L’indifférence

René Robert, the Swiss photographer who died of indifference on a Paris street

The other night a random ‘fait divers’ (news item) caught my eye. An 84-year-old man had collapsed on a busy street in Paris and died before anyone noticed. Of hypothermia. Nine hours later.

The fact that this man happened to be a well-known Swiss photographer doesn’t matter. He was Monsieur Tout-le-monde, Mr. Nobody, out for a walk on a winter’s evening. What matters is the fact that nobody stopped to help him, that for hours people walked by his body stretched out on the pavement. It’s an area with a lot of people, many of them homeless. The irony of the story is that it was one of these humble souls, a homeless man, who eventually called for help at 6:30 the following morning. But when the emergency vehicle came it was too late.

René Robert was born in Fribourg, one of the French-speaking cantons in Switzerland. He was a photographer known for his pictures of flamenco dancers, a passion that had come to him early in life. He lived in Paris and had long frequented its bars and venues where he could quietly capture the moments of raw emotion that define the art of flamenco.

René Robert achieved a certain celebrity for his work. He published several books and his photographs were shown in galleries around Europe. But he was said to have remained humble, quiet, someone who appreciated working in the shadows rather than being in the spotlight himself.

The reason Robert’s death made headlines was because of its reprehensible moral nature. The French are sensitive to ‘l’indifférence’; it is not a characteristic that defines us* as a people. Indifference is among the most-detested modern ‘maux’ (evils, wrongs) of society, that we can pass by human suffering on the street and look the other way.

It came to my attention because a journalist friend of the photographer, Michel Mompontet, talked about it. Did he trip? Was it a dizzy spell? he asked. And most importantly: Who among us would have stopped? Is it conceivable that I myself would have walked by?

The fact that this man was Swiss is also poignant to me. I have a soft spot for strangers in strange lands. And it seems the world we live in has become a strange place indeed.

RIP Monsieur Robert.

(*I have officially been away from my adopted country long enough now to identify as French.)

Je t’aime moi non plus

Jane and Serge, who loved to hate each other

I don’t often take an instant dislike to people. But I must say that Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin filled me with loathing when I first came to France and discovered the eponymous song of this post title. It made me cringe, not out of prudishness, but because it was embarrassing and tacky. I won’t share it here, merci, but if you don’t know the reference you can google it. The song is said to have inspired Donna Summer and a whole wave of steamy eighties pop.

I’ve posted before about how the French ‘sense’ each other often by le nez and will sometimes decide, even without speaking a word, that mutual mépris (indifference or disdain) is the only emotion possible. Then they will literally never speak or even look directly at one another.

I must say this makes me uncomfortable. Even people I feel little love for are deserving of at least superficial politesse, for their sake as well as mine. I try to put my best face forward and be kind, as long as I get similar in return. Not everyone has to be your best friend but with a bit of effort you can get along with most people. Besides, nobody wins in hate wars. All that negative energy flies back in your face.

Which is not to say there aren’t people I dislike. Whether by instinct or in reaction to their behaviour (often a combination of both). And sometimes in response to the sense that they simply don’t like me. Let’s face it – life is like that. There are people we just clash with.

Currently there are one or two clients I’m not fond of. Either because they treat me like the hired help (or at least a highly expendable resource to be called upon only when urgent need arises) or because I sense a certain entitlement in their behaviour. Those who think the world revolves around their problems get minimal support from me. Even when they are paying the bills.

Some years ago when I worked in the corporate world, I learned the hard way the truth in the saying, ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer’. A person on our team was proving not to be an ally and, frankly, I didn’t particularly like her. But when it came down to it, we had to work together and so I pushed up my positive energy in order to play nice. Wonder of wonders, we did become friends of sorts. Not in any permanent or deep way; we were too different for that. But I learned a lot about the value in making a connection with someone who is your poles-apart opposite. And having her onside made all the difference in the project we worked on. We still keep in touch.

As for ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’ the words of the song took on their own meaning for me. As I disliked Gainsbourg and the song, I took them to mean ‘I don’t like you either’. But what they actually mean is ‘I love you me neither’. Which makes little sense to poor literal old me but to the French is a subtle statement about the impossibility of love. All against a backdrop of erotic innuendo. Go figure.

How do you handle people you don’t like? Avoid, ignore, befriend?

Un franchouillard

He said it himself: Je suis un franchouillard. A derogatory term for an ‘average’ French person, that midde-class ‘Français moyen’ with all its preconceptions. Yet there was nothing average about Bernard Tapie. His death this week after a long battle with cancer was perhaps the only average thing he ever did.

Yet even that was exceptional. Tapie’s friends, from the world of entertainment and sport, politicians and media personalities, united in saying that he was a fighter, one who never gave up. Until the end he was climbing stairs to stay fit. Even when cancer turned his voice into a whisper, he was outspoken about his battle with the disease. And when he and his wife were victims of a brutal break-in to their Paris home earlier this year, he hid nothing of their shock and the injuries suffered in the attack.

It was shocking to see this once-powerful man reduced to an obviously feeble state. He showed humility but no shame, and I admired him for that.

The Paris-born Tapie was loved and hated by the French in equal measures. The son of a working-class family, in the 1980s he became the symbol of the successful businessman, le self-made man. He made his fortune buying up failing companies, the most famous of which was Adidas, and turning them around. He also owned sports teams like L’Olympique de Marseille (OM). (As an aside, I know nothing of football beyond how important it to those that follow it. Living in provincial France, you were either a fan of L’OM or L’OL, Lyon’s team.)

