France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

September 30, 2010

Tra la la

Advertisements

September 16, 2010

Lifting the veil on the burka law

So the French Senate has voted, 276-1, to essentially outlaw the burka in public places, cracking down on the biggest threat to the Republic and Republican values, 2,000 women who cover themselves because of their religious beliefs. Let’s cut to the chase here: This is not about preserving Republican values, or protecting women of Arab origin from their radical Islamist spouses. This is about the French discomfort — be they Gaulists, Socialists, or Communists — with anything different. When I moved to Paris in 2001, people having their morning coffee used to look at me funny as I ran by on my morning jog — and I was barely covered at all in my shorts and sleeveless tee-shirt. One of the only two times I got asked for my papers was when I decided to have a picnic on the top of some stairs over a street and overlooking a tres Parisian park on the rue Lafayette (I am here!). No doubt a busy-body neighbor saw this unusual sight and called the police. I repeat: I was having a picnic. (Okay, the picnic included homemade sangria, but as the police didn’t ask to inspect that, I assume that was not the issue.) The issue here is not so much the police — indeed, they were incredibly polite — but the *mefiance* of the typical French person, one of whom had obviously called them because she saw something she considered out of the ordinary.

French television news no doubt featured all last week saturation coverage of the Koran burning that never happened, affirming American contempt for Muslims. But at the end of the day, it never happened, and was more about American stuntsmanship than intolerance. The French, on the other hand, overwhelmingly passed a law which clearly impinges on the religious freedom of some of France’s Muslim population. And here’s the key difference between us: For all our faults, Americans, starting with the president, realize that we have a problem with tolerance, *and we are working on it.* The French, by contrast, by a vast majority, not only have a problem with tolerance of difference, they don’t admit it. They hide it under the facade of protecting their holy trinity of values, liberty, fraternity, and equality, when in fact laws like that outlawing the burka defile all three.

March 29, 2010

Why Françoise Hardy won’t shake your hand

Just about every pundit capable of independent analysis agrees that the reason the Front National mounted in last week’s regional elections was the governing UMP party’s focus on false security issues (immigrants or if you prefer, illegal immigrants, a subset of which is the burka) as opposed to the real insecurity issues actually pre-occupying the electorate, e.g. unemployment, lodging, and the loss of purchase power. (Never mind that the UMP’s leader in parliament, like a parrot who only knows a few words, was still chirping “Burka!” election night, signalling his intention to pursue some form of interdiction of the full-body veil.) Yet there was another government campaign which also tapped into (even if it didn’t intentionalliy exploit) insecurity: the super-hyped campaign to get people vaccinated and to take other measures to protect themselves against swine flu. The campaign had hardly begun winding down when government critics started saying the real threat had been over-amped. There were even hints that enabing the pharmas to profit from the crisis by the government’s purchase of (too much vaccine had been a factor. I don’t subsscribe to this theory. If anything, in the wake of the ancient debacle involving HIV-contaminated blood supplies and the more recent one involving the government’s lack of preparation for the deadly heat wave of 2003, this government would have been crucified if it hadn’t been circumspect about this latest health menace. And it was certainly not alone among the world’s governments in panicking.

Nevertheless, even if, in my view, the amplitude of the government’s swine flu protection campagin was justified, it’s had at least one consequence which to my mind is just as alarming as the resurgence of the Front National.

Françoise Hardy, the lithesome and archetypal French singer-actress of the free-loving and carefree ’60s, is no longer shaking hands.

“Its because of” the government’s swine flu campaign, the self-described ‘grand sentimental’ explained to an interviewer from radio France Inter who observed that in lieu of shaking hands, she was now greeting people in what he called the ‘Japanese or Asiatique” fashion, of folding her hands and bowing. “It’s more beautiful, and it’s more ‘safe,'” she said, using the English word.

Welcome to France version 2010, a country in which fear of the other has become such a virus, at least among some French, that the Front National is mountting in strength and Françoise Hardy is retreating her hand. I’ll hold out for the return of a France where Muslim women can protect their bodies if they want to and Françoise Hardy doesn’t feel she needs to protect hers to the degree of not extending her hand to be touched and held.

