The kiss

Le baiserYou must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss…unless it happens to be a man on the street spontaneously embracing a member of the French national police.

It was a modern take on the famous photo by photographer Robert Doisneau, Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville.

It felt more like a scene from New York than Paris – the French don’t often break ranks in public displays of feeling. But as France buried its victims last week, including three police officers, there was a lot of love for les forces de l’ordre.

The police are a fixture of life on the streets of Paris: they’re often seen escorting VIPs on motorcycles, directing traffic, controlling crowds during the frequent demonstrations. And they’re are often criticized for unfair fines, excessive violence, coming down too hard on minorities.

But this day was different. Off-duty police officers were marching in mourning for their own tragic losses: Clarissa, the young policewoman killed in Montrouge by Amedy Coulibaly, Franck, the officer who acted as a body guard for Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Charb, and Ahmed, a Muslim bicycle cop gunned down in cold blood by the Kouachi brothers as they fled.

During the historic Marche Républicaine last week, as 3.5 million people took to the streets all over France and 50 world leaders joined arms against terrorism in Paris, people weren’t looking at the police in fear, but to salute them. They applauded the snipers stationed on top of the buildings along the Avenue de la République.

One gentleman in the crowd was so overcome with goodwill towards the CRS – the riot control forces of the French national police – that he asked if it was okay to embrace one of its officers. The officer hesitated, then gave in as the crowd urged them on. It was captured by French TV crews and became one of the scenes from that day that stole the hearts of viewers across the country.

As I’ve posted before, I’m certainly no fan of men with guns. But I have to confess to feeling a certain admiration for les gardiens de la paix, as the French national police are known. They managed to take out all three terrorists and get the hostages out of that supermarket with no further loss of innocent life.

That’s deserving of a kiss.

Chère France,

Chère CharlieIt’s been a long time. Thirty years since we began this relationship; more than twenty since I decided to call you home. Since I married in Paris, gave birth in Lyon, made friends, built a life, put down roots.

In all these years, I’ve never felt moved to share my feelings about what it is to be French. Until now.

I have often criticized you, and rightly so. It has not always been easy to live here, to decode your culture, understand your language and fully appreciate your history. There have been moments of mutual incomprehension. Sometimes I felt alone. But I never felt judged, nor excluded.

Never once did you ask about my religion or political beliefs. You gave my children an education that has enabled them to go forth in the world as free-thinking, critical spirits. You kept us healthy and safe.

So this is to say merci, dear France. Thank you for your irreverence. For refusing to be kept down. Merci for resisting the thought police, refusing the politically correct. For having the courage to face down fear. For supporting even those you don’t agree with in their right to free speech. Like the beloved cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. Like me.

#JeSuisCharlie

Mel

P.S. I don’t agree with all of the choices made by editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo. Nor do I consider this humble blog to be comparable to the work of those brilliant satirists. But I do believe in freedom of expression. What about you?

The dual dilemma

Dual DilemmaPeople sometimes ask me: “Where is home? Canada or France?” The answer is both. Toronto will always be where I’m from. But after living in France for so many years, it is my home. Je suis chez moi ici.

A funny thing happens when I go ‘home’ to Toronto now. Everything seems really familiar. People speak my language, in my accent. I know all the street names. I feel like I belong.

It doesn’t take long for that feeling to go AWOL.

“This is my country, eh? I’ll do the talking,” I say to my husband as we line up at Canadian customs and immigration in Montreal. For some reason known only to Air Canada, our direct flight to Toronto has us deplane and enter Canada in Montreal before continuing on to our destination. Baggage, duty free and all.

My husband and I cannot go anywhere without arguing. He considers himself a seasoned and erudite traveler, and takes pleasure in showing me where to line up and how to do basic operations at those automatic terminals that check you in and print your boarding pass. Most of the time, when he is not overly lording it up, I will listen to his wisdom. But not on my home turf. He may guide me in Europe, Canada is all mine.

The customs agent, a friendly young fellow with a strong Québecois accent, wants to know the purpose of our trip and our final destination. “Visiting family, in Toronto,” I reply in French. He studies our French passports and landing card with interest before stamping them and waving us through. But not before saying something absolutely incomprehensible. The French Canadian accent stretches my adopted tongue into an unrecognizable form of the lingo. I nod and smile as we leave, then turn to my husband for guidance. He may be foreign but his grasp of French will always be better than mine.

“What the hell did he say?” He gives me a look to say, I thought this was your country?

“He told you that he had ticked the box for returning Canadian citizens. I think he was hinting you should have a Canadian passport.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I retorted. “I’m a French citizen now. Why should I bother keeping up two passports?”

“Because you can.” This is one of those silly arguments.

I repeat all the reasons I let my Canadian passport drop: it’s expensive, they have a special photo requirement, you need to have a guarantor. Besides, you don’t need a passport to be a Canadian citizen.

There are advantages to going through customs in the more licentious Québec rather than puritanical Ontario: no one questions our duty-free alcohol allowance. I had duly noted the allotted two bottles of wine on our landing card but neglected to declare a bottle of scotch and a magnum of champagne.

In Toronto, they often bring out sniffer dogs when you pick up your bags. I still remember how I trembled the last time we went through customs at Pearson aiport with two illegal raw-milk camemberts in a suitcase. It is strictly forbidden to bring in any plant or animal materials to Canada. I nearly fainted when a customs agent with a beagle wearing brightly colored Canadian maple leaf came right up to us before sniffing something more interesting in another passenger’s bag. “Relax, they’re only interested in drugs,” my husband whispered. Later, I almost fainted for a different reason when I unearthed those stinkers from our stuff. Never again, I swore.

