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.

 

 

 

 

Je suis Charlie

Today in Paris, the weather – grey skies producing a steady patter of rain – is perfectly attuned to the grim feeling of horror and sadness and outrage that permeates the country after yesterday’s terrorist attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.  Well-known for its iconoclastic, far-out, sometimes totally tasteless and sometimes excruciatingly funny cartoons, the weekly poked fun at anything the its talented journalists deemed stupid – and the list was long.

Religious extremism, no matter what the religion, was one of Charlie’s favorite targets and its free-spirited journalists didn’t miss an opportunity to mock and make fun of Islam’s radical fundamentalists and the prophet Muhammed.    Nothing stopped them, even when they were threatened, even after their offices were burned, even when some hinted they might be going too far.    Freedom of the press was what mattered. As Charlie Hebdo’s director, Charb, told Le Monde: “What I’m going to say may be a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing up than live down on my knees.”

Yesterday Charb and eleven others were gunned down by two terrorists acting in the name of the Islam the newspaper had systematically mocked.

The attackers, dressed in black, masked, and armed with automatic weapons, were well-informed. They knew that Wednesday was the day of the story conference at which all the foremost journalists would be gathered. They are said to have called out the names of the journalists as they took aim.   When they left the building, the two gunmen shot a police man in cold blood, then unhurriedly made their way to their getaway vehicle yelling “”Charlie Hebdo is dead”.

They were wrong.  The French reaction, and the reaction of free people everywhere, was massive and basically this:   We will be unified, we will not let ourselves be torn apart, we will defend the values that are central to our civilization, foremost among them, freedom of expression, the liberty to write and say what we want without fear of giving offense.

Yes, the attackers murdered Charlie Hebdo’s brightest, bravest and blasphemous journalists. But they did not kill their spirit or their values or their message and they did not kill Charlie Hebdo. On the contrary, yesterday millions around the world declared in every language: “Je suis Charlie”.

 

 

 

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Joie de Vivre? Not for expats!

Bonjour dear reader :  Have you ever dreamed of being an expat ? Living in   – not visiting – Paris, London, Rio de Janeiro ? Doesn’t it sound exotic, glamorous, fun-filled ?  Would you be tempted?

Sure you would ! But first, please answer a few questions about matters you may not, but certainly should,  know before you consider the idea. If by the end of my little questionnaire you still want to be an expatriate, please do it – at your risk and peril.

Here we go !

Did you know that the U.S. government taxes its citizens wherever they live ? With the exception of  Eritrea, I believe, it is the ONLY country in the world to do so.  What does that mean for you, my future expat ?  You will pay taxes both in the country you live in AND declare your income to the U.S. government whether you owe money or not.  If you’re over a certain threshold, you’ll pay in both places.

Did you know that a 2010 law called the Foreign Tax Account Compliance Act (FATCA,) requires all foreign banks to declare assets held by American citizens ? And that if the bank refuses, it will then be liable to a 30 per cent withholding tax ? What does this mean for you, my future expat ?  It means that financial institutions are not accepting American clients and are getting rid of the ones they have.  Simple as that !

Did you know that as an expat you now have to file a new form called the FBAR (Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts) ? This is a report of every single financial account that you  possess or have signature authority on, what it is, where it’s located, how much you have on it.  Of course this means that Uncle Sam now knows what your spouse, if foreign, has on his or her accounts if he or she was dumb enough to give you a proxy.  Seriously speaking, in my book, the ability to peek into the acount of a non-U.S. citizen is called spying. The FBAR is an egregious invasion of privacy and totally discriminatory.  And, last but certainly not least,  do you know to whom we expats file this FBAR form ? We file it to – are you ready ? –  the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network at the Department of the Treasury.  Did you get that ?  Financial CRIMES !!

Did you know that ? Of course you didn’t !  Why would you ? You are a « good » American living in America whereas we expatriates are, in the eyes of our government, traitors who have chosen to abandon « the greatest country in the world ».

In its own peculiar way our government has placed its citizens abroad on its Most Wanted List.

Just a couple more questions and then you can decide if you still want to be an expatriate.

Do you seriously think that a terrorist would have a bank account in his/her own name or fill out these tiresome forms ? Get real ! A bona fide tax dodger is smarter than that !

Do you think that the Average Joe and the Average Joan should be set apart and discriminated against by the U.S. government  because they are living abroad ? (If you answer yes, I’ll take you off my mailing list !).

