Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Scarlett O'Hara... They don't make them quite like you, anymore!

I first saw her when I was twelve. My Dad and I went and sat together through the 4-hour movie (and the 30 minute intermission.) 

Life was never quite the same after that. Merci, papa

I fell in love with her, Atlanta and the American South, where I later spent one year as an international student, thanks to a full scholarship awarded by the Georgia Rotary Club. 

Once I was in college, she inspired several papers I wrote about the Civil War, antebellum plantations, and steel magnolias. 

Today, her picture is the first one you see when you step into my home office.  

Scarlett O'Hara. Gone with the Wind. Classic. Timeless. A myth.

Oh, I know. Scarlett O'Hara was a spoiled brat. Vain, selfish, insecure. 

Look at her here, surrounded by all the county's eligible bachelors... Narcissistic. Shallow.  

16-year old Scarlett and her beaux at Twelve Oaks plantation

Can we blame her? After all, what else was expected of young girls in the antebellum South? Scarlett, like the others, had to know her place; look pretty; and stay sweet until she found a suitable husband and started raising a family.

Yep. But Katie Scarlett O'Hara is not your average Southern debutante. She is the daughter of well-bred French American Ellen Robillard and feisty Irishman Gerald O'Hara. An irresistible combination. 

Is it the twinkle in her eye? The way she tips up her chin defiantly? The raised eyebrow I tried so hard to duplicate after watching the movie? As soon as we lay eyes on Scarlett, we know she is no wallflower material. 

Coco Chanel once said, "The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud."

Something tells me Mademoiselle would have approved of Scarlett.

Coco Chanel also had an eye for style. And Scarlett certainly has style... In the movie adaptation of Gone with the Wind, she dazzles in colorful outfits... When in society, she makes a mark by dressing the part.

Scarlett in green...

Scarlett in the burgundy ball gown...
Scarlett in blue...

... and when circumstances dictate, Scarlett makes do with the resources at hand...

Scarlett's fashion comeback in the green curtain dress made by her slave, Mammy

But Scarlett O'Hara is so much more than a glamorous wardrobe. 

I was only 12 when we met, and I remember being fascinated with her energy, spirit and determination. 

What Scarlett wants, Scarlett gets. 

What stands in her way, she dismisses with an impatient, "Fiddle-dee-dee!"

And she does not stop there...

"Great balls of fire, don't bother me anymore, and don't call me sugar!"

Yes, Scarlett has attitude. She can be scathing and cruel. But some in her entourage do not let her get away with it...

Faithful Mammy keeps an eye on Scarlett
Scarlett: "Sir, you are no gentleman!"
Rhett: "And you, miss, are no lady!"

Scarlett is far from perfect. Even as a young teenager, I could tell my heroin had pathetic interpersonal skills, and not an ounce of self-awareness. 

Doesn't she spend the whole story chasing her cousin Melanie's husband, the chivalrous Ashley Wilkes, ignoring all along that her true love is Rhett Butler? That part infuriated me. What did she see in soft-spoken Ashley? 

A young Scarlett, her cousin Melanie and Ashley Wilkes

And yet... Sweet Melanie Wilkes, her cousin, doggedly stands by her side, until her untimely death. "Why?," one may wonder.

What sensitive and compassionate Melanie sees is the shining side of Scarlett. Melanie ignores Scarlett's tantrums and tempestuous outbursts; focusing instead on her actions during the war years; her intelligence and determination; her courage. 

Scarlett survives the war, and in what becomes a pattern in her life, struggles through trauma so she can reach tomorrow. While all the men are at war, Scarlett takes on the burden of her family, servants, and the Wilkes family; while running Tara, the family plantation. In short, Scarlett is indomitable. Through Melanie's understanding and loving eyes, we come to admire Scarlett's strength. 

