ParisDiary by Harriet Welty Rochefort

(#9)

 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 !

 French heroes (Paris Pages Feb.2007)

The most loved French personnality dies...  It was 1954 and France was not the modern, gleaming country it is now.
It was a country in tints of greys and browns and blacks, a country still marked by the ravages of war. Its buildings were dilapidated and many French men, women, and children crowded together in makeshift housing or slept in the streets. To add to the general misery, the winter of 1954 was the coldest on record.

On one of those bleak and brutal winter days a strong young voice, a voice filled with conviction and a sense of urgency, floated out on the airwaves.

" Mes amis, au secours ! ( My friends, Help ! ) " , the voice appealed, in a phrase that has since become famous. "Last night at 3 a.m. a woman died, frozen, on the Boulevard Sebastapol, clutching in her hand the paper telling her she had been expelled from her lodging. "

Listeners literally stopped in their tracks, struck by the sincerity and the urgent nature of the call for help. The rich in their limousines and the poor in their rags flocked to the site designated for the collection of whatever they had to offer : money, blankets, food. It was the largest " insurrection of goodness " France had ever seen, an enormous outpouring of generosity and solidarity.

The appeal was made in the name of the Emmaüs movement which now has 41 communities all over the world. The purpose of the association : recuperate and refurbish used furniture and clothes to be sold at a low price by " companions " who otherwise would have been sleeping in the streets. The money collected is used to fund housing for the poor.

Behind the 1954 plea for help was the founder of Emmaüs, a Roman Catholic priest called Abbé Pierre, born Henri Grouès to a pious and well-to-do Catholic family in Lyons. At the age of 19, Grouès became a Capuchin monk, pledging his life to poverty. Forced to leave the monastery for health reasons, he joined the Resistance, helping Jews escape France, and changed his name to Abbé Pierre.

Known for his cape and beret and his cane, unshaven face, mischievous eyes, radiant smile, total simplicity, rebellious spirit (disagreements with the church hierarchy on celibacy and women in the priesthood) and his outbursts of anger in the face of social injustice, Abbé Pierre topped the list of France's most popular people for so many years that he finally requested that his name be removed.

The Abbé, who died this week at the age of 94, was admired by the French, whether Catholics or non-believers. They admired the man and his life. They admired his decision to opt for a life of austerity and devotion to others when he could have opted for wealth. They admired his profound spirituality and faith which he combined with his love of humans and his knowledge of the way the world works (the Abbé could have had another life as a coach on how to work the media). They admired his simplicity. They admired his rebellion, his fight for housing for all. He was not perfect : late in his life, he defended negationist Roger Garaudy, a " mistake " for which he later apologized.

His funeral service was a reflection of the man and of the people who loved him, from the President of France, deeply moved, to other dignitaries, and throes of ordinary people, among them scores of Emmaus " Compagnons ". The three hour service was filled with the pomp and ceremony inherent to the great cathedral ­ but the Abbé's coffin was a plain wood one, placed directly on the marble floor . On it, his cape, walking stick, and beret.

You may have read a short article in the International Herald Tribune about the Abbé Pierre. In France, the coverage was immense, from pages and pages of articles in French newspapers and magazines to radio and television specials to the televised funeral service transmitted live, showing unforgettable images of the people of Paris applauding his coffin and waving good-by.

We can't always know everything about another society from reading the U.S. papers which, understandably, don't have the time or space to devote to every single person of importance in every single country.

Which is why I'm happy to tell you a bit more about the extraordinary life and legacy of the Abbé Pierre who was in a very real way the conscience of the French. He had a simple goal ­ housing for all ­ and sadly he didn't succeed. Still today, France has too many homeless and poor. But Abbé Pierre made housing for the poor an issue no French government can ever again ignore.

***

French anti-Semitism and the U.S. press...  Funny what editors choose ­ or not - to put in the day's news.

