Friday, June 19, 2009

There's no question who wears the pantalons in the Chirac famille

So Jacques Chirac, former French president and famed ladies man, has been finally busted by his long-suffering spouse, Bernadette.
As widely publicised in the media today, the old Casanova, famed almost as much for his extra-marital romantic liaisons when in office as for his political achievements, was caught out by his wife yesterday during a public engagement in Correze.
Pants-Man Chirac is seen in this YouTube clip to be openly flirting with a younger blonde woman while his wife performs the public speaking duties at the rostrum barely four feet away.
Bernadette's withering look, mid-speech, appears to stun the former Prez back into line, giving perhaps a moment's insight into exactly who wears the pantalons in the Chirac household.
And yet what amazes me - as it has done for the entire ten years I have been living here in France - is the fact that Chirac's infidelity is widely celebrated in France, where infidelity is still practiced as a national sport.
Chirac himself has made no secret of his infidelity, admitting publicly that he has loved "many women" in his life "as discreetly as possible".
And while I would never seek to make a moral judgement on the way people choose to live their lives and the manner in which they choose to conduct their marriages (each to their own, I say), it's nontheless curious to see what some might consider one of the worst French stereotypes (all French men cheat on their wives) being reinforced and celebrated with such nudge-nudge, wink-wink gusto.
My own personal experience is that, as with every country, marriages come in all different shapes and sizes here in France. There's probably no more infidelity here than in any other country in the world. The French just care less about hiding it. And maybe that's healthier. But I can't help but think French women are the losers in all of this. Stoic, long-suffering, but ultimately cheated. My only hope is that Bernadette has been busy with a few extra-marital adventures of her own.

Who doesn't like a bit of street grit with their poulet?

The world is understandably fascinated with French cuisine. It sits right up there at the top of the world's gastronomy ladder as one of the most refined, accomplished, complex and proud culinary traditions. And for good reason. For centuries, French chefs have been setting the pace in international cooking circles, and while new world competition has emerged - and is fierce - French cuisine still manages to serve as a benchmark in cooking excellence.
More than just technical competence with the blending of foodstuffs and flavours, the French food dominance stems from the national obsession that is eating in France. Your average French person, be they a good cook or not, will go into raptures about a steak they had the other night or the texture of a comte cheese they consumed after dinner. Food occupies a central part of all French peoples' lives, to the extent that living is just the stuff they do to kill time between meals. And it makes for one of the great joys of living here.
The French relationship with food is such a tactile and intimate one. You'll see customers at the butcher's feeling a cut of beef for tenderness or old ladies in line at the market fondling a salmon steak or squeezing a goat's cheese to check it for "ripeness". It's also a relationship that is delightfully devoid of the the kind of borderline anal, hermetically-sealed, health-and-hygeine approach that we have to food in countries like the US, UK and my homeland, Australia. At home, all foodstuffs are packaged in styrofoam and plastic wrap, kept in spotless supermarket freezers or served by vendors wearing gloves, hair nets and using tongs, as if the food they are serving is somehow toxic and untouchable. And while there is certainly some comfort to be drawn from the fact the food you are buying at least APPEARS to have been hygienically prepared and handled, there's something earthy and honest about the French approach.

Take for example the chicken rotisserie at the butcher's shop on my rue. It sits there on the footpath, day-in, day-out, with plump chickens turning slowly, sending a heavenly aroma up the street. Cars, buses and motorscotters fly by on the busy thoroughfare that is Rue Oberkampf, kicking up all manner of dust from the street. Pedestrians scoot by, pushing prams with wailing babies, coughing, talking, laughing and sneezing. And still the chickens turn, separated from all of this by two flimsy glass doors. At the base of the rotisserie, and basting in the fat of the chickens above, sits a pile of new potatoes, bubbling away. During winter, it's the job of the chicken lady to ward off the more enterprising members of the homeless contingent who live down on the boulevard Richard Lenoir and make occasional raids on the rotisserie, scooping out as many potatoes as they can before they are chased off by a carving knife-wielding butcher.

