France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

March 20, 2009

All the non-Strike news that’s fit to print

Well, technically, journalists are back to work today, but most of their news is about the general strike in which they participated yesterday so I’m happy to provide an alternate source of news and commentary.

A rosé is a rosé is a rosé or, yet another reason I hate Brussels

The European Commission is reportedly considering allowing countries to mix white and red wine and call it rosé. Besides that this will probably be about as successful as mixing Flanders and Wallonie and calling them Belgium, French rosé producers are justifiably angry because it totally ignores that a rosé is a specific grape, or rather a grape fermented in a specific fashion, basically a red which is bottled after just a day of maceration. When France 3 public television reported on this the other night, before it went on strike, it interviewed a rosé producer in South*east* France, but those rosés are too pinko for me. I prefer the lush red roses — when I say red, I don’t mean red like red wine, I mean really red like the color — here in South*west* France. The best I’ve had came from further south in Gascony (which also makes my favorite white, Tariquet, a sprightly tart wine — goes great with raclette, tartiflette, and fondue — made from the same grape that constitutes armagnac, just not fermented so long), but the ones around these parts — the Bergerac — are also excellent, and those from the Lot are not half bad, and cheap, as is that from the Tarn, around mid-way between East and West. (Rosé in France is generally cheap — anwhere from 2 Euros on up for a good one. And it now out-ranks white in popularity here in France, Le Monde reports) The difference, besides the color, is that the pinko Eastern rosés just taste more watery and sugary, whereas the redder Western rosés have more body and a taste that is at the same time fruity but not too sweet. The best was the 2003, which matured during the canicule or heat wave, making it nice and dry.

If the rosé of the West is redder than the rosé of the East, it’s not because the vintners around here put more red wine than white in their rosé. I’m not an expert, but it probably has to do with different conditions of landscape and climate; maybe it’s that a rosé grown near the banks of the Mediterranean is going to be more pink than a rosé cultivated in the Valley of the Dordogne. Maybe because it’s generally hotter there, maybe because of the proximity of the Sun; I don’t know. But the point is it’s because of regional particularities. Exactly what Brussels, time and time and again, ignores — even seems sometimes to want to wipe out. The European Union could have been about everyone benefiting from everyone else’s culture, including the various cuisines — about me being able to go into a supermarket in southwest France and get good Belgian beer for the same price, minus transport, as they pay in Antwerp, and a Flemmish guy being able to do the same buying REAL rosé or great French chevre cheese from the Charente in his neck of the woods. Instead it’s too often about making everything generic. A guy in Hamburg cannot produce a rosé just by mixing red and white; besides that bottling that and calling it rosé would be an insult to the French vintners who have taken generations to learn to make the real thing, that’s not a wine for people who appreciate rosé, it’s a wine for people who can’t decide between red and white — and for bureaucrats who don’t understand that a rosé is a rosé is a rosé, not a mushy melange of red and white.

Smelling like roses. Not.

Of course, man does not live by rose alone, and around these parts, we like to wash down our wine with a good chunk of beef. The blonde beef (the French usually call cows simply beef) of Aquitaine, my region, is reputed to be one of the best; I think it even won a prize at the recent Salon d’Agriculture in Paris.  To make beef, it takes corn, and to make corn, it apparently takes beef-dung, like the kind the farmer next door has been spreading around his cornfield the past week with a tractor attachment designed for the task, and that’s been wafting into the stone house here, helped by a Southeastern style mistral, and leaving the house, notwithstanding the bar of rose-scented savon de Marseille in my bathroom, smelling like anything but a rose.

Dandelions with wine

For about a year Bernard, my neighbor and best friend around these parts, has been trying to convince me that the long-leafy green plant growing in the ground everywhere is edible. Pissenlit, he says (I’ve not been able to figure out why another neighbor, a recent retiree from the North, calls it ‘pissing lait (milk)’ — is great in a salad. “You add salt and pepper, oil and vinegar, maybe a little mustard and garlic and” (here he pinches fingers together and kisses them with lips in the universal gesture that says ‘Magnifique!’). This year I finally decided to investigate and — magnifique! I like the bittersweet taste. The leaves can be a little tough; the best is to pick them before the flower has fully flowered. The flower! Ca alors! Its yellow-ness reminded me of something and I finally realized that — voila — it’s a dandelion. And indeed, I already knew about eating dandelion greens from the States, so was not surprised when, following Bernard’s and Monsieur Marty’s instructions, I also ate them in an omelette: First you immerse the leaves in boiling water for about ten minutes, then you cut them up, then you drop them into your cooking eggs, adding perhaps some lardons (fresh bacon bits) and even a slice of toast. Magnifique encore! I now have an extra incentive — besides the dog — to walk out to the path past the horse and donkey ranch, where the pissenlit is plentiful and where it’s not all yet flowered, although pausing occasionally to pick the pissenlit on the side of the path just now and watching the dog walking ahead of me pause occasionally to lay his piss, it occurred to me that maybe next time I should leave Boobah behind.


