Francophile

The Motto of the French Republic Liberty, Equa...
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Francophile

“The French constitute the most brilliant and the most dangerous nation in Europe and the best qualified in turn to become an object of admiration, hatred, pity or terror but never indifference” (Alexis de Tocqueville)

I love France and the French.  No, really. I trust their sartorial intuition and am intoxicated by their fields of lavender and sunflowers, their ancient hill towns, alpine mountains, rugged coast and wind swept countryside.  The French people, particularly Parisians, are like an aging actress – seductive, entitled, proud, elegant, stubborn, self absorbed, mercurial and somewhat unpredictable.  I have come to accept their political contrarianism as a sort of symbiotic fact of life.  I also love to lampoon the French at every possible turn.  The French insist on positioning themselves as a rational and more egalitarian alternative to American hegemony and its “McDonaldization de le Monde”.  Every protagonist needs an arch enemy. Sherlock Holmes had Dr. Moriarty.  Superman had Lex Luther and Republicans have Obama  The French need America.

America is a country where everyone has time to mow their three-acre lawn each week,but no one has time to cook their own food; a country where “evil-doer” and “do-gooder” are both negative characterizations; a country whose academic institutions are better known for their athletes than for their scholars; a country whose car parks are bigger than the buildings they serve; a country where it is possible to purchase (and theoretically consume) sugar-frosted honey-coated deep-fat-fried cheese sticks; a country where they play a brand of football which involves minimal use of the foot and maximal use of the hands; a country which calls itself the Land of the Free yet has the world’s second highest incarceration rate, behind Russia; a country where only the well-to-do ride bicycles; and a country where ( up until very recently ) petrol costs less than bottled water.  – A French View of America, PurePolitics

Their cocksure arrogance and serial devil’s advocacy to anything American just begs for me to assault their penchant for wine, cheese, infidelity and the bloodless surrender.  The French have infiltrated American culture and our lexicon.  The French gave us the term, coup d’état, which involves taking over a government by force or deception while the leader is vacationing in Cannes. They gave us,  “Je ne sais quoi” which means “ I have no freaking idea what that reminds me of so I am going to draw on my fourteen years in le Grand Ecole to say something sophisticated that means nothing.“  What about “Laissez-faire”?  a form of government which is tantamount to a parent running a meth lab.

“Marie, where are les enfants?” “I believe the children are with your mistress, no?“  And, le piece de la resistance?  “Raison d’être” translating to “reason to exist” which for the French, is to be par excellence – – preeminently supreme above all others.

“I would rather have a German division in front of me than a French one behind me.” —General George S. Patton

I developed my tendency to take the starch out of the French while living in Europe. Working with our French operations was a sociological adventure. We had a worker’s council threaten to strike over whether we would install a sales management system.  The labor union leadership did not like the idea of someone monitoring employee performance and potentially paying for those results.  Imagine that!  We had 35 hour work weeks with employees swapping building access cards in order to work longer than 35 hours – – trying not to get caught by those who were trying to enforce the 35 hour rule designed to drive full employment.  We had executives that were cheaper to move aside than to pay a mandatory three year severance. They became frozen fixtures, too proud to leave and too angry to do anything other than criticize management.  My French colleagues referred to the seventh floor which housed these malcontents as “le mausoleum”.  The Parisian staff were by far, the most educated, unprofitable, dynamic, dysfunctional, sarcastic and elegant team we employed.  Teams were merely a shell for individual contributors who competed with one another for success.  This competition of individuals, many of whom were educated in the best schools, was unproductive and highly entertaining.  Personally, I loved it.  Professionally, it drove me crazy.

“France is a mouse with the skin of an elephant ; America is an elephant with the skin of a mouse” ! C. Nadeau

Whether it was the French’s decision not to commit troops to Iraq or a persistent condemnation of our foreign policy, the French remain committed to being distinguished as a mature alternative to adolescent America.  It is lost on many of the new intelligentsia that our countries’ histories are inexorably bound by periods of mutual necessity and alliance: the French helping America gain its freedom during the Revolutionary War or US soldiers fighting and dying in places like the Ardennes and Normandy to liberate France.  Somewhere along the way, our co-dependence yielded to cultural and philosophical differences with each side assailing the other for their self serving values and blind excesses.  And just when we finally screwed up the courage to sacrifice our Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Brie cheese, French wines and god forbid, “French” Fries, along came French President Nicholas Sarkozy pledging to build a stronger bridge with the USA and position France to compete in the new global economy by loosening the noose of suffocating social programs. “Mon Dieu, Jacqueline! President Sarkozy is a capitalist loving, Walmart shopping, American loving traitor! Have you seen his new girlfriend ? The République française is in pieces, n’est pas?”

