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Back in les États-Unis

First off, I should say that although the Bérubé name is originally from Normandy—Damien Bérubé having come to Québec in 1671 (the whole story is available somewhere on line)—I’ve never been to France in my life.  In fact I’ve been to Europe only once as an adult, to Italy in 1999 for ten days.  Second, I should note that although trips to France, in the current political climate, would seem to be the exclusive preserve of the treasonous, cosmopolitan, moral-relativist, white-wine-sipping liberal cultural elite, it is actually possible for a family of four to visit Paris and the south of France for under one billion Euros, if you’re willing to fly discount (this involves strapping one child to the fuselage of the plane) and stay in hotels into whose rooms one has to be lowered by one’s armpits.

No, really, we had a great time, with our moral relativism and our two preternaturally-patient, champion-traveler kids and our just- barely- able- to- converse- haltingly- with- the- taxi- driver- about- sports- and- automobiles French.  Sure, we underwent what gastroeconomical specialists call a “radical moneyectomy” in our five days in Paris.  But it was worth it.  And Jamie loved the Métro and the zoo, and overcame his fear of heights long enough to accompany me to the top of l’Arc de Triomphe, which, as the plaques at its base will tell you, commemorates French military valor in the Franco-Prussian war, World War I, World War II, la guerre d’Indochine, and that dustup in Algiers. I would say something properly derisive about this, but on the whole, the French were so nice to us that I just don’t have the heart to do the cheese-eating-surrender-monkeys bit.  Apparently they figure that if you’re an American in France who can use French verbs in two tenses, you must not be watching Fox News.  (Besides, I know perfectly well that the Arc was originally all about Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, and of course it was great to see the French Resistance commemorated.)

I won’t do any serious vacation blogging.  Somehow it feels too self-indulgent, even for a blog, where one always asks oneself, “self-indulgent as compared to what, exactly?” Besides, everything you’ve read about Paris and the south of France is true: no false words have ever been written about these parts of the world.  So consult those words if you want the details about what it’s like to be there.  Here, I’ll confine myself to two light observations about cultural matters.

One: it’s much fun to turn on the TV and see Jacques Derrida debating Régis Debray, and it’s great to see the passages of the Métro festooned with ads for Paul Auster’s novel La Nuit de L’Oracle.  It’s quite true, artists and intellectuals are part of popular media in French life in ways that their American counterparts can only dream about.  But it’s also quite true, on another front, that French popular music sucks.  It actually sucks in so many ways, in so many genres, that I could not keep proper track of its promiscuous modalities of inadequacy.  A friend suggested to me that the French never made the categorical distinction between “rock” and “show tunes” that is fundamental to Anglo-American popular music, so that French pop sounds more or less like Barry Manilow.  But that doesn’t explain the travesty that is French hip-hop.  Nor does it explain the curious fact that although experimental French art and literature have in fact rocked almost continuously for the past 175 years, no French music of any kind has really mattered to the rest of the world since the mid-thirteenth century, when the hot new musical form known as the “motet” took Europe by storm.  I welcome your theories about this.  (Before anybody gets all weird with me about Berlioz and Satie, all I have to say is, two exceptions in 750 years prove the rule.  And the incomparable Django Reinhardt wasn’t French, he was Manouche.)

Two: I have long thought that soccer—known in some parts of the world, namely, everywhere but here, as “football”—is almost the perfect sport.  It involves intense, explosive large-muscle-group strength, incredible cardiovascular stamina, and stunning small-muscle-group finesse and coordination.  It also has nearly-ideal combinations of individual virtuosity with team effort, skill with chance, and synoptic strategy with sudden bursts of impromptu brilliance.  But unfortunately, the sport has deep structural flaws, the most notorious of which is its “offsides” rule, which prevents players from sprinting behind defenses.  And don’t even try to defend the inane “shootout” as a means of deciding games: at the very least, the players should run in from midfield and/or shoot from outside the penalty area.  Shooting from 11m out is a joke.  The main problem, though, is that the scale of soccer is too big.  The way I figure it, if soccer would just reduce the size of its field, reduce the number of players on the field, make the ball smaller and harder and flatten it on both ends, make the goal smaller, put up boards and glass around the boundaries, cover the field in ice, and give everybody sticks, then you’d have the perfect sport. 

But in the course of watching Euro 2004 each night, I learned that (or I should say, Janet pointed out that) “football” does have an indisputable advantage over ice hockey in one key area: soccer players are far more handsome than hockey players—in some cases, astonishingly so.  When France tied Croatia 2-2 two weeks ago, you could have told me that the Louis Vuitton house squad was playing the Dolce and Gabbana office team, and I’d have believed you.  The next night, Italy played Sweden in the rain, which meant that players had to keep sweeping their hands through their hair (and let’s not forget that the international soccer gesture for “I can’t believe I missed” is the hands-through-the-hair, as well), and I’ll be damned if the game didn’t look like a two-hour-long Versace ad.

Ah, well, yes, ahem, I did pay attention to the outcomes of the games, even if Janet had her mind on other matters.  For those of you following the tournament in other English-speaking nations, there’s no question, England was robbed in that game against Portugal.  But then, what do you expect from a sport with such severe structural flaws?

