I'll be away from blogging for about a month. I will miss lurking on my favorite blogs during this time-out, but hope that this trip will provide fodder for lots of future posts! Au revoir--or rather, A bientot!
In the New York Times on Thursday, May 25 an article by Elaine Sciolino about a new vogue in French beauty--the "no make-up look", appeared. It begins: "CHIC French women don't wear makeup. At least they pretend not to." French Elle described the trend as "Le bare face," defined as "nude skin, shimmering slightly." The adjacent photo is of a radiant Juliette Binoche, who is made up not to look made up. I am not sure this is such a new trend in France, but it is a paradox that I had noticed. French women tend to be very diligent about skin care--facials, serums, spa treatments and often invest a great deal in scientific-sounding products whose phyto-chemical laden molecules "penetrate" and "nourish" the skin. But they are less interested in looking "painted" or in sporting lots of colors on their faces that are not found on human faces in the natural world. This focus on the health of the skin rather than on the surface treatments used to cover it up makes good sense.
The article goes on to quote French make-up mogul Laura Mercier, who says "It really astonishes me the way American women wear so much makeup. In America, even teenage girls are overly made-up. And when you are overly made-up, you send out the message that you are overly sexual, that you want to be visible to attract men." By contrast, Ms. Mercier said: "French women are not flashy. They must be subtle. The message must not be, 'I'm spending hours on my face to look beautiful.' "
Again, these statements ring true to my ear. From what I have seen, Parisiennes tend to not to rely on fussy make-up and hairstyles in order to be attractive. Rather they often seem to invest their efforts in their skin, their accessories, the cut of their clothes, and their bulge-free silhouette. The bad news is that in order to look attractive with French understatement and subtlety, they do things that require more effort and are often more expensive than just slapping on some color. Where does that leave nous autres, les Americaines? Do we have to spend even more hours to send the message that we are not desperately spending hours on our faces to look beautiful?
I don't entirely agree that so many of us prefer the vulgar, painted-doll look. A lot of the young women I work with appear to eschew makeup entirely. This would be hard for me, as without at least some definition around my eyes when out in public, I would feel naked. Those of us who do wear makeup generally know that if you have relatively more eye make-up on, you might want to put less emphasis on the mouth, and vice-versa. Nicole Richie and Britney Spears are cited in the article as examples of that "overdone" look. No argument there, but thankfully, we rarely see see women who imitate them in real life.
The companies that produce makeup also have skin care lines, and those treatment lines usually consist of many products and many steps. Make-up removers, cleansers, day creams, night creams, eye treatments, firming serums for he face, firming serums for the eye area, different moisturizers for the face, the neck, the decolletee, pore minimizing creams, exfoliating scrubs, antioxidant serums, and the list is endless. I was reading the label of a product by Clarins that is supposed to revitalize maturing skin at about $100 for a small bottle. One of the two main active ingredients was an extract of the pueraria lobata, aka kudzu. Yes, kudzu, that nuisance vine that is draped over nearly every tree in North America. If I look outside my window, I can see that kudzu is indeed a prolific and hardy plant, but it's difficult to see how a product containing the extract of the ubiquitous kudzu vine could be so dear. When confronted with all these products, one wonders how it would be possible to ever do enough for one's skin and is tempted to give up and just buy a new eyeliner pencil or some dental floss and go home.
But a new form of consultation is available for French women. Sciolino continues "Indeed, at the first "beauty cafe" in Paris, the talk is about respect, not transformation. For two hours on four recent evenings, the Columbus Café — a rival of Starbucks — transformed the second floor of its outlet near the Bastille into a place where women came for free lessons about skin care." "Today beauty is not something only on the surface," Sandra Renzi, a cosmetologist with the Darphin skin care line, lectured to women over coffee and Perrier one evening. "It also comes from inside. Essential oils that contain tiny molecules that penetrate your skin must come first."
Maybe the "inside" source of beauty actually springs from a place that even those tiny molecules can't penetrate. Here is yet another take on the question of being a "painted lady" vs. creating at least the illusion of restraint. "The most beautiful makeup for a woman is passion" is the famous quotation of the designer Yves Saint Laurent. "But cosmetics are easier to buy."
I have heard versions of this remark snarled, whined, and growled so many times, it's a wonder I ever dared to venture onto French territory. An article I came across today cites a poll showing that the French are viewed by the British as the rudest, most unfriendly nation on earth. If English speakers overwhelmingly believe this to be the case, there must be some truth to it, non?
To those who believe for all the world that the French are insufferably rude (and probably not many among my readership are included in this number) , I offer what I have learned over many long and short visits to France. Call this little course How not to get treated badly in France 101.
Most of us in the US think of Japan as a culture of politeness. We understand that there are rituals of politeness that one would be remiss to ignore as a visitor in Japan. What we often overlook is that France could also be considered a culture of politeness. Polite rituals and codified formulas of politeness are deeply imbedded in French society, especially when it comes to interactions among strangers, be they French or foreign.
