Some Memories of  “Don’t Eat Your Soup With A Fork”

40 years have passed since an irreverent, fun and sassy publication called The Paris Metro hit town.  Tonight, in Paris, the founders of and contributors to that very special magazine, which unfortunately died after only two years and 64 issues,  will be celebrating its 40th anniversary, starting in fine style with a champagne cocktail at the emblematic Tour d’Argent.  For the commemorative booklet put together for the occasion, contributers were asked to write long or short pieces about Paris in  the 70s and personal memories of The Paris Metro.  I was flattered to be included:   I only wrote one article for the magazine.  But that piece was priceless, for me at least.    Below are my reflections on “Don’t Eat Your Soup With A Fork” and how it inspired me as a writer.

(The Paris Metro 40th Anniversary book edited by Patsi Benter Krakoff and Joel Stratte-McClure is on sale at amazon.com).

 


Let’s see….got to situate this. Paris Metro ? The magazine, not the underground. That was eons ago. Can I even remember it ?

Of course I can !

And better than that. I am sitting here in my home office in Paris looking at a photocopy of a long feature I wrote for Paris Metro called « Don’t Eat Your Soup With A Fork ». It was even illustrated with four delightful drawings, one of which showed a well-dressed man manipulating a giant lettuce leaf that sprang up in his face, spattering vinaigrette all over his clothes, the tablecloth and his terrified tablemates. (That was to illustrate my point about how a good hostess should always cut lettuce into bite-sized portions).

I can’t remember who had the idea for an article about French politesse but I do remember that the editor had a concrete suggestion about who to contact. The name he gave me was Princess Beris Kandaouroff. She was an Englishwoman who had penned « The Art of Living-Etiquette for the Permissive Age ». I duly trekked over to her apartment, somewhere in the 9th arrondissement as I recall, where she cheerfully proceeded to give me a crash course on what to do and not to do in France if you want to abide by the rules. Ca se fait and ça ne se fait pas are things most French instinctively know but we poor foreigners don’t, hence the necessity of books,articles and general instruction on the subject.

Most of the rules concern dining which, in a country obsessed with food, is no surprise, and my article went on and on about all the horrible faux pas one could unwittingly commit at a formal dinner party if not in the know. Offer carnations ? Never – they bring bad luck. Sop up that delicious sauce with your bread or a fork ? Neither. Don’t sop it up at all when dining out.

And those two bits of advice are only for starters.

I was amazed by all the things one should and shouldn’t do. The Princess advised guests never to show up at a dinner party with spare friends or animals unless asking permission from the hostess beforehand. To illustrate her point, she told me that she once invited the director of a zoo to dinner and he came with a lion, causing pandemonium. Re-reading that today, I wonder if it was the whole truth. (Time magazine, where I was a stringer in the Paris bureau for many years, would have got a fact checker on it). Anyway, it was a great story and that’s what counts.

I didn’t know it at the time but I would dine out (pardon the pun) on that article and that subject for decades.   The article led me to consider French behavior in general which led to my first book, French Toast, followed by two others, also on the arcane and mysterious ways of the French.

Had the Paris Metro editor not given me such a bigger than life source to interview, nor encouraged me to write fresh and funny, that article would have been an end rather than a beginning. As it was, I found a subject and a style.

In sum, Paris Metro was a bright spot in my freelance life, with all its ups and downs, the details of which I will kindly spare you.

There’s only one down side to this story: when Paris Metro was liquidated, I was formally informed that I would be eligible for chomage (unemployment).. Being a bull-headed American, I didn’t bother. How wrong I was. I dined out on « politesse » for years – and in this Socialist country could have been on unemployment for years as well had I cared to pursue the matter.

Well, we all make mistakes. No little regular unemployment checks and other goodies for me. But what I got was not so bad: writing for a publication the likes of which Paris has never seen again, dealing with editors who had great ideas and a great sense of fun, learning to take myself seriously as a writer whose words could make a difference even if they were only to make the reader laugh. That’s already a lot.

And so the 70s passed, Paris Metro went under as so many wonderful publications did, I stayed in Paris freelancing and never left.

Sometimes when you look back on past events or past places or past experiences, everything seems so much better – even if it probably wasn’t.

In the case of Paris Metro, in my experience at least, it really was just as good as it seemed then. The proof : its successors never made the cut, never even got close.

Someone really should get Paris Metro going again….But that’s another story.

An irreverent, lively city magazine, the likes of which has never been seen again in Paris.

 

Featured post

The Bonjour Lesson

The Bonjour Bullies and the Bonjour Drill

What’s in a word?  A lot, if you consider one of the most important ones in the French language and that is Bonjour.

