How are you? I hope all is well. This weekend I had more lovely visitors, this time a dear pal and her wonderful partner. I’ve known and adored this pal since we met while doing French A-Level, around 2007. We did three different trips to Paris together, along with two other friends, for three consecutive summers as teenagers. We were completely enchanted, and in fact I’m sure without these trips I would not be living in France now.
We always had a lot in common. All of us enjoyed noticing (people, small details, funny turns of phrase), and talking. On those early trips to Paris we would spend the days skitting around Saint-Germain, picnicking by the river, buying strange things in the flea markets etc etc. We stayed in a small room in a shabby hotel near Bastille with four single beds, which we would squish up together to form one mega-bed and would spend the evenings picking out details from our days, remembering funny conversations and getting lost in absurd hypotheticals.
It wasn’t always a frolic. A few times we were harassed and followed by men, on the streets in the Metro. Another time we got bed bugs in our hotel room. We learned an early lesson in French confrontational/style assertiveness, demanding to have our money back for the remaining nights. After we refused his offer of a bottle of champagne as compensation, the surly hotel manager eventually refunded some of our bill saying: “you are tough women, hein, like Margaret Thatcher”.
My pal had originally planned her trip for Spring 2020 and of course, for global pandemic reasons, it never happened. It was a joy to finally host her. This time there were no bedbugs and as far as I am aware, nobody compared us to Margaret Thatcher.
Last week I wrote about how having visitors is refreshing because it allows me to see Paris through their eyes and to notice different details. Thank you to everyone who replied with their three words to describe Paris. They were all really different! A little illuminated selection below:
President meets cow
This weekend marks the kick-off of this year’s Salon de l’Agriculture agricultural fair. This rural-themed jamboree is a big deal here in France, seen not only as an important industry gathering but also a big date in the political calendar. It has been going for almost 60 years and each year the president of France opens the event. He (it has only been a ‘he’ so far) is expected to stay for several hours and rub shoulders with all kinds of agricultural actors, spanning farmers, cows and wheels of brie, while flanked by a flock of bodyguards.
The significance of this event is a good example of how important and powerful agricultural communities are in French society. Paris may be the central brain/node of the country, but the 15+ regions and their cultures of metropolitan France are the country’s heart and soul. Not so long ago, each of France’s regions had its own language/dialect, but these have been largely stamped out as a result of deliberate stamping-out campaigns from the likes of rulers like Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Every time I travel to a new region in France, I am struck how each one has its own geographical delights, its own traditions, foods and reasons for pride etc. But also the historic effort to belittle or even flatten those entirely. Today, France grapples with its legacy as a very recent colonial power, imposing its culture and language by force on countries across Africa, Asia and beyond. When I’ve visited these different regions, it has occured to me that Paris’s push for cultural dominance started at home.
At the Salon de l’Agriculture, La France profonde comes to pay Paris a visit. This year, as a mark of his commitment, Macron spent the whole day at the fair, morning until night — a full 12 hours of patting cows, slurping oysters, appreciatively nibbling cheeses, talking to journalists and getting photographed or heckled.
There’s a lot of hot-button issues on the agenda/in the air this year and each one can be seen as symbolic of some key issues of the time: ecological transformation vs. Everyday life of farmers (should we ban pesticides when some farmers need them to ensure making their living?); small-town tradition vs. Globalisation (both McDonald’s and Lidl both had stands at the event).
I watched one interview with Macron on YouTube where he tries to talk about the intricacies of energy subsidies for people who work in the fishing industry while a rowdy crowd sing and heckle behind him, and also film him like he himself is a prize cow.
“C’est magnifique quand même notre pays” (‘it’s magnificent all the same our country’), Macron says.
Thirty-second book club
This week I’ve been dipping into a few different books. Just before Christmas I bought an art book featuring the drawings of a young artist called Christelle Téa. I bought it from a local shop, telling myself I was likely buying it as a gift for someone else. I brought it all the way back to London with me, but couldn’t quite bear to part with it. Turns out it was a gift for me and my coffee table! Téa, who studied at the prestigious Beaux-Arts de Paris, draws from real-life creating lively, characterful impressions of striking scenes in Paris and beyond. I watched an interview with her where she told the story of how she learned to draw. Her parents came to France from Guangdong, a province in the south-east of China. They ran a restaurant and the little Christelle was always there while her parents worked. When she complained she was bored, her parents gave her a waiter’s pad and pen and she started drawing. Her mother later joked “I should have given you a calculator!”.
You can get an idea of her idiosyncratic style on her Instagram page, where she posts videos of her drawing in situ, always exquisitely dressed with a little hat or fascinator.
Thank you for reading about cows meeting presidents. As always, please do share this letter with someone if you like it, and encourage them to subscribe. If you share it lots, you may even receive a mysterious prize!
I hope you have a good week ahead! I’ll write again next week.
The drawings are a highlight! Mom saying she should have given her daughter a calculator is funny. I wonder if Macron, out of Monty Python, said, "Fetchez la vache!"
So interesting Hannah!
Just thought you ay like to know ...we have been blown away by natures big light show the Aurora Borealis up here in my chilly but gorgeous Scottish home! Incredible, you must come and visit with Kate and see it ( hopefully) she canbe fickle if cloudy!
Your Artwork is great... love the doggo!