The US, in contrast, is a more casual culture. We tend to appreciate simplicity and what we would consider a lack of pretension. Years ago my father expressed disapproval at my landlord, to whom I referred as Mr. Gordon. He thought Mr. Gordon must have ego problems to insist on being called Mister. Except for my years in a southern state, I have heard very few Ma'am's and Sir's in the US. In France, titles are used much more frequently. It's sometimes hard for us casual folk to adapt to that. But if we well-meaning, informal Americans go to France and behave according to US standards, we do in fact come across as too abrupt and, well--rude. So if we are unwittingly rude because we didn't bother to find out what the norms are in France, why would French people go out of their way to be polite to our rude selves??
Most people presumably know that as the visitor in a foreign country, the onus is on the visitor to learn what is considered proper there and to act accordingly so that one does not embarrass oneself and one's compatriots. When we are chez les Francais, it makes sense to use the polite expressions that they use among themselves, or the English equivalent.
One American asked me why, when she went up to a French woman and asked for directions, the French woman started beating her with her purse. I told her that I was sorry that happened to her, but that the French woman must have simply been flat-out crazy. One could have the misfortune in any country to approach a lunatic, even with exquisite politeness, and to be flagellated with a handbag, I suppose. But by far the more common outcome is that if you make a polite and respectful approach, which might even seem exaggeratedly polite to an American, you are likely to be pointed in the right direction and perhaps even escorted to your destination.
So before the quiz over this mini-course, get a phrasebook and memorize (using the awful phonetic pronunciation guides if need be) a few of the polite expressions for approaching a stranger for information or for service in a place of business. Do NOT edit out the titles and seemingly excessive politeness. You will be treated with respect and hospitality, unless of course you are unfortunate enough to stumble across that French woman who likes to bludgeon American tourists with her handbag. If that happens, I'm sorry, but you're on your own.
I haven't blogged since forever ago because I have been submerged by university life. Thanks to those who inquired about my well-being during my exile from blogdom and please excuse my horrendous breach of blog etiquette. (Michele was just not going to let me off the hook!) The main preoccupation was all that was going on at the college where I teach. A secondary preoccupation was watching from afar the situation in France. You see, I strongly encourage French majors to take a semester or a year at a French university. They are in fact required to spend time in a French-speaking country in order to complete a French major. Two of my students were spending the spring semester at a French university. Around the 22nd of March, I got an email from our study abroad coordinator, uncharacteristically on edge, who had gotten an email from one of our students in France who had slightly injured herself while climbing over a barricade during the CPE backlash. She asked if I knew what was going on in France. Of course I did, and I was not a bit worried about it. I calmly asked her to reassure the students and to tell them (and their parents, and the Administration, and whoever else might be worried about it) that this is perfectly normal in France. I was in touch with them by email to check on morale--they seemed a bit bored with this lack of structure, but OK. I pitched it as a learning experience. They would have to make the most of it as they waited it out. This is very French, after all. There was talk of general strikes. Further "actions" took place the following week. During the third week, an administrator friend at the French university where my students were studying emailed me and said he had been able to get to his office, but that classes would not resume before spring break. This started to seem a long time for the students to continue to block entrance to the university, but I was not worried. The government would probably concede and classes would begin again after spring break. There was a lot of negative buzz about the decline of France in the environment where I live and work. (I am in one of the "reddest" parts of a pretty red state, so I am often on the defensive when it comes to France and the French.) Some positive things came of the confrontation regarding this labor law aimed at making it easier to terminate workers in their first two years of employment. France was suddenly getting a lot of visibility, not necessarily good, but for something less disturbing than the rash of car-burnings that occcurred in fall, '05. During the CPE controversy, we discussed current developments in my classes, arguing the pros and the cons. Many sided with the students, many with the government. Some, regardless of their position on this particular issue, expressed admiration for the French protesters, saying they didn't understand why citizens in the US do not take to the streets when far more objectionable actions are taken by our government. We used French newspaper accounts and sometimes emails from our students in France to frame the debate. My students in the US got a good chance to see how ill-informed US coverage of French politics really is. (We don't expect much accuracy from the likes of Fox News, but even the so-called "elite" media outlets like the New York Times did a pretty sorry job.) The unrest did not help recruitment efforts for the summer program I was planning, but it did not cause the program to fail, so ten of us will go to France in July. At the end of March, I attended a gathering of French educators in the US and heard their old war stories from the barricades in France. Some of them recalled university closings of several months at a stretch in the 1960's and 70's. This CPE issue seemed to be developing some real momentum and for the first time, I, too, started to think seriously about lost semesters, contingency plans, alternative college credits, and damage control. In the end, classes did start up after break, and I think my students who were there may one day agree that during the weeks of no classes, they may have learned more than they would have if they had been in class. They directly experienced a way of exercising power within a democracy that was new to them. I received their photos of mountain hikes and communal dinners "a la francaise." It seems that a spirit of solidarity flourished in the absence of the daily routine of lectures, labs, and homework. Students and professors in France once again labor in the vineyard of truth and understanding, at least until the next clash comes along between reformers seeking a more flexible workforce and those who value the French tradition of protecting workers.
