Grand corps malade

Fabien grew up in Seine-Saint Denis, an ill-famed area north of Paris known to all as ‘le neuf trois’, for the number of the French department – 93. He was going to be a professional basketball player, until a dive into a shallow pool left him paralyzed. He was told he would never walk again.

Instead, he became Grand Corps Malade (translation: Big Sick Body), a slam poet. He came to fame in France in 2006 with an album called Midi 20 (Twenty past twelve). I remember listening to it on the radio on the way back home from work. My kids liked him, and I was intrigued. When I saw that he had written a book, Patients, a memoir of his time in the hospital and rehab after the accident, I picked it up.

I don’t often read in French. I wanted to see whether I could read an entire book and enjoy it, maybe even improve my comprehension of the written language. I had spoken for French 20 years but never studied or even read its literature.

I was immediately captivated by Fabien’s voice, and the story he told without sentimentality. The little frustrations: not being able to change the channel on TV, or scratch an itchy eyebrow. It was a simple story about character, and people, and kindness and courage. I was struck by the cast of so-very-French characters who helped him climb out of the paralysis in which he was locked.

Now, he walks with a cane and a bit of a limp. Very tall, very deep-voiced, he is a man with an extraordinary regard, one that is frank and full of humour. And his story is now a film, that he produced and co-directed with the filmmaker Mehdi Idir.

I spent a couple of weeks in the hospital once, a few years ago. The dual meaning of the word ‘Patients’ was brought home to me. Never my strong point, patience, and I probably got better and went home quicker simply to avoid having to be a patient for any longer than I had to.

It’s been ages since I went to see a film at the cinema but I can’t wait to go and see Patients.

Et toi? Have you seen any good movies lately?

La chorale

I’ve always loved to sing.

When I was a kid I gave some memorable performances in the school choir. My rendition of Eliza Doolittle singing ‘Wouldn’t it be loverly?’ in junior high school is fondly remembered by a few people who are still kind enough to be my friends. Later, I got a guitar and crashed out chords while attempting to sing like my heros Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian and Carole King.

Then, life happened. I stopped singing, except to my kids, in the car and in the shower. Sometimes I’ll belt out a few bars along with Adele as I exercise. It is cathartic, if nothing else.

With the French hit film, ‘Les Choristes’, in 2004, I made a surprising discovery: France has a huge number of choirs. Virtually every tiny town has one or more chorales. Who knew? I decided to join the local choir in our village for fun.

Soucieu-en-Jarrest is famous among a few thousand people for a couple of things. One is ‘la pèche-de-vigne’, the vine peach with its distinctive red flesh whose picking is fêted in the village on the first Sunday of September each year. Another is its organ. The choir was closely associated with the church and at Christmas and Easter we sang hymns and religious dirges accompanied by the powerful strains of that organ.

It was a long way from Eliza Doolittle and Carole King to church organ music. But I didn’t care – the choir was a chance to raise my voice, too long silent, in harmony with others.

I loved the fact that the choir brought together young and old, paysans and professionals, in a shared love of music. And although I was an outsider, who spoke sometimes fractured French, I was quickly taken into its fold. They were a wonderful group of people who were friendly and welcoming.

Life intervened again and I had to quit the choir. We moved away from the Lyonnais to the Haute Savoie, and finally last year I began looking for a choir to join here. This time, I vowed, not a church choir but something a bit more modern. I found one in a neighbourhing town, but its rehearsals were too late in the evening for early-bird me. So I found another, an English-speaking choral group in Geneva. We’ve just started practicing for the Christmas concert to be held in Nyon. The program is a mix of French hymns and English carols and I am quite excited to be part of it.

The best thing about being in an English-speaking choir for me is that they refer to the notes in a way I can understand. Regretfully I never learned the French ‘solfège’ – sight-singing – and can never think of the notes as anything but C or F-sharp rather than ‘Do’ or ‘Fa dièse’. What’s worse, our ‘do-re-mi’ is slightly different, with the French singing ‘si’ instead of ‘ti’. The part of my brain that learned to sing must be closely associated with the part that is responsible for numbers. No matter how long I have spoken French, these functions are hard wired to English.

Et vous? Ever belonged to a choir? Do you sing in the shower?

Foie gras

A very famous Canadian has been making headlines in France this week. Pamela Anderson, ex-‘BabeWatch’ star and future Brigitte Bardot, has brought the sad plight of the geese and ducks of southwest France to the attention of l’Assemblée Nationale.

Some wag on a talk show joked that it was the first time in the history of parliament that all of its members showed up.

I first heard about le foie gras from my then-future husband, who regaled me with tales of his best-loved French foods. It came just after oysters and raw-milk cheese. I reacted like a typical North American.

“Fwah grah? What’s that?” I asked, making a face. “Fat liver?” He explained that duck or goose liver – paté as we English speakers insist on calling it – was considered a fine delicacy in France. “But don’t they force feed the geese?” He shrugged, muttering something about gastronomic tradition.

When it came time to taste my first foie gras, at table with his parents during a fancy dinner, I did so with a relatively open mind. By then I had experienced enough good French food to trust them when they said something was good. As tastes and textures went, it wasn’t bad. In fact, I developed a minor appreciation for the stuff, accompanied by toasted brioche and a sweeter white wine.

