FRENCH TIMES: France with style

 

VOULEZ-VOUS SORTIR AVEC MOI… CE SOIR?


CHARLES DE GAULLE AIRPORT, Paris, Saturday evening, 8: 30 P.M.
What are those Brits up to? For the past 15 minutes, two perplex but calm technicians have been examining the passengers landing bridge, which refuses to book up to the airplane. The British passengers observe the scene, unperturbed. What difference does it make? It's a beautiful day! The Japanese, meanwhile, stand stiffly in the aisles, as if at attention. Finally, a stairway is attached to the rear door of the aircraft and the French immediately elbow all the other nationalities aside as they converge on the exit. The English make a rather disdainful about-face, as in the changing of the guard, and once the path is clear, the Japanese stride toward the originally designated door - that is, the one that will never open.


You can have a positive or negative attitude toward Great Britain; mine is positive: a great taxi is indicative of a great civilization. I adjust a thermostat in the rear compartment and bury myself in Les Anglais by Philippe Daudy - a flattering review by Jean-François Revel in Le Point had convinced me to buy the book.

…9 P.M.: the Chelsea Arts Club
"Ale or lager, sir?"
"The battle between the traditionalists and the moderns", comments Michael Raeburn, the filmmaker who has recently returned from Zimbabwe, where he made a film on the matériel donated by France. "Lager, it seems, is imported and has more bubbles. And young people, brought up on coca-cola ads, trust bubbles."
As I sip the gently sparkling amber beverage, I ingest the authentic culture of ale and take in my surroundings. Wood, leather, flannel; by Jupiter, Paris is far away. Miniskirts cling to the maxi silhouettes of a group of models who have come to celebrate their boss's birthday. Ale to the queen!

12 Midnight
"You must be exhausted, Jean-Pierre. We'll take you to your hotel."
On the contrary, I'm in great shape. But in Great Britain, one must cultivate the understatement. "To the Meridien, driver."

12:30 A.M.
"Please take my bags to my room; I still have an errand to run."
London for me is also Annabelle's and there is no question of going to bed without first stopping by.
"Sorry sir, you cannot come in", the doorman states amiably. "You are not wearing a tie."
Dam, it's true that in this town you need one.
"Do you know anybody here?" he asks, somewhat distantly, ready to deal his coup de grace.
I drop a few names - rather heavy ones, and he quickly disappears, returning with a tie for me. The place is full. The dance floor is separated from the tables by a glass partition, which makes it possible to cater to those who love loud music without impeding conversation in the rest of the club. I unabashedly take a seat at a table that offers an empty stool and an assortment of lovely creatures - what am I saying, goddesses.
"Excuse me, I am French", I say, as if I were actually excusing myself for the fact.
"So, you are French?" asks one of them.
"Yes, Mademoiselle."
"Well, I have a devinette for you: do you know what makes love like a tiger and winks?"
"Uhhh… wait a minute. What makes love like a tiger and winks? No, I really don't know, sorry."
She looks at me and winks…

2 A.M.
I return to Piccadilly Circus, which is near my palace. The streets are animated with people of a variety of races and nationalities. Two young girls (with a combined age of 35) offer me 30 minutes of English delights for 20 British pounds.
"Sorry, but I happen to be in love."
Their compassion is genuine. They continue along their way. Three blocks later, I meet up with them again.
"Did you change your mind?" they persist.
"I often change my mind, but I never change my feelings."

2:30 A.M.
This time, I'm exhausted. The hotel's warm welcome and the comfortable room combine to help me sleep. Good night.

