Sunday, April 30, 2006

Rome wins by a nose

I love Rome. But I couldn’t stay there long – the calorific diet would have got me in a week. So how come they’re all so slim? - it’s the only place in the world where I look at guys’ suits. And ties! I was almost tempted to buy one – which would have been stupid as I wear them only for weddings (the last was three years ago) and funerals. It would make more sense to use rent-a-tie.
We were sitting outside a café when a guy wearing dirty overalls and white gloves leaned out of a window across the street and shouted to someone near us. Because of the traffic noise, no one seemed to notice, so he tried again. Then, with a shrug that if you saw it in a film you'd call it over-acting, he pulled a mobile out of his pocket – and the lady at the next table said, ‘Pronto’.

In all the years (44) I’ve been coming to Rome I’ve never seen a Roman nose. Oh yes, marble ones, thousands of them – the ancient Greco-Roman sculptures are equipped with hooters like ski-jumps. Yet in this city of three million people, not one of them seemed to have a living, breathing, exponential nasal organ. I’ve seen more curvaceous conks at Everton home games. What happened to the nose gene? Do they get plastic surgery on the Social Security?
And then, as we're having dinner on our last night in Rome, there it is at the next table! Excited at my discovery, I kick wife under the table. Or to be precise I kick her foot which is under the table, and by subtle signalling manage to draw her attention to the adjacent perfectly profiled proboscis. Nero would have been proud to have it.
There were only two things were wrong with it. First, it didn’t look right on a woman. Secondly, she was Irish.
Nose Quest continues.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

It wasn’t built in a day and all roads lead there.

Ah! Back in good old V/franche. Shows how addictive this thing has become – it was a fabulous trip but I was getting blog-withdrawal. But there were some proof edits waiting with a deadline of the previous day, so I had to work. We know that editors move deadlines forward to give themselves ample cushions but we all have to play the game and pretend that this really is THE ultimate deadline. (If you’re one of my editors I’m just kidding.)
I started missing the blog on April 24 as the train passed the marble quarries of Carrara. Was trying to read but the book was disappointing so decided to enjoy the sun and scenery of Chianti-shire. When we boarded the train in Genoa someone was sitting in our seats – not an unusual phenomenon as we discovered. We kicked them out and they went and sat somewhere else. Then when the rightful ticket-holders for those seats boarded, they were kicked out again and moved to other vacant seats. And so it went all the way to Rome for over seven hours, like some endless mobile game of musical chairs but without the music.
I’m not doing travelogues here – Rome has been done by experts – and anyway its main problem is the embarrassment of choice. Not a question of what to do but what are you going to leave for another time. If in doubt just get out and walk: there’ll be a surprise of some kind around the corner. Herself wants to go back and look at the ceiling - no, THAT ceiling; I've promised myself the Borghese Palace. But it’s nine o’clock and we’ve been on the train since leaving Genoa at two, so the cultural priority is a veal marsala and – as the last words of Silence of the Lambs go – ‘a fine Chianti’...

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The silent George

Happy birthday, Shakespeare - he'll be 442 today if he's alive. It’s also the feast of St. George – England’s national day. You probably didn’t know that – but then neither does anyone else, including most English people. Which is significant because we all know everyone else’s national day – France’s Quatorze Juillet, the Fourth of July, (commemorating when one George unloaded a troublesome colony onto another), St. David’s and St Andrews’s days in Wales and Scotland respectively. And of course March 17, when IRA members are allowed – nay, encouraged – to strut along Fifth Avenue protected by New York’s Finest to the applause of well-meaning, shamrock-wearing pseudo-Micks getting legless on green beer while real Micks stand around embarrassed.
But no-one cares about poor old St.George – not even the English, whose patron saint he is. (He’s also the patron saint of Germany – no wonder he looks confused.)
Let’s face it, we Angles are not very patriotic. We don’t have flags in our offices –we wouldn’t even know what it looked like if it weren’t for our football hooligans. We don’t stand moist-eyed, hand on wallet singing the national anthem (what is it; ‘God save the Queen’? ‘Land of Hope and Glory’? ‘Sergeant Pepper’?) In fact the more our tax-maintained satellites sing their ‘Scotland the Braves’ and ‘Sospan Bachs’, the less inclined we are to emote. As the ultra-English Dr. Johnson said, ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’.

