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?

Accent on the you

I’ve always been a sucker for an accent. My ear contorts with delight to tune in the voices of people who hail from places near or far, New York to New Zealand. Do I detect a bit of the brogue or a southern drawl?  A midwestern twang or an Irish lilt? Speaking with an accent can make even the most mundane locales sound exotic – and the speaker sound fascinating, sophisticated or just plain fun.

But accents can be a delicate matter. North Americans will always ask you where you’re from but I have learned that on this side of the pond it’s not always so polite.

For Brits, your accent speaks volumes about your social class and what kind of education you received. In France, an accent from various parts north and south is peu recommendable (hardly a character reference).

Lots of people I know think they don’t have any accent. These are mostly people who’ve never left home. The fact is, everyone has an accent. Even we Canadians, such polite, diplomatic and otherwise non-descript types, are teased when we’re ‘out’ and ‘about’…

Anyone who learns to speak a foreign language as an adult will have a telltale accent in their adopted tongue. French natives who speak English generally give themselves away when the first few words leave their mouth (or is that mouse?). By a ‘r-r-r’ that catches in the back of their throats or a misplaced ‘h’ (‘ow hare you?).

But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as a French accent in English can be charming (at least when you decipher what they’re saying), similarly an English accent in French is considered as sweet, sexy, even smart.

I remember watching the classic French film ‘Breathless’ (‘A bout de souffle’), with the late American actress Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo. It was probably the first time I understood enough French to be able to follow a film on television – and I was fascinated by the way she spoke French so fluently yet with such a strong English accent (and by her gamine style.)

And then there’s Jane Birkin. Possibly France’s most famous adopted Brit, she was married to Serge Gainsbourg and is the mother of actress Charlotte Gainsbourg and singer Lou Doillon, Yet after decades in this country she retains an inability to pronounce a French ‘r’ and still says things like le chaise. As much as I like what she stands for, her French makes me cringe.

My own accent in French is fairly subtle now. It was not always so. It took years to be able to properly articulate vowel sounds like the ‘ou’ in ‘rouge’ vs the ‘u’ in ‘tu’. I was utterly mystified by subtle differences like the ‘é’ in élégant vs the ‘è’ in règlement. They sounded just the same to my unschooled ear.

The only time I was completely stymied by an accent, though, was when attempting to speak French with a fellow Canadian. A French Canadian, that is, who upon discovering we both hailed from the great white North began regaling me with an anti-French diatribe unlike anything I’d ever heard. The problem was I barely understood half of what she was saying.

Them Canucks sure talk French funny.

What about you? What does your accent say about who you are and where you come from?

Teaching the French to speak ‘touriste’

Speak TouristeIt seems that someone in the city of Paris has decided it’s time to teach the French to speak a new language.

With 83 million international visitors in 2012, you might think they’d already know something about speaking ‘touriste’. But if France is the world’s most-visited country, it is despite rather than because of the French.

I remember sitting with my husband in an almost-empty restaurant in Paris a few years back when an American couple arrived. The maître-d’hotel tried to sit them at a table near the back; they very nicely but assertively asked for a table by the window. He refused on the basis that they had no reservation and that those tables were booked. The couple got up and left. The pompous fellow shook his head and made a disparaging comment to us, apparently assuming we were both French and shared his view of les touristes.

Those Basil Fawlty moments are all too frequent in France. Which is likely the reason why the Chamber of Commerce and Industry for Paris and the ‘Ile-de-France’ (the so-called ‘island of France’ area that includes Paris and Versailles) has taken on the daunting task of teaching the French to speak the language of their visitors.

They’ve actually created a website, and published a brochure outlining the expectations of visitors from ten top countries, along with cultural dos and don’ts. Seems that Americans are looking for full service, Brits want insider advice, Germans seek consistency and the Chinese want to know where to find the best shopping de luxe.

There’s nothing on Canadians (or Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans), possibly because we’re too few and far between. Anyway, we probably look for the same things as our British and American cousins – perhaps with an added dose of humility and humor.

