Monday, March 24

When This Sort Of Impulse Strikes, Sit Down And Try To Remain Calm Until It Passes.

Elaine Sciolino, "A Guide to the French. Handle With Care." Times, March 23

SOMEWHERE  in Nabokov--I can't find the quote online, so I suspect it's not in his fiction but something he relayed somewhere about the strange country he lived in for a time, the one called "America"--is the travel writer who says "The fjords are too famous to mention, and all Norwegians love flowers." It's one of two fjord-based lines with currency Chez Riley, the other coming from Bart and Lisa's disappointment with the predictability of Knightboat ("The Crime-Solving Boat!") scripts:

Bart: Oh, every week there's a canal.
Lisa: Or an inlet.
Bart: Or a fjord.

Sciolino exits the Times Paris bureau she's chiefed since 2002, and she writes a throwaway about how to stereotype Parisians in order to seem more like a stereotypical American. A harmless enough bon-bon, even if it was made out of melted Hershey bars. The only reason I stopped was the quickening dread of sensing Maureen Dowd just pages away.

But then we started off badly, Ms Sciolino and I, not to mention it was the weekend and they'd just refilled my Vicodin prescription:
“Every man has two countries, his own and France,” says a character in a play by the 19th- century poet and playwright Henri de Bornier.

Is it just me, or the Vicodin, or has this construction suddenly taken off like home makeovers? I swear to god I recently saw "The novelist Leo Tolstoy once said...." As opposed to Leo Tolstoy, the upholsterer? Would "wrote Henri de Bornier" have left millions of Times readers stranded before they got past the drop cap? Would the Ombudsman's inbox be flooded with, "Henri de Bornier did not say that. A character in a play he wrote said it. Oh, and he was also a poet. Cancel my subsription." ?

Okay, okay, so maybe it would have left an unconscionable amount of white space.  Still, I would have been in a sunnier mood when I reached:
1: Look in the Rear-View Mirror
To begin to understand France, you have to look back. The French are obsessed with history. Part of this feeling is a genuine affinity for the past, part a desire to cling to lost glory, part an insecurity that comes with a tepid economy and the struggle to integrate a growing Arab and African population.
Marie-Antoinette regularly makes the covers of magazines. So does Napoleon Bonaparte.
No anniversary is too minor to celebrate. In my time here, France has marked the 20th anniversary of France’s sinking of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior, the 200th anniversary of the high school baccalaureate diploma, the 60th anniversary of the bikini and the 100th anniversary of the brassiere.
For the 100th anniversary of her birth in January, Simone de Beauvoir was celebrated with half a dozen biographies, a DVD series, a three-day scholarly symposium and a cover of the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur with a nude photo of her from the back.

Welcome Home, Ms Sciolino! You'll have plenty of time to unpack before joining your fellow Americans drinking themselves into a stupor for Cinco de Mayo.

But then it got ugly.
2: An Interview Is Sometimes Not an Interview
Their love of history doesn’t mean the French always render it accurately. It has long been common practice for journalists in France to allow their interview subjects to edit their words. “Read and corrected,” the system is called.
I once took part in an interview with Jacques Chirac, when he was president, in which he said it would not be all that dangerous for Iran to have a nuclear weapon or two. That certainly was not French policy. So the official Élysée Palace transcript left out the line and replaced it with this: “I do not see what type of scenario could justify Iran’s recourse to an atomic bomb.”

Sheesh, your own paper has spent most of the past decade "correcting" the statements of George W. Bush to make him sound like a native speaker of English, let alone one not suffering from alcohol-induced brain bubbles. And before that it was busy proving Al Gore was a serial prevaricator by quoting stuff that might have been a lie if he'd said it. The French system sounds like sanity itself compared with that. In fact it sounds close to ideal, avoiding mass hysteria over stupid off-the-cuff gaffes, provided we know what's going on.

And considering the eagerness with which your paper and others granted anonymity to the real, proven liars of the Bush administration, one is forced to conclude that what is missing from the French system in your estimation is the right of journalists to decide who gets gunned down. The continual expressions of working journalists of faith in their field is truly remarkable, especially when you consider you can't find an ounce of it in anyone outside the field.
6: Don’t Wear Jogging Clothes to Buy a Pound of Butter
Rules govern even the smallest activities. I was making chocolate chip cookies one Saturday afternoon and ran out of butter. Dusted with flour, still in my morning jogging clothes, I dashed out to the convenience store up the street. The problem was that it is not just any street. It’s the Rue du Bac, one of the most chic places to see and be seen on Saturdays. I heard my name called and turned to face a senior Foreign Ministry official, dressed in pressed jeans and a soft-as-butter leather jacket, wearing an amused look, and carrying a small Nespresso shopping bag.
We went to a corner cafe for a drink. The Swedish ambassador and his wife stopped as they were riding by on their bikes. Both were in tailored tweed blazers, slim pants and loafers. Then Robert M. Kimmitt, the deputy treasury secretary, walked by.
He and my foreign ministry friend joked that my style didn’t match the setting. I made the point that it was my neighborhood and I could dress however I wanted. But as my French women friends told me afterward, jogging clothes (shoes included) are to be removed as soon as one’s exercise is over.

I like to think it's the casual slobbiness of Americans (moi aussi) which is at fault here, although I'm not exactly certain this holds in all those American versions of the Rue du Bac, either. I get eyeballed at Keystone at the Crossing, fer chrissakes, although the more astute among the haute monde note the $600 sunglasses and $200 rock-climbing shoes and visibly relax, having pegged me as a harmless eccentric. Still, if only Sciolino had skimped on the introduction she could have managed to work in one or two more ambassadors, a mid-level British peer, and the ghosts of F. Scott and Zelda.
7: Feeling Sexy Is a State of Mind, or: Buy Good Lingerie
In her close-fitting sweaters and pants and tailored leather jackets, Eliane Victor is both stylish and alluring. The retired author and journalist is in her late 80s.
For French women, being sexy has nothing to do with age and everything to do with attitude. Arielle Dombasle, the actress and cabaret singer married to the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, dared to expose her breasts on the cover of Paris Match and took off her clothes in a song-and-dance revue at Crazy Horse in Paris. Some people feel she tries too hard. But give the lady some credit. She’s turning 50 and has a Barbie-doll body.
A 600-page sociological study of sexuality in France released this month concluded that 9 out of 10 women over 50 are sexually active. The sexiest French women seem naturally skilled in the art of moving, smiling and flirting.

Elaine F. Scolino, born Buffalo, New York, circa 1949, per Wikipedia.


Anonymous said...

I have made cookies and why would you get the flour on yourself if you had no butter? First the butter and sugar and eggs, then at the end the flour. Hmmmm.

Christopher said...

Every stereotypical complaint about French culture can also be leveled at American culture.

This is why I think of France as "The prettier America".

D. Sidhe said...

I can't wait to see her take on airline food...

Anonymous said...

I once spent 2 1/2 days in Paris, so I, like Ms. Sciolino, know all about Zee Franche.

Zey, or They, are known to arrogantly consider themselves inherently more cultivated than us. They're right and if we had any proper modesty (or cultivation) we'd admit it. QED by this vapid column, written as it was by a typical American.

Li'l Innocent

Augustus Mulliner said...

Is there actually an "Elaine Sciolino" leaving the Times Paris bureau, or is it more likely that, for the last 5 years, Elizabeth Bumiller has been into bilocation?