Tout un fromage

Stinky cheeseThe French expression ‘en faire tout un fromage’ offers up one of those wonderful synchronicities of language. Translation: to raise a fuss about something or, more appropriately, to make a stink. Anyone who has ever experienced the smell of a ripe camembert will surely see the poetic justice in that. There is a reason the cheese stands alone.

Les fromages qui puent – the stinky cheeses – is how the French refer to themselves while poking fun at the Sylvester Stallone-inspired Americans on the political satire puppet program, Les Guignols de l’Info. They somehow make the mockery sound like a term of endearment.

No matter how you feel about raw-milk cheese, there is no denying its tendency to smell a bit strong. I remember being invited to my in-laws home for the first time, entering the kitchen and being assaulted by a waft of something that had died, or done its business. Upon seeing my alarmed expression, my fiancé was reassuring: “Don’t worry, it’s just the cheese.”

fromage-qui-pueWhen it came time to actually eat the stuff, I was surprised that the strong smell had mostly evaporated. Whether it was the wine we washed it down with – Bordeaux bien sûr – or the fact that our sense of smell had attenuated by then, I can’t say. What I will say, however, is that over the years I’ve eaten quite a few French cheeses and it’s not the ones that necessarily look or smell the worst that are the strongest tasting. Although I do point the finger at le camembert for being particularly putrid and prone to repeat. As a general rule, I avoid anything that wears an orange coat. Also I don’t eat the rind, no matter many times my husband and others will chide me by saying, “Mais c’est bon ça!”

As Charles de Gaulle himself once said: “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” In fact, le général rather underestimated his country’s cheese-making capacities – there are over 1,000. Some of my favorites are included in this list of 100 things to enjoy in France.

Suffice it to say that you need a strong stomach to live here. And you are well served by not having too delicate a sense of smell.

Here’s a video for French speakers (and worth watching even if you don’t speak the language of Molière) that answers the burning question: Which is the stinkiest cheese?

What’s your favorite cheese?

The world according to Les Guignols

Les Guignols de l'infoA great source of entertainment and education for non-natives in France is Les Guignols de l’info. These satirical French puppets have been parodying politics and ‘les people’, as the French call the famous, as long as I can remember. They’re part of the free viewing offer on French pay TV Canal Plus.

Every night at 20:00 (that’s 8 pm for you non-Europeans), the puppet known to all as PPD (pron: ‘pay-pay-day’, an abbreviation of the name Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, who used to be the real-life anchorman on the TF1 evening news), welcomes viewers with the line:

“Nous sommes en 2014, vous regardez l’ancêtre d’internet, bonsoir.”
(It’s 2014, you’re watching the ancestor of the internet, good evening).

He used to introduce the show with this line, forever engraved in the French pysche: “Vous regardez trop la télévision” (You watch too much TV). Mais il faut changer avec son temps, n’est-ce pas? Times change.

Ménage à troisNothing and no one is safe from the Guignols. Even the host of the Grand Journal, the evening news and entertainment show in which the puppets make their nightly appearance, has been the target of their biting commentary.

And every French president, from Chirac to Hollande, has been caricatured, poked fun at, openly criticized and even ridiculed. International figures like the Pope, the Queen, Osama Bin Laden have all made regular appearances. Often the more frightening their real-life personas, the most endearing are their puppets.

M. Sylvestre and PopeEvery American is portrayed as Sylvester Stallone. Sometimes there are multiple Stallones onscreen, explaining how they run the world to the French or ‘les fromages qui puent’ (stinky cheeses).

The Guignols have been going to town of late with two modern greats, both in the category I like to call ‘Oh how the mighty have fallen’. I’m talking about Dominique Strauss-Kahn (aka DSK) and Gérard Depardieu (affectionately known as Gégé).

Gégé, then and now...Unless you’ve been living under a rock (maybe the one that he himself crawled out from), you’ve heard about DSK’s fall from grace (if grace can be a state for one so notoriously unable to keep it in his pants). Hint: it involved a chamber maid in a New York hotel, oh-so coincidentally on the eve of a presidential run. Now his story has been immortalized in a feature film called ‘Welcome to New York.’ Depardieu plays DSK in the film which premièred at the Cannes Festival, but out of competition, and is available via video on demand. Why? Because no one in this country would touch it with a ten-foot pole. Anne Sinclair, DSK’s ex, heads the French edition of the HuffPost and is a pillar of the media elite in this country. By the way, her character is played by Jacqueline Bisset.

DSK, of course, is suing the film’s producers for defamation of character. Which is funny when you consider what the Guignols get away with.

DSK chez les GuignolsDSK’s puppet makes regular appearances on the show, always in an leopard-print peignoir and saying ‘Excuse my attire, I just got out of the shower.’ He is known to speak affectionately to his member, which he calls Francis.

While it’s already had millions of downloads, seems the flick is a bit of a turkey. ‘Un navet’ (a turnip) as they say in the lingo. Read the review here.

We don’t always agree, the Guignols and me. Their portrayal of Barack Obama as a stereotypical French idea of un Black (urban accent and all) offends me.

But they’ve enabled me to take my French to a much deeper level of understanding. Not just the language (although they’ve definitely expanded my vocabulary), but of popular culture, of what the French find funny. And not.

So, tune in if you can and discover the world according to the Guignols. I’m not sure the copyright laws will allow viewers from abroad to screen the episodes, but here’s the link anyway if you want to follow the shows: http://www.canalplus.fr/c-divertissement/pid1784-c-les-guignols.html

Happy Old Year

The month-long New Year’s party is finally over in France.

I for one am relieved when the frenzy of clinging champagne flutes, kissy face and ‘bonne année, bonne santé’ finally comes to a halt in France at the end of January.

I never know what to say, for one thing. The French express their ‘voeux’ or new year’s wishes with uncharacteristic fervor. People you barely know will give you a little speech about how they hope this year will bring you both personal and professional success, good health, sufficient wealth and enough time to enjoy them all…along with your family members whom they will cite by name. My pathetic little ‘bonne année’ in return sounds so completely inadequate I hardly dare mutter the words. January turns into a month of avoidance while I hide until the wave has passed.

And for another, there is no point in making a resolution if you don’t put it into practice. For me the new year is a time to rest your liver, curtail the carbs and hit the exercise mat. If I don’t get January off to the right start, the entire year can quickly degenerate into serial excess.

While I truly love Christmas, I’ve never been much of a one for New Year’s. The hysteria around the change of date, arbitrary at best in the time continuum, leaves me indifferent. And the pressure to party seems, frankly, inane.

But the French get teary eyed and seem to sincerely believe in the promise of le nouvel an just as I still believe in Santa.

In an attempt to get into the spirit of things, here are my voeux to the French for 2013:

‘May this new year bring you a healthy economy, and enough wealth to ensure you keep your AA rating. May your politicians continue to provide les guignols with plenty of fodder. In particular, I wish Parisians the shortest of traffic jams, a minimum of strike days, and enough sun to warm your eight weeks of holidays in the Alps, on the Cote d’Azur or in Corsica.  May Gérard Depardieu live peacefully in Belgium or Russia or wherever he finds haven. Amen.”