la culture populaire for the couch potato: lessons in french tv

I can’t stand advertisements. I don’t like being told what to tell my doctor. I roll my eyes at deus ex machina plot lines and groan at laugh tracks. I am a TV cynic.

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It’s nothing noble. It’s just that I would really really really rather read. I am grateful that my parents encouraged the habit. From the age of seven, when I stammered out in-gre-di-ent in a Clifford chapter book I read to my dad, reading has had the power to transport me: away from the stuffy reality of a public bus, the pain of a stomachache, the boredom of a long wait, the torment of a heartbreak. Reading begets pure contentment.

I could write volumes about the virtues of books, which is why (insert irony, that loveliest of literary devices), I decided to start watching a little more TV. Call it cultural research: is there a better way to learn about a country’s values without leaving your couch? Plus, TV is just a little more convivial. Reading at the dinner table can (unfortunately) be perceived as rude. But when everyone is parked together in front of the TV, that’s considered quality time. Apparently.

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After something like a five-year hiatus from any TV besides reruns of Twin Peaks or The Office, I am learning all kinds of things.

Les Reines du Shopping

The Queens of Shopping, my guilty pleasure. In this show, the cheery stylist and trusted fashion expert Cristina Córdula assigns a theme to a week of shopping. Five competitors, all everyday women from age 18 to 70, compete to create the best look. They have two and a half hours to shop a list of Parisian boutiques and twenty minutes to do their own hair and makeup before strutting down a mini-runway, where the competitors judge the success of their outfit and their ability to stay on thème. The women’s shopping is interspersed with comments from Cristina and the other women– do they like those pants? Do they think this dress looks good on Florence (age 43, from Lyon)? Then there’s the finishing touch: the male narrator–invisible–but always full of funny and wryly sarcastic comments to direct the show.

Cristina, who feels like a friend by now, is likable and funny with her trademark hoop earrings, dimples, and especially her penchant for crying oh la la ! and bringing her manicured hands to her mouth in horror when startled by a true fashion faux pas.

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She’s what you want in a French fashion expert (though she’s Brazilian à la base). She’s kind but trenchant, the fairy godmother who says when the look doesn’t work, pas du tout. You trust her. She might point out your flat-chestedness or spotty complexion, but it’s only for your good, to help you figure out how to mets en valeur your best features. I’ve had similar experiences shopping at Sephora or Sinéquanone. As the vendeuse cinches a belt around my waist or runs back with a berry lip color to go with my light green eyes, or even claps as I walk out of the changing room, I feel like I’m in good hands: a little like Cinderella mid-transformation. And it’s fun to see this same trust the expert culture on the screen.

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L’Amour est dans le Pré

The name of this show, Love is in the field, is an allusion to a 1995 French comedy, Le Bonheur est dans le Pré, or, happiness is in the field. In the film, a miserable married man falls in love with a charming foie gras producer in the rural Gers department, finding his happiness chez elle. L’Amour est dans le pré proceeds along the same lines, fostering connections between people from different worlds. It seeks to provide lonely rural people, mainly agriculteurs, with amorous connections elsewhere. It can be hard for a solitary dairy farmer, for example, to get a day off, much less spend time in a city looking for dating possibilities. L’amour est dans le pré seeks to remove some of these obstacles. The host, Karine Le Marchand, interviews the participants and shows viewers their story: how they got to where they are, what their daily life involves, what they’re looking for in love.

The camerawork is stunning. Often, participants live in rural areas like the Auvergne (where I spent last year) that are short on people but big on natural beauty. The film crew captures the region at its best, making it look dreamy: somewhere a tired city person might happily exchange their stilettos for farm boots. There are closeups of farm puppies and cute pigs, aerial views of proud pines or grand dormant volcanoes, screen-filling blue skies.

Interested viewers write the show, requesting to meet the person who caught their fancy on TV. These first meetings are filmed (awkward, much?), and then, the agriculteur chooses the three people who most interested him or her to come stay for a weekend at their place (often a big farm house with plenty of rooms). Unlike The Bachelor, a choice doesn’t have to be made. Often, though, there is a real connection, and the show has led to numerous marriages and new babies.