Logos are an interesting phenomenon in the evolution of fashion brands. Are you attracted by the little alligator on Lacoste polos or the repeated motif of the initials "LV" on Louis Vuitton bags? I am ambivalent. In my younger days I frankly disdained logos. Why be a walking advertisement for a corporation? And why be such a conformist? Are logo lovers not secure enough in their own taste? But then again, it's easy for a penniless student to sneer at luxury objects they can't afford. To take the example of Vuitton, he started out as a high-end trunkmaker in the 1850's. In 1882 he introduced trunks with an iconic red and beige striped color scheme. In 1886 the ubiquitous monogram was introduced. The LV motif was both a signifier of the status and quality that come with an established luxury brand identity and an attempt to ensure authenticity. For decades, the familiar pattern on a brown field appeared on luggage, handbags, and small accessories, carrying the message of quality while rather discretely displaying the wallpaper-like brand logo. It is interesting to see how the Vuitton division of the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH has innovated to keep the brand's image fresh and vibrant. (See Murakami's design on the right.) Young celebs in the public eye do not disdain these colorful accessories. A certain very visible rapper is said to be covering the interior of his new home in the Vuitton pattern. I admire the company's success in adapting the brand over the decades. But I must admit to never having had the remotest desire to own one of these bags, although many of them seem quite practical and pleasing to the eye. If I were to splurge on a designer bag, a classic Hermes sans blatantly obvious logos would entice me more than a Dior logo bag or a Vuitton logo bag. Designer logos--do you lust after them or find them a turn-off?
As always, it does feel a bit different when the year changes, if only by one digit. A few bloggers have posted New Year's resolutions, which prodded me to think about some of my own. In 2006, I will:
-challenge my students to engage more deeply with difficult ideas and to apply them to their world
-do more advocating for improved international education in the US--not easy in the current climate, but more important than ever
-try to live day-to-day a little more "a la francaise," in other words, more in the moment (this also means spending more time in the kitchen preparing "real" food)
-get outdoors year-round for some fresh air and exercise, even in bad weather
-get rid of some of my responsibilities and contacts that are not life-affirming and take on some new ones that are
-rely more on real people in the blogosphere to get an accurate sense of what is going on in the world, and less on the paid journalists working for the mainstream media, who (with a few exceptions) have performed disappointingly lately
-Upgrade my HTML skills--so many of you have visually appealing blogs and awesome Photoshop skills and I know I should take mine to the next level
-think about permitting myself the indulgence of a Hermes bag, since Geraldine has kindly convinced me of the soundness of such a long-term investment (on ne vit qu'une fois!)
Happy 2006, everyone!
My musical listening habits have always been eclectic. I'm no stranger to Medieval, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music. Blues and sometimes even country (though not of the contemporary variety) are on my playlist. In small doses I can groove on bluegrass, rap, rai, zydeco, swing, fado, jazz, and probably just about any musical genre you could name. My musical taste was largely forged during the rock era, which was burgeoning about the time I came into existence. So my default music mode was (and is) rock.
Trouble is, rock has always been pretty much an anglo-dominated genre. So what is a rabid francophile to listen to? While living in France, I did as many French people do and listened mostly to English-language music, interspersed with the occasional songs by Francis Cabrel or a handful of other French singers that I found appealing enough. (A big mea culpa to my French readers for this infidelity.) All in all, I felt about most French popular music performers as I do about American cars--they're OK, but not a product that I am going to choose when other options are available.
The human brain must be wired such that one's taste in music changes with age. I am enjoying music that I never would have considered listening to for pleasure until fairly recently. Not that I have started digging the "champagne music" of Lawrence Welk reruns, but a new appreciation is emerging for things I once would have dismissed as bland variety-show fare. I have belatedly discovered some French music that existed before my rock-and-roll heart was beating.
So the old becomes new to these virgin ears. For example, no one escapes the ubiquitous melodies immortalized by Edith Piaf. But I knew them mostly as background music or movie soundtracks. I never paid much attention to her voice and phrasing before. They are soulfully cool beyond words. Some tracks have annoying, jangly instrumentals, but when the purity of her vocals is allowed to shine through, it is luminous. The Charles Aznavour of La Boheme evokes memories of living on l'air du temps in Montmartre (pre-gentrification). The quality of his voice and his phrasing are soothing and melodic. He sings of a time when on etait jeunes, on etait fous (we were young, we were crazy) and when nous avions tous du génie (we all had [artistic] genius). He sings of staying up all night to rework a drawing and of trading a canvas for a good hot meal in a bistro in order to subsist. And not to glorify poverty, but the theme of la vie de boheme seems so radically out of sync with today's money culture that it gives one pause. At one point these images might have seemed like serial cliches, but to me they derive new relevance from the contrast they pose with the prevailing ethos. No longer just part of the soundtrack playing in the background, old standards like these have become my music of choice, for the moment.
