Monday, April 30, 2007

Peut-on se vouvoyer?

"That you should so soon have succumbed to this assault upon your senses, so easily have been carried captive by the mere delights of eating and drinking and dressing, I should not have believed…Indeed I see it all now, to be merely the effect of a little cerebral derangement produced by the supernatural effort you made in crossing the Channel." Mary Walsh James to her daughter Alice James (who had moved to Paris)

When I moved across the Channel from London to Paris just over four years ago, rather than a supernatural effort, it was more like:
Monday: Work,
Tuesday: Boozing and snoozing,
Wednesday: Nothing much going on, might move to Paris,
rather than the culmination of a lifelong dream or even a five year plan.

In fact, I was a little bit scared of the French: their language (I purposely studied German at school), the way they dressed (Emmanuelle Seigneur's tight red dress in Polanski's Frantic) and their men (my French boyfriend scared the bats out of me).

Growing up I had this notion that the French were just a little bit too fancy for me. A little bit too formal. Here's an extract from my old blog where I talk about this:

The French weren't very prominent in my part of Sydney. There were no French bistros where you could walk in for a casual bifteck and frites. Dinner at a French restaurant meant project management. Everything needed to be assembled for the occasion. You had to make a reservation, sculpt your hair into a chignon, wear a spankingly well-cut dress. The French restaurants were all about ducks with fancy quacks and you were trapped inside rigid courses, broken up by digestive sorbets.

I didn't know any French people (except for the ghosts of my family who floated over to England with the Norman conquests) so my only real insight into French culture was through French restaurants. And the formality of the French restaurants where my family ate, with their subdued lighting and onion soup so clear and still you could see your reflection, contrasted greatly with the Italian places where you could go for a quick pizza or spag bowl, sans reservation, or the local Chinese place where you had to bellow over the clang of trolleys and the clonk of chopsticks in order to be heard.

The following diary entry which I squiggled on the Eurostar on my way over to Paris doesn't give much indication of my feelings. I seemed to be sitting backwards, looking at what I was leaving rather than where I was heading:

"1 February, 2003

So I’m leaving England and all its promise.

After a book swap with a ginger man on a late night train which landed me in Canada Water, followed by goodbye noodles which dripped down my face with L and L at the local Vietnamese restaurant, I find myself en route to Paris, with a few more enemies then when I arrived in London, and maybe a couple of new friends."

French was waiting for me at Gare Du Nord, snow flakes on his coat like melting dandruff, ready to show me the food market in our new quartier. We walked around the streets where over the next year I would smile, and lose my hair, and become every shade of pink from the cold and sadness and from the sun and from falling off a vespa and kissing someone tightly.

Within a week I'd been assaulted by Paris, or rather, I assaulted Paris. I took it in my arms and for about six months I gave it a long, sleazy grope. I was a vegetarian but I ate blood and drank guts for dinner, spearing dead animals on a regular basis and downing pints of calvados. I shopped and dimmed my colours. I started using little spoons to spread my jam. The baguette became the greatest thing since sliced bread.

But I was reluctant to embrace the social niceties of every day life in France. Those endless bonjours, bon après midis and bonsoirs for all the unknown madames and messieurs. These were formalities that tried to mask the fact that everyone was littering the ground with clutter (there will be no tidy towns award for Paris), and that you could hold the door open for someone while that someone turned into everyone, and the door could rust in your hand as no one felt socially nice enough to take it from you.

At first I used the informal tu for everyone, that casual Australian way of being friends with someone after one minute (and then having to keep your eyes down and avert your step whenever you see them again, until the end of your life).

But lately I’ve really learned to love the formal vous. I like the way you can control a relationship with a word. Presumptuous boys on the street start to tu you up and down and you can just pull up the drawbridge and dig a moat by responding with vous.

I now like to start things with a vous, in any context. It's like waiting for someone to say "I love you". The day you tutoyer is something to look forward to - best not to rush these things.

Vous is a way of saying: respect man. I like what you do.

I’ve lately just been vous-ing everyone. Even people I used to tu.

The song Lady Marmalade and its line "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?" would lose its thrill as a potential proposition from a stranger if it was "Veux-tu coucher avec moi (ce soir)?" And I like the ambiguity in this vous, perhaps the proposition is directed at more than one person.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Bloated up with life

I’ve been lugging around pieces of the life of Simone de Beauvoir for the past couple of months.

She has steered me in certain directions at various points in my life. I read Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) about ten years ago and decided it was probably a good idea to break up with His Apeness, the boyfriend of the moment, because I didn’t want to be tied to his thoughts and housed in his shadow. When I read De Beauvoir's Les Mandarins and flicked through her letters to Jean-Paul Sartre, I decided a relationship's endurance might just involve re-assessing monogamy, rolling over and making room for more people in the love-bed, with all its complications. (But I like sleeping diagonally and this is hard enough to master with just one other person in the bed.)

