France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

April 5, 2010

Faites entrer l’accusé; Jean Gabin can wait

I swear it’s not the grisly details that make Faites entrer l’accusé (on France 2 public television) one of my addictions, but rather that the weekly reconstructions of some of France’s more infamous faits divers also serve as tours de France, the crimes often taking place in obscure villages or cities I’ve never been to. Plus there are certain characteristics of the program itself that might give it cult status: The music for one, the charisma of the fascinated host Christophe Hondelet, and the way the camera zooms in on the often blemished faces of his subjects — not the culpable himself but attorneys, relatives and friends of the victim, policemen and gendarmes, juges d’instruction….Last week-end’s episode came a little too close to (my former) home. The subject was the butcher of the marché Saint-Martin, in both the professional and criminal senses of that word. “Hey, I know that guy!” I exclaimed to the stuffed Northern Exposure moose who is now my sole companion snce Sonia passed. While it was not my regular marché for the six years that we lived on the rue de Paradis in Paris, the marché Saint-Martin had a cheap cheese store with great selection and, indeed, there it was on television, right across from the Italian butcher’s stand of Italian products.

Now, you might think that a television show about a butcher who cuts his lover up into little pieces would be about the latest program broadcast at night, after the kids have gone to bed, but if you thought so you’d be wrong. After midnight is reserved for the French film patrimoinie. And if I often fall asleep before the verdict in Faites entre l’accusé, I usually don’t make it past the first five minutes of the cinema de minuit feature film, no matter how much I want to watch it. Last night’s film — which rolled around at about 12:30, a half hour after the update that the doctor who slowly poisoned to death the military husband of his lover after she’d conned him into believing he was beating her had been released on parole after 6 years rolled across the closing credits in Faites Entrer — was “Remorques,” starring Jean Gabin, Madeleine Renaud, and Michelle Morgan. Jean Gabin, who has also played Maigret, is just about Mr. French Cinema for me — you might also know him from “The Grand Illusion.” Just the film poster itself — with Gabin in parka battling winds and rain at the wheel of his tugboat — is enough to thrill you. Helas, this was not the best film to watch at 12:30 in the morning with waning attention powers complicating an early but essential rescue scene, with the action going back and forth between the rescue boat and the boat in distress, the dialogue already garbled by the age of the 70-year-old film. Because it was Jean Gabin I weathered the storm and made it longer than usual, but finally had to bow from faitgue, leaving Gabin and Renaud walking along a beach in Brest, before he even had a chance to get involved with Morgan.

I had debated whether to watch the film at all after an intro which explained filming started in 1939 then resumed in 1941 during the Occupation. It’s hard for me to watch French people continuing with life as normal when I know life was getting progressively worse and worse for their Jewish countrymen. But then I noted the scenario was by Jacques Prevert, who also wrote “Barbara,” an ode to a vanished Brest decimated at the end of the war (“It’s raining on Brest”), so to see a film written by him set in Brest before it was bombed out seemed an important chapter in my running history of France.

But here’s my point: Why are these films — France’s heritage — broadcast after midnight on a school night, no less, when the prime-time movie slot is so often occupied by BAD mass-market American garbage. (Though not always: Last night’s prime-time movie on France 2 was, exceptionally, an older and classic, “Les Tontons Flingueurs,” starring Lino Ventura. I’d been wanting to see this one for so long that I overlooked yesterday’s news that a town in France had rescinded a decision to name a street after the author of the novel on which it was based, Albert Simonin, after allegations that he’d collaborated.) There are some good new films produced for the France Television networks, but it seems like half of them are about the war and most of those are about French who helped Jews or fought in the Resistance. Why not replace some of the crappy American films and a few of the probably skewed portrayals of war-time France that take up prime-time movie time with more films like “Remorques” that were actually made before, during, and after the Occupation — at an hour where people are actually awake. If national identity is not just about excluding those who don’t conform to it but actually confirming the MANY parts of that identity about which French citizens can be proud — showing these old films at a time people can actually see them would seem a great way to buttress that identity and legitimate national pride.

