Last fall, I did a bit of academic research on my Facebook page. Because I’ll be teaching a class called “The French” beginning next week, I asked my Facebook friends “If you could learn about any French person, who would it be?” Some of the answers were downright hilarious (Pepe Le Peu, cartoon skunk), but others painted a lively portrait of France’s history with people from all walks of life. One of the trickier categories to pin down in this discussion: French athletic figures. Some argued for basketball player (and Eva Longoria spouse) Tony Parker, but for me, he feels like he’s become very American, very Hollywood. Soccer player Zinedine Zidane surged forward in my mind as the best, most tragic (for a time), and most modern example for the category.
But how could I forget figure skater Surya Bonaly, with her backflips and bad-ass attitude? This week, Jezebel ran a piece called “Surya Bonaly is the biggest badass in Winter Olympics History,” a headline so true that I have no choice but to add a part about her to my class at the eleventh hour. Bonaly is a three time World silver medalist, a five-time European champion and a nine-time French national champion. Although she gained American citizenship in 2004, she is almost considered to be one of the greatest figure skaters to have never won a medal in the Olympics and because she was the most exciting athlete in France in the 1990s, I feel she can’t be ignored.
Is there any other French athlete I should consider? If so, who is it and why should I include them? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.
I’ve been working on an item about art restitution that’s tied to the recent release of “The Monuments Men,” the real-life story of international art experts sent to recover and return artworks stolen by the Nazis during World War II. The piece is also tied to the recent sale of Camille Pissarro’s impressionist masterpiece, Boulevard Montmartre, matinee de printemps (pictured above). Impressionist paintings have an enduring allure, but this one sold yesterday for $32.1 million in London in part because of its restitution backstory. It was once owned by Max Silberberg, a Jewish industrialist who was forced by the Nazis to sell his collection of 19th and 20th century art. Silberberg later died in the Holocaust and it took his family decades to find his prized Pissarro.
Governments are among the organizations dedicated to unearthing pilfered pieces such as these. Auction houses such as Sotheby’s also have their own restitution groups dedicated to researching all works consigned to them that were created prior to 1945 and working with a variety of interest groups to broker deals on this art.
Pictured above: A framed franc note from 1944. I got it in the mail yesterday from my mother, who sent it to me as a belated birthday present. Now it’s among the really French-y stuff that surrounds me in my office as I write or work on the very first class I’ll teach in a couple of weeks.
Yes: teaching. I’ll be teaching a class called “The French” for LSU Continuing Education. The class begins February 17 and it will explore French history through the lives of the people who shaped it and were shaped by it. As a profile writer, this is an ideal way for me to approach it because each class will have a theme (i.e. Saints and Saviors) and consist of a series of related profiles about prominent French people from all walks of life.
Getting this class down on paper has been one thing. The ideas have been flowing. Things have been fitting together like perfect little puzzle pieces. It’s all making sense and (most importantly) feeling like it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Delivering the class to a crowd may be something else. Last week, I wrote about my need to work on my public speaking skills. I did that, knowing that I would be speaking this morning to a room full of potential students, and, after that, presumably a class full of people I’d convince to listen to me speak for six more weeks. I’ve been getting a little whipped up about this and when I got my first class list earlier this week, I have to say I was a little nervous to see those first names there.
I got some good redirection from people who suggested I view this not as public speaking, but as talking about something I like and being myself when I do it.
So that’s what I did this morning. I behaved like myself, which is a very dangerous thing, indeed. Why? Because after explaining what the class was be about, I told a packed house that there would be no better way to spend Monday mornings than with a weird magazine writer lady who talks about French people behind their backs. A friend of mine quipped: “With lines like that, you could go into marketing.”
By next week, I should have an updated class list that indicates just how effective this more Paige-like approach was. In the meantime, the morning was good fun and for once I felt at ease speaking in front of a large group. Perhaps there’s hope for me yet. We shall see. All I know is that I met some wonderful people this morning and can’t wait to captivate them with stories about a country and people who have so thoroughly captivated me!
