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Saturday, 18 July 2015

July in France: Getting ready for the Big Sleep

Long musings with a whiff of gentle irony

Living and working in France, each July-August sees the country change dramatically – a sort of inversed hibernation period in which no-one does much and nothing much happens at all. Everything slowly switches to “Latin” mode, a great yawn of relief after the “Anglo-Saxon” mad rush from September to June, exacerbated by the fact that the poor French have to cram their work objectives into their shortened 35-hour working week and numerous bank holidays. This together with "RTT" - day in lieu according to “Reduction in Working Time” policy - and the famous “Pont (bridge)”, another day offered between bank holidays to stretch out the weekend into a vast and luxurious 4 days’ rest. Some would call this…paradise.

The Parisians leave Paris for the beaches of the west and south – a great relief to both those who stay on in the city and for the tourists visiting the capital: a two-month slot almost empty of sour-faced impoliteness. Those on the beach (the Parisians mostly – 25% of the whole population) suddenly become themselves – nice people – and once rising from their bronzing positions on the sands, it is dreamily sauntering past the paper shop and on the way to eat four-course evening meals that they learn that the outside world is still functioning: the odd coup d’état here (while the former leader is probably sunning it up on exactly the same beach as the Parisian), the odd earthquake there; an unobserved innovation – like say, the Internet super-highway – that the country misses out on during the big sleep and subsequently has to peddle like mad for the next ten years to catch it up. Paradoxically, it is then the turn of all the inhabitants of the coastal areas to rush about like madmen as they host, feed and coax the holiday-makers from the capital to spend their money.

It was said that Dali had many big sleeps...
All this means that the hangers-on in greater Paris – the small-business owners, lowly paid civil servants, the friendless, the divorced, the childless couples waiting to have the beach only for themselves in September when the screaming kids go back to school, or simply those waiting to squeeze in a long weekend or two of rest somewhere during the two months – suddenly find themselves bathed in an almost surreal calm. There are no train strikes – the railway workers gleefully keeping this in store for the traditional back-to-term strike in October-November. There is hardly any traffic. Road-rage suddenly evaporates and the last, festive nation-wide burning of cars already belongs to the past. Bastille Day, 14th July, “only” led to 600 cars being burnt across the country according to a government official speaking on the radio.

No doubt inspired by their holiday in Paris
It is a well-earned heaven. And the days automatically seem to stretch long and elastically into the night with aperitifs sipped by open windows giving out to empty and silent streets. And it is also the perfect time for the mind to meander and philosophise instead of thinking about objectives and potential delays in the public transport that will hamper you reaching them. One may take one’s time to read, stroll or go for a dip in the deserted municipal swimming pool. And one’s mind may also be allowed to think of silly things like love, the meaning of life, writing a book or poem, true happiness, getting fit, repairing the shower curtain that had collapsed in February, inventions and ideas. Letting my mind really wander far, these silly ideas might just include one or some of the following:

·         An international job search watchdog that would advise job-seekers on which companies and institutions to avoid, simply by trying out their absurdly unfathomable and truthfully unanswerable online job application forms. The sort that are 6 web pages long and contain lots of boxes, none of which suit your profile details, and which prohibit you from moving on to the next question unless you click one of their categories: “Right – okay – so I’ll just click on 'PhD in Duck Watching' even though I’m trying to get the job advertised as 'office clerk'”.  

·         A law that would see a vast educational training programme get underway for drivers in the Paris region. Large, digital displays would be set up along the main routes informing people that they only have to do four things to avoid creating traffic jams: 1) Instead of accelerating and closing ranks to those wishing to join the highway, simply let them in. 2) Keep in lane, keep your distance. 3) Drive at a steady 30-40 km/h without fail along the stretch of congested road until it quite naturally becomes flowing again thanks to your exemplary conduct. 4) Refrain from gesticulating obscenely at the drivers of other cars – anger causes acceleration!

·         A multinational “Bullshit detector club”, where a group of enthusiasts bent on the truth and openness to the citizens of the world would watch their national news every day for one week every month and note down how many times the news speaker lets rip with overtly patriotic or xenophobic remarks destined to hoodwink the scared, desperate or uneducated into being grateful (and, quite handily, at the same time willing to swallow the increase in taxes and energy bills due for November). Things like “Our X, the most beautiful capital in the world”; “the most X (meaning “like us”) of the Spanish football players on the field”; “We have the best national health system in the world” (true, thirty-five years ago and now just as hampered by under-staffing and waiting queues as any other system of the late 1940s); “No-one can rival our world-beating food (while handily forgetting that many national recipes were adopted or stolen from the Italians, Austrians, Morrocans, etc.)”; “We possess the most beautiful avenue in the world - naturally”; “the Chinese / Polish / Ukrainians / Romanians, etc.  are taking our jobs” (when everyone forgets that they actually work very well and very hard and are unhampered by corporate taxes which choke national employment initiatives to death); or “X, our beautiful, historical and great county, will resist this new plague that is globalisation and defend our interests” (Funny… I thought globalisation started 1.5 million years ago when Homo Erectus left Africa to find resources elsewhere…We might not be here if they hadn’t).

