Vacation! I don't want to make my non-French readers jealous
or anything but you've got to hand it to the French: With 6 to
8 weeks of paid vacation a year, they're way out there in terms
of working to live rather than living to work.
No self-respecting French person
would even relate to the latter.
Life is to be lived. Work is
what you do to make money to live better.
Of course there are always a
few French people who don't totally subscribe to this theory.
And as fate would have it, I
just happened to marry one of them.
My particular Frenchman jumps
out of bed at 7 a.m. and never leaves the house later than 7:30
so he can be first at the office to start his day. He almost
never gets home before 8 p.m. (It used to be 9 pm. Things have
And that's not all: He rarely
takes one of those famous three-hour French business lunches
and when he does, he gets right down to business between the
poire et le fromage.
For my husband and others like
him, and there are more than one might think, the mandatory imposition
of the 35 hour work week is a farce and a fallacy - fine for
clerical workers or others whose jobs fit neatly into the category
but impossible for doctors, lawyers, businessmen, entrepreneurs
(yes, the French have entrepreneurs in spite of George Bush's
famous line "the French don't even have a word for entrepreneur").
To my mate's credit, when he
doesn't work, he doesn't think about work. And since he's French
and a French history buff, going on a trip in France with him
is like being hooked up to an encyclopaedia, a living, walking,
breathing, and funny encylopaedia.
Now that our sons are grown and
on their own, we generally take our vacations in June or September,
far from the madding crowds. This year it was September, a trip
to the Haut Var region of Provence where we spent ten days in
a bed and breakfast on top of a mountain in a little medieval
Nothing to do but take long walks,
read books, stroll around the hamlet of 20 souls, occasionally
get in the car and drive to a nearby town. Another activity was
watching the guesthouse owner's dog, Mona, bark at the cats when
they would get up on the roof. When I remarked that Mona seemed
most conscientious, she explained that Mona had been trained
as a guide dog to the blind and then abandoned. Retaining her
powerful sense of duty, Mona watched over the owner's son when
he was at the tree-climbing age and now that he's no longer around,
she has switched her attention to the cats. Between such laborious
activities as watching Mona and or catching magnificent sunrises
or sunsets and ending the day with a convivial repast with other
guests, time passed only too quickly.
Getting there didn't, though.
We decided to take the slow road to our destination. Instead
of whipping down the "autoroute" in a frenzy, we got
off of it and meandered south from Paris through the beautiful
Beaujolais region near Lyons. This area is sometimes called "the
Tuscany of France" because of its gently rolling hills and
the warm yellow stone of its houses. When my husband was a student
in Lyons, he and his friends would often spend week-ends in the
Beaujolais drinking...Beaujolais, of course.
In fact, the Beaujolais most
of us know is the "Beaujolais nouveau" that comes out
with great fanfare every year in November. There's better than
that, though, as we know from dipping into a wonderful Julienas
with our tasty meal at Au Coq Julienas in the town of the same
name. For 22.50 euros, thirty-five year old chef Luc Dervieux
served up a delicious "jambon persillé à la
bourgignonne, crème légère et moutarde à
l'ancienne" for me and a "terrine de pintade aux lentilles
confites au vin rouge, salade frisée", for my husband,
followed by "petite friture" for me and a "pavé
de thon roti au sesame and fondu de courgettes au soja"
for my husband. We followed this up with "fromage blanc
à la crème", my husband's favorite dessert,
and a "charlotte aux mirabelles et son coulis", for
The Beaujolais is a tiny little
territory of small roads winding through the wineyards that cover
the hills starting from the roadsides. The wines, which bear
the poetic names of St. Amour, Julienas, Morgon, Chiroubles,
Chenas, Brouilly, Cotes de Brouilly, Regnie, Fleurie and Moulin
à Vent are named after the charming villages that dot
And those hills are steep! In
spite or because of this, many tourists go on bike trips through
the Beaujolais. A few years ago I met a woman who was tucking
into a huge five-course meal in the same restaurant I was in.
She told me that she had been cycling all day long and was famished.
"How do you put away all that food and get back up on the
bike the next day?" I asked. "We have porters,"
she replied, "so they carry our bags to the next stop and
all we have to do is get there." Still....as the French
say, "il faut le faire" (it ain't easy!).
My husband and I didn't worry
about taking a bike the next day as we gaily plowed through our
Julienas. And did we ever sleep well in our hotel in the middle
of the vineyards! As we left the Beaujolais, the morning mist
gave a ghostlike aspect to the huge amber-toned properties in
the vineyards and then the sun came out, revealing the empty
roads which in the next two days would be clogged with the cars
and trucks of the wine harvesters. With a twinge of regret, we
left this magic kingdom of red-tiled roofs and vineyards marching
up the hills with and hollyhocks, geraniums, and roses at every
On we drove towards Bourg-en-Bresse
(known for the poulet de Bresse),through a flat land called the
Dombes (which means ponds) punctuated with high corn and sunflowers.
then Chambéry, where Rousseau spent a big chunk of time
with his mistress Madame de Warens, and Grenoble, known for high
tech and the great French writer Stendhal.
We skirted Grenoble and headed
toward the Vercors, a spectacularly beautiful mountainous plateau
known for two things, one pleasant, one tragic. The first is
that it is a popular downhill and crosscountry skiing area. The
second is that during World War II it was the site of one of
the most horrendous massacres perpetrated by the Nazis. The Resistants
thought that they were protected by the mountains and the tortured
terrain. What they didn't reckon on was that the Nazis would
literally drop in from the sky in parachutes, fan out, and kill
both the Resistants and innocent civilians. The Resistance Museum
in Vassieux graphically tells the entire gruesome story, not,
as its founder notes, in a spirit of revenge but so that history
will not repeat itself.
