1. The French are rude.
2. French food is made with heavy sauces that are impossible to
3. French pop music stinks.
other night was a balmy Indian summer evening here in San Francisco,
so we dined al fresco with friends at a pleasant French café. We
enjoyed cocktails with an appetizer and waited for our dinner. When
dinner came, we all ordered and received more drinks except for
one of us, who'd ordered a glass of wine. We heartily ate our steak
and pommes frites, mussels and other French fare, but still no glass
of wine. We asked the passing waitress three times over 45 minutes
for the wine but it never came. Finally, we went up to the bar inside
the restaurant. There we saw our waitress totting up dinner checks
and talking with a fellow employee. Behind the counter we glimpsed
a single glass of wine and our check. When the waitress finished
her addition, we caught her eye and said, "We've been waiting
quite a while for our glass of wine."
are you?" she replied in front of all in the crowded bar area.
"How can I get you a glass of wine if I don't know who you
are?" "We're outside. You've been our waitress and
I think that's for us", we said, pointing to the glass.
don't know who you are!"
luck with your life. I think you'll need it," we declared as
we returned to our friends outside.
waitress returned with the wine several minutes later and said,
"It's very busy tonight."
the first time in our life, we left no tip at all. It felt pretty
good. Our waitress was French, the food was fairly rich and the
music in the café was American jazz, presumably because French music
is so horrible. Despite this textbook example of the three French
myths, we declare to you that while perhaps grounded in some truth,
they are indeed myths. Or at least clichés that could be balanced
with examples of incredibly gracious French people, glorious simple
food that is less trouble than eating American fast food and music
that is melodic, unique and sometimes quite moving.
is more comfortable for me, in the long run, to be rude than polite.
Wyndham Lewis, British author & painter.
French, Parisians in particular, can be rude.
observation is that Americans enjoy casual superficial relationships
with shopkeepers, cab drivers, waiters and mail order telephone
operators. Americans think telling the whole story of how Brenda's
pregnancy was a surprise and what the bridesmaids wore and how long
it took to get the dessert is actually of interest to the average
store clerk. When they travel, they're really not likely to meet
all that many local people except clerks, hotel staff and rental
car agents, so these encounters become pretty important. Yanks are
a friendly lot on the whole and they are hurt and confused when
the typical French clerk looks on with obvious disdain as they describe
how breathtaking the view of the Eiffel Tour was or how expensive
things are in Paris compared to Main Street. Our impression is that
the average Parisian clerk has seen five thousand Americans with
backpacks and as soon as they get off work they plan to start enjoying
themselves with their friends, not tourists. We've noticed the workers
are not effusive, but practical, efficient and professional, particularly
in restaurants. Of course there are exceptions on both sides. We
remember in our youth visiting the lavatory of a Paris bistro. Coming
from America, we were surprised to see an attendant in the foyer
between the men's and women's rooms. On our way out, trying not
to draw attention to the situation, we quietly placed a tip on the
attendant's plate, somewhat embarrassed that someone had to actually
hang out in a restroom all day. She called after us, "Excuse
Monsieur! The tip! You forgot the tip". We told her we gave
her one and she said, "No. I do not think so!" She followed
us out of the restaurant; demanding her due and making us feel rather
strongly about French etiquette.
the other hand, we spent several relaxed days in the Pyranees with
the family of a friend and from the moment we arrived until the
last sip of armengac, it was an ideal weekend and a textbook example
of how to treat a guest. The day's events always revolved around
food and we suspect the real reason for the hikes was to hunt for
mushrooms for the evening meal. The meals themselves took hours
and the unhurried, comfortable manner of our hosts was completely
at odds with the gorgeous foodstuffs being served. We left thinking:
France is good!
cooking becomes an art form rather than a means of providing a reasonable
diet, then something is clearly wrong.
Tom Jaine (b. 1943), British editor of The Good Food Guide.
ends this way in France. Weddings, christenings, duels, burials,
swindlings, affairs of state- everything is a pretext for a good
Jean Anouilh (1910-87), French playwright.
would you rather dine with Tom Jaine or Jean Anouilh?