Francofile tries to regularly post fairly cogent and topical posts related to France, but this one is probably going to end up being a loosey-goosey and rambly post that has nothing to do with France. Chalk it up to the demands of work, getting ready for the holidays, and perhaps to laziness. At one point I was almost as prolific as the indefatigable Voix or the ultra-disciplined Elisabeth. I was nearly as up-to-date on current events as the unsurpassed Superfrenchie. I have been doing more lurking than posting lately, but hope to regain my blogging mojo soon. Or I could try to be like Amerloque, who does not post all that often, but when he does, it's always a truly worthwhile read. So what are the worthy endeavors that have interfered with my blogging? Francaise de Coeur would have an excellent excuse not to post. She just had a baby girl (Tessa Rose) but still manages to update her blog. The always-intriguing French-language blog Cafe-mode is regularly updated despite the fact that the resident blogueuse has gone back to school to study fashion. During this blog downtime, I have not written a monograph, nor have I honed abs of steel, dazzled friends and family with gourmet cuisine, or created thoughtful hand-made Christmas gifts. My excuse is, well--ahem--I don't have one. Sometimes you just realize that your to-do list has grown and your available time has shrunk and that you need a new modem, your car needs an oil change, your cats need rabies and distemper shots, along with a hundred other small things that all add up. And sometimes you agree to take on something that takes 800% more time than you ever thought it would. Unless you are really good at restoring furniture, for example, don't go on E-Bay and buy an 80-year-old hoosier cabinet that spent a few decades in someone's basement. In any case, the to-do list is getting whittled down and this little blogging slump is about to come to an end.
Now that the riots have died down and the French are sorting out causes and solutions, I would like to recap the coverage in the US media. The mainstream news networks were not generally too inflammatory, despite a bit of sensationalizing that is frankly typical of the ratings-conscious major news outlets. Reports focused on the burning of cars (which made for dramatic photo ops) and the reactions of Villepin, Sarkoszy, and a lack of visibility on the part of Chirac. The extreme right expressed their triumphant glee (naturellement), but we won't waste time on the predictably tedious spewings of the Fuckfrance.com knuckledraggers or their icons Limbaugh and O'Reilly. Many conservative newspapers couldn't resist muted displays of smug satisfaction and adaptations of the facts to suit their world view. Some emphasized that it was a Muslim (read: jihadist ) movement, for which they provided no credible supporting evidence. Some made observations to the effect that France got its just deserts for refusing to join the US in the War on Terror in Iraq. (It is amazing that serious journalists are still referring to the Invasion of Iraq as part of a War on Terror, given that the connection to 9/11 has been amply debunked. Even the Bush Administration has stopped using this term.) A journalist for the International Herald Tribune claimed that the HLM housing projects in the suburbs had been built expressly to segregate immigrant populations, which is patently untrue. They were built to ease a housing crisis and to accomodate French people with moderate means from all backgrounds. For more examples of conservative disinformation and Schadenfreude-infused quotations from conservative blogs and newspapers, read Patrick Gavin's blog post on the topic. Patrick closes his post with the reflection that In the end it was hard for me to figure out which was worse: What the riots said about France? Or what our reaction said about us.
What type of coverage would I have preferred to see? First, it would have been nice for media outlets to cover expressions of solidarity in France's moment of crisis, given our close economic and historical ties with that country. Not that I would have expected President Bush himself to declare "Now we are all French." during such domestic upheaval, mirroring what Chirac said on September 11th. But the media didn't seem to have much to cover in terms of American expressions of solidarity. There seemed to be a tacit underlying assumption that France had this coming. As far I as I was able to observe, any official expression of solidarity, concern or sympathy for our long-time ally was notably absent. The French have some social problems to solve and I am confident in their willingness and in their ability to do so. The right-wing and even moderate press coverage in the US generally reflected a pervasive intellectual laziness and certainly did not provide a serious critique of the societal challenges faced by France.
After a few days of ignoring the news media while enjoying a fall retreat in the woods, I have awakened to the news stories and blog accounts coming from France. I plan to accompany college students to France this summer, and will face questions from students, parents, and administrators about whether or not we should go, given the current state of affairs, so I am trying to get a good grasp.
Unfortunately, I don't know quite where this situation is going and neither does anyone, really. Is it the clash of religions? unsocialized adolescent males impulsively acting out their anger? a reaction against the racism of the "Francais de souche"? To an extent, it's all of these things, but there is no single satisfactory explanation. France can and will adapt to the new social realities, but it will probably happen gradually.
When I traveled in the beautiful country of Algeria in the early 1980's, I found the culture appealing, but very opaque. I enjoyed the trip and met welcoming and interesting people. But the first thing that struck me in Algiers was that there were so many idle men on the streets and in cafes. Just like French and American people have very different conceptions of work, there may be a difference in the way immigrants of Algerian descent and the French engage with the working world. As much as racism, it may be ingrained cultural differences that contribute to the lack of economic advancement of many of the "beurs" (French citizens whose parents were born in North Africa) in the HLM's (subsidized housing complexes). I know many French citizens (some with ancestry going back generations in France and some of them second generation North Africans) who are undaunted by the task of bridging the two cultures. They see themselves as part of France, Europe, and the global economy. The root causes of the current social unrest will eventually be resolved by these people, who will lead others away from ignorance and hate by their own living example.
