Fear and Loathing in France
France is a cold, proud place. In winter, the snow is brittle and grimy, white like bone. And the people seem equally cold-blooded. They walk through biting gales of wind with pink lips, blue veins and hearts full of contempt.
I was sent to a small town called Chambéry, in the Savoie, just west of the Alps. I have not thought of it for years. Even now, as I look through the postcards and brochures and trinkets I collected, I can feel the cold seeping through this Melbourne afternoon.
Fresh from the Charles de Gaulle airport, along with several other crumpled Australian students, I stumbled jet-lagged and wide-eyed through Paris. On every street corner, there were tall, North African gentlemen peddling ‘I HEART PARIS’ t-shirts and croissant keyrings. We skimmed over the cobbled streets of Montmartre, past the salon Hemingway frequented, hustling to the next gift shop. We whipped past the exquisite Raphaelite depictions of Passion and Love to queue for an hour in the hope of a glimpse at the Mona Lisa, a thoroughly underwhelming piece of art. In the Louvre, we took pictures of anything we recognised, stared blankly at the description – in English – and then asked the directions to the nearest café – also in English. We spent our precious Euros in bland tourist restaurants with moustachioed waiters offering such national delicacies as snails and frogs legs. As I stared down from the Eiffel Tower viewing galleries upon the white stone rooves, protruding like bleached shells hidden in ashen pebbles, I thought to myself, “I am so cultured right now.”
Paris, I now remember, was so much a city of artifice. The lights, the tourist attractions… The only real memory I have of its people was of a wizened conciérge, a building caretaker, in the deuxiéme arrondissement, reading a copy of Le Monde with a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. He tutted quietly to himself, “Sarkozy, la guele.” Sarkozy was the then embattled, rakishly charming and hopelessly austere French President. His name became an obscenity amongst retirees when he attempted to increase the age of retirement from 63 to 64. When I was transferred to my host family, however, I truly began to understand the ways and wiles of the French people.
I travelled by train to the Savoie, where I stayed with a family called Bel: Charlotte, François, Veronique and Jean-Paul. François had straight hair that stuck out behind his ears when he grinned. He was a quiet, dainty boy, with a small gap between his front teeth and a love of National Geographic photography. We would pour over magazines together when school was closed due to snow. He especially liked the pictures of the African tribesmen and boys, glorious in their nakedness. Veronique was a woman of few words and fewer facial expressions. She disliked all cooking, except for soup, and believed that any meal could be seasoned with salt, butter and milk. Jean-Paul was a kind and gentle father, who was often left in the wake of one of Veronique’s rages to patch up things in the family. Charlotte was precocious and elegant. She, like every other self-respecting French female adolescent, proudly refused second servings, even at the Christmas meal, to her mother’s quiet approval. As an Australian, far from home and perpetually thawing out, my appetite was not just insatiable, but a blatant insult to the dainty, birdlike manners of my native counterparts.
They seemed to me – and still do, to some degree – the final bastions of French culture. They spoke with the slow, lilting accent of a people who were not used to making themselves understood to outsiders. There were no gaps or silences in their conversation, only long, gurgling, grinding words of hesitation – “ben” (pronounced “baaah”, like a sheep), and “euh” (pronounced “err” as in human, where forgiving is divine). Veronique, with a bob as short and curt as her temper, frowned upon Coco-Pops and seafood as “unnatural” fare. Instead, our plates were graced with a series of stews, bakes, soupçons and ratatouille. I learned quickly that the food I had luxuriated with in Paris was an insult to French cuisine, which is the only truly hearty, loving aspect of the country, which I grew to love.
Jean-Paul, whose nose turned red whenever it was about to snow, bought bread fresh from the boulangerie every day. François hauled smoked ham from the cellar for luncheon. He spent the afternoons pasting labels to jars of apricot and apple compote from the orchard, now encrusted with hoarfrost. The trees, fruitless and bare, stood as stark, black, inky stains against a grey sky.
Charlotte had little time for a foreigner such as myself. She had a small, pert face, like Sylvie Vartan. Porcelain skin framed with the same severe hair as her mother, but with her father’s brown eyes. But any kindness that the windows to his soul might have imported was lost in Charlotte. She belonged to the adult world, even though she was a year younger than me.
I went to France a quiet school child with a good grasp of the subjunctive. Thanks to Charlotte’s influence, I returned a young woman. I brought back with me a voice scratched by cigarette smoke, a trembling stomach that attested to an excess of foie gras consumed over the festive season, and the sophisticated – or so I thought – penchant for greeting all friends with a kiss on each cheek. I also carried home with me a fear of tall buildings.