But enough of that kind of talk - the World Cup starts in 49 days.

Off to Rome tomorrow – seven hours on a train with Herself, the Sunday papers and a bottle of Tuscany’s Finest: bliss! And of course a few days of bliss for RR and WM readers - we’ll be offline.

Friday, April 21, 2006

I told you they were reading my blog

No sooner had I published my last post than a deep-throated roar echoed across the bay and I went to the window to see – the US Navy vessel (name obscured) leaving port. Obviously they knew I was on to their fiendish plans and legged it off to – who knows? All I know is that they turned left at the end of the bay as if heading back to base in southern Italy - defeated by a superior mind. Watch this space for more details of the great RR v Rumsfeld face-off. Who will blink first?
Got some nice pix of the grandkids yesterday. The grandson looks a little man already – it’s a well known fact that grandkids grow even faster than your own kids did. Like his dad, he likes word-games; laughs helplessly when you give him a noun with a rhyming adjective – like say wonky donkey or smelly Wellie. They don’t even have to be real words – it’s the rhyme that counts, not the word.
When his dad was a kid he used to like father/son jokes. There was one that came from a cartoon in the Funnies section: father and son get on a magic carpet. Son says, ‘Let’s go to Baghdad’. Father says, ‘Where’s bag?’ Or father and son get on a bus. As it fills up the driver says ‘Would you move farther down the bus please?’ Son says (sorry, I know this is obvious): ‘Dad, move down the bus’.
Funny that - my dad would have liked that one too.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

No marks for planning

There’s a US Navy ship in the bay. Our American visitors the other day were massively impressed with the trouble we went to so that they would see the Stars and Stripes flying when they looked out. We didn’t tell them it was a coincidence. But why? What’s the Navy doing in Villefranche? When De Gaulle took France out of NATO in 1967 he banished the Fleet to Italy. But they’re back and we’re worried. What are they doing? Are they listening? Can they see what I’m writing?
A French friend is coming to lunch today and we’re wrestling with a social problem familiar to any Anglo-Saxons who live in France. It’s called tutoiement, or the process of calling someone tu – the familiar form of ‘you’. I knew this lady when I was in business here 24 years ago, when of course she was a vous. Now that she has become a family friend, she would normally be a tu – but since we’re roughly the same age no one feels they are senior enough to suggest the change. The rules are complex and ill-defined. Like what do you do when your daughter’s boy-friend becomes your son-in-law? It’s easier for the parent to change – in fact one of the rules is that the older person can invite the younger but not the other way round, but although I suggested it, he never managed to call me tu. Some may say it’s not a hell of a lot to have to worry about – but problems enlarge to fill the available worrying space, so if all you have to worry about is whom to tutoi that’s what you do.
Another worry is what’s on Hungarian television in July. I thought I’d give herself a surprise for our anniversary and booked a trip to Budapest. A nice thought – except that it means I have chosen to be out of the country for BOTH the final of the Wimbledon tennis championships and the final of the World (soccer) Cup – thus possibly missing her and my favourite sports events.
These are important times for European football. At the end of each season, the top four teams in each country in Europe go into a competition called the Champions League for the following year. Then THEY play off to see who – in theory – is the best team in Europe – or is it just to cash in on the huge television audience and potential advertising revenue? We’re half-way through the semi-finals of this year’s Champions League competition: remaining are two Spanish teams, one Italian, and one English. No French teams have survived because if French players are any good they go to English, Spanish or Italian clubs, where they make more money. This can give rise to some bizarre situations: such as the fact that the best English teams have been known to play without a single Englishman on the team – while the French national team sometimes plays without a single player who plays his football in France. (The one English team remaining in this year’s Champions League – Arsenal – has four Frenchmen and a French coach.) It’s as if every country in the world produced quarter-backs: at least once they get to the top in the USA there’s nowhere for them to go.
Thought you’d find that fascinating – more next week when we’ll know who the finalists are, giving a whole new meaning to the word ‘indifference’. Or is that what the Navy are here for?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

I taught her all I know - how come she's so smart?