Something similar happened over time in the Southern US between black and white Americans. While many of my friends in the Northern US believed that the South was a hotbed of racism and that African-Americans were far better off in the segregated cities of the north, real everyday people of both races (without attention from the media since only bad news and celebrity news are reported) were living and working together in the South year in and year out and achieving an increasingly (if not perfectly) integrated society.
This can happen over time in France. One problem in bridging the cultural breach in France is the gender issue. It will be a real challenge. But the legacy of slavery and its aftermath once also seemed an insurmountable obstacle to racial harmony in the US. Much progress has been made and more must be made. There have been setbacks and there are still racists in every community. But if people of good will of all races in France continue to do their part as individuals as many have in the US, these invisible, unsung heroes can create a new society that will be stronger and more resilient than ever before.
The French have a history of initially seeing recent arrivals as cultural outsiders who bear undesirable "barbarian" values. Paradoxically, they also have a history of assimilating the energy and ideas of these cultural outsiders, to the overall benefit of France. Those who think with their reptilian brains, like the rioting gangs, Le Pen's nationalist party, and racists and bigots of various stripes will have their say, but they will not prevail. Normal, everyday people will resolve the cultural divide. I will continue to plan a three-week study tour to France for summer '06. And with a little luck, this summer's trip will be the experience of a lifetime for the students.
Time to query my fashion-conscious readers. Next semester I am teaching a new introductory one-credit course on French fashion. I am trying to narrow down the main focus of the course to a manageable number of designers and influential figures--let's say five. It's only a one-credit course so it will not be a full survey. For those of you who are empassioned enough by by French fashion to hold opinions on such matters, I pose this question:
Who are the five most influential figures in French fashion? (Shorter or longer lists are OK.)
I never envisioned myself recommending that my readers or anyone else watch Fox News. The last time I watched it was about two years ago when we had a neo-conservative house guest (an old high school friend of my husband's) and we tried to do a comparison of the integrity of the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour and the "No-Spin Zone." We have not seen or heard from him since, as factual reporting was not his cup of tea.
However, it will be interesting, if you are able to tune in from where you live, to watch the O'Reilly show this Wednesday evening. Superfrenchie of the blog by that name and Marc Cormier of http://miquelon.org are invited to talk about France-bashing and the Subway ad campaign promoting a chicken sandwich that equated the French with chickens. Of course they will be on Fox turf and the editing advantage will be skewed in favor of O'Reilly's perspective. There is a flurry of chatter on Superfrenchie's blog about how this might play out. They may be set up, but they deserve credit for taking positive action to correct some of the mischaracterizations out there about France. Bon courage, Suprfrenchie. You will be a worthy representative of the "real" France.
I always love underrated, unspoiled places. There are certain uncelebrated places I like to visit that I hesitate to recommend to others, for fear that they will be destroyed by their own success. Most are already aware of the cosmopolitan pleasures to be found in Quebec City and Montreal. But almost every other place I have visited in Quebec falls into the category of "underrated places." I grew up learning about France and the French language, but, despite my relative proximity, knew virtually nothing about Quebec. I have not had the pleasure of a long enough stay in Quebec to speak with any authority, but after three short visits and a lot of reading, viewing and listening, I find Quebec inviting and intriguing.
The artistic output of Quebec frequently contains regional elements. Another commonality is that Quebeckers often seem to be rebelling against something. In the 1960's it was the pervasive authority of the Catholic church, the economic domination of the anglophone Canadians, and the frigid winters. The frigid winters are still there, but the first two have been largely vanquished. This economic struggle can be seen in films like Mon Oncle Antoine, in novels like Roy's Bonheur d'occasion (The Tin Flute) and in poems like Lalonde's Speak White. Mon Oncle Antoine shows the hardships endured by French speakers in the agrarian society that preceeded the Quiet Revolution in the 60's. Lalonde equates the travails of the economically-disadvantaged francophone majority in Quebec with a civil rights struggle in this bilingual poem, which has been made into a video with an accompanying photo-montage to reinforce the connection.
Singers like Vignault and Gauthier celebrate the French language and their Quebecois identity. In Le Plus Beau Voyage, Gauthier describes that identity and declares Je suis Quebec mort ou vivant (I am Quebec dead or alive). He seems to imply that he would give his life to the cause if necessary. This attachment to the French language is reflected in the politics of the province during the 1970's and 80's when landmark language laws were being enacted in Canada.
The diminished role of the church is shown in a scene of Arcand's 2003 Barbarian Invasions. A church official tries (without success) to interest an art and antiques dealer in dozens of pieces of religious statuary that have been in storage for years, symbolizing the secularization of post-revolution Quebec.
The 1995 referendum for a sovereign state failed. It looks like De Gaulle's envisioned "Quebec libre" will not come to pass. In the ten intervening years, the province seems to have grown more bilingual and less divided. But younger artists have not forgotten the activism of their parents' generation and do not take their sacrifices for granted. After dispensing with the obstacles of oppressive church authority and economic marginalization by anglophones, Quebeckers still voice opposition to certain aspects of their world.
