petite anglaise

November 23, 2004

tales from the goldfish bowl

Filed under: city of light — bipolarinparis @ 11:29 am

Once upon a time, I had a holiday job working in a Thomas Cook foreign exchange bureau on the rue de Rivoli, opposite the Jardin des Tuileries.

It is fortunate that I do not suffer from claustrophobia, because this involved being locked in all day behind the (probably not) bulletproof glass (because the safety instructions mentioned ducking as well as pressing the panic button) until a security man came to let me out in the evening. And the office was rather cramped.

Fun aspects of this job were that I got to open a proper combination safe every morning – like in a James Bond film: 10 to the left, 100 to the right – to get my hands on the cash stash. Then there was the fact that I could read a book when there were slack spells, or sing along to the radio, and no-one saw/heard. I also got an (albeit small) thrill from wheeling and dealing. The French Franc was in its death throes and consequently the exchange bureaus were all in fierce competition with one another to make as much money as possible before the introduction of the euro wiped out half of their business. In order to win over customers who were wisely shopping around before changing their money I had to haggle. The rate shown on the board was for mugs. My goal was to entice people to change more cash so that I could give them a (slightly) better rate. I pretended to do lots of complicated sums on my calculator and this usually did the trick.

Bad things about the job were that I had to deal with a lot of very dodgy/ignorant people on a daily basis. There were the gypsy ladies who probably put Romany curses on me when I refused to change their huge bags of centimes into Francs (I wasn’t allowed to) and hassled my customers. Being in a glass bowl like a goldfish makes you rather impotent in such situations . There were shifty looking men (pimps?) who came to change vast amounts of low denomination dollar bills late at night, and didn’t take too kindly to my confiscating the forgeries that they had slipped in for good measure. (I was trained to recognise forged dollars: a missing tree here, insufficient detail on a president’s face there.)

Then there were the tourists. Some of the things they came out with left me speechless.

Female tourist: ‘Honey, I don’t understand. Can you tell me why the restaurant over there won’t accept dollars?’
Petite : ‘Ah. That’ll be because you are in France and the only legal tender in France is the French Franc…’

I then proceeded to change her dollars at the rate on the board because clearly this customer would not be doing any negotiating.

or

Female tourist to French colleague: ‘Oh my gawd, isn’t it cute the way everyone speaks French here? Y’all are so clever.’

I struggled to make sense of this one. Finally realisation dawned that she thought that every human being was born speaking English and that French people had learnt French as a second language from an early age. No really. That was what she meant.

The most distressing part of the job was however the International Money Transfer service. How I hated taking hard earned cash from some poor immigrant worker and sending a tiny fraction of it home to their needy relatives. Those services are outrageously expensive, but people without bank accounts have very little alternative but to use them. When I was working alone I broke the rules by trying to explain the cost of each transaction, but either I couldn’t make myself understood or the customer knew but wanted to send it regardless.

If you are travelling to France with large amounts of cash or travellers cheques, a word of warning. Life is harder for exchange bureaus these days, and they are consequently meaner. Don’t assume that because you have euro denomination cheques they will be exchanged without commission. I learnt this to my cost when my well meaning mum gave Tadpole some money in M&S Travellers cheques. There was a 10% charge. I was livid. No negotiation possible. Walking away and pretending to go to another agency didn’t have the desired effect (i.e. of them calling me back over to make a new proposition).

Evidently the rules of the game have changed since I last played.

November 22, 2004

tarnation

Filed under: misc — bipolarinparis @ 3:50 pm

I have a song called “Ice Pulse” by the Cocteau Twins stuck in my head.

This is because I went to see ‘Tarnation’ at the weekend with Mr Frog. We had seen a documentary about it on Canal+ and I felt it was a film that definitely deserved to be seen on a big screen with surround sound. I wasn’t wrong.

Of course if you live in the UK/US/anywhere but France, you probably saw this flim aeons ago. For some reason it has only just been released here. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so.

