Tuesday, March 31, 2009

France

The Bayeux Tapestry is a thousand-year old cartoon strip with a thrilling plot and much graphic violence. There’s also a little bit of sex in the marginalia. It is one of the greatest artistic wonders of western civilisation. Or so they tell you - actually much of it is pretty shoddy; the proportion and perspective are all over the place. However, we generously overlook these things because we take the view that our 11th Century ancestor was a simple, primitive sort of chap and, much like the talking dog, the impressive thing is not so much how well he does it but the fact that he does it at all.

We are able to take this rather condescending line because fortunately we are at the very peak of human civilisation, and in another millennium hence our descendents will certainly not look back at our world – with our Twittering, our Agnostic Buses, our complete understanding of anthropogenic global warming, our End of History and our iPhones – and offer a patronising chuckle and pat on the head.

Anyway, even though the Bayeux Tapestry is rightfully British, it dwells in a strange foreign country called ‘France’. You may have heard of it. It is reached by a gruelling ocean voyage, and long and arduous the time was, tossing and turning on the fretful seas with only an over-priced bar, some duty-free shops, three restaurants and two cinemas to pass the six or seven hours, ere we spied land. There was also a disco full of French students dancing to YMCA – a tune with accompanying actions cooked up a couple of decades before they were born. Well at least that’s one thing that we can say with confidence our descendents 1000 years hence will still be doing. Our era will be remembered as the one that gave to Eternity the Village People, and until the final heat death of the universe, space station cantinas across the galaxies will see strange and terrible creatures whooping gleefully onto the dance floor when that “baaa ba ba” horn intro starts, all impatient to arrange their various tentacles and bionic limbs into the shape of a Y, an M, a C and an A as they bop.

Well since we were in France anyway we decided to do a few of the essential French things, such as: mooching jealously and gloomily round a market full of outstanding produce and casual animal cruelty; eating croissants; drinking cheapish vin rouge; and making various traumatic visits to what pass for public lavatories.

We also found time to have an evening meal in Ouistreham with some quite delicious food and perhaps the rudest service I’ve ever encountered. It was rude in that spectacular way that you can still only find in France: a total disregard for the wishes or comfort of the customer and a blank and immovable refusal to make even the slightest deviation from the menu. The Great Gallic Non. In Britain, that expert kind of rudeness is very much a dying art, so coming up against it is a shock to the system. God knows what the Americans make of it – for Yanks, a menu is merely a starting point for negotiations, not a take-it-or-leave-it-buster ultimatum. We left a tip of zilch, which I think I’ve only done twice before in my life.

Of course, if there is any area in this world where the locals have no right to be rude to the Brits, it is Normandy. We visited the D-Day landing beaches, Pegasus Bridge and the British cemetery at Bayeux. Scanning the ages on the headstones was a grim business: 20, 21, 19, 19, 23... That’s a lot of young English lads, and their lost and never-to-be marriages and children, grandchildren, now great-grandchildren. Sometimes I wonder if it’s still obscenely early to be forgiving about all this. But of course we’re embarrassed about our pensioners and their outdated xenophobic prejudices; we see them as archaic, primitive as Norman and Saxons. The machine-gun violence still isn’t as amusing as Harold Godwinson getting an arrow in the eye, but give it another millennium and you never know.

Be that as it may, we liberated the ungrateful Frogs in 1944 and left them to carry on their wicked ways unmolested. They’re aliens, honestly. Strolling through Bayeux the penny dropped, though no doubt you’ve had the same insight at one time or another. The difference between Britain and France, the crux of the opposition of souls, lies in the patisseries. Where there is a row of competing businesses in England, the result is innovation. Special offers! Buy X Get Y Half Price! Above all… NEW NEW NEW! Try our exciting new blueberry, avocado and chilli flavour! Try the latest import from Outer Mongolia!

There’s no NEW! in France. All the patisseries in the row sell exactly the same croissants, pan au chocolats and prissy little tartlets as everyone else, feeding the monoculture what it wants, has always wanted, will always want. France is convinced it has achieved the last word in civilisation and is determined to preserve it without deviation or hesitation and with as much repetition as possible. It is admirable, tragic, heroic, depressing, suffocating, exhausting. In France, there is No Future.

14 comments:

Kev said...