Groups like French B, Les Cowboys Fringuants, and Loco Locass sing about the globalization, war, and the politics of language. In the tongue-in-cheek Cowboys Fringuants song Quebecois de souche, the refrain is: Chu un colon anglicise (Je suis un colon anglicise; I have been colonized by the English) It is sung in a French idiom shot through with anglicisms and conveys a bizarrely schizophrenic bi-culturalism. On Loco Locass's CD Amour oral (referring to love of the French language), songs of opposition and resistance are sung in a rap style infused at times with rai or reggae influences. Their targets range from Canadian politicians, to liberals, to George Bush. They call the US a peuple imperieux (an imperious people) and continue on ne peut pas etre le Maitre du Monde sans mepriser le monde (one cannot be the Masters of the World without being contemptuous of the world). Their song W Roi (King W) is based on Jarry's Ubu Roi, a play satirizing an ineffectual and grotesque mythical Polish king. (Although I don't listen to rap, I must say this Loco Locass CD is a rippin' good listen with some interesting lyrics.) I don't want to give the impression that all arts and entertainment produced in Quebec are tinged with politics, because they also sing, write and make films about love and death and other universal themes. I just happen to find these works compelling due to my own interest in language. Cultures that have had to contest their status are always interesting to me.
Quebeckers enjoy great topography, high-quality artisanal products from their terroir, a rich cultural output, and a civilized lifestyle. The cuisine there is a lot like French cuisine, but uses local ingredients. Monastery cheeses rival their French counterparts. Poutine, the province's iconic comfort-food dish, (French fries smothered in cheese curds and brown gravy) sticks to your ribs on a cold winter evening.
The more I learn about French-speaking Canada, the more I admire the francophones there and the effort they have made in order to defend (without resorting bloodshed) their linguistic and cultural heritage. Another theme that appears is Quebec's relationship to France. In Godbout's 1967 novel Salut Galarneau!, the Quebecois protagonist humorously expresses feelings of inferiority vis-a-vis France. At one moment he is filled with pride that his stationary is of superior quality to French stationary (since Quebec surpasses France at least in one area--wood pulp products). I sometimes wonder if citizens of the mother country appreciate the extent of the commitment of their cousins in North America to remain true to their cultural roots, despite so many pressures and obstacles.
Would you be inclined to purchase a Hermes silk and cashmere scarf for $921? A Chanel suit for $4,835? (I admit to being a bit of a skinflint when it comes to such uber-upscale indulgences.) My own thriftiness notwithstanding, Joan De Jean explains the French dominance in the luxury goods market from a historical perspective. After so many English-language books in the last few years heralding the supposed decline of France, this one bucks the trend by paying tribute to French style and ingenuity. It chronicles French innovation in the invention of chic, style and sophisitication as these concepts exist today. In The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour, De Jean traces the origin of France as an international force in matters of style back to the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. She argues that today's advertsing strategies were the brainchild of the French stylemakers in the service of the King and Court of Versailles in the 18th century. While the means have changed, the central marketing concept was the same. Stylists under Louis XIV used fashion dolls and engravings or "fashion plates" to promote not only luxe articles of clothing and accessories, but also the lifestyle they represented. France became the uncontested European leader in luxury goods as soon as they began to advertise. For example, by the 1670's, England imported 20 times more luxury goods than it exported to France.
De Jean writes about Louis XIV's love of high-heeled shoes, diamonds, mirrors, perfumes, champagne, and haute cuisine. The Sun King's ritualistic toilette, during which aristocrats were invited to attend the spectacle of his dressing, is well-known. But I was not aware that other stylish aristocrats at Versailles enjoyed showing themselves off during their toilette, and that these scenes were the precursor to today's fashion advertising. The accoutrements of this spectacle included the new casual clothing styles such as the déshabillé négligé as well as shoes, furnishings cosmetics, and perfumes. Engravings of these interior scenes at court provided a showcase for purveyers of these luxe products, who pitched them to those across Europe who aspired to the lifestyle of Versailles. In other words, Madison Avenue and its European counterparts did not create modern advertising with its promotion of a lifestyle. It was Louis XIV with his grand design to redefine France as the capital of glamour and luxury that first made use of this marketing strategy.
I am not the stereotypical American in France, whatever that is. But there are a few clues that can quickly identify me as a foreigner.
1. My Accessories I have learned a thing or two about accessorizing from living in the land where high fashion was invented. However, the ability to drape a scarf "just so" has not rubbed off. Must be genetic. Sigh.
2. My Face I can mimic the Parisian poker face, but can't sustain it for long periods. Eventually I lose it and feel I become almost buffoonishly animated compared with the ever-so-discreet French.
3. My Name My first name is common in France--but among men. I have to say: It's "Jean" (djin) "comme Jean Seberg" (the actress who played opposite Belmondo in Au Bout de souffle) and then they get it.
4. My Table Manners I hold my fork upside down, from the French perspective. (They often hold theirs with the tines curving downward.) I don't efficiently cut up and consume my food as soon as it is served as they tend to.