On Thursday, January 18, President Jacques Chirac presided over a moving ceremony at the Pantheon to honor the 2740 French men and women honored with the title of" Righteous Among the nations " by the Yad Vashem Memorial in Israel to persons having saved Jews at the peril of their life. Most of these people were acting according to their conscience and did not even wish to be singled out. Who would know that, according to Simone Veil, the president of the Foundation for the memory of the Shoah and herself a Holocaust survivor, the greatest number of the " Righteous " are to be found in France ?

Readers of U.S. newspapers know all about French anti-Semitism, past and present. They know about Vichy and how the zealousness of France's own policemen led to the arrest and deportation of innocent Jewish men, women, and children to the death camps. In 1995, President Chirac recognized for the first time since the War " faults committed by the State " on the sad anniversary of the roundup of the Vélodrome d'hiver on July 16, 1942.

At the Pantheon, Chirac urged France to look at its history " in the face ". History is a " block " he said in his speech.

The ceremony honoring the Righteous was a solemn occasion paying tribute to the quiet and courageous French men and women who hid Jewish men, women, and children from the Nazis.

One day after the ceremony, the International Herald Tribune ran stories on the latest dissension in the French Socialist Party and the trials and tribulations of a French restaurant owner in New York.

There was not one line about the commemoration by the French President of the 2740 French people honored by the Israel memorial Yad Vashem, as " Righteous among the Nations ".

An odd omission.

For that story of hitherto untold good acts is also part of France's history.

These people are France's heroes.

To who's who

Back to the top of the page.

October 2002 - On French drivers... (Letter From Paris)

Driving across town almost daily has given me ample opportunity and more time than I'd ever want to reflect on French drivers. The conclusion of the reflection is: the French are TERRIBLE drivers. Statistically, the Greeks and Portuguese are worse (and Italians are pretty bad as well now that I think about it). The French however have ALL spent a compulsory amount of time in driving school and I can't for the life of me what they learned there (mow 'em down? always be first to the red light and when you get there run through it?).

I'm on tenterhooks as I drive on the périphérique (ring road) around the city. Cars weave in and out of lanes, flash lights at anyone going too slowly (ie, the speed limit), and perform all kinds of totally unexpected tricks that leave you, the poor law-abiding slob, cursing or shuddering.

Warning to tourists: you'll be taking your life in your hands should you decide to rent a car. But forewarned is forearmed so read this before you make any rash decisions.

l) Do EXACTLY what you want and never worry about the other guy.
2) Make up the rules as you go along
3) If you see a parking space you want on the opposite of the street you're driving on, just cross over to get it. Don't bother to go around the block and come back the other way.

 
4) Drive fast ­ it's so much more fun !
5) Only buy stick shift cars. Automatics are for nerds.
6) Never pay parking tickets, especially in presidential election years when there's an amnesty.
7) If you have double-parked your car and gone shopping for a couple of hours, be sure to bawl out the people you've blocked in. NEVER say you're sorry.
8) If you're at a red light behind someone who doesn't whip off the second it's green, HONK, GET IRATE, INSULT THE CREEP !
9) If you're on the Paris ring road behind someone who's driving the speed limit, tailgate the guy, flashing your lights until he gets out of the way. What a NERVE !
10) If, after doing all these things, you have an accident, don't feel bad. You're not to blame ­ it's always the OTHER guy's fault.

Oh yes, I forgot one. Don't EVER cross the street to walk to the Arch of Triumph. There are underground passages for that. Use them!

As for me, I'm soon going "en vacances". You know where? In the backyard of my new apartment. The car will be in the garage. A great recipe for a no-stress vacation.

