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?

Bas les masques

The masks are starting to come off and guess what? It’s not pretty.

As confinement in the EU lifts despite ongoing concern about the Delta variant, restrictions are softening. It’s a tricky question as to whether this is too early or not. Vaccination is moving ahead but there are still many recalcitrants. I don’t have figures for Switzerland, although I know a couple of people in my own entourage who are very shy of the shot, but in general the numbers are not reassuring.

In France it seems fewer than half of those who work in care homes — yes, care homes, aka EPHADs, which house the elderly and vulnerable — have so far been vaccinated against Covid-19. Medical personnel appear to be among the greatest vaccine sceptics, especially the nursing staff.

Should vaccines be mandatory for all those who work in medical and care capacities? This is so basic that I just don’t get how it’s even a debate. Yet it’s far from the case and a subject of some controversy at least in France, land of libérté. But what about égalité and fraternité? I am a firm believer in the rule that individual freedom stops where it impinges on the right of others to live. So I vote yes for obligatory vaccination in the case of anyone whose job demands contact with the public. No one should have to get a vaccine if they choose not to, but in this case they should stay home to protect themselves as well as others.

I went to an indoor setting for the first time this week sans masque, and it felt strange indeed. Health clubs are now allowed to function without face coverings in Switzerland, and frankly after sweating my face off on the elliptical for the past few weeks, it was a relief to be able to breathe properly while exercising. But it still seemed a little risky entering a confined space with no protection, and I wonder if everybody else felt that way.

It seems the masks are off in more than one sense. People are once again revealing themselves and their beliefs. Rebels, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, those who don’t believe science or the media or anyone at all. People who think a Covid shot contains something that will make them magnetic.

Some people, I’m certain, have simply gotten quite comfortable hiding behind their masks. As odd as it felt to first wear a mask in public, I think a lot of people now feel a little naked without one. And some, according to my daughter, have become quite adept at making faces behind them.

How do you feel about wearing a mask?

Vu

When my kids were young and went to school in France, they would regularly submit for inspection a little book called ‘cahier de correspondance’ or ‘carnet de liaison’.

This method is a pillar of the French educational system. From the time they learn to write, this ‘cahier’ or notebook is the official mode of communication between teacher and parents (although it may now be going digital).

The child is the official channel through which all communication passes. In the earliest years, the children might even be made to copy down the teacher’s instructions for the parents as part of their school work; later, the cahier becomes a record of assignments, grades and other, often important information, sometimes even disciplinary notes from teacher to parent, hand-written, glued in or free-floating paper. It is up to the student to show the book to their parents, or other responsible individual, and sometimes obtain a signature on either end to prove that the information has been seen or ‘vu’.

“Vu,” I would duly write on my children’s cahiers, to prove that I was aware that class would end early on such-and-such a date, or that an event would take place to which parents were invited (a rarity in French schools). Or that my son had been caught playing a video game in class (GTA, hardly an appropriate theme, noted the prof) and would I be so kind as to ensure the offending Gameboy was not brought to school in future?

Naughty Maxence stuck his tube of glue up his neighbour’s nose.

Oddly enough, our budding delinquent grew up to become a teacher himself. May he inflict similar irony on the parents of his own students.

One might think this mode of communication would be highly subject to error, accidental loss or pages mysteriously vanishing. Oddly, it’s not. French kids only have to suffer the wrath of teachers and parents who have not been shown vital information once or twice to learn the lesson. And parents are quickly trained to ask their children if there’s anything to be ‘seen’ in the cahier early on the weekend, rather than to discover only late on Sunday that a special assignment must be completed for Monday morning.

I ‘saw’ many funny things during those years. Somewhere in a memory box, I have kept these precious records of my children’s school careers. And one day, I promise myself, I will dig them out and have a laugh, and probably a cry, as I remember some of the ‘perles’ (pearls) from those days.

‘Vu’ is also the name of a popular brand of wipes for cleaning eyeglasses. This TV commercial and the oft-heard phrase, ‘Vu, ah, j’avais pas vu!” was part of our family lexicon for years.

I still keep some on hand. You never know when your glasses will fog up.

What have you ‘seen’ lately?