Rebranding Paris as a tourist-friendly place will take some doing. The ‘Speak Touriste’ campaign is a good start but in my view does not address the basic issues that are such a turnoff for international visitors.

Here’s my top-5 list of pet peeves:

       Closed encounters: Tourists do not expect to come to France to find its most famous attractions closed. Whether this is due to strikes, weekly closures or public holidays, if you are unable to visit the Eiffel Tower on that once-in-a-lifetime trip to Paris, you will not forgive or forget. While Sunday shopping all over France is perhaps too much to ask for, museums and monuments in the capital should be open every day. Shops should manage to stay open at lunchtime. And any business that closes for a month of holidays in the height of tourist season should have their license revoked. Case in point: Berthillon, the City of Light’s most renowned ‘glacier’ (gourmet ice-cream parlor) closes for congés annuels during August.

       No garbage bins in sight:  It’s just not nice to take away all the garbage bins in public places, even in the name of safety and security during ‘Vigi-Pirate’ terror alerts. Either replace them with transparent bags like other cities do or hire extra maintenance people to keep the refuse in check. All those tourists don’t pay a ‘taxe de séjour’ for nothing!

       Lack of public toilets: Finding a clean, functioning public toilet in Paris can be like mission impossible. Which probably explains why every dark corner of the metro smells like a urinal. If there’s one thing that travelers need, it is bathrooms.

       Service without a smile: The lack of service mindset is evident all over France but is nowhere more evident than in tourist-dense Paris. Anyone whose job involves greeting the public should understand that customers are not an interruption – they are the top priority. And even though visitors know the French don’t smile all the time, would it hurt, every now and then, to crack a smile?

       No apologies: Even more of a rarity than a smile is an apology in France. If a customer orders something that is not available, or asks for something and isn’t satisfied, for whatever the reason, don’t add insult to injury – apologize instead. It is not an admission of guilt, but a form of politesse. One that acknowledges the old saying: the customer is always right.

Au revoir to the American dream

How Oprah had the French believing anything was possible, until a tire magnate gave the country a wake-up call

Oh, what a week it was here in the land of the Gauls!  It began with a little piece of media magic that can only happen in America. One of world’s richest women tweeted her love for a product of French design and shares of that company (Seb) skyrocketed.  Le coq gaulois, who has been rather quiet of late, began to crow again.

But later that week, the CEO of an American tire company sent a rather insulting letter to the French minister of industrial renewal. Arnaud Montebourg’s last-ditch attempt to find a buyer and stop the imminent closure of a former Goodyear tire plant backfired when the letter was leaked to a major daily and went viral. Titan’s CEO implied that French workers were lazy and you’d have to be plain stupid to invest in France.

“The French workforce gets paid high wages but works only three hours. They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three…They told me that’s the French way!”

It was a slap in the face. Une gifle.  And a sign that recent incidents of striking workers clashing with police, burning down factories and taking management hostage have permanently tarnished this country’s reputation at the international level.

The painful truth is that the French have not had much to crow about lately.  They’re lumbering under soaring debt, chronic unemployment and a Generation Y whose highest ambition is a government job. Many voters pinned their hopes for economic recovery on a return of the Socialist party (whose symbol is a rose) in last year’s elections. But with the deadly normal Monsieur Hollande at the helm and former presidential hopeful DSK as international ambassador for romance, the bloom is decidedly off la rose.

Not since last year when “The Artist” swept the Oscars have the French had a real moment of national pride. This year’s awards were a bit of a come down.  France handed out the César for best foreign film to “Argo” just a few days before the Oscars. Ben Affleck was not there to accept. Nor were most of the cast and crew of “Amour,” which won best film, as they were already on their way to Hollywood.  Second gifle.

Despite their love-hate relationship with the American culture, the French are closer to their outre-mer cousins than they like to admit. They are firmly convinced of their own superiority. They love a good show, and are envious of Hollywood’s ability to upstage them.  And somewhere, deep down, they want to believe in the dream.