Les feux de l’amour

Long before Netflix was born, way before digital came to town, years before anyone watched TV on their computer, a woman moved to Lyon, France, and found herself rather alone.

She turned on the TV for company and discovered six channels, all of them in French. Mostly offering news and information shows in prime time and talk shows or ancient American reruns during the day or late evening. Very occasionally, the artsy channel would run an old English-language movie in the original version with French subtitles. Usually after she had gone to bed.

One day, when the time had come to put her feet up in the afternoons, she turned on the TV just after the lunchtime news and discovered something vaguely familiar. A soap opera. Not one she had ever watched herself but had seen in other people’s living rooms. The characters appeared quite modern and, although they spoke French, their words sounded familiar. She had stumbled upon the longest-running French soap opera: Les Feux de l’Amour. It didn’t take long to figure out that ‘the fires of love’ was in fact ‘The Young and the Restless,” dubbed into French and several seasons behind the US original.

The woman, becoming gross with child, found herself tuning in every afternoon to this feuilleton, as she learned the French call serialized programs. She grew familiar with the doings of the Newman family and learned all kinds of new expressions in her adopted tongue for the sneaky behaviour of Victor, Nikki and Jack: “Que’est-ce tu manigances?” meaning: What are you up to? (or more precisely: what are you scheming/plotting?) “Où voulez-vous en venir?” (What are you saying/suggesting?)

For a few years the woman watched the show whenever the children were napping. It wasn’t very good but it was a connection to home. And after awhile, she was able to read the lips of the actors under the dubbing and figure out what they were actually saying. Her French improved by leaps and bounds from all this unconscious translating.

She became so used to the French voices that once, when she was visiting her family in Canada, she came across the Y&R in English and thought it sounded very strange indeed.

Then one day in France they got cable. And a wonderful thing happened: they had the BBC. The woman discovered a nighttime soap, one that felt refreshingly real after all those perfectly coiffed Americans. It took place in the east end of London, set around a pub called the Queen Vic in a place called Albert Square. The woman took to EastEnders like a duck to water. Her TV family had relocated to London from midwest America. She was home.

For many years, whenever the woman’s husband and children heard the strains of the show’s theme song, they relaxed a little. They knew that for the next half hour, peace would reign over the household. And the woman knew that no matter what else happened in her life, that every Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day there would be drama in Albert Square. And so it was.

The woman forgot all about the other show, the one that had saved her from homesickness in those early days. Until just the other day, when she opened her window in the early afternoon and heard familiar music playing at the neighbour’s house. Les feux de l’amour. It brought back many memories, of her early days in France, of feeling relaxed and coming home. And she was happy.

Do you watch any soaps? What’s your favourite TV show?

Histoires d’amour

Love stories are both universal and intriguing. Irrespective of age or gender, culture or nationality, whatever alchemy makes people fall in love with each other is a mystery. And it is a beautiful one at that.

What puzzles me more, and is a question I’ve been thinking about lately, is what makes people stay together. Once that first spark fades, some couples endure, others split. There are shared values, of course, and commitments both contractual and emotional. There are financial interests. There is sexual attraction, intellectual companionship and compatibility on so many levels. Still, it is a long haul. For better or for worse.

The idea of divorce, of breaking something that has been built together over a lifetime or even a number of years, is brutal. And yet it is something that happens roughly 46% of the time in France, a figure similar to that of other countries. Which means that those who do stay together must have their reasons. Just as those who split must suffer terrible pain.

What is the glue that attracts and then holds people together? Perhaps it is some combination of complementarity in character and need that each fulfills in the other.

The love story of Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron should never have happened. Or if it happened, by all rights it should have ended when he left the high school in Amiens where she was his French and drama teacher.

Their 24-year age gap is beyond what most people can fathom and certainly what most parents can accept. Apparently Emmanuel’s parents at first objected strenuously to the relationship. They could have had Brigitte fired, even jailed. He was 15, she 39. When it became apparent that it was happening, against all reason, they accepted Brigitte. In 2006, she left the husband with whom she had born and raised three children, then married Emmanuel the following year.

Shortly after her husband turned 40 as France’s youngest-ever President, Brigitte celebrated her 65th birthday in April. Truth is surely stranger than fiction.