But it's only recently I've started to read her journals and her comprehensive memoirs. And so, for a few months now I’ve been meaning to trace my way to all her old haunts in Paris, hunt down apartments on the rue de Rennes, perhaps begin with her grave in Montparnasse cemetery. But i've been a bit nervous about beginning there, which is probably why I’ve put it off, shuffling the plans to go there each weekend, when it is just a direct metro line from my place. All this shuffling reminds me of my nervous energy shuffling Uno cards in Kraków in 1995, my inquietude before going to see the Auschwitz memorial.

Why such nervousness about seeing her tombstone? I think because she lives with me at the moment. Her love of life explodes out of the pages of her memoirs and frightens sloths out of their trees.

I'm drawn to the way Simone de Beauvoir used life. Mopping up all the words in every conversation. Darning holes and re-using life, and using it some more.

She left her tracks all over the place, whether it be exploring every patch in the French countryside, placing blistered espadrilles on every rock, or seeping ink on to page after page, squeezing hands and thighs long into the drinking hours. Her little birdie prints were everywhere, in every season, from 9 January 1908 to 14 April 1986.

It was the date of death that scared me. The idea that she (not her work which of course lives on) could be dead. This person so bloated up with knowledge and memory, so alive in her history, dead. All her verbs have dried up.

Like the grave of Francois Truffaut, the shared headstone of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre is a simple stone, befriended solely by a bunch of wrinkled flowers, not far from the main entrance to the Montparnasse cemetery. It's not at all like Serge Gainsbourg's grave, which is all tarted up with headless dolls and earless earrings and lipstick and panties and whatever someone happened to have with them and left there because they felt it might say: "respect, man".

I stood for a bit at De Beauvoir's and Sartre's grave, trying to connect her life with this stone face and thinking about how Sartre pissed on Chateaubriand's tomb at Saint Malo in defiance of what he saw as its "false simplicity".

A tourist briskly passed and ticked it off her "list of things to not bother thinking about but to take a photo of", yelling: "I took a photo of that philosopher-guy's grave, Jean-Pierre something!", before saying: "is Jim Morrison here somewhere too?"

Sorry Simone, you must get that all the time. Sartre, I know who you'd like to piss on.

Then we tried to find Brassai's grave and I walked around with that old sensation that always hits me in a cemetery, the incredible feeling of being alive, as though here the sun was hitting stronger against my skin and I could see my pink arms darkening like cooking bacon. The birds shouted louder than ever as if to compensate for all the voices that had been covered in earth. Every part of my body beat with the desire for immortality, or in the worst case scenario, a well-used life.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A nation of sexpots

I see quite a few of the many French films released in France each week and I’m always curious to see which of these get released in Australia.

Since living in Paris I’ve become addicted to those French films about sentimental relationships in Paris, which generally involve infidelity (apparently in a pre-STD age), as well as people with low-paying jobs living in elephantine apartments in the beaux quartiers, and usually one character who works as a restorer of some kind (for example of old art works or furniture), or if we want to take the point a little further, as a restorer of lives (psychiatrist, counsellor etc). Several characters lives intercross and tie themselves in knots; it is like a big game of twister. There are many such films released each year but I hardly ever saw them at the cinema in Sydney.

I especially like going to see films with Emmanuelle Devos because even if she often plays a similar character it is only similar in the sense that it is always a quirky character, and because she has an engaging mouth just begging for some big ears to listen to her. I also like films with Isabelle Carré because she either plays an off balanced character or has to balance someone else's offness.

But from what my father tells me of the French films showing in Sydney now, one thing seems clear: forget Emmanuelle and Isabelle, if a film has Audrey Tautou in it, it will be released in Australia. Or if it features Daniel Auteuil - who fits easily into the short, big nosed French guy box (with a small breathing hole for his nose to poke out).

I guess I didn't watch enough French films on television back in Sydney because it seems that besides the obvious sixties icons and Audrey and Daniel, before I moved to Paris, a lot of contemporary French actresses and actors, talented or not, didn't exist for me. They were completely concealed in the mellow shadows of Sacré Coeur. But now I see Sylvie Testud outside chez Coquelicot, nibbling on rancid pain raisin, letting sultanas fall to the ground like rat droppings. There is Gérard Darmon sporting his Costa Smeralda tan and miniscule violet sunglasses on the rue Lepic, pretending he doesn't love me. And then an unverified Jean Dujardin (it might have been another French actor I always get him muddled with, or perhaps the guy from the post office) on my street, smiling at me from the safety of his vespa.