Do you still want to be an expat ?  I doubt it.

And, now, here’s the  question many expats are asking :  in light of the scandalous way we are treated by our government, do we still want to be American citizens ?

 

 

 

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A U.S. trip and a French freak out

This Joie de Vivre blog has been silent for months.  Pardonnez-moi!

The reason is that in Fall 2013 I embarked on an action-filled book tour in the States for more than a month, traveling from big cities to small (think Chicago, Seattle, then Shenandoah, Iowa,  my hometown, Joplin, Mo.  and Knoxville, Tennessee to name but a few) – and it always takes me a long time to get back in the saddle, digest my travels, and move on.  It took me even longer because during the Christmas holidays Philippe and I decided to celebrate his newly acquired doctoral degree (from the Sorbonne in History with highest honors) with a richly deserved vacation in Mauritius and the French island of La Réunion. See photo below!

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So, albeit belatedly, a few quick thoughts on the U.S. trip and a confession:  After living in France (one could also say “Europe”) for so long, I am flabbergasted by how generous my fellow Americans are with their time and how easily things get done!  (France is a wonderful place but things do tend to get complicated). Many of the people I visited and stayed with along the way were old friends but some were new.  In both cases they cheerfully drove me from place to place, made me comfort meals or took me out to eat, got me and/or took me to the airport, and bent over backwards to facilitate my every move.  One friend gave me her own spacious room to sleep in while she trekked upstairs to her smaller guest room, yet another actually ended up shlepping and selling my books.  In LA I spoke at an event at Vromans held in conjunction with the Alliance Française of Pasadena, in Seattle a friend threw a momentous book party for me at which we sold more than sixty books.  In Knoxville, Tennessee, a friend arranged for me to be the keynote speaker at a Writers Guild fundraiser and sell my books. The event was held in a boutique horse farm and at it I learned what Southern hospitality means.  Such gentility!  I could go on and on because everywhere I went people were gracious, welcoming, efficient and fun.   I mentioned friends but family pitched in too – my brother Ward Welty in Huntsville, Alabama and wife Jane threw a book party for me and ferried me to appearances in  Knoxville and Birmingham. As I told them, I only come to stay with them once every ten years or so but when I do, watch out!  They gamely met the challenge and probably collapsed with relief after my departure!

When traveling around like I did, it’s not easy to take the pulse of the country other than to observe the patent rift between the Republicans and the Democrats.  I don’t choose my friends by their politics so some are on on the left, some on the right.  Let’s just put it this way: If they’re too far on the right, we don’t talk politics.   If I lived in the States, which I no longer do, I would probably end up taking sides.  From a distance, it’s easier to de-dramatize, n’est-ce pas?

Frankly, since I live permanently in France, I am more prone to worry about what’s going on here.  No longer a tourist, I hold a French passport and can even vote in French elections. And pay French taxes.  What French politicians do affects me directly so I have to pay attention.  Which I do.

So here goes:   Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard all about President François Hollande’s philandering and break-up with his now ex-companion Valerie Trierweiler.  That kind of stuff is exciting and fun for the press to report on. What’s less glamorous but much more troubling is the current “ambiance” caused by a rift between the governing Socialist party and those who don’t agree with their actions (gay marriage and the introduction of courses on sexual equality in grade school) or methods.  Demonstrations and debates have ensued, but both are now firmly in place.  And who gets blamed for these societal changes? Hold on to your hats while I give you a couple of recent examples of “conversations” I heard in line in a big Parisian department store where I was lined up at the cash register to buy some clothes.

In the first incident, a cashier kindly offered to help out a woman who had a problem that apparently couldn’t be solved by the cashier in whose line she was standing.  “Come on over here and I’ll help you get this settled” she said and so the lady, an Arab wearing a head scarf, did and all was well.  Except it wasn’t.  A dumpy dumpling looking grey-haired woman in front of me yelled at the cashier:   “I’ve got a train to catch. Why are you taking her instead of me?” So far, this is normal behavior in a line – people in Paris are always yelling for one reason or another.  However, she didn’t stop there.    “And why are you helping an “étranger“?  she queried, and in a fit of impatience, threw her purchases down and trounced out.  Fortunately, the reaction was one of horror from the cashier and my fellow sufferers in the line which means that not everyone subscribes to this line of thought.