Our American friends from up the mountain (see Cabin in the Sky) came down to sea level today for lunch. He writes books about pre-colonial Africa with intriguing titles like ‘The Black Amazons of Dahomey’ and is great fun – they both are – and he identified a number of trees in our garden. He told us that one of them – a 'medlar' tree - had a very pleasant fruit but his wife doesn’t eat it. I just looked it up in the dictionary and it says its fruit is ‘not edible’. Is she up to something? Should I tell him?

When does coincidence lose its credibility?
Sometimes you read something in a work of fiction and say it relied too much on coincidence. But these two stories are true.
I was visiting an old friend once in Sarnia, Ontario. (You only need go to Sarnia once and you’re Sarnia-ed for life.) One day his next door neighbour popped in, and Dave said I was passing through on the way from New Zealand to UK and the neighbour said, as people do to make idle conversation, ‘I’ve got a brother in New Zealand’. And I said ‘Oh yes, you mean Don Bruce, he lives in the flat above mine.’
Some time later, I was driving south on Route 202 from Philadelphia to Washington when, feeling hungry, I stopped at a down-market restaurant - or was it an up-market diner? - called Cakes and Ale (I’m a sucker for Shakespearean titles). It was very crowded but one seat remained at the bar, and as one does when outside the UK, I started talking to the guy on the next stool. He asked where I came from. ‘Oh, I used to know an Englishman,’ he says, as people do to make idle conversation. ‘Yes’, I say, ‘Malachy MacIntyre’. He almost falls off his stool, and to this day he probably thinks everyone in England knows everyone else.

I've finally persuaded Herself to start a blog as a therapeutic exercise – thinking that this way she’d have less time to beat me at Scrabble. (It’s not that she’s better than me but she wins hands down at the pre-match mind games.) But now she’s getting better reviews than me. What do I do? I’m not telling you her link in case you agree.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Has she got the buns?

It’s nice to be just me again: merely me. But I did enjoy my time as a pseudo-This. It was fun not knowing what I was posting until after I’d posted it. (Sorry if you don’t understand that but it would take too long to explain and it’s not all that interesting anyway.)
We aren’t talking today.
We usually arrive laden with culinary emergency provisions to ensure that the table does not lack things unavailable in France – but we forgot the hot cross buns. Easter without HCBs is Christmas without turkey. It’s not religious – it’s just that the good ones taste so... Mmm... spicy. Herself says I forgot them – but there’s no doubt in my mind who forgot them. We’ve heard of a man in Antibes called Geoffrey of London who sells exotic English fare to nostalgic expats: things like OXO (meat extract made from dried blood scraped from abattoir floors), Marmite (the same with refuse from the brewing process), Heinz Salad Cream – and I’m sure, Hot Cross Buns, plus the Frank Cooper’s Thick Cut Marmalade that goes on them. But Antibes is almost an hour away on a coastal road full of Easter traffic. So Easter will be HCB-less. I’m sure it’ll be all right by the end of the day – we’ve survived worse crises than this.
(Matter of fact I’m not all that crazy about HCBs – I just wanted to make trouble.) I don’t much like turkey either.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Maybe it's the moon

There’s a full moon tonight. We get two reflections, one this side of the Cap – more about the Cap sometime – and one on the other. And I guess, since the moon itself is only a reflection, that makes four. Something to reflect on. I take out the telescope she gave me a couple of birthdays ago and marvel at the crevasses and craters and think how people must have dreamed for centuries about going there – and once someone did, the media forgot about it in 3 days and now no one dreams about it any more.

There are lots of strange features about this town. The Post Office takes two hours off for lunch - except on Thursdays (pay day), when it closes for 2½ hours. The Post Office closes at 5.30, but the last mail is collected at 5.15. Thus when you bust a gut to catch the mail, limbo-dance under the iron grill and finally get your mail franked, they say, with an exclusively French kind of glee, ‘You do know this won’t go tonight, don't you?’
Another idiosyncrasy is that at all the pedestrian crossings in this town there’s a sign saying ‘IF YOU WISH TO CROSS THE ROAD, PRESS THE RED BUTTON’, and there’s a large arrow pointing to a button. But the button is not red, it’s green. Could this be why the traffic never stops?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Cabin in the Sky