But Bernard Tapie was much more than a businessman. He was also a politician. Some have called him a French Trump, although I think he had more integrity. But here’s the twist: he ran as a socialist. Possibly nowhere but in France would a figurehead of the free market stand for a party on the left. Yet this is what happened when Tapie became a protegé of President François Mitterand and a deputy in the Bouches-du-Rhône department. A firm opponent of the far-right Front National, Tapie went head to head with party leader Jean Marie Le Pen on a televised debate over immigration.

This was in 1989, after we were married but still living in Canada, so I followed from afar. But I came to understand that it was groundbreaking. Why? At the time, the main political parties did not believe that the FN should be given a voice on national television. But Tapie argued that someone had to stand up to Le Pen and call him out on his lies publicly.

He later became a government minister but his political career ended early when his legal woes began, mostly over the fraud around the sale of Adidas by Credit Lyonnais. The complexities are beyond this post but the case dragged over for 26 years and court appeals were still ongoing at the time of his death.

What I find most intriguing about Tapie was his resilience. After going bankrupt, being ineligible for politics and banned from football, he returned to his first love: the arts.

Bernard Tapie began his career as a singer, but despite his obvious talent (and changing his name to ‘Tapy’) it was not to be. Yet he never gave up on his artistic ambitions completely. He continued to make singing and acting appearances throughout his career, also hosting TV programs. He later took to the stage, performing notably in the French version of the play, ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’.

The news of Bernard Tapie’s death this week at the age of 78 came as a shock. Somehow it seemed he would survive his battle against cancer, like so many others he had won. He was larger-than-life. An upstart, a renegade, one who reached great heights and lost it all. He was completely original; you couldn’t make him up. You could love him or hate him but you couldn’t be indifferent. And that, perhaps, is what made him quintessentially French.

Salut Bernard.

Last Legs: A Tragedy Of Pants

Happy to share a new adventure in blogging for me. This is my first post as a contributor to Little Old Lady (LOL) Comedy. What do you think? Do your pants ever take you to task?

Little Old Lady Comedy

They hang there, in dim reproach. Untouched, unloved, unwanted. How long has it been? A year at least, maybe more. Marie Kondo would not approve.

How I used to love those pants. I reach out a hand, lift their empty legs and run my fingers along their length. They were everything I wanted in a partner: a shade of not-quite-black that took me where I needed to go, an easy-care fabric — some miracle of synthetics with a lovely, fluid drop. Their cut was pure magic: tummy-flattening, leg-elongating. How gently they hugged my buttocks, how lovingly they caressed my thighs, celebrating their shape without revealing too much. Always with that tiny, forgiving bit of stretch.

We were good together, those pants and me. They made me feel somehow better than myself. They gave me confidence, got me through long days at work, dinners out and weekends away. They worked as hard as…

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Where are you from?

It’s a simple question.

People live in different places but they are usually from somewhere. A hometown or a country or a continent. Recently, on holiday in Germany, I realized that I’m not sure how to answer it anymore. Because here’s the funny thing: where you’re from changes.

And sometimes there is no short answer.

I always used to say I was from Toronto. I was born there and for most of my life considered myself to be ‘from’ that city. It was mostly where I grew up, came of age, fell in and out of love.

For a brief while, I was less sure about where I was from. Our family moved from Ontario to Minnesota when I was a young teen. To American Midwesterners, it seemed I had a British accent. And what was so funny about the way I said ‘about’? To them it sounded like ‘aboot’. When we moved back to Toronto five years later, I was reproached by my teachers for using words and expressions that sounded ‘American’.

Now I feel a bit too disconnected from life in North America to say I’m ‘from’ there anymore.

When I first met my husband and got married in France, the answer was a no-brainer: I was from English-speaking Canada. Otherwise, it begged the question: Vous êtes Canadienne? But you must speak French! And where’s that Céline Dion accent? I became used to explaining that French is mostly spoken in Québec and a few pockets of other Canadian provinces. Yet the French people I met would shake their heads in wonder, secretly believing that I spoke more of their tongue than I admitted. I wasted no time in learning the language and proving them right.

Living in France, the question of where I was from rarely came up. The French only ask you where you’re from if they know you well enough to ask you personal questions. Because your personal life is, well, your business. And if they’re going to ask, they will use neutral language: Vous êtes originaire de quel pays? (What country are you originally from?)

In Switzerland, people don’t often ask where you’re from either, at least outside of Geneva. They just get on with the business of communicating with each other. The fact that Switzerland, like Canada, is a country home to people from many different places means that more often than not, more than one language is involved. Language isn’t much of a barrier here. You just work with whatever words you have until sufficient understanding is achieved to get things done.

It’s been awhile since anyone asked me where I’m from. Perhaps because, like most of the world, I haven’t traveled much in the past year and a half. And in the meantime I moved, changing home from one adopted country to another.

On holiday in Germany last month, the question came up several times. And now that I live in German-speaking Switzerland, I found myself stumbling to answer.

I finally landed on this: I’m from France but I live in Switzerland.

Which prompted: Ah, but you’re English speaking?

Yes. Originally from Canada but I lived in France for nearly 30 years.

People in northern Germany, especially the younger generation, seem to readily speak English as soon as they realize you don’t speak their language. They even apologize for their ‘poor’ English (which I rush to compliment while excusing my own lack of native lingo).

I also realized that I love it when people ask outright where I’m from. It doesn’t feel rude or resentful or prompted by anything but honest curiosity. It makes me feel more at home.

But it also makes me realize that I really don’t know the answer, which seems kind of sad. Not that it really matters. We are from wherever we are right now. At least for those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the privilege.

And right now, I’m happy right here.

Where are you from?