LA VIE EN FRANCE: UNE CHANSON D'AMOUR
LIFE IN FRANCE: A LOVE SONG
News that the myopic buffoons at TF1 have shot themselves in their collective French feet by dispensing with the winsome services of Claire Chazal (see above, posting 573) - one of their country’s (comparatively few) trésors nationals - has brought back many happily wayward memories for me, as well it might. Since her inexplicable dismissal was announced, I’ve realised she’s by no means the only aspect of life in France that my ageing mind has dredged up since my regular visits there withered and died a few months ago, and all of which I miss terribly.
O les souvenirs….
Awful. Truly, truly awful. Shallow, glitzy, superficial pap. It’s only when you watch foreign tv generally, and French tv in particular, that you value the BBC, which God defend and preserve.
The ONLY exception to this rule was the wonderful Mme Chazal and now even she isn’t around to redeem French tv from its skewbald slime.
...which is so unutterably bland that it may as well not exist at all. It’s not even worth ignoring.
FRENCH OPENING HOURS
Bars, banks, shops, offices, museums and galleries will offer you what passes for a welcome in France - except when you actually want to make the most use of them, at which times they lock the doors, pull down the shutters, fold their arms resolutely across their Gallic chests, show the palms of their hands and utter a volubly silent Non!
Do not seek to do anything meaningful or rewarding between about 1130 and 1430 or after about 1800 on weekdays - or at any time at all on Sundays - because most avenues of pleasurable activity, regarded as normal everywhere else in the universe, will be closed to you.
There are pockets of rebellion. Some shops in Paris and other large cities stay open all day (except on Sundays) and in areas with heavy English expat populations (like the Dordogne), some supermarkets open for about 20 minutes at dawn on Sunday mornings to keep incomers supplied with porridge oats, instant coffee and lard.
As if to compensate for this weakness, though, the charmless opening (ie closing) hours of French businesses are slowly creeping into Mondays, too. Attention!
Parisian drivers either charge around like frenzied demons (because there appear to be only 37 parking places in a city of 100,000 drivers) or don’t move at all for hours and hours (specially on the notorious péripherique, Paris’s laughable ring-road, on which traffic can remain motionless for geological aeons; fossilised Renault 5s have been unearthed below the dinosaur strata).
Such is the shortage of parking spaces that, as is well-known, Parisians street-park with the handbrake off so that their vehicles can be shuffled forward and backward by newcomers who want to increase the available space from a few inches to eight feet. I have seen this done - it’s why all French cars are designed with BIG bumpers.
Speaking of which….I am perpetually puzzled at the rarity of Citroën 2CVs. (Be careful not to pronounce it ‘Englishly’. It’s not ‘sit-run’, it’s ‘sit-ro-en’.) You’d expect the natives to cling proudly to their 2CVs in defiance of common-sense but, disappointingly, they don’t. Come to think of it, you don’t see many Citroën (‘sit-ro-en’) DS19s either - that’s the sleek, arrow-shaped beauty that Maigret used to drive on black-and-white tv years ago, and which won a Gold Medal as one of the 20th century’s best designs of anything. See the sexy streamlined sleekness in the photo above.
The vintage car craze is a lot less crazy there than it is here. You’re much more likely to see a 2CV in this septic isle than you are in the country of its birth. It is, after all, a balsawood frame clad in what may as well be aluminium foil, with added wheels and an impossibly tricky gear-change.
To be honest, drivers outside Paris are usually terribly polite, even when they are extremely drunk (which they very often are). Everyone gives way to everyone else, traffic stops when you’re waiting to use a zebra crossing (which the French call a passage clouté - a ‘studded crossing’ - although it would be much more fun as a passage zebrè with balises bélichas), nobody jumps red lights or parks where they shouldn’t.
All they need to do is fit their cars with indicators and the job’s done.
The French language is the linguistic equivalent of Durham Cathedral or Edinburgh’s entire city centre - undeniably and unignorably magnificent. I have, quite literally, sat and just listened to it for hours on end. It flows like a silver river and is as musical and as expressive as birdsong (on the one hand) and some phantasmagoria dreamed up by Berlioz (on the other). It lilts and sways, rises and falls, like the countryside in which it’s spoken - they’re a perfect match.
It contrives to be the best language on Earth to have a flaming row in and to make love in. Occasionally - this being France - at the same time.
France has not had a good year so far - and it’s only September. Its people have had to sustain the shock of brutal and frightening terrorist attacks, a shaky economy, rumbling public discontent and an ever-flowing tide of peculiarly nasty racism and anti-Semitism.
On several occasions, it has only been their deep-seated belief in the eventual goodness of all things French that has rescued them. After Charlie Hebdo, the French public’s mass outpourings of grief, resistance, solidarity - of liberty, equality and fraternity - could not possibly have happened anywhere else on Earth.
Unlike some other nationalities, the French do not believe that they are innately superior to others; they believe that they are innately different. And this unconquerable self-belief has sustained them through many storms.
In truth, je suis encore Charlie.
Despite a turbulent revolutionary history that has now lasted for well over 200 years, the French are surprisingly deferential to people they regard as their ‘superiors’. This usually means anyone who can be regarded as an ‘official’ or a member of the aristocracy, which survives and thrives in France, 1789 notwithstanding.
I have seen grown men, sturdy in body and mind, wilt at the self-righteous gaze of a post-office clerk or a town-hall bureaucrat. It’s genuinely astonishing. Anyone who can be even remotely regarded as a ‘public official’ could easily spend all day having forelocks tugged in their direction. And they do. And they love it. Which is, I suppose, why so many people aspire to being an ‘official’ of some kind…
...OR THE LACK THEREOF…
Mind you, if you’re not an ‘official’, all bets are off.
Outside Paris, you are generally offered the polite deference perceived as accruing to total strangers. Within Paris, however…
At first, it feels like you’re actually being treated with contempt or, at the very least, brusque intolerance. No wonder brusque is a French word. But you quickly learn to temper the insecurity and paranoia this gives rise to when you realise that all Parisians behave like this all the time. The City Council has even had to launch an advertising campaign to encourage its citizens to be nicer - not just in their dealings with tourists but with each other.
On the other hand, though, everything you do - from dunching someone in the street to slaughtering their child’s pet kitten - is forgiven by saying Pardon!, which is the French equivalent of ‘I’m soooo sorry!’ It seriously doesn’t matter what you do - dismiss a lovely newsreader, forget to say Bonjour (an otherwise unforgivable sin), get a grammatical gender wrong, stand on someone’s foot, blow Gitanes smoke in their face, absent yourself from a wedding or a funeral, tell someone how ugly they are, be nice about the English (but not about the Germans)….all you have to do is say Pardon! and you’ll be graced with a winning and indulgent smile.
But remember…Desolé! - literally ‘Sorry!’ - doesn’t cut it. It just has to be Pardon!
You could, in fact, retire to France and live out your days there knowing only Bonjour! and Pardon! and using them liberally. I’ve thought about doing that very thing many, many times.
It seems I miss France quite a lot, huh? It’s time I went back there to immerse myself once again in its gloriously ineffable Frenchness.
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