Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Cuisine That Speaks for Itself: The French let the food do the talking

Former French President and General Charles de Gaulle once lamented the difficulty of governing a country that produces 246 different kinds of cheese.

During the Second World War, while exiled in England where he led the French Resistance, a famous radio broadcast featured the military man calling upon his countrymen to continue fighting against the German occupation of France. To him, it was only a matter of time before the deal was sealed and the French would regain their freedom. “Les carottes sont cuites,” de Gaulle announced, on this occasion using cooked vegetables, instead of milk-based food products, to punctuate his discourse.

Foreigners living in France often joke that the French can’t go two hours without talking about food. They are either recounting what they ate for dinner earlier that evening, pondering what they should buy at the market the next morning, debating whether the latest restaurant in the area really respects the true art of culinary preparation, or planning what they will eat when lunchtime rolls around. To the newcomer, this obsession for discussing the most minute details of one of life’s basic necessities can seem, at times, pornographic, but to the French (who value pleasure as much as Anglophones feel guilty about taking part in it), deriving le plaisir from food is just common sense. To live, we must eat. If we must eat, we might as well enjoy it. If we enjoy it, we should share this nice experience with those around us.

And, like de Gaulle and his cooked carrots, even when the French aren’t talking about food, they really are.

Critics who pan the latest Gerard Depardieu movie might opt to call the film “un navet” (turnip) instead of a flop. In France, a “lemon” doesn’t refer to a poorly built car; “citron” is an affectionate term for “brain.” Got into a bar brawl Saturday night? If you did, it’s possible you emerged with “un oeil au beurre noir” – an eye of black butter – instead of a plain old black one. (Especially if faced with someone who had mustard climbing up his nose – “la moutarde lui monte au nez” – because people in that situation are so angry they are about to explode.) And the French don’t “floor it;” they prefer to “appuyer sur le champignon” (push on the mushroom) when putting the pedal to the metal.

War men like de Gaulle are continuously criticized for the death that ensues the battles they lead. One can imagine how a soldier’s family would feel if their sacrifice was explained in this way: “On ne fait pas l’omelette sans casser un oeuf.” (We don’t make an omelette without breaking an egg.)

A headstrong de Gaulle was criticized by those who helped to free his country from the Germans for some of his methods, but he would have probably argued that he liked to do things, “à sa sauce,” or in his own way. Former French President François Mitterrand also created many a stir – especially when, after his death, it was discovered that he had maintained a secret love affair that produced a daughter outside his marriage. Had journalists revealed this before he died, Mitterrand could have argued that he was just trying to “mettre du piment dans la vie” (put some spice into life).

Or, he could have simply proclaimed: “Ce n’est pas vos oignons.” (It’s not your onions or, as we Anglophones would declare: it’s none of your business.) Faced with this situation, he would have tried to refrain from putting his feet in his plate (“mettre les pieds dans le plat”), or putting his foot in his mouth.

More often than not, French politicians are criticized for their dirty dealings related to money rather than love. This is when the country’s most famous food-related product – wine – makes headlines. Though the French may consume many throughout the course of any given day, it’s “la fin des haricots” (the end of the beans, or the end of the story) for anyone caught taking a “pot-de-vin” (pot of wine, or bribe) in any government-related matter.

Wine doesn’t always carry negative connotations in the lexicon of French food-related expressions, however. While the act of cutting wine with water is a major faux pas everywhere, someone who figuratively puts water in his wine (“mettre de l’eau dans son vin”) is one who has softened up on his previously inflexible convictions. One who takes the bottle (“prendre de la bouteille”) hasn’t fallen off the wagon; they’ve aged gracefully and wisely – a bit like the legendary beverage itself.

There are a number of French expressions similar to those used in the English-speaking world. At any given time, we might have a lot on our plates; the French have a lot of bread on the cutting board (“avoir du pain sur la planche”) – presumably to go with all that cheese. “C’est la tarte” means it’s as easy as pie. Ever heard of a tempest in a teapot? In France, the teapot is substituted with a glass of water. (“Une tempête dans un verre d’eau.”) If tea isn’t your thing, you could cleverly declare, “Ce n’est pas ma tasse de thé.”

