Sapeurs-pompiers: France’s unsung heroes

The two young firefighters belonged to the Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris. Nathanaël, already the father of a 4-year-old boy at 27, came from north-central France; 28-year-old Simon was from a small town in the Savoie. Both had been volunteers before joining the ranks of the professional firefighters at the Château d’Eau station in Paris. Sadly, both men were killed in an explosion from a gas leak in a Paris bakery on Saturday morning.

The scenes of devastation around the site of the explosion at 6, rue de Trévise in the 9th arrondissement were impressive. Two more people lost their lives in addition to the firemen and dozens were injured. Residents in neighbouring buildings were shocked into the streets, in pyjamas, not knowing if it was safe to go home. Such was the force of the blast that six buildings are now considered at risk of collapse. Firefighters had to rescue many older and fragile residents who were unable to get out alone.

Living in a country like France where many buildings and the surrounding infrastructure are truly ‘ancient’ (as the French world for old, ‘ancien’, suggests), such accidents happen more often than they should. The recent collapse of several buildings in Marseille also put the emergency services to the test as they spent days searching for people trapped in the rubble.

So often the vital and heroic work they do goes unrecognized, and their praises are rarely sung.

The majority of France’s sapeurs-pompiers, fire and rescue crews, are volunteers. Outside of the major cities most fire services have only one or two paid professionals who head up the local ranks of volunteers. We rely upon them for much more than putting out fires: they are the first on the scene for emergency medical services, roadside accidents, drownings, floods and disasters of all kinds. They provide emergency training to local citizens, advice on dangers like wasp nests and are often on hand at large gatherings to help keep the public safe.

The word ‘pompiers’, as they are most commonly called, comes from the fellow who manned the ‘pompe’ or water pump; ‘sapeur’ is rather more complicated but has to do with the fact that in the past, often the only way to put out a fire was to destroy or ‘saper’ the building. Credit: Wikipedia.

The distinctive ‘pam pom’ of the fire and emergency sirens can be heard with varying degrees of frequency all over France. It is a sound that I used to find terrifying but which now reassures me. It means that help is on its way, and when you live relatively far from a big city or a hospital, that is reassuring indeed.

I hope I never need them but I am grateful that they will be there when I do.

R.I.P. Nathanaël and Simon.

Merci à tous nos sapeurs-pompiers pour vos bons et loyaux services!

 

Enfant terrible

A new novel by Michel Houellebecq (pronounced: Well-beck) is a major literary event in France. L’enfant terrible of French letters is loved by many and detested by some but leaves few readers indifferent.

I was set to dislike the fellow. First of all because I have an automatic distrust of the intellectual. You must understand that in France, ‘intellectual’ is a profession. Writer, journalist, political theorist and philosopher: all are taken far more seriously than in the commercially driven culture from which I hail. They are respected fonts of wisdom that drive opinion in this country.

Secondly because, well…look at the photo. He appears to the picture of the debauched, jaded version of the intellectual, a sort of Serge Gainsbourg of letters. Strike two. Thirdly because his work is controversial and I assumed that his point of view would be distasteful.

But then I read one of his novels. I don’t often read in French as it feels less natural to me than English. Frankly, it’s more work. But when the voice is right it makes all the difference.  And his voice spoke to me. Not only because I understood it, but because he has a style that is intimate, natural, relatable. I liked his voice. So I read another. And became a fan.

Houellebecq is hated by many because he speaks his truth (his version of the truth: all that any writer can do) and it is not one which is politically correct, or even palatable to some. But it is certainly representative of the thoughts and fears of many French people.

Now perhaps you’ll think I’m being pretentious, supporting the very thing I purport to distrust. Intellectuals, writers, artists. But there is one thing that I hold dear and it is the freedom to say or think anything. I posted about this before back when the last wave of terror began in France and some of the comments perfectly captured the way I feel about free speech, whether actual censorship or via the cult of the thought police.