Arriving back is a strange feeling. I don’t mean driving on the wrong side of the road, or the fact that the sun is shining and the sky clear, which can be pretty disorienting if you’re not used to it. I guess that for all that I criticize France, it’s a kind of mini-homecoming. (It’s why we can criticize – the way we can complain about loved ones but won't allow anyone else to.)
We stop off at the supermarket to get what she who must be obeyed calls ‘a few essentials’ and stagger out with a Caterpillar D9-load of goodies that needs a fork-lift to transfer it to the car. We arrive here, unload the groceries (five trips up 28 steps, or 140 steps each), open the shutters, and there’s a cruise ship out in the bay, the still snow-capped mountains (40 miles inland) are almost touchable, and as the sun sets, a rising, nearly-full moon shines across the bay and we realise we’ve reached a different planet.
As part of the re-entry process, we try to spend a couple of days adjusting before people notice that our shutters are open. We probably know a more varied range of people here than we do in Jollie Olde - haven't got a collective noun for them yet: let's call them 'coasties'. There’s an American couple who live in what can only be called an ‘eagle’s nest’: a little house 4,000 feet up in the Southern Alps. They are surrounded by woodland and they look down on the mountain village of Eze, with the rust-coloured Esterel mountains to the right, Italy to the east, and Corsica to the south-east. Because of their altitude, and the blueness of the sky, the Mediterranean looks the colour my childhood paint-box called ‘cobalt’. Truly, the Côte d’Azur – the blue coast. When we saw them last autumn we came away entranced, but by the time we’d had a glass of something in our apartment in town we were asking each other if we envied them their eyrie. Could we live there? Answer: never! Their nearest bus stop is two miles away and it takes half an hour to get to the boulangerie for a loaf – and that’s in the car! But there’s obviously something there that we missed, because they’ve lived there for 28 years! The answer is simple: they have their work (he writes and she paints) and each other.
And that’s enough.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Nice is nice

I'm past commuting age, so don't have fellow-bussies to talk about. I travel on BA but not often enough to have fellow 'planies' - and would feel pretentious if I said 'This guy's always in seat 12C. He always takes the aisle, as his goal is to see how many gin-and-tonics one can order in one hour 40 minutes, because BA flight attendants are very reluctant to serve you a second alcoholic drink. (Oh sure. you can order them.) I know publicans like that.
Getting ready for a trip to my favourite place the name of which I forget, pulling the plug on the PC and stocking up on the sort of produce that is not available in the culinary centre of the universe: strong Cheddar cheese, good tea, marmalade, sesame and pumpkin seeds, sinus-clearing horse-radish, tongue-burning Norwich mustard, Tandoori, Karma and Creole sauces, Heinz baked beans and other indispensable aids to comfortable living. Also looking forward desparately to some of those 18 degrees promised by Accuweather - it snowed here yesterday.
Simone de Beauvoir said it better, as she slipped off for an adulterous rendezvous with Nelson Algren: 'I am looking forward to sun, silence, and time to work'. I can agree with that - and my rendezvous is legal.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London…

..and I'll show you something that'll make you change your mind.
London used to have monumental traffic jams. It still has some, but they have reduced considerably since it introduced what it calls the Congestion Charge, which means that every time you drive your car into central London you have to pay – before midnight that day - £8 ($14) per entry. If you forget – and we all do sometimes, they slap a £50 fine on you. But I don’t object: it mostly keeps the traffic moving and makes it possible to find a parking space within walking distance of Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club.
A number of foreign embassies, by some right they have dreamed up for themselves which is not in the Geneva Convention, do not pay their charges and ignore the subsequent fines. The list is made up mostly of impoverished African and eastern countries – and the USA. The embassy is not disputing the sum owing – they just haven’t agreed to pay it.
This is not about money – a few hundred thousand dollars won’t make much difference to the City of London’s coffers, and certainly wouldn’t be missed by a nation spending billions a day fighting terrorism. No, it’s about principle. Now we know that Tony B. Liar won’t ask George for the money because Tony uses the same brand of toothpaste as George, and does not like the Mayor of London, (who makes a habit of thrashing Tony’s nominees for the job), and would love to see the city in financial difficulty. So do me a favour George, pay up. It would not only be a nice gesture to your coalition partner whose troops are fighting alongside yours; it would be one in the eye for Tony – and it would also seem an inexpensive way to improve your country’s image in this city. Which is something a lot of people care about.
(The United Arab Emirates have agreed to pay their backlog - a mere $150,000.)