As well as good, clean fun with Audrey Tautou and Daniel Auteuil, the other types of French films that primarily seem to get released in Australia are the kinds of films that bolster the idea of France as a sexy nation, especially the idea that French women are unbridled sexpots, putting out at the nod of a head. This is kind of a funny notion when you actually live in Paris and you see that here it is “anglo saxon” women (sexpats) who have this reputation, well at least a reputation that they get drunk a lot and drop their pants regularly as a corollary of that.

I remember a French film that I must have seen about eight years ago in Sydney which certainly bolstered this notion of the French sexpot, although I can’t remember the title at the moment and quite frankly i've already spent enough time fossicking around the AlloCine website in the last half hour so you'll just have to trust me on this one. In this film an older, sexy woman (I can’t even remember who the actress was) had a very passionate relationship with a much younger man. But the most memorable moment in the film was when, for whatever reason he broke up with her, and in a fit of vengeance she came round to his house basically to fait caca on his doormat before squelching into the night. The Sydney audience was in raptures: oh la la, the French sure know about dirty sex.

I imagine Haneke’s La Pianiste got the thumbs up for release in Australia too for its overt representation of French female sexuality, and I’m predicting the film I saw yesterday, Anna M, will also be out there, as Isabelle Carré regularly has her hands down her pants.

Of course I think it is great that female sexuality is portrayed in French films, and as I’ve said in an earlier post, especially the sexuality of older women. I just think it’s a shame that too often in these films the female character has to be frayed with madness, as was the case in Anna M, (incidentally Isabelle Carré plays a restorer of old books in this film), Betty Blue ("37°2 degrees le matin" is the French title) and La Pianiste.
Her unrestrained sexuality becomes disorder, rather than valid expression.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Bumper UK edition

Try as I may to pluck out the relevant answer, I can't work out if I like London or not (anymore). I'm not sure if what I feel is nostalgia for a time gone by: that time back in April 2001 when i'd reached my Nadir (a valley as barren as a steppe and populated by deaf and mute gnomes) and I escaped from Sydney to London for a month's holiday.

Perhaps now I enjoy the contrast to Paris. For example, in London you can find loads of bars where eating is banned and drinking is turned on high (I'm convinced creative conversation withers on a full stomach).

But there are things about London that I don't like (anymore). The shops corrode everything that I find good about London. Walking along Portobello road the other day, under a sky scratched with grey and dirt, I was depressed by the constant clinking together of shops with money exchanging hands. There are too many shops. Or perhaps it is my memory which is tainted by all those weekends when I lived there with French and all we did was consume. When he pushed me into his void (or rather I willingly jumped in) and then threw a whole lot of stuff he bought on top of me: paint brushes he would never use, solar powered torches, snow umbrellas etc

I take a right off Portobello Road and ten back streets later i've seen the abodes of Victoria, George, and Edward, and patches of grass so scarce in Paris. London is beautiful again.

And then I'm horribly in love with the English, when they are nice to me, or when they speak French to me with charming aplomb. But not when they say "get out of the way woman" because there are too many people in London and no room for my jutting elbow.

We ate in a French restaurant oddly enough. My friend's stormy girlfriend came along and the dinner table was shrouded in rain clouds. I worried about whether the English waiter was a rude bastard or whether i've just forgotten the dry crackle of English humour (even though I pass most of my spare time watching English comedy re-runs).

He's just a rude bastard, my friend said. And he won't even speak French, I pouted.
And the champagne tastes suspiciously like champomy.

I guess what I can't tweeze out of me is whether if I didn't go to London every once in a while I would miss it.

I passed over fifteen pounds in a butter smeared brown paper bag to someone at Eurostar and convinced them to let me take a train home two hours earlier than I'd planned. When I was back on the train looking at my reflection in the window (for all those people who keep googling me to ask if big noses can be attractive or cute - they most certainly can!) I couldn't figure it out. Don't I love London's madness? Its work ethic? Its boozey tits on the table nights? Its crush of people from every-country? Yes I do. I love all that stuff. Why can't I stay there for more than a day anymore?

The English countryside thumped by, rabbits and squirrels at the side of the train track waved their tails, and I had a tote bag full of crumpets on my lap. And I thought, yeah I like London, a lot, in theory.

Monday, April 09, 2007

An older crowd

Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Dylan Thomas

As I mentioned in my last post, I love going to the cinema alone. Although last week when I went to see a film at the Archipel cinema on the Boulevard de Strasbourg I was a little too alone, the only person there to watch the film. It was just me and the projectionist. I was highly conscious of my interaction with the film. I felt he could hear my merest smile and see the clouds which formed around me with my merest sigh. And then there was the awkward moment at the end of the film when the credits roared over the screen and I turned vaguely in the direction of the light and waved goodbye to him: you can turn it off now, I’m going.

