Les croyances populaires

I have become part of an annual tradition with a friend (and a selection of her friends, which varies from year-to-year), whereby we visit Brasserie Zédel, ranged deep beneath Piccadilly Circus, for a pre-Christmas lunch.  Well, I say lunch but it is more an excuse to drink and talk which is occasionally interrupted by food.  This event starts at lunch time, but often goes on for quite some time and often adjourns to the adjacent Bar Américain where any food-related pretense is dropped.

Both brasserie and bar have a very strong Art Déco vibe, dating back to their original opening as part of the Regent Palace Hotel in 1915.  I feel that the bar, in particular, is (or was) used to a rather better class of clientele than the author.  When, I was there on Sunday, I couldn’t help feeling that Cruella de Vil would have fitted right in and so I shall be trying to channel my experience when sat at the piano (it is either that or some very dodgy interaction with – and the risk of being outwitted by – a sizeable pack of spotted dogs).

This year’s gathering had a particularly international vibe but, as the title might hint, this post will focus on the French member of our party.  Rather gloriously, he attended clad in a Primark sweater adorned with a less-than-zoologically accurate representation of a reindeer and a range of flashing coloured lights.  He was trying it out in London – where it proved very popular with those partaking of lunch – before inflicting it on his French mother (who once modelled for Chanel): where it is likely to receive a less positive reception.

He it was who revealed a couple of French alcohol-based superstitions with which I had previously been aware.  I cannot speak to how widely these beliefs are held or to their antiquity but felt I should share them just in case any readers should happen to find themselves drinking with our friends from across the Channel.

Apparently, when saying ‘Cheers’ to another in France it is important to look them in the eyes as you say it, otherwise you will be cursed with seven years of bad sex.  While this would be a major upgrade for me and my own participation in the world of gland games, for the broader public it does seem rather a severe response to (at worse) a minor social faux pas.

It would also seem to be a French belief that whosoever completes a communal bottle of wind, by dint of the waiter placing the last of the bottle into their glass, will marry in that year the year.  As a form of augury, this does avoid the unpleasantness of animal entrails and is more compatible with a (mostly) vegetarian lifestyle – even if it can only be used for a rather limited from of prophecy.  I’m also not sure the marriage statistics, even in la belle France, entirely support the hypothesis – particularly, when considered in conjunction of the number of bottles of wind consumed in company.  Nevertheless, I am somewhat concerned to report that the Norns may have determined my fate and that I am to marry in the next 12 days.  This strikes me as something of a logistical nightmare to organise – I suspect both the church (busy elsewhere) and the civil authorities (on holiday) may be reluctant to formalise any knot-tying on my part at this late stage in the year – even if we discount the challenge of finding a third party willing to participate in the process on a longer-term basis.

No evidence was offered by our French companion to support either of these beliefs, but any prospective spouse should probably be aware that seven years of bedroom (and indeed more general “room”) disappointment may be on the cards.  I can’t say I really place much credence in either of these croyances populaires (and they do rather speak to stereotypical French preoccupations) but come the beginning of 2018 my mockery may look particularly ill-advised.  Still, it is probably my best bet for freedom of movement in the EU and, should Clotho have decided to spin my life in that direction, I shall try and accept her decision with good grace.  You heard it here first and may wish to start looking for your hat now, just in case…

The tyranny of English

I talk, of course, of the language and not the breakfast.  I should also make clear that I love English for the ridiculous quantity of words it contains and the truly vast amount of content those far more (and far less) talented than I have created using those words.  Perhaps, most of all, I love it for the scope it gives for word-games and humour – though readers of this blog will have to take this last assertion on trust.

However, as an English speaker in the home of English, the language, its tones and cadences can come to dominate one’s aural landscape.  I do treasure an accent (and have acquired small bits of ones not my own) and, as I may have mentioned before, I’m a sucker for almost any accent from Scotland.

I don’t watch Borgen – I watched the first episode at which point everything was going swimmingly, and I couldn’t bear to see it all, inevitably, fall apart.  As a result, I had been missing any dose of Danish – or other Scandinavian tongue – until I visited Foyles over the weekend.  Foyles does seem to be magnet for those of Viking heritage and I spent a pleasant few minutes eavesdropping on conversations I couldn’t understand (lacking subtitles) but just enjoying the sound of it all.  I feel I want to join in, but fortunately have so far resisted the urge.  In a similar vein, I can usually resist the urge to listen in to conversations held in English, but hang on any word of an overhead conversation held in Spanish.

A few weeks ago I watched several French films in a relatively short span of days.  Across Heartbreaker, Populaire and In the House I fell in love with the sound of French – a language I understand a little (just enough to criticise the accuracy, and clear US-centricity, of the subtitles).  In the House, as well as being a splendid film, has the most beautiful French speaking in it – I feel it would be my first choice as a pronunciation guide if I were ever to dust off my all-too-rusty French.