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Blair witch project

I’m a cause without a rebel today: I have nothing to complain about, and you’d be amazed how complaint-inducing that can be. Well there is one thing: it’s about people who make T-shirts and sew scratchy labels on the inside. Are they sadists, road-testing a new torture for the CIA, or what? Or do I just have delicate skin?
I am also an impostor: blog-sitting for my son and pretending to be him. He says I’m him without the swearing. (Didn’t know I swore all that much.) But one day he will realise that, having abjured swearing in front of your kids for their first 16 or more years, it’s hard to kick the habit. But they probably know it already - I passed a junior school yesterday where a mixed-gender basketball game was going on and the language would have made an ITV scriptwriter blush.
The worrying thing about proxy-blogging is that, since son’s posts are getting shorter, I’m wondering if I should add something of my own and pretend it’s his, so people won't think they're getting short measure. (Of course I’d have to take a couple of trips on a school bus first to brush up on my profanity.) Thought of an apt one-liner I could use but there’s probably a blog-ethic about that sort of thing. And besides, if it’s picked up by Reader’s Digest or New York Times Magazine he might claim the copyright for himself.

So I thought I might discuss our prime minister – he’s always good for a rant. His wife, like me, is a scouse (since WORD does not recognise ‘scouse’, I’ll explain that it’s a person from Liverpool - as in Liverpool, England) and we scouses never pass up a freebie. Well, according to The Week magazine, Mrs Blair – that’s not her professional name, she only calls herself that when she’s on a speaking tour of the US so they’ll know she’s a prime minister’s wife and she can raise her fees to augment her substantial lawyer’s salary. Mrs B., about to leave on a recent trip to Australia, sent a government car across London to the Sunday Times offices. An important libel case, you ask? An interview with the editor, perhaps? Well no – The Sunday Times was giving its readers a special offer on Air Miles, and the PM’s wealthy scouse spouse wanted to ensure that their taxpayer-funded trip would qualify.
When I worked with a capitalist corporation, we had a rule that freebies obtained through corporate travel had to be passed back to the company.
Why didn’t I work for the government?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

April in Paris - or Nice

It’s an important day in the Brit financial year – the last one, to be exact. April 5 seems an odd day on which to end a fiscal year – especially as most organizations end theirs on December 31. The reason is lost in antiquity – something to do with Pope Gregory and his calendar, as modified by Napoleon. Or was it the other way round? Whatever – this is the day when you have to use up your capital gains allowances and start thinking about your tax return – which you can’t start work on because you have to wait until you get your bank and other statements at the end of April so you’ll know what happened in the first five days of the month. We should change it of course but it’s a Tradition, and anyway it’s more fun to complain.
There’s a Paris web site ( run by an American lady. She loves Paris, which she claims gives her the right to complain about it, and does, so I have a precedent.
But I’m not complaining today – not even about the French. Especially not about the French, because I’ll be there in a few days and can’t wait to sit on the balcony puffing Monte Cristo No. 4s. The picture by mate Mike ( says it all.
There’s a new book out called That Sweet Enemy: a history of Anglo-French relations since Louis XIV. I don’t want it – it’s over 800 pages long, or about 600 pages beyond my boredom threshold. And besides, where would it live? But I’d like to browse it. The thing I’m not looking forward to is television. With the exception of Gibraltar it must be the worst TV on earth. What’s frustrating is that technically it’s good – but who wants fifty million pixels of crap? Because of the economic nationalism I may have mentioned earlier, they have laws to protect the domestic film and music industries, meaning that x% of peak programming has to be local. Thus protected, there’s no incentive to produce quality. In UK we pay a TV licence fee, in return for which our two best channels are ad-free. In France you have to buy a licence, AND you have ads on every channel. But we converse more and it does wonders for our Scrabble.
And as you know I’m not one to complain.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Am I a cynic?