By the time we arrived at our
bed and breakfast in Provence, we were ready for a rest. We knew
that many boutiques and restaurants had closed down in September
but we weren't prepared for the fact that when you went to get
a newspaper or an apple, the shop would be closed for no apparent
reason without even a sign telling you when it would re-open.
My French husband was appalled.
"No one in this country works!" he exclaimed.
By "country", he meant
the south of France as opposed to the North. "At least north
of the Loire they put a sign on the door telling you when they'll
We were indeed out of luck almost
everywhere we went. Getting a newspaper became the major event
of the day. Would we find one? Or would our hopes be dashed?
It was as if an evil hand had spread a poisonous gas over the
land. (Or were those just the reflections of two Parisians used
to kiosks at every corner?)
Finally, in a village so tiny
you'd pass it if your mind wandered a minute, we triumphantly
spied a gas station cum postcard/newspaper/bar that was open.
We were practically on our knees
with gratitude. As we paid for our purchases, my husband commented
that he was happy to have found this spot because no other stores
"I need to work," the
lady behind the counter said, matter-of-factly.
Which means that there's a lot
of people down there who don't. Well, Peter Mayle already wrote
the book on that. I wish I had!
Ever heard of Jane Birkin? The
British-born daughter of Major David Birkin, a hero in WWII,
and actress-singer Judy Campell whom photographer Cecil Beaton
called "the most beautiful woman in England, Jane is best-known
in France for her frisky relationship with France's famous composer
Serge Gainsbourg who wrote many songs for her. Since his death
in ---, Jane has come into her own, both as a singer and actress
and a champion of humanitarian causes.
At a recent press conference
at the Alcazar bar in the Latin Quarter, Jane spoke about her
upcoming tour to the U.S., Canada and Mexico to promote her latest
album "Arabesque". Describing it, she commented that
she's "an English person singing French songs with an Arab
But gigs in New York and L.A.
are only one part of Jane's work which also takes her on humanitarian
missions to prisons in the suburbs of Paris and Marseille, to
Tel Aviv, Gaza, and Ramallah, to Sarajevo and Rwanda, and soon,
she hopes, to Haiti.
Although Jane just received knighthood
in Paris, she said she doesn't aspire to the highest honor, the
Legion d'Honneur, "because in the War my father was a spy,
a navigator who did dropoffs and pickups, running 45 missions
at night." For Jane, "my father was a hero and only
heroes get the Legion d'Honneur." But, she added: "My
father said the real heroes were the Bretons who were extremely
brave and silent and never refused giving shelter to English
aviators in spite of the danger."
It was strange to sit in the
Alcazar chatting with Jane, now a grandmother, an intelligent,
serious and funny person, belying the fluffy little girl image
she projected when young and with Gainsbourg. She looks back
on those days with fondness - all night long hopping from one
Paris bar to another, ending up for breakfast with their children,
and then going to bed at dawn.
A typical line from Jane, who
loves New York and vows she'd live there if she didn't live in
Paris: "I thought there was a lot of prostitution in New
York before I realized that all those women out there on the
sidewalks were smoking!"
Two last questions before we
left: Has the French song had its heyday? "Not at all!"
says Jane. "There's a new generation of singers coming along
and they are fantastic."
And last but not least: "What's
it like to have a Hermes bag named after you?" Jane laughed:
"I made the Hermes basket popular but my stuff kept falling
out of the one I had. Once, as I was boarding the Concorde, a
gentleman watching me said, 'What a mess!'. I replied that I
loved the bag but it needed pockets. The man said, 'I'll do it."
It turned out that my interlocutor was Jean-Louis Dumas, the
Chairman of Hermes! He made good on his promise and the purse
is indeed named after me."
"When I sang in New York
City, people said: "Jane Birkin?" "Like the bag?"
for an elegant non-traditional lunch? Try Spoon, Alain Ducasse's fusion food restaurant
right off the Champs-Elysées on the rue Marignan.
Although I had memories of a
wonderful wine tasting at Spoon with Ducasse's sommelier, Gerard
Margeon, when I was writing my book French Fried, I somehow never
got around to eating there.
That was remedied with an invitation
from a visitor from San Francisco who had read my book, dreamed
of going to Spoon, and invited me to join him.
We were both surprised, he because
the décor reminded him of a San Francisco restaurant,
and I, because I couldn't figure out how the menu worked.
Not to worry: we settled on a
tapas menu called Spoonsum and had nothing else to do except
sit back and relax as a succession of small dishes - creamy soups,
rosy salmon, artfully cut vegetables, Chinese noodles, mini spareribs
- kept coming out of the kitchen. My friend's comment: It's like
a French take on Dim Sum. Very pushed up," Naturally, there
were chopsticks along with the knife and fork but there was also
a....spork, a combination fork and spoon I had never seen before
in my life.
But the stunner was yet to come:
bubble gum ice cream. Yes, I know, it sounds positively disgusting
and so unFrench you can't even believe it but it WAS French and
it WAS good. That's because six-star Chef Alain Ducasse is a
creative genius and afraid of nothing.
OK, I wouldn't hang out at Spoon
every day for the main and simple reason that I couldn't afford
it (count a good 80 euros per person and more if you're having
a bottle of wine) but it was a memorable experience and the food
was not only interesting but tasty and good and the service impeccable.
Oh yes, I forgot: I offered a
taste of the bubble gum ice cream to the urbane French gentlemen
who was with us.
He politely declined with a very
French wave of the hand.
"Je vous laisse le plaisir"
(I'll leave the pleasure to you)", he said, with an expression
of horror and amusement on his face in spite of his best efforts.
Well, hey, all Frenchmen can't
be Alain Ducasse, inventing sporks and serving up bubble gum
Mousse au chocolat, anyone?