I’m intrigued by the concept: old-fashioned in that it hearkens back to mail-order farm brides, almost, the tradition of a hopeful farmer who writes for a wife. Yet it’s modern, too. The problem is a little bit new: loneliness and isolation present in modern society like never before. Western cultures are getting further and further away from our food and the people who produce it, and it seems that these people often get left behind. I think it’s pretty neat that this show is working to change that, in some small way.

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Nouveau Look pour une Nouvelle Vie

A New Look for a New Life is your classic extreme-makeover show, hosted by Cristina Córdula. Each episode starts with Cristina sitting on a couch and watching the plea for help of her latest client (or more commonly, their family or friends). Cristina, please help us, they implore. C’est pas possible. You see footage of the poor fashion victim, twirling in one of their favorite outfits, showing off their closet, all ignorance and bliss, while friends and coworkers and spouses discuss the person’s neglect, colorblindness, or poodle haircut. Aïe aïe aïe ! Cristina cries, hands flying to her mouth. Oh but that, ça n’est pas. Po-ssible. What are you thinking mon chéri ?! 

Over the course of the weeklong relooking, Cristina dramatically transforms the hopeless fashion victim into someone who stands up straight, who likes looking in the mirror. Looks certainly aren’t everything, but they can transform how we feel about ourselves. I think Nouveau look pour une nouvelle vie does a good job urging people to upgrade without mocking or humiliating them. This show has moved me to tears a few times.

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Un Souper Presque Parfait

Souper is an obscure, Québecois word that means “supper.” An almost-perfect supper is a reality show where five strangers are brought together to take turns entertaining the others. Who can throw the best dinner party? To that, I say: who cares? Still, I was amused to learn of the existence of this most-French of shows, which asks: did the host choose appropriate apéro snacks? Was the décor classy and on-theme? In the episode I watched, a woman made osso bucco and then had the guests entertain themselves with photobooth props while she prepared dessert. The final entertainment was to go outside and shoot Nerf guns. Between good friends, this could be fun. But five strangers on camera? It was painful to watch.

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I’ll keep suffering through grocery store cheese advertisements, all in the name of cultural research.

But I won’t give up books just yet.

Photos are from a trip to Paris and a Cy Twombly exhibit at the Pompidou. Read more about Paris: Shoebox in Paris. Gypsy Jazz

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mediterranean magic: a walk around monaco

Monaco sparkles.

That is my first impression, both times I’ve visited. Passing from the dark train tunnel and into the light, I see a scrubbed-clean city, feel the sun on my shoulders, and hear the many proud flags whipping in the breeze, the red and white color block stark against the blue sky.

These are, of course, the impressions of a mere visitor to this independent city-state, the second-smallest country in the world, of which millionaires comprise thirty percent of the population. I won’t pretend to know how much everyday life here could differ from where I live (or anything else, really). But I do know this: it makes for one hell of a walk.

From the train station it’s a quick climb to Monte Carlo Casino. Climb is surely the word: it’s unavoidable unless you know where to find the public escalators, established to make the hilly terrain more navigable. I’ve only seen a few, but there are 35 total: a great deal for a country the size of Central Park. Perched right between the mountains and sea and highly developed, Monaco has no agriculture to speak of: there’s simply no room.

The climb up is lined on the left by designer stores, labels with enough classe to entice with bold and cheeky window displays. Sometimes ridiculous, still they are fabulous (it must be admitted). There are skulls and metallic balloons and sea creatures, high heels like an art piece. These displays wouldn’t be out of place at the Pompidou.

On the right is the bay, and then the sea. img_6539-3

Entering the casino, I saw that the atrium and rotunda, which visitors are free to explore, were dressed for the holidays: draped in red and white diamond-patterned fabric. Artist Charles Kaisin designed the temporary installation to evoke both Monaco’s coat of arms and card games. The effect–to this viewer, at least–was of a surrealist dreamscape: something between Alice in Wonderland at Christmas and the Twin Peaks Red Room.

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Outside, palm trees and fake snow mingled with giant dice, the mirrored faces reflecting the blue sky and few clouds above.

Neighboring the casino is Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV, a super chic spot at the Hotel de Paris. The current menu includes pigeon breast with quince, milk-fed lamb, and Passe Crassane pears with ginger ice cream. Absolutely dreamy, but I wasn’t really dressed for it.

Back down the hill, I stopped at the Christmas market for a Savoyard burger. It was 63 degrees out, but the cold-weather Christmas kitsch lived on: a scary grinning Santa spun in a slow circle, children dressed as gold stars danced through the market, and the voice of Bing Crosby rose above it all. Stands sold plates of raclette and confit de canard, and a large pig turned on a spit.