There’s a news story this week about a professor of medicine whose car hit a tree. He said he had had a heart attack, which caused his heart to stop and made him run his car into a tree. Fortunately, say the reports, his chest hit the steering wheel with such force that it restarted his heart. All the papers ran the story straight, not one expressing doubt. When I remarked to the effect that you can fool all of the people some of the time, wife said I was a cynic.
My view was that the guy was legless drunk, but being a medical professor he was able to think up a plausible story. (No-one raised the question of how, if he had been wearing a seat belt, his chest could have struck the wheel.)
(I was interrupted in the process of posting the above by a call from my garage man. Sorry, he says, the parts that I told you would cost £20 - $30 - will actually cost £155 - $232 - each.)
I submit I am a sceptic – ie. I do not mistrust people or assume I am being cheated, I simply question things I am told.
When our beloved Prime Minister says that this or that cabinet minister has ‘resigned’, as has happened at least three times in the past 12 months – for reasons of either sexual shenanigans, financial skulduggery or both - I have mused ‘don’t worry, Peter – or David – or Alastair - you can come back in when the heat's off’. Again I was accused of cynicism, and again events proved me right in each case – in fact they all came back to bigger jobs. And when the said PM was telling the nation about WMDs in Iraq when all the experts said there were none, who could not have foreseen that the later justification for the mass murder would become ‘well anyway, Sadaam was not a nice chap’.
I don’t give money to blokes who wave collection boxes in my face while mumbling something about sick children, (why is it never sick oldies?) and don’t believe soccer players who roll over four times and lie dead still in the penalty area when all they’ve had is a gentle nudge - when outside the penalty area. I even have trouble with turning water into wine and feeding 5,000 people with a loaf and two small fishes.
I like to think it’s a healthy scepticism, but just sometimes, I wonder - am I a cynic?

(Footnote to the recent post about French ‘language politics’: an e-mail from a French university professor friend says proudly that she is to be presented with the Palme Académique - a state medal awarded to those who have taught French to foreign students.)

Devon rhymes with heaven

Just got back from the county of Devon in the south-west, birthplace of Sirs Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake, famous for its green undulating landscapes manicured by black-faced Merino sheep, and Jersey and other high-fat-milk producing cattle. Much of this milk ends up as Devonshire Clotted Cream, which itself ends up on buttered scones, spread on top of strawberry jam (or as some folks call it, jelly) - all key ingredients in the famous Devonshire Cream Teas that make the county the cholestrol capital of England if not the world.
(Clotted cream folk facts: in Devon you put the jam on the scone after the cream: in Cornwall, the next county, the cream goes on first, ie. before the jam. I’d hate you to commit an unconscious social blunder.)
In both counties, anyone from outside these two is a Grockle.
Devon is also very beautiful. In summer its rain is much warmer than in winter – as high as 18 degrees at times. (Ed R please note) The county is bound on two sides by the sea, and teems with wildlife. There are, at this time of the year, lambs everywhere. (And guess what, I forgot the mint sauce.) This afternoon I had to stop to let a wagtail scamper across the road in front of the car, and as I sit here three white-tailed rabbits are nibbling at the grass outside the window, a robin looks over their shoulders, and in the background a pheasant preens himself, showing off his plumage. I’ll try a photo but it will have to be through glass so may not be worth posting.
(I’m reminded of the time when, strolling in a royal park, my wife heard, then spotted, what we thought was a parrot in a tree. Someone’s parrot has escaped, we thought, but as we approached it took off, and was immediately joined by a whole gang of them – a chattering wave of apple-green breasts and red beaks. Surprised to find such an exotic bird in, not China or India, but Windsor, England, we did what normal people do – we Googled them. Sure enough, at some time in the late 60s, a couple of rose-ringed parakeets escaped from captivity. Being fortunately of different genders, they decided to breed - and there are now around 10,000 of them living unmolested in the woods and trees around Windsor Castle, their squawking surely audible in the Royal Bedchamber. Pity they weren’t there in Henry VIII’s time – they would have made great prey for the Royal falcons.
Google (I haven’t stopped using them in protest about China – I only believe in protests that don’t unduly disrupt my life-style) also provided me with the ornithological gem that in north-eastern England at this time of the year, one can see penduline tits. I thought that only happened on the French Riviera.
The only time you see that sort of thing in Devon is on Jersey cows - and they're not apple-green.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

What's French for hypocrisy?