America, French food suffers the same injustice as Italian food.
In general, it's not very authentic. Until recently, most Italian
restaurants served an odd incarnation of Southern Italian food,
completely ignoring the rest of Italy, because most of the East
Coast immigrants were from the South. French food in America means
"continental" and "continental" means fancy
and in general, we Americans have no idea what the French eat on
a day to day basis.
recent voyage to France provided a huge range of food, from the
simple to the sublime. In terms of sauce and complications, we'd
say it compares to Italy. And like Italy, the devotion to the best
ingredients, most pleasant atmosphere and reverence for food means
we'd much rather eat in France than England or America, given the
also add that despite three generous meals a day, we actually lost
think no woman I have had ever gave me so sweet a moment, or at
so light a price, as the moment I owe to a newly heard musical phrase.
Stendhal (1783-1842), French author.
last myth is music. It's true there is a lot of very bad French
pop. The worst seems to be French rock. It just sounds funny. Maybe
it's because the language sounds so refined and is at odds with
the pedestrian guitars and put-on gritty vocals. Perhaps the average
Frenchman places more importance on food and sex. We think good
French pop succeeds in waves, as music does in most countries. We
also think a culture that produces what America does and calls it
music should be very careful before throwing too many stones. Our
understanding of French music is strictly as a tourist. Until recently,
we had quite a bit of Edith Piaf, a few vintage collections and
in general we considered French music second-rate. A recent trip
included a few manic shopping sprees and we've found the music serves
as an even stronger keepsake than the photos, vetiver cologne or
the Chien Lunatique plaque we purchased. We don't speak French and
we don't know any experts on the music, so our perspective is bound
to be somewhat off. We think the period of interest, especially
to foreigners, is the period between the wars. We're told that intellectual
artists like Juliette Greco are wonderful but we find the language
barrier too strong. Many of the melodies are repetitive but some
just get under your skin and stay, like a good French meal.
L'integrale de ses Enregistrements 1946-63
EMI Pathe DE 7903852 - 7903932
first stop on any French musical trip would have to be Edith Piaf.
No one better represents the good, the bad, the melodies, and the
indulgences. Fans of Judy Garland enjoy comparing the two ladies
but other than a flair for the dramatic, we really couldn't agree.
Both gals may have been rather needy in an obvious sort of way,
but Piaf remained first and foremost a great singer throughout her
career. In fact, it's amazing how few musical duds there are on
this nine-CD set.
by chance you're not familiar with Piaf, she had a strong voice
and a particular way of phrasing. When angry, she almost spits out
the lyrics. She was also an incredibly intimate singer, so much
so that when we play her records, our dog, Victor Hugo, comes running
into the room and stares at the loudspeaker. Maybe he was a poodle
in his last life.
for us, Edith was The Great Piaf almost immediately, so the arrangements
and recording quality of these discs are both great. The highlights
on this set are many, but along with the big numbers like Non,
Je Ne Regrette Rien, Milord and La Vie en Rose, we particularly
like Adieu Mon Coeur, Je T'ai dans la Peau and C'est L'amour.
Early on we noticed that longtime friend Marguerite Monnot, who
knew her way around a good hook, wrote her best songs. Unfortunately,
much of their work together was recorded before 1946, so great songs
like Mon Legionnaire must be purchased separately. There's
a Polygram label set available of this early work.
so many of her recordings were great, it would be safe to purchase
one of the countless compilation discs. But to stick to these Greatest
Hits packages would be to miss a lot of less popular but equally
spectacular music. Keep in mind we're a bit lunatique, but
we wouldn't be without the complete sets.
Piaf legend is well-documented. There are many good biographies
available and they make for good reading. She liked her men and
her booze, and like Judy Garland, she was pretty much a mess. But
oh, what a voice!
