Monthly Archives: May 2018

“I’m American. I Hug” says Meghan – but for how long?

So the deed is done.  Prince Harry has married his beautiful, bi-racial, feminist American sweetheart and I’m here to say that I witnessed their tying the knot – even if it was on French TV with French being spoken over the English.  So terribly weird!

Of course, being a sentimental type, I, like Meghan’s mother and many others, spent a lot of the ceremony with tears in my eyes.  What could be more beautiful, more touching, more dreamlike than the enactment of a fairytale? How wonderful for Harry to have found the woman of his life – a compassionate, outgoing, nonconformist, modern woman who brings to mind his late mother, Princess Diana.

Yes, I’m happy for Meghan and Harry – but a little worried as well.

“I’m American. I Hug” was the headline of this morning’s front page article in the international edition of the New York Times. It  dealt with the (painful to some, especially in the monarchy -and welcome to others who aren’t) fact that Meghan is a hugger.

So, big deal, you’ll say.  All Americans are huggers.

And therein lies the problem.

Having lived abroad for more than forty years, I know for a fact that when not on home ground you’ve got to make compromises – every day and all the time.

Europeans, especially the reserved English,  do not hug each other.   The Spanish greet each other one way, the Polish another, the Italians yet another.

In France,  the bise  is the way you greet a friend and it’s not as easy as it looks. You lightly graze the cheek of the receiver twice (in Paris) and three and even four times in the provinces.  There are some people to whom you would never give a bise  (your boss, your kid’s teacher, someone you have just been introduced to) but of course, you, the foreigner, have to figure this out by watching people and making the effort to learn.

I try to imagine what would have happened if I had said “I’m American. I Hug” in France.   It’s almost an act of war!  It means, “I’ll do things my way. I’m superior. America is superior. Why would I bother to do what you guys do?”  My French family and friends would have been stupefied had I grabbed them and hugged them.  They don’t understand the hug anymore than I understood the bise in the beginning.

But I learned. You know why? Because I was living in their country. If I wanted to do things my way, I would have stayed in my country.

It’s good that Meghan brings a new perspective to the stilted and stuffy monarchy. If she feels like hugging an adorable little girl or a charity worker for the homeless (pictures below) from time to time, well, why not?

But the Palace Guards? Please, Meghan. You’re no longer in California.   Good luck!

Franco-American friendship at the Chateau de Blérancourt

Welcome to the Franco-American museum in the Chateau de Blérancourt (that’s yours truly in the picture above, standing at the entrance).    I’d been hearing about this museum which is a mere hour’s drive from Paris for quite some time.  Truth be told, and I don’t know why, it wasn’t on my list of priorities.

But fate took care of my lack of interest:  on our way to another French monument, the Abbaye de Royaumont, a road sign indicating “Blérancourt” suddenly loomed up on our right.

It was not just a sign but a “divine sign”, we laughed, as we happily changed our plans and our route.

We were happy with our decision but our GPS wasn’t.  According to its little pictogram, our car had veered off the road and into fields!  Given our precarious situation, we immediately decided to do something hardly anyone does these days: stop the car and ask directions of two locals lazily drinking their beers in a front of a café.

“Excusez moi,” I said, as I rolled down the window to peer up at our potential saviours..  “We are looking for the Chateau de Blérancourt but keep going around in circles.” (I didn’t mention the picture of our vehicle plowing through fields).

One of the fellows, a grizzled old-timer, glanced at the cell phone I was holding in my hand.

“It won’t tell you?” he asked, pointedly but with good humour.

Red-faced, I admitted that I hadn’t even thought of consulting it.  He and his friend grinned and pointed us in the right direction.  “You should stop here for lunch before you go,” they added.  We almost did, but it was time to be on our way (and reflect for a few seconds on how few and far between these informal exchanges are becoming now that we get our information from machines instead of humans).

We did end up eating before going to the museum, repairing to a  small town named Cuts (pronounced “coots” in French)  which featured all in one place, the Holy Trinity of almost all French villages:   the  church, the Mairie and the school.  It also boasted a Michelin starred restaurant but we opted for the town’s one and only simple little café  where we ordered up big tasty sandwiches and a couple of glasses of wine.   As we sat on the terrace enjoying the lovely spring weather, something odd happened.  Every single passer-by greeted us with a smile and a bonjour.  This was so astonishing that we almost choked on our wine.  Yes, we were definitely no longer in Paris.

Then it was on the museum,  a country residence built between 1612 and 1619 by the French architect Salomon de Brosse for the Potier de Gesvres family.  During the French Revolution, the  main building of the original residence was totally demolished.   Fortunately the portal and two pavilions remained.

The American connection started at the end of World War I when Anne Morgan, daughter and unique heiress of John Pierpoint Morgan,the richest man in the world, toured the devastated area of the Aisne region, staying at the Chateau de Blerancourt where she worked with the American Committee for Devastated France (CARD).

