Having spent much of yesterday receiving congratulations – « félicitations » in French – in the form of handshakes and kisses on both cheeks, I thought I should share the general French jubilation at Obama’s re-election with all of you who were brave enough to weather the strident campaign at home. In my cowardice, I fled to Paris where political beliefs may be intensely held but never get in the way of living the good life. The French are a bit more mercurial and less sanctimonious than we tend to be.
I arrived last week in the late morning to be greeted by a small ad hoc welcoming committee consisting of my neighbor, Gaspard, and our street sweeper, