Mitt Romney and the French Dis-Connection

Presidential Dis-Connection

The US presidential campaign is blowing over to the European side of the pond bringing with it a recurring theme that I can no longer ignore – the French Dis-Connection. It seems that a candidate’s ability to speak French is seen (once again) as a slimy, unpatriotic and subversive act.  John Kerry got tons of negative publicity for being schooled in this romantic language back in 2004 when he lost to George W. Bush.  Maybe that’s why Mitt Romney, who is really into singing his own praises at this point, is not singing a French song.  He never lets France come up in the conversation.  He never talks about speaking about the fact that he speaks French; likes France and even spent some time in France.  I wonder why.

Even back in February of this year, during the Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich, one of the more-famous “losers”, paid for an ad calling Romney all sorts of unfavorable names, but left the best for the end with the phrase, “Romney speaks French, just like John Kerry.”  The ad then flashed to John Kerry giving a speech which concludes with the French (actually, Cajun) phrase, “Laissez les bon temps rouler”, or “Let the Good Times Roll.”  There’s a bit of political justice in there since Gingrich’s “good times” ended quite abruptly – in English and in French.

Parlez-Vous Francais?  Mais Non!

Why would speaking a foreign language be a reason not to vote for someone? Is it any language or is it the French?  And why would having a good relationship with a foreign country and appreciating its different culture and way of doing things be seen as a political handicap?  I was brought up to believe that speaking foreign languages was a sign of intelligence.  Do we not want an intelligent President?

I investigated a bit and found out that Mitt is refusing to speak French on camera.  He is making a conscious effort to downplay the darker, “parlez-vous” side of his life.  Back in the winter, he is even accusing Obama of “cozying up to Europe and ignoring American values” – another example of vagueness that tries to equate Europe with socialism, the antithesis of what America stands for.  However, whether he wants to admit it or not, Mitt does have a strong, personal attachment to France.  Let me tell you about it.

Mitt on a Mission    

From 1966–68, Mitt Romney spent 30 months in France (that’s right, 2 and a half years!) on a proselytizing mission for the Mormon Church.  This missionary assignment gave him a deferment from serving active duty in Vietnam.  So, as you can see, while he was converting souls in France, France was giving him an excuse for his own military

Mitt Romney doing his own private “tour de France” during the Vietnam war.

salvation (a win-win operation).  His team was responsible for 200 Mormon baptisms while he was in France – that means about nine conversions a month, not a bad track record for a 21 year old.  (He probably would have converted more Frenchmen in Bordeaux if the Mormon religion allowed its members to drink red wine.)

France was important in Mitt Romney’s life – something to acknowledge and not hide from, right?   Really, who cares if he speaks French or not?   Some Americans dislike the French, but some actually honor them.  A case in point is this year’s Golden Globe awards.  The movie “The Artist” won for best film and best actor.  And that’s a French movie with a French movie star – ah, but I forgot, it’s a silent movie.  The actor doesn’t speak French; he doesn’t speak anything.  Just like Mitt Romney

