Le parfum

 

Is there anything more French than perfume?

Caron, Chanel, Dior, Cacharel…the list of famous French perfume houses goes on.

France did not invent perfume, which goes back to ancient Greek and Roman times, yet the fragrant town of Grasse in Provence north of Nice is the birthplace of modern perfumery. It began with the gathering of herbs and flowers like lavender and jasmine to offset the odours from the leather tanneries. Today most of the perfume industry is in Paris but Grasse is still its historic heart.

The perfume industry does not count me among its most loyal customers. Most fragrances give me a headache. At best, perfume makes me sneeze. Air fresheners will send me running for air. I’d rather smell stale cigarettes than Febreze, breathe in body odour than heavy deodorant.

When I first came to Paris, I discovered a fragrance that I could wear and enjoy without getting a funny head. And without feeling like it was wearing me. It is called Mûre et Musc, originally from a perfumer called Jean Laporte, and now the signature scent of L’Artisan Parfumeur. I’ve tried others over the years but while I may admire them from afar, mûre and musk is still my one and only.

When it comes to the natural floral essences that fill the air at this time of year, it’s another story. That heady mix of spring’s own perfume is at its most potent right now, and breathing it in as I walk outside is a joy. The names of most flowers and plants are foreign to me even in my native English, never mind in French. Other than my peonies, pivoines, which came rushing into bloom last week and were almost beheaded by the heavy rain this week. They are white and pink, like the ones shown here, and their perfume is delicate and seductive.

pivoines

 

Do you like perfume? What’s your signature scent?

Mai 68

This month marks 50 years since the events of May 1968 brought the winds of social change to France.

It started out with the students. Their protests against capitalism and consumer society soon led to general strikes, demonstrations, occupations and violent clashes with police.

President de Gaulle fled for fear of seeing the Elysée Palace overrun; despite rumours that he would resign he held on. Still, at the end of may, with half a million protesters in the streets of Paris and in order to avoid a civil war, he dissolved the government and called for an election in the following month.

Talkin’ about a revolution.

The following year, 1969, those same winds continued to blow on the other side of the Atlantic. It had started in 1967 with the protests against the draft and the war in Vietnam but the unrest picked up speed that year. My parents had just moved our family from Canada to the U.S. At twelve years old, I was too young to fully appreciate what was going on in Woodstock, but I remember being riveted by the songs of revolution. And living state-side in Minneapolis as I saw first hand what it meant to be American. We had to pledge allegiance to the flag at school. I placed my hand on my heart but never bothered to learn all the words.

Half a century later, you have to wonder: have we learned anything at all? The world has surely undergone many a revolution in the past 50 years, perhaps the biggest of all being our entry into the information age. So much has changed, and yet so little. Social injustice, the waves of migrants displaced by war, the violence of governments against their people…

Perhaps one thing that has changed is that communication technology is making it harder for any one group to own the information. The change has been slower to come here in France but, as explained in this report from the BBC, it has taken the wind from the sails of the strikes this year. People are able to see which trains are running and adapt accordingly. They are increasingly allowed to work from home. The government has been able to monitor, and surely influence, the news flow.

Of course, the other side of information is misinformation. The attention economy. Fake news. A new battle is being waged, and our minds are the battle field. Sadly, many wander into the war entirely unprepared. Media literacy is all too scarce. Manipulation of naïve souls is all too easy.

There is a tendency in France to think of the events of ‘68 as a purely French phenomenon. It was a time of profound change that brought the sexual revolution, women’s liberation and workers’ rights. But the times, they were a-changing around the world. And the impact of those changes is still being felt today.

Where were you in May 1968?

L’école buissonière

I played hooky last week. Skipped off school and went AWOL. Or, as we say in French, went to ‘bush’ school.

That’s not really true but it is how it felt. I signed up for a week’s retreat on the remote Sicilian island of Pantelleria with a group called Wide Open Writing (WOW).

It was a chance to go off the path and enjoy a holiday break while devoting time to myself — and to writing. Not the PR work I do for a living, or the blogging I do here, but in pursuit of the storytelling muse that lives inside us all.

For a week our group enjoyed the rugged beauty of this volcanic island that is actually closer to Tunisia than Italy. That did not mean warmer, however, as it was windswept and chilly a good part of the week. But when the sun came out it was wonderful!

All week long we met twice daily to think, write, read our work and share thoughts. The idea wasn’t to critique each other’s writing so much as to give positive feedback. It was an experience at times intense, hilarious, emotional, beautiful and moving. I found a sense of kinship with this group of writers from all walks of life and at different stages of finding their voice. There was also yoga and meditation for those so inclined.

I stayed in a dammuso, the thick-walled stone cottages unique to Pantelleria. They are designed with domed roofs to capture the rain water.

Water so essential for irrigating the capers, olive trees and vines that grow here…and these days also for more leisurely pursuits.

Walled gardens are also part of Pantelleria’s unique heritage. This one in a vineyard was built to protect the precious lime tree growing within.

On our last day we visited the Donna Fugata vineyard where a variety of the ancient Muscat grape called Zibibbo is grown to make the island’s famous Passito, a sweeter apperitif wine, among others.

Throughout the week, we also ate and drank copious amounts of Sicilian food and wine.

This dessert is called bacio pantesco. It’s a kind of waffle pastry filled with delicately perfumed ricotta.

One of the things I love most about living in France is how close we are to so many amazing places. It wasn’t easy to get to Pantelleria, as it involved three flights via Rome and Palermo. The last one on this Air Mistral plane operated by the Italian Post.

You can learn a lot when you skip school, or ‘faire l’école buisonnière’, as the French call it. It was a bit of a splurge, but well worth it. Besides, getting away is good for the soul.