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March 31, 2010

When the saints go marching out

Finally — finally — an official government body, the Counsel d’Etat, has stepped in and said what I’ve been thinking for years:

The law governing the secular applies to the service public — autrement dit, government-funded services and agencies — and not to individuals.

The counsel was responding to the current debate over banning the burka. Essentially, among the reasons it found such a law would be legally contestable is that the principal of secularism could not be applied. to individuals’ right of expression.

However, following the logic of this opinion, the governning principal of the separation of church and state *can* be applied to public service.

This would presumably include broadcasts on the publicly funded television networks.

This would presumably include the nightly weather forecasts on France 3.

This would presuably put a stop to the weathermen/women telling us — telling us — at the end of the broadcast to hug the saint being celebrated the next day.

Hallelujah!

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.

March 24, 2010

Mache it up or, tonight I picked my dinner

I used to worry how I would ever adjust to the food downgrade if I had to move back to the United States from France, especially to New York. (California does a little bit better on healthy food that’s also affordable, especially vegetables.) The New York super-markets especially are, well, just gross. And the most reliable vegetables I found, apart from the Union Square and occasionally Tompkins Square farmer’s markets, were from a Balkan immigrant guy with a great sense of humor who sold fruits and vegetables on the corner of 14th and Fifth.

But now that I live here in the country, in the Dordogne department of SW France, and for social and work reasons am looking to move back to Paris. I’m starting to ponder how I’ll ever make the adjustment from the French country-side to the French city-side. There’s just no comparison. Sure, you can find beautiful vegetables and fancy meat in the markets, but not often at popular (or people’s) prices, particularly when it comes to ‘gourmet’ vegetables and meat. (The French Arab market at Barbes, and others, have cheap prices, but it sometimes reflects the quality.)

This reflection is all brought on by not just the pissenlit (dandelion and its crispy leaves, great in salads and cooked like spinach for omelets and pasta, yum!) being in bloom, but being joined by its more delicate and refined and easier to pick mache. This late afternoon as I headed to the path behind the horse and donkey farm to gather some pissenlit for tonight (the period in which pissenlit is good is very short, so you eat a lot of it while you can), I crossed Mr. Marty, my retired farmer neighbor, and Madeline, Bernard’s mother in law, at Mr. Marty’s vines, where Madeline was already at work picking some. I joined them and shortly she picked up something else, which she said was also delicious: mache. I’d had this in Paris but it looked nothing like this. In Paris, where it’s not always cheap unless it’s on sale, it’s usually dark green, hard, and in cellophane-enveloped little cartons. This stuff, though, is light green and feather-light and unlike pissenlit, you don’t need a knife to cut it at its fierce roots. I made my way down the vines and found several little patches, picking it with the lightest of tugs of the hand. It kind of looks like baby spinach — little bunches, dense at the middle as if about to flower. I also picked a ton of pissenlit. Yesterday I washed my pissenlit at the source (or spring) across the train tracks up the field from the house and man — what a difference in taste (from washing it in tap water). But tonight I looked at the clock and it was perilously close to train time, so instead I walked back to the other source (yes, we have two, since Bernard unearthed the old source at the tracks where he used to gather water as a kid 40-some years ago) and filled up a few bottles with the stuff to wash the pissenlit here, scattering a reunion of frogs along the way.

Speaking of which, better start washing the pissenlit now (7 p.m.) if I’m to have the mache and spinach all washed for salad and pasta in time for Plus Belle la Vie, my (and 6 million French people’s) nightly Marseille-based soap opera.

C’est plus belle le cuisine en province, n’est pas? — surtout quand c’est gratuit!

March 18, 2010

Say it ain’t so Daniel Cohn-Bendit or, calling for a boycott of Israel has nothing to do with racial hate

Well, I guess it was too good to be true; what political idol can withstand close scrutiny, after all? After François Bayrou, who let me down when he went dirty in a debate with Daniel Cohn-Bendit during last year’s European parliamentary elections, it was Cohn-Bendit’s turn to disappoint me, albeit probably more by ignorance of a critical issue than any deliberate cynicism.

Cohn-Bendit was Nicolas Demorand’s guest this morning on France Inter, the main Radio France network. During the call-in portion of the show, a listener began by praising the head of the Greens in France and the European Parliament for calling for a boycott of the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in China. Then she asked him — quite clearly — what his position was on BDS, a.k.a. the Palestinian-lead movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel as a peaceful, concrete means to end its continued occupation of Palestinian territories and protest its continued brutality, including last year’s actions in Gaza, against the Palestinians. The woman went on to explain that, incredibly, she was recently cited for inciting racial hatred simply for having a BDS bumper sticker on her car.

She was clearly asking Cohn-Bendit whether, having supported a boycott of the Olympics ceremonies because of China’s human rights abuses in Tibet, he would support a boycott of Israel considering its human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories.

Demorand, usually astute, had no idea what she was talking about: “What’s your question, Madame?” (To be fair, the caller just used the acronym for BDS.) But Cohn-Bendit was really disappointing, erroneously taking the question as referring to the EU’s recent vote to take away special trading status from products produced in Israeli colonies in the occupied territories and oppose its labelling these products as produced in Israel. Idealist that I am, I’ll give Danny the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was not just trying to duck the question, and simply doesn’t know what BDS is…. This still is lamentable from someone who is at the head of one of the most important movements on the Left in Europe.

More important, though, when are so many in official and media France going to stop confounding anti-Zionism — or even simple, and *peaceful*, opposition to Iraeli policies — with anti-Semitism? If anything — if anything, *supporting* *peaceful* means of opposing Israel’s continued illegal Occupation (and brutal actions in Gaza) should go hand-in-hand with (rightly) condemning terrorism. And, lest I should get cited for incitation to racial hatred: Not only does my background include Jewish parents, the same can be said for many leading figures in the BDS movement.

March 15, 2010

Elections Regional: ‘Identité Nationale’ and the burka re-launch the Front National

In the 2007 presidential elections, Nicolas Sarkozy successfully co-opted the Front National’s anti-illegal immigrant strain to ensure his election and diminish the FN vote. Battered on other fronts this time around — above all unemployment, loss of purchase power, and the crise de logement — Sarkozy’s governing UMP party tried that gambit again for yesterday’s regional elections, launching a false debate on ‘identité nationale,’ lead by minister of immigration and identité national Luc Besson, and another on the burka, steered by UMP assembly leader Jonathan Cope. This time around, it backfired; people are pre-occupied with pocket-book issues and, if anything, were frustrated that the UMP seemed more concerned about the (maximum) 3,000 women who cover themselves than covering citizens from financial insecurity. Result #1: The winning party in yesterday’s first round was the party of abstention, with 53.5 percent of voters staying home — the highest percentage ever in the regionals. Result #2: The fear of the Other fired up by the false debate on identité national combined with economic insecurity to revive the faltering FN, which came in fourth with 11.7 percent of the vote, behind the Socialists (29 percent), UMP (26), and Europe Ecology or Greens (12.5 percent). “Le debat sur l’identité national a relaunché le Front National,” Communist party leader Marie-George Buffet said this morning on radio France Enter. Or, as Europe-Ecology leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit put it last night on France 2, “Monsieur Besson is content tonight. He’s succeeded in his effort and made the the FN re-mount.” Cecile de Flot, Europe Ecology’s candidate in the Ile de France, blamed the FN’s resurgence on “those who opened Pandora’s Box.”