A couple of days later I was in the same store and this time a black guy got impatient, raising his voice to say to the person being waited on “You’re not the only one in the store”.  A lady standing next to me shook her head disapprovingly and, pointing to the black guy, said:  “Ah, all these “étrangers“.  That’s what we get for voting in a Socialist government.”  I wanted to tell her that  (a) if she thought that the only impolite and rushed people in France were nonFrench she should have another think  and (b) that I am an étranger too but she knew that from my accent and it didn’t count because I wasn’t black or Arab – but by this time I had only one idea which was to get out of that store.

Don’t get me wrong:  I don’t mean to contrast the “nice Americans” with the “mean racist French” in what I wrote above.  Each society has people who think that there are too many “foreigners” and blame whatever’s wrong in the country (in the case of France, high unemployment would head the list).  What I’ve remarked lately though is that while people used to dump on these foreigners in private, now they are doing it in public.  Their private racist thoughts are now out in the open!  Maybe that’s a good thing.  You can’t refute an argument unless it’s out there – and is it ever out there these days.

How will all this strife come out in the wash?  At the polls.  It will be interesting to see how the French vote in the coming municipal elections.  Will the extreme right gain votes in a landslide?   I wish I knew and I hope for France that the divisiveness will cool down or come to an end – just as I hope it will in the States. Looks like I’m an incorrigible optimist!

In the meantime, I find plenty of reasons to retain my joie de vivre and simply wish that all those people who blame the foreigners (les étrangers) for their unhappiness would as well. Don’t you?

 

 

The Little Black Dress

I always thought the French had a genius for wining, dining, romancing, and dressing and a lot of other things I couldn’t fit into the subtitle of Joie de Vivre, and the little black dress has to be at the top of the list.

Why?  For me, la petite robe noire is quintessentially French:  simple but elegant.  It’s THE dress you have got to have in your wardrobe, the one you’ll always find yourself gravitating to in answer to the perennial question:  “what shall I wear”?

As the American fashion writer and Paris resident Tina Isaac enthused:  “Black is timeless, no-brainer, works in all situations, day to night, 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 (thank you Chanel and Audrey), regardless of whether it’s deserved, and for all those reasons I would say it’s kind of the spirit of Paris, sartorialized.”

Invented by Coco Chanel almost a century ago, the little black dress is now on high display at the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art and Culture until September 22 so if you’re in Paris, put it on your list.  Now for a confession:   I’d tell you what you’re going to see but I haven’t been myself.   It’s on my  to-do list, that’s for sure.  I do however know a lot about the exhibition simply from reading a recent article in the International Herald Tribune by its authoritative fashion writer, Suzy Menkes.  According to her,   “this collection is far more than an homage to past grandeur”.  André Leon Talley, a contributing editor at American Vogue and the force behind the exhibition, emphasizes the versatility of the little black dress, showcasing a variety of mannequins by designers from Yves St. Laurent and Balenciaga to Marc Jacobs and Stella McCartney.

As I said, I haven’t been to the exhibition yet – and I’m on vacation and can’t get a picture up which is really a pity –  but all you have to do is visualize the diminutive Edith Piaf belting out her passionate love songs in her little black dress and you’ve got your image. In fact, did you ever see Piaf in anything but the little black dress?

The little black dress is simple and elegant, but also versatile.  The exhibition shows it in all its various interpretations, from classic to modern.  The more I think about it, the more I think I’m going to rush to the show and then go buy myself a new black dress for my (very small) collection.   It’s one purchase where you truly can’t go wrong.  As Stella McCartney says in the book accompanying the show (which I will mostly surely buy as well):  “The little black dress is something to rely on – to fill you with confidence and ease.”

What more can one ask?

 

 

 

 

Have the French lost their joie de vivre? Mais non!

So, are the French depressed or not?  Have they lost the joie de vivre the entire world envies them, or at the very least, associates with them?

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in Paris for haute couture week, gave the subject her attention in an article entitled “Goodbye Old World, Bonjour Tristesse” that appeared on July 6  and I’m starting to lose count of the number of people who have forwarded it to me.  They think – as they should – that since I wrote an entire book on the subject of  joie de vivre, I’d be interested in her take on the matter.

You bet I’m interested, for at least two reasons.  One, of course, is the subject.  Two is that I’m a journalist as well so enjoyed looking at how she constructed the piece, seeing who she interviewed, what quotes and polls she chose, and what her slant was.