I like there to be at least a couple of other people in the cinema and I mainly like an older crowd, which you tend to get if you go to the afternoon sessions. The other day I was pleased to be sitting not far from a giant mole infested man, probably in his seventies, who vocally expressed his distaste at the films previewed, and the advertisements (although he kept a polite silence during the actual film). Normally I read a book through the twenty minutes of advertisements before the film but I loved his critique, a critique he’d earned through living years of life and cinema, ce n'est pas drole, ce n’est pas intelligent. He voiced my private contempt for advertising and films which aim at the lowest common denominator audience rather than raising the bar a little bit higher and leaving stretch marks on people's minds. I don’t believe films should act as a divertisement. For me films are art; they should add something to your life, not take you away from it.

More and more I enjoy the company of a much older crowd. Maybe it's because I'd still rather be taught than be a teacher. Or because I’ve been a daughter, sister, friend, enemy, girlfriend, niece, nymph, vamp, but never a grandchild, as all my grandparents were deceased before I could meet them. As I move through my thirties, a white hair spied and dyed by a discerning hairdresser gives the first indication that one day, I too, will be old.

I’m always annoyed when people refer to old people as "crabby". Often what may be viewed as crabbiness is rebellion rather than conservatism. I saw my aged comrade at the cinema as rebelling against the homogenisation of society, with all the raging wisdom of someone who has had enough time to think and to have a history.

A book I read a while back has stayed with me. In Bertrand Vergely's Voyage au bout d’une vie he discussed the last years of the life of his elderly, dying mother and his search to find suitable care for her and how this search reflected Western society's neglect of the old aged. There was a line in his book which I noted, which i've heard before: that in Eastern culture the older you get the more beautiful you become, but in Western culture it is the opposite.

In Eastern culture the older crowd has traditionally been respected as repositories of light-giving knowledge and wisdom, whereas in Western culture they are labelled "crabby" and left to die in the black.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Alone! Alone!

The "Alone Alone!" that echoed through the house, rustled down the stairs, whispered from the walls, and confronted me, like a material presence.
Alice James

I like going to the cinema alone, sitting in cafes alone, walking alone, shutting out the world that tries to slither under my door and sitting at home...alone. But living in Paris, because of the boyz in the street so ready to become boyz in the bar, sitting in cafes or bars alone, even walking alone, sometimes isn't an enticing option. The cities I lived in before were more welcoming in this respect. In both Sydney and London I found less eyes straying quizzically towards me, less loose nods beckoning in my direction whenever I sat alone, reading or puzzling in a bar or cafe.

One vivid memory of aloneness gone awry was a trip I took to the south of Spain six years ago. I'd gone to Seville tanked up with adventure but within a couple of hours every heavy orange about to fall from its tree, every grain of dust on the road, every trickle of the Guadalquivir river, confronted me and reminded me of my solitude. Seville was not a city made for the solo traveller. People moved in large groups or families, laughing together, loving together, trying to die together. I saw only one other person alone in the few days I was there, a worn out guy, who looked away.

I sat in a cafe marvelling at the juxtaposition of slabs of meat and coffee, but odd stares, possibly hostile stares, pushed me out on to the street, like my solitude was too loud for them. Instead of sitting I walked in parks, discreetly scoffing churros. I walked a lot in an attempt to escape my aloneness. The more alone I was the more I felt people were together. The sky was too blue and the air too fresh. A woman pressed a palm leaf in to my hand and told me I will one day have two bambinis.

I tried to call British Airways but I got cut off. I took a cab to the airport but BA was closed: "Come back tomorrow" the sign said.

Hungry, I was too afraid to face the crowds again so I bought a can of spaghetti and ate it cold in the windowless room of my one star pensione. On my way back two French guys with leering, yeasty smiles had invited me for beer in their room next door. They tapped on my wall to tempt me over. I took pain killers and slept but I awoke garnished with ice. The spring day had become an icy desert night and I had no warm clothes, no warm body.

The next day in the glare without sunglasses I took another cab to the airport: "Get me out of here!" The first flight out of there was in two days. So I took a bus to Granada, anything but Seville. On the bus people in twos chatted together about the Alhambra, everything that they planned to see. The distant Sierra Nevada and the beaten up earth disappearing under the wheels of the bus made me feel calmer.

But once off the bus, aloneness beckoned to me from the nearby snow-tipped mountains.
I headed in the direction of the Alhambra but faltered - I'd have to let it rot. I ate something with tomato in it and twenty minutes after my arrival I got directly back on the bus to return to Seville, which I'd now promoted to home.

Back in Seville I hid in my room, read, imagined a hostile world beyond the doors, waited, and left.