·         A worldwide training initiative for directors and managers to help them find something different to say other than “we don’t have the budget”, and then go on to hire cousins, uncles, aunts and nephews in the week that follows. While this may be accepted by young newbies on eternal short-term contracts and managers and directors who use it as an off-the-shelf standard to avoid conflict, a 40-50 year-old having worked in many fields throughout his/her working life knows it to be complete flatulence. On second thoughts, maybe it’s best to keep the “we don’t have the budget” phrase – if the truth were to be told the whole system might be in danger of collapsing.

·         And finally, a worldwide ban on all telephone answering machines leading you through an absurd labyrinth of options, none of which are suited to the real subject of your call, and which require endless pushing of numbers and hash tags (on my phone, a twelve-year old Nokia, I have to push two buttons to access the hash – meaning that by the time I manage to finally press a third time on the right icon, the answering machine has moved on to the next option and I have to start all over again).  Usually government-body instigated (despite even higher taxes they still can’t afford to hire real people to offer human assistance and contact), or incredibly the telecoms companies themselves, these machines are characterised by mutant digital voices ordering you what to do, and interspersed with overly loud jingles – seemingly composed on a Bontempi organ, the kind offered to 5 year-olds at Christmas during the 1970-80s – of Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5”. At times the machine goes wonky – giving off feedback and suddenly turning into a rendition worthy of Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 Woodstock version of The Star Spangled Banner.

So there one goes. And it's positively time to chill out, after all. A parting word might be that July and August are the most truthful months in which to call France the land of the free. Other ideas may come, or maybe even yours. Welcome are they…

And now, as a July evening in western Paris stretches deliciously and cat-like into oncoming night, a glass of the hard stuff suitably chilled in hand, with the sun hovering and hesitating to part, I bid you soft and silly things wherever you are, if only for a moment stolen.  
Sleep long, sleep tight.

Tom ;-)

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

György Faludy: a hell of a good read

“My Happy Days in Hell”

The question begs: am I talking about my current context? Well, we have down days and we have up days, though luckily most of them are the latter. No, what I’m really referring to is the book by Hungarian poet-translator-writer György Faludy. And one of the issues with this is that as usual, whenever I read a book I fall in love with, I tend to end up living it out for real!
First published in 1962 – coincidently about the time Günter Grass published the Tin Drum – My Happy Days in Hell was only allowed for publication in his native Hungary in 1988 after the fall of the communist regime.

I came back from a short stay in incredible Budapest with it (buying it from one of the best bookshops in Europe, BTW, owned by the gentleman-philosopher Tony Läng-Dabbous) and was enchanted from the first sentence onwards by Faludy’s incredible courage of candidness, wicked wit, philosophical ramblings, poetic sorties into love and nature, and finally chilling reality. If you were to put Grass’ The Tin Drum, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les Confessions and  William Boyd’s Les Nouvelles Confessions all into a  meat grinder and push the start button, two minutes later you’d come out with My Happy Days in Hell but spiced with a unique nip of Faludy paprika.

György Faludy
Over the past three weeks, Faludy’s book has become a companion, a friend. We share the same heady mixture of feelings for Morocco, the same dislike of extremes, the same reactions when faced with the absurd, the same love of nature and, why not, of Womankind. It is a biography that follows his escape from Hungary just before the outset of WW II, his life in Paris and then the necessity to flee the Nazi invasion to end up in Portugal and then Morocco and finally the United States where he eventually volunteered for the US army. In 1947, true to his love of the Hungarian language and believing in a democratic future, he returned to Hungary, only to be arrested by the Communists several years later.

Not-so-hellish for me, after all
He spent 3 years in a labour camp on trumped up charges – and this is where I am currently at, fifty pages from the end. I cannot stop putting down the book to gasp in amazement: caught between laughing out loud and choking down the tears of shock and indignation. If you want something to churn your emotions inside out, then György Faludy’s My Happy Days in Hell is definately for you! It kind of makes you step back a little from your own minor moments of hell at the office and sigh in relief at just how heavenly they are...

Read more about the amazing life of György Faludy on Wikipedia.