Paris-based Stephen Clarke gives his hu­mor­ous take on daily life in the cap­i­tal

France - - Contents -

Our Paris-based colum­nist ru­mi­nates on the French re­la­tion­ship with sports.

It was even more in­ter­est­ing than usual be­ing an English­man in Paris dur­ing the World Cup. I’m talk­ing about foot­ball, of course, or as the Amer­i­cans seem to call it, “sacker”. Leav­ing aside Eng­land’s per­for­mances, watch­ing and lis­ten­ing to my fel­low Parisians dur­ing the tour­na­ment was very in­struc­tive, and con­firmed a lot of my old im­pres­sions about them – on sub­jects much vaster and deeper than sport.

Like many events in French life, the World Cup be­gan with out­pour­ings of neg­a­tivism. First of all, at my lo­cal café, there were cho­ruses of “who wants to watch a bunch of mil­lion­aires chas­ing a ball full of hot air?”

These cof­fee-bar crit­ics seemed to be for­get­ting the fact that a large pro­por­tion of France’s cul­tural rep­u­ta­tion is founded on bunches of mil­lion­aires be­ing di­rected by other mil­lion­aires to pre­tend to be poor and/ or un­happy in front of a cam­era, be­fore they go to a mil­lion­aires’ re­sort to pick up their awards.

Most French peo­ple are the­o­ret­i­cal so­cial­ists, mean­ing that they crit­i­cise overt wealth, and if nec­es­sary deny their own, as long as it is con­ve­nient. So, young foot­ballers are de­cried for be­ing openly bling-bling, and in Paris fancy cars get scratched if their driv­ers fool­ishly park in the street, while ac­tors and singers will be adored as long as they muss their hair up enough for in­ter­views. Mean­while mil­lion­aires ride around trendy Parisian neigh­bour­hoods on an­cient bi­cy­cles, wear­ing tat­tered clothes, try­ing their best to look like im­pov­er­ished painters on the way to bor­row some can­vas.

At the start of the World Cup, the other mantra at the café was: “We’re no good, we’ll never get any­where near the fi­nal.” Though these pre­dic­tions of doom were some­times tem­pered with touches of false mod­esty: “We’re too artis­tic to beat se­ri­ously or­gan­ised teams.”

This too is typ­i­cally French. It makes me think of the com­plaints I have of­ten heard from Parisian jour­nal­ists and politi­cians about Amer­ica glob­al­is­ing the world with its mu­sic,

films, ham­burg­ers and take­away cof­fee bars. These were at their loud­est in the early 2000s while French com­pa­nies were buy­ing up al­most all of Bri­tain’s elec­tric­ity, gas, wa­ter and trans­port in­fra­struc­ture, as well as large slices of the whole world’s tele­phone and bank­ing net­works. “We’re use­less en­trepreneurs,” they kept telling me, as I bumped into French-owned su­per­mar­kets, bus shel­ters and pub­lic toi­lets ev­ery­where from San Fran­cisco to Syd­ney.

This neg­a­tivism also re­minded me of one of the best things about liv­ing in France. I can’t count the times I’ve walked up to a counter, and been told my re­quest is to­tally im­pos­si­ble, be­fore even­tu­ally com­ing away with a dream so­lu­tion.

The best ex­am­ple of this was a few years ago when I had to rush back to Paris from deep­est Brit­tany for an ur­gent meet­ing. I had to change at a sta­tion called Saint-brieuc. Ar­riv­ing there, I saw that I could make a con­nec­tion an hour be­fore the train I was booked on to. I went to the ticket of­fice, ex­plained my plight and was in­formed that my cheap ticket did not al­low me to switch trains. Sorry, but “non”.

“I don’t mind pay­ing ex­tra,” I said. “I re­ally need to get back as soon as pos­si­ble.”

The wo­man be­hind the counter clicked at her com­puter and asked me for my credit card. She printed out a new ticket and in­formed me that she’d re­funded me €10 be­cause this ear­lier train was off-peak. “Bon voy­age, Monsieur.” I thanked her pro­fusely and ran to catch my con­nec­tion. All of which goes to show that, as France’s foot­ball team proved this sum­mer, the most out­right French neg­a­tivism can be turned into out­ra­geous pos­i­tivism at the drop of a hat – or the bounce of a foot­ball.

Mil­lion­aires ride around trendy Parisian neigh­bour­hoods on an­cient bi­cy­cles, wear­ing tat­tered clothes

Stephen Clarke’s lat­est books are El­iz­a­beth II, Queen of Laughs (Kin­dle only) and The French Rev­o­lu­tion & What Went Wrong.

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