Sunday, early morning
After a petit-déjeuner that is anything but petit, I hesitate: a little exercise or Les Anglais? I opt for Champney's, the health club located in the hotel basement. Did I say health club? I beg your pardon. This is an immense room, stylishly decorated with special lighting accenting statues and columns. The sounds of water lapping in a huge swimming pool and the joyous bubbles of a jacuzzi resonate in the enormous space. Quite a sight for Piccadilly Circus subway stop. I try out a few instruments of gymnastic torture in order to chat a bit with properly built bodies straddling them, and then an outthroat squash game with a young Indian whose courtesy reflects his supreme disdain. He starts out by killing me 11-0, then lets me win 13-11 before edging me out in the third game. Massage, hammam, bath. This hotel's not bad, with its cruise ship hallways, its tasteful modern décor and young staff that are at once stylish, efficient and discreet. A cushion lying along the edge of the shimmering pool beckons; and I decide to read a few pages of Les Anglais.
I have a bad habit. When a book I read belongs to me, I fold the corners of the pages I find particularly striking. This book seems to get thicker by the minute. Page one: top corner bent. Page two: top and bottom corners bent (to remind me that both sides are worth coming back to). Page three: top and bottom corners bent, and so on. This book simply cannot be recounted, for each sentence is heavy with meaning. A must on any reading list. If the author is in London, I will find him.

Between the A.M. and the P.M.
Dressed in my bathrobe, I return to my room. On the way, I run into Michael Novatin, the hotel director.
"I want to offer the very best here, that is, the best of an English hotel (much to the displeasure of my French directors, who prefer the French touch) combined with French gastronomy. Our restaurant, the Oak Room, has just been given a star in the Michelin Guide. We try to keep our staff as British as possible (it is difficult to find Englishmen or women who will work in the service sector, perhaps as a result of England's colonial heritage). In the restaurant, the opposite is true; we try to have an extensive French staff. The result is that we are probably the best hotel in London."

5 P.M.
"Monsieur Daudy, I presume?"
"No, this is Madame Hugo's residence."
Oh, no, I have gotten my addresses mixed up. My dinner with Hugo's great-great daughter is not until this evening.
"It will be difficult to find a taxi", warns the man, "for we are in a rather quiet suburb. May I lend you my bicycle?"
I hop on the majestic machine, but at that very moment, raindrops begin to fall.
"No, I think I'll hitch-hike."
I give an in-depth account of my problem to a driver who has stopped at an intersection. He listens with great interest.
"No taxi? I see, I see. You are going in my direction? I see, I see. Truly, London is an impossible town. But I can't take you to the next intersection, sorry."
Finally, a bus. "I would like to go to Radcliff, please."
"Try to ask the other passengers, they will surely know where it is", the bus driver responds courteously.

6 P.M.
"Is this Mr. Daudy's residence?"
"Oh, it's you! Do come in. What can I offer you to drink?"
"The symbolic beverage of two cultures: Whiskey-Perrier, please."
The spiritual son and friend of Henri de Monfreid is in fine spirits. The readers of FRENCH TIMES will benefit from this meeting: I plan to conduct an interview that I will submit to our literary editor.

9 P.M.
Marie Hugo is half English. She has thus doubled her charm capital. This is where she paints.
"I left France because my name was too heavy to bear. Here, people are more discreet. But it is true that this city, while clearly more liveable than Paris, does not generate the same tensions that are a definite factor of creativity."
A salmon is the centrepiece of the table around which are gathered photographers, painters, filmmakers and actors, all visibly seeking to nourish themselves through the experiences of the others. A certain respect, a sort of religion of the idea, prevails throughout the evening. We eagerly drink in the interesting incident that recently happened to the Bengalese filmmaker who just made a commercial in Japan.
"The Japanese hired me because they knew my work, of course, but also because I live in West Germany. But even they couldn't hide their confusion when they saw my face! My interpreter spoke to me in German. I insisted that English was my language. No, they responded, your assistants will only trust you if you speak German. They only respect the German."
"The acoustics at the Barbican are curiously better suited to the violin than to the viola", remarks my neighbour Shlomo Mintz, who had performed a Brahms concert there earlier in the afternoon.
"It's a pleasure to return to Capetown, so beautiful, so calm, so fragrant", remarks the sensual Lindie, who spent two years crossing Asia and Africa alone on her motorcycle.
As for me, I make an unfortunate remark: "Great ideas are often the fruit of the intercourse of cultures."
An English designer pounces me on my aphorism like a vulture on helpless prey, referring throughout the evening to "interculture", an expression I didn't manage to shake until it was time for brandy - much to the amusement of all.
Each guest speaks, listens and respects a sort of hierarchy of personalities, the most eloquent among them sensing the precise moment to pass the spittoon, so to speak.
In other words, a wonderful evening.