One could argue the number of expressions involving food contributes to France’s obsession with gastronomy…or that the country’s emphasis on meals has created enough phrases to fill a book. At any rate, it leaves one so hungry that they may find their stomach in their heels (or, “l’estomac dans les talons.”).

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor. Contact her directly at, or through her agent, Rebecca Friedman, Sterling Lord Literistic, (212) 780-6050 or

Plans of Attack

Perhaps it’s the entire country’s history of war that demands one to develop Napoleonic strategies for living in Paris. If one accepts this, it’s indeed possible (most of the time) to live la vie en rose. If one doesn’t, it’s probable that one will find themselves, as the French would say, dans la merde – and they’re not referring to the little souvenirs the dogs leave on the sidewalks.

To those living in less concentrated locales, the methods that Parisians apply to conducting the ordinary tasks of daily life can seem a bit neurotic. But for a population reputed for its tendency to throw tantrums, a little stress management can go a long way.

Among the survival skills most practiced by veteran Parisians is that of crowd control. This has nothing to do with keeping rioting Sorbonne students from burning books; rather, it involves a strategic combination of time and location to achieve a rather mundane result – doing one’s errands. Venture out onto the narrow streets at six o’clock in the evening, and you are sure to find yourself elbowing through throngs of harried shoppers as they rush from store to store in search of ingredients for dinner. This is when one learns that the most dangerous pedestrians are those pushing baby strollers – they often double as a sort of shin-paralyzing weapon – and that the little old dog-loving ladies aren’t as frail as they may appear.

While France may be criticized for its 35-hour workweek, it must be said that the French are whizzes at time management. They must be, because to anyone who is accustomed to societies that are open 24 hours, seven days a week, getting something done here requires a well thought-out plan of attack. The reason six o’clock shoppers (who are usually nine-to-fivers in the professional world) are so stressed out is because the stores start to close at seven. Doing errands at noon, unless you’re near a large chain, is challenging in a culture that closes its doors for lunch. One woman complained that for the longest time, her bank didn’t allow her to make deposits during the afternoon, period.

During the summer, one of the most important strategies for navigating through the Parisian jungle is related to tourists. As one of the most visited cities in the world, Paris attracts tourists by the planeload, and the dollars that burst out of their wallets are definitely welcome in an economic climate that, as the French would say, is rather merdique. But the crowds can be vast, and maneuvering through them in order to complete one’s daily duties can grow a bit tiring around, say, mid-July. The trick is to avoid the city’s attractions – a difficult goal in a place where practically every street corner boasts an historic monument.

Not all Parisians wish to avoid the tourists, however. Women traveling alone can attest to the flirtatious Frenchmen that prey upon them around the Louvre, in the chic streets of St-Germain, and throughout Montmartre’s winding cobblestone passageways. Want to get a true taste of the French approach to chatting you up, ladies? Just open your map and try to look a little lost.

“It’s widely known that Montmartre is a great place to pick up tourists,” declared one such chasseur de filles, as he proudly recounted the story of a group of 12 Irish girls who had asked he and a friend for directions to the quartier’s famed Sacré Coeur. Instead, the entire entourage wound up drinking cheap Bordeaux in a neighborhood bar.

“Did the bar at least have a view of the church?” asked his interviewer.

“Non,” was the nonchalant response, “but I’m sure they got to see it eventually.”

Frenchmen don’t reserve their amorous tactics exclusively for tourists, however. Such is the case for one such Parisian, who is said to employ an elaborate strategy for quiet nights in: he invites a girl over to watch a movie (late enough so that she is sure to miss the last Metro), informs her that he just polished the floor (ensuring her removal of footwear – eliminating the need for its removal later on), cranks up the heat (possibly motivating her to do away with her sweater as well), and shows her a sad film (inspiring her, hopefully, to fall into his arms when she cries at the end, begging for his comfort).

Back in the day, rumor has it that he referred to this strategy as “le coup de videocassette.” One assumes this moniker has been modernized: these days, it’s probably “le coup de DVD.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor. Contact her directly at, or through her agent, Rebecca Friedman, Sterling Lord Literistic, (212) 780-6050 or

Strange Love

There are those who love Paris. There are those who hate it. And then, there are those who live here.