March 8, 2010

Sonia in the sky with Mesha and Hopey / Sonia de retour au Paradis avec Mesha et Hopey

Filed under: Mes chats,My cats,Sonia, Hopey, & Mesha -- my cats,Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 9:55 pm

Sonia Ben-Itzak, c. 1980s – February 24, 2010

Pour ceux et celles que ne parle pas anglais, mon derniere chat Sonia, belle Siamese de 20+ ans, est mort le jour que j’ecrit, le 24 fevrier. Maintenant elle vas retrouve Mesha and Hopey, ses vieux copain(es), et joue encore jus’quau l’eternite.

Like her life partner Mesha, who left us in 2007, Sonia was born in the Alaskan tundra, part wolf.

Secret origin: She was actually not the first Sonia.

When I moved to Anchorage in the fall of 1990, for the first time I had an apartment where I had cats. First I adopted a long hair black and white, who I called Sonia.

The first night she meowed like crazy late at night and, stupid me, I let her out.

That was the last time I saw that Sonia.

I went back to the SPCA looking for another cat.

Sonia, sitting primly in her cage, blinked her eyes as she looked at me and I was hooked.

Sonia, however, was already spoken for. The clinic said I could get on the waiting list for her in case those who’d claimed her didn’t show up.

Next I saw Mesha, who nestled up to the bars in his cage. I adapted him.

As it turned out, those who’d spoken for Sonia didn’t show up, so I adopted her. I thought it would be unfair to Mesha to not adopt him just because Sonia was free, so I adopted him too.

When we got home, Sonia immediately hid.

Detective Mesha helped me look for her, beginning a beautiful love story.

As it turned out, she’d somehow managed to hide under the stove, where it seemed there was not room to hide.

The rule at the SPCA was that if the animal you adopted was pregnant, they had to do an abortion. Sonia was and they did. (That’s how I know she would at least have had to be born in December 1989, but she was probably born before that.)

When she got home, from the anesthetic she walked like a drunken person.

I remembered this in the last year when Sonia got wobbly again.

In the years since, Sonia has been a real world traveler: Alaska to San Francisco, San Francisco to New York, New York to Paris, Paris to Les Eyzies, Les Eyzies to Montpellier and back, Les Eyzies to Paris, Paris to Les Eyzies, Les Eyzies to Perigueux, Perigueux to Les Eyzies, Les Eyzies to Paris and Paris to Les Eyzies — all the French legs of our journey by train, where Sonia always brought us new friends.

There’s more to say but I’m finding it hard to deal with the ‘was.’

They say cats live nine lives. Sonia lived 15.

When Mesha died, Sonia cried and literally craned her neck looking for him at our flat in Paris on the rue de Paradis.

Hopey passed three months after Mesha.

Sonia is now back with Mesha and Hopey in Paradis.

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.

November 16, 2009

Identité Nationale: Déja vu

C’est typique. Quand les choses vas pas bien, voila que les diregeants veut qu’on change le sujet. It’s typical: When things aren’t going well, political leaders try to change the subject. And too often, this amounts to trying to re-direct our attention from themselves to ‘them’ — the foreigner. Voila que three major figures from the governing UMP party find themselves either sentenced to prison (Charles Pasqua, senator and former interior minister), awaiting a verdict (former prime minister Dominique Villepin) or soon to be tried (former president Jacques Chirac) — and just four months before regional elections in which the UMP would like to take at least some of the regions (20 of 22 of which are currently controlled by the Socialists) — and President Sarkozy… tries to change the subject. And the national, government-run media more or less complies, notwithstanding a few commentators who question his motives. Of course, we have learned some things since 1940, so we no longer say, “Look at them, they’re different” (well, except in the case of the bourka), but frame the question as “What does it mean to be French?” or “Identité national,” the implication being that some of us foreigners identify more with the countries we came from than the one that — graciously, it needs to be said — has welcomed us.