Here’s what you need to know about Bonjour etiquette when visiting France:  if you ask directions of a French person and don’t preface your request with a Bonjour (preferably a Bonjour, Monsieur or Bonjour, Madame),  you’re likely either not to get your directions or get ones that will take you a long way from where you want to go.  If you enter a shop and don’t say Bonjour, the service will be lousy.

Why?  Salespeople in France have complexes!  They need to feel they are the equal of their customer and not subservient.  They are NOT at your beck and call and will do everything to prove it.    By not greeting them, you are treating them like ciphers, nonentities.  You are giving them the not very subtle message that they don’t count.  Which is why, to get their revenge, they’ll impose upon you  the tedious, boring Bonjour drill which I have seen happen so many times it’s becoming predictable.

This treatment is not restricted to foreigners.  On a recent trip to the beautiful, hot, southern city of Marseilles, my French husband forgot to say Bonjour before he asked a question of a museum guard.  The fellow looked at him with what can only be described as sheer loathing, recoiled and spit out a resounding:  BONJOUR.  My husband, being French, got it and replied:  “Excusez-moi.  Bonjour!”  Even this apology didn’t work on the surly guard who once again faced my husband with a second, even more aggressive Bonjour, and a sneer to go with it.  By this time, my husband was fed up and left the premises.   He had decided, rightly, that the guy was a jerk.

A few days later in the glamorous seaside town of Cannes, I was shopping in a store which sells a wonderful lemon liqueur called “Limoncello” which is made of the finest lemons in Menton.  The salesperson, a sharp-eyed, active (even hyper) young woman was giving her rote sales pitch to everyone who came into the store. I had selected my bottle and headed for the counter as I waited for her to leave the person she was serving to come over to the cash register. But  just then a young woman entered and quietly and politely asked her a question.

I didn’t hear the question but I did hear a booming and aggressive BONJOUR from the salesperson who was obviously insulted that someone had stepped into her shop, asked a question and didn’t even bother to say hello.  The woman, realizing her mistake, acquiesced but it was too late.  But like the museum guard, the salesperson didn’t drop it.   Instead, I heard BONJOUR a second time as the exasperated and furious salesperson faced down the young lady like a teacher with a recalcitrant student.    This time, I was the one who left the premises, plunking my bottle on the counter and exiting the store. The salesperson, totally occupied with her Bonjour lesson, didn’t even see me go.

So, here’s my advice:  DO say Bonjour politely whenever you enter a store or ask for advice in the street.   Don’t just launch into your request.  Don’t worry about it being silly.  Believe me, you can never say the word enough.  Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour, bonjour!

But DON’T let anyone bully you if you have forgotten the precious word.  Yes, you’re rude if you don’t say bonjour, but anyone who makes you say it and then repeat it is rude as well.  There’s a name for those kinds of people.  They are  Bonjour Bullies!

Back in Black

Why Do All Those Parisiennes Wear Black?

I am sitting on the 69 bus going from our place near Place Gambetta to the Bastille and looking out the window at the grey sky.

You know how you assign colors to places? I assign bright blue to Marseilles in the south of France even though it rains there from time to time and I assign grey to Paris even though the sun does come out and the sky is blue.

But I maintain that the true color of the Paris is grey.  Resolutely grey.

And the true color of the clothes people wear in Paris is black, just as the color of the clothes people wear in Marseilles ranges from yellow to pink to orange to turquoise, the brighter and bolder the better.

The people of Paris may wear colorful clothes in the summer but when September slips around the corner, they’re back in black and gone to grey.

This morning on the bus I count the number of women wearing a color other than black.  The result:  three!  (Out of hundreds).    One is Chinese; she’s donned a bright pink scarf. Another is a Muslim who wears a cheerful pink hijab. A white-haired Frenchwomen dressed in a dusky rose pink coat walks her (black) dog.

The deal in Paris is that black is the basic.  If you do wear a color, it’s generally a top or a skirt or an accessory.

But black is the base.

So why all the black?  As American fashion journalist and inveterate French-watcher Tina Isaac told me when I interviewed her on the subject for Joie de Vivre:  “Black is timeless, a no-brainer, works in all situations…never appears overdressed or out of place or in bad taste, does not need (much) accessorizing, does not need to be expensive… is slimming, lends an air of sophistication and intelligence.”

She calls black “the spirit of Paris, sartorialized.”