Tasting Tips for the French Wine Connoisseur Wannabe

Tilt and Swirl – Gently, very gently

A Fair Paris Tradition     

Now that parents have depleted their school supply budget and the kids are safely back in their respective institutions, the Parisians are ready to party.  The first sign of this is the hype for the traditional “Foire aux Vins”, or “Wine Fair” which starts in mid-September and lasts for two weeks.  There are wine tastings everywhere – private homes (beats a Tupperware party), supermarket retailers, wine store chains and farmers’ markets (my favorite).  A wine consumer really gets to consume before they buy at this time of year.  It could be overwhelming for those of you who aren’t used to the many facets of wine. So, here are some tips for the wine-tasting neophyte.
1.    Look before you leap – Take a good look at the wine you have poured into that glass; observe and enjoy its color.  Look beyond the usual suspects of red, white or pink.  Is it ruby, maroon, purple or brownish?  For white wines, is it pale, yellow, golden, straw-colored? Is it opaque, cloudy, translucent?
2.    Tilt and Swirl – Tilt your glass slightly and give that wine a gentle swirl.  Look for traces of sediment, which is a sign of an aged wine.  Older reds might have more of an orangey tinge on the outside as you swirl; older whites would be darker.  The swirling aerates the wine, which will release its aroma.  The secret of the perfect swirl?  Be gentle and don’t stand near anyone who is wearing white.
3.    Smell and Sigh – Well, maybe, just smell.  The aroma of the wine will conjure up fruity memories of raspberry, blackberry, gooseberry or black current.  You might also smell vanilla, oak or citrus.  Enjoy it – smell once, smell twice.  Your nose will remember.
4.    Taste and Savour – Now, taste the wine, really taste it.  Remember, you drink water but you taste wine.  So, take your time.  If the wine doesn’t stay long enough in your mouth, you cannot appreciate its magnitude.  Sip it first, letting the wine spread across your tongue.  Swish it from front to back and side to side before finally swallowing. Let its acidity, tannin and depth explode in your mouth.  And let it linger.
5.    After-taste – Once you have imbibed the wine, it’s time to pay attention to how long it lingers.  Can you still taste it on the back of your mouth or throat?  Is the taste sweet, acidic?  Like butter, fruit, flower or oak? Do you like it?  Do you want more?
6.    Discover your preferences – There is no wine that satisfies everyone’s palate so it’s to time to pay attention to yours.  Know what you like.  Tastes can vary from fruit, leather, wood, spices, nuts, vanilla or any combination of these.  Pick your favorite flavor from the wonderful range of options.
7.    Write and remember – I can’t tell you how many times I have tasted a wonderful wine only to forget its name the morning after.  So, keep a paper and pen handy when you embark on your wine-tasting adventure and write down the ones that you liked and want to buy again and again.
8.    Buy It – The Wine Fair in France in September is a great time to buy – in wine store chains or even in huge supermarkets such as Carrefour or Auchan.  At a supermarket, you might not be able to taste everything you would like to so here’s a little hint.  Buy a bottle that you think would be a good bargain; drink it the same day.  If you like it, go back and get a case or two before they all sell out.  Have a party or get a wine cellar.  Whatever you do, enjoy it.  Wine and dine your lover, family or friends – or yourself.  You know you’re worth it!

Back to School in France – Where The Teacher Rules

“La Rentrée” is looming over Paris this week, that fabulous time of year when everyone goes back to school and most people go back to work.  School starts on September 3rd for the teachers and September 4th for the students but the headaches associated with this event have already started for the parents.  Just visit the school supplies section of any department store – you’ll see several parents with lists in their hands and children at their feet trying to make sense of just what they are supposed to buy for their child for the first day of school.

Stress and Shopping for Supplies Go Hand in Hand

The stress factor in this shopping aisle is high, extremely high.  This is attributed to three things.  First of all, the List is extremely complicated and precise.  You cannot just buy any old notebook – Mom or Dad has to check the number of pages, the color, the binding, the size, and the squares or lines that are depicted inside.  It’s the same story for pens, pencils, bookbags, markers, scissors, calculator – even the glue!

Secondly, the parents cannot usually find everything in one place.  Either the store is out of stock already or the super-creative, impractical primary school teacher has requested something that is nearly impossible to find.  There is not much standardization in the area of school supplies so each teacher can pretty much ask for what he or she wants and the parents had better provide it from Day One.  No substitutes allowed.  (Let me just mention that, here in France, the teacher rules, not the parents.  They literally dictate what the students have to bring to class.  Nothing is up for discussion.  Teacher school supply rules are meant to be followed by children and parents alike.)

Here’s who really rules when the French Go Back-to-School

French Government’s Role in School Supplies

Thirdly, every little thing that is thrown in the shopping cart adds up – often to a substantial amount – money that families who are just returning from vacation simply do not have.  Fortunately, the French government does help out with the school supplies allocation.  With the newly-elected Socialist president, Francois Hollande, the subsidy has even increased by 25%.  That means families who meet the income limit (23,300€ for one child; 28,554€ for two children and 33,908€ for 3 kids) will receive from 356€ up to 388€ per child to help pay for their back-to-school clothing and supplies.  Eligible families automatically receive the check on August 21st, plenty of time to go shopping before the first day of school.

