ParisDiary by Harriet Welty Rochefort

(#2)

 Paris?

I've been a permanent resident of the City of Light for years, 34 years to be exact, but the seduction of the world's most beautiful city continues to operate. Whether strolling past the Eiffel Tower, sipping an espresso in a café, or ambling by the Seine, the charm never dulls, the glow never dims.

To live in Paris is to live with the constant jolt of beauty. Writer Joe Murray opined that "Paris should be declared as an international shrine...The people of Paris should work at no other job than simply that of being Parisians."That's a job I'm definitely happy to work at.

The Paris Diary, a selection of some of my monthly Letters From Paris on The Paris Pages, brings you one writer's musings on life in France.

And now en avant !

December 2005 : Was Paris Burning ? (Letter From Paris)

WAS PARIS BURNING?

What a question! Of course, it was. You saw it on the news.

But if ever there was a time to heed that old adage "never believe everything you read (or see)", this was one.

Not to dismiss the very real damage that was wreaked by angry young rioters who burned not only cars, but schools, gymnasiums and theatres, but if I hadn't been watching the French news or reading French newspapers, I never would have known that this violence was taking place - and I live in Paris.

But not to worry: CNN and Fox News took care of that. I got a battery of emails from anxious friends and family in the States worried about my safety.

Very nice: but how did they get the impression that Paris - the Eiffel Tower, the Arch of Triumph, the Latin Quarter - was burning?

Simple: news correspondents posed against the backdrop of Paris and filed their reports. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the rampaging was going on several kilometers away from the Champs-Elysées.

Oh well, "A la guerre comme à la guerre!" There's always a bit of the "payback time" element in any reporting between the U.S. and France. What a thrill for American reporters to give those high-handed, lesson giving French their come-uppance! Especially after the French coverage of Hurricane Katrina where the gist was "This is happening in America?" "How is it possible they leave dead bloated bodies in the streets?" "We thought the Americans were so organized-why such a mess?" "It looks like a Third World country!". And, finally, "Why did the whites get out and the blacks remain? What a racist country!" The idea being that there's no racism in France?

That reaction reminds me of many remarks I heard during my first years in France. After learning I was American, the French would never hesitate to point out that I came from a racist country. Well, yes, there was and is racism in America. What I didn't appreciate, though, was that they didn't realize they had a little problem in their own backyard, with their Arabs and their blacks who had been shunted off to grim suburbs (out of sight, out of mind!). This very real problem couldn't and didn't go away. It grew and grew until it ended up in the raging street fighting the entire world saw on TV sets last month.

Two more observations about the U.S. media coverage of these riots: first, some of the headlines screamed that they were instigated by Muslims. That is not true. Secondly, some correspondents pointed their finger at what to them is France's strange and unique "Republican ideal" of integrating minorities so that all can become French. "Bad idea! It's not working"! they said. This idea, which has worked more or less up until now, is in fact the object of controversy within the highest ranks of the French government. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy prones "postive discrimnation" à l'américaine. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin advocates action within the existing system. President Jacques Chirac, who recently celebrated his 73rd birthday, took two weeks to address the nation about the "events" and is largely regarded by both the right and the left and public opinion as totally out of touch.

The "Republican ideal" has its good points, in my opinion. After all, successive waves of Portuguese and Italians and Poles became as French as the French. These people never describe themselves as "Portuguese French" or "Italian French" or "Polish French". On the other hand, this idealistic desire for integration has a hypocritical side to it: When little black or Arab or Chinese French children read in history books about "nos ancetres, les Gaulois" (our ancestors, the Gauls), one can legitimately wonder about what goes through their minds. If I'm black, how can my "ancestors" be white?!

Bad traditions die hard. The French Parliament recently refused to suppress a law intended to mention the positive aspects of colonization in French History text books which only focus on the negative ones. Put yourself in the position of a kid from a former French colony. In what way was colonialism good for him or her? When is it ever good for anyone other than the colonizer?!