I like that phrase so much that I’ll almost forgive all those Parisiennes for walking around in black against the backdrop of a grey sky and making me feel like I live in a black and white photo.  But if you can’t lick ’em, join ’em which is why I attached the photo below proving that I too wear Paris black!

zebra-lady

French Cauchemar

Co-Ownership – A French Cauchemar

If you are lucky enough to own a condo in Paris or elsewhere in France, once a year you’ll be convoked to a general assembly of all the co-owners.   Accounts and all other matters concerning the property, such as upkeep and expenses, will be read out and discussed, supposedly in a reasonable manner.

Dream on.

Do you know the French word for nightmare?  It is “cauchemar” and an assemblée générale is truly a  cauchemar.

In  2002, we bought our first apartment in Paris after years of renting.   That’s a big step and we have found that  being an owner has been mostly a positive experience.   What’s not positive is attending the annual co-owners’ meetings which range from weird to horrific.

And edifying.   I thought, after years of living in France with a French husband, that I knew a lot about the French, from the way they talk to the way they think and act.  Hey, I even wrote 3 books on the subject!

But my first co-owners meeting was a revelation.  First of all, I learned that the French are NOT rational, as in Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”).  Good-bye to that little cliché:  In co-owners’ meetings, the French don’t seem to think at all and are as far from rational as you can get.   They grumble, interrupt each other and generally look irritated or glum.  No happy faces here!

They also do very odd things.  One co-owner, a former French ambassador, spent an entire 4 hour meeting reading the Bible out loud. This was not because he was religious, but because he wanted to obstruct the proceedings.

That, at least, was creative.  Most of the time people simply act like thugs.  Some of the  co-owners in the building we live in are so rude and aggressive that two syndics  (property management companies hired by the co-owners)  successively threw in the towel and refused to renew their contracts with us  (it’s usually the other way around). In other words, WE got fired!

Secondly, I learned that the French love to sue.  Oh, they rag me about the American propensity to go to court for things like sexual harassment or scalding coffee but they’re not far behind: French owners love to sue when unhappy.  They generally lose and since the entire building is involved in their lawsuit, guess who gets to pay the damages? All the other co-owners. No wonder everyone looks grumpy.

I’d like to say that what I have seen is the exception to the rule but everytime I tell the stories to French friends, they pull out their own tales, which are, unbelievably, even worse than mine.

The third thing I sadly learned is that while the French like to vaunt their savoir vivre and their ability to vivre ensemble, when it comes to their argent, it’s each to his own.

Years ago author Tim Parks wrote a book called Italian Neighbors. His neighbors were quirky and odd and funny, real characters, but people who at least on the page sound charming.

Of course Parks didn’t describe any meetings of co-owners.  It might be that when Italians (and other nationalities) find themselves in a room talking about spending money on a property they have in common, they are just as bad or  – heaven help us –  worse than the French.

Au secours!

 

Bart

 

Parisians-Don’t Scowl at Me!

Parisians –  Don’t Scowl at Me!

Recently I’ve heard many tourists, mainly Americans, comment on how “nice” the French have become.  “I heard they were arrogant and mean but they couldn’t have been kinder,” one remarked.  “I was afraid to come to Paris because of the French reputation for being snotty,” remarked another, “but they weren’t at all like that. I can’t wait to come back.”

I preface this post with those comments lest my readers think I am  “dumping on the French”.  While I’m at it, I should also point out that I have never subscribed to the “all the French are arrogant” theory although I always thought and still do that SOME of the French are arrogant just as SOME of the Americans are loud.

Now that I’ve taken the necessary precautions, I can get to the heart of the matter which is a question:  Why do the Parisians scowl so much?  Note I say “Parisians” and not “the French”.  The minute you get on a train and get yourself to a provincial French town, you’ll encounter people who actually do smile and say BonjourMais oui!   But the Parisians….. It’s a well-known fact that the Parisians do not smile. Oh, they may smile at their children or their mother or their best friend but they do not walk around with the Universal Smile that is drummed into Americans  from childhood.

Yet although I know this fact, having lived here for 44 years with a French husband and two Franco-American children, none of whom practice the Universal Smile, I still am shocked by The Scowl. (It’s one thing not to smile, another to frown, glare and look positively malevolent).

The Scowl is usually because the person is on the metro and it’s crowded and smelly and it’s not a smiley experience.  The Scowl is because the person is engaged in his or her own thoughts and sees no reason to communicate with a total stranger. A Parisian waiter without a scowl would not be a Parisian waiter.  You’re supposed to smile at him, not the other way around.

The Scowl is NOT, as many Americans would have it, because you are not French. No, French people scowl at other French people, believe me.