My next stop involved a climb up the opposite side of the bay to the Musée Océanographique, an aquarium and museum set into seaside rocks, founded in 1889. The building is grand and palatial, with stately staircases, big windows, and the occasional giant squid hanging from the ceiling.

Downstairs in the darkness is the aquarium, where I saw piranhas and parrotfish and came face-to-face with the spectacularly ugly moray eel. I found a seahorse that wrapped its tail around a plant and hung upside down and a tank of bright clownfish as tiny as goldfish crackers. Starfish of all colors and sizes stuck like wall clings. I watched the jellyfish for a long time as they twirled around their ring-shaped tank, trailing their tentacles behind them, as translucent and impossible as ghosts.

Upstairs, in the Salle de la Baleine, the skeletons of sea mammals dangle overhead, poised in graceful flight. From their plus-sized skulls protrude long jaws with sharp teeth, and in the case of the narwhal, a fearsome tusk. Elegant and enormous, the specimens might drift away at any moment, inhabitants of some undersea underworld.

Outside the museum sits Jacques Cousteau’s mini submarine. Cheerful and yellow, its cuteness belies its significance. Built in 1966, it could reach a depth of 100 meters.

I continue my walk in the Old Town, quiet streets where graffiti and trash are notably absent, an area that also holds the Prince’s Palace of Monaco. img_6321-2 Suddenly twinkling with light as night fell, sparkling a soft pink, le palais recalled my first visit to Disneyland last fall. It was a fun, memorable day with a best friend, but wasn’t what I would describe as magical: not the long lines or screaming children or people stepping on the back of my shoe. The main attractions struck me as unsettling. A man-made mountain. A castle with no history: no bloodshed, no strife, no monarchs born behind its walls. (It is the Happiest Place on Earth, after all). I thought about castles and cathedrals I’ve visited in France, hundreds or thousands of years old. I thought about Paris, its patchwork of struggle and triumph and cobblestone, and then about Tianducheng: a Chinese replica of Paris in the suburbs, complete with an Eiffel Tower copy, created to cash in on francophilia. img_6310-2

There’s a difference. I tried to appreciate what I saw on a purely aesthetic level, but felt about fifteen years too old for that. Old enough for X-ray vision: I could almost see the sweating, tired human inside the Goofy suit. Maybe that’s when the magic goes. The beauty for beauty’s sake (for profit, really): it didn’t quite work for me. It happens all the time, I suppose, but rarely is it so transparent.

Monaco, like Disney, is pastel and lovely and speckled with flowers, but it’s real. It too has a palace that lights up at night, only this one dates back to 1191.

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I finish my walk as the sun sets, sparking color in the sky. It really is beautiful.

I’m no idealist. If I lived here, I know real life would surely creep in, like anywhere, the haze of la vie quotidienne dulling the wonder. Often, the scarcity is what makes something magical. It’s amazing to what extent we can become accustomed to beautiful things: whether that be love we take for granted or the Mediterranean sea on our doorstep. The New is easier to appreciate, with its power to surprise and delight, just when we thought we couldn’t be surprised again. Of course, nothing can stay new for long.

That’s what I remind myself. Living in Monaco would be like living anywhere. Maybe with a better view.

But on a day trip, walking the paths overlooking the bay and the sea, wandering amidst the soft pastels of the Old Town, feeling the warm sun and crisp breeze and watching the lights click on as the sun sets, I forget that for awhile.

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shoebox in paris

Thoreau said, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”  

It’s a fair sentiment, though with my budget, I’m more likely to be crowded on a pumpkin.

Using AirBnb, the glorious startup that connects travelers with private homeowners in the perfect meeting of supply and demand, I’ve had the comfort of a cozy, well-priced place to sleep in Strasbourg, Lyon, and the Riviera.

I’ve also found a few pumpkins: simple, private, and deathly uncomfortable.

The most memorable is a studio apartment in Paris.

“Apartment” is generous, “broom closet” somewhere closer to the truth. I think the ad, actually, described the place as A Shoebox in Paris. I respect “Olivier” for the honesty. While poetic, he did not use “shoebox” as a charming diminutive, but as a realistic description of the room’s actual dimensions.