January 4, 2010

The Stranger

50 years ago today, Albert Camus, 46, journalist, novelist, playwright, and Resistance hero, died — or, as the French say, ‘disappeared’ — in what Paris Match called “a banal highway accident.” And yet Camus, a bi-cultural symbol of hope and unity in fractious times that pitted the country of his birth, Algeria, against that of his blood, France, is more present than ever in today’s France and Europe. Not because president Nicolas Sarkozy wants to move him to the Pantheon, where repose the great men (and one great woman, Marie Curie) of France, but because, in an apparent attempt to change the subject, ahead of regional elections, from fear of daily survival to fear of the Other, Sarkozy, himself the son of immigrants, has launched a nationwide ‘debate’ on ‘national identity.’ At a time when neighboring Switzerland has just voted to ban the Muslim minaret, perhaps we should be thinking not of where Camus’s remains rest but of what remains of his personal example, that of someone whose final battle was to reconcile his two cultures. Coming from the United States and growing up in San Francisco, I see not the danger of the Other, but the beauty of the mosaic; how the base culture — which I treasure, it’s why I’m here — is not threatened, but enhanced by the ‘foreign’ or ‘strange’ cultures it assimilates. (In the French original, Camus’s novel “The Stranger” — in which the protagonist is ostracized not for killing an Arab but for not crying at his mother’s funeral — is called “L’etranger,” which also means “the foreigner.”) Take the example of the pumpkin flan I served my French guests for Thanksgiving-Christmas-Chanuka dinner the other night.

After eight+ years in France, I’ve given up on having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving. The first year was fine. Taking advantage of the fact that the butcher on the corner of my street in the 13eme district of Paris always displayed birds complete with their feathers in his window, I decided to buy a turkey with feathers for the first time in my life. “Can you pluck him?” I asked, or rather mimed — I hadn’t been here long, and my French was feeble — “But then give me the feathers afterwards?” I wanted to use them as a centerpiece. After burning one pecan pie in the strange French oven, before I started the turkey I returned to the butcher’s with a napkin on which I’d drawn pictures of the two dials on my oven, one with weird symbols, the others with numbers, and asked him to indicate the proper settings for the turkey. The turkey came out great, as did the second pecan pie, but of all the items I served, the hit of the party was the candied yams covered with pineapples and roasted marshmellows, a recipe of my late dear friend, Annette Clark. (Ironically, I had trouble getting around the concept this time, as the only marshmellows I could find were muti-colored. Melted green glop on top of your sweet potatoes, or yams, does not exactly make them appetizing.)

For this year’s Thanksgiving-Chanuka-Noel party, I’d initially been planning to serve raclettes. This is kind of like fondue, but better. Instead of sitting around a fondue pot in which the fondue gradually turns into glop over the course of a long evening, with raclettes, you make your individual serving whenever you’re ready for it: Each person has a little pan, which fits neatly into a slot under the burning coil, on top of which is a hot surface to keep the potatoes warm. (The raclette apparatus has slots for 6 – 8 pans, so the dining is communal and convivial.)Onto the pan you place your slice of raclette cheese, ideally over a thin slice of raw ham or other meat, until it melts, then you pour it over your potatoes. Raclette describes both the cheese and the device with which, back in the day, and perhaps still today up in the Alps or Savoie where the dish originated, you peeled off the slices after melting a big wedge of cheese over a fire. For raclette to be good, though, it really has to come from the mountains — and not from the shelves of a super-market, where the concept ‘raclette’ is usually taken to mean simply ‘it melts’ and does not promise the cheese in question will taste like anything, let alone its crust. (The first time I bought raclette at my favorite Parisian fromagerie — on the rue Montorgueil, where it came in three flavors, smoked, natural, and pepper — when I asked the cheeseman if it was okay to eat the crust, he cheesily answered, “As long as you have a toilet nearby.” In fact, with raclette as with rebluchon — another melting mountain cheese, the basis for tartiflette — it’s the crust that gives the taste.)

But getting back to my Thanksgiving-Chanukah-Noel party: My plans to make use of my raclette set were foiled by my inability to find any kind of really authentic raclette cheese throughout my county of the Dordogne here in southwest France, which is more known for pre-historical caves and cave paintings and for duck products than cow cheese. (Goat and sheep’s cheese are another story.)

This is the point at which the Thanksgiving party melded into the annual Chanuka-Noel party, as I still had half of a sack of potatoes left and voila, latkes!

For the aperitif I served fresh pissenlit which I’d picked that morning — dandelion leaves to you, bub — and made up like a spinach dip, as well as tartines of fresh walnuts (the paths are paved with them here) and melted blue next-to-Savoy/Alpes cheese. (I mentioned real raclette is impossible to find here. In fact, up to about three weeks ago the Savoy cheese market around here was a bit of a racket. The stands that popped up at area outdoor markets sold the cow cheese for up to 50 Euros a kilogram. Well, apparently this was such a scandal that the t.v. news did a segment on it, which was seen by a big cow cheese maker in the Savoy, who sent his brother here to sell his specialty at reasonable prices. The blue was on sale for 4.90 a kilo. The tome de Savoy injected with penicillin was also cheap, at 8.90. Unfortunately, the one exception was the… raclette! Fairly priced at $10/kilo but with a taste just like monterey jack. “It’s from Italy,” the brother told me.)

