30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.
I love France and French culture. I am essentially a Francophile.
Paris. Just the word evokes images of style, fashion and romance. It occupied a lot of my thoughts before I ever went there. It is still one of my favourite cities in the world – if not the favourite.
The place reeks of cliché. Walking around a beautiful courtyard, it’s easy to see a man in a stripey shirt busking with a piano accordion. It makes me want to scream “For God’s sake turn down the French!” But why would they? French is brilliant.
The government actually actively turns up the French. No matter how rich your company is, you can’t fuck with large parts of France. Apple wanted to build a store on the Seine and was told to fuck off. It took Apple years to build their first proper flagship store in Paris. The French still hate the new modern entrance in the Louvre – the Pyramide du Louvre.
The list of marquee landmarks are as long as any city and more than most. The Eiffel Tower. The Louvre. The Seine. Hotel De Ville. Notre Dame. Père Lachaise. Pompidou Centre. Arc De Triomphe. Sacre Coeur. But it’s the small things. The merry-go-round near Abesses. The street signs and lamp-posts. Even the most insignificant bridge is amazing.
And the people. The most beautiful women, just walking along the street, smoking. Old American couples on holidays along the river. Trendy French kids dressed in the latest crazy fashions.
There’s not a corner of Paris that I find boring. There’s just something in the water.
Before I got there, Paris was already the main place I wanted to visit. In my naivety I thought this was true for everyone. Paris! I mean, come on!
Yet I know people who’s heart – even far away Australian hearts – belong to different places they’ve never been. Some it’s New York (Amy), Italy (Kathleen), London (Liam) or Egypt (Jeanette). This only makes me love Paris more. I studied maps of Paris before I even earned enough money in my life to afford a flight.
I don’t know why I was drawn to it, but I was.
But this is not a post about Paris. My courting with France began in, as with most things, the music. Being a huge music guy. Being a huge music guy, it’s easy to com across plenty of non English music. For me, something caught my ear with French music. It also began my interest in the language.
It’s small things at first. Nada Surf singing a French song. The original “My Way”. Que Sera Sera. The Grapes song Je M’appelle. Francoise Hardy dated Nick Drake.
Eventually you get yourself some Serge Gainsbourg. Then the chanteuses. Hardy of course. Brigit Bardot. Jane Birkin. Each more beautiful and swoonworthy as the next. Then you get some Edith Piaf. Some Telephone. Some Sebastian Tellier. And you’re stuck.
Then there’s cinema. I discovered Jean-Luc Godard when SBS showed a film of his every week for months. A bout de soufflé, Pierre le fou, Weekend, Masculine Feminine – all great (Sympathy For the Devil is also pretty good, but super weird). Amelie and the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Jacque Tatu, etc. To this day, I am happy to see almost any French film at the cinema, be it arty like Diving Bell And the Butterfly, romance like Priceless or even teen dramas like LOL. If it’s on and I can make it, I do.
I love French cinema more than French music. But there’s also the films set in France. Charade is one of my favourite movies – the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made. Before Sunset, little more than two people walking and talking in Paris – so many great moments. Everybody Says I Love You. Even French Kiss. Even the Da Vinci Code. Perhaps my favourite film version of Paris is Ratatouille. It really glistens bright like that cartoon.
I really loved the food in Ratatouille as well. I’ve tried all the delicacies and liked them. Escargot. Steak Tartare. Raclette. If it’s French I’ll try it. I have thought about getting that Julia Child book. And then there’s the wine. Even the crappiest 2 euro bottle from a shop is pretty good. And my favourite beer is Kronenbourg.
Then there’s everything else. Architecture. Painting. Cabaret. Even mime. It’s the same culture that brought us A Remembrance of Times Past and A Void. There is something about the French. They approach everything with a touch of flair. A je ne sais quoi. They lead artistic lives. If you’re going to do something, do it with class.
Man On Wire was a 2008 documentary on Phillipe Petit, a French tight rope walker and stunt artist. Amazingly, he walked across the New York Twin Towers in 1974. When the American press got to him, they wanted to know one thing – why he did it.
Petit did not know the answer. He barely understood the question. He was expecting “how”. He just did something amazing, that brightened people’s day and fuelled imagination and possibilities. Do you really have to ask ‘why’?
Such a French way to look at life.
I studied some French in high school, and did more years of it in London. I can get by in France. On a good day I can get by without using English at all. I even managed to buy drugs in French once. They should put that in a test.
I have a few French language podcasts and plenty of French apps on my phone. I even tried to read Le Monde every morning for a while but I thought that was taking Francophilia into Wankery. I bought the first Harry Potter book in French and I’m working my way through it – and getting better at not reaching for the dictionary. What I really want is the Roald Dahl books in French.
I will get back to lessons as soon as I can. I started to write a story in French once. I’ve translated some of my own songs into French (badly). I’m still very much a beginner when it comes to the language, but I love it. Studying something has never been so easy.
Last time I was in Paris, I had a strange feeling. In my first couple of years in London, I went to Paris almost every month. I’ve been to many other French cities too. I really got to know the place.
I have my regular things. Train into Gare Du Nord, and walk through Abesses to Tim Hotel. Breakfast pastry from that little boulangerie around the corner that make awesome chocolate croissants. I have the places I like for dinner, for drinks and all around Monmartre. It also all ends at the steps of the Sacre Coeur, looking over all of Paris. I know my spot, the backstreets, how to get anywhere from my spot.
I’m not a tourist, but I’m still a stranger.
It’s like I dated this city for long enough. Time to step up or get out. I wouldn’t have left London if it wasn’t for this. Next time I go to Paris, I have to spend some real time there. Like live there.
So, I’m going to get the language up. I’m going to save. And then I’m going to go back. And live an artistic life.