The room was the size of a spacious American bathroom.

But it was Christmastime, and the idea of it all was irresistible. Despite arriving via a seven hour OUI bus from Strasbourg, it felt impossibly glamorous to be spending the week in the City of Lights. Given my history of misadventures, I should have known better, but once again I was starry-eyed. I pictured museums with no lines (and I’d get in free with my carte d’éducation). I dreamt of flawless French classics: buttery steak and perfect crème brûlée. There would be a light snowfall around the Eiffel Tower. 

It was so close: the perfect winter vacation, great escape from Montluçon. But first we had to lug our bags up six flights of stairs.

The task accomplished, the first problem we encountered was where to put our two suitcases. To give an idea of the available space, the bed was such that, should you share it, one person was effectively sleeping in the “kitchen” (a hot plate, a sink), while the other lucky traveler had an excellent view of the bathroom, sleeping nearly inside it as they were.

You had to step on the bed (and over a sleeping roommate), to access the bathroom, actually, which “closed” via a sad little accordion door and which contained a crusty bar of soap and an emphatic note in a rough English translation explaining how exactly to flush the cantankerous toilet.

There was one spot of glamour in the room, a small coffee table that accumulated over the course of our trip articles that advertised an entirely different sort of vacation, the kind that doesn’t involve freezing showers, the kind that might allow a bath towel in place of a washcloth.

The table held bright new novels from the Shakespeare & Co English bookstore, a bottle of pale pink Chanel Mademoiselle, and the creamy pastel boxes and bags from our visits to Ladurée for macarons that, temporarily, made me feel like a queen at Versailles instead of a mouse in a shoebox.

This wobbly balance between glamour and grunge became a theme for the week (and truly, for my whole life in France).

Christmas Eve, we wandered around looking for that perfect little brasserie. An hour and a walk through Montmartre and Pigalle later, we admitted defeat and had Christmas Eve dinner in a Chinese traiteur. We sat in our skirts and tights and heels and ate egg rolls and orange chicken, eight euros a person. The restaurant was empty, save for the family that owned it: the little girl playing by herself, the father watching a ninja movie in the corner. But we ate on fine, pretty plates and drank wine out of heavy glasses, leaving lipstick on the rim.

Then we went to Christmas service at the Notre Dame. Candles, the Christmas story in French. The organ music thundered through the cathedral and I felt stunningly small faced with all this grandeur, all that history, all those people.

Christmas Day we spent at the Pompidou, the quietest I’ve ever seen that place. My Christmas tree this year was a modern art piece: colorful bulbs that lit up suddenly every few minutes.

For Christmas dinner, wanting to avoid Orange Chicken Part II, we googled best Christmas dinners in Paris and booked one, a splurge. We ate at a beautiful place in Montmartre, feasting on oysters and foie gras and a fruit salad with lychees and the recommended wine pairing. The restaurant was full of non-Parisiens. The locals, we assumed, were home with their families.

The trip, like our AirBnb, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It was exhausting. Paris was cold, rainy, and gray, and there were more tourists than ever.

One day we went out of our way to go to a Christmas market near Nation. A far cry from the Christmas market we’d enjoyed in Strasbourg, this one was dripping and pitiful, on its last day. Most booths were closed, and still we got conned into buying expensive cheese. A lady yelled at me about gingerbread. We talked with a chef selling Portuguese custard tarts who disclosed his love for Merle Haggard and started singing “Okie from Muskogee” (definitely the best part of that day).

Overall we spent too much time in the dystopian underworld that is the metro, and we ran out of money and had to eat lentils for a month afterwards.

In pictures it is lovely, all pale sunsets and gold lights, but really it was cold and cramped and a little lonely in the way that Christmas without your family can be.

I know this, remember this, and still I am nostalgic. How was it that not so long ago I rented a terrible, memorable little shoebox in Paris with my best friend? Where are the croissant crumbs and freezing fingers, or, on fortunate nights, the oysters and champagne? Where are the endless espressos and afternoons free to wander?

Christmas in Paris was like the room’s promoted “Eiffel Tower view”: both sound a little more glamorous in the telling.

But we did have our shoebox view. It was there, if we stood on the bed to see out the high window. If it wasn’t obscured by the January clouds.

The trip, the view: awkward and uncomfortable and lovely still. There it was, if we were lucky: the top of the tower, sparkling brilliantly into the night.