For many expats who were swept off their feet by the city’s charm and good looks, the honeymoon eventually rolls to a halt about a year into the love affair. It’s then that the afterglow begins to fade, and all of Paris’s blemishes and annoying quirks are revealed. She may be sexy, this City of Light, but she can also be hell to live with…or make that, in.

A lazy brunch in Berlin’s hip Mitte district find three young German chaps questioning an equal number of parisiennes on life in France’s famed capitale:

“It’s so polluted there; in the summer, you can barely breathe…”

“Everything is so expensive…”

“Especially the apartments – if you succeed in finding one. And if you do, it’ll probably be tiny, dark, or noisy…or all three.”

“My apartment is so small that I must think twice before buying a simple t-shirt because I know that when I get home, I’ll have nowhere to put it.”

“Did I mention how expensive it was?”

“Everyone is always so stressed out.”

“Unless you’re in a lousy neighborhood, you can rarely buy a coffee for less than two euros…”

“The Metro doesn’t run after midnight…”

“And finding a taxi is as difficult as finding an apartment…”

“Everything is complicated in Paris. Even ordering a pizza can transform into a complex operation if you allow it to.”

“Pizza! Do you know how much pizza costs in Paris?”

“Forget pizzas…let’s get back to the cabs. When you finally flag one down, don’t assume that the driver actually knows the city. And if he doesn’t, he’ll start yelling at you if you don’t have a map.”

In HBO’s hit television series “Sex and the City,” New York’s personality was as prevalent as those of the four female protagonists. Paris, too, is like a person – one who is prone to severe bouts of bitchiness. So why do we continue to live here? Like the fetishist slaves who beg their masters for another spanking, do we crave the whipping that Paris delivers? Or are we all a bit like that eccentric friend who dates only crazy people because they find stability too boring?

It would seem that way. How else would one explain why three otherwise intelligent young women found it annoying – but relatively normal – when, after the automatic machine broke down, a Metro worker refused to sell them tickets for the last train between the Orly airport and downtown …and taunted them to boot? Or that a freelance journalist wasn’t that shocked when a cab driver forbade her to eat a sandwich in his car because it would create too many crumbs, but gave her the green light to make love with her boyfriend in the back seat if the desire overtook her?

“It’s true that Paris can be infuriating,” admits a pretty Irish editor. “I’ve had periods when I’ve wondered what I’m doing here. But after eight years, I can’t see myself living somewhere else.”

In a way, Paris is a trap of one's own making. “That’s what’s so frustrating,” concedes a tall German redhead who has lived here for over two years. “Part of you wants to leave for an easier destination, but you know you won’t love it as much. There’s just something about this city.”

True, it’s pretty special being in a place where the energy is so vibrant and everything is beautiful. Paris isn’t just full of museums; it is a museum, where not only the stunning architecture is perpetually on display, but the gorgeous people are, too.

“Barcelona is a great town, but there aren’t as many good-looking men as there are in Paris, and when you do see one, he’s probably poorly dressed,” was one superficial, but heartfelt, comparison. “Frenchmen know where to find well-tailored clothes.”

And, once you’re through gazing at the stereotypical, stylish Frenchmen, perhaps it’s appropriate to apply a method that some of them use to spice up their relationships: cheat.

“The trick to being happy in Paris is to go somewhere else…even if it’s just for a couple of days,” instructs one such well-tailored Parisian bloke. “Then you come back refreshed, invigorated, and appreciating Paris all over again.”

Absence, after all, makes the heart grow fonder.

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor. Contact her directly at, or through her agent, Rebecca Friedman, Sterling Lord Literistic, (212) 780-6050 or

Sexe, Drogues et le Rock ‘n’ Roll

The casting of John Travolta as J.R. Ewing in the upcoming film version of “Dallas” sparked a debate at a recent Parisian soirée. The French and the North Americans couldn’t agree on which of the hit TV series’ themes were better: the instrumental, horn-based jingle that preceded each episode on the other side of the Big Pond, or the kitschy ballad that commenced each show here in France. When one alcohol-fuelled Frenchman sang a few lines – “Dallas, ton univers impitoya-a-ble…” or “Dallas, your merciless universe” – the North Americans had difficulty suppressing their laughter.