In recent days, the Parisians have had more to glower and groan about than usual: a weak and vacillating government,  garbage, plane, train, and metro strikes, and even the flooding of the Seine after  a triste month of grey rainy weather.  Even I, the perpetually smiling American, am down at the mouth.

The garbage strike exacerbated my bad humor. On a recent day I decided to take a walk from my apartment near the Place Gambetta in the east of Paris to the lovely verdant, hilly Parc des Buttes Chaumont.  To my horror, the promenade consisted of avoiding the mounds of garbage piled up and all around the green city garbage bins parked on the sidewalks while trying not to smell the offensive odors that had collected after said garbage had rested there for more than a week. I refused to think about rats.

As I write this, the garbage strike is winding down, but the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail, the Communist trade union) is  still in a fight to the death battle with the Socialist government which it accuses of being too far on the right. (Imagine that in the U.S.!)  Metros, planes and trains are still running – but not all of them as many workers are still on strike. (Why the strikes? Oh, I almost forgot: they are over a proposed labor reform law the unions rejected and which the government, weak as it is, promptly watered down – but not enough for the unions).

The last stand, a huge demonstration on June 14, and continued strikes, is taking place in the midst of the Euro Cup which started on June 10 and has brought millions of tourists to France.  The unions could have called a halt to the strikes during this period but that would have been so un-French.  Best to let the visitors see what it’s like to live in a nation where “democracy” is equated with street protests.

The admirable solidarity of a nation united by the shocking and shameful terrorist attacks in January has unravelled, giving way to this public struggle against the government and the bosses.  Union members say they are defending the rights of all workers.    My butcher begs to differ:  “They’re not fighting for MY rights,” she told me, as she deftly sliced a cut of tender veal.  She and her husband work long hours and have no special rates at holiday camps or bonuses or other perks.   “They’re fighting for the special privileges that they don’t want to lose.”

So there we are: plenty of reason to be grumpy.  But, please, Parisians:  it’s not my fault so don’t scowl at me!

Jan in front of poubelles

A Canadian friend and longtime resident of France holding her nose.

STRIKES, SOCCER, STRESS and the SEINE

This post started with a phone call from Radio Sputnik in Moscow. In case you didn’t know – I didn’t – Radio Sputnik in 2014 replaced the Voice of Russia.  They don’t seem to have a Paris correspondent and, as I’m a former journalist and an author who has written extensively about the French and French life, they call me from time to time for comments on big stories.    I’m always happy to help –  and of course there’s always a lot to say.

First, there were the terrorist attacks in Paris, in January 2015, then in November 2015.  One at the beginning of the year, one as the year was drawing to an end. The first aimed at Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonists and journalists for their mockery of Islam.  The second was a spree, targeting first a soccer match attended by French President François Hollande, secondly, innocents enjoying a balmy Fall evening on the terraces of cafés, and lastly, music-lovers gathered at the Bataclan concert hall.

Both attacks were terrifying and horrific and for a time, the French united in sorrow and solidarity.

But it was only a brief pause and little by little “real” life came back with a vengeance.  People put terrorism in the back of their minds (although almost everyone on the metro subconsciously looks around for suspicious packages or suspicious behavior).  Dissatisfaction with the Hollande government recently came to a head over a proposed labor reform which was rejected by the unions and Hollande’s own constituents.  Hollande, they say, no longer represents the left. They took to the streets, camped out at the Place de la Republique, and in true French fashion went on strike.

The strikes though – metro, trains, garbage and probably a few I’ve forgotten – turned ugly with hooligans and leftist extremists violently smashing shop windows and attacking the police. Protestors, led by the Communist trade union, blocked the oil refineries and soon gas stations had little to no gas.  People had a hard time getting to work and businesses lost contracts and money.

To add to the stress, May was a depressing, sun-deprived, rainy month – so rainy that the Seine rose to 6 meters, the highest in 30 years.  In Paris, both the Orsay Museum and the Louvre closed their doors while workers scrambled to move artworks to higher floors. Outside Paris, damage was considerable and grave, leaving many people homeless and some of the great museums and castles endangered.  The emblematic Chateau de Chambord, a Unesco World Heritage site, is surrounded by water.

As I write this, the sun is out for the first time in days.  The level of the Seine will lower. As for the strikes, who knows? They are an inevitable, and fatiguing, feature of French life.

The Euro 2016  will start on June 10.  Terrorism experts are on the alert, for how can you control “fan zones” where thousands of people are milling?  Stress again!

A somber picture? No, real life. The one that we had to get back to after the January and November tragedies.  They haven’t been forgotten and shouldn’t be.  Floods will happen, unpopular government measures will always occur, and terrorism shouldn’t be a fatality.