March 19, 2009

French Strike/Greve National: Shut up and Talk

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The French (public radio) news being on strike again, along with the rest of the so-called ‘public service’ sector, I was forced to turn to the BBC this morning, which took just five minutes to inaccurately describe the labor situation in France.

France is not, as the BBC noted, one of the strongest union countries in Europe — that would be Germany — but one of the weakest, with only about 10 percent of the work-force belonging to unions. And they’re not striking to protest what they consider President Sarkozy’s inadequate response to the crisis. They’re on strike because in their view the Sarkozy government is a threat to their precious entitlements, and because going on strike is their favorite means of disagreeing. I’m exasperated that workers who have jobs, with six weeks of vacation and often a 13th month of pay yet, are refusing to work and thus discommoding the rest of us and throwing a public temper-tantrum.

The fact is, President Sarkozy broadcast in advance that he was going to shake things up — that’s why a majority of voters cast their lot with him. The fact is that until recently, the Socialists were too busy bickering to come up with an alternative plan. The fact is that if Segolene had won the presidential election, France would still be stuck in a mire. Some may not like what Sarkozy has and wants to institute — and there is certainly reason to not always trust his motives — but the fact is it took a Sarkozy to recognize that the status quo was not working and to shake it up. Instead of just complaining, the political and union opposition should use this as an opportunity to make its own parry and suggest constructive, workable, practical and practicable solutions, as — to give her credit — new Socialist premiere secretary Martine Aubry finally started to do last month.

March 9, 2009

De-regionalization: Balladur sets the record straight

In my February 26 post Chanson pour l’Auvergnot, I decried that if the Balladur Commission has its way, seven of France’s 22 regions might disappear, swallowed up by or merged into other. Appearing on France Culture’s morning program today, the former prime minister, Balladur himself, said that these exactions didn’t come from him or his report, which simply suggests that some regions are feeble and need to be reinforced. As far as regional identification, he also suggested that it might be instructive to ask the people themselves how they identify.

March 6, 2009

La Fabrication de l’Histoire

You’d think that a history-themed radio program — on the intello chain France Culture, no less — would be the last place that would perpetrate historical inaccuracies. But that’s exactly what transpired on Emmanuel Laurentin’s Le Fabrique de l’Histoire this morning, when a panel of supposed historians discussed the Harvey Milk bio-pic “Milk” by placing it in a historical context that got several things wrong.

I knew — well, at least encountered — Harvey Milk, growing up in San Francisco in the Noe Valley district neighboring what was then called Eureka Valley before gays arbitrarily renamed it the Castro, after its central, hilly boulevard, and it has little in common with the pre-gay “Castro” described by these French experts. According to one, it was “Irelandaise,” “more or less degraded, and badly maintained.” In reality, if the neighborhood’s roots were Irish, by the 1960s it was more mixed, best characterized as a working-class family neighborhood. And it was neither degraded nor badly maintained. Like Noe Valley and much of San Francisco, including the nearby Haight-Ashbury, it was open to different people — the very fact that lead it to welcome out homosexuals. (The French historians on today’s program also misplaced the Haight-Ashbury as being ‘near Berkeley,’ thus mis-explaining why it was the hippy quarter; as for Oakland, it’s but ‘the black quarter’ of San Francisco.)

PS: My encounter with Harvey was telling, and a sign of the changing times and neighborhood. A teenager, I’d already been propositioned by a gay person, while playing tennis at Dolores Park, across from my ‘lycee,’ Mission High School, both not far from Castro Street. So when I went to pick up some film I’d left at Harvey’s camera shop — Castro Camera, as I recall — I was shaking, through no fault of his. Harvey, who was sitting down and wearing a sort of photo lab vest, looked me straight in the eye and asked, “What are you afraid of, Paul?”

PS 2: Apart from advancing the cause of gay rights, Harvey’s greatest — and lasting — contribution to San Francisco was the “pooper scooper” law, which instituted fines for dog-owners who didn’t clean up after their pets. I remember my grandfather commenting — on a visit to San Francisco and our Noe Valley — what a shame it was that such a beautiful city allowed its streets to be sullied by dog-poop; Harvey cleaned San Francisco up and made it pretty again. I think what many forget is that what allowed Harvey to win in his second attempt at a seat on the board of supervisors is that he didn’t just campaign as a gay rights advocate, or a gay candidate, but took a real interest in issues that affected the neighborhoods, including this one and the rights of senior citizens. In Noe Valley, which was part of the district Harvey was running to represent — this was the first year that supervisors were elected by district — Harvey handed out flyers and introduced himself to people in a pinstriped suit and tie. He was not a wild-eyed radical; that was the role of his assaassin.

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