See this guy and his well-waxed mustache? This is Napoleon III, emperor of the French Second Empire and I devoted a couple of years of my life to learning all about him, his era and a wild-haired architect whose life had a rags-to-riches narrative arc. You may find that wildly impractical, but to me, it made and continues to make good sense. Having spent so much time reading about this particular Napoleon, I was pleasantly surprised to see that he got a shout-out in “Mad Men” two weeks ago, when the creative team was brainstorming ideas for a new margarine account. I am probably one of the few people on the planet to realize that the shout-out was not quite right. In the show, Peggy said that margarine was invented by Napoleon III, who wanted to create a butter substitute for his army that wouldn’t spoil. What actually happened is that the price of butter skyrocketed and in 1869 Napoleon III offered a prize to anyone who could create a more affordable butter substitute. A chemist by the name of Hippolyte Mege-Mouries created a process for churning beef tallow with milk to create what became known as oleomargarine. Although Mege-Mouries won the emperor’s prize, the French never took to the product and so in 1871, the inventor worked with a Dutch firm that bolstered the product’s appeal by dyeing it yellow. The rest, as they say, is history.
But I still prefer butter.
I moved across town recently and am slowly (but gratefully) digging out and trying to get a reliable wifi signal. I christened the new kitchen the other night by cooking a tasty, improvised (and fairly easy) tilapia dish. I don’t have pictures, but I can give you a rough idea of the recipe and promise you that it is good. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Coat a baking dish with olive oil and put four tilapia pieces in it. Season both sides with salt, freshly ground black pepper and parsley. Then, squirt the juice of one lemon over the fish and then pepper it with capers. Bake for 15 minutes and serve with a green salad. Next recipe I post will have pictures and specific steps and all the other things that make blog posts worth a damn. For now, just take my word on this, try it, and let me know what you think.
Two blogs I enjoy right now:
* Amy Haimerl’s The Detroit House: Amy is a business journalist. Her husband is a jazz pianist. They bought a big old house with a great history and are trying to renovate it without killing each other. She’s writing about the experience with great humor and transparency, all against the backdrop of a city that is undergoing a renovation of its own. Great story here. You should check it out.
* Katherine McCoy’s Paleo Living in the Crescent City: Katherine is a marketing professional in New Orleans and a former swimmer for Tulane. Part of the fun of her blog is watching how she tries to pursue this healthy, paleo lifestyle in a city where indulgence is always just around the corner. Her discipline is amazing and her dog Pearl is super-cute.
I’ll leave you with this view from my new backyard:
Matthew Weiner is good. I mean, he is really, really good. Not only did he torment “Mad Men” fans in the off-season with the idea that newly-remarried Don Draper just might backslide into his old Draper-y ways with the ladies, but he strung them along for nearly two hours in the season six premiere to show them just how bad it could get.
The show opens with Don Draper reading Dante’s “Inferno” on a Hawaiian beach. “Midway through our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood,” he reads as his wife Megan sips blue cocktails in the sand next to him and worries about getting too much sun. Megan’s commercial debut at the end of season five has led to work on a soap opera and within the first minutes of the show, viewers get the sense that although the Drapers are still together physically, emotionally they’re drifting apart.
Near the end of their trip, Don is alone in the hotel bar. He can’t sleep. A young private en route to Vietnam befriends him. The private, PFC Dinkins, is getting married the next day and asks Don to give away the bride. Don consents, but somehow in the midst of this exchange, he winds up with Dinkins’ lighter, which has “Sometimes we have to do things that are not our bag” engraved on it. Draper spends the rest of the show trying to get rid of that lighter, only to have it show up again when he least expects or wants it.
When the Drapers return to New York, we see that Don has befriended Dr. Arnold Rosen, a cardiac surgeon that lives in his building. Although Don is clearly very tormented about something in this episode, the friendship with Rosen is normal and sort of refreshing. Don Draper can make a friend! How nice! Rosen comes to visit him at the agency and Don gives him a Leica camera from the supply closet.