The director, Jonathan Caouette, has assembled footage of his family from the past twenty years (photos, Super8 footage, video) and set it to a soundtrack of music, answering machine messages and letters to tell the story of his life so far. Caouette had a disturbed childhood to say the least: his mother Renée suffered from mental illness (possibly caused by a series of shock treatments ill-advisedly administered in her teens) and was repeatedly institutionalised; infant Jonathan was abused in foster care before being adopted by his grandparents. Having spent a very brief spell in foster care myself, before my adoption as a baby, I cannot find words to describe how livid it makes me to hear of children being abused when they are at their most vulnerable and desperately need support from the adults entrusted with their care.

In spite of the subject matter, ‘Tarnation’ is a very uplifting film: Caouette has faced his demons and although a lingering fear remains that one day he too may suffer from mental illness like Renée, he seems to be in a good place right now with a very supportive partner and, in his own words, he is closer to his mother than ever before.

Unfortunately, four things were nagging at me during the film and marred my enjoyment somewhat.

The first was that I was trying in vain to remember the name of a semi-autobiographical novel I had read which reminded me of this film. I’ve finally found it, after a few google searches that I hope my employer will not hold against me (search terms “trailer trash rent boy”). The book I was thinking of was ‘Sarah’ by J T Leroy. Apparently I’m not the only one to have made this connection as I found an article on the interweb where Caouette and Leroy are interviewed together.

The second thing was that the complete stranger on my left and I laughed at all the same things (in particular, Caouette’s staging of a musical version of Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ at high school, to a soundtrack of Marianne Faithful songs), while the Frog didn’t react at all. I started to wonder whether we were soulmates after all. But then I reminded myself that he is and will always remain a philistine (he has never read a work of fiction in all the years I have known him and generally prefers films which have a car chase/a shoot out/both) and I don’t suppose he will ever change. And if I’m honest, I quite like feeling culturally superior to him.

Thirdly, the Frog had purchased a large tub of (salty) popcorn and this was not a popcorn film. The French, you see, take their cinema rather seriously. Small art-house cinemas abound in the capital where popcorn is not even on sale. In this instance, although we were in a UGC cinema, which ressembles a Warner Bros or similar in the UK, most people in the audience were not eating and drinking. There appears to be an unwritten rule about the type of film in which popcorn is permissible (e.g. a Hollywood blockbuster) and the type of film where it is not. So I found myself snatching handfulls of popcorn surreptitiously during the loud music bits (because we hadn’t yet eaten and it was too tempting) but feeling very guilty and conspicuous and un-French for doing so.

And to top it all off, I needed the loo. From about half an hour into the film (it was 88 minutes long). And when the final credits rolled, I couldn’t even sprint to the bathroom because I needed to see what the name of the Cocteau Twins song was.

And that brings us full circle…

November 19, 2004

francophobia in the USA

Filed under: french touch — bipolarinparis @ 6:16 pm

Not all Americans are francophobes. Especially not those who read this site regularly.

Nevertheless we have all heard about prominent figures calling for a boycott of French produce on the other side of the Atlantic, about cancelled French exchanges and the renaming of Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast. During the US presidential electoral campaign some Republicans used the fact that John Kerry speaks French as a way of implying that he was somehow ‘un-american’.

You certainly don’t have to delve very deeply to find examples of American hatred of all things French on the interweb. The over-simplistic reasoning that the US drove the Nazis out of France, therefore the French are ungrateful for not returning the favour and supporting the US intervention in Iraq crops up over and over again. The anti-French tirades I have read are so dreadful they are almost (but not quite) funny and in my opinion the authors generally come off looking worse than the French.

Take this article for example, which I came across quite by accident when googling Chirac yesterday. Ron Marr, ‘journalist’, wrote an article called ‘Why I Hate The French’ for American Daily in February of last year, dripping with vitriol. Below is an extract:

‘The French invented a critically acclaimed style of cuisine which utilizes copious amounts of goose blood and involves hideous concepts such as boiling trout in spoiled cream. In truth, you’ll find better fare in the dumpster behind a Red Lobster. The French eat horse. They eat glands. They eat bugs. I know this because they rarely brush their teeth. Their women whine and complain and braid their armpit hair. Their men are beret-wearing twig-boys with bad complexions. All French people consider themselves intellectually superior, and I suppose they are if the comparison is to an incontinent house cat.”

