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  • Writer's picturepeter grose

When it sizzles

Updated: Feb 21

I've now been living in France for fifteen, coming on sixteen, years. I've never regretted my decision, after 37 years, to part company with small, dismal and mean-spirited Britain.

One of the unsung joys of life in France is Radio France Musique. Most countries have their own classical music broadcaster, usually in the FM band. The only others I know well are BBC Radio 3 and the ABC's ('Australian Broadcasting Commission's') Classic FM. Only the French station seems to manage eclecticism well, without losing its sense of humour. For instance seven nights a week it devotes an early evening hour to Alex Dutilh and Open Jazz.. After that comes Banzzai, more jazz, this time cooler and less to my taste but you can't have everything. Radio 3 and Classic FM seem po-faced and academic by comparison.

One of the many joys of Musique is that it regularly plays the same compostion half a dozen times on the trot, each time with a different arranger or performer. Recently it was the turn of The Last Time I Saw Paris sung by the likes of Dean Martin with other singers and assorted instrumental versions thrown in. At first I was irritated. After all World War II ended almost 100 years ago. Even Jerome Kern, who wrote the original song, died in 1945. So why celebrate now?

In the end I was won over.

It led me to thinking about the world's view of France. The French themselves whinge like mad about French life. Don't take my word for it. Listen instead to the French writer and adventurer Sylvain ('Selwyn') Tesson who pronounced: France is a paradise populated by people who are convinced they live in hell. Right on, mate. And don't even get them started on that nice Mr and Mrs Macron.

This view of France seems to have taken dangerous hold. We constantly receive phone calls and emails from well-meaning friends all over the world wanting to know if we're okay after they've read the latest headlines about today's horrors in France. A glance at non-French TV news or a non-French daily newspaper, particularly the Mail or the Express in Britain, will leave you convinced that the fires of hell begin in Calais and rage unchecked until the blessed relief of the Swiss border. Yet whenever I tell people I live in France the universal reaction is: ''Lucky you!" So what is the truth, and where lies reality?

In the best traditions of investigative journalism, let's start with follow-the-money. These things are expensive in France: white goods like stoves, refrigerators and washing machines; house paint; cars; and (mysteriously) lamb. These things are cheap: wine and spirits; eating out; houses; and trains. So if you fancy a glass or two; like to eat out; want to live in an okay house; and travel; then France could be the place for you.

This is all shallow stuff. Dig a bit deeper and it gets much more interesting. The thoughts that follow are mine alone and not much better than guesswork, though no less scientific than Freudian psychiatry.

In the eyes of the world France is both an idea and a dream. The dream comes mostly from the United States and the world's most potent dream factory: Hollywood. Film makers, like everybody else, tend to conflate Paris with France. For them it’s the same place. So we get films like An American In Paris, Can Can, Gigi, Moulin Rouge and Woody Allen’s admirable Midnight In Paris, which make Paris stand for all France.. There are even French films like The Demoiselles Of Rochefort starring the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve and her equally gorgeous real-life sister, the late Françoise Dorléac, which do little to eliminate the confusion.

Then there’s the arrival on the scene of the second great American dream factory: Tin Pan

Alley. Even the sophisticated Cole Porter (who lived in Paris from 1917 to 1923) found time to write I Love Paris. There was the post-World War I lament How We Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm (‘After They’ve Seen Paree’) or the daddy of them all, Les Baxter's 1956 hit The Poor People Of Paris . Before we start on this masterpiece, it's as well to admit two things. First, it's a French song. It was quite a hit in France in 1954, sung by Edith Piaf, as La goualante du pauvre Jean ("The Ballad of Poor John"),. Second in one of the rare congruities between the French language and English, the word pauvre ('poor') can have two identical meanings in both languages. It can mean economically challenged, as in I-ain't-got-no-dough, or it can mean unfortunate, as in I-feel-sorry-for-Jean. This ambiguity has been retained in the Les Baxter version to the point that it's anybody's guess who the song is about. In the original, it's fairly likely that 'unfortunate' wins,okay.

I’m grateful to the search engine Google for the following:

Just got back from Paris France

All they do is sing and dance

All they’ve got there is romance

What a tragedy!

Every boulevard has lovers

Every lover's in a trance

The poor people of Paree

I feel sorry for the French

Every guy has got a wench

Every couple's got a bench

Kissing shamelessly

Night and day they're making music

While they're making love in French

The poor people of Paree

So there you have it. It all comes down to sex.

Jokes aside, this pop song sets out brilliantly the idea and the dream. Lurking none-too invisibly beneath it all is the suspicion, particularly among Americans, that the French, offered the choice between lifestyle and materialism have uniquely chosen lifestyle and are better off for it. D’accord.

The choice comes down to: which is better, an unequalled national cuisine washed down by

the world’s best wine, or a car with HUGE tail fins. The French have chosen.

Now, dear reader, I’ve no idea where you are or the time of day there. But you must have a meal due some time soon, in which case: bon appetit!

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