And then…the ending. Rosen is called in to the hospital to work on a snowy New Year’s Eve. Don goes downstairs, knocks on a door, and is let in by a woman who is…Rosen’s wife Sylvia, who gave Don the copy of “Inferno” to read on the beach. Don and Sylvia are having an affair and under the circumstances, you can’t help but wonder whether everyone’s favorite hard-drinking Creative Director is desperate to get caught. “What do you want this New Year?” Sylvia asks during their tryst. “I want to stop doing this,” Don says in a rare moment of guilt.
Is this guilt progress? Will Draper get back on the straight road? It’s hard to know, especially since I haven’t seen last night’s episode and am trying (and occasionally failing) to ignore any and all “Mad Men” related tweets and recaps until I can. If Matthew Weiner sticks with this Dante construct, I’m guessing things will get worse before they get better. As Don told one of his clients “Something bad has to happen before you get to paradise.” How bad are things about to get? Where is Don’s jumping off point?
Speaking of jumping off points, last season “Mad Men” fans wondered whether smarmy bastard Pete Campbell would kill himself. He hasn’t, but now that suicide talk has shifted to Don Draper. I don’t believe Draper will end it all, but I’m terribly worried about Roger Sterling, one of my favorite characters. Now that Sterling’s in therapy, now that his mother died, now that his favorite shoe-shine guy has died too, I’m concerned that Roger’s sense of being old and expendable may be too much for him to bear.
In the meantime, let me offer this next installment of food-I-make-while-I’m-waiting-to-get-caught-up-on-Mad-Men. In honor of Don Draper’s inability to commit to one type of sugar, I offer a cafe gourmand. The cafe gourmand is a relatively new concept in French cafes that allows diners to have anywhere from three to five small portions of desserts instead of one normal portion. It is perfect for people who are tormented by decision, allowing them to have it both ways in a publicly acceptable fashion.
The three desserts I plated are a cocoa sable, a chocolate mousse and an ile flottante. The cocoa sable is from a Dorie Greenspan recipe in “Around My French Table.” I’ve put two and two together and realized that it is the same recipe she uses for the World Peace Cookies she sells at Beurre and Sel. The chocolate mousse recipe (sans Grand Marnier) was from Anthony Bourdain’s “Les Halles” cookbook. The ile flottante used Dorie Greenspan’s creme anglaise recipe and Rachel Khoo’s technique for the puffed meringues.
Last night I finally got around to watching “Hugo”, the Martin Scorsese film based on the Brian Selznick novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” Hugo is a 12-year-old orphan boy who lives in the Montparnasse train station, where he keeps all its clocks running smoothly. In the urchin’s spare time, he repairs a broken wind-up man that his father found. Stealing odds and ends that could mend this mechanical person, Hugo is nabbed by a toy store owner in the train station who asks him to empty his pockets and hand over the contents. Outside of the wheels and gears and springs Hugo has collected, there is a notebook that used to belong to his father. In the notebook are sketches of the wind-up man and ideas on how to fix him. The toy store owner leafs through the pages and becomes disturbed by what he sees, taking the notebook and threatening to burn it.
Why the fuss? Turns out the toy store owner is the real-life filmmaker Georges Melies, who had been forgotten by the French by the time this movie takes place. Melies, the son of a shoemaker, was known as an innovator in his prime, using special effects, hand-colored frames and dream-like sequences in his work. But as his works got more ambitious, the French got preoccupied with other things — like World War I — and so he went bankrupt and faded into obscurity. Hugo’s efforts to fix the wind-up man heal Melies too and the film ends with a moving retrospective of his work.
Filmed in 3D and gorgeous, the movie won 5 Academy Awards. Here’s a scene from the film:
The Alliance Francaise d’Atlanta is honoring Melies with a showing of some of his films. For more information, or to donate, please visit Power To Give for a more detailed description of this very special project.