If you don’t have school-age children yourself and want to have fun in Paris, just go to the school supplies section of a big department store between now and September 4th.  I was there by accident this past weekend (didn’t stay long though) and was amazed to hear how loud and ludicrous the debate could be about something as simple as paper.  Couples were arguing in front of their children and befuddled clerks; angrily waving the school supply list like a flag they wanted to burn.  It was sad and a little scary.

Is There an Easier Way?

I don’t understand why some graduate student has not yet put a website together that would save all this hassle.  Wouldn’t it be great and oh-so-modern if parents could just submit their list; pay online and the supplies would be delivered magically to their doorstep.  It is 2012.  It is possible.  This could probably save a lot of marriages.  But, on second thought no, it would take away all the fun of watching how the French teacher rules – even before school begins.


French Farmers Looking for Love – on Prime Time TV

True Confession

I am only admitting this because I can’t see all of you out there in anonymous, electronic blog-land.  I would never say this to anyone face-to-face.  I am a fan, a real fan of a French reality show called, “L’Amour est dans Le Pre”, which means “Love is in the Meadow”.  I usually stay away from these types of programs in any country, (feeling like they are way below my intellectual capabilities), but I happened upon this one on a lazy Monday evening in Paris and I got hooked.  But, in my own defense, I got hooked on this romantic saga for aesthetic reasons only, really.

Here’s the logo of my favorite reality-tv show!

You see, this program takes place in some of the most beautiful, idyllic corners of France.  In this seventh season, there are 14 French farmers (11 men and 3 women) who are looking for their soul mates.  Geographically, they pretty much cover the whole country, including Corsica.  The eye-candy in this love show is in the scenery – it’s just drop-dead gorgeous.  The farmers come from several different agricultural worlds – raising cows, making wine, keeping bees, brewing cognac, breeding horses, growing wheat.  They are all are very passionate about what they do for a living – and that’s what I’m interested in – honestly.

Lovey-Dovey Rules

“L’Amour est dans Le Pré” is a French copy of a British show called, “The Farmer Wants a Wife.”  In January, the candidates go on the show to paint their personal portraits and talk about what they are looking for in their ideal mate.  They then receive thousands of letters of potential candidates who are interested in sharing their tractors and milking their cows.  During their long winter nights, these farmers select about eight of them who come to Paris for a speed-dating session.  After the session, they narrow the competition down to two lucky contenders who are invited to spend up to six days together with the farmer in his home and participate in his daily activities.  That’s when the fun starts.

It is a set-up for lovey-dovey disaster but the participants know the rules.   They can’t pretend to be surprised.  They all start out in an awkward mode – like fish out of water – but eventually get the hang of it and start entertaining the 5.5 million French spectators who follow their romantic endeavors.  There could be scenes of jealousy, tears, premature departures, desperate phone calls to their mothers, stolen kisses, guitar or accordion serenades, serious philosophical discussions and, sometimes, a genuine broken heart (from the farmer or the “farmee”).

City Folk in the Country

It’s funny to see city-folk try to milk cows and do physical labor.  And it’s even funnier to listen to the improbable conversations that arise.  One candidate recently asked her respective farmer why he never cleaned up the meadow where the cows graze – she was serious.  He didn’t answer. I’m betting her question was a deal breaker and he was trying to be polite.  The cow next to her rubbed his head against her behind as if to nudge her off the TV set – she did eventually leave.

Change of Scenery

But, like I said, I pay more attention to the scenery than to the drama that’s going on inside the stables and wine cellars.  France is such a magnificent, agriculturally-blessed country that it’s a feast to get up close and personal to citizens who actually work the land.  “L’Amour est Dans le Pré” supposedly has a 40% success rate in its matchmaking attempts.  Those aren’t bad odds.  Maybe someday I will write that letter – and get my own personal  change of scenery.

If you want to practice your French – watch this farmer on a real double-date!


August in Paris – An Entire City on Holiday

Heaven on the Seine

It’s the most wonderful time of the year in Paris.  It’s the month of August, the time when vacation with a capital V invades the city; kidnaps the Parisians and forces them to go somewhere else.  Most of them go south or to Normandy but it doesn’t really matter where they go.  The big deal is that in the month of August, the Parisians are not in Paris.  They lend the entire metropolis to a few stragglers (like me) and lucky tourists who can peacefully explore Paris without the usual hustle, bustle and stress.  It’s heaven.