The plantation mistress works in the cotton fields

The magnificent scene at the end of Part 1 still gives me the goose bumps. A different Scarlett emerges out of the difficult war years. Hunger and poverty have damaged her. She is harder, and determined to survive. She will re-invent herself into a ruthless and materialistic opportunist. 

"I'll never be hungry again!"

"As God is my witness, as God is my witness... 
They are not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this 
and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. 
If I have to lie, steal, cheat and kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!"

And as we watch her grow into a powerful businesswoman and a leader, and follow her disastrous and often misguided personal life, we wish - the young teenager I was then, so many years ago, wished - that we could shake her up; tell her to open her pretty green eyes and really look at the people around her. 

Come on, Katie Scarlett, look at Melanie. Listen to her. A girl needs girlfriends. True friends. Not all women are enemies you need to compete with. And Rhett. What a guy, Scarlett. Don't let Rhett run away from you... Forget Ashley. He is so "Old South!" Rhett is the future. He understands you. He will be by your side, no matter what...

But there is no reasoning with Scarlett. Watching her towards the end of the movie is like watching a runaway train headed for a precipice. It is mesmerizing and terrifying all at once. 

Then the ending comes: Rhett finally gives up on her, and leaves their beautiful house, uttering what remains one of the most famous lines in American cinema:

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Melanie, her only friend, is dead. Scarlett finally knows who her true love is... and she has lost him. Or has she? With tears in her eyes, she momentarily collapses on the stairs, sobbing, and then she remembers where she belongs; where she came from; Tara, the family plantation... 

"Tara. Home. I'll go home! And I'll think of some way to get him back. 
After all... Tomorrow is another day!

Magnificent Vivien Leigh

And it works. We believe her. Katie Scarlett O'Hara will do it, once again. She will go home, to Tara. She will heal, and regroup. She will bring Rhett back. Or not. But even if she doesn't, we know she will be all right. 


Cue the end credits.

Scarlett is home again

A bientôt.

Do not miss:

"As God is my witness" scene

One of the most beautiful movie endings... ever!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Parlez-vous anglais?" "No, I speak que dalle(*)!

(*) que dalle: Zilch! Nada! 

Louis de Funès (Le Gendarme à New York)
La leçon d'anglais (the English lesson) 

Last week, I instructed my France travel workshops in the Seattle area. During the (sold out) morning class, "Survival French for the Traveler," thirty brave souls stayed with me for three hours and alternately laughed; frowned; cried; as they struggled with the basics of la langue de Molière (French.) 

Even though I taught participants many simple words and expressions that would enable them to ask and answer basic questions in French, we all knew the following would come in handy at some point:

- Parlez-vous anglais? (Do you speak English?) 

So do they? Do the French speak English? You would think so, but... 

If you ask, you are likely to elicit any of the following reactions:

- "Pfffff... [insert infamous French shrug.]

- "I speak que dalle!" (see above)

- "I speak English comme une vache espagnole! [like a Spanish cow]" (Don't ask!) 

... Or even a straightforward, adamant, "Non!"

What seems to be the problem? The problem is that the French have convinced themselves they are not good at foreign languages. When your teachers (and your parents) spend years drilling into your head the necessity to speak the French language just so; when you spend countless hours learning complicated grammar and spelling rules; when your biggest fear is to... make a mistake; you simply can't take the risk to do this all over again in a foreign language. Oublie. Fuggedaboutit.

What adult wants to look like a perfect idiot, an incompetent fool, even if stranded American tourists need his help?

And don't even think about waving a picture of that guy in their face! Who does he think he is? Their old French teacher (minus the sense of style?!)

It's not the Frenchmen's fault, really. Teaching methods in France's English classrooms have often been described as antiquated. Part of the problem was that unfortunate students had to learn by heart perfectly u.s.e.l.e.s.s. expressions. 

The most famous one: "My tailor is rich." Let it sink in. My tailor is rich

Have you ever tried using this casually in an informal conversation?