Montalbano, and especially Young Montalbano, made me want to speak Italian – or better Sicilian.  I don’t speak much Italian, but can sing some thanks to Nicola Vaccai and his Metodo Practico (where I am currently tackling the mordant: please insert your own joke about dyeing/dying here).  Young Montalbano has, like Endeavour, managed that most unlikely of things: a prequel that is the equal, if not superior, of the original.  It is also a joy to see so many ancient, character actors in one show – why is this so uncommon in the UK, where both witnesses and suspects are so relatively young?

Sadly, my own language skills have declined over time.  Google Translate is very handy for a chap (or chapess) in a hurry, but means I no longer put the effort in to understand websites in the original language.  I also rarely have the chance to practise my spoken language skills as so many business meetings are conducted in English – even if it is the mother tongue of only one (or, occasionally none) of the participants but just the only one shared by all.  Even if everyone else shares the same language, meetings are often held in English so that they can practise – and I lose out as the minority wanting to speak in the local tongue.

Maybe it’s time to learn Mandarin – the tyranny of the future? – if nothing else, there should be plenty of speakers available.  However, I fear to do it justice I should have started more than 40 years ago when my brain was more plastic than it is today.  Perhaps I should just accept my linguistic limitations, and enjoy the odd foreign language movie or series when I can – supplemented with a little surreptitious eavesdropping…

More eggs, fewer baskets

Yesterday, I went to the cinema.  Nothing that unusual there, though I did have to visit one of Cambridge’s two multiplex offerings as my chosen film, the well-reviewed Looper, was not available at the Arts Picturehouse.  Still, a little occasional slumming is good for the soul I’m sure – though I was slightly alarmed to find that Cineworld boasts bouncers and bag searches.

It was not an entirely successful visit.  Just before the film was due to start, there was a very brief (<5 seconds) of power outage.  In days of yore, this would have been a minor inconvenience – the projector would have ground to a halt and then re-started when the power came back.  However, we have now gone digital – so the power cut crashed the whole cinema.  After about 30 minutes, I presume that someone had managed to re-boot the cinema and our film started – power failure spared us the ad reels and trailers, so not all bad!  I have no idea what happened to films already running, but I doubt there was positive outcome.

We were then treated to some 40 minutes of the film, before it was stopped and we were all evacuated for our own safety.  Apparently, the emergency lighting was broken: all of it!  Not really an issue in this modern world, as I should imagine almost everyone in the cinema was carrying their own torch in the form of a brightly glowing mobile phone.  I suspect we were actually evacuated to avoid issues with the cinema’s insurance policy or license: still, always best to blame anything that might be unpopular on health, safety, or failing that Europe (as these are three concepts assumed to be universally reviled.  As someone who has occasionally read a little history, I suspect our mill working ancestors of the 19th century would be amazed how little respect we grant to our hard-won health and safety).

As a (much) younger man, I used to repair the emergency lighting (and the automatic door closer mechanisms) at the block of flats where I was then resident.  These did fail, but did so as individuals – each one had its own backup power supply (or battery as we used to call them) and bulb.  To lose the entire building would have taken dozens of individual failures – and so, an evacuation was never needed.  I suspect the cinema has a single (if mis-named) uninterrupted power supply (UPS) for the whole building which must have been tripped by the power failure.  Centralisation may look like a great idea, but it does lead to a single point of failure.  Apparently, an engineer was called (though my friends who are engineers, would probably prefer me to refer to her as a technician) and the cinema was likely to remain closed for the rest of the day.  Sometimes more primitive technology which lacks a single mode of failure and can be fixed by an unskilled idiot (like the younger me) beats its over-centralised modern counterparts into a cocked hat.  Sadly, this tendency exists rather more widely than the world of the muliplex cinema – so that a single error can now inconvenience millions.  As a society we do seem to be keeping ever more of our eggs in ever fewer baskets and then trying to cut the costs of basket maintenance: I think there may be a lot of metaphorical omelette to be eaten in the future.

I now have to decide whether I want to see the film again, sitting through a first 40 minutes which will now lack any novelty.  I suspect not: the first chunk did not inspire me to continue, though the film was perhaps starting to become interesting.  However, the film is about time travel and it is a terrible mistake in such films to give the audience time to think as then all the inconsistencies and paradoxes become all too obvious.  The biggest error occurs very early on, and has nothing to do with temporal engineering.  Our “hero” is learning French from a futuristic version of an écouter et répèter style MP3 file but makes a pronunciation error which could only have arisen if he was working from a written source.  Very sloppy work!  I think I shall imagine my own ending and use my compensatory voucher to see something new…

Plus ça change…

plus c’est la même chose.  That’s your actual French!  This somewhat Hackneyed (or should I be using some cognate Parisian arrondissement?  Is Cliché somewhere in the banlieue, peut-être?) old phrase was brought to mind by a couple of recent events which, if you are sitting comfortably, I shall now go on to relate.