Y'a D'la Joie: Intégrale Charles Trénet Vol. 2
Frémeaux & Assoc FA082
Boum!: Intégrale Charles Trénet Vol. 3
Frémeaux & Assoc FA083
of us know Charles Trénet as the composer of La Mer and Que
Reste-t-il de nos Amours. In English, La Mer went from
being a sweet inspirational ditty to Bobby Darin's seminal '50s
big band hit Beyond the Sea. Que Reste-t-il de nos Amours
became I Wish You Love, covered by everyone from Marlene
Dietrich to Barbra Streisand and it provided Keely Smith with a
both songs are great examples of French songwriting at its best,
we find the years before the war Trénet's best. While all good Frenchmen
can easily identify hits like Je Chante, Boum!, Fleur Bleue
and Y'a d'la Joie, these songs are relatively obscure beyond
French shores, and it's a mystery why. Trénet wrote melodies with
great hooks and his good-natured delivery and sense of showmanship
should have been easily exported. After the war, Trénet went a bit
sentimental and lost much of his edge, writing a few good songs
(like La Mer and Coin de Rue), but too often
sappy tributes to France or the good old days of le music hall.
started out his career in 1932 as part of the duo Charles et Johnny
with Swiss pianist Johnny Hess. The fellows were having a tough
time of things until Josephine Baker convinced producers to include
them in a show called Paris-Madrid. The records these two
made are apparently very entertaining but to someone who doesn't
speak French, their appeal is limited. Hess is a fine pianist and
it's obvious the boys are having a good time, but the songs are
virtually all novelty numbers with thin melodies that depend heavily
on the lyrics. After a couple of tracks one yearns for something
with a little more meat. If your French is good, you'll enjoy Charles
et Johnny: Intégrale Charles Trénet Vol. 1 (Frémeaux & Assoc
FA 081) but the rest of us should pass, especially if you get Boum!:
Intégrale Charles Trenet Vol. 2 because it includes 14 songs
by Charles et Johnny.
Trénet went solo, he had great success giving two other artists
perhaps their most memorable songs. For dreamy Jean Sablon, the
French Bing Crosby, he wrote, to our ears, one of the best songs
of the century, Vous Qui Passez Sans me Voir (1936). For
Maurice Chevalier, he wrote Y'a d'la Joie (1937). He then
wrote and recorded one of the best show-stoppers ever, Je Chante,
followed by a string of great songs like Fleuer Bleu, J'ai ta
Main and Boum! He was so popular that films were created
around his songs but the magic heard on records and in concert didn't
make it to the screen. Still, his success was enough of a threat
that Chevalier dropped Y'a D'la Joie from his act and refused
to sing the moving ballad Menilmontant that Trénet had written
for him. Chevalier's loss is our gain as Trénet's version must be
superior to anything Chevalier would have attempted. Trénet went
on to become one of the French greats, certainly as important as
Chevalier in the story of French song, just not quite as exportable.
stands out for several reasons. His personality was of a gentle
buffoon yet he wrote incredibly beautiful melodies around his clowning.
What's even more unusual for his time is that he both wrote and
performed, a practice not generally attempted until the singer/songwriter
era of the late 1960s. Like Edith Piaf, we find it amazing how well
the music works without the listener understanding the language.
Angel release, Antholgie, is available internationally as
a single or double set and is probably a good place to start if
you've never heard Trénet. It has all of his hits from 1937-1958
so the appeal dims about halfway through, but it's a good overview
and the sound is very good. The Frémeaux & Associate releases
are all double CD sets and feature Charles Trénet and his contemporaries
performing his songs. As mentioned above, Volume 1 is for
serious fans only, but the other two are all-around swell. We've
just learned of a Volume 4, which should be available by
the time you read this.
had a rich full life, but some of our strongest memories include
the bittersweet feelings of a last morning in Paris, hearing Menilmontant
in our head as we bid a silent dramatic adieu to life on holiday.
Perhaps it's best to remember driving through the French countryside
with a good pal, singing along full voice to Je Chante in
our auto; the hot Provençal breeze filling our lungs with inspiration.
Granted, the result was closer to speaking in tongues than the French
language but you really should have been there.