-  A Seattle local, to French Girl in Seattle, circa 1996: "You know, French Girl, here in Seattle, we wear fleece year round; none of those chi-chi fabrics you brought with you from Paris."  

- French Girl: "Thank you for letting me know. I will remember to adjust my expectations - and my wardrobe - to my new life. It is a really good thing my tailor is rich. Or he will be, when he is done lining up all my clothes with fleece..." 

How creative. 

The inadequacies of foreign language instruction in my homeland are showcased in Le Gendarme à New York, a movie in the popular Gendarme series, starring France's acting legend Louis de Funès. In this specific scene, Maréchal des Logis Cruchot (Sergeant Cruchot) bullies his men into learning a few handy English expressions before they all fly to the United States to attend a gendarme convention. Cruchot is his usual twitchy, impatient, and unfair self, as he berates his men and showers lavish praise on his boss, Adjudant Gerber (Sergeant Major Gerber,) who can do no wrong. 

One can only imagine how long the poor gendarmes will survive in rough New York neighborhoods (this was 1965!) using the expressions on the blackboard...

Even if educational methods have improved, the stigma remains: The French are not good at foreign languages, especially English. 

Why would the average Frenchman feel bad about it? Isn't the example supposed to come from above? 

Watch Le French Prez' François Hollande as he attempts to speak English (a few seconds will suffice.) Oh, la, la...

Then again, American President Barack Obama does not do much better on an official visit to France.  Watch him fumble through the French motto, "Liberté, égalité, fraternité..."  Oh, la, la...

Obama is a smart guy. Why didn't he ask bilingual actor Bradley Cooper to prep him for the speech? Mystère... 

Let us cut Barack some slack. After all, foreign languages are not taught at all in most American secondary schools...

British stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard demonstrates that antiquated teaching methods are widespread. If you are a student of the French language and have ever wondered if you would be able to use the material taught in class in real life, you will enjoy this...

So what is the answer? We can't expect locals to speak our language (they are too embarrassed.)  Our own communication efforts have to be limited to asinine and useless expressions (thank you, foreign language teachers of our youth.) How utterly depressing. Should we just use hand signals and grotesque faces à la Louis de Funès?

Maybe not. There is still hope. A new generation of teachers, materials, and students has emerged. Watch this heartwarming video of two adorable French kids, learning English at home on mom's computer. Bravo, les enfants. That's the spirit (What do you think, Bradley?)

A bientôt.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Les bonbons de mon enfance. Candy of my childhood.

Les bonbons. Les bonbecs. I miss you, sweet (and not so sweet) candy of my childhood.

My teeth did not like you as much as I did. I associated with you too often, and spent many Thursday mornings (the French school children's day off at the time,) in a dentist chair. Ah, les caries! (cavities.) And these ugly silver colored tooth fillings... 

But you were worth it, les bonbons. You were always worth it.

I was looking at the candy sold at the local movie theater the other day, and felt sorry for the poor American children who will never know you, as I did. You were just as colorful, as chemically processed, as unhealthy as your modern counterparts, but time - and memories - have given you an aura, a patina... You have aged well, like a good wine.

I remember...

I remember trips to the local confiserie, or boulangerie, where you were artfully displayed on the counter, at the right height to seduce and fascinate our young eyes; but close enough to the cash register so Madame la commerçante (the shopkeeper) could keep an eye on us, in case we attempted to snatch you...

I remember my first business: As a budding entrepreneur, (I was 11,) I convinced my brother and cousin - also named Véronique - to sell candy at the local beach during our summer vacation at Grandma's. We purchased our supplies at the town's boulangerie in the morning, and displayed them artfully in a small cardboard box we took turns carrying with a string around our necks (like the usher at the movie theater.) That afternoon, we walked two miles to the beach, and paced back and forth for hours in the sun, singing our mesmerizing little song: "Bonbons, sucettes, chewing gum!" (candy, lollipops, bubble gum.) 