In spite of these egregious examples of insensitivity, even the kids rioting in the housing projects are not crying out to be separate. On the contrary, they are enraged because they want to be as French as the French! They ARE French but they live in gloomy substandard high rises in bleak neighborhoods, are subjected to an education not adapted to their needs, and have the highest rate of unemployment anywhere in France. (As if having the wrong skin color and address wasn't enough, their baseball caps and hoods and baggy pants and way of speaking French alienate potential employers).

Even the kids who are good students and have had no brushes with the law are regularly stopped by policemen and frisked, a humiliating procedure to say the least. Indeed, the " starter " for the riots was the deaths of two adolescents who, thinking they were being pursued by policemen, hid in an electrical substation where they were electrocuted.

While everyone agrees there's no excuse for damage and devastation, no one has dismissed the reasons behind the rioting.

Suddenly the invisible face of France, a multicultural country, became visible. France may be multicultural but with rare "token" exceptions, you don't see brown or black faces on TV - or in politics - or in business.

Massive discrimination exists in France and that's a simple fact.

If anything positive came from the rioting, it was a very needed wake-up call, especially for politicians who have ignored the problems in the peripheries of French cities for too long.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin immediately announced an important reform of the school system that would give minorities more opportunities to succeed. He's brought parents into the picture, making them aware of their responsibility for the education of their children. And he and his government are proposing other measures they hope will remedy a bad situation.

The "social unrest" has stopped - for now. Here's hoping that French politicians will stop their infighting long enough to get long-term valid programs for all those young people who desire one thing only: to be French and treated like the French.

Before it's too late, and Paris really DOES burn.

***

On a lighter note, it's Christmas season in Paris! Store windows are alight with all kinds of tempting, beautifully presented goodies. Every night the Eiffel Tower winks at the Seine, people crowd into cafés where they laugh and drink and smoke, art exhibitions are held in swanky galleries in swish neighborhoods or behind closed doors in hidden passages in more "in" districts.

To catch the flavor of Paris, a retrospective honorng the work of Willy Ronis, the last of the great Paris photographers at age 95, is being held at the Hotel de Ville through February 18. Looking at his famous photo "Les Amoureux de la Bastille" takes you back to what seemed to be a gentler time in a gentler place. Yet Ronis also photographed down and out working districts of Paris, including Belleville - Ménilmontant where I live. (It's becoming gentrified but still has a certain down-at-the-heel feel).

If you're in Paris at the beginning of the year, don't walk to see this exhibition. Run!

To French issues

October 2005 : Macho French politicians, French cinematheque replaces American Center (Letter from Paris)

 FRENCH POLITICIANS SHOW THEIR MACHO SIDE

Who said French men aren't macho?

Or, more to the point, did anyone ever really say that?

What is generally said is that French men are less macho than the Spanish (who invented the term) or the Italians or even, I would think, the Greeks, but more macho than the Swedes, the Danes, and other northern Europeans.

It's easy to generalize, of course, and one man may be macho on some subjects and not others. For example, French men actually like the company of women and seek it out, as opposed to Anglo-Saxon men who much prefer their fishing trips or their clubs. On this count, to their credit, the French emerge as less macho.

However, when it comes to politics, whoa! French male politicians are right down there at the bottom of the barrel. If you look at the number of women in government in Europe, even "macho" Spain is way ahead of France. In fact, almost every country in the WORLD is ahead of France where politics has remained an exclusive men's club.

This was proved once again last week when the beautiful, intelligent, fifty-two year old Socialist Party leader Segolene Royal (beautiful name as well) intimated in the weekly magazine "Paris Match" that she just might be disposed to run for President of France in 2007 - should, of course, she be called upon by her Party to serve the nation.

Scandal in the ranks! Even François Hollande, Segolene's longtime partner who is the father of their four children and the Chairman of the Socialist Party, didn't exactly come out fighting to support her, preferring to mumble something about how there would be "various" candidates for the upcoming election (including himself most probably).

Well, at least he was mumbling (although he certainly doesn't rack up any points for conjugal solidarity). Other Socialist Party members, all high-ranking leaders who should know better, were not so subtle.

