Jacques et Moi
Top level discussions as evening colour dances in Provence
Carcassonne to Aix-en-Provence
12th November, 2003
France: dreams of fine food, subtle amours, soft landscapes...
France: home of the sinister street thug and the cut-your-eyes-out corner boy.
France may have cheese and wine and olive groves, and those funny
little deck shoes, and all the other nuances of culture, but as I wander through
the southern provinces of the Grande Nation the first thing I notice everywhere is the
junior pimp squad.
Young men in hood tops, clunky gold jewellery and donkey-arse haircuts, they
hang around train stations, park benches and shopping centres
like a race of furtive baboons. What are they doing here, messing up my heady, cheese-fueled
Les Pouffiasses et la Bande Lou-Lou
I dare say there are no more shady street youths in France than anywhere else.
It's just that, in France, they stand out more. When the light gets brighter, the shadows become darker.
If you were in Manchester or Cork, and a man wandered past wearing cheap polyester sports clothes and a ponytail, rolling his
own fags and glancing around with an insinuating attitude, you'd take him to an ordinary citizen and think no more of it. If he was
clean-shaved you might even assume he was the Lord Mayor.
But France is the land of style and beauty... where even the simplest woman can stop you dead in your tracks with
her perfect taste and fashion, with the slightest lift of her sculptered chin. Where half the men slouch poetically
in a Byronesque-windblown/Habitat-catalogue way (those funny little deck shoes again). Against comparisons like that, no wonder
that these other youths, slouching unpoetically and dressed in their own interpretation of an American rap act, look so
Half the country seems to be inhabited by hooded rapists.
I've been wandering, almost at random, through the Langue d'Oc and Provence. I can't believe my good fortune in coming here
in November. It is the perfect time. All the millions people who come here to tool around in the heat and dust of the long summer
have long gone. So has the heat. Every day is crisp, and lit with the long, slanting light of a mediterreanean winter. Colours, fluid colours
shift and spill through every landscape. I can't capture it with my camera. Cezanne and van Gogh struggled to capture it on canvas.
I have it almost to myself as I hike alone in Avignon or Nimes, or through the rough -ut limestone gorges, red clay and shimmering pines
at the foot of Mont St Victoire. I eat from modest set menus in little restaurants. I am often the only customer. Rising to the challenge, the chefs
compete to provide me with the most perfect southern French delicacies.
I am still a tourist, and must do what is expected of me. I buy a ticket for the Pont d'Avignon, which has goes nowhere. I troop dutifully out to look.
After a while I come back. I go to Aigues-Mortes and Carcassonne, famous for their walls. I walk around the walls. After a while I come back.
I have conversations in French. Sometimes I inquire as to the importance of tradition versus the need for modernity in contemporany Provence. Sometimes
I forget the French word for croissant:
- Cette petite viennissorie comme une demi-lune... je voudrais celui-la!
- Le croissant?
Monsieur le Ras-le-Bol
France is also well known for the high standards it maintains in public complaint. Volumnous, shrill, fore-head-slapping, fish-wife-shaming
complaint. No matter what the subject, the French can complain about every little thing.
I don't know if this is true or another stereotype, but in eight days here, I have already witnessed high-pitched Gallic whingeing about:
unemployment; the EU; farming; the unions; the government; immigration; the efficiency of railway clerks; Algeria; those Northern (French)
bastards; social security; and cane sugar farming on the island of Reunion, near Madagascar.
France is a beautiful country,
inhabited by an acute, articulate people with the sort of good taste that the rest of us
can only dream of. The French way of life, all that food, culture and so on is the best in the world when you can live it. The
French language is like a song (unlike a French singing which is like a rhino farting in a bottle). So
why all the angry faces and nose music?
Perhaps the French way of life itself is the problem. Perhaps it's too much. Too much to live up to. Who can expect themselves to be always so
stylish, sexy, intellectual, and artistic? So perfectly branché So very well cheesed, so deeply sauced all the time?
With such high expectations there has to be some disappointment. Some down time spent in disgust among the baboon people
down at the gare routière.
I'm a rough northern barbarian.
I expectation no more from life than my next daily potato. Life is more cheerful when perfection is a treat, not a
bare minimum. Perhaps I'm lucky.
Lucky Day for Someone
So there I am, wandering up the street in Carcassone: dirty trousers, rucksack, underfed, the "independent traveller"
(too tight to be a tourist) look. There's a lot of police around, including the feared CRS riot squad. A manifestation? I think.
("Manifestation" is a French word that means complaint as a team sport. Noone goes home happy unless they get a water cannon out.)
I joke with the CRS at the medieval gate about the French and Irish rugby teams, about to meet
in the World Cup. I indicate that I feel sorry for them already; they indicate that they have guns and nightsticks. Laughter.
A crowd outside the Hotel de Ville. Excitement. I chat to a local. He gives out about chomage and the EU, as usual,
but his heart is not in it. He too is excited.
A crowd of policiers approach,
leading a long gang men with good hairdos. Volume of hair indicates social rank.
My new friend hops from one foot to the
other, crying out "Bonjour, monsieur le ministre!" One of the hairdos pauses to shake his hand. The hairdo shakes my
hand. A passing dignitary, I surmise.
My new friend, now in full bounce, cries out, "Bonjour, monsieur le President!!" A tall balding man pauses
to shake his hand. He shakes my hand, "Bonjour".
"Bonjour," I say. It's Jacques Chirac, President of France. On his left, looking more than ever like a cheap porn star, is Pedro Aznar.
They're in Carcasonne for a summit.
Now is my moment. My time on the world stage. What should I mention? Algeria? Unemployment? The plight of the farmers of
lower Languedoc? No. It's all too much for a simple man whose only wish is to see his next potato.
But I could have changed things. Pointed at the fractures in society, made a difference.
I could have leant forward, given a glance around and whispered: "Look out for the hooded rapists. They're