France

G. Fouquet – The Mucha Room at the Musée Carnavalet, Paris

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In 1901, at 6 rue Royale, off the Place de la Concorde in Paris’ 8th arrondissement, was the storefront and gallery of a perfumer (or bijoutier) named Georges Fouquet, whose celebrated concoctions had been exhibited at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle.  The elaborate embellishments of both the interior and the exterior, along with the furnishings, stained glass, and tile, were designed by the legendary art nouveau master Alphonse Mucha.  When the building came up for demolition in 1923 Fouquet had the shop dismantled and in 1938 it was given in its entirety to the Musée Carnavalet, where it remains to this day.

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 The Musée Carnavalet is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am – 6 pm (5 pm last admission), and admission is free.  More info available here.

Hôtel Carnavalet
16, rue des Francs-Bourgeois
75003 Paris


LINKS

La boutique du bijoutier Georges Fouquet at the Musée Carnavalet website
Boutique Fouquet at MuchaFoundation.org
Bijouterie Fouquet on Wikipedia.fr
Other works by Alphonse Mucha on Wikimedia Commons

Franglish – Part I

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After about a year and a half total in France I have a small collection of “Franglish” pictures, so I thought I’d share some of the highlights. These are all 100% real things that I’ve found being sold in grocery/department stores throughout the country.

There are some that seem like they were made by putting various English phrases into a hat and just printing whichever got pulled out:

Some that are mistranslations:

IMG_6114“Washable Lint Roller”

Some that are just deeply unfortunate:

IMG_3884Mmm… Human Cola Light…

And there are the ones that do strange mash-ups or just insert English words into the names of the products:

I think Durex might be confused about what jeans are…

The best though, by far, are the t-shirts.  One of my favorites (though sadly I don’t have a picture) just said “Detroit, New York City”.  A close runner-up though, is this beauty:

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And then there’s this amazing, wonderful thing, on which I counted no fewer than 40 clichés, truisms, slogans, and song lyrics, complete with typos and grammatical errors:

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More soon (when I get the chance)!

Chez McDo

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Right when you walk in, you can tell you’re not at a truck stop on the border with Kansas any more. The French incarnation of McDonald’s has wallpaper, it’s got light fixtures, it’s got plants, and it’s altogether different from the injection-molded booths, fluorescent lighting, and off-white tiled floors of the American version I remember.

You might think it’s just a haven for nostalgic expats and curious tourists from countries where the franchise doesn’t exist, but let me assure you, Chez McDo is very popular with the French.  The company’s website boasts that it operates more than 1,285 restaurants in the country, at which it serves nearly 1.8 million meals a day.  Anecdotally, every time that I’ve had occasion to visit (mostly for the free and unlimited wifi), the place has been packed.

If the lines are too long, or you’re just feeling anti-social, you can order and pay at one of a half dozen kiosks equipped with credit card readers and touchscreen computers, and afterwards you can pick up your meal in the purpose-dedicated express lane. But there’s no compulsion to avoid the counter; the staff is quick, cordial, and professional.

When you get to the menu, the differences compound. There’s Le Big Mac, of course, and the McChicken (although in Franc everything is “Mac” rather than “Mic”), and there’s the famous Royale with Cheese, although it’s actually just Royale Cheese, sanks to ze French aversion to ze phoneme “th”. Those, however, along with their signature fries and the majority of the soft drinks are the the last of the similarities.

There are several items suited especially for the French palate; though there are McDonald’s burgers around the world, I’m fairly sure that France is the only place you’ll find one with sauce Béarnaise, served on a baguette, or topped with chèvre. And there is a version of the Croque Monsieur, known of course as the Croque McDo.

If you don’t fancy a soda to wash it all down then beer is available, in the form of Heineken and 1664 (though for the time being there is no such thing as McVin), as is Badoit, a brand of sparkling mineral water.

When it arrives on the tray, it looks and tastes very nearly like food. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing gourmet; it’s still fast food and it still gives you the McGas. But it tends to approximate what’s on the picture, and you can eat it without feeling that you’re the punchline of some elaborate practical joke. The portions are of reasonable size for a human– the largest is about the equivalent of an American medium, and Super Size is nowhere in sight.

