rome. This seems a bit of a stretch and I prefer to believe it is linked to an earlier Celtic holiday that had to do with the “end” of winter, though how anyone in their right mind could believe that February 2 is the end of winter is a mystery to me. Then there’s another bit about bears coming out of their hibernation at this time, which was another subject of a pagan rite.

Which brings me to another fascinating and equally tortured link between this holiday and Punxsutawney Phil. It was only this evening that I realized Chandeleur was in fact, Groundhog Day. And if you look up explanations for Groundhog Day, you come up with the same Celtic festival, Imbolc. So by all rights, Phil and his colleagues should not come out of their burrows and look for their shadow—they should eat a crêpe.

But to get back the batter. It is Wednesday, and my husband doesn’t get home until 7:30, and it seems that the batter absolutely must rest for one hour before it goes into the pan. God forbid we should use tired batter. Hence, I must make the batter before he gets home.

Right now the batter is resting and I must admit, I’m jealous. It looks so calm and mellow that I’d like to jump in and swim around in it. This was my day “off” (kids don’t go to school on Wednesdays in France) when I get to take my son to soccer, make lunch for him and his squirrely friend, clean the house, fold the laundry, and do the shopping. But I am looking forward to our crêpes tonight. Perhaps we will even throw one on top of the armoire, which my father-in-law insists is traditional, but then he’s Gascon, and they have a tradition of telling tall tales. No other bona fide French person has ever confirmed the existence of this custom, so for all I know he is pulling my leg and chuckling about it with my mother-in-law. (“Can you believe it, Monique? She believed me!”)

Either way, the crêpes will be tasty. That much is sure. I’m looking forward to it. Really.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Parlons Cash

Should I be worried? My very French husband has recently become enthralled with Johnny Cash. So far, he’s not dressing in black, but he is listening to the music all the time, staring off into space and looking soulful. Mr. Cash’s work is virtually unknown in France, and no one even knew who he was until the excellent film, Walk the Line, came to Europe. That’s how my husband heard about him. Like me, he was surprised to find out that the actors actually sang on the soundtrack, and that they weren’t dubbed over with original recordings. Good as they were, he wanted to hear the originals, so he ran to his computer and started downloading ballads like “Sam Hall” and “Damn Your Eyes.” He likes that many of the songs tell simple, often sad stories about regular people; he says that in that way, Cash’s songs remind him of French singer-poets like Georges Brassens.

That made me think. I wonder how many people have ever compared Johnny Cash with Georges Brassens, for one. It also made me think about some of my own biases about country music. Here was someone who didn’t know anything about the genre (virtually unheard of over here), or have any political/ideological associations with the music or the people who generally listen to it—he was just responding to what he was listening to. My associations with Johnny Cash have to do with hazy memories of his old TV show, and cliché notions about the country music scene. Then my husband downloaded a few songs from Cash’s last albums, like “Hurt,” and “When the Man Comes Around,” which pretty much blew me away.

It’s surprising how much you can learn about your own country by living somewhere else, or by seeing it through someone else’s eyes. It’s like seeing a painting from a distance, where you don’t obsess so much about the details but take in the overall composition, the gestalt of the thing. Gets the hairy cobwebs out of one’s eyes. Of course, what you see isn’t always so great. But occasionally it’s a lot better than you thought it was. I guess I shouldn’t worry too much about the Johnny Cash obsession, even if my son and I are getting tired of hearing endless re-runs of “Ring of Fire.” Maybe its time to try Willie Nelson?