Emmenez-moi

My mother loved Charles Aznavour. She had a soft spot for small men with big voices and a story to sing. The French-Armenian crooner did it with heart and soul.

When I saw him on TV last Friday night – 94 years of age and promoting his next concert tour – I thought: Wow. Imagine seeing him live in concert? So the next morning I went online and booked tickets for a concert to take place in Zurich just a few days before Christmas.

But then a strange thing happened. I realized once the credit card information had been entered, and the fees doubled the face value of the tickets, that I’d been had. Fooled by a very slick website that is nothing more than legalized scalpers. By then it was too late to get out of the transaction. So I spent quite a bit of time over the weekend (closing the barn door after the horse has bolted) researching a company called Viagogo.

Turns out I should have done that first (Yes, I found myself thinking, but hey, this guy is old. Surely I could be forgiven for wanting to hurry up and book while he was still around?). It seems that Viagogo is in legally murky waters all over the world as various governments from France to Australia have asked them to make their transactions more transparent (I’m not the only one who was fooled into paying twice the price). Ed Sheeran ran afoul of them when his promoter refused to honour concert tickets sold through Viagogo.

What made matters worse was that I then discovered the concert date in Zurich had already been cancelled. I contacted the promoters, the venue, various ticket sellers and read several articles online: they all seemed to agree that the date was cancelled. So why was Viagogo still selling tickets? When I contacted them, the company claimed the concert date was still valid. In the meantime, I lodged a complaint with Google over its misleading ad.

All of this became nothing more than a sad joke when the news came on Monday afternoon that Charles Aznavour had passed away. I could hardly believe it, texting my husband, who, with typical dark humour replied that at least we could now be sure the concert was cancelled.

Sudden death from a heart attack at 94 can hardly be considered surprising. And yet…he struck me as someone who was not done with life. He had even pledged to celebrate his 100th birthday on stage. During his final appearance on the talk show C à vous, Aznavour talked about his need to perform. On stage, he said, was where he felt most alive.

The stage had been Aznavour’s home ever since he first came to fame in 1946. A protegé of Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour had a special talent for bringing stories to life in song, that very particular sung-spoken style of la chanson française.

But he wasn’t just a consummate performer. He was also a talented songwriter who wrote or contributed to over 1,000 songs. I was amazed to discover that he wrote the song, ‘Yesterday when I was young’, Hier Encore in French.

Funnily enough, he said that his favourite song was La Boheme, one of the few whose music he did not compose.

Such talent. So many memories. It has been an emotional ride.

This one’s for you, Mom. Et pour toi, Nicole!

Muet

‘Tis better to be a vowel than a consonant if you want to be heard en français.

In French, while the likes of r’s, s’s and t’s are often silent, every vowel is given a voice. Thus the word for mute – muet – is pronounced ‘mew-ay’.

Two voices that defined French culture have gone silent this week. The news arrived as death often does: seemingly out of nowhere, then one after another.

First was Jean d’Ormesson. The 92-year-old ‘immortel’, as members of the Académie Française are known, was a larger-than-life character and a bon vivant among the aged and wise members of that illustrious body responsible for governing the French language. This France 3 clip (in French for those who understand enough to enjoy it) is a portrait of the man in all his wit and personality.

Yesterday morning broke the news that we would no longer hear the voice of Johnny Hallyday, notre Johnny national, icon of French rock music and a personality as deeply engrained in the culture as les frites (not a bad analogy as Jean-Philippe Smet was born to a Belgian father). He was ‘only’ 74, far too young these days even for one who has led as wild a life as Johnny.

When I first came to France I scoffed at this so-called rock star, seemingly a throw-back to an outdated notion of rock and roll, more Chuck Berry than French Elvis as he is often dubbed abroad. Yet I came to appreciate Johnny’s fine voice, honed to a richness that somehow transcended time, and his unstoppable stage presence. Here is a clip of how he set the Eiffel Tower on fire (Le feu) back in 2000.

By the way, while no one will ever replace our Johnny, my application for a place on the Académie Française still stands.

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?