5. My Conversation I don't tend to be that analytical and critical when it comes to everyday conversation. This probably makes me boring and bland to French people, who often like their conversation leavened with a bit of dissonance.
6. My Intonation After years of work, my grammar and vocabulary in French are solid. I have trounced educated French Scrabble players, to their displeasure. But when I am fatigued, the rhythm and music of the language can become a bit off-kilter in a not very pretty sort of way.
7. My Height I am as tall as an NBA center. This is an exaggeration, but to many a French person, it might as well be true. Mothers point us out to their children as my husband and I walk down the street: "Regarde ces grands gens!" (Look at those tall people!)
8. My Shoes My shoes are rarely Made in France. As a corollary to #7, my feet are often too big for the dainty French pointures. (Mind you, my feet ARE proportionate to my height.)
I have worked long and hard to feel at home in France, but don't mind not readily passing for French. I enjoy the fact that my origins are at least a little bit mysterious to new French people I meet. And I love the French "mystique" just the way it is.
(Note: I use the term "frog" above playfully, and with all the affection and admiration one could imagine.)
I may cut back a bit on posting this fall as I become more busy with work and training for another marathon. In any case, I cannot imagine not continuing to regularly read and write posts and comments.
I have learned a lot from blogging, and still have much to learn. My HTML skills still leave much to be desired. There are practices, terms, etiquette and folkways that I am still discovering.
I've been at this blogging business for about three months now. I started because even though I knew very little about blogs, there were some pent-up things I wanted to say in response to what I was reading and hearing in the Anglo-Saxon culture at large regarding France. A lot of what was being said and written about France in the press and the media seemed to be based on ignorance and sometimes even bigotry. Being an obsessed francophile (and with good reason) I was tired of silently enduring what has amounted to a smear campaign. Once in the blogosphere, I branched out a bit from there, but France seems to be the one common denominator for the incoming and outgoing traffic on my blog.
The greatest benefit of blogging has been reading the reflections of so many interesting, witty, articulate people who generously spend time documenting their thoughts and lives and making it public. I treasure my blogroll and there are several others that I need to add to it. And even though I have to live in the midwestern US to ply my trade while my heart remains in France, I enjoy experiencing vicariously the lives of those who are presently living in my "deuxieme patrie."
And how about you? When did you start blogging and why?
I spent Friday evening with naked exhibitionists; sodomites; and megaphallic, lecherous drunkards, among others. This did not occur at a local bar (although much of it probably could have). Jack had mentioned a small church in the Pyrenees with an erotic capital. Although a search did not turn up that particular church, in a burst of geekified art-historical zeal, I discovered that there are dozens upon dozens of lewd church carvings inside and on the facades of 11th and 12th-century Romanesque churches and cathedrals throughout France. Who knew?
The web site I found with the most examples and information was http://www.beyond-the-pale.org.uk/ . According to the site's author, Anthony Weir, the series of corbel sculptures around the roof line of the church’s exterior included iconic figures that were regarded by the faithful as a gallery of sinners. The artists themselves may have just been portraying their own lay culture.
One such character is this corbel figure of a female Exhibitionistic Acrobat on the church at Fontaines d’Ozillac in the Charente-Maritime. (These are fairly common in Spain and France.) The church considered actors and tumblers to be "against nature" and therefore wicked. The gesture of mouth-pulling indicates she is a theatrical entertainer. The message the corbel sculpture of a leering contortionist is meant to send to the illiterate viewers below is that actors are evil and their performances should be shunned.
Another stock character in the repertoire of didactic religious sculpture is the Lecherous Drunk (this one located in Béceleuf, Deux-Sevres). This character’s love for alcohol is symbolized by the wine barrel he holds. His oversized genitals index the sins of carnality to which alcohol consumption can lead. The onlooker is thus warned about the dual sins of insobriety and concupiscence.
The megaphallic Glutton of Champagnolles in the Charente-Maritime is seen ingurgitating something that could be a large piece of cake. (Or maybe it is "a piece of cheese the size of a car battery" like the one George Costanza dreamed of on Seinfeld.) I am not certain what the connection is between gluttony and gigantic genitals, but perhaps it signifies a generalized insatiability.
Sins of the flesh were represented by grotesque male figures, displaying and sometimes licking their outsized masculine apparatus. This limber male figure (Solignac, Haute-Vienne) is shown engaged in that activity.
A vulva-pulling female appears at the church of Sainte Radegonde in Poitiers, Vienne. The small city of Poitiers has no fewer than six Romanesque churches, so it is a must for those who are fascinated by this architectural style.
The idea of damnation was commonly shown by monsters swallowing up the bodies of sinners, just as the realm of Satan would swallow up their souls. This sodomite (Conques, Aveyron) is being clubbed by a devil and is forced into the jaws of a beast representing the mouth of hell. At La Chaize-le-Vicomte in the Vendée, sodomy occurs between two traveling entertainers, reminding us again that performers were seen as damned souls.
