ast week’s post was titled, “Why Godot?” So, applying logic, this one could be, “Why France?”
Briefly, the answer is this: my husband at the time, who taught comparative religion at Pima College, in Tucson, AZ, was offered a job as editor in the archives of Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan in Suresnes, France. My daughter was three years old, and I was, well, just the right age to move the family to France. Twelve years later, after a large part of the project had been completed, the editor, my former husband, decided to move back to Tucson. I decided to remain in France, where I had started teaching high-school students. The real question, I think, is why did I stay in France?
I can’t resist telling you something about French schooling. A teacher will pose a question, such as “Why France?” and the poor student doesn’t (is not allowed to) simply answer the question. The student must come up with another related question and then take it from there. I realized I had just done that, reformulating “Why France?” to “Why Did I Stay in France?” This move, if you will, is called defining une problématique. Now you have a bird’s eye view on French education.
BACK TO FRANCE
Slow travel is becoming a thing now, where the tourist lives with a family in a foreign country and stays put for a month or so. This is kind of what I did; I inaugurated veeery sllllooow travel, which lasted for twenty years. You might expect that I stayed to eat delicious croissants and drink fabulous wine, and while that is true, food is king in France, part of the reason I loved living in France was something more abstract. A whole culture can have a certain bent, certain preoccupations and interests which are different from one’s own culture.
I thought I could illustrate this bent by describing the TV series Marseille. This may surprise you, because I didn’t live in Marseille, and I am not an actor in the series. But it gives a bird’s eye view of some preoccupations of the French.
BIRD’S EYE VIEW
In this series, it’s not all about the bass; it’s all about the maire (pronounced mayhr), or mayor, in English. May I ask you, unless you have run for mayor or been elected as one, how much thought have you given to the mayor of your community? (NYC has had to give far too much thought to former Mayor Giuliani, but that is another matter.) The mayor in France, however, deals with the budget, taxes, development projects, public services, cultural activities, building applications, and presides over civil wedding ceremonies, among other duties. Three of them, in fact, come, go, are forced to resign, voluntarily resign, run, re-run, lose, and get elected anyway. There’s that.
In our case, while France is pretty strict about sending kids to school in the district where they live, a friend got the mayor of our town to give my daughter permission to go elsewhere. The local public officials have a greater reach than in the States.
Here are other touchstones: there’s a soccer club in danger of being sold, and the stadium itself, also in similar danger. Soccer, or foot, (pronounced fuuut) is near and dear to every French person’s heart. Other ingredients of the show include a threatened terrorist attack on, yes, the soccer stadium. In my household here, everything is “Go Bills!” There is nothing like the joy of the French citizenry when France wins an important tournament, say the World Cup. Every horn on every car is set to honking.
French politics are on vivid display: the major parties, their corruption, their evil machinations; the far right gains the upper hand, but only briefly. I was so taken by the way the far right was handled in this series that I had the following dream last night. I was in a bakery in France, and I ordered the tarte located the farthest to the right in the display. “L’extrème droite,” I said, indicating the tarte I wanted. Then I laughed in the dream, confessing that I had never been interested at all in l’extrème droite until that minute. Now, I don’t even know if that’s the way you’d order something on the far right. (Let’s see if my French friends are reading this and can tell us!) Many plot twists and turns of parentage and misery, mirror the occasional brilliant plotting of the political intrigue. Many bad guys have their comeuppance in ingenious ways.
CHARACTERS (or les personnages)
Because it’s Marseille, there’s a significant north African population. One is a poet (and thief), another represents the Mafia with his various henchmen. The soccer stadium, meanwhile, is owned by a Lebanese businessman, with a reputation in France for being very successful. The mayor is played by Gerard Depardieu, which makes a world of sense: He is the consummate French actor, and in his own words a “hooligan,” who is now a Russian citizen; in the series, he assumes the mantle of the most important person in Marseille, the mayor. His daughter is a journalist, an activist role, admired (and dangerous) in French society. The mayor’s wife is a cellist.
The cello (le violoncelle) seems an especially French touch, where the arts are incorporated into a political drama. In Paris and in Marseille, clusters of luthiers can be found, craftspeople who make and repair stringed instruments. The prospective buyers can watch as the instruments are being made. The theme of the arts is elaborated as one of the sans papiers (illegal immigrants) has a son gifted in the piano. The boy practices on a block where the keys are drawn since he doesn’t have access to a piano. The cellist, the mayor’s wife, naturally seeks to ameliorate the boy’s life and that of his father.
Lots of mayhem but mayhem with interesting French accents.
More about cellos. Click on the link below.
A little bit of cello by musician David Cohen, playing one of the kinds of cello Yo Yo Ma plays, a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice.
The Guardian writes, “It feels brash and loud and flawed, but not without its charms – much like its titular city and, of course, its leading man.” The French press dismiss it by saying it’s quickly forgotten. (And not enough of the actual city Marseille.) Ah, but we don’t care how good it is or isn’t. The bird’s eye view of certain aspects of French culture is exaggerated for all to enjoy.
The mayor and his assistant mayor could easily be played by Didi and Estragon. The circularity of French politics, where people are always being asked to do something (whether ethical or not, now that is the question.) The one doing the ordering about gets impatient: “What are you waiting for?” the impatient person asks. “I am waiting for Godot,” I believe would be the answer.
You’ll see below it’s all a bit “too much,” a French expression, believe it or not. And after this post, you can be satisfied with your bird’s eye view of France!