To driving in Paris

To table of contents

April 2002 - A fascist rises in France, an apartment find and other reflections (Letter From Paris)
By now you've read your newspapers and know that far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen has won the first round of the French presidential elections, beating out Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. The reaction here: total surprise and horror (on the part of those who, of course, didn't actually vote Le Pen - one out of five voters did). After the reaction, it was time for analysis. How could this happen? Le Pen has been around for years and is responsible for some of the most diffamatory anti-Semitic language (the Holocaust was a "detail" of history) and acts (he aggressed a Socialist woman leader, hurting her badly) around. How could such a thug rise to such heights? To understand, you have to have been here to see the mood of the people before the elections. In a nutshell, everyone was convinced that the contest in the second round would be between incumbent President Jacques Chirac on the right and Jospin on the left. Traditionally, the first round of voting in France allows the electorate to blow off steam, express themselves, "send a message" to the candidates they'll elect in the final round two weeks later. This time there were plenty of venues for "expressing oneself" - no less than 16 candidates from the far-right to the far-left. So when voters went to the polls they voiced their dissatisfaction with the two main candidates whose campaigns were, to say the least, lackluster. One very bad sign of what was to come was that the candidate's wives were prominently featured. We learned all we ever wanted to know about Bernadette Chirac and Sylviane Jospin but no one ever got a real sense of what the candidates were actually going to do. Chirac, a political glad-hander accused of corruption, played the "insecurity" card, promising to do something about the growing rate of crime and general incivility rampant in this country. Jospin, an austere professorial type, ignored the whole issue until at one point he admitted that he had been "naive" not to address it. Meanwhile, Le Pen came out and said what he thought about the decaying state of France and what he'd do: he'd get rid of the cause of all the trouble - the immigrants. He'd also reinstate the French franc and pull out of Europe, allow only French citizens to teach in French schools, and eliminate dual nationality (hey, that's me!). In a nutshell, he would propel France right back into the safe past when it was peopled only by the French and all was well. The only problem with that is that France was never just French. Successive waves of Italians, Spanish and Portuguese have successfully integrated into France. Because they all came from Catholic cultures, this was fairly easy to do. Muslims have posed another challenge to French society and while many have also successfully integrated, others have not. Le Pen's answer to this is simplistic and hateful, but for those who voted for him, it sounded good. Get rid of them!

Fortunately, unless there's another big surprise out there, Le Pen and his detestable ideas will be trounced in the second round. But what a wake-up call. One can only hope that the traditional parties will benefit from this shock to reflect on new solutions and new ways of relating to the grass roots. It's high time.

Many people in France decided to put off buying and selling apartments as they waited for the results of the elections. We didn't and as I said in last month's column, decided to go ahead and search for an apartment in hopes we'd find the ideal one (dream on!). And we did indeed find one that fit the bill. Geographically, psychologically and sociologically, it is as far removed from where we now live as can be. We are moving from the posh suburb of Neuilly in the west of Paris to a working class (what the French call "populaire") district in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. The 20th is close to the Bastille area, which has become very gentrified, and closer still to the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, We are changing proximity to one of the most beautiful lakes and woods in Paris (the Bois de Boulogne) for proximity to one of the most famous cemeteries, although I hardly think I'll do my daily fast walk there. The kicker is that to go outdoors for a walk, which I often do because I rapidly get claustrophobic in an apartment, I won't have to go anywhere. The apartment is on the ground floor and has a terrace AND a big garden with GRASS and TREES! That's, of course, what sold us on it. The country in Paris! Since nothing's perfect, there's a little bit of work to do in terms of adding a few more electrical outlets, changing the carpet, and painting the walls. This normally wouldn't be a problem but bills for such work can become astronomical. My first estimate came to a whopping 16000 euros (let's say about 16000 dollars). I think that in the U.S. one could paint the entire outside of a house for that - or less.

But maybe I won't have to worry about it. If by some fluke of fate Le Pen won the presidential election, I'd be out of here, dual nationality and all.

A reader of French Fried wrote very kindly to tell me she liked the book - and the French - and their food - but was worried about visiting Paris and Provence because of reports about anti-American sentiments and synagogue bombings. Would I persuade her to come? I wrote back and told her not to shelve her plans. Yes, bad things happen. Yes, there are and always have been French with anti-American sentiments. But when you live here, that is not what you see. On the whole, France is a safe and pleasant country to live and travel in. The majority of the French are delighted to have tourists and to share the treasures of this wonderful country. And there are so many. So I'll say to you what I said to her: don't be scared. Come and see for yourselves. I can only hope that you'll be pleasantly surprised.

To table of contents

If you enjoyed this diary,

To table of contents

To top of the page

To home page

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

More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming events, testimonials, etc..)

To email me

 If you like this site, please bookmark it or create a link!