lundi, janvier 31, 2005

Shoah Memorial day

Hey, I'm only 4 days late posting this blog. I lost it twice already due to a slatternly attitude towards my PC, the consequence of which my dear brother in law Chris, here for the weekend, has spent several hours undoing, and hopefully with it my cavalier attitude towards spyware, viruses, and Microsoft updates. Thank you Chris, and may that be a lesson to anyone else as hopeless as me. Life is much more straightforward with a computer that actually functions, as New Zealand found out only recently, to its cost. Apparently the Russian Mafia hacked in and brought down the internet throughout the whole country, just as an experiment to see what kind of a hold it had on the system. A tight one, it turned out. Let that be a lesson to the rest of the world so dependent on the internet!

But onto more serious lessons to be learned. The 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

This is such a big subject, and I have so many thoughts on it. To coincide with last Thursday's anniversary it was the opening of the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris, the first museum of the Shoah in any European city, which is such an incredible fact some people don't believe it. It's true though. There is a museum called Beit Shalom in the New Forest, but no such museum in Amsterdam, Berlin, London or, until Thursday, Paris. The story of the Holocaust, that most European of crimes, is confined to the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam and Berlin. In London there is a very well-executed Holocaust Gallery modestly tucked away within the Imperial War Museum. Until now America and Israel had the monopoly on Holocaust Museums, which merits some reflection too. In fact the Memorial de la Shoah has the most extraordinary history. It was conceived over 50 years ago, as an archive and a memorial - decades before the notion of the Holocaust Memorial had become the accepted currency it is today. Isaac Schneerson, its founder, determined to create a memorial to the 6 million murdered Jews of Europe, at whose symbolic centre would be a wall inscribed with the names of all the Jewish victims of the Nazis. His fundraising committee included Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, the Queen of Belgium and David Ben Gurion. In May 1953 a memorial stone was laid at a location that had been acquired with the help of the Paris city council. The very next day, as reports of the ceremony reached Israel, there was a debate on the subject in the Knesset; 3 months later Israel passed a law insisting that the memory of the Shoah be forever situated in Israel and nowhere else, which is how Yad Vashem came into being, and also deciding that all victims of the Nazis be posthumously awarded Israeli citizenship. It seems barking now, but at the time the ideology of Zionism was so strong and broadly unquestioned by Jews both in Israel and the Diaspora that it was still possible to persuade people that there was a logic in asserting that Israel is the symbolic homeland of all Jews, even those murdered before the state even came into being. There was a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing between Jerusalem and Paris as the Israeli government tried to force Schneerson to abandon his plan and accept that henceforth the memory of the Holocaust would be sited in Israel not France. Schneerson was essentially blackmailed into ceding defeat, his memorial was erected on a much more modest scale (a crypt called the Memoral of the Unknown Jew), and Yad Vashem came into being, the first museum of the Holocaust in the world, with the Hall of Names in which the names of the six million murdered Jews are inscribed. So the opening of the memorial this week, with an enormous amount of attendant media focus, is a momentous event. The wall of names is of more modest proportions than Schneerson originally intended, with the names of the 76, 000 deportees from France (including that of my father in law Philippe and his mother and uncles). It was terribly moving to be there last week, as dozens of people (several thousand people in the course of the day) searched the wall for the names of their relatives. All along the base of the wall there were bunches of flowers left in homage to those who did not survive. (A relatively small percentage of the Jewish population of France was actually deported, in the region of 20% - but of that 20% almost none - 2,500 - survived. My father in law, who was 14 when he was arrested in December 1943, and who spent almost exactly one year in Auschwitz before the death march of January 1945 which preceded the Liberation, was the youngest deportee from France to survive.)

On Thursday there was a huge ceremony at Auschwitz, broadcast live worldwide. I was intrigued to see that there were three representatives from France who spoke there: Simone Weil, ex-minister and survivor of Auschwitz, Cardinal Lustiger, Jewish-born, who survived the war hidden by the Catholic church and was later ordained, who read a message from the Pope, and Chirac himself, opening the new 'French Pavilion' (which makes it sound a bit like the Venice Bienale, but, like, whatever) who beat his breast publicly and claimed full responsibility for France's collaboration with the Nazis. It's amazing to see how the moral and legal responsibility has come into being in the last decade since Chirac in 1995 officially acknowledged France's part in the deportation of the Jews during the war. For 40 years the French couldn't deal with it at all, totally denying any responsibility. Now the opposite has happened; all the text throughout the new Paris museum insists again and again on the full and willing responsibility on the part of the French police, rail authorities and individuals who turned their Jewish neighbours over to the Gestapo.