I have to say I loved travelling laptopless.  Still, it’s good to be back.  Today I recover from jetlag, tomorrow I get back to work.  Thanks for sticking around, everyone.

Posted by on 06/29 at 03:44 AM
  1. Please. Soccer is just an elaborate method for killing grass. It requires no talent whatsoever, which is why seven-year-olds play just as well as European pros.

    Posted by  on  06/29  at  07:13 AM
  2. I will be nominating this post the next time the Koufax awards come around. 

    Posted by  on  06/29  at  08:02 AM
  3. I am *so* glad my trip to London ended BEFORE the English run ended against host Portugal!

    Posted by Marianne  on  06/29  at  09:03 AM
  4. Michael, glad that you appreciated the football so much. I wish that more people realized it is not just for middle-school kids - it could be that they’ve never seen a beautifully played international, or been at a European/British stadium for a top-tier national game. It is, really, partly the game and partly the passion.

    Speaking of which I have to take a little issue with your comments on French music (while broadly agreeing with you). Early in the 20th century Debussy did much to popularize Eastern influences with his frequent use of the pentatonic scale - something no notable classical composers had done before. He also started, and Ravel continued, working jazz influences into classical (and therefore “respectable") circles. Ravel’s Concerto in G is basically a homage to Gershwin, and the appreciation went both ways, to the extent that Gershwin asked Ravel for orchestration lessons - Ravel declined, saying that he was doing just fine and his classical influence would spoil what was already clearly working. Then there’s Durufle’s extensive use of Gregorian chant, which you could argue caused much of the re-appreciation of what had been largely lost to most people. As for pop/rock, doesn’t most pop and rock suck anyway? Really? The stuff you remember isn’t what’s being played on the local teen radio station, and it’s only really the good stuff that’s remembered and cherished. There have been some notable successes from France: the influence of African music, for example Youssou N’Dour, and instrumental dance groups such as Daft Punk. I believe it’s still the case that French radio stations are only allowed to broadcast a small percentage of music with non-French lyrics so that has probably also limited what they can do. And decent French hip-hop does sound kind of cool - French rapping just has a certain something about it.

    Posted by Andrew Mogendorff  on  06/29  at  09:05 AM
  5. I just missed you as my ten week stint in Paris came to an end about 2 weeks ago.  Our perception of French popular culture is right on and you may be able to appreciate how much I miss that climate (except the damn music, so bad, so damn bad!).  Glad to have you back blogging.

    Posted by Anthony Smith  on  06/29  at  05:39 PM
  6. We didn’t exactly stick around.  We would go, then come back, then go, then come back.  The important thing was that you came back

    Posted by  on  06/30  at  04:34 AM
  7. I agree about the offsides rule, but obviously you aren’t a futbol fan either.

    Ravel, Debussy, and Satie all were great, but that’s about a 50-year window out of 700 years.  Oh, and the “Burgundians” during the Renaissance were really French.  Oh, and Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote operas.

    English music is crappy since Purcell too. In their case it was the way the Reformation played compared to Germany, I think.

    Posted by  on  06/30  at  08:40 AM
  8. I follow soccer only sporadically, but here’s a match that caught my eye:

    “Brazil’s soccer team will kick off an attempt to disarm Haiti’s warring factions by playing a match where spectators will have to swap their guns for entry tickets.

    The Brazilian stars Ronaldo and Ronaldinho are among those who may play Haiti’s national side at home in August to help Brazilian United Nations peacekeeping troops rebuild the poverty-stricken nation as it recovers from a bloody revolt.”

    Posted by rorschach  on  06/30  at  09:58 AM
  9. I had the good fortune of living almost two years in France, mostly Paris.  France is very enjoyable when you make an effort to speak to the French in French.

    Two years ago I was in France during the World Cup.  I saw all three French games in cafes.  It was painful to experience.

    I always got a laugh when I told the French that I met that like the majority in America I hadn’t voted for Bush.

    I don’t want to get into the classical music debate.  I think Piaf and Brel (OK, he’s Belgian) have mattered just a little.  Of course, both the Marseillaises and the Internationale have had a little more impact on a wider part of the world.

    I just got back from spending about four weeks in Canada.  Most of it in Quebec.  There are people in North America who don’t want to shred their safety net. 

    Posted by  on  06/30  at  07:24 PM
  10. You forget the seminal influence of Plastic Bertrand.  That pink leather - those zippers! 

    French punk. Heaven.

    Posted by  on  07/02  at  02:14 AM
  11. Posted by  on  07/04  at  10:56 AM
  12. After we get rid of offsides in soccer we can dump the two line pass rule in hockey.  Then we’ll have some fun sporting.

    Posted by Brey  on  07/06  at  10:13 AM
  13. "When France tied Croatia 2-2 two weeks ago, you could have told me that the Louis Vuitton house squad was playing the Dolce and Gabbana office team, and I’d have believed you.’

    oh man you got me on that one....

    wooooooh…

    so true though. I live here, and they just go freaking mad over Football. I personally prefer the mental tests, the true team integration to achieve the goal. Real live chess.

    Posted by  on  07/08  at  11:00 AM
  14. PS. I meant to note that I was referring to American Football. That’s what I get for rushing my reply.

    Still laughing over the Louis Vuitton joke…

    Posted by  on  07/08  at  11:03 AM
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