French crooner and songwriter, Charles Trenet (May 18, 1913 – February, 19, 2001) wrote and sang the songs that represented the hopes and joys of the new middle class. One of his biggest hits, La Mer, was about the joy of spending time at the ocean. In the late 1930s, France passed a law requiring workers to have two weeks of paid vacation every year. A beach holiday was every French family’s dream, and Trenet provided the soundtrack. Check out Charles Trenet singing La Mer live at the Olympia or this charming version by Kevin Kline in the movie French Kiss. You may know it in English as Beyond the Sea, by Bobby Darin. I must admit that I prefer the French version. Vote for your favorite in the poll, below.
Over the course of his career, he wrote nearly one thousand songs. His life was not all sunshine, however. He was criticized for singing for German soldiers in occupied France. As a homosexual, a group targeted for concentration camps, it certainly behooved him to keep a low profile and not antagonize the Nazis. He moved to the United States for a few years after the end of the war and became close friends with Charlie Chaplin and Louis Armstrong. After moving back to France in the early 1950s, he was briefly jailed as a result of homosexual relationships. He continued to record and perform live until a stroke in 2000 ended his career. He died the following year.
Today’s expression, ce n’est pas la mer à boire, (suh neh pah lah mare ah bwoir) literally means “it’s not drinking the ocean” or “it’s not such a big deal.” Trenet’s long and prolific career was, however, a very big deal.