I haven’t read Houellebecq’s new book yet. It’s called Serotonin and it’s on my list. If you’re interested, it’s apparently already translated into English and several other languages.

Interestingly, the novel seems to predict the the current movement of social unrest in France, or at least to have had its finger on the pulse of the discontent behind it.

The author isn’t doing a book tour or making any public appearances for now. This seems to be upsetting le tout Paris, but I can understand why. He doesn’t need the publicity and it’s bound to lead to awkward questions.

What do you think: should writers be expected to defend their political beliefs or be given a pass as free thinkers?

Mon singe

I have a monkey on my back. Un singe. See him? No, of course you can’t. He’s a private little fellow.

I’m no addict – he’s not that kind of monkey. But carrying him around all the time can be exhausting. He never shuts up.

There he goes again: What on earth are you writing about? No one is going to have a clue what you mean. A monkey? How ridiculous!

Monkey has his good points. Sometimes he makes me smile.  Il fait le singe, makes like a monkey. And he can be a creative little guy. Bitingly funny. Who would even think of half the stuff he comes up with? Too inappropriate, mostly, to share with anyone else. But in some ways he is my muse.

Most of the time he is an angry little dude who makes me impatient and short-tempered. A kill joy. He can be terrifying, with his dire predictions and irrational fears.

He is my inner critic, my slave driver, cracking his whip. Not good enough, he whispers. Who do you think you are? Often I believe him. Monkey see, monkey do.

Too often he exhausts me to the point where I just give up. No, I will not be good enough. While I’m at it, I won’t be good at all. May as well fool around instead of working. Waste time, kick back, have another glass of wine. I will forget about exercising or writing or doing whatever else I’d planned.

Now it’s time for a change. This year, I’ve decided to make friends with my monkey.

I can’t get rid of him completely. But I am thinking that perhaps I need to work with him. He is part of me after all. And in order to enjoy the good I need to manage the bad.

So I’ll tell him it’s okay not to be perfect. Sometimes good enough is just fine. And failure is okay if it means you really tried. In fact, it can be positive.

He will surely scoff.

And I’ll simply say: Monkey, be quiet. (Not ‘shut up’. Even monkeys deserve respect.) I’ll invite him to take a deep breath, admire the view. I’ll even give him half of my banana.

The rest I’m keeping for myself.

Happy new you!

Have you made any resolutions for 2019?

Juste ce qu’il faut

How much is just enough? Not so long ago, it seemed I was always wanting more: friends, money, success, travel…a new this, an updated that. Now, suddenly, something is different. I still feel this way at times but lately I find myself thinking that happiness is having just what you need. Or needing what you have.

As the dark days before the winter solstice grow colder and ever shorter, it is important to think about the things have brightened our lives over the year. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy keeping an advent calendar. For each of its 24 days this month I have written down a word that sums up something – or someone – that has made my life happier.

I am lucky to have a great deal to be grateful for; it has been a full year, a good year. Not without moments of sadness and regret. Those bittersweet times are there to remind us just how lucky we are when all the rest is good.

Here are a few of the things that I am especially grateful for this Christmas:

This great big, wonderful world. We went to four islands this year, each of them special and unique in different ways. New Year’s was in Curaçao, a curious and beautiful place indeed. And it was amazing to be able to enjoy this exotic destination in the company of my Canadian family, including my Dad and brother, their better-halves and our kids. Our island adventures this year also included a writing retreat for me in Pantelleria, Italy; a first-ever trip out west to Vancouver and a romantic anniversary week on Madeira.

The people who got us there and back. Even in years when we don’t travel as much, there are still a lot of comings and goings with our jobs and family in different countries and continents. I never go anywhere without mentally preparing for disaster on some level (fingers permanently crossed). And yet, despite a tense couple of landings and a few delayed suitcases, we have all made it home in one piece. I am grateful to all of the hard-working pilots and drivers of planes, trains, buses and taxis who got us there and back. And all those who support them. They don’t hear it enough.