“In response to the recent terror attacks in Spain, the French government have raised their terror alert status from Run to Hide.”  – Somewhere on a Wall Street trading floor

Thankfully, the French are so predictable. While Sarkozy initially robbed us of our ability to dislike or tease the French, he quickly yielded to popular demands and a deeply distrustful society.  His proposals to reform pensions to mirror private sector schemes led to public workers strikes and eventually it was easier to kick the crepe down Rue St Germain than to start espousing Western notions of personal responsibility.  The French are generally suspicious of success and feel that capitalism promotes a level of corruption and institutionalized discrimination in business and government.  This distrust of government and business manifests itself in a refined intellectual cynicism where corporations and wealth are seen as having corrupted the ideal of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”

Like Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, we simply cannot live with or without the French.  Our contempt for one another should be overshadowed by the fact that we are both great societies and that we need one another. It is true that democratic socialism is not compatible with neo conservative capitalism.  Yet, the USA is learning that we desperately need global partners and that we can do more to support the least among us in our society.  The French, on the other hand, are learning hard lessons about the impact of economic immigration, the burden of massive social programs and inefficient labor law.  We are in essence, stumbling toward one another in a blinding storm – – the aging actress and the powerful adolescent.  We may end up together but we will always be odd bedfellows.

Vive le difference.

Au Revoir Mon Enfant

Le Nôtre's central axis of the Tuileries' part...
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“On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur.”…. (We see well only with the heart)

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The first beams of le soleil d’été crawled up the Champs D’Elysses like an early morning tide rising along the beaches of the Cote d’Azur. The city streets were littered with debris and the fading accents of revelry that had only just melted away with the sunrise.

Our street, Rue de Berri was quiet and not yet stirring.  The morning light was only tapping at the highest windows festooned with potted geraniums and midnight blue wrought iron.  A burst of wind, having wandered off the main boulevard carried the stale smell of an urban summer and brushed back our hair.

I had come to Paris with my 16-year-old daughter to suspend, even for a moment, her rapid ascent into the higher elevations of adulthood.  We had planned the trip for over a year but in such difficult times, I was tempted to cancel our journey. Yet, instinctively, I understood she was slipping away.  In time, she would become a distant speck on my horizon line as she pursued her raison d’être.

Given her increasingly independent routine, we had become passing ships. Extemporaneous engagement had been supplanted by negotiated interaction.  Our world was changing – with her universe expanding and mine contracting to supply, support and finance her inevitable departure.  It seemed my initials were slowly changing from M-A-T to A-T-M.  Paris was perhaps now, or never.

We wandered out into a magnificent, cloudless summer morning. Cafes hissed happily with the steam of espresso machines and joie d’ vivre. Sleep-deprived baristas mumbled at patrons as they laid out baskets of chocolate croissants and pastries.

The day would lead us across the Place d’ Concorde through the Tuileries Gardens and across the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay.  After studying Pissarro in art, she was amazed to see the original subject for her semester report, “Vegetable Garden and Trees in Blossom”, painted in Pontoise in the spring of 1877.  The masterpiece         hung prosaically on a wall alongside Manets, Renoirs and Matisse plein air oils.

We immediately fell into Van Gogh’s 1887 ” Starry Night Over The Rhone” with its glowing celestial swirls of starlight and the warm lights of taverns spilling across a sequined midnight blue river.

I was eager for her to see the whimsical strokes of Toulouse-Lautrec who prowled the bordellos and dancehalls of the Montmartre neighborhoods.  It was here that Paris shed any sense of morality and laid bare a world of venal feelings, colors and characters.

We finally fell out into a warm afternoon following the Seine, blown by a strong breeze and the need for motion.  We rented bikes at Vélib – the ingenuous Parisian bicycle rental kiosks and service stations strategically situated throughout the city.  We biked along the river to the Tour Eiffel, Le Trocadero and along bike paths to the Latin Quarter to explore, shop and lose ourselves in the historic, bustling alleys.

We exchanged more smiles and glances than words during our exploration.   As she slipped her arm into mine, it was worth a thousand affections and I had to resist acknowledging the moment.  I can still recall enjoying an experience with my father until he would shatter the moment with innocent enthusiasm. “Isn’t this great?” – a rhetorical question that would be rebutted with a superficial smile.  To publically memorialize any moment to a teen is to kill it – transforming it from substance to a saccharine platitude.  Formal moments were now implicit, having been explicitly left behind long ago like a discarded beanie baby or blanket.

