Le monde est stone

Starmania cast and producers, 1988

Here’s this week’s song for a Saturday — voici ma chanson pour ce samedi.

If there is a song that defines my early days in France, it is this one. Stunning, heartbreakingly beautiful, yet somehow beyond my grasp.

“Why do they sing about the world being ‘stone’,” I asked my husband.

“Because it was the 70’s, everyone was high.”

“So why don’t they say ‘stoned’?”

“We don’t pronounce the ‘d’ in French.”

Hmm. This confuses me. Perhaps he is right but the lyrics mostly talk about the world being a cold, hard place, of being alone and looking for the light. Perhaps it is this very duality that makes the lyrics so enchanting.

This song was one of the biggest hits of the French rock opera, Starmania. We saw the French production in Paris, in 1988, with the second cast featuring a young Maurane, featured on this blog last week. Written by Michel Berger and Luc Plamondon, the musical went on to be adapted in English as ‘Tycoon’, with the lyrics of the English song, ‘The world is stone’ by Tim Rice, immortalized by Cyndi Lauper.

I am torn – which version of this song do I like best? Both are incredibly moving. The beauty of Fabienne Thibeault’s voice in the French version, the energy and originality of Cyndi Lauper’s version. I read that Michel Berger, who wrote the music, not only approved of Lauper’s version but even preferred it.

You decide.

J’ai la tête qui éclate
J’voudrais seulement dormir
M’étendre sur l’asphalte
Et me laisser mourir
Stone
Le monde est stone
Je cherche le soleil
Au milieu de la nuit
J’sais pas si c’est la Terre
Qui tourne à l’envers
Ou bien si c’est moi
Qui m’fait du cinéma
Qui m’fait mon cinéma
Je cherche le soleil
Au milieu de ma nuit
Stone
Le monde est stone
J’ai plus envie d’me battre
J’ai plus envie d’courir
Comme tous ces automates
Qui bâtissent des empires
Que le vent peut détruire
Comme des châteaux de cartes
Stone
Le monde est stone
Laissez moi me débattre
Venez pas m’secourir
Venez plutôt m’abattre
Pour m’empêcher d’souffrir
J’ai la tête qui éclate
J’voudrais seulement dormir
M’étendre sur l’asphalte
Et me laisser mourir

Stone, the world is stone
It’s no trick of the light, it’s hard on the soul
Stone, the world is stone, cold to the touch
And hard on the soul in the gray of the streets
In the neon unknown, I look for a sign
That I’m not on my own, that I’m not here alone
As the still of the night and the choke of the air
And the winners’ delight and the losers’ despair
Closes in left and right, I would love not to care
Stone, the world is stone from a faraway look
Without stars in my eyes through the halls of the rich
And the flats of the poor wherever I go
There’s no warmth anymore
There’s no love anymore
So I turn on my heels, I’m declining the fall
I’ve had all I can take with my back to the wall
Tell the world I’m not in, I’m not taking the call
Stone, the world is stone but I saw it once
With the stars in my eyes when each color rang out
In a thunderous chrome, it’s no trick of the light
I can’t find my way home in a world of stone

Which one do you prefer?

France’s best baguettes

Baguettes at “Le Capitole” bakery in Nice, France, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The baguette is the most popular loaf of French bread. There are 32,000 bakers and cake-makers (boulangers-pâtissiers) in France. Like so many things that the French take seriously, the profession is regulated. What this means is that you can’t make it up. Cela ne s’invente pas. There are rules and regulations around the fabrication of the humble baguette de pain and a professional association that sets the standards and governs the making and baking of our daily bread.

Every year, the Confédération Nationale de la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie Française holds a contest to crown the baker who makes the best ‘baguette de tradition’. Now, the traditional French stick is not to be confused with its lesser cousin, ‘la baguette industrielle’. The industrial or ordinary type of baguette can be found in every French supermarket or ‘point chaud’ and while some centimes cheaper is far inferior in terms of quality.

Traditional baguette is made by an artisan baker at a relatively small scale and according to a strict set of rules. The flour must be of a specific type (55), with nothing added other than yeast and salt, then kneaded for a minimal amount of time, weighed, divided and allowed to rise. It is then shaped by hand into the iconic long ‘baguette’ shape before being baked in an oven with a stone floor.

The criteria for the ‘best’ baguette are the following (20 points for each):

  • Aspect – the look or appearance of the loaf
  • Croûte (couleur/croustillant) – the colour and crustiness of the crust
  • Arôme – its flavour or taste
  • Mie (couleur / alvéolage) – the colour and cellular structure of the white, doughy part of the bread (which must not be overly dense)
  • Mâche – its chewiness or mouth feel
The word ‘alvéole’ comes from the cells of a bee-hive but its holes should be irregular.

The best baguette is somewhat irregular looking, with a nicely browned, crusty exterior and a soft, airy interior. It has a bit of character in terms of taste but is essentially a perfect backdrop for other flavours: cheese, sauces, pâtés…

This year’s top prizes at the national level were handed out in Paris on May 15th. The three top bakers are in Franche-Comté, Brittany and Ardèche: https://www.boulangerie.org/blog/concours-national-de-la-meilleure-baguette-de-tradition-francaise-les-resultats-2/

In April, the winners of the 25th annual competition in Paris were announced. The baguettes of this year’s winning baker, Fabrice Leroy, can be found at the Leroy-Monti bakery in Paris’s 12th arrondissement and also grace the president’s table at the Elysée Palace (if you are lucky enough to be invited). https://www.sortiraparis.com/news/in-paris/articles/190183-paris-best-baguette-winner-is-leroy-monti-bakery-in-the-12th-arrondissement/lang/en

How do you like your bread? Dense and doughy or light and fluffy?