You cannot live in France without making certain value adjustments. Over the years my attitude on many subjects has adapted, from the time I first ate rabbit to raw meat and runny cheese. When it comes to foie gras I am on the fence.

Eating meat of any kind for me requires a sliding moral scale. I am opposed to cruelty in general and the factory farming of animals horrifies me. I shudder when I see the way our poor pigs are transported to slaughter, and at the thought of chickens in cages or of any animal that doesn’t see the light of day. When you look at the traditional production of foie gras, is it any more cruel than those practices?

Our daughter, who is studying to become a veterinarian, gave us a bit of a tongue lashing for serving foie gras over the holidays. So I think we will be giving it a miss in the future. And to be honest, it will be no great sacrifice. In fact, if I may make a small confession, one that will forever brand me as being decidedly un-French, I find myself increasingly enjoying the pleasures of a more plant-based diet. I still eat meat, along with cheese and eggs, but not as often and in smaller quantities.

The French mostly turn a deaf ear to the pleas of animal rights activists. They are more concerned about cultural traditions, gastronomy and jobs. This is not a particularly vegetarian-friendly culture, although the variety and quality of locally sourced fresh produce makes it entirely possible to pursue such choices here.

Foie gras is a delicacy that I can quite happily live without. I think my own foie will thank me. Not to mention a few hundred ducks.

What about you? Do you eat foie gras or consider it off limits?

Comedy drama queen

loloI can see myself in the not-too-distant future, reminiscing to the youngsters about the old days. How exciting it was, I will tell them, pretending not to notice as their eyes glaze over, to go and see the latest picture on the big screen, in technicolor no less! I will explain about the projectionist in his booth, the hot anticipation in the hushed movie theatre as we crinkled candy wrappers and munched popcorn. No doubt it will be as meaningful to them as looking up information in the library or making a call from a phone booth.

Perhaps they’ll pay attention when I tell them about the first time I went to see a movie in Paris. About how the screen was so small, the tickets so expensive and they had no popcorn but ice cream. Before the film started we checked under the seats for bombs.

In France, of course, we don’t have movies, we have cinéma. I am no fan of the French film; life is too short to be taken that seriously. I do enjoy a certain genre of popular comedy that the French do very well. The one that has inspired this post is the latest release from the French actress and cinematographer I admire most: Julie Delpy.

Delpy’s combination of acerbic wit and character-driven comedy drama is just my cup of cappuccino. She is best known for the trilogy of films directed by Richard Linklater – Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight – in which she co-starred with Ethan Hawke, as well as 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York. Delpy is often compared to Woody Allen. Her writing and direction is as good but her characters less annoyingly neurotic.

I love how she navigates so naturally in that space between romanticized ideals and real life. She is a queen of the fast-paced repartée. Her ability to do this equally well in English and French has my total admiration.

‘Lolo’ is her latest film and first attempt to seduce a mainstream French audience. It is about a single mother’s attempt to find romance against the odds of her sociopath adult son. The reviews have been mixed but given the bande d’annonce (trailer in English), I will be making the effort to go out and see it at the movie theatre. One day soon I’ll tell my grandchildren all about it.

Do you still go to the cinema? What’s your fondest memory of the movies?

Faire son cinéma

Sophie Marceau wardrobe dysfunction
Sophie Marceau’s ‘slip up’

To dramatize, to ham it up, to make a scene: however you translate the French expression ‘faire son cinéma’, it’s happening at the moment in Cannes.

This is one of the rare French expressions that you can actually say in more than one way: faire son cinema, faire du cinéma, faire tout un cinéma…they all mean the same thing. And the French are masters of the art.

It happens every year at this time when the Cannes film festival kicks off for ten days of glamour and glitz. Drama queen moments abound during the festival when the stars hit the red carpet on the steps or ‘la montée des marches’ of the Palais des Festivals.

Mostly they do a better job of going up the steps than François Hollande did on his recent trip to Haiti (he literally hit the red carpet). The French president is known to be a bit of a klutz and he certainly proved it here:

This year in Cannes Sophie Marceau’s underwear ‘slip up’ hit something of a false note. Since revealing her boob to all and sundry on the red carpet a few years ago, she has lost all credibility with the wardrobe malfunction. How desperate for attention can you get?

What really has the croisette buzzing this year is ‘Shoegate,’ sparked by the organizers’ refusal to let women wearing flat shoes go up the highly photographed steps to the première of the film Carol starring Cate Blanchett. There is a strict black-tie dress code in Cannes but festival organizers have formally denied that there is a ‘high-heels only’ policy. It wouldn’t surprise me. Heels are absolutely de rigueur for French women. As someone who makes it a policy to exclusively wear flats, I won’t be likely to get my red carpet moment.

It’s all the more ironic given that this year’s festival is supposedly dedicated to la femme. 

Here are some of my favorite pics from Cannes this year (I have such a crush on Gabriel Byrne!)

Do you have a favorite red carpet moment – in Cannes or elsewhere?