On this night, le grand fete de la Musique- the music festival marking the first day of summer was spreading across the city center.  Our Metro screeched to a halt at Châtelet as we climbed up to a late afternoon multitude surging and straining to feel the youth and music of the June evening. In a deep caffeine and crepe blackout, we coursed through the narrows arteries of the Left Bank moving from one animated coterie of partiers and street performers. There was a sudden blood trail that led to a recently broken fight and three arrests. A young bohemian sat bloodied on the ground as police officers attempted to reconstruct the crime scene.

Across the Seine on the the Île de la Cité, steps that fell down to the quays and embankments served as an amphitheatre for hundreds of people listening to an African guitarist.  The bateau-mouches ( fly boats ) coursed silently across the slate blue water reflecting a night sky of stars and a palette of colored festival lights, lanterns and lamps in their wake.   Notre Dame’s buttresses were bathed in soft pastel light while inside, prayer candles and the gentle chants of medieval baroque music reverently beckoned passersby to sit and reflect. There was magic everywhere.

The Parisian summer night fell slowly – hesitating, and lingering like the gangly silhouettes of teens with their tangerine glow of cigarettes and faces occasionally illuminated with the paparazzi burst of light from a passing car.  Three AM.  It was the realm of these young vampires – sinewy, sartorial and invincible.  They possess a élan for life and belief that tomorrow only happens to other people.  While they wait for life to happen at night, la vie is invisibly passing them by day.  Their restless migration along narrow cobbled streets and across abandoned gardens is occasionally punctuated with a wild yell or pitched outburst. With the dawn, they vanish –presumably undead in some tiny garret apartment awaiting another twilight.

The following day, we travelled to Versailles – my daughter not much older than the Austrian Princess, Marie Antoinette who would marry Louis, Dauphin of France.  He would ascend the throne in 1774 to become Louis XVI.  Marie would reside at Versailles and at the Palace of the Tuileries until 1791 when the reign of terror ushered in France’s First Republic.

As we entered Versailles halcyon gardens, the clouds moved across a brilliant aquamarine sky – great man-o-wars casting shadows across fields of rolled hay and poplar trees. Against a backdrop of shimmering fountains, we descended into the gilded age of opulence and patrician consumption. The gardens of Versailles cover over 800 acres.  A mathematician’s dream, the property was perfectly symmetrical dominated by manicured 30′ high boxwood bosquets that formed intricate passages and mazes.  Alabaster sentinels – statues of mythological heroes frozen in perpetual triumph and tragedy, guarded each path’s junction.

We followed La Croix – The Grand Canal, a crucifix shaped lake edged with footpaths that skirted in and out of the shade of massive horse chestnut trees.  Magnificent swans patrolled the shallows for snails and rudely turned their tails and bottoms at us as they scanned the emerald lake for breakfast.

We stopped and lay across the rough grass staring up at the sky. A middle aged French couple descended the mild sloping hill to our left and sat to picnic.  Within minutes they were rolling across their blankets like mating water buffalo, indifferent to the great risk to one another or their violent public display of affection. We assigned them names and circumstances that seemed to only heighten our amusement. When “Monique’s” blouse started to hike up her alabaster trunk, we agreed that our lunch would be spoiled if we persisted on spying on this amorous wild kingdom encounter.

We returned to Central Paris and retraced the footsteps of Hemmingway, Pound, Sartre, Camus, Picasso, Stein and Fitzgerald.  We tossed back espressos at Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area.  I imagined them to be the opaque green absinthe liquors that fueled the conversations of great writers in Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast.  We moved on to shadow artists in Montmartre and peruse the Quai booksellers that sat rigidly next to their long green coffins of artifacts.

On our last evening, we crawled up on to the roof of our hotel and watched the golden lights of the Tour Eiffel.  Off in the opposite direction, The Sacre Coeur shined like Camelot at Montmartre. We sat silent drinking in the history and elegance.

Just as suddenly as we had stumbled on to Rue d’ Berri, we were descending into a hazy east coast evening, falling back into old patterns – texting friends, emailing and checking the blackberry. As the car crunched across the gravel of our front driveway, my daughter turned to hug me.  “Daddy, that was the greatest trip.  I will remember it forever.” Just then, her phone rang and her face lit up recognizing a friend’s voice.  She ran upstairs as I lugged in our pregnant suitcases.

Tickets to De Gaulle? Expensive. Hotel Lancaster? Very expensive.  Sitting on the roof of a hotel looking across the City of Lights through the eyes of your own daughter?

Priceless….