"This isn't a beauty contest," said one upset Party leader, while another facetitously wondered "who would keep the children". Worst of all was the bad pun about a "Presidente tournante" made by yet another apparatchik. That COULD mean a revolving Presidency but in French a "tournante" is the exact term for gang rape.

How could such macho remarks not cause a major scandal?

I have no answers to that question. But I'm fairly sure that the day there is a majority of women in the French National Assembly, French male politicians will stop making these kinds of abject, insulting and disparaging comments about women in the workplace.

Or at least they won't dare to make them out loud.

 CORSICAN WORKERS HIJACK A FERRY  And while we're on the subject of Things That Continue to Astonish Me Despite All My Years in France, here's another one culled from this week's news.
First of all, let me say that normally I watch the evening news while reading the newspaper and running to the kitchen to survey whatever I'm making for supper. At best I only catch the stories that strike my fancy, and have learned to skip all the news about strikes and social unrest as there is so much of it.

However, when I heard a report that a group of 50 or so disgruntled employees of a state-owned ferry company running routes from mainland France to Corsica, Algeria, and Tunisia, had HIJACKED THE BOAT and were on their merry way from Marseille to Corsica, I rushed to the TV and stood in front of it with my mouth and eyes wide open.

The anchorman explained that the unions were unhappy because the government
had informed them of its decision to sell the ailing ferry operator to a private company. Why? Because the mismanaged company was still running on a deficit even after the state had poured some SEVENTY MILLION EUROS into it. Sounds logical to me!

The employees didn't think so, preferring to castigate the French government for selling them out (public enterprises in France are so highly revered that it's almost unthinkable to touch them) to a private owner. The fact that the subsidized company was a total commercial failure was, for the soon to be fired employees, a mere detail to be ironed out...by the state. Hey, baby, it's THEIR problem, not ours!

Hence a union leader's bright idea to draw attention to the workers' cause by "re-appropriating" the boat!

To French strikes

Can you imagine? It's as if unhappy pilots of American Airlines decided they'd hijack a company airplane!

How, I wondered, would the government react to these modern day pirates? Would they wait for the ship to reach the port in Corsica and arrest the lawless seamen there? Would they throw them all in jail? Would they privatize that company even faster than initially planned?

And here's the kicker: the government did indeed call out the troops and in a spectacular move dropped 10 commandos of black-clad specially trained policemen from a helicopter into the boat while it was plowing through the high seas. Once on board, the cops arrested and handcuffed the leaders of the hijacking who reiterated that they were merely appropriating "their" boat and bringing it back home where it belonged.

I forbid you to laugh.

Normally, one would think, the leaders would be thrown on trial, serve their time (up to 20 years for tampering with public property) if found guilty, the company would be sold as planned, and that would be the end of the story.

Mais non! This is France, never forget. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin apparently stayed up all night putting together a proposal that would assuage the workers and put an end to the "social unrest" (workers blocking the Corsican ports, preventing vacationers from leaving the island).

In other words, the government caved in. So now we know: if you want to get anywhere in this country, here's what to do: join a union and hijack a boat!

I don't know about you, but I'm stymied by the sheer schizo factor of the whole episode.

And whereas you, dear reader, can just shake your head in amazement, I have to shell out my TAXES for these kinds of shenanigans.

Au secours!

 THE FRENCH CINEMATHEQUE REPLACES THE AMERICAN CULTURAL CENTER  This month the French cinematheque grandly opened up in its new quarters in Frank Gehry's "fantastic" building in the east of Paris right on the edge of the Parc de Bercy.
"Fantastic" because Gehry himself has said that his creation reminded him of a dancer with her "tutu" in the middle. For me, the building resembles nothing more than the kind of house you read about in fairy tales, with all the rooms going up, up, up to the sky (not very practical, in fact: architects had to entirely re-do the inside of the building to adapt it to the needs of the new Cinematheque).