Monday, 10 A.M.
France is on vacation, and the United Kingdom is on strike. No matter, I just have to cross St James Park to get to Westminster City Hall, where, I hope, Mrs Elizabeth Flach, Lord Mayor of the noble city of London, is waiting for me. I had recently met her in Paris, a city she knows well - she used to be a model for Dior.
"Lord Mayor, what precisely does that title mean?"
"There are two of us who have that title in London. The other is at the city, and I am at Westminster. I am elected for one year in order to serve as ambassador for my city to the rest of the United Kingdom and to the world."
"The transition from fashion to politics is of course a natural one?"
"Yes, I was involved in a lot of social action within the Conservative Party when I returned here, to the point where I ended up playing a rather important role in the City Council, where I eventually was given responsibility for transportation problems."
"In your current position, I don't suppose that contacts with the underprivileged are given priority?"
"Quite the contrary, for although the social barriers you are aware of have existed in this country (and they are diminishing), now when I visit the poor neighbourhoods of Westminster, I am welcomed in a natural framework of my duties, and believe me, I am very attentive to the problems of those in need."
"The queen, Mrs Thatcher, yourself… it would seem French women are behind the times."
"Honestly speaking, yes. I have the impression that French politicians are wary, and they are right to be, for women talk less and act more."
"Are you very close to your country?"
"Oh and how! I have a home in southern France, I buy my clothes from various Parisian designers and I appreciate the French lifestyle. I am well known of the French restaurants in London. I am not the only "Fanatic" in this country, however, and I would encourage the French to come and try their chances here. The fascination with things French is such that all well-run businesses have a good chance of succeeding, in particular restaurants, of course, but also small country inns."
"Just the same, mentalities are very different, aren't they?"
"Yes, that's true. The English are undeniably more polite and keep their problems to themselves, something that, over time, troubles their balance. The French are always quick to express their reactions, and then they go on to something else. It always makes me laugh to see the French complaining, but sometimes I envy them."
"Do you regret that you quit modelling?"
"My responsibilities are simply different now!"

3 P.M.
One of the "in" people in London is a French butcher. Since it is, of course, unthinkable to spend a weekend in London without visiting a butcher shop, I have chosen to go to this one, located at 229 Ebury Street.
"Oh! You are going to the French butcher shop!" exclaims the taxi driver, a remark I find rather too familiar. The Lamartine Butcher Shop confirms the theory expressed by Philippe Daudy in his interview: it is abroad that one finds the true France. Here, there is a sub collection of meats, but also fruits, vegetables and cheese. You can see and smell that these are the best local producers have to offer, and the total effect is that of an old-fashioned market.
"We go to Rungis twice a week", says Marc Beaujeu, the owner. "We select the best product from France, in particular poultry. And then the best products from Great Britain, especially beef. Our store reflects good French taste, not necessarily French products."
A moneymaking philosophy: 250 kg of foie gras are sold weekly here.
"This store is like the square in front of the local church; it is a place where the French chat and the English either try out their novitiate French or show off their mastery of our language. They exchange addresses, plan their lovacations, talk about what's going on at the Lycée Français…"
A ray of sunlight cuts through the shop window, illuminating a calf's head that appears delighted to be there.

7 P.M.
The doorman helps me carry my bags down to the platform of the Piccadilly Circus subway station, located practically in front of the hotel. Forty-five minutes later, the subway doors open at Heathrow Airport station, terminal 4. Carts are located on the platform and I load my bags onto one. An hour and a half later, I am at Roissy 1 in the midst of frenetic activity. Having left my car in the CDG 2 parking lot (Air France), I wander around in a circular fashion from stop to stop until I reach the shuttle stop (porte 24). In the bustle of the many candidates for a ride on this shuttle - which is neither spatial nor spacious - I murmur a pathetic and distressed "Excuse me, excuse me." The message I sensed from my travelling companions on this unfortunate journey?
"What a pain in the neck these Brits are!"

JPJ


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