As usual, she’s entertaining.  (That’s what she’s paid for!)  She writes well and reports well (if she’s at the Times, these skills are a no brainer).  The tone is typically, in my mind, New York Times Arch, ie, if I’m telling you this, That’s The Way It Is.  After all, the Times is the journal of record so the journalists must be right, non?

The French are always fun to report on and if you’re a reporter for the Times, it’s even more fun because you can get in a few cheap shots and no one will accuse you of being Fox News for God’s sakes.  To wit:  “The French,” she proclaims, “are so busy wallowing in their existential estrangement – a state of mind Camus described as ‘Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?’ – that they don’t even have the energy to be rude.”  I was smiling until I got to the last few words.   Well, I see why she couldn’t resist, but still.  “The French are rude” stereotype is just so tiresome.

To back up her point that the country has fallen into a state of depression, Dowd interviews fashion designer Christian Lacroix’s dentist on the avenue Hoche.  For those of you who are not all that familiar with Paris or its social classes and spheres, interviewing Christian Lacroix’s dentist for his thoughts on joie de vivre is like interviewing  Marie-Antoinette about which cake she’s going to distribute to the people. He says that his patients are bemoaning such horrid things as, and I quote, ‘not going anymore on holiday to Egypt’.  Oh, please.

The entire article continues in this vein – the dentist muses that the French people probably “think too much” and that the “happy stupid” don’t see the problem after which he, according to the reporter, gives (what else) a “Gallic shrug” and pronounces that none of this is “the end of the world.”  Does this mean that if you’re happy you’re stupid? I admit I didn’t quite get it.

For Dowd,  the French are stuck in a sentimental time warp (all of the French? one wants to ask) which prevents them from moving forward.  She cites a BVA-Gallup poll which revealed that the French were even more pessimistic than Afghans and Iraqis!  She did not cite a poll that showed that while the French are indeed pessimistic about externals, they are extremely happy about their private lives.

And she leaves us dangling with sociologist François Dubet’s comment to Le Monde that “If France doesn’t get all the Olympic medals and all the Nobel Prizes, the French consider it hopeless.”

Too bad she didn’t take a nice long look at that comment for it’s the crux of the matter!

That the French want to be great, that they want to go back to the good old times when France was glorious, that they are unhappy to be one among many in Europe, that they want to be special and stand out, that people are dissatisfied about this, that or the other is normal.   But I think she missed what was so incredibly and indelibly French about his comment (and actually what was French about all the comments of the people she interviewed).  The French simply cannot bear to be bored.  The Spanish, the Irish, the Greeks, and many other countries are suffering from unemployment and various problems (just look at the Americans and health care) .  Everyone’s got problems but when the French have them, the whole world knows about it.  It’s not for nothing that the national bird is the rooster whose vociferous crow leaves no man asleep.    The French are drama Kings and Queens.  I know: I’m married to a Frenchman for whom even the smallest of matters is One Big Deal.  Everything,  and I mean everything, is a subject for discussion and debate.

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So you know what?  This whole discussion about “liberté, égalité, and morosité”, this whole debate about the French being down in the dumps, and have they or have they not lost their joie de vivre is PROOF of their joie de vivre!   The French love nothing better than a nice big attention getting controversy.  Hey, they even got a New York Times reporter on the case of joie de vivre and yours truly devoted an entire BOOK to the subject .

Bravo les français.  While everyone’s having serious discussions as to whether your renowned joie de vivre has gone the way of the dodo, you’re having a glass of white wine in a romantic restaurant with a white tablecloth, looking into the eyes of your loved one,  or you’re on a beach somewhere enjoying the benefits of your generous paid vacation time, or maybe you’re even in a hospital but it’s ok because you don’t have to worry about outrageous medical bills since you’re covered.

You’re out there somewhere enjoying your joie de vivre.

And you’ve outwitted us all once again.

 

 

 

When “second homes” are first in the heart

C’est les vacances!

Everyone knows that the French are world champions of the watered down work week and the wondrous six week minimum paid vacation.  But did anyone ever stop to ask where les français GO en vacances?  Ask no more!

They go to their résidence secondaire (second home) if they’re lucky enough to have one.    It may be at the seashore, in the mountains, or deep in the countryside, it may be a castle, a studio apartment, or a trailer home, but whatever and wherever it is, the home away from home is a very French thing.   With three million “second homes”, they have twelve times as many as the Germans, and more than anyone else in the world!