Let me explain.
It was a Tuesday. Even though it was near noon, the streetlights were still on. Amber beacons studding the great grey nothing. Students huddled in groups in the park. Girls’ high heels sunk into the snow. Stolid boys flicked the caps of their engraved lighters back and forth. Thin fingers white with knotted veins and knobbled knuckles held cigarettes. They raised them to their mouths, drew the smoke in. Then, with the next exhalation, tendrils of smoke coiled from between their lips. With a flick of the wrist, the ash fell to the ground and simmered on the ice.
There was a bang.
We started, looked around. To the north of the park was the lotissement, a government housing project, 10 or so stories high. It was home to the small immigrant Muslim community that ran the falafel restaurants and cloues – pawn shops – of the town’s seedy back streets. Their children peddled cheap wares at Chambéry’s most famous landmark, a grotesque fountain in the town square with an elephant’s body protruding from one side. They were the object of much censure from the Jesuit Catholic community. They had only one small mosque, which doubled as a school of Islam. Every few weeks or so, there would be some obscenity scrawled on the walls. A swastika, “Sieg heil,” or “Rentrez, Hadji!” (Go home, Muslim scum).
I imagined the wife of the Imam, with quiet, dark eyes and a red hijab, perhaps with a small, curly-haired child at her hip. She would shiver as she scrubbed the slurs from her place of worship. Soap and ink dripping from the wall to the snow, spoiling the perfect white.
In any case, it was the lotissement to which we turned. And there was a collective intake of breath from the students.
The building was burning. We stood in silence. We watched curiously. Helplessly. The flames licking from the top story were hypnotic. Hands covered mouths. Eyes widened. We saw our breath before us. We heard the blood in our ears. It drowned out the sirens.
A figure appeared on the balcony of the top floor. We couldn’t tell whether it was a man or a woman. They tried to clamber over the side of the building and reach the storey below to escape the inferno.
I didn’t think that it could take someone so long to fall. Even from this distance, we could see their arms flailing. I imagined a scream, a needle puncturing an eardrum.
They landed on the snow below. Their arms and legs were splayed at impossible angles. They were the tangled branches of an ink black tree with red fruit. The uppermost storey was black, gutted and smouldering, like the end of an immense cigarette clutched between two grey hills. The body was ash flicked to the ground by a giant’s wrist.
That night, Chambéry was on the French news for the first time since the footballer Olivier Giroud made the Grenoble team in 2005. François, who had been inside at the time, was quietly thrilled to see his friend Claude interviewed by TFI news. Veronique put Charlotte to bed. We were silent at the kitchen table. There was footage of the capped and veiled men and women of the Algerian quarter of Chambéry holding a vigil outside the apartment block. Small candles illuminating dark faces. In the background, snow stained the colour of rust with blood. Jean-Paul asked whether he should pay his respects at the mosque. Veronique pursed her lips. They have their own to look after them. They weren’t part of our church.
That night, every time I closed my eyes, I saw the man – for now we knew it was a 40-year-old grocer by the name of Josephe al-Habib – falling. I kept my eyes open that night.
In the small hours of the morning, I went downstairs from my stark room. I was sick of seeing the contorted body of Jesus staring at me from my wall. I sat in the kitchen, curled against the bar heater. Jean-Paul followed me in. He was on call that night.
“Ça va, Madeleine?” (Are you ok?)
“Non.” I was not in the mood for pleasantries.
“Alors, qu’est-ce qu’on va faire pour nous distraire?” (What can we do to take your mind off things?)
“Je ne sais pas, Jean-Paul.” How was I meant to know?
“Le chocolat, je pense.” Food is never a bad idea.
He fixed me a cup of tea, with far too much milk and sugar. The French are not used to tea. We listened to the radio, a repeat of the 1983 semi-final game between Les Olympiques Lyonnaise – François’ team – and Paris Saint-Germain F.C. We ate bread torn straight from the loaf, smeared with butter.
I haven’t spoken with the Bels for years. No doubt Jean-Paul and Veronique’s marriage is still under strain. I suppose Charlotte attending the university in Lyons, studying medicine like her father. And I should imagine that François would have come out to his parents by now.
Since I left France, Sarkozy passed a law banning the wearing of the burqa in public places.
But I will remember them for their hot-blooded obstinacy, their Catholic hospitality to strangers – and their bread.