EU Parliament in Strasbourg
Strasbourg is the crucible of post-state internationalism – chosen to host many of the institutions of the European Union, it is a symbol of the ideal that universal values of tolerance, cooperation and the primacy of law can transcend the nation state. But while people may agree on the little things here – shared currencies, open borders, common immigration and defense – I recently learned that no mercy is shown to those that broach the big taboos.
The scene was a dinner at the home of Brigitte, Amynah’s boss. We had enjoyed a wonderful meal, and had just retired to the living room for dessert and coffee. Some mellow acoustic music was playing in the background.
For some reason, perhaps rendered heedless to social mores by the relaxed atmosphere, I made the observation that many of France’s popular musicians – male artists in particular – do not feel obligated to include anything resembling “melody” in their songs, preferring to recite their lyrics as if reading a monologue in a high school drama class while striving mightily to ignore the guitars strumming behind them (though I didn’t put it quite like that at the time).
Now here’s a group that can write a tune
My hosts reacted as if I had used the tricolour to wrap a Big Mac. Qeulle horreur! Brigitte’s husband Alain immediately rushed to their music collection to dig up examples of French music that would prove me wrong: it didn’t go well.
Ageless superstar Johnny Holliday?* “Isn’t he actually Belgian?”
(several English-language pop songs play, while Alain rummages through their collection_
Charles Aznavour? ? “I think he’s Armenian.”
(a few Rolling Stones songs play)
Finally, Alain did manage to dig up a few singers who had hits in the eighties: “See! this guy is singing. He died just after this album was released. Or this one! Of course, he’s dead now too.”
Finally, Brigitte satisfied national honour by stating, “Well, in English songs, the lyrics don’t mean anything anyway. It’s nonsense! In French music, the lyrics tell stories!” (And what stories they tell! )**
A very good book I read on France before moving here pointed out that the French are always the first to point out the flaws of their country: the social tensions, the strikes, the snobbiness. Of course, the author pointed out, they don’t mean a word of it, and won’t stand for outsiders to make the same observations themselves.
This is not a strictly French trait. I laughed when I learned that my friend Félicie thought Canadians look like Maple Joe, the face of of Canadian syrup here in France. Then Amynah silenced me when she pointed out that a surprisingly large percentage of Canadians, including a fair number of my best friends, are hairy, flannel-shirt wearing weekend woodsmen.
And we do get defensive, about the silliest things. Amynah had another encounter with someone from her institute along the same lines: “You Canadians, you don’t have a sense of irony.”
For some reason, this upset Amynah and I all out of proportion to the offense. No sense of irony? Us? The country that produced John Candy, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis,
* Note on the linked video: The past is a different country; they do things cheesier there).
** For those who don't want to read the whole thing: Escaped gorilla rapes a judge.