I discovered the “second home” concept early on when Philippe, who was courting me assiduously, invited me to his parents’ country house an hour west of Paris, not far from the beautiful cathedral of Chartres.  Although they had a lovely, spacious apartment near the Gare Montparnasse in Paris, the résidence secondaire, which his father bought during the War to get his wife and small children out of the capital, was a haven not just for the family but for the many friends who were invited to partake of the bounteous repasts served by my mother-in-law, a wonderful cook and one of the most hospitable persons I have ever met (I once heard someone accuse the French of being inhospitable –  the person obviously hadn’t met her!).

The Rochefort “second home” was built in the 1860s. With its low sloping tiled roof, from the outside it looks like an illustration of a fairytale cottage in a children’s book.   Inside, the rooms are small but each has been lovingly painted and decorated and cared for.  The house is only a few doors down from the village church, and only steps away from the mairie where my father-in-law served many terms on the City Council.   Television rapidly changed social life in the village;  my mother-in-law told me that when she was young,  the main entertainment on a hot summer evening was sitting in front of your door and chatting with the villagers out for a stroll. Imagine that in this day of internet!

My in-laws braved the Paris traffic every single week-end to arrive at the country place, air it out, go to the next village to buy groceries, come back and start some serious cooking and repairs around the house while assorted grandchildren and cousins and friends played in the huge yard and the more adventurous little ones crossed a wee bridge over a small brook that ran through the property (every once in a while a clumsy soul would end up in the water). Our youngest son spent most of his time sneezing and wheezing because of various allergies (to the country?!) but it didn’t make a dent in his pleasure.

As for Philippe, he’d hit the couch, open a magazine, close his eyes and generally fall asleep.  After a stressful week at the office (he’s one of those French persons who worked 80 hours a week, not 35) the country place was perfect for relaxation.  While he napped, I would watch my mother-in-law’s doings in the kitchen and from her learned a precious thing or two about French cooking.  No, not written recipes – they were in her head and she was incapable of transcribing them. My “lessons” were in the watching and the observing and the smelling and the tasting  – all of which I did a lot.

On summer nights we’d set up a huge long table on the terrace.  The children were always with us but I distinctly remember that my in-laws, who loved them all dearly, didn’t tolerate any acting up. They were welcome and expected to eat what was served and behave.  And they did, I think, because they were so happy to be there (and were allowed to run off and play once they’d finished the cheese course – they were sure to return for the dessert.)

On cold winter nights after a long dinner we’d sit by the fireplace and perform a ritual: one of us would go to the cupboard to fetch thimble-size glasses into which my father-in-law would pour the Rochefort pear alcohol production. Yes, OUR pear production.  Every year in the fall we’d all get in the tiny kitchen (total workspace: one counter) and cut up a thousand pounds of purchased Williams pears (for there were no fruit trees on the property) in four, then put the pieces one by one into two wooden barrels where they would remain until spring when the distiller would come along, all red-nosed because he’d been inhaling (or drinking) too much strong alcohol. With his copper still, he’d transform the pear juice into alcohol that would take every hair off the chest of even the hairiest man.  But we love it and it’s good.  Every time I uncork a bottle (by the way, a thousand pounds of pears only yields about thirty bottles), the smell of the wood in the fireplace and the country air and the happy faces of the friends and family in the room pop out and float in the air.

Nostalgia’s one benefit and there’s another: our minimum-80-proof pear alcohol will kill any germ that comes near it.  Extremely useful when you’ve got a cold.  But buveur beware: don’t drink it like water which I rashly did one night with a friend. Result:  I have never been so drunk in my life and my unsuspecting friend swore off alcohol for five entire years. I now sedately take a sugar cube and dip it into the glass (what the French call a canard, a duck) to get the pleasure of the taste but none of the  side effects.

So many memories:  of my mother-in-law mending our clothes and caring for her geraniums and asking me at breakfast what we might eat for lunch (I’m under the radar in the morning and couldn’t engage with her on that one), of my father-in-law buttering slices of pain d’épices and bringing her breakfast in bed which she shared with the grandchildren who had piled into it with her,  of all those meals that went on for hours with much laughing and talking (trust me, no one in that family ever said  “Im not hungry” or raided the refrigerator – meals were at the table and twice a day like clockwork).

I could write so much more about those magical days in the country place – and so could, I would imagine, any French person who has one.

Why?  Because those French “second” homes are often first in the heart.

 

(The above entry is adapted from and based on excerpts from “Hanging Out Without Feeling Guilty” in my book, Joie de Vivre).  All material copyrighted.