Lately I’ve been watching two wonderful BBC dramas about love and divorce.

The first is The Split, a dramedy about a family of female divorce lawyers with their own relationship issues. Right up my alley. And with outstanding performances from the ensemble cast led by Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan. Here’s the scoop on the production from screenwriter Abi Morgan.

The other is A Very English Scandal, directed by Stephen Frears, in which Hugh Grant memorably portrays Jeremy Thorpe. Thorpe was a British politician and leader of the Liberal Party who became involved in a homosexual scandal in the late 1970s. Norman Scott, his young lover, is played by Ben Whishaw, whose performance I found even more gripping than Grant’s. The mystery here is the love story between the two men. Despite the fact that his mentor tries to have him murdered, and the scorned lover attempts to bring down the older politician in a biting yet hilarious courtroom drama, the glances between the two men reveal a very real and enduring love.

What is this thing called love? And why are we forever fascinated by it? There is something about the unlikely pairing of people that captures our imaginations and tickles our romantic hearts. Who more so than Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg?

It is perhaps no great mystery why, when a young Frenchman walked into a bar in Toronto back in 1985, this woman eight years older went home with him. What I still haven’t figured out is how we managed to bridge the gap of distance, language and culture, get married and remain together all these years.

But I’m so glad we did.

What’s your favourite love — or divorce — story?

Hôtel Dieu

Its imposing presence along the Rhône stretches several city blocks, a UNESCO heritage site and a landmark in the city of Lyon. How often I used to admire that golden façade, the sun glinting off its domes as I walked across the river from our home on the Part-Dieu side of the city. When I learned that my OB-GYN had her practice within its walls, I was thrilled. Now I would have a reason to go inside and discover the magic of this grand old lady of a hospital.

There the romance ended and the realities of dealing with a hospital within a historic monument became rather like most of my encounters with French life. It started with a little game I call ‘find the entrance’ that I’ve blogged about before.

And then there was the name: God’s hotel? Not being a pious type, I put my faith in medical science, or at least the capable hands of the midwives, to steer me safely through pregnancy and childbirth.

On that count it was a safe bet. The building was ancient, its origins dating to the 11th century. But the hospital itself was run by the Hospices Civils de Lyon, a solid medical institution that manages several other establishments in the greater Lyon area. Once you got inside its walls, a modernized inner shell, there was little connection to the historic past of the building. Still, the limitations of the physical setting made it less than luxurious in terms of practical things like stairways and elevators.

As often happens in this fair land, I was continually confused about where to go, frequently transiting dark corridors with abandoned gurneys that made me think of the morgue. When I did figure out where I was headed, it felt like navigating an obstacle course to get there: down one floor to check in for my appointment, up another to the doctor’s secretary, to still another for a scan.

A few months into my second pregnancy, when every extra step seemed to take its toll on my body, I broke down on my rule of avoiding the elevator. I remember one terrified moment on that contraption, one of the jerky type I fear most, when the lights went out and it heaved to a stop between floors. Thankfully the presence of other less panicky souls prevented me from giving birth there and then, until someone came and helped us out.

The big day came 25 years ago this week. I forgave the old building all of its quirks and inconveniences when my when my daughter made her first appearance in this world – pink and in perfect health. Happy birthday, Madeline!

For close to twenty years after, I returned each year to Hôtel Dieu for my annual checkup with Dr. Champion, a wonderful name for a baby doctor if there ever was one. Little ever changed. A few coats of paint, a few more grey hairs, and still, each year, the same confusion about where to go. Until one day it all changed: the hospital was closing. It moved to a somewhat soulless suburb east of the city called Bron. Rebaptised as the Hopital Mère Enfant, Mother and Child Hospital, it surely operates with more well-oiled efficiency than it could in that historic location.

Grand’ Hôtel Dieu‘ was recently reborn as a luxury hotel and shopping complex in the heart of Lyon. The official inauguration took place a month ago.

It’s sad on some level that a temple to gastronomy and luxury should be built on a site where so many deeply human stories played out. Some of the work is still ongoing until next year. Time will tell if they are able to pay fair homage to the spirit of generosity that reigned there.

I haven’t been back yet, but I intend to. If I can find the way in.

Have you ever been to a hospital in France?

 

 

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?