All this being said, I simply hope the sun will continue to shine, the level of the waters will decrease, the strikes will stop (they will – summer vacation is right around the corner and I have NEVER seen anyone in this country strike in summer…), and terrorism will be eradicated.  Wishful thinking perhaps, but pourquoi pas?  One can always dream of a better world.

The Seine at its highest level in 30 years

The Seine at its highest level in 30 years

Of ice cubes, Cherry Coke and other French things

For quite some time I’ve been wanting to write and speak about changes in France and got a great opportunity to do so at the recent International Media Seminar in Paris where I have been invited to speak for the last few years on my favorite topic: the French.  The talk is about cultural differences and I always start by saying that though Americans may think that the French are pretty much like them, they are dead wrong.  The French, I say, are raised differently, have a different education, a different history, hold different values and have different behavior and different reactions.

That’s still true.  But this year I added a slide on “How France Has Changed”.  I did this because one day I started comparing the France I knew when I first arrived here in the late Sixties and the France I know now and realized that change has happened without my really noticing it.

When I arrived in France, grocery stores didn’t carry peanut butter, chocolate chips, hamburger buns (are you kidding? there were no hamburgers!) or Philadelphia cream cheese.  There were no Nachos and very few snack items because the French didn’t snack.

At the movies, there were no vending machines, no drinks and no popcorn. You went to the movie for the movie, not to eat.

In newspapers and magazines, you never saw a word of English.  Now it’s unusual to make it through any article without stumbling through a thicket of English expressions or words, sometimes horribly misused.  Or mispronounced:  French TV anchors talk about “low cost” flights but it comes out as “low coast”.    That’s ok – few Americans can get their tongues around  “ratatouille”.

For years, tourists complained that the French didn’t speak English, that they didn’t have air conditioning or ice cubes, that they weren’t friendly.  Well, not to worry now. The other day I was in a restaurant with my 5-year-old French granddaughter. She ordered a soft drink and the waiter brought her the bottle and a glass filled with ice cubes.  Her little face crumpled as she looked at me and said “but Nanie (her name for me), I don’t drink ice cubes”).  Of course she doesn’t – she’s French!  The French waiter, hearing my accent, assumed she was American so he brought out what Americans want.

That little incident showed a lot about cultural differences.  Tourists want “authentic” France but they also want the comforts they have back home. Therefore the “natives” give them what they want and slowly the country changes its tastes as well – which is why there is now a giant hamburger craze in France.

There are now food trucks in the streets of Paris and soon, doggie bags.  The French being French (still), restaurant owners have promised that if they do adopt this very unFrench custom, they will serve the remains in a beautiful “gourmet” box.

Let me see:  have I forgotten anything?  I have not yet seen graham crackers or Saltines or Root Beer in my local grocery store but am sure I will soon.

No wonder worried French top chefs and culinary experts worked so hard to get French cuisine and French food customs (ah, those long  and wonderful meals where no one wondered about gluten and talking about getting fat was forbidden) on the list of UNESCO’s cultural heritage protection list.

They NEED protection!

Gourmet hamburger joint in Paris

Vying for title of worst American mom and worst French dad

After the tragic events of the past two weeks in Paris, it feels good to lighten up which is what I did this morning when reading an article about a “world’s worst mom” http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/advice-from-americas-worst-mom/?_r=0.

The mom in question is Lenore Skenazy, a New York mom of two, who earned the title after reporting in a newspaper column that she had allowed her youngest son, then age nine, to take the subway alone. The poor lady was so raked across the coals – she was even threatened with an arrest for child endangerment – it’s lucky she’s alive to tell her tale of being a “worst mom” and counsel parents who won’t let their kids be kids.

I immediately identified with Lenore. When our oldest son, B, was ten years old, his father had the bright idea of having him cross all of Paris on the metro – alone – to visit him in his office at the Tour Montparnasse (metro, elevators!) before going on to an activity vaguely in that neighborhood. The total trip involved several complicated changes and I admit that, while I’m laughing now, I was anxious at the time.

“He could get attacked! Kidnapped! Or worse! ” I remember yelling when I got wind of the idea. “Mais non!” my husband smiled as if he knew something I didn’t. In the end, Mr. Ten-Year-Old did indeed cross town all by his little self, my husband was very proud to introduce him to his co-workers (good thing there was someone to introduce, I muttered), and no harm done other than in my wild imagination.

Little did I know, but that was just the beginning. When Mr. B was a teen-ager, he would come home at ungodly hours and you know what? His Dad would FALL FAST ASLEEP while my eyes were stuck open until I heard the door click and his footsteps. Then I slept (a GOOD MOM would have at least bawled him out when he got home – I was simply relieved).