After a few days of relative dryness and warmth – on a couple of occasions I was bold enough to venture out without the prophylaxis provided by waterproofs, and on some 50% of these excursions I didn’t even get wet – normal service has been resumed.  This particular part of “flaming” June is, of course, famed for its extreme precipitation: forming as it does that dangerous conjunction of the Glastonbury Festival and the start of Wimbledon.  Such is the mythic power of Glastonbury, that even in a year marked by its festival’s absence it is still able to cast a pall over the weather.  This is a part of the grail and Arthurian legends that is little mentioned, though Joseph of Arimathea was supposed to have arrived by boat across the flooded countryside, which should perhaps have been a warning (many myths do hold some small germ of truth within).  The foolish organisers of the Isle of Wight festival – and more cogently those choosing either to attend their event or who merely wished to visit or escape the Isle – are paying for their hubris in moving to such an ill-omened weekend.  If there is one thing Tlaloc loves more than a four day bank holiday, it’s the conjunction of an outdoor festival and a tennis tournament.  I rather think he is a fan of the concert hall and Real Tennis: talking of the former, I did wonder if Gustavo Dudamel had been mis-informed about the climate of Stirling when he choose to hold a concert outdoors last night (rather than choosing an indoor setting), the poor audience did look very storm-wracked.

In an attempt to find some psychic shelter from recent meteorological conditions, I have been watching the re-booted version of Hawaii Five O: it does rain quite a bit, but it does look like very warm rain.  This is all very glossy and seems to have the sort of budget of which British television can only dream.  It also tends to be a tad irritating, but I’ve kept watching it (so far) for Scott Caan’s Danno who is allowed to be sardonic and to limp (though the latter may not be acting, I have not researched the real-life state of his cruciate ligament).  However, my primary beef is that it suffers from the same issue as Midsomer Murders (among many others) – no, it is not that the cast is overwhelmingly white and given that it is set in the US, I am willing to believe the rate of violent death portrayed may be realistic (though I have not checked the stats on this) – it is just that the villain is always the most famous member of the guest cast.  The only saving grace is that my knowledge of the relative fame of US actors is less finely nuanced than it is back home, and so for a few episodes there does remain a small element of mystery as to whodunit.  I think this may be why I find Scandinavian detective drama so effective – I don’t (yet) know their pool of acting talent and so I can still rely on the traditional bases of good police work (so far as I’m aware, CID are unable to use the fame of their suspects to find their (wo)man).  I really feel casting is in need of a revolutionary new approach – both here and across the Herring Pond – if detective drama is to regain its ability to confound my expectations.

Get lost

It was in the year of the Queen’s silver jubilee (and so, horrifically, 35 years ago) that I started to learn the French language.  I think this may have been the first time that I became aware that my memory was better than that of the average bear (I am also unable to resist a pic-er-nic basket).  Each week the splendid Mr Harlow would set a test, either on current new vocabulary or a verb conjugation we had just learned.  Each week I would do no preparation and each week I would score top marks in the test (I was a terrible swat).  In those days, once seen, never forgotten.   Now, I’m lucky if I can hold a thought in my head for more than a few seconds – though, I do still try to live without any preparation.

Another important part of learning French was translating la plus belle langue du monde (see, I haven’t lost it) into my mother tongue (or failing that, English).  I seem to recall much of this translation involved the rather limited (not to say, dull) adventures of Marie-France, Jean-Paul et Claudette.  I was taught never to use the verb “to get” in these translations, though I no longer remember why: perhaps it was because there is no equivalent verb in French since “get” is used to cover a multitude of sins (Mr Collins has 35 separate meanings, and I’m sure the OED could muster significantly more).

Mr Harlow would probably be pleased to know that this piece of his teaching has stuck fast in at least one pupil.  To this day, 50% of three score and ten years later, I find that I am still almost unable to use the verb “to get” in a blog post, email or other writing.  I can do it, but I it’s always a struggle and when I succumb I feel that I have somehow let myself down.  I find myself wondering whether any readers of GofaDM have a similar aversion to this mainly transitive verb?  Or is it only me?

Dumbing Down Subtitles

I’ve just finished watching L’arnacoeur (Heartbreaker, if you will) a film almost wholly in French.  As a result, subtitles are provided as standard to let the Anglophone viewer know what’s going on.

I obtained an A for “O” level French back in 1982 (and I’m still banging on about it almost 30 years later – how sad), but have done little work on the language since.  So, I will admit that I found the subtitles useful.  However, even with my rather rusty and limited language skills it was all too apparent that we English speakers were not considered up to the full complexity of the script.  Perhaps the two most obvious examples required no knowledge of French at all: Dar es Salaam was subtitled as Tanzania and Alain Prost as Schumacher.  I mean, really?  I know some of our American friends don’t get out much but I don’t see any good reason to simplify the script in this way.  Let’s start a campaign now to have proper sub-titling without the implied, disparaging commentary on our intellectual capacity.

The film, by the way, was great fun – a definite thumbs up.  (Perhaps I’m not ready to be the next Barry Norman just yet – I’ll work further on my critical faculties).