I’m (almost) speechless. It is to be hoped that too many people didn’t take this display of puerile ignorance to be gospel truth. I don’t wish to dwell on this further by responding to the individual ‘points’ raised, other than to say that I thought the cultural stereotype (true or otherwise) about hairy armpits referred to German ladies?

I hate France is a website unashamedly devoted to francophobia, including a selection of ‘jokes’ about the French, mostly following a rather unimaginative pattern similar to this one:

Q: What is the first thing you are taught when joining the French army?
A: To say “I surrender” in German

A helpful list of French products is provided for boycotting purposes. Francophobes can even get their own @I-Hate-France.com email address. Similarly another boycott site sells bumper stickers (as pictured above) and T-shirts.

American francophobia attempts some analysis of the phenomenon, explaining that the French have long been the butt of American jokes (like the English with their anti-Irish jokes, and the French with their anti-Belgian jokes). It would appear that the Iraq/Chirac situation simply stirred up existing deep-seated prejudices.

The writers of the Simpsons, for example, have been working little anti-French jokes into their scripts from day one, as these examples from episodes aired in 1994-5 testify:

“Secrets of a Successful Marriage”: desperate for reconciliation, Homer pleads to his wife:
“Marge, look at me: we’ve been separated for a day, and I’m as dirty as a Frenchman.”

Acting as a substitute French teacher, in “Round Springfield”, Groundskeeper Willie tells his pupils: “Bonjour-r-r, you cheese-eating surrender monkeys!”

I just can’t help worrying that for many Americans, some of whom will never set foot outside their own country, this version of the facts is the only version they will hear. And that makes my skin crawl.

To my lovely American readers – please do not take offence. I would however love to hear your views on this subject!

November 18, 2004

entente cordiale?

Filed under: french touch — bipolarinparis @ 12:43 pm

That crafty old fox Jacques Chirac is over in Blighty for a spot of fish and chips and amour violent to mark the end of the Entente Cordiale centenary celebrations.

Not being someone who watches the news or reads newspapers on a regular basis (there are simply not enough hours in the day, so I have resigned myself to remaining a bit of a political philistine), I admit that my opinions about Chirac are just that: personal opinions formed on the basis of tuning in to the odd documentary or presidential speech and following the guignols de l’info, a parody of the eight o’clock news which uses Spitting Image style puppets.

I was rather pleased about France’s position on Iraq, but not convinced that Chirac’s personal motivations for adopting this stance were altruistic. I cannot abide watching the President address the nation. I always have the impression he is forcing himself to s p e a k r e a l l y s l o w l y, in the hope that this will inject gravitas into his subject matter. Mr Chirac and his wife Bernadette were almost certainly involved in a grand scale misuse of taxpayers money during his stint as Mayor of Paris. Various inquiries have taken place into the funding of the RPR political party, the awarding of lucrative business contracts and the (literally) millions of francs siphoned from the town hall budget/allegedly spent on feeding the couple while Chirac held this office. But, regardless of the weight of the evidence against him, Chirac cannot be prosecuted for any of the above as long as he holds the highest office in the République. By the time he stands down, given that the French seem to expect (and even respect) corruption in their politicians, all will probably have been forgiven.

The French press is making much of the fact that Mr and Mrs Chirac will be staying with QE2 at Windsor Castle this evening and watching ‘Les Misérables’ in the ‘Waterloo Room’, which has been rebaptised ‘The Music Room’ for the occasion, so as not to run the risk of offending French sensibilities.

Across the Channel, the English papers are gleefully airing the best soundbites from previous confrontations between Blair and Le Worm (sic The Sun (news)paper). I’m afraid I did a double take when I saw the Sun headline, ‘le Worm raps Blair’. Maybe I’m focusing too much on that amour violent quote.

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