SORTIR AVEC MOI… CE SOIR?
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
"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. My hosts want to go home. "To the Méridien, driver!."
"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 grâce.
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.
"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…
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."
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
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."
"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
"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
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.
"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.
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
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 our 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!"
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
"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 [believed to be the largest food market in the world,
near Paris] twice a week", says Marc Beaujeu, the owner. "We select the
best product from France, in particular poultry. But we also offer the
best products from Great Britain, especially beef or the bext of New
Zealand, especially lamb."
"And you call yourself a French butcher?"
reflects good French taste, not 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
A ray of sunlight cuts through the shop window, illuminating a calf's
head that appears delighted to be there.
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!"