When The Violent Femmes mischievously inquired “Do You Like American Music?” it didn’t take their fans more than 60 seconds to come up with a laundry list of U.S.-based favorites. When most Anglophones – especially those from the States and English-speaking Canada – think of French music, it’s Edith Piaf that first comes to mind. Some might be a bit familiar with the sentimental musings of Jacques Brel, or the Sinatra-esque showmanship of Charles Aznavour, or the Las Vegas-inspired Johnny Halliday. Beyond that, however, it’s usually Francophiles that have been exposed to Dutronc, Polnareff, and the host of others that have contributed to French music history.

Regardless, there exist strong parallels between the English language music scene and what has happened here in France. Mike Brant, for example, a Tom Jones-ish 1970s icon of Israeli descent, soon rose to playboy status thanks to his pretty face and love-drenched chansons that made French girls swoon. Though Brant enjoyed a successful career, the lack of privacy that accompanied his stardom drove him to suicide. Today, Brant’s music continues to live on – usually in the salons of the concierges that inhabit the ground floor apartments of most Parisian residences.

While former celebrities Mike Brant and Kurt Cobain have their fulfilled death wish in common, it’s France’s own version of Nirvana (many argue, a better, more clever version), Noir Desir, that smacks of Sid and Nancy. A few years ago, at the peak of the band’s career, drugged-out singer Bernard Cantat beat his girlfriend, actress Marie Trintignant (daughter of French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant) into a coma. She died several days later. Cantat is currently in prison, serving an eight-year sentence for his crime.

French musicians regularly complain that in order to gain recognition, it’s obligatoire to sing in English; Anglophones – which make up the biggest market – generally don’t listen to what they can’t understand. It’s not uncommon for a French person to declare they don’t know a word of English, only to find them singing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody” five minutes later. But this phenomenon is hardly reciprocal: how many American Piaf fans could belt out all of the words to “La Vie en Rose?”

It’s a pity that the North American school system doesn’t encourage its students to learn several languages the way European educational institutions do. While English is king, one can’t deny the obvious benefits of communicating in something other than one’s mother tongue – even if it’s just to enjoy the little cultural gems that every country has to offer.

For this reason, Serge Gainsbourg – a national hero in France – never managed to break much ground outside of Europe. Here, however, he enjoyed legendary status as an agent provocateur: part dirty old man, part genius, he combined wit, booze, rebelliousness, cigarettes and romance to craft some of French music history’s sharpest lyrics. The French, who are never an easy audience to impress, deem him one of the country’s best poets.

While Madonna’s crotch-grabbing scandalized America, Gainsbourg was creating a stir of his own, with his reggae version of French national anthem La Marseillaise (those are Bob Marley’s Wailers chanting out the refrain); his burning three quarters of a 500 franc note (a crime) on national television to illustrate how much he was paying in taxes; and his declaration, upon being introduced to Whitney Houston (again on national television) that he wanted to fuck her. To accompany his single “Lemon Incest” (an examination of the strong emotional bond between father and daughter, and the physical love between them that must go unfulfilled) he filmed a video clip featuring himself, shirtless, rolling around a bed with his panty-clad 14 year-old daughter, Charlotte. One wonders what the repercussions would have been for the artist if he were based anywhere else, but save for the media hype upon the clip’s release, father and daughter emerged relatively unscathed. Today, Charlotte is a successful actress.

Unless one speaks French – or has access to someone who can translate – it’s difficult to enjoy Gainsbourg’s acclaimed plays on words. A number of Anglophone musicians (most of them Brits) recently made an attempt, however, with Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited, a compilation of 14 of Gainsbourg’s songs translated into English. Artists such The Rakes, Jarvis Cocker, The Kills, Placebo, Portishead, Tricky, Michael Stipe, Marianne Faithful, and Cat Power tried their hands at tributing the man himself, and while not all of the translations are – or could – depict their original intention, the performances are strong. Even media darling Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg’s former wife and celebrated collaborator, makes an appearance. One hopes that Gainsbourg, despite his trademark cynicism, would be touched.