As you eat, you begin to realize what else isn’t there: there’s no Ronald, no Grimace, no Hamburgler. There are the jungle gyms, yes, and a few balloons, but the childish aspect doesn’t take over and the kids, too, are treated with a modicum of dignity; the prizes in the Happy Meals aren’t just cheap plastic toys, they’re often board games and DVDs. I mean, I lived through the Beanie Baby craze, so it’s strange to see the chain distributing something one could be glad to receive without displaying a profound mental illness.

And that’s what really surprises me about all of this. It’s been so long since I was actually inside a McDonald’s in my home country that I can’t say for certain whether the changes in atmosphere and the decline in corporate cynicism have made it across the pond. Perhaps there too, in the wake of Super Size Me and the criticisms of those who would call a spade a spade, McDonald’s has changed its tune.

But there was a time in America, whether it’s passed or not, when it was as though McDonald’s was punishing you for giving them your money. The food they served was a shriveled and sickly-sweet mess. There was something predatory in the way they treated families, trying to get at the wallets of parents by driving the little ones to a manic and rabid distraction. Their wages and business practices attracted only the desperate. The place itself smelled of many things, but the heart cord of its perfume was despair.

This is the McDonald’s I remember outgrowing, and for that reason in particular the most surreal thing about Chez McDo isn’t the McCafé breakfast, which is stocked with better-than-average tarts, macaroons, and croissants rather than McBiscuits, McMuffins, or McGriddles.  It isn’t the odd way that English words reintroduce themselves, such as a large combo being a “Menu Maxi Best Of”, or a particular dessert being called a “Very Parfait.”  It isn’t seeing American culture depicted in sandwich form, with burgers called the McFarmer, McRancher, and McPioneer (for full effect, I recommend reading these out loud in your best French accent).  It’s the fact that you can actually consider it as an option for a quick meal, and that if you decide to give it a go, you’ll be able munch away and get out of there with your dignity intact.

I think if it proves anything, the existence of this kinder, (cleaner,) friendlier version of what was once the epitome of all that is wrong with corporatism and American dietary sensibility proves that corporations will try as hard as they have to in order to profit, and it shows that if our standards are high enough and if we vote with our dollars, we can all make them treat us the way that they should.

It may not be the greatest restaurant in the world, and it certainly isn’t somewhere that I make a habit out of going, but the French McDonald’s is at least as good as fast food can be, and really, that’s all it had to be in the first place.

You Don’t Have to Be Charlie, But You Must Fight for Those Who Are

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Last Saturday night (or, well, I suppose by then it was Sunday morning) I found myself in the kitchen of a Parisian apartment, in the genial company of wine, music, and conversation, and as the latter found its way through the former to the infamous assault on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, I took the opportunity to enjoy what may be the most pleasant form of argument– one with someone who agrees with me, but perhaps doesn’t agree with me enough.

By the time I arrived in France, in the week following the attack, the drama of the event had already concluded. The killers were dead, the public had rallied, and all that remained, so it seemed, for the return to business-as-usual in a free society was the million-strong publication, on schedule, of the “journal irresponsable”’s next edition.

I hadn’t written on the subject, and didn’t intend to, because I thought it was well in hand with others. The coverage was thorough, and the case for free speech against such a blatant and obvious foe was well-enunciated by all. I shared common cause, indeed, but it seemed opportunistic to snatch at the low-hanging fruit by echoing what everyone had already demonstrated that they knew, and somewhat hollow simply to issue my praise to the French for their displays of solidarity and support (well-deserved though that praise would be).

But now I think there is something left to be said, in particular to those who equivocate their support for free expression in society, and who nurse an embarrassment over what other people do with it. As always, the radical position must criticize the liberal position.