The Inherent Right to Go Away

It has always been amazing to me, almost scandalous sometimes, the way Paris allows itself to slow down to a near-halt in August.  It’s a time-honored tradition that gets everyone involved from shop keepers to civil servants to government officials.  It’s probably the one thing that opinionated Parisians agree upon – their need, their right to a month’s holiday.  Good for them.

The newspapers are full of stories of where the president, ministers and local celebrities are spending their time off.  Francois Hollande made news by taking a high speed train instead of the expensive government plane to get to Fort de Bregancon, an official presidential retreat on the French Riviera.  He and his girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler did travel first class but I guess that’s to be expected.  Their appearance at the Gare de Lyon in the middle of thousands of other fleeing Parisians was certainly a surprise and a big change from his predecessor.

Police Peace of Mind

There are a couple of downsides to an empty city but the Parisians have thought of everything.  For example, there is a higher incidence of break-ins in Paris in August.  To help combat this, the Prefecture de Police has launched Operation “Tranquilité-Vacances” (which translates to something like Peace of Mind during your Vacation).  What this means is that the police will pass by your apartment during the holidays just to check that everything is all right.  You have to sign up for this service in person at the local police station (bringing the right form and proof of residence) and must be gone for at least 7 days (that’s super-easy to do in France!)  This free service applies to private citizens and shop keepers alike.

Daily Bread – It’s the Law

If you are thinking that fresh bread might be hard to find in Paris during the month of August – don’t worry.  The French government has it covered.  The 1200 bakeries in Paris are forbidden by law to choose their holiday period; the city does it for them.  In 1790, right after the French revolution, a law was passed forcing all bakeries to close either in July or August – on an alternating basis.  And that law is still enforced to this day.  A baker who has closed up his shop when he should legally be open risks a fine of 11–33 € per day.  We all know how serious the bread business is here.

A big upside in Paris in August is car-related.  There is a liberating lack of traffic jams; an unheard abundance of street parking – which, unbelievably, is free.  Yes, the meter maids are all on the beach in August; no one is minding the store.  How cool is that? You can count the cars on the fingers of one hand - that's how you know it's August.

The Ultimate Playground

So if you really want to enjoy a city on vacation during your vacation, come to Paris in August.  Just don’t expect to mingle with the natives – mingling with foreigners is not a Parisian cup of tea anyway.  Just come and enjoy the ultimate playground – Paris.

Worshiping Woody – Ten Reasons Why the French Love Woody Allen

Everyone Loves a Mystery

Woody Allen was on French television this week promoting his new film “To Rome with Love.”  The journalist who was interviewing him, and who obviously felt blessed in his presence, asked the filmmaker if he knew why the French loved him so much.  Woody was honest.

“It’s a mystery”, he said.

Woody Allen, the French’s favorite foreign filmmaker

The “mystery” description inspired me and I wanted to solve it.  So I asked every French person I knew why they liked Woody Allen and I made a list of the Top Ten Reasons.  I must be honest too – not every French person I asked liked this famous New Yorker and his movies.  But the positive reactions heavily outweighed the negative ones and here they are in a cinematographic French-influenced nutshell.

Top Ten Reasons for Woody Worship

1.  By far the major reason for Woody’s popularity was his intelligence.  (Remember, France is home to the philosopher Descartes, the renowned “I think therefore I am” man.)

2.  His films are cultural and intellectual at the same time.  They make people think.  (There we go again.)

3.  He laughs at himself constantly in almost all of his films.  (I was surprised at this reason since the French do not practice the Art of Self-Derision at all.  I guess they can appreciate it in others though.)

4.  Woody Allen is an American who understands more than one culture, which, according to quite a few Frenchmen who answered my survey, is a rarity.  (I so wish that wasn’t true – the “rarity” part I mean) but what can I say?

5.  He is inspired by European literature and cinema.  Woody likes Europe and passes that idea along in his movies – at least the most recent ones which take place in London, Barcelona, Paris and now Rome.

6.  Woody’s Women – he loves women and does a brilliant job of portraying the never-ending problems and awkward situations that happen in relationships.

7.  Woody is funny and sad at the same time.  (Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship can certainly identify with that).