But then, in the background to all this, remember that in the last presidential elections, 25% of France voted for Le Pen, whose racist and antisemitic discourse appears in spite of all Chirac's atonement for France's Second World War record, still to find favour with one in four. The proportion is lower around Paris of course (in spite of the fact that the le Pen residence is in the Paris suburb of St Cloud). That'll be make it more like one in three - or two - of those nice friendly barmen who serve you your Suze in that lovely bar you enjoyed being in so much in Provence last summer. It's certainly something to think about.

jeudi, janvier 27, 2005

To Market To Market To Buy a Fat Pig

When we first arrived in Maisons Laffitte I was fully-prepared to adopt the lifestyle of a bourgeois provincial madame, and that obviously included the notion of going to the market to buy weekly provisions. Full of enthusiasm (and possessed of a very bad back, due to having spent a week unpacking dozens of heavy boxes which the removal people had inadvertantly dumped at one end of the house and which inevitably needed to be shunted somewhere entirely different, but which we only realised, of course, once the strong guys who are used to this kind of thing - and paid to do it - had already left) I got myself down to the Wednesday morning market one day between Christmas and New Year. It was indeed a sight to behold, a sight to gladden all the senses - as far as the eye could see stretched stalls laden with a veritable cornucopia of produce; from fresh foie gras to types of cheese that even de Gaulle might not have been able to identify, to spices, to fruit from all corners of the world; there was a wonderful stall selling hideously misshapen fruit and vegetables, all organically grown, covered in wonderful natural-looking mud, and appropriately over-priced. There were pyramids of glossy clementines, still attached to their leaves, bunches of those beautiful French radishes that are long and fuschia coloured with lovely little white tips and absolutely delicious eaten with unsalted butter and a mound of sea salt; even the humble potato was represented better than I have ever seen anywhere else, with at least 20 different types of potato, each more or less suitable for a certain type of preparation, and often coming accompanied by a recipe or two.

I have never seen pigs trotters before, nor been offered different cuts of horse. (This I particularly relish in Maisons Laffitte which boasts the largest race track in France, is twinned with Newmarket, has signposts all over declaring 'Priorite aux chevaux' and proudly announces on every signpost "Ville du Cheval". What other city in the world offers you the chance to ride, eat or bet on the same iconic beast?) Steak tartare is traditionally made with horse but in fact nowadays in most Paris brasseries, where it is a menu staple, it is invariably made of beef. Only in Maisons Laffitte's swankiest private homes will you be served the real thing, quite possibly by the proud owner of an Arabian stallion, stabled just around the corner.

But the prices to be paid for such a sensuous feast! As I said, my back hurt, and what with having two small boys in tow, and it being pretty cold, I wasn't savvy enough to do a proper tour. I happened on a stall selling the kind of things I was looking to buy, and thought that would be it. I had of course happened on a major smart arse who was determined to banter with me in English although it was rapidly obvious that he didn't speak more than a very few words ("What would you like?"). My list was fairly short and similarly basic: a kilo of clementines, brocolli, tomatoes, potatoes, and then at the behest of the kids a couple of mangos and a pineapple. How much could it come to, even taking into account the unseasonal extravagance of tropical fruit? It all fitted into one carrier bag, for God's sake, which is a pretty good rule of thumb for saying it couldn't be more than about 15 quid, no?

The guy, moronically still thinking I'm going to be charmed by his attempts to address me in my own language, hands me my bag and says "fourteen euros please". I pay up unquestioningly. He looks at the coins I've given him and says "J'ai dit quarante euros!" I am winded by shock, but momentarily derailed by my triumph that he has just proved he can't actually speak English. (I wouldn't ordinarily hold this against anyone, you understand. Not speaking the language is something I am guilty of in most of the countries I visit. It's just that I do speak French, and there is something so unbelievably irritating about being in France and speaking French more than adequately and being replied to in English by someone who is showing off a vocabulary limited to a dozen words - which doesn't, unfortunately, include numbers above ten.) So I spend a minute or two asking if he is sure of the difference between 14 and 40, quatorze et quarante, fourteen and forty, and by the time we have this sorted out , and some kind of honour is restored (to whom I'm not entirely sure) I realise the real enormity of what has just occured. He has charged me 40 euros for a single, basic bag of groceries, and I have actually paid him!

lundi, janvier 24, 2005

Adrift in suburban Paris

So many people have said to me over the last year or two that I ought to write a blog; when I found out we were moving to France it seemed like the ideal moment to start one. Welcome to Planet France, everyone! Where everything looks so familiar, and if - like me - you speak pretty good French, it all sounds fairly familiar too - but boy you are so wrong! I am now living in a universe parallel to the one I formally inhabited in London.

From the depths of London's lesser known Kentish Town (the posh bit, admittedly - up by Dartmouth Park, which if you didn't look too closely at the map might be just on the edge of Highgate - but nonetheless scene of at least three murders in the last six months) we have risen so high in the social stakes by coming to live in the ridiculously bourgeois town of Maisons Laffitte that I hardly recognise myself. I haven't, admittedly, actually become chic or elegant or anything like that - my wardrobe is still exactly the same and I looked pretty ropey in London, to be honest - but here, man, I just look, well, like 'une anglaise' - at best I might hope to be considered a bit boho, but in reality they all probably think I look like a terribly troubled character out of a Mike Leigh film. I am suddenly really self-conscious about all the holes in my clothes, and the raggedy bits on my kids' trousers; the kids here are as well turned out as their mothers (there are no fathers at the school gates at all), and there's a lot of makeup, which begs the question as to what time all these women get out of bed in the morning. Slack Mum doesn't get you any brownie points. This could be a suburban thing, or it could be a French thing. This is one of the things I am determined to find out over the next three years.