In my home country, this butcher shop would be closed down. A phalanx of clipboard-carrying Public Health And Safety officials would descend on the butchery and slap a condemned sticker on the old rotisserie, labelling it a grave threat to public health.
And maybe it's not the cleanest, most hygienic way to prepare roast chicken. But I challenge you to find a more tasty poulet anywhere in the world.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Anne Frank The Musical: Fun for all the family

Every now and then, whilst wandering the streets of Pareee, I come across something so mind-bogglingly hilarious I can scarcely believe it's real.
Take, for example, Anne Frank: The Musical.
Now, I should preface this blog entry by stating up front that I haven't seen this production, and hence, am not in a position to give an opinion one way or the other on whether it makes for a rollicking good night at the theatre. I should also state up front that I am among that minority of the population who read her diary and found Anne Frank plain annoying. While I would never seek to belittle or diminish her plight - or that of the Jewish people more generally during WWII - I found it hard to get past Ms Frank's whiney teenage tone. Important contribution to history and the literary canon: yes. Enjoyable read: not so much.
So to then discover that some enterprising Parisian theatrical impresario has concocted a musical based on the Diaries of Anne Frank just leaves me scratching my head.
Quite apart from the fact that there cannot be much in the way of scene changes (they lived in a hermetically-sealed one room apartment for God's sake), I can't begin to imagine how you fashion a musical number out of the Frank family experience.
Are audiences leaving the theatre humming the tune to that show-stopper "Sssh! The Germans Are Coming!"? Or are they being moved by the pre-interval power balled "Not Beans For Dinner Again!"?
We can only hope it has Mel Brooks' paws all over it. His "Springtime For Hitler" musical-within-a-musical in the hit Broadway show and film, The Producers, set a new standard for Nazi-inspired musical theatre. And as a genre, it has been sorely underserviced ever since...

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Introducing les NoPos ... Les Nouveaux Pauvres

If you've lived in Paris for any period of time, you've probably come across "les bobos" - that peculiar breed of Parisian who, despite their bourgeois background make an active effort to live as bohemians. Hence the moniker 'bobo' - les bourgeois bohemes.

These are people who have had an excellent education, a comfortable upbringing and hold down good jobs with respectable salaries yet who prefer to cloak themselves in a veneer of bohemia to improve their street cred. There's nothing cool or even remotely artistically credible about having parents in the 16th arrondissement and a family holiday home in Cap Ferret. And so they slum it in ateliers and lofts in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and wearing designer trainers with their H&M jeans.

For as long as there will be aristocrats in France (and let's face it, despite a big-ass revolution back in 1789 and a concerted campaign of head lopping, the aristos are alive and well in la belle France), there will be "bobos". But since the global financial meltdown, a new subset in French society has emerged. A subset of which I am proud to be a member.

They're called "les nopos", or les nouveaux pauvres (the new poor). Unlike les bobos, whose down-at-heel lifestyles are a denial of their healthy bank accounts, les nopos lead lives of indulgence they simply cannot afford. Their bank managers may be phoning every other day, their credit cards may have been cancelled and their daily lives may be a tightrope walk across the abyss of bankruptcy, but they continue to lead lives of relative excess, working on the theory they may be dead tomorrow.

Les nopos as a social construct were first brought to my attention by my good friend, the ever stylish Esther Loonen. As well as being one of Paris' most celebrated new children's fashion designers (Lili And The Funky Boys), Esther and her hubby, Jules are the Showgirl's and mine partners in newly impoverished Parisian crime. Despite the ever present spectre of financial disaster, we forge ahead, eating at a restaurant here, organising a modest little European mini-break there. It's not exactly Marie-Antoinette, let-them-eat-cake excess (that's the exclusive preserve of people who actually do have money to fall back on, and besides, our deeply instilled Protestant work ethic would never allow for that kind of completely irresponsible behaviour), but there is a certain cavalier fatalism to it all.

Sure, the pile of available euros seems to dwindle with every passing day. Yes, unemployment in the Euro zone has climbed to an historic high. Of course, working as a writer in one of the world's most expensive cities while supporting a wife and child is akin to madness. But what are you going to do? Sit around at home eating lentils? Spend the day nervously watching movement of the global stock markets? Life is short. If you're going to take time each day to count anything at all, it should be your blessings, not your savings.

No, global economic crisis or not, I refuse to be bowed. I reject the recession. I am a proud, card-carrying member of les nouveaux pauvres. Vive les nopos!

Now, where did I put that Greek Island travel brochure?