D, his little brother, if anything, was even worse. This was in the ancient days before cell phones and when I brazenly suggested that we might ASK HIM FOR THE PHONE NUMBER of the place or places he was supposed to be, his dad and older brother looked at me like I was certifiable.

I was worried for sure (as in biting my nails to the quick worried), but my husband wasn’t and I figured this was a guy thing. Eureka – a guy thing. OK, I thought, so let them work it out. I swallowed real hard and decided to let these boys be boys. Definitely world’s worst mom material.

We parents always feel guilty. To this day I regret that I was on radar in the morning and never fixed a proper breakfast for our two offspring. I (we) never woke them up for school either. If they couldn’t haul their bods out of bed, well, they’d be late and have to suffer the consequences. I (we) didn’t help them with their homework either. They were, fortunately, autonomous and if they got a bad grade, well, it was their bad grade. (same for good).

Helicopter parents we were not.

In my case, this was because I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone so if you wanted to get away, you just took your bike and rode as far as you wanted. Total freedom! Little risk of getting kidnapped since everyone was watching and would report exactly where you were to your parents (same for being sassy or not smiling at a grown-up – you’d hear about that when you got home, believe me).

In my husband’s case, once again, and I don’t care if this sounds macho, he was a guy. Guys were supposed to get into scrapes, stay out late, scare the devil out of their parents. They weren’t supposed to be protected and coddled. Fall off your bike? So get up and try again, already! My husband’s father was very strict (as in children could not speak at the table unless spoken to – isn’t that WONDERFUL?!!) but he had incredible indulgence when it came to normal kid screw-ups. My favorite story is when Philippe was about eight and went to a field of pumpkins and carved his name on every single one of them. When the pumpkins grew and grew so did his name (duh). When the irate pumpkin owner came to see le père Rochefort, he apologized and paid for the damaged crop, but had a hard time keeping a straight face. Kids will be kids!

When I read about helicopter parents, all I can do is shake my head with pity for their poor children. It’s important to dream, to do nothing, to NOT have play dates, to not worry if you’ll go to Harvard. When I was a kid growing up in my midwestern town of 5000, my main activities were l) getting on my bike and 2) taking daily trips to the public library to find books, curl up in a chair, and transport myself far far away to lands I could see only in my imagination, 3) spending time with my friends having a good time – period. We had activities but believe me, we didn’t know the meaning of the word “over scheduled”. (Oh, yes, there was ONE girl in town who was an obsessively perfect student whose parents never let her waste a minute; she would memorize Latin words while brushing her teeth and we thought she was really weird).

Oh, by the way, our sons, who gave me more grey hairs than I can count, were excellent students and what I am most proud of is that what they did they did on their own. They grew up to be fine young men and now have children of their own who, I am sure, will give them the kind of nightmares they gave us. Somehow, I have the feeling that they’ll be watchful and responsible but not “helicopter”. How could they be with the parents they had?

So anyway, do Philippe and I get nominated for world’s worst mom and dad?

Gee, I hope so.

France’s forgotten youth

 

It’s been a tough 13 days for France.

On Wednesday, January 7, my husband stood transfixed in front of the television, saying something about « some shooting somewhere in Paris ». That soon became more specific : the shooting took place at the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in the 11th arrondissement not far from where we live.

« They say Cabu and Wolinksi were shot » he told me, referring to two of the oldest and best known cartoonists.

« No, » I said, « not possible ».

But it was, and it only got worse. We learned that with a few lucky exceptions the entire staff present that day for the weekly story conference, the first of the year, was dead, gunned down by two black-clad, heavily armed terrorists getting revenge for Charlie Hebdo’s reproduction of drawings of the Prophet Muhammed. Their former headquarters had been firebombed and Charb, as the director, Stephane Charbonnel was called, had been threatened and had round the clock police protection. Yet he and his staff never considered ceasing criticism of Islamic fundamentalists, one of the paper’s favorite targets. Besides, the journalists were having fun doing their jobs which consisted of mocking sacred cows, whether those sacred cows were policemen or politicians, the military, Catholic priests or corporations, or jerks in general.   That made a lot of people.

When the killers ran out into the street, they brandished their kalachnikovs and yelled triumphantly   « We killed Charlie ! »

But they didn’t, of course. A groundswell of indignation, emotion and solidarity arose in France, culminating in a march of millions all over the country on the Saturday and Sunday following the attacks.