The memories we share. I am both old enough to have a lot of memories and young enough to look forward to making new ones. Also fortunate to have family and friends who remember too. This year, my husband unearthed a box of old cassette tapes from when our kids were small and sent them to be digitized; we are looking forward to watching this marathon memory movie over the holidays. To be in this position, to be able to share those memories, strikes me as very rich indeed. And I would like to share a thought for all those who suffer from dementia and other forms of brain disease.

My blogging buddies. This community we have here on WordPress is something I never imagined would bring so much joy to my life. I originally started this blog as a way to connect with people of similar interests with the idea of getting a book published. It hasn’t happened yet, but each week of writing, reading and commenting on my fellow bloggers’ posts brings me immense satisfaction and a sense of connection. It is a privilege to know you guys!

Family and friends. You know who you are. Thank you for putting up with me. I love you all.

And there are so many more. But how about I kick over to you: what are you grateful for?

La Marseillaise

It is as stirring an anthem as any ever written. Not that the French are inclined to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ that often – the last time I can remember was before the start of the final World Cup match. Which we won. Such memories of victory are important at the moment as we are going through a bit of a rough patch in France.

I first saw the Arc de Triomphe shortly after landing in Paris many years ago. It is an impressive way to enter the city, coming from Roissy and Charles de Gaulle airport to the northwest. Driving by it on the multi-pointed Etoile, it is even more monumental than one imagines from all those beauty shots taken from afar.

It was only later that I got close enough to admire the statuary, and learn of its history. Commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate all those who fought for France in the revolutionary wars, inscribed with the names of victories and generals and home to the tomb of the unknown soldier from the first world war. Its statuary, pictured above, includes the sculpture by François Rude of The Departure of 1792, also known as La Marseillaise. It depicts the symbolic winged Liberty and celebrates the cause of the first French republic.

I am no historian; all this comes from Wikipedia. While we’re at it, here’s the scoop from Wiki on the anthem:

The melody soon became the rallying call to the French Revolution and was adopted as “La Marseillaise” after (it) was first sung on the streets by volunteers (fédérés in French) from Marseille by the end of May. These fédérés were making their entrance into the city of Paris on 30 July 1792 after a young volunteer from Montpellier called François Mireur had sung it at a patriotic gathering in Marseille, and the troops adopted it as the marching song of the National Guard of Marseille.[2]

The music, almost discordant at times, is a powerful battle cry. The lyrics are a call to arms. There is blood on the ground and fierce pride in the hearts of all who sing it.

This explains a lot about what is currently going on in France. Not that I agree with it, or condone the acts of violence and destruction. Quite the opposite. But I do recognize that it is true to the French. When there is a perceived injustice, one that goes too far, there will be protest. And it will not stop until something changes.

I just hope it will happen sooner rather than later. It breaks my heart to see the broken statues in the Arc de Triomphe, the graffiti inscribed on its walls.

And, after all, who will pay to fix it? We will. Who will suffer when the police refuse to do battle with angry mobs who throw bricks and kick them on the ground? When the shopkeepers close, when the tourists stay home. We all will. We the people, the taxpayers, the young and old, the rich and the poor.

France is known, even among the French, as being a country that is ‘irréformable’; that is, one that cannot be reformed. For as long as I have lived here, over 25 years, every government has tried and, mostly, failed to effect change. In fact, thanks again to Wikipedia, it seems that years ago during the government of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, there was a move to change the bloody, revolutionary lyrics of the French national anthem to something rather more peaceful. It failed. La Marseillaise prevails.

Now Macron’s government is trying to bring what most agree is needed reform, with a carbon tax and other budgetary measures. Will they fail? I hope not. But if they do, I will be the first to stand up and march for an even bigger change, one that will allow us to make a sweeping reforms once and for all. A 6th republic. Not one led by extremes and Antifa movements, but one that would give this country a fresh start with a revised constitution and laws.

Revolutionary, you say? Mais oui. Just listen to la Marseillaise…