As I’m incommunicado in Glorious Devon, where it’s hard to get your mobile to work, let alone the Internet, (and where the rain has barely stopped since our arrival Friday evening – great blogging weather), I plan to continue the blog, but posting will recommence – appropriately – on April 1, at the rate of two posts a day until I catch up with myself.

This was on March 27:
President Chirac stormed out of a European Union meeting the other day. You are probably thinking that perhaps someone had served him Spanish wine, or had besmirched the blessed memory of Charles de Gaulle, his megalomaniac mentor. It was neither: what drove him fuming from the meeting was the fact that one of his own compatriots had the gall – or is that Gaul? – to address the meeting in (excellent) English.
As previously posted here, the President’s paranoia about the declining use of French is routinely demonstrated in his glad-handing of bemedalled ex-colonial leaders whose postage-stamp dictatorships may happen to speak French. But now he has managed to bring down on himself the scorn of the European community he once pledged to support – especially when he said that English was a ‘poor’ language for communication purposes. (Is there any other purpose for language?)
The next day, The Times leader was in French.
I’m sure M. le President knows that every time his presidential jet takes off, its route is controlled by an international system of air traffic control whose common language is English – using computers and communications networks designed by people using the same language, and through airports in which every take-off and landing is contolled in English.
How strange that he should trust such a ‘poor’ communications tool to get him safely to and from his taxpayer-funded vacations in Mauritius?
Tomorrow: Things I love about France.

15 things I love about France: gastronomy

March 28:
Some years ago, François Mauriac, French novelist and later minister of culture, wrote a book called Les Anglais. It was in two parts, called, respectively, ‘Why I love the English’ and ‘Why I hate the English’. He loved them because they liked novels, which is not surprising, and might even have been a cunning marketing ploy. He hated them for their excessive confidence – I’m not sure what French word he used, but it seems a common complaint: Brits are smug. Not me of course: I’m perfect but modest.
Today’s title derives from the teaser headlines you see in the hot-selling magazines – it's usually an odd number, like ‘27 ways to improve your sex life’. Obviously I’m not going to do all 15 things at one go but only as I think of them, but it kind of stakes my claim to the title. Today’s post is not about your sex life. It’s about Food and the French.
I like the French fanatical food fetish. Where the average British and American family puts its domestic spend into status things like household, furnishings and cars, and spend barely enough for survival on food, the French family will spend just enough on warmth and shelter to support human life (DIY stores do not make money) and drive scooters or little white Peugeot 106s, but spend as much as they can scrape together on la nourriture, taking out a mortgage for this purpose if necessary. This is why in France you’re unlucky if you come across a bad restaurant, while in Britain and the US you’re lucky if you find a good one unless you spend a fortune – and even that is no guarantee. And if you do find one, you’ll be so stifled by glass-filling, ash-tray-changing, tip-seeking flunkeys that they will drive you mad.
The French also tend to know about wine. Where your average Brit (average American households, in which the choice is between Coke, Pepsi, and an oil industry derivative made by Ernest & Julio Gallo, may skip this part of the discussion) tends to buy according to grape variety, ie. merlot, chardonnay etc., the average Frenchman chooses by, first, region of origin – Bordeaux, Burgundy, etc. – then vigneron - Domaine, Château, etc – and not give a stuff about the grape variety. (It’ll usually be a mixture anyway.) I have this friend in Paris who keeps his wine in his garage – and pushes his car in and out by hand, lest the engine noise disturb, not the neighbours, but the wine.
The wines will have one infuriating thing in common: they will all be French – nationalism rules in food as it does with language. We presented our neighbours with some of our best English Cheddar cheese, brought over lovingly for their appreciation. ‘Du fromage anglais’, (Some English cheese) said my wife. Their startled reply is griven on my heart: ‘Il y en a?’ (‘Is there such a thing?’) We have never heard about the cheese since.
That’s where I admire Mauriac – he had the courage to say that France had never produced a novelist of the calibre of Dickens, Austen or the Brontes. Whether he was right or not I’m not sure – I like Victor Hugo myself. But Mauriac was fired anyway.