La vache!

Pity the poor cow. They give us milk and cheese, meat and leather, are the source of sustenance and prosperity. They are venerated in some cultures yet treated like so much merchandise and with a flagrant lack of humanity in others. Adding insult to injury, the word ‘cow’ is never used as a compliment.

‘La vache’ expresses surprise in French. Whether a ‘wow’ or a ‘damn’, either positive or negative. It is slang but not vulgar.

However, to say someone or something is ‘vache’ means it’s not nice. Nasty, mean, tough… Arrête d’être vache! Stop being a cow!            

To do something mean to someone is to ‘faire une vacherie’. It seems somehow unjust that the language always attributes the feminine gender to such behaviour. I’ve seen it in both men and women. Note that in French, however, it is ‘une vache’ but ‘un boeuf’.

Until recently I thought these were just different names for male and female. I did not know that milk cows (‘vache laitière’, not to be confused with ‘vache à lait’…) are a completely different subset of the bovine species from beef cattle. Ah, the ignorance of the city mouse!

However, to be really mean and horrible takes being a cow a step further.

In my early days in the French corporate world, a colleague pulled me aside and told me to watch myself around so-and-so. “Attention,” she said, “C’est une peau de vache.

“A cow skin? Whatever does that mean?” I asked. Turns out that this is worst kind of person, the one who will smile to your face and stab you in the back as soon as you’re not looking. Worse, they will go to any length to get what they want.

Yet the poor cow’s hide makes such a lovely chair!

Aside from having their name so often taken in vain, the French cow’s life is not so bad. We have many small, family-run farms where just a few cattle graze in the fields.

Perhaps this is why the most famous of French cows is always smiling. The cheesy laughing cow of course!

Do you have a favourite expression involving cows?

Toutes les mamas

Here is my song for Saturday — Voici ma chanson pour un samedi…

Mamas and mothers the world over are on the whole entirely under appreciated. Just as was the singer of this song, ‘Toutes le mamas’ (All the mammas). It was one of many hits by the Belgian singer known as Maurane, who sadly passed away on May 7th last year.

I remember dancing to this tune back in 1988 when it first came out. It was upbeat yet sort of jazzy with the the rich, velvety undertones of Maurane’s voice.

As it turns out, the song was less about mothers in general than a tribute to a certain idea of the African ‘mama’. Racially questionable yet joyously musical nonetheless.

I first discovered Maurane when she played Marie-Jeanne in the 1988 production of the rock opera Starmania in Paris.

The song of hers I love best is this one, ‘Sur un prélude de Bach’, written and composed by Jean-Claude Vannier. It is hauntingly beautiful and still gives me the shivers.

May all of the mamas around the world enjoy their day in the sun. Here in France, country of the cultural exception, we will have to wait until the end of May.

RIP Maurane. ❤️

Les saints de glace

We had snow the other day. Not precisely in our village but just a few hundred metres above on the foothills.

This seemingly surprising meteorological phenomenon is not as unusual as it seems. The French hold great store in old proverbs and folklore when it comes to the weather. Les anciens, the old timers who have been around long enough to know better, will not take sayings like ‘En Mai, fais ce qu’il te plâit‘ too much to heart. They will rather think of ‘Les saints de glace’ and be wary of planting or ‘uncovering by a thread‘ until after they have safely passed.

Les saints de glace, or the ice saints in English aka St. Mamertus, St. Pancras (or Boniface) and St. Servatius, are the saints whose birthdays fall from May 11 to 13, dates which are thought to correspond to a time when the weather often gets colder. This is why popular wisdom has it that you should never plant your tomatoes before mid-May.

We are certainly experiencing the proverbial early May cold snap this year. After an early, hot start to spring back in April, when I foolishly put away all my winter sweaters and dusted off the garden furniture, we are freezing again. It is hard to imagine that in a few weeks we will be back in sandals and bathing suits, complaining about the heat.

This year’s late cold weather can also be explained by a phenomenon known in France as ‘la lune rousse’. This is the lunar cycle that follows Easter, which came late this year. In agricultural terms, it does not bode well. “La lune rousse sur la semence aura toujours mauvaise influence,” goes one proverb, meaning: “Red moon on seed will bad influence bring.” Another says, “En lune rousse, rien ne pousse” or “Moon of rose, nothing grows.” (I am using poetic license here but I did read that the translation of this moon can be red, pink or rose).

We will survive but it could be touch and go for wine growers. I heard on Sunday that some were taking drastic measures like spraying, heating and smoking to save the crops in wine-growing regions at greatest risk of frost. Here’s an interesting article that explains some of the techniques.

For now, the weather can only be described as ‘maussade’, meaning damp and miserable. Cold and rainy with low cloud cover. Only the birds relentlessly chirping outside my window remind us that summer is just around the corner.

What’s your weather like?