“The French Friends of Blérancourt Museum” was founded in 1923 and a year later the chateau became a museum  – and a continuing testimony to the French support of the American War of Independence and the American commitment to the French during the First World War.  The eclectic collection you can see today after a recent renovation of the buildings ranges from plaster casts of famous American leaders such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and the famous French friend of America, Lafayette (picture below), to posters depicting U.S. aid in World War I and an elaborate  costume of a Native American.

The beautifully and carefully landscaped gardens surrounding the chateau made us want to sit down with a book and stay all afternoon.

 

 

 

But it was time to go and make some other discoveries:  in the nearby town of Noyon we stumbled on the house in which Jean Calvin was born. (By the way, contrary to what I thought, Calvin was French, not Swiss).  Back to his birthplace:  who knew? (Well, I wasn’t all that surprised: everywhere you go in France, even in the least touristic regions, history is your constant partner and  monuments abound).

 

On this sunny Sunday morning the people sitting at the tables on the sidewalk cafés in Noyon were mostly men and mostly Arab or Turkish workers.  Many stores were closed – not just for the day, but seemingly forever.  Is it just a sleepy town, I wondered?  Or has it been hit by massive unemployment?

I don’t have the answer to that question but I do have one certitude: if you want to see France and know France, you’ve got to hightail it out of Paris.

And when you do, you’ll see how and how fast you leave the City of Light behind.  Under wide skies, you see enormous fields (like the one in the picture below of a yellow field of “colza” or rape, and farmers tilling the land.   You’ll see villagers leisurely stopping to talk to each other on the street – and oh, how those conversations can last (reminds me of the small town in which I grew up in the Midwest).  People are wary of newcomers, but if you don’t come on as a big city dude, you’ll be just fine.   Voilà –  et vive la différence.

As the famous American writer Henry James wrote in his book “A  Little Tour in France” : “France may be Paris, but Paris is not France.”

The people of Paris – one man survives and thrives among the multinationals

At first glance, the Maison Legeron  looks quirky, homey,  topsy turvy.   Hard to imagine that the charming, old-fashioned atelier houses the  last independent family firm that makes and supplies the exquisite handmade artificial flowers worn by top models strutting down the runways at haute couture shows (and also sold for astronomical prices in high fashion boutiques). 

 Bruno Legeron, whose great-grandfather bought the establishment in 1898, tells me that there was a time when hundreds of firms like his turned out handmade flowers and feathers for ladies’ hats.   Then came the automobile, more informal ways of dressing and notably, the demise of le chapeau.  The legions of small ateliers were snatched up and became part of  big fashion houses. Legeron is the last to hold out, fashioning his artificial flowers for designers from Dior to Jean-Paul Gaultier to Jimmy Choo and supplying feathers for the Lido and the Folies Bergères.

Times have changed, though, and Bruno admits that  “we used to make flowers – now we make profit margins”.     In spite of his words,  you can tell that he believes in what he does and that in his atelier there’s more to the process than profit margins.  There’s heart.

The process looks deceptively simple – the silk  (or leather or latex) is stretched on wooden frames to stiffen and dry all night, then the petals are cut with dies and wax heated so that each petal can be individually shaped with a special instrument solely for that purpose.  Some of the tools date back to from Bruno’s  great-grandfather’s days. Bruno personally takes care of finding and mixing exactly the right colour for the petals.

“The only thing we don’t do”, Bruno joked, as he showed me around the picturesque  atelier  only steps away from the Palais Royal and its gardens –  which are filled with “real” flowers  –  “is raise our ostriches down in the basement.”    There are no birds in the basement, for sure, but there are bird feathers galore, whether from pheasants, black guinea fowls,  swans or others,  carefully stored in plain oblong cardboard boxes lining the walls from floor to ceiling.  Ostrich feathers notably, are classified according to quality and labelled  “très très belle”,  “très belle”, and “belle”.    Those feathers are used on everything from boas to accessories on shoes like the gorgeous bright blue pair in the picture below.

 

On the day I visited the atelier, Bruno was dressed in jeans and a tracksuit top over which he wore a black apron adorned with huge safety pins with various roses and feathers. He certainly looked “modern”, but he’s proud of  doing things the old-fashioned and collegial way (workers in the atelier all have specialities but pitch in to help each other when there’s a rush, he says).  Pointing at an antiquated cash register where the amounts are still in French francs, Bruno joked:  “That’s my computer”.   

I cast a glance at the “computer”, then gazed up at the ceiling.  Hanging over our heads were rows and rows of enormous silk white peonies which Legeron had created for a Cartier window display.

I was filled with admiration for the exquisite craftmanship I had witnessed during the visit  – as well as a fleeting but powerful desire to own a drop dead gorgeous 2 meter black and white boa made of top quality ostrich feathers that  I gently fingered on my way out the door….But then, who wouldn’t want to possess a handmade creation with more than a century of French savoir-faire behind it?

 

This article was adapted from a passage in the chapter “Savoir-Vivre: Life as an Art Form” in my latest book, Joie de Vivre.