Getting back to my aperitifs: Amazingly enough, even though it was the one thing I thought my guests wouldn’t like, as it came out tasting bitter — I told them it was an experiment and I wouldn’t be offended if they didn’t like it — the pissenlit dip was a hit. (Later, one of the guests, learning that I’d picked the pissenlit from the hill between his house and the road, said his dog droopy loved pissenlit and that’s probably the reason it was bitter.) For the apero part of the apero — the drink — I made vin chaud or mulled wine. (A couple of cloves, peel of tangerines and then their juice, lots of sugar, cinnamon, and wine — which can be cheap wine, in my case 1.50 a bottle plus some leftover cheap beaujolais nouveau.) To keep it hot — as I was serving in the upstairs bedroom/salon, where the fire is, and not the cold kitchen/dining room downstairs — I hit upon the idea of plugging in the raclette set and using it effectively as a hot plate, putting the pot of wine where the potatoes usually were. (When my guests said they smelled something burning, I explained that it was just old embedded raclette cheese.)

Before serving the latkes — we’d moved downstairs to the kitchen — I explained why the Jews cooked them on Chanuka: Besieged in their temple, the Jews only had a bit of oil with which they had to keep their lamps going for eight days while they waited for re-enforcements. Miraculously, the bit of oil lasted for eight days. Then I ladled the batter into much more than a bit of oil.

While my neighbors from the north Marie-Jeanne and Christian — young retirees from Lille — had promised to bring a cake for desert, in the market that morning a few freshly cut slices of potiron — like pumpkin — caught my eye. Then I spotted the condensed milk prominently displayed across from the check-out aisle. Pumpkin pie! As my oven isn’t deep enough for pies, I instead poured the filling (to the pumpkin and condensed milk — I used a medium-sized can, with enough left over for my 20-something Siamese — I added two eggs and some freshly grated nutmeg) into individual ceramic custard pots with birds on the bottom, that neatly fit into their own rack that neatly fits into the oven. Towards the end I gave each a freshly cracked walnut morsel.

I was a bit disappointed when no one ate my dessert, instead preferring to go for seconds of the bakery-bought raspberry cake. I even thought I might have committed a faux pas, in making a second desert when Christian and Marie-Jeanne had said they would bring a cake. Mostly to mollify me, Christian asked if he could take one of the custard pots home with him to eat later.

When I went by their place up the hill this morning after picking fresh pissenlit (or, as the French joke, piss en lit/piss in bed), Marie-Jeanne handed me the pot and said she was glad I’d come by as the custard was fantastic and she had to have the recipe to serve tonight to guests. “We’re from the north, so this is all new to us,” she said, showing me various orange, yellow, and orange-green squashes and pumpkins a guy brings by for her once a week.

A native French person had not just complemented my cooking — of something from my culture — but asked for the recipe. I gave it to her, stranger no more — at least for a day.

June 7, 2009

L’Algerie au coeur

With his long gray hair, Marc Garanger looks like an ex-hippy. But in fact, at the beginning of the 1960s — 1960 to be precise — he found himself at war in Algeria, assigned to photograph thousands of Algerian women who the French authorities had decided should have ID cards, the better to control them. So the women in his book, “Femmes d’Algerie 1960,” mostly regard him with defiance, if not outright contempt. Photographed again 45 years later, when he returned to Algeria to find his memories and them, some of the same women have joyous expressions as they regard their younger selves and share the photos and another time and ambiance with their grandchildren.

Garanger and photos from both of these books were on display at the Cafe Social de Belleville — a sort of cafe for senior citizens — for the commencement of “L’Algerie au Coeur,” the first of an evening of events that terminated tres tard with the local premiere by Belleville’s own Lyes Salem of his “Mascarades,” itself a light-hearted tale of changing family values in an Algeria where native tradition often confronts the modernity of a shrinking world. (“Mascarades” was selected best film in the 2008 Dubai Film Festival awards and is Algeria’s nomination for best foreign film for the 2009 Oscars.)

Giving a soundtrack to the whole evening was Said Aichel-Fi and his Groupe Idebbal-en playing traditional Berber (?) party music. (The band is available for marriages, circumcisions, and concerts: 01-43-49-32-94.) The taste that I retain comes from the carrots in harisa and spicy chestnuts served at and outside the cafe social (7, rue Pali Kao in Paris’s 20eme arrondisement; the photos will be there for another three weeks.) in a real street party. But also, in a world — and a France — whose very shrinking has sometimes made for inter-community fractures, there were some simple signs of hope: Hearing the music, the residents in the social housing above the cafe opening their windows included a young black woman and a Hasidic Jewish gentleman who could not resist smiling. Later, when the party moved up the street to the Place Alphonse Alias for the screening of Salem’s film and a sort of travelogue by Claire and Reno Marca that traverses all Algeria, it proved a challenge to deplace the teenagers — evidently residents of the social housing that surrounds the square — batting a soccer ball around the square. Tant mieux, I thought; wasn’t this the youth of the greatest French Algerian of them all, Albert Camus? Looking up at the well-kept housing project, I transformed the trees into lemon groves and imagined myself in Oran.

Blog at WordPress.com.