I’m not against valuing French traditions and values — indeed they are the main reason I’m here. Even the main reason I stay here. And I’m not just talking about the French cultural icons in film, music, literature and art many of whom I’ve worshipped all my life, but basic political, social, and moral values and practices.
Just to give you one example: In the last major elections here, for the European Parliament, 26 parties contested for the French vote. 26! And they all had more or less equal access to the public. For each election, metal panels go up before schools and other public places, each of which features a poster from from a party. So in the European Parliamentary elections, the anti-Zionist party was placed on equal footing with the UMP. Olivier Besancenot, leader of the New Anti-capitalist Party, is regularly included in televised debates. (It’s no accident that in the last presidential election, disputed among 11 parties — 11 parties! — Besancenot got 5 percent of the vote. In the U.S., by contrast, the two main parties, and their allies in the corporate controlled media, do everything they can to exclude other parties from the debate. Some television networks even exclude too liberal Democratic candidates from presidential and senatorial debates. So in contrast to Besancenot, U.S. presidential candidate Ralph Nader — hardly a radical by even U.S. standards — got 1 percent after effectively being blocked from the national corporate-controlled media.

So I absolutely agree that those who come here should prize French tradition, language, culture, lifestyle, and values. I don’t even disagree that a reasoned debate on what it means to be French, and to live in France, and French values, would be useful. That’s not the question. I return to motive, timing, and historical context. When political leaders start talking about national identity — a conversation a subset of which is usually ‘they’re not like us’ — during a time when things aren’t going well, we need to be alarmed. And in France, there’s an additional particularity: I would argue that a knowledge of French history includes awareness of the chapter of that history in which the Vichy government, in the name of France, did what no other occupied country did in not just allowing the Germans to round up Jews and deport them to the death camp, but in many times taking the initiative in IDENTIFYING who was Jewish and having the French police do the rounding up. What made this easier for them to do was the idea that, “Well, they’re not French anyway. They are the other. They act different. They look different.”

This past Saturday in Perigueux, the highlight of the second Salon régional Memoire Résistance et Deportation was a projection and debate, featuring the live participation of Holocaust survivor Marie-José Chambart de Lauwe, who was deported to Ravensbruck, and the film “La deportation des Femmes.” Most of the stories were horrible: Chambart de Lauwe recalled that sometimes new arrivals were marched directly from the train to the gas chambers, without any ‘selection,’ and that each morning, the women had to race from their sleeping quarters outside the camp to the gates of the camp. Any that fell were bludgeoned to death immediately. Newborns were simply thrown against the wall until they were dead. But at least one of the stories was inspirational — and, in the current context, instructive. One of the markers of national identity suggested by some has been the obligatory daily singing of the Marseillaise in schools. In the film shown Saturday, one of the deported women recalled that when her group arrived at Auschwitz — after, no doubt, being localised by French Vichy authorities and rounded up by French policemen, many of whom no doubt justified their actions because ‘they’re not French, anyway’ — as they were entering the camp the women spontaneously broke out in the Marseillaise. France had sent them to their deaths, but they still sang for France — and as Frenchwomen.

October 31, 2009

Journalist has heart attack while turning turn-of-the-century wine press

When we last left our hero, he’d just finished the vendange, filling four of Mr. Marty’s colorful plastic barrels with grapes, most red, with a few exceptionally sweet green grapes he’d found high up in Mr. Marty’s vines thrown in, plus a few drunk bees and scattered weeds. That was Thursday, October 22. The next steps, Mr. Marty said, were to turn the grapes in the press and then leave them to ferment in the big square blue bath-tub in the barn.

I started to get worried when Bernard told me, a week later, that the grapes would rot if Mr. Marty left them in the barrels too long, so I’ve been bugging him since then to get them into the press, always adding that I’d do the heavy lifting. I felt a little guilty about practically harassing him, but didn’t want the sweat I’d put into the vendange to go to waste. (Plus, okay, I was looking forward to tasting the cru.)

