I continue to work through the backlog of unread books so that I’ll be able to buy new ones with a clear conscience. I bought Pardon My French: Unleash Your Inner Gaul, by Charles Timoney, back when Borders books was selling off its inventory. Timoney is an English attorney married to a French woman. They decided to relocate permanently to Paris and Timoney found himself perpetually at a loss when his school boy French proved inadequate to the conversation. He created this humorous guide, divided by theme and in alphabetical order, to aid others. I knew most of the expressions, but still got a chuckle out of his witty explanations and illustrations. Did you know that while à cheval (ah shev-ahl) technically means “on horseback,” when applied to food it means “with a fried egg on top”? That’s really not the type of meaning you could simply intuit, and Timoney’s guide has many more such expressions. What’s a French expression that confused you?
When Peter Mayle passed away in 2018, I realized that I had never read any of his books; my only connection was having watched A Good Year, with Russell Crowe, when it came out. The British ex-pat wrote prolifically and with great humor about life in the south of France, most famously, A Year In Provence. I added all the Mayle titles to my wishlist on Outlook, the free audiobook service through my library.
Eventually, I worked my way to The Vintage Caper, which turned out to be the first of the four volume Sam Levitt series. The others are The Marseille Caper, The Corsican Caper, and The Diamond Caper. In French, the title of The Vintage Caper is Château l’Arnaque (sha-toe lar-nak), which means “Swindle Castle.” I have listened to all four books now and many of the characters reappear, allowing for a little more development than in a typical caper tale.
Sam Levitt is an investigator who seems to be a modern Sam Spade. All the usual tropes are there: guns, gangsters, and a beautiful gal on his arm. This is NOT high literature and the sexist banter may set your teeth on edge at times, but overall it’s a lighthearted read or listen. Along the way, Mayle drops restaurant, wine, and hotel recommendations as Levitt wrangles bad guys who have some high-class connections. It’ll make you itch to book your next trip to the sunny south of France, particularly if you are living through winter in New England!
A few posts ago, I recommended several podcasts to help the French learner immerse him or herself in some genuine content. Shortly thereafter, a blog that I follow and have previously recommended, Mode personnel(le), launched a delightful podcast of the same name.
Each episode is short, maybe only seven minutes, and tells the story of the special relationship someone has with a piece of clothing – like the woman who bought a second-hand dress that seemed to be cursed or the man who bought a new shirt every day while he lived in Hong Kong so that he would always look fresh. The host, Isabelle Thomas, a stylist who writes her blog for the French paper L’Express, simply introduces the story and then all the rest is told by the guest. This is great because you get to hear all sorts of different accents and rates of speech. The concept is fun and I look forward to each new bite-sized weekly episode.
What would your clothing story be if Isabelle Thomas interviewed you? I think mine would be about a favorite pair of red shoes I had when I was a little girl and the strange way I came to own them.
I just finished a book that I procrastinated in so long that it moved with us twice, Le Montespan, by Jean Teulé. It was a fascinating and disturbing story in equal measures.
It’s the true story of the Marquis and Marquise de Montespan – he was an impoverished minor noble and she was his beautiful wife with witty banter who caught the eye of Louis XIV. What Louis liked, Louis got and Madame de Montespan became his favaorite and remained so for twenty-four years.
The approved protocol was for the cuckolded husband to remain quiet and accept honors from the king – better titles, plum sources of revenue, nicer châteaus – as a sort of spouse rental fee. Montespan wouldn’t play along, and this is the story of how that worked out for him.
The story is fascinating, but Teulé seemed to be just as interested by every scabrous and scatalogical fact of life in the late 17th century. I could have lived without some of those visuals! In French, it won Le Grand Prix du roman historique and Le Prix roman de la presse in 2008, which shows you how long I procrastinated on reading it. If you want to check out all of the scandalous bits for yourself, it has been transformed into a bande dessinée (cartoon) and translated into English as The Hurlyburly’s Husband.
I recently watched La Tête Haute (lah tet ote), on Netflix, starring Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve plays the role of a judge who becomes involved in the life of a young boy whose mother is incapable of properly caring for him. Malony (Rod Paradot) bounces in and out of the judge’s chambers through his late teen years, getting into increasingly serious trouble, despite the genuine care shown by both the judge and his social worker, played by Benoît Magimel. The film does have an optimistic ending, which actually troubled me. It almost felt as though they were suggesting that teenage fatherhood was going to turn this young man around, instead of perpetuate the cycle.
This film brought so many pieces of my life to mind. I used to work for a judge who heard cases of abuse and neglect of children. I also served on a juvenile justice committee and was briefly a foster parent to a troubled teenager. Certainly, the sense of people being locked in a cycle of violence and neglect was present. My judge had been seeing some of the people who appeared before her for years before my clerkship and no doubt still saw them long after I had moved into private practice. It was interesting to see the informal way cases involving children were presented in chambers in France rather than with robes and a high bench. Some parts of the film were highly realistic portrayals of juvenile justice cases but others not so much. For instance, social workers who assault their clients don’t just get a reprachful look from the judge!
The movie did well at the César awards in 2016, winning two of the top prizes for the male leads and being nominated for an additional six categories. In English, the title is given as “Standing Tall,” but a more literal translation would be something like “Head Held High.” I didn’t love the film, but it sure made me appreciate my own parents and reminded me of why I left law!
We just got back from visiting our daughter in San Francisco. While we were there, we saw a terrific exhibit at the lovely small museum, the Legion of Honor, East meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani collection. In French, the title would be L’Est rencontre l’Ouest (lest rohn-kon-truh luhwest).
The exhibit had stunning jewels, to be sure, but I learned a lot as well. For example, the Maharajas adored emeralds – the larger the better. In the West, we worry about perfection and avoiding inclusions, so the emeralds get cut down to chips, losing all their glorious impact. Then, I learned that it was men who wore the fabulous ropes of pearls and diamonds, not women. They were symbols of power, not pretty baubles.
As they were passed down through the generations or found new owners, many were re-styled by the top jewelers in Paris and London, in particular Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. The exhibit is on until February 24, 2019; if you get the opportunity to see it, I highly recommend that you take it all the beauty of these magnificent jewels.
East Meets West: Royal Jewels from the Al Thani Collection
My latest francophile read is The Hotel on Place Vendôme, by Tilar J. Mazzeo. It’s the historical account of life at the Ritz and the people who lived there before the war, during the occupation, and the liberation of Paris.
The chapters are quite short and generally tell one self-contained story. Each chapter is devoted to a different person, from American socialite Laura Mae Corrigan, to brash Ernest Hemingway. During the occupation, the Nazis, resistants, collaborators, and those who remained neutral all shared the same roof. Even the famous Valkerie plot to kill Hitler was hatched here.
The word “ritz” in English is translated as le luxe (luh lux). It’s interesting that the English word that symbolizes all that is luxury was inspired by a French hotel. And if you’re putting on the ritz to celebrate New Year’s Eve, I hope you get to do it in a place that is as mythically beautiful as the famous hotel on the Place Vendôme.