Once we’ve arrived and settled in, I begin to notice that things are not quite as familiar as they first seem. We go shopping in downtown Toronto and I wonder where stores are that closed years ago. (“This is the Eaton Centre – but where’s Eatons?”). In the massive urban sprawl of the Greater Toronto Area, I am no longer on familiar ground. Christmas Eve finds me doing last minute shopping in Ajax, a remote east-end suburb of the GTA where my parents live. It is big box store and shopping mall paradise. I exit the mall and cannot find the car. I stumble around in the freezing rain, cursing to myself until I realize: this is exactly the kind of thing that used to happen to me in France.

I want to go home, like Dorothy. I tap my heels together three times and find the car.

All of this reminds me of a song from my teenage years:

By the way, I’ve decided to renew my Canadian passport.

Happy New Year everybody!

Mon beau sapin

Canadian ChristmasWe don’t have a Christmas tree at our house this year. Instead, we are going to visit family in Toronto and let them trim the tree.

For us, Christmas in Canada means family and friends, catching up and pigging out, the chaos of too many people and dogs, shopping from the time we get off the plane and as soon as the sales start on Boxing Day. Yes, folks, it’s consumer excess at its merriest. But I won’t regret it. Not for one single moment. Until I’m back home in January, weighing up the damage.

The thing is, we don’t have any of those things here n France. My husband’s family is too few and far apart, our kids are grown and flown (although one will be heading back home soon – more on Generation Boomerang later…). And the shopping opportunities simply don’t compare.

What Christmas in Canada does not usually mean is snow. To my unending disappointment, our visits almost inevitably coincide with a green Christmas in Toronto….generally followed by a big blizzard as soon as we are back on our side of the Atlantic. But I’m packing my boots just in case.

I am taking a blogging break to enjoy the season. Wishing you and yours a holly, jolly Christmas and hope to see you in the New Year!

Chez le coiffeur

Chez le coiffeurThere are almost as many beauty parlors in France as there are bakeries. Which says something about where the French have their priorities.

At this time of year, an appointment chez le coiffeur is a must for every self-respecting Frenchwoman – and man. Looking one’s best for the end-of-year holidays is as essential as uncorking a bottle of champagne and preparing a special meal on Christmas Eve.

One of my first French lessons was learning that you go ‘chez le coiffeur’ rather than ‘au coiffeur’. This applies for any shop or service that has a person behind it. For example, you go chez LeClerc but à Carrefour because there is a Leclerc family but no Monsieur or Madame Carrefour.

Another lesson is that hair is not singular in French but plural. So when you talk about your hair it’s les cheveux (not to be confused with les chevaux unless you’re grooming horses rather than hair). Which also explains why my husband will say: “Your hair are nice like that.” (Isn’t he sweet?)

I have passed many long hours chez le coiffeur, simply because my short hair with blonde highlights requires frequent ministrations from my stylist. Those hours spent waiting for the chemicals to do their magic and transform my chatain clair into shiny blonde streaks have allowed me to observe at leisure the inner workings of the French beauty parlor.

Most salons are independently owned and managed by a single hairdresser. Depending on the size of the place, they may have one or several coiffeurs working for them. Only in the bigger chains like Dessange or in high fashion haute coiffure salons do they have a dedicated receptionist. This means that in between shampooing, rinsing, coloring and snipping, your typical hairstylist is also answering the phone, greeting customers, ringing up receipts and serving coffee.

A French hair salon is never dull. Over the white noise of hairdryers and water running, the piped in radio, the hissing of the coffee machine and collective chatter of les dames (the men are usually silent), the place can work up to quite a hubbub.

Should the wait be rather long, there is always the lure of “la presse people.” All French hair salons, no matter how trendy, share the common denominator of offering customers a selection of the latest rags –Paris Match, Voici and Closer along with more fashion-forward offerings like Elle. How else to stay atop of breaking stories like Hollande’s three-wheeled sexploits, Valérie Trierweiller’s revenge lit or Carla Bruni’s desire to be left alone? If there were any doubt about the need for regular visits chez le coiffeur, the extra incentive of the gossip press seals it.

Many salons offer ‘la carte de fidelité’ or customer loyalty cards that give you a reduction or a freebie of some kind after several services. I suppose this is intended keep people coming back, but I never really understood the need. If you have a good hairdresser, one who understands you and doesn’t talk too much, why go anywhere else?

My dad once commented during a visit to France that he had never seen so many bad dye jobs. I think this is because a lot of French women tend to go for more pronounced colors than are typical for North Americans. This was a few years ago when bright henna was all the rage and also the dip-dye craze with a lot of dark root showing beneath blonde tips.

This year I am wondering: where have all the blondes gone? From the TV screens to the fashion pages, brown hair seems to rule the day. Have you noticed this?

I’m not much of one for changing my hairstyle. Aside from a few kinky perms back in the early 80s, I’ve been pretty faithful to my highlighted short cut for the better part of 30 years.

It hasn’t always been easy to find a coiffeur willing to coiffe to my taste. French stylists tend to prefer longer, looser styles. I like these too, on other people. Just not on me.

And just as it’s chic in English to use French words, hair salons here often play with anglais to sound cutting edge. Sometimes with disastrous double entendres in English, like one in our parts called ‘Hair Mess.’ Oops. Think I’ll give that one a miss.

How about you? What’s your latest scoop from the hair salon?