Shifting gears a bit, this clothed couple (Maillezais, Deux-Sevres), each with a halo, is shown embracing. It may be a depiction of Christian marriage. The couple's saucer-eyed stare may suggest a focus on the sacred. (I'm spooked by that middle eye--which face does it belong to???) Although not a portrayal of exhibitionism, the man’s tunic does not quite cover all the action that is taking place.
In Civray (Vienne) an upside-down concupiscent woman, naked but for her shoes, plummets toward hell. (I guess this is a literal take on the "fallen woman") This one is made notable by its large size and proximity to the altar. By the 13th century, such grotesqueries were much less common, and usually limited to gargoyles or barely visible places.
Although there are many more examples of shameless Medieval behavior carved in French church stones, this was about as much excitement as I could stand for one Friday night. To conclude, if you are visiting a Romanesque church and don’t want to miss out on the lessons these naughty little guys and gals perched way up high can teach us, take your field glasses along.
As much as I admire the perfection and idealization of classical forms, I have a soft spot for the sculptors of the 11th and 12th centuries. Their creations are naive, exuberant, and expressive. What they lack in technical finesse, the make up for in humor and emotion. There are not many well-known examples of this style of architecture in the places I have lived in France. Romanesque cathedrals in and around Paris were mostly destroyed and replaced by Gothic ones. And in Nice, the predominant style remains the Baroque. There are superb examples of Romanesque cathedrals in the Southwestern quadrant of France (Poitiers, Toulouse, Moissac, etc.) and many others scattered around France in places that were less touched by the march of progress.
A well-preserved example is in the town of Vézelay, southeast of Paris. In 1146, Bernard de Clairvaux, at the urging of King Louis VII, preached on behalf of the first Crusade from the Ste Marie Madeleine Basilica in Vézelay. The interior is characterized by the simple rhythm of graceful rounded arches (thus the name "Romanesque"), but the eye is also drawn to the proliferating capital sculptures at the tops of the pillars.
When I observe the outside of a Romanesque church, I always check out the "modillons," which are playful little demon, human or animal faces that decorate the underside of the roof line. And I always visit the cloister, if possible, as the capitals there often display delightful relief sculpture as well. It is in the cloister where I find it easiest to imagine what the solitude and serenity of monastic life might be like.
Another favorite is Saint Lazare Cathedral in Autun, which dates from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and was formerly the chapel of the Dukes of Burgundy. The sculptural program of the tympanum centers around Christ in glory, also showing the weighing of the souls. Notice the reactions of the cartoonish figures as their souls are either condemned to hell or elevated to heaven.
Spain (Catalonia in particular) is also a rich hunting ground for Romanesque churches. Barcelona has a museum of Romanesque Art, containing many fresco fragments removed from country churches, where they had been in a deteriorating state. Some good examples of Romanesque sculpture produced in France can be visited in New York City, at the Cloisters. An outlying part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Romanesque cloisters are presented in a way that recreates, to the extent possible, their original setting. If one is in the mood to see art and architecture that can be at once primitive, grotesque, whimsical, emotional, and spiritual, a Romanesque church is a good option.
For some time there have been rumblings about restrictions on unpasteurized cheese entering the US. Michael, a wonderful neighborhood cheesemonger here in my Midwestern city, sometimes indicates that his ability to import raw milk cheeses may soon be curtailed--or worse. I have not gotten involved in the legal aspects of raw-milk cheese advocacy, but it is a concern.
On a trip to Lyon last year I was deliberating about whether to try to schlep a couple of chunks of cheese home to share with my spouse. It doesn't hurt the cheese to be without refrigeration for several hours, but the smell does become more pronounced at room temperature. The possibility of confiscation at customs loomed as a deterrent. The fromager kindly offered to shrink-wrap the cheese in plastic, making its aroma undetectable. He said that he often used this laminating process for American customers with the same fear.
What made me think of cheese this morning was reading Patt Morrison's amusing post about the dilemma of illegally carrying cheese back to the US on a commercial flight:
I hope Patt's post will set off a cheese revolt. A pasterurized French cheese like "Supreme des Dieux" just doesn't do it for me.
A new competitor on the fast food landscape in France is born. According to Yahoo News, "BYM" or "Beurger King Muslim" hopes to present a challenge to "McDo," Quick, and other established chains. The name not only pastiches the US Burger King chain, but also plays on the word "beur." This is "verlan" (a type of French slang that reverses letters or syllables) for "Arab," used to refer to the offspring of North African immigrants who were born in France. Not that there was not already a preponderance of independent North African fast food stands throughout France selling kebabs and sandwiches, but this is the first of that type to follow the format of American-style franchises like KFC.
The first Beurger King Muslim restaurant, which the originators hope to franchise, opened last month in the working-class Parisan suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, a city with high unemployment, a youthful population, and a large percentage of Muslims. The arrival of BKM created 28 new jobs and its founders hope that it will enliven the neighborhood's economy and offer an alternative to the nearby McDonalds. It offers standard fast-food fare, also catering to Muslims by offering halal meats, prepared in accordance with Muslim ritual. With five million Muslims in France and a youthful population that is already attracted to fast food resturants, BKM may be onto something.