Forget organic homemade treats, and kale chips. Candy was a hot item then. What children can resist candy? What parents can refuse kids their sweets during a summer vacation? There was one problem: We, the merchants, ended up eating half of our inventory on the way down to the beach. Then on the way back, my brother, distracted by an enticing licorice stick, lost all our hard-earned money. Not to despair. This French Girl soon came up with an even better business idea. But we will save this for another story. 

Mèze (Southern France:) "our" beach, today. 

Oui, I remember my favorite candy. 

I remember les acidulés, ranging from tangy to tart, all the way to grimace-inducing; tooth-hurting acidity.

  • Les bonbons soucoupes (resembling flying saucers,) ruled supreme. They looked harmless and were prettier than macarons. Their soft shell, made out of the same unleavened bread as les hosties (Communion wafers) we consumed at Church on Sundays, melted on the tongue after a few minutes, revealing the white powder inside, an explosion of sour flavors.


  • Les petites filles (little girls) loved their candy necklaces... Each "pearl" on the necklace had a different flavor: You just chewed if off the flexible rubber band. The necklace turned into a gooey mess, that would inevitably get stuck in your hair...

  • It was so much fun to pull on the tangy Bouteilles Cola (Coke flavored gummy bottles,) until they ripped apart. It was the next best thing to enjoying soda, still frowned upon by many parents.

I remember les bonbons à la réglisse, the licorice-flavored candy...

  • Who could resist Haribo's Car en Sac or eat only a couple, when it was so easy to pour the contents of each little bag inside your mouth? Did it matter that the little buggers would stain your tongue red, green or blue for hours afterwards?

  • It is a miracle my teeth weren't permanently stained by les rouleaux de réglisse. It was such a treat to unroll, and chew away, as the sweet taste of licorice hit your tongue, until you reached the reward: the piece of candy in the middle of the roll.

  • All French kids, my generation or older, knew Coco Boer, immortalized by singer Renaud (*) in his nostalgic and poetic song, Mistral Gagnant, in 1985. 
"(...) Te raconter surtout les carambars d'antan et les Coco Boer
Et les vrais roudoudous qui nous coupaient les lèvres
Et nous niquaient les dents
Et les mistrals gagnants."

The licorice-based, anis-flavored powder stained our fingers, as we dipped them in the small tin boxes. In the summer, our mothers would add Coco Boer to water to prepare a refreshing drink.

Pre-cola days in Europe...

I remember les Roudoudous (colorful hard candy we licked out of sea shells,) and les carambars (hard caramel flavored sticks that inevitably destroyed your tooth fillings,) both mentioned in Renaud's lyrics, as children's favorites.

But none of these delicious friends could rival the guimauve-based kings of French candy! 

  • The ever popular Fraise Tagada(soft mounds of white marshmallow covered in a hard sugar crust to resemble strawberries) is as popular today as it was in my youth, with children and stressed grownups... "Tagada,on grandira plus tard!" touts Haribo's new commercial (Tagada, we will grow up later!)

  • Bouquet d'Or's Petit Ourson Guimauve (chocolate covered, marshmallow teddy bears,) was born over 50 years ago, and still delights French - and as of 2012 - North American palates. 

Forget pretty! L'ourson is flippin' good!
... and ready to take on the American market...

Oui, I remember you, old friends, chers bonbons de mon enfance

I am happy that some of you have recently enjoyed a revival, thanks to a few brave distributors like 

I will see you in a few months, when we make it across the pond. After all, Junior's friends may not know what they are missing, here in the United States, but he has already been properly introduced to most of you. And he loves you, he really, really loves you, like Maman

A bientôt.

Additional Material:

Renaud's Mistral Gagnant, one of the most beautiful French songs ever written, I am certain:

Don't speak French? A brave soul attempted a translation of the nostalgic Mistral Gagnant lyrics. Renaud wrote the song for his young daughter in 1985.

Bonne écoute. Enjoy!