Young people and old people bore signs proclaiming « Je Suis Charlie » and marched for freedom of the press. They marched in honor of the journalists and the police killed by the two terrorists and in honor of the four Jewish dead in a kosher grocery store, the victims of a third terrorist in a separate but related attack.   The three terrorists were killed by French police.

All through the days that followed, stories of unlikely heroes such as the young African Muslim employee at the kosher store who saved the lives of the Jewish hostages, surfaced. There was good among the bad and a desire of all the communities to come together. There was a solemn state funeral in the courtyard of the Prefecture de Police for the 3 police men and one police woman, burial services in Israel for the four Jewish victims, poignant individual funeral services for the staff members of Charlie Hebdo at various cemeteries in Paris and outside. The last of those services was held today.

These past days have been a time of tears, a time of reckoning and reflection, and a time of questioning.

What comes next ?

Many things : more police protection, more surveillance of potential terrorists, one might say, « the usual ».

And something else related to a chilling fact : After the initial show of solidarity, it turned out that not everyone was « for » Charlie. In approximately 200 incidents in French schools students flatly refused to observe the minute of silence for the victims of the attacks. I heard that on the news, but also firsthand from a young professor who teaches in one of these schools.

Shocking ? Not when you hear where those schools are located,  in dreary suburbs far from the Eiffel Tower and the chic Parisian shops tourists so love. When you grow up in a sad looking place where there’s not much to do and no jobs (the unemployment rate in these areas is twice as high as elsewhere) you’ve got a lot of time on your hands and no inherent « respect for the Republic » or even school. Hope may be somewhere for these kids, but it isn’t where they live.

Years ago when writing about education in France, I was talking to a young friend who taught in one of these towns (Grigny). He told me that he thought a reality check might be in order, as I had based what I wrote on my experience in a posh western suburb. I took him up on his offer to visit his class and drove through the dilapidated suburbs to my destination, a rundown school with a majority population of immigrants. My young friend obviously had figured out how to deal with these students who, unlike their peers in Neuilly or chic Paris, went home at night either to parents who were there but who didn’t speak French and couldn’t help them, or to parents who weren’t there at all because they were working. His main job was in getting their respect and he did, spending the first 45 minutes of the class simply keeping the kids in line. The last 15 minutes were spent in discussing the content of the lesson. Most were barely interested and dismally behind.

That experience came back to me as the names of Grigny and other dreary suburbs were rolled out by newscasters announcing police raids of possible accomplices of the terrorists.

I concluded that an entire group of people had been missing at the solidarity march. Where were those kids from the outlying areas ? Did they not feel French ? Obviously not.

And whose fault is it ?

That one’s easy. Just look back to the 2005 riots in which the same young people who refused to observe a minute of silence for the victims of this latest attack took to the streets of Paris to wreak havoc and burn cars. The reason – at that time, at least – was boredom and unemployment, not religion. Everyone was shocked and the politicians all made concerned clucking noises about change. But nothing changed, and it’s in these same forgotten territories that the young people no one cares about are leaving to fight in Syria.

What’s needed now is a Marshall Plan for education, a plan that will bring these young people back to the Republic – if it’s not too late already.

 

A slightly different version of this story appeared in Bonjour Paris

http://www.bonjourparis.com/story/tough-nine-days-france/

 

 

 

France without Jews is not France

Of all the intonations, expressions and statements flowing from the mouths of politicians and ordinary citizens in the aftermath of the terrorist killings of seventeen people in France last week, the most forthright and sincere one, in my opinion, came from France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls who proclaimed:  “France without Jews is not France.”

What did he mean by this?  Was it only in reaction to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistent invitation to French Jews to flee France and come to Israel where they would be greeted with open arms, safe from anti-Semitism in France?

It was partly that, yes, but it was also a sincere conviction, that France’s Jews are an integral part of the community, that they are both Jewish and French,  that they should not be the victims of despicable acts because they are Jewish and that their lives warrant greater protection.

Even before last week’s terrorist attacks which left four Jews dead in a kosher grocery store, France’s Jews have been targeted heinously and viciously and more Jews than ever are packing their bags to leave for Israel. I say “more Jews than ever” because many letters we get from the States, in particular, presume that ALL of France’s Jews or a huge percentage are fleeing France.  So let’s get the real figures:  there are approximately 600,000 Jews in France; of these last year approximately 7000 left for Israel.  This is roughly 1 per cent – 1 per cent too many, certainly, but nothing like the much bigger figures that are being bandied around.