My friend had submitted, somewhat murkily, that it was a question of different values, and in the lull of our agreement, when I tested the waters by saying, “Yes, but we shouldn’t be afraid to assert that our values are the correct ones,” he winced slightly. He had taken the position that, horrible and intolerable though the attack was, the cartoonists had brought it upon themselves by going too far; “[they] crossed the line,” and worse, they did it “too many times.” I countered with the idea that, however important these “lines” may be to individuals, whether in terms of religious sanctity or of social propriety of any kind, it’s a free society’s job to maintain that no such lines exist, and that these codes of piety can’t be enforced on the group. This much he conceded, but he was still uncomfortable with the idea that the sanctity of other people’s religious faith had been compromised, and he seemed to wish for an admonished societal correction after which we all would be more polite.

When it’s media outlets refusing to reprint the cartoons in question (something that Charlie was brave enough to do with the Danish cartoons in 2005), or a feeble politician failing to assert the values of the society they represent, it’s appropriate to see this position as cowardice. But when I put it directly to my friend whether the capitulations of political sensitivity are motivated by concession or fear, and he said, “concession,” it was true. He was one, like many, who admired religious devotion in itself, and who felt alienated from a society that allows the objects of that devotion to be denigrated.

But it’s different for an individual invited into the home of a religious person, over tea or dinner, perhaps, than it is for a public magazine. Yes, Charlie Hebdo frequently said things that you might not say in the polite company of a devout religious person, things that even I might not say in the same situation. Yes, if we approached the subject we might handle it more gracefully, more delicately for the sake of the person with whom we were speaking. But just because we find such decorum admirable in individuals doesn’t mean we can demand it from society.

Perhaps it’s an effect of the personalized tone of media and advertising, the way mass communications are almost unfailingly directed at the impersonal “you”, but people seem to volunteer the idea that the existence of blasphemous materials in media is the same as running into a mosque and interrupting a prayer service to wave incendiary cartoons in people’s faces. I assure you, it is not.

A secular society doesn’t demand that no one is religious, or that no one treats archaic objects and texts with the reverence for which they were designed. In fact it specifically makes room for, and guards from discrimination, those who do. It simply demands that no one is compelled to do likewise, and that’s what this whole thing is about.

Pluralism, the right to live and let live, is one of our values, and the likes of the murderers in this case and jihadis of all types are not fighting for the right to be treated pluralistically. They are not fighting to exclude only the most acerbic mockeries from public consideration. They are fighting for the day when a death sentence for any criticism at all will be the norm. They are fighting, if their own words can be believed, for the day when their beliefs are the singularity.

That’s what gets lost in the question of sensitivity and the self-flagellation over the fear of some kind of cultural collateral damage. For the thoughtfully and authentically faithful, the brash and pointed satire of this kind may be a nuisance or, at most, a challenge. For the idealized, good-hearted Islamic grandmother who doesn’t care what other people believe and wouldn’t hurt a fly, at worst it might be an undue insult, for which we all must be apologetic. But for the would-be dictatorial administrators of theocratic fascism, it’s the clearest way of saying that their day will never come, and that is too important to do without.

We have to preserve the right, in principal and in practice, to treat these things without sensitivity, without grace, and without a respectful, enlightened, congenial tone. In short, we have to preserve the right to be crass. When it is sinisterly and bullingly implied that we all should genuflect before someone else’s god, we have to say then more than ever that the appropriate response isn’t, “No, thank you.” It’s, “up your nose with a rubber hose, you dirty son of a bitch.”

You don’t have to be Charlie, but in order to maintain the backbone of a free society, you must fight for those who are.


Incidentally, I can report that the demand for that new issue I mentioned has been very high; a lot of places have started waiting lists and many people have been placing orders for copies in advance.

Also, as I searched for images of the cartoons I found I was unsure of which to post– it appears that, unlike the case of the Danish cartoons which were about a specific set of drawings, the killings were in response to Charlie Hebdo’s Islamic cartoons in general; I have reposted what appear to have been the greatest offenders below, and I’ll update the post if I find any that I’ve left out.  If you haven’t seen them yet, this is what all the fuss was about:

All images property of Charlie Hebdo.