Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

C’est la guerre

Comme je vous ai promis la semaine passée, je suis allé à Paris pour voir si les histoires d’américains quittant les États-Unis pour aller aux pays étrangers à cause des elections étaient vrais.


Wow! Thanks. I needed that.

Anyway, as promised last week, I went to Paris over the weekend to personally check out the rumors that hordes of blue-state Americans are deserting the country and forming a new Lost Generation abroad.

I utilized the most reliable scientific method I could think of to test whether this population shift is actually occurring. To ensure the highest standards of accuracy, I employed the same sampling technique that worked so well in the exit polls of the recent U.S. presidential election, i.e. I concentrated on an urban area and I spoke mostly to women. It’s the least that I could do for the sake of bringing my valued readers the best information possible. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Years ago, when I first found out that I was going to spending lots of time in Ireland, my first thought was, “Cool! Being in Europe, I’ll probably be going to France, like, all the time!” Ha! Silly me. Once I got ensconced among my wife’s people in the west of Ireland, I found I was lucky to get to Dublin twice a year, let alone anywhere outside of Ireland. Still, somehow a fellow Emerald-Isle-residing foreigner, my Scottish brother-in-law-by-marriage (he’s married to the Missus’s sister), and I have gotten permission to go once a year for a “lads’ weekend” somewhere off the island. Last year, we went to Liverpool, where we took in a Second Division soccer match, loaded up on various ethnic foods and paid homage at the requisite Beatles shrines. Oh, and I think we might have had a drink or two. This year, since it was my turn to pick, we went to the French capital. Although astute readers will recall that I was in Cannes a mere seven months ago, this was my first visit to Paris in five long years. Not to put down Ireland, but I was really looking forward to having some great food, great wine, great coffee, great wine, great cheese, great wine, great pastry and, above all, great wine. It was also a chance to get re-acquainted with second-hand cigarette smoke, which is strangely absent from today’s Ireland.

I won’t beat around the bush. I love Paris. It’s one of the world’s all-time great cities. I’m really glad that the French surrendered it to the Germans in World War II without firing a shot because it would be real shame if any or all of its magnificent monuments weren’t there anymore. Since we only had three days in which to try a whole bunch of wine, there wasn’t a lot of time for film-going. But I did make a reverential visit to the Cinémathèque Française at the Palais de Chaillot, depicted (if not immortalized) in the opening scenes of Bernardo Bertolucci’s love letter to French cinema, The Dreamers. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any films there over the weekend, but if I had they would have all been ones by the early 20th-century filmmaker Léonce Perret. I did manage to drag my Scottish brother-in-law-by-marriage away from the new Beaujolais long enough to go into a cinema to see the HBO/BBC biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers or, as it is called in France, Moi, Peter Sellers. The film had its funny bits, but on the whole it was kind of depressing. But there was one entertaining side benefit: watching a French audience watch Geoffrey Rush playing Sellers sending up the French with his Inspector Clouseau character. Particularly amusing was a scene on an airplane where Sellers, in advance of the first Pink Panther movie, tries out his Clouseau character on an unwitting flight attendant. Frustrated with his non-stop non-sequitors, she finally hisses, “Cretin français!” That’s what the subtitle said. I missed the actual remark on the soundtrack because the audience was already laughing too loudly, which means that they took it pretty well, perhaps forgetting momentarily that they themselves were French.

That incident was an eerie echo of a similar one back in the 1970s when I saw Woody Allen’s Love and Death in France. The French, of course, think Allen is a god, second only to Jerry Lewis. So, they might have felt their affection a bit unrequited when, in this send-up of War and Peace-type epics, a Russian character exclaims something like, “Death to all French people!” I know it was wrong to cheer, but I just loved the irony so much.

As we had winged our way into Paris (or, more precisely, into a tiny airport halfway between Paris and Brussels, serviced by our cheap, fewer-than-no-frills Ryanair flight), I wondered if the French attitude toward current American foreign policy had mellowed now that President Bush had (finally) won a clear electoral victory. Since most of our contact was with waiters and barmen anxious not to upset us into neglecting to over-tip, there were few discussions of politics. On Sunday night, however, we found ourselves crowded into a popular restaurant in the Latin Quarter, seated at a table the size of a medium-size pizza, with a man at the next table nearly sitting in our laps. As we carried on our private conversation about life, the universe and the world in general, it became increasingly clear that our neighbor knew English and was following our conversation with interest, waiting only for the right opportunity to jump in. And jump he did. After a few pleasantries and harmless chitchat, our new friend (who was Dutch) proceeded to tell us (or, mainly, me, since I was “the American”) everything that was wrong with George W. Bush. Our friend was happy that the U.S. economy was, according to him, on a one-way, irreversible downward slide, thanks to Bush’s “idiotic” policies, and unhappy that the U.S. had gone anywhere near Iraq. He likened the insurgents in Fallujah (or wherever they are now) to the Dutch and French resistance during World War II. For his coup de grâce, he worked himself into a red-face, glassy-eyed frenzy and exhorted that Bush wasn’t fit to be president because he is a “religious fanatic.” So, yes, I guess European attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy are at last mellowing.

The next encounter was the following morning with a Breton cab driver who was bringing us to the bus that would drive us halfway to Brussels so we could catch our plane back to Dublin. After much cross-city chitchat, he determined my nationality and then, perhaps out of frustration after having seen Moi, Peter Sellers, he exclaimed, “Bush est un cretin!” Always interested to understand how people form their opinions, I asked him why he thought so. Again, I was told he was a “religious fanatic.” (I told him that there was at least one Dutchman who agreed with him, and he rolled his eyes and told me that the Dutch were crazy and had their own problems.) Out of curiosity, I asked my new Breton friend if it would make a difference if Bush were a pious, devout Catholic instead of an evangelical Protestant. Perhaps sensing that he might possibly be in danger of not being over-tipped, he abruptly changed the subject.

As for my survey of Americans abroad, I can report that there are still plenty of Americans in Paris, as there have always been. Still, the tourist areas were by no means overrun with them. But then this was wet and cold November, not sunny and warm August. Of the Yanks I came across, the vast majority gave every indication that they were only visiting and not planning to establish residency. I even checked some of the most obvious places. I didn’t go to any McDonald’s, but I did go to a Starbucks. I bought coffee beans to take home, but I couldn’t bring myself to order a drink. My relationship with Starbucks goes all the way back to when there were all of three Starbucks locations in the whole world. But there are limits. Drinking coffee at a Starbucks in Paris is like going to St-Tropez in July and using a tanning booth. Oddly, most of the people at the Odéon Starbucks seemed to be French. The few Americans I saw definitely looked to be short-timers. Finally, I went to the one place where I felt sure to find genuine American ex-pats: Harry’s New York Bar. Three dry martinis later, I don’t remember what I actually found out there, but I definitely felt very good about it.

À propos, happy Thanksgiving!

-S.L., 25 November 2004

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