I am not Jewish but have many Jewish friends and am interested to see the different opinions they have on the question of making aliyah (emigrating to Israel).  Two friends, both American Jewish women who has lived in France for decades, downplay the reports of massive flights, stating that those who leave more often do so because they are going to retire or because they have family in Israel or because they’ve been thinking of it for a long time or because they are very religious and think they would have a better religious life in Israel. So, of the 1 per cent of those leaving, we may be down to 0.5 per cent of people leaving because of anti-Semitism in France and fear for their lives.

I do not write this to downplay those fears nor to downplay anti-Semitisim which is real and which exists but I do think it necessary to take a cold look at the facts first.  As for anti-Semitic acts, who perpetrates them?  “The French”?  Which French? If you look at the deplorable anti-Semitic acts that have taken place over the past years, you will see a pattern which is that the perpetrators are almost always young French men of Arab origin. They live unhappy lives many times in broken homes, are mostly unemployed, are or have been delinquents who in too many cases have been converted to radical Islam during their prison stays.  Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old criminal of Algerian descent, was one of those. In March 2012, he first gunned down two uniformed soldiers, then killed four, including three children, at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school. And what was his motivation?  “The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine.”  (Yet one of the soldiers he killed was, like him, a Muslim).  One cannot underestimate the weight of the Israeli-Palestine conflict when it comes to current anti-Semitic acts.  The conflict in the Middle East is played out every day in France – with the tragic results that we have seen.

I think the French Prime Minister was right to say that France wouldn’t be France without its Jews. But acts follow words and the government has a huge job cut out for it to protect its Jewish population. The government should also protect its Muslim citizens, the majority of which is peaceful and law-abiding.  The desecration of Mosques and anti-Muslim acts such as the throwing of a pig’s ear into the garage of a Muslim should not go unpunished.

No one asked me for my opinion but I’d start by educating young people about Israel and Palestine, putting it at the center of the school curricula. Ironically, French teachers for several years have taken high school classes to visit the deportation camps and talk about the Shoah but for the young Muslims of African or North African descent this is giving special attention to people who don’t need it – and they aren’t listening.  It is indicative that during the minute of silence for all the victims of the terrorist killings last week – journalists, policemen, and Jews – students in some 70 schools around the country refused to comply.  I have this for a fact from a young woman who teaches in a tough district. So, first of all: education. Education would put an end, one can hope, to the dangerous stereotypes such as “the Jews are rich” which result in odious crimes (I think of the truly awful Ilan Halimi affair in 2007 ). The people committing these crimes are barbarians of the same order as the Kouachi brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo supposedly in the name of Islam; the barbarian African and North African kidnappers of Ilan Halimi were motivated by nothing other than the sheer crass stupid stereotypes that invade the areas in which they live (“Jews are rich”).  To think that a young salesman of portable phones is “rich” because he is Jewish defies the imagination. Yet, it happened and he died  a martyr’s death.

I’d also do what wasn’t done after the Muslim riots in 2005 where the motivation wasn’t religion, but frustration at being shut off in poor areas with nothing to do  and no hope. This was an opportunity of the first order to focus on youth training and jobs but the efforts were feeble and nothing ever came of it.

Secondly, and this is being discussed, isolation for the Islamist delinquents in prison so they cannot use their jail time to foment plots.

Thirdly, some kind of herculean effort to stop the drain of young French men and women of Arab descent from joining their “brothers in arms” in Syria  – and a law forbidding them from ever re-entering France if they do choose to leave.

The French police have managed to prevent several plots from taking place. They dropped the ball on the Kaouchi brothers (they say it’s impossible to put surveillance on everyone). The government should hire more policemen, put one behind every suspect, in short, put its money where its mouth is.

The march on Sunday, January 11, was beautiful. My husband and I were there. The spirit of it was: let’s all be together to show our unity.  People of every race and color and creed – Jews and Muslims, blacks and whites, people who are religious, people who are not,  were all there to show by their presence their love of liberty. The curtain fell on a magic moment of national unity.

It would be nice if it signalled “The End” and all was well.    Unfortunately, we’re just at the beginning, with so much left to do.

And now I’m going to write something I had not intended to write before I began this article: if I were a Jew in France, would I be afraid? Yes, I would. Would I pack my bags and leave for Israel?  Perhaps not immediately but in the back of my mind I would be ever watchful.  And when the day came that being constantly vigilant weighed upon me and my family, then, yes, perhaps, like the Jews who are scared, I would leave. I would keep in mind, though, that one of every five who leave returns to France.  And I would know that going to Israel is not necessarily the solution as long as Israel and Palestine are in a stand-off.  In fact, as long as that is the state of things, none of us, whether Jews, Catholics,  Muslims or atheists will be safe, anywhere.