The alcohol and packs of Gitanes that served as Gainsbourg’s permanent props finally killed him in the spring of 1991. While he had no problem provoking his audience with observations that weren’t always pretty, he remained self-conscious about his own physical ugliness, even dedicating a song and album title to the subject: L’Homme à la tête de chou (or, “the man with the head of cabbage.”) This didn’t stop him, however, from enjoying affairs with some of France’s most beautiful women, among them Brigitte Bardot.

Which is why, perhaps, he was able to come to terms with his looks eventually: “Ugliness is in a way superior than beauty,” he said, “because it lasts.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor. Contact her directly via, or through her agent, Rebecca Friedman, Sterling Lord Literistic, (212) 780-6050 or

Romance Internationale: Paris singles travel vicariously through each other

Paris, FRANCE-There exists a group of Parisian men in (according to them) their mid twenties and thirties who are known for their (usually) charming quirkiness, ability to pull a party out of nowhere, and partiality to dating foreigners.

One of the most popular destinations in the world, Paris attracts millions of visitors each year - a significant percentage of which return on a semi-permanent or permanent basis to master the French language, start a new life, or to simply live a dream. Many of these individuals are of the female variety, providing flirtatious Frenchmen with ample opportunity to hone their skills in international relations.

Rarely can a single foreign woman attend a vernissage, concert, book reading (not even necessarily in French) or her local café without receiving at least one request for a romantic rendezvous. Wherever foreign girls go, Frenchmen will follow, eager to try their luck at what their female compatriots would sarcastically refer to as la drague à deux francs, or cheap pick-up methods for schmoozing the ladies.

Which would explain why any soirée involving the aforementioned band of parisiens resembles a United Nations convention - if U.N. officials were reputed for their funky dress. At these events, a large chunk of the globe is represented, resulting in France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, England, Spain, Canada, Japan, Ireland, Latin America, Hungary, Tunisia, and the United States all cavorting together on one smoky dance floor. Without ever leaving the comfort of their hometown, these Frenchmen travel through the women they woo, jet-setting with the added convenience of never having to pack a valise.

"I'm through with French girls," sniffed one of these brooding Parisians with an exasperated drag on his cigarette. "We grew up in the same culture. We know each other's stories already." French couples, he argues, are familiar with one another before they have the chance get familiar.

One wonders, however, if these Frenchmen have any choice but to prey upon foreigners: many étrangères have yet to become fluent in France's official language. La drague à deux francs works much better on someone who has no clue what le dragueur is actually saying.

While expats that have fallen for a Frenchman gain intimate insight into what makes the French culture tick, Parisians delight that their foreign partners offer a fresh perspective on their native city. In a way, they become tourists in their own home, visiting spots they never would have dreamed of frequenting otherwise as their lover takes in the scenery of their adopted locale. Among these couples, the role of tour guide is dual; when it's time to return home for a visit, many Paris-based expats invite their romantic interests along for the ride. This prospect can be a little scary for both guest and host: not only is there the pressure of meeting the girl's parents (who probably speak no French); two worlds collide when one reveals all of the unglamorous truths about the city (or suburb, town, village, or burg) from which one hails.

"It was weird seeing my boyfriend in Stockholm," confessed a pretty suedoise who has dated a Parisian of Portuguese decent for the past six years. "It was like he was seeing a secret part of me for the first time." Others lament that it's tough enough to impress Parisians with the truly fabulous; what happens when they find out that one's hometown is small, provincial, and not all that exciting?

But what's humdrum to one is exotic to another, and just because one's birthplace might not boast the stuff of movies, it can still be new and exciting to virgin eyes. Globalization, the Internet, and the alarming number of Starbucks cafés popping up all over may deem the world a smaller place, but there still remain small differences that fascinate even the most blasé. Our cultures may be similar, but they are definitely not the same, and our stories will likely hold interest past a couple of cheap pick-up lines.

Long enough, at least, to really get familiar.

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor. Contact her directly at or through her agent, Rebecca Friedman, Sterling Lord Literistic, (212) 780-6050 or