Monday, April 29, 2013

The New Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Paris metro’s Franklin D. Roosevelt stop used to be a step back in time.  You got on the train in the beginning of the 21st century and got off in the middle of the 20th.  The platform for the number 1 line, in dashing shades of bright orange and steely blue, was particularly evocative.  You half expected Walt Disney to step out of the wings singing “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.”  While Wikipedia tells me that this version of the station’s decor was unveiled in 1957, to me it looked like the mid-1960s, sending me on a magical mystery tour of my earliest memories, of cone-shaped paper cups at water fountains, of my dad’s Pontiac in the driveway, and snippets of the New York World’s Fair.  All I remember of that event are the dinosaurs at the Ford Pavilion (which later ended up at Disneyland), that Space-Age globe (which still hovers over Flushing Meadows), and terrifying fireworks that made me cry.   It was a time when technology was the key to the future, science could solve all problems, and messy wars like that one in Europe were a thing of the past.  Never mind that there was a seriously messy conflict going on in Vietnam.  That was something you could choose not to think about while you teased your hair into a beehive.

Until I saw that metro station, I never even realized that the Space Age arrived in France, despite having seen Barbarella.   It just wasn’t something you expected to see just underneath the Champs Elysées.  But there it was, with the words “Franklin D. Roosevelt” spelled out in bold American letters, lit up from below like a cinema marquee.   True, it was worn and somewhat seedy looking, but that gave it a ragged nostalgic charm.  It was as if you had come across a sunken relic of another age, like the forgotten New York subway in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. 

But alas, it’s close proximity to the Champs Elysées, that yawning commercial mouth dedicated to digesting tourist dollars, made it inevitable that someone at the mayor’s office would decide it was time to give Franklin D. a makeover.  Didn’t anyone tell them that “mid-century” design was all the rage?  Whose idea was it to turn the number 1 platform into a trendy club?  Black and gold brick, digital screens showing videos no one bothers to understand…it feels like a giant advertisement for something expensive.   I like the fact that the ceiling seems to have sprung a leak and the paint on the gold tiles is already peeling.  Serves them right for going against the glorious grain of time. 
But all is not lost.  There is still the number 9 line platform to admire.  An awesomely awful combination of grey and gold with bright yellow molded plastic seating, it still harkens back to the days of LBJ and Charles de Gaulle, of Ford Mustangs and Simca 1000s, of Ann-Margaret and Brigitte Bardot…ah, here’s to the memories, real or imagined…

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Parisian Grass Munchers

Yesterday, with a splendid sun soaring in the heavens, I wanted to be a sheep lolling in a pasture.  In weather like that, who needs to do anything else besides lie in the grass and chew?  To be precise, I wanted to be a Ouessant (pronounced “wessahn”) sheep.  Members of that venerable ruminant race have recently been hired by the Paris city hall to graze in the 19th arrondissement.  Not a bad gig for a sheep. 

On April 3, four fluffy Ouessants (also known as Ushants) were let loose in an overgrown, 2000 square meter field next to the municipal archives.  Their mission?  To cut the grass.  For two weeks, they will eat and eat and eat until the grass is shorn to crew cut length.  This herbaceous fiesta is actually an experiment in “eco-pasturing,” basically a non-polluting and fun way to mow the grass.  Look Ma!  No herbicides!  No noise, grass clippings, or chemical fertilizers either.  If everything goes according to plan during the next few experimental runs, our ovine friends may end up grazing in the Bois de Vincennes or the Bois de Boulogne.  

The city hall website has supplied a charming video showing the sheep capering about their temporary home.  The sheep themselves look like they could use a little mowing.  The Ushant breed was chosen for its hardy “rustic” quality and its small size—also known as the Breton Dwarf, this is one of the smallest sheep around.   In other words, they are very cute. 

Des moutons dans la ville ! par mairiedeparis

To my surprise, I learned that this sheep has a tie, albeit a loose one, to the American Revolution.  It seems that Ushant, a tiny island off the coast of Brittany on the south end of the English Channel, was the site of a nasty naval battle between the French and the English in 1778.  France, loath to pass up a chance to attack the British, had recently decided to enter the war on the American side.  The British sent out a fleet to keep an eye on French naval activities in Brest, and the French sent out a fleet to see what the British were up to.  They met up somewhere around Ushant, where the weather got so bad that neither side managed to do much damage to the other, nor could either claim a victory.  Each fleet came home to cranky officials and much political squabbling.

The Battle of Ushant by Théodore Gudin
Where do the sheep fit in?  Well they don’t, really.  They do come from the island though, and I can imagine them mournfully bleating while the battle raged at sea.  I’m sure they are much happier munching on grass at the archives.

Friday, April 12, 2013

April Showers

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After an interminable winter, people are wandering outside this week to get a taste of sunshine, an element that now feels as priceless as caviar.  Like goldfish bobbing to the surface of their aquarium to gobble down food, we turn our heads up and gulp down the few rays of sunlight that pierce through the clouds. 

This was one of those record-breaking winters, not just in terms of quantity of snow and cold, but length.  No one has ever seen anything like it, not the vegetable guy at the market, not the old lady downstairs, not even the weather service. It’s been so cold that it is mid-April and most of the trees still have no leaves.  Plants whose buds usually start to open in late February are only daring to flower now.  Who knows what kind of havoc this is going to wreak on food prices in the coming months, not to mention hay fever season.

Not only has the cold and grey had a serious impact on health and happiness on an individual level, but it seems to have also eaten a hole in the country’s psychic ozone layer.  The number of scandals and predictions of doom has skyrocketed in the French media, which is not known for its sunny outlook even under the best circumstances.  First there was the dreadful revelation that the budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, the guy in charge of cracking down on tax evasion—has been hiding money in a Swiss bank account and not paying his taxes.  Apparently, he has been sleeping in his car to avoid the press.  It is still unclear which is his worst sin:  hiding the money or admitting that he lied about it.  An elected official being linked to financial scandal is not an unusual occurrence in France, in fact it is so common that no one seems to think it’s a problem for a president to be under suspicion of fraud, or for a jailed politician to be elected again once he gets out of the clink.  But what is unforgivable in this case is that the guy not only lied, but then he admitted that he lied.  That is simply not done.  What usually happens is that an official investigation drags on for so many years that by the time it goes to court, everyone has forgotten what the original fuss was about.  What was he thinking?  Must have been the weather that got to him.

But if that wasn’t bad enough, today's revelation is that the Grand Rabbi of France is not only a plagiarist, but also he lied about his academic credentials.    I can only imagine the Talmudic discussions that are going to come out of that one.  If you can’t trust the Grand Rabbi, who can you trust?  Really, what I’d like to know is who is this guy in the first place and why is he so grand?  What makes him any grander than any other rabbi?  Why is this night different from any other night?  If not now, when?  All I can say is—feh. 

You’ve probably noticed that I’m casually sauntering away from any discussion of the overall atmosphere of gloom and dismay that has settled over the current president, François Hollande, and his cabinet.  (On top of everything else, the president's camel got eaten in Mali).  I don’t feel qualified to even begin to sort that one out.  Though he seems pretty OK to me, I hesitate to say that out loud or I could get punched out in my conservative suburb where half the population turned out for a march against the legalization of gay marriage.  Don’t get me started…

Instead I think I’ll just sit on my balcony and soak up those rays and think about what plants I’m going to pot this weekend.  That is, if it doesn’t rain.