once read that someone would so rather read what it’s like to live in a country, say France, than to hear about the tourist highlights. Now, some of the tourist highlights are very important in a city such as Paris, but if you do live in France, you will certainly encounter La FNAC. And? (This is what my daughter would ask, coaching, as it turns out, for writing a blog.) Now this “And?” is answered by, first of all, situating yourself inside this cultural phenomenon and then taking cultural goodies home with you (via me) and seeing where it goes.
BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING
How do you say this word, the name of a big chain? The word is really an acronym for Fédération nationale d’achats des cadres, the meaning of which I will explain shortly. But first, how to pronounce this word? La, admittedly, is pretty straight forward. Americans want to say Fin-ack as if it were two syllables. “Wrong,” as a friend would succinctly put it. It is one syllable; “ack” is pronounced as in “lack” or “yack,” but with a significant difference. You must smile when you say this “ack.” A reliable speaker tells me that you smile with the French “a.” Now you try.
French people like to hear the language that they know and speak. Once I heard someone (an American, no doubt) say “bun” (as in hotdog) and then “jur” as in the first part of jury. There is no such word in French as bunjur. I may repeat myself because I contain multitudes, but think “bone” with the “e” and have the “n” missing. Now a pretty pout with your lips, or think of duck lips if that’s easier and say “oo” extending that “oo” with a little death rattle in your throat to get in the “r”. That’s it! Bonjour. (Well, maybe not a death rattle. Let’s call it a millisecond’s worth of a wind tunnel in the throat.)
Back in the day, in 1954, two gentlemen, André Essel and Max Théret founded a store that featured cultural products plus tech items. Cultural includes books, DVDs, music, and grew to incorporate video games as well. Tech, well, that’s computers, software, cameras, headphones, radios (imagine) and small electric household items called électroménager. The genius of the place, especially in the beginning, was the presence of experts. Let’s talk jazz, for example. Half of the big floor space was devoted to jazz. Or classical, another half devoted to that, with somebody at the help desk to help you find out more about classical music. You have to think Apple Store plus Best Buy plus bookstore plus record / CD shop plus video rental store plus café in the basement. A true event in itself.
At its founding, France was experiencing a material boom. La FNAC capitalized on this and gathered together a small group of people trained for a specialized niche in the labor market. As a teacher, for example, I was considered cadre. These specialists, or managers, who worked in their various departments, could advance through the ranks. Not only would the specialists sell products, but discuss with the customers how to use them. So the acronym means the Federation of National Purchases by Specialists.
In fact, the whole idea was something of an experiment since our two founders were former Trotskyites. What does that even mean? They were Socialists who thought Stalin was an autocrat and favored Trotsky. (Who knew the Russian Revolution was going to figure in a presentation of La FNAC?)
La FNAC was initially a buying club for members that put forward socialist principals, i.e. to help improve the lives of labor, by lowering prices. It also inaugurated an independent test center to rate the quality of technical products, which continues to this day. Today, “forums” also occur, which are events featuring a filmmaker, for example, or a musician or author interacting with the public. Forced to stray from its origins to remain profitable, jobs have been cut; managers are now hired from elite French business schools; and I dare say that Leon Trotsky is rarely mentioned, if at all.
One day, I went over to La FNAC, the one at La Defense, the Manhattan of Paris, because it was such a big, wonderful store. I went up the escalators to the music floor and specifically the blues section. On a pole, the CDs of several different musicians had been hooked up so you could, with the tap of a button, hear some current music, curated by our FNAC experts. Sure, I said to myself and hoisted a pair of headphones over my head. Eric Bibb? Why not?
Ah, the blues. I bought the Eric Bibb CD.
A year goes by and Eric Bibb is playing in a small venue near Les Halles in the first arrondissement (quarter). Now, many a teenage year did I spend dancing my way around venues in the Finger Lakes. We saw BB King at the Red Creek; Muddy Waters at the Community College. We danced to the Meteors, a rhythm and blues band, (even went out with the musicians); we heard blues guitarist John Mooney who went on to New Orleans; we cheered the Henrie Brothers on at the Corn Hill Festival. When we entered that little Parisian theatre near Châtelet, I felt right at home. I sat and chatted with Eric Bibb’s girlfriend, who was from Holland. And he joined us. “Nice to see you again,” he told me. I was not going to argue!
A couple of years go by, and lo and behold! It’s Eric Bibb in Paris again. This time at the Sunset. So off we go. And there he was! This time I didn’t hang out with him, but there I was, in a world-class jazz club. And this is all thanks to La FNAC.
BETTER USE OF CELLARS
Last week we visited virtually some moldy old cellars housing bones. These jazz venues in Paris make far better use of their cellars.
And speaking of jazz, the St Germain Jazz Festival is not to be missed. At the end of May. It’s located in my favorite part of Paris, near the oldest church called St Germain des Prés, which was originally a temple to Isis. And out back in its garden is a statue Picasso made of the poet Apollinaire.
And around the corner on the rue Jacob is where American playwright, poet and novelist, Natalie Barney, hosted a literary salon for over 60 years. And once a year, there’s jazz over there? Ah, very heaven, as Wordsworth said about being alive during the French Revolution.
Some pretty pictures and history of St Germain des Prés.
Here’s the program for the festival this year. You can listen to selected tracks and see what tickles your fancy. Click on the Festival. Notice this is in English. Wow! Sometimes in museums the explanations are still only in French.
Today I stumbled on a book title, definitely in the library of the tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, if they had a library. It’s called: Nothing Happened: a History. The author, Susan Crane, apparently gets us thinking about nothing in a different way, which is what Beckett does about waiting. An alternate title could be: Waiting: A History. The only defaut or imperfection in the play is the lack of a jazz score. I say that because of the improv between the two men and Beckett’s own rhythms. There’s an exchange where Pozzo thanks Vladimir, who thanks him. When Pozzo says, “not at all,” Estragon says, “yes, yes;” Pozzo says, “no no;” Vladimir says, “yes, yes.” Estragon says, “no, no.” Stage directions read, “Silence.” I read this like a jazz riff, because we don’t know who is saying yes or no to what. But this yes and no seems closely related to stop and go.
Now there’s an album waiting to happen, right? Miles Davis did Kind of Blue. What would we say to Kind of Godot?