Sunday, February 26, 2012

Salon de l'Agriculture, Frozen Toilets, DSK/Sinclair


Paris, 2/25 - 3/4.  It's that time again, and as always the lead story on all television news channels. For nine days every year, Paris hosts the biggest farm in the world when French farmers bring their best animals and products to the giant show grounds of the Porte de Versailles. No less than 4500 animals are exhibited here, from big bulls and draught horses to dairy cows, pigs, sheep, goats, fowl, ducks - the whole live food chain and the products they produce. Children can pet all the animals they can reach, while adults are drawn to the bigger beasts and to the food and wine or beer handed out everywhere. This Parisian event attracts 650,000-700,000 visitors every year and - inevitably - lots of politicians who come trolling for votes and for face time on TV. Farmers, who are traditionally of the right, still talk fondly about former president Jacques Chirac who was their greatest supporter and who never missed a Salon, where he happily patted or stroked the animals around him and ate and drank everything offered. President Sarkozy, who is running for re-election this year, is less at ease with animals and does not drink wine, but aware of his patriotic duty did pose with a handsome cow and tasted some cheese while saluting the admirable tradition of the French family farm. Vive la France!

Sarkozy at the Salon de l'Agriculture


How cold was Aix-en-Provence last week? Cold enough for the girls' toilets at the new Arc-de-Meyran high school to be frozen! A half-page article in the local paper indignantly reported that this multi-million euro school that is less than two years old and counts 950 students was so poorly designed that the pipes to the 20-toilet unheated girls bathroom freeze below a certain temperature. Built on the shady side of the building and therefore cool year-round, this space is located close to the boys' bathroom where pipes do not seem to freeze. School management decided that for the time being, the girls will have to use the boys' bathroom. Problem is, to get to the boys' toilet stalls the girls have to pass a row of open urinals which both sides found too embarrassing, so a guard has been appointed to regulate the male-female use of the few functioning toilets and guarantee some privacy. 
Meanwhile, the Education Department has determined that the girls' toilet space was in conformity with prevailing construction standards and the new rules for sustainable development and energy savings. Only concession: before the beginning of the next school year in September, the broken pipes and water meter will be repaired. Until then, the nine toilets in the boys' area will have to do for 950 students. [Didn't I promise you "French news"?]  

The saga continues.

A few days ago, the Cambridge University Student Union voted against the invitation of DSK to come and speak about the "State of the Global Economy" at a conference on March 9th. "This invitation by the University gives him public legitimacy at a time when he is still being questioned by police" said Ruth Graham, spokeswoman for the women of the CUSU whose petition carried 355 signatures. A cold shower for DSK after his warmly applauded appearance at an international conference in Peking in December.

On February 22, after two days in police custody in the city of Lille where he was questioned about an alleged prostitution ring in connection with the Carlton Affair, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was released but ordered to appear again before investigating magistrates on March 28, when three judges will grill him about the soirées libertines - orgies in plain English - in which he is known to have participated. Prostitution is not against the law in France, but pimping or profiting from prostitution is. The services of the women made available for these parties were paid for by a businessman without apparent quid pro quo. Strauss-Kahn has already stated that he did not know that the women he was introduced to were prostitutes, to which his lawyer added: "At these parties people do not necessarily wear clothes. How do you distinguish a naked prostitute from any other naked woman?" Just so you know.

Meanwhile, in New York where this affair is being followed closely by alleged victim Nafissatou Diallo and her lawyers, the civil suit she filed against DSK is being heard on March 15 - the Ides of March!

Anne Sinclair, DSK's wife, is moving right along and has accepted to appear on French television in an upcoming emission of the literary program "La Grande Librairie" where she will discuss her new book 21 Rue la Boëtie, the address of her grandfather Paul Rosenberg's art gallery in Paris. Friend and promoter of some of the greatest 20th-century artists, including Picasso, Braque and Matisse, Rosenberg had to flee Vichy France in 1940 and moved his gallery and family to New York, where his granddaughter Anne Sinclair was born. "This is my grandfather's story," said Sinclair "and indirectly mine."

(*)  To see a chapter on the Salon de l'Agriculture featured in Taking Root in Provence, click here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Aftermath, Ice Problems, DSK


The recent fire at Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse in Marseille has had an unexpected fallout. In the end, eight apartments and four hotel rooms were completely destroyed, and some 40 hotel rooms were damaged. The extent of the overall damage is such that the organizing committee of Marseille 2013 (Cultural Capital of Europe) have made a preliminary decision to withdraw from the 2013 cultural events agenda the Cité Radieuse where several exhibits had been planned as well as visits to the model apartment with its famous integrated furniture designed by Charlotte Perriand in 1952.