This is a wonderful move for at last the Cinematheque, a treasure trove of movie history since its founding by Henri Langlois in 1936. After several different moves in Paris, it's finally found a specially made home on seven levels for its exceptional collection of 40,000 films, plus a documentation center, exhibition halls, and 3 spanking new movie theatres. To get off to a good start, the Cinematheque is holding a three month exhibition "Renoir/Renoir" comparing the works of the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir with excerpts of various movies made by his son, filmmaker Jean Renoir. This is a wonderful tribute to the Renoir family and an astonishing collection of both the paintings and the scenes from films that show the unmistakeable influence of the father on the son.

Only one regret: the building was originally erected to house the American Cultural Center which for many years was located on the Boulevard Raspail in a rambling building with a warm atmosphere that was torn down to make room for the more modern all steel and glass Fondation Cartier. For someone who remembers the American Cultural Center with its downstairs pool and adjacent snack bar where you could eat a real hamburger (remember, this was before McDonalds hit the world), the ripping down of the American Cultural Center was a sad day indeed. But even worse was the total shutdown of the Cultural Center only two years after it moved to Bercy.

Does this mean American culture is so prevalent the U.S. doesn't need a center anymore?

I for one think we need an American cultural center more today than ever before. Europeans who didn't grow up on Hemingway and Faulkner and who don't know America's great thinkers or writers or artists all too often tend to see America as one big materialistic and culturally deprived society.

From there to becoming anti-American is just one step.

So while I'm glad the French cinematheque has found new quarters, I would love to see an American Cultural Center return to Paris to correct the often lamentable and totally false image Europeans have of America.

Am I the only one?

June 2005 - France voting "no" and wine tasting (Letter From Paris)

I'm feeling groggy this morning and am trying to analyze the reasons.

Is it that spooky book on serial killers I checked out of the American
Library and read until the wee hours of the morning?

Could it be the caffeine in two small glasses of Diet Coke I drank?

Or is it because it's Monday morning and Monday, to say the least, is not my favorite day?

Even the weather refuses to cooperate: After a week-end in which
temperatures soared and Paris became one huge café with tables spilling all over the sidewalks, the blue sky turned grey, temperatures plummeted, and a cool rain is now falling on my uncomprehending rose bushes.

Well, in terms of reasons to explain the beginning of a Blue Monday, that's already a lot.

But there's more.

To add to the spooky book, a sleepless night, and turncoat weather, last night slightly less than 55 per cent of the French people voted a resounding "NON" to the ratification of the European Union constitution treaty.

Is this something to get depressed about? I mean, Sunday, the day of the vote, was also Mother's Day in France and if my two sons hadn't called to wish me a Happy Mother's Day, THAT would have definitely got me down.

But they did call and even if they hadn't, they'll always be my sons...

But a "non" vote to Europe from the country which is one of the founders and mainstays of it?

Greece has ratified the treaty, Hungary has ratified the treaty, Italy has
ratified the treaty, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Austria have
ratified the treaty. (Before the constitution can take effect, all 25 member nations must approve it.)

So why didn't France?

Maybe because "the people" were simply stymied or stunned by the almost 200 page treaty that every single French voter got a copy of. Many, like my hairdresser, even read part of it. She told me that by page 60 she was convinced she'd vote no. Her reasons weren't very clear but the one I did get was that she fears for unemployment. For her, Europe means Polish plumbers taking the jobs of French plumbers (or Greek hairdressers taking the jobs of French hairdressers). In short, in her eyes and the eyes of the majority who voted against Europe, things are bad now with double digit unemployment in France and can only get worse with open borders and a much-reviled free market economy.

In fact, when you get right down to it, the 55 per cent of the French voting "non" - and this includes the extreme right National Front party as well as the Communists and the extreme left Trotskyists, strange bedfellows indeed - are convinced they are saving France from a dire future of unfettered liberalism and cutthroat capitalist competition.

Fear is their impetus: fear at losing their much prized system of public
services, fear of free market competition, fear of bureaucracy (when you read the voluminous text and think about all the trees felled so that each of France's 42 million voters could have a copy you can almost sympathize with their reasoning), fear of unemployment, fear of being eaten up by a dog eat dog Europe styled on the U.S.

These are the days when I think I'll never understand the French. Or, more precisely, the French who voted "non". It consoles me to think that the other half of France, those who voted "oui", don't understand them either.

In truth I don't know why I should be shell shocked. The French love to say "non". It's the most powerful word in the language.

They said "no" to De Gaulle once they'd decided he was no longer in line with the times; they've said "no" to the States for many things including, most recently, the war in Iraq; they say "no" everytime they think someone "above" them is trying to pull one over on them. (Behind this latest "non" is a clear warning: no European technocrat / bureaucrat is going to govern MY life or take away MY privileges.)

 

 

 

 

"Non" in fact is one of the favorite and most oft-used words in the French language. My French husband has even said to me from time to time in a tone of disapproval (and I'm not kidding): "You never say 'No'. You always say 'Yes'." This can be for something as minor as ordering the chef's suggestion on the menu, some newfangled concoction no one has ever heard of. Or buying a dress in a color I've never worn before. This shocks him greatly. My answer is that I say yes because I like new things and want to try them out.. I have learned though that "new" and "yes" in France are words that do not bear the positive connotation they do in the U.S.

Old is tried and true. "Non" is safe. And the French these days want nothing more than to be safe.

"The French are so selfish!" I wailed to my dear French husband (who voted "oui") as I stared at the results on the TV screen.

"No, we're not selfish," he corrected me. "Just autistic."

-------------

Fortunately the French do other things than referendums. They may be Europe's bad kids on the block when it comes to politics but no one can beat the French when it comes to food and wine - which is why I've been attending a 3 hour wine tasting class every Thursday night for the past two months.

Before I signed up for the course, I prided myself on what I considered my finetuned sense of smell.

Example: I can nose out a wet dog a mile away. If someone lights up a
cigarette, even in the windiest spot on a cliff overlooking the sea, I'll
detect the smoke. Whether it's a gas leak or rancid butter or a heady
perfume or the succulent scent of a boeuf bourguignon, my nose is twitching..

Which is why I had initial pretentions of being rather gifted when it came to describing the various odors in a glass of wine.

After lesson number one, humility was immediately restored.

First we jotted down information about the different soils and grape
varieties - and let me tell you I never knew there were so many, Pinot Noir and Sryah being old friends but Tannat, Cinsau, Carignan, and Mourvedre to name but a few, aren't exactly names that readily roll off my tongue.

Then our "professeur" decided to introduce us to identifying smells. She passed out small vials filled with mysterious liquids with characteristic odors, odors we supposedly know from everyday life.

The English fellow picked up one receptacle, ran it under his nose, then picked up another and another, closed his eyes, opened them, passed all the containers under his nose again - and almost committed suicide on the spot.

"I can't identify ANY of them," he said, in despair.

The French fellow sniffed away while seriously scribbling his impressions.

The Italian gaily shuffled the little vials around, picking them up, setting them down, picking them back up again, inhaling each one like a madman. The expression on his face can only be described as "puzzled".

I picked up vial number 48 and confidently wrote down "grilled almonds". Vial number 52 was very dark and had a familiar smell. I wrote: "nuts". Then I assigned vanilla to number 13, musk to number 34, and cloves to 42.

It turned out that the "grilled almonds" was in fact "toast" and that what I thought was "nuts" was coffee. My "vanilla" was raspberries - whoa! talk about being totally off - and musk was cedar.

Cloves fortunately were cloves. Score: one out of ten.

As I said: a true lesson in humility.

My fellow smellers didn't do much better but this didn't stop any of us from swooning over a marvelous 1999 Hermitage whose fragrance, we concluded (with a lot of hints and prodding from our teacher) consisted of cherries, leather, prune and peonies.

Leather? Peonies? Ok, I admit, I didn't get all that the first time around.

But was the wine good?

Délicieux! Oh yes, my assignment for our next class is to buy and bring to class a wonderful Epoisses and an Alsatian Pinot Noir we'll all taste.

Dream homework. Non?

OUI!

To wine and to the Wine & Cheese Tastings I organize in Paris

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Order Harriet Welty Rochefort's books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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