The impresssion I get is that the French, along with the Spanish and the Italians appear to have long been convinced that they live the greatest country in world. The weather, the landscape, the food, the lifestyle all seem to them to be superior to anything available elsewhere and incapable of improvement. Of course little things like their economies and political systems don't, in any traditional sense of the word, work but I'm sure that they would tell you that the things that matter do. I think, all things considered, that they have a strong case.

martpol said...

And yet, and yet...

I often think that if I could live in any country in the world, it would be Italy or France. Of course I have no ACTUAL experience of living there so politics, economics and linguistics might well be nigh-on insurmountable obstacles.

But the sheer unwillingness to compromise is in some ways admirable. There is nowhere in Britain that you can be guaranteed of cheap, well-prepared and exquisite food in the way that you can in Tuscany or Provence. People LEAK local pride, and in many cases national pride; and I find it is often pride in one's country to be and to produce a thing of beauty, not (or rather not just) that kind of negative, general nationalism underscored with resentful malice that the Britons can do so well.

Brit said...

Whenever I go on holiday somewhere I always think "Gosh I should live here and do this every day." Then I realise that what I really want to do is be on holiday every day, and if I moved to France or Spain or Jamaica or wherever, I would have to get a job, which would ruin the whole thing.

that kind of negative, general nationalism underscored with resentful malice that the Britons can do so well

Hm...pretty sure Britons don't have a monopoly on it though. Try the waiters of Ouistreham for a start.

Nige said...

Yes to all that (and also to Martpool's And yet...). I fear it might not be YMCA that is the last song standing when humanity finally goes under, but Agadoo, which I note has just been 'remixed'. Compared to Agadoo, YMCA is a fantastically subtle work of art.

David said...

Well, thanks for that, Nige. I hadn't previously had the pleasure.

That prompts me to suggest the following distinction between Britain and France. One must go to France to sample France at its best; for the best of Britain, one must stay in America.

Brit said...

Sounds good, David, quite Wildean. But what does it mean? Is it a reference to Christopher Hitchens perhaps?

Whatever, I'm now singing it to the tune of Agadoo:


Ooooone muuust.....
go to France, to-oo sample France at-its-best,
For the best of Britain, one must stay in-America!
To the left to the right, jump up and down and to the knees...

Peter Burnet said...

The French over here also refuse to compromise and are equally well-known for LEAKING local and national pride, generally at a hundred decibels. As to well-prepared and exquisite food, maybe not so much.

martpol said...

Peter:

Good God. I can't believe the French would stand for that in France itself.

Brit said...

Oh yeah? France is the most profitable country for McDonalds outside the US. FACT!

David said...

Brit: It means that Agadoo never made it to the States.

malty said...

Right then venerable rosbeef, I have scrutinised, analysed and finally anodised your post, you've been visiting frogland, the Germans favourite sub contractors circa 1940-45, they were paid of course, handsomely.
It seems that their lack of civility somewhat irked. Told you so, that strutting toss-pot De Gaulle started it.
Anyhoo, as the female faction of the family are at this very moment disporting themselves among the seafront dives of Nice I have this very evening instructed them via the nightly link that, as from tomorrow, they are to hurl abuse at the local froggies, to argue tooth and nail over prices and generally cock a snook at 'em.
Doubt it will happen though, one of the people they are visiting is sort of, local.
Consider the plight of the good folk of yesteryear, you see an interesting event, knock up a quick sketch, dash back home, start the local widders off with frame, canvas, needle and thread, twenty years later, its finished, fuck me, the walls too small, get the local builder in, quick sketch, twenty years later the chateau's finished, next day you drop down dead.
Viva Coolpix.

elberry said...

The only time i've been in France - a motorway service station - i was served by a lovely girl who warned me my cup of hot milk (ordered by mistake, i only recognised chaud and wanted something chaud, lait i couldn't remember) was hot.

The Italians i've always found pleasingly just themselves. If they're surly, which they often are, it somehow doesn't seem as malevolent as it is with the English. But they are definitely utterly uninterested in other cultures.

Recusant said...

Good God Malty, I realise that the proprietors might have named their establishment tongue-in-cheek, but wouldn't it give the customers second thoughts about patronising it?@

malty said...

The odd thing is Recusant. the Belhi is a very popular eatery among the local young and not wealthy, its also the unofficial canteen for Toyota, who have a design studio in the town.