Do you remember skipping school?

La diplomatie

France has a longstanding diplomatic tradition. Sadly, the French language has lost ground to English in recent years as the official ‘lingua franca’ of diplomacy. While English is obviously more widely spoken, there is something about the phrasing of French that facilitates diplomacy: the indirect question, the polite probing rather than the direct yes or no question. But you have to be able to read between the lines – something which is challenging for a second-language learner.

I am not the most diplomatic of people, even in my native tongue. I tend to be blunt, often rushing in where angels fear to tread. Living in France has taught me to mind my p’s and q’s. Especially the q’s (which letter rhymes with ‘cul’ – a catch-all word for sex).

“Remember that time you told the doctor that our son ate shit off the floor?” husband likes to remind me. Just to even the stakes, mind you, as his English is so often the butt of family jokes. I reminded him that ‘connerie’ sounded almost the same as ‘cochonnerie’ and I was only trying to explain why our child might have picked up pinworms.

“Ha, ha…or when you first met my grandfather, and called him ‘pipi’ instead of Pépé.”

“A slip of the tongue, when I barely spoke French. And as if ‘fart-fart’ is any better!”

Our family’s sense of humour is often in the toilet bowl.

Thankfully over the years I have picked up a trick or two. And I am not the only one who makes bloopers and blunders across the cultural divide.

I remember once, shortly after we’d met, having dinner with my husband’s parents at a fancy French restaurant in Toronto. The service and food were classically French, but the wait staff were a little rough around the edges. One server, with an accent that rang of Québec, stepped up to the table with an open bottle of wine and asked my Belle-mère bluntly: “Tu veux du vin?” That lady may have choked before discreetly laughing into her napkin.

I didn’t get what was so funny.

Husband explained that not only had the server used the informal ‘tu’ form of address rather than ‘vous’, but he had effectively asked: “You want some wine?” Admittedly, “Would you care for some wine?” or even, “May I refill your glass?” would have been more appropriate.

This week’s official visit by the French presidential couple to the US bears all the signs of a well-orchestrated diplomatic coup. The bromance between Trump and Macron that began last July has been largely played up by the media. This paper’s version of events cracked me up.

I am convinced that our presidents’ mutual affection has been intentionally exaggerated by the two men. I can just imagine their conversation behind closed doors:

Trump: “You know the media say you’re gay, right?”

Macron (shrugging his shoulders): “Yes, but you know some of the things they say about you?”

Trump: “Fake news!”

Macron: “How could anyone believe such things? We both have such beautiful wives.”

Trump: “Yeah, about that…Brigitte is really in pretty good shape.”

Macron: “Thanks, Don. I’ll tell her that again. She really appreciated it last time.”

Trump: “But hey, Emmanuel, let’s give them what they came for.”

Macron: “I’m sorry, not sure I understand. Don?”

Trump: “Let’s really show the media some love. You know they eat that stuff up!”

Macron: “Ah, bonne idée, Don! It’ll take their minds off of all the little troubles we have brewing at home.”

Of course, we all know that none of this is ever decided by the leaders themselves. Such encounters are planned months in advance. Dozens of diplomats and their underlings negotiate details about who wears what, says what, eats what. The fact the both first ladies wore white at the official greeting surely involved a great deal of negotiating. Perhaps it was agreed that both should wear white as some sort of bridal symbol, or expression of hope. Certainly it would not have worked in Japan, where white is worn to funerals.

Fortunately, behind all those orchestrated outfits and overly cordial entente, French diplomacy can still pack a punch – or perhaps be the velvet hammer. Macron’s speech to congress yesterday took direct aim at America first, proving that even best friends can share some hard truths.

Perhaps Donald should read my post on how to charm the French.  He could sure use some of that French diplomacy.

What do you think?

Battre son plein

One month into Spring, nature has reached fever pitch in our corner of France.

The greening of fields and trees is perhaps one or two shades away from its most intense. But the pink and white blossoms on the trees are in full bloom, the fields are intensely yellow with dandelion and rapeseed, every plant is either burgeoning or bearing signs of a bud. Flying insects go about their business everywhere and bump up against the windows in the sun.

The birds do not seem to sleep at all (and I am often awake to hear them). I’ve no idea if these are normal birds, perhaps twittering all night long to protect their young, or night birds. There are a couple of nests in the eaves. Whatever they are, I don’t remember ever hearing quite this much nocturnal peeping before.

It’s a wonderful time of year. In a couple of weeks, the farmers will have plowed the fields for planting, the blossoms will be off the trees and the sun will be high enough to send me scurrying for a hat.

‘Battre son plein’ means to reach a crescendo, a culmination point. The expression is often used to describe an event, like a party or fair (la fête bat son plein). It is thought to find roots in the description of the tide reaching its maximum point before going out, but this is not certain. Some say it has to do with music, others with the moon.

Whatever it is, my heart is beating along with it.

Along with it beats the rest of French life. Macron has called in the military to remove the ‘zadistes’ or squatters from the ill-fated Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport/agricultural development (more on that later). The students are blocking a dozen universities; trains and planes are still regularly cancelled. And this week, following the worrying military strikes in Syria by France, Britain and the US, it was announced that Macron has taken steps to withdraw the Legion of Honour awarded to Assad by former president Jacques Chirac. Why he got it in the first place is a mystery.

As our spring season reaches fever pitch, across the pond snow shovels are still in active duty. And down under, I hear a collective sigh of relief at the passing of the summer’s heat.

Whatever weather is at your door, may you enjoy it while it lasts or herald what’s next.

Happy days!