8.  Woody’s love affair with jazz music and the use of it in most of his films is right up France’s alley.  They love jazz here too and have a profound respect for American jazz musicians.

9.  Woody Allen is a good marketer, actually an exceptional marketer.  Just look at the opening of “Midnight in Paris”.  It resembles an ad for the Parisian Office of Tourism with its picture-perfect postcard shots of famous monuments.  “Midnight in Paris” is Allen’s biggest monetary success ever.

10.  He’s complicated and so are the French.  Many American fans stopped going to Woody’s movies when he started a romantic relationship with his partner Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, who is 34 years his junior.  Ronan Farrow, Woody’s only biological child, has said, “He’s my father married to my sister.  That makes me his son and his brother-in-law.  That is such a moral transgression.”   Woody’s is estranged from his son and the other two children that he and Mia had adopted.

Woody’s Heart-Management

Woody’s personal situation upset many ex-Woody Allen fans in the United States but the French do not care about famous people’s personal lives and they do not judge.  They believe what Woody believes, summed up in a famous quote from Woody himself, “The heart wants what it wants.  There’s no logic to those things.”

Well, judging by the answers to my Worshiping Woody survey, France’s heart wants Woody – as illogical as that may be.


The French Get Happy at Roland Garros

Here's where it happened

Paris is oozing tennis again – it’s that time of year when the Roland Garros Tournament (also known as the French Open) descends upon this city with its old stars, new stars and star surprises.  It is also the time of year when, at least for the first week of play, while there still are plenty of French players in competition, the local tennis fans become extremely patriotic.  They don’t wave French flags but they use their vocal prowess and hand-clapping skills to show their support and national pride.  I was lucky enough to be present at one match that was a prime example of a French “pep rally.”  However, the truth be told, it was an extremely lonely experience as I was rooting for the American.

The Second Longest Match in French Open History

You see, it was the record-breaking match of the “Marathon” tennis man, John Isner versus the Parisian favorite, Paul-Henri Mathieu.   The match lasted over five and a half hours – it was extremely close with so many moments where it could have gone either way.  In the end, Paul-Henri Mathieu (the cute guy with 3 first names) won (18 -16).  In those long five and a half hours, I got to watch various demonstrations of French national pride, which was fine.  I can totally understand why the fans would be for Mathieu; he is an incredible player.  But I was for the “other guy” and there were only about four other Isner fans hidden in the enormous “Court Central”.   I had to be very discreet.

Holding Court All by Himself

I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for John Isner to psychologically go it alone out there.  If he challenged the call of a line judge, the crowd booed and hissed at him.  I even heard someone yell “On est chez nous ici” meaning that they were on home territory, as if that had anything to do with anything.   I wanted to say something snappy and nasty to that fan (he was sitting right behind me); but I was clearly outnumbered.  I just screamed my support for Isner in my inner mind, where it was safer.

Another thing that the French fans criticized in Isner was his amazing ability to mark up those aces.  He was hitting them often and powerfully, most of them at over 200 kms an hour.  The lady next to me said that was not “fair play”.  I couldn’t let that one go by and I asked her would it be “fair play” if the French guy was hitting aces like Isner.  She smiled smugly – of course she would have been thrilled if Paul-Henri was hitting those babies.   He did hit a few too, and no one complained when he did, but he was nowhere near the 59 aces that John Isner had in only two matches.  Incredible.

If You’re Happy and You Know It…

Isner and Mathieu are both outstanding players who gave an unforgettable performance for the thousands of lucky fans who were there at Roland Garros.   The sun was shining; the pigeons were smiling and the French were shouting “Ole!” and doing one group wave after another.  They chanted the French player’s nickname in unison at least a hundred times, “Allez Po-Lo, allez Po-Lo!”  And they did applaud John Isner when the match was finally over – that was generous of them.

I admit I was disappointed and would have preferred to see Isner win but it was fun to see so many happy French people cheering in one place.  Paul-Henri Mathieu made an amazing comeback and this marathon match is now engraved in Roland Garros history.  That’s just the way tennis ball bounces.  In the end, it’s all good.  And the US Open is just two months away.

PS If you want to check out a little bit of French tennis happiness, here’s a video of the matchpoint.





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