So finally today, when I knocked on his door around one after returning from the village, he said to come by in an hour. I had a quick lunch of the butcher’s house-made pate mixed with some of my apples cooked up and walnuts toasted up, plus a little mustard, all blended with my ’60s-era ‘mixer-baby’ and served over country tourte bread from the Boulangerie Margot.

“I’m not sure if I have the cork,” Mr. Marty said doubtfully, looking at the broken cork that was stopping up the sky blue fermenting vat, when I came by after lunch. “I have some wine bottle corks,” I suggested, helpfully I thought, but he explained that for this he required a special, pointed cork. He went to look for it and emerged from his home a few minutes later.

“Une petite gout, pour remontre le morale?” he asked with a petite twinkle in his eye. Far be it from me to say no to a ‘petite gout’ of Mr. Marty’s eau de vie and it did indeed re-mount my morale. It also helped that he’d found a pointed cork.

Fortified by the eau de vie, I helped Mr. Marty wheel out the wooden press — which looked like it might date from the turn of the last century, at the latest — and put it on top of one of the barrels. It looks like a wheel-barrel, except that what would be the levers protrude from the bottom of the barrel. Inside it are two cylinders through which the grapes pass, and on the side is the wheel with lever which turns the cylinders. First we emptied one barrel into the press and, with Mr. Marty pressing its grapes down and me turning the wheel, squeezed the grapes. We repeated this three times. Some of the juice had already naturally come out of the raisins and that fell easily through the two cylinders. For the rest, the pressing was tough — a real workout. I had to take a pause after two, and couldn’t help seeing the headline, “Journalist has heart attack making wine in southwest France.”

After each barrel-full was passed through the press into another barrel, we lifted it and emptied it into the blue vat. When we finished, Mr. Marty urged me, “Get a glass and taste it!” I ran home across the path and got a couple of my ’50s-vintage Pastis 51 glasses, lifting them to show Mr. Marty, but he said, “No, just for you!” We waited for the grapes to settle in the last barrel before I dipped my glass in, scooping up some raisins with the juice. Here goes! It was dense and sour — reminding me of fermented plums I’d once tasted on a Mandarin class field-trip to a Chinese movie theater in junior high which surprised me with there salty sour taste.

“Kind of lemony,” I said, my lips puckered, to Mr. Marty. I had to ask if it would taste like that once it was done, but he said the taste would go away once the wine fermented. “Usually you leave it for 15 days, but because it’s so little, eight will do.” Afterwards, as we sat on the stone border of the garden in front of his house talking about the day when the neighborhood was full of vines and everyone made their own eau de vie before the government decided to tax it, I started feeling nauseous. N’impeche que I didn’t say no when he offered me to come in for another ‘petite gout.’ I also asked for some of the lemon soda he poured for himself, and that helped the stomach, but at the first trés petit gout I felt the wine coming up again. “Would it derange you if I saved this for later?” “Pas du tout!”

Tch-tch-tchin!

Post-script:

It was hard for me to write about this at the time because I was too busy sobbing in the wine I’d never have, but here’s the sequel: When Mr. Marty checked the wine a little later, he swiggled it in his mouth, then shook his head and said, “It’s no good.” Apparently Bernard was right; he’d let the grapes sit in the barrels too long before running them through the press, and they had soured. At the time I was disappointed and deflated; all that work for nothing! But in fact it yielded a lot more. Born and bred in Northern California, and having spent the past nine years in France, I have always considered myself something of a wine expert. At this point I can just about tell you what wine — or digestif or aperitif — goes with anything. But now thanks to Mr. Marty I had finally had the experience of making wine from scratch. I had learned how to make it. I had done so in a veritable crucible of wine-making; Mr Marty’s vineyards were not well-maintained, so I had had to sit on my knees among thistles and sometimes wade through weeds to get to the vines. I had pulled the grapes with my own hands. And I had turned a 100-year-old mill to make the wine. How many wine connoisseurs — even in France — can make that claim?

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