Last Saturday 2/11 a rugby match between France and Ireland at the huge Stade de France outside Paris was canceled literally one minute before the starting time of 8 PM, leaving 80,000 shivering spectators furious and uncomprehending. After much hesitation, the British arbiter made the decisive call and declared that the frozen field was too hard and dangerous to play on, despite desperate efforts to soften the surface with the help of huge hot-air blowers.

Hot air at rugby match

That same day in Holland, the long-awaited Elfstedentocht was finally called off because at some spots along the 125-mile track that links 11 cities in Friesland the ice had not frozen to the minimum thickness of six inches required for this historic speed-skating race.

Disappointment all around.


For DSK followers, this titillating tidbit in the French newspaper Libération which reported that a porno video has just come out called DXK. The action takes place in a hotel suite where a rich and powerful guest seduces a poor hotel maid. Just to make sure you won't confuse this situation with a recent case in New York City, DXK is called David Sex King and the hotel suite number has been changed. You weren't thinking of the other guy, were you?

Meanwhile, newspaper Le Monde announced that American filmmaker Abel Ferrara has been working on a film about The Affaire DSK, with actor Gerard Depardieu playing Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Isabelle Adjani his wife Anne Sinclair. The film deals with sex and politics (surprise!), according to Ferrara, and will be filmed in Paris, Washington DC and New York City. To be released before the summer of 2012.

Depardieu:  "What - me DSK?"

Friday, February 10, 2012

Blast of Winter, Le Corbusier, Politics


After an extremely mild early winter, in late-January we suddenly got a blast of cold air from Siberia that turned most of Europe - including southern France and Italy - into a snow and ice-covered winter landscape that quickly turned deadly. It is rare that we have sub-zero temperatures here for brief spells, but this time they not only lasted some two weeks but they dipped way below zero in a number of Mediterranean countries (minus 8 Celsius or about 18 F in Aix-en-Provence) where this is not supposed to happen. So far 540 people have died as a direct result of the cold, most of them in Eastern Europe, but many of them in Italy as well. In France, the power network is stretched to the limit and people have been asked to watch their consumption of electricity for fear of blackouts.

Aix fountain
Life in the city is quieter:  less traffic, fewer people in the streets and fewer stalls at the market. Fountains in Aix have stopped spouting or dripping and have frozen into icy sculptures and stalactites. Snow removal and salting equipment is used on the main roads only, and some of the remoter villages are now accessible only by 4-wheel-drive vehicles and have not seen public transportation for a while.

Aix fountain

In Holland, however, excitement is growing to fever pitch over this sustained deep-freeze in hopes that it will finally allow the famous Elfstedentocht (eleven-city tour) to be run again after 15 years of mild winters. This grueling 125-mile speed-skating race on frozen canals and waterways links eleven cities in the northern province of Friesland and requires thick ice all along the way to support the 16,000 registered competitors. 

Elfstedentocht in Friesland

Two million spectators are expected to turn out for this near-mythical race in a country where ice-skating is second only in popularity to soccer. The race was tentatively planned for the weekend of 11-12 February but when the organizing committee pronounced on February 8th that along the track some patches of ice had not frozen to the required minimum of 6 inches and that the race may have to be cancelled, it brought the fans close to tears.   

Dutch soldiers sweeping snow

Fifty soldiers were dispatched onto the ice to sweep the snow (which warms the ice) and hundreds of volunteers took off from work to do the same. It's a race against time (temperatures are said to begin rising next week), but no one is wiling to give up just yet. The on-again off-again suspense continues, but in the meantime, the canals in Amsterdam have turned into a Pieter Brueghel painting of skaters, big and small, who may one day be good enough to run the Elfstedentocht.

Amsterdam canal scene


In the night of 9 February a virulent fire broke out in the famous Cité Radieuse in Marseilles - Le Corbusier's 7-story housing block consisting of 334 apartments that was designated as a historical monument in 1986 by the French Ministry of Culture. All 1500 occupants were evacuated, seven apartments were destroyed by fire and many others sustained smoke or water damage. This project built by Le Corbusier and opened in 1952 was his first Unité d'Habitation designed along his "ideal measurements" for communal living (double-height spacious apartments of similar floor plans, all with brightly-painted balconies). It also contains a nursery school and playground, roof-top swimming pool and running track, a hotel, cinema, restaurant and internal shopping avenues - hence the self-contained "radiant city" of its name. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

La Cité Radieuse, Marseilles

Rooftop with pool


Much of the recent news coverage in Europe has been centered on the weather which displaced the latest Greek loan negotiations in Brussels, the continuing euro-saga, and the incessant French voter polls. There even seems to be less of the usual sniping between the French right and left, and you could almost forget that this is an election year in France. Can't say we miss it, but if we did we could always switch to CNN for the Republican pre-election debates which, to say the least, I find rather scary. Fortunately, we have just discovered the HBO series The Sopranos at the Aix public library and are getting hooked - like millions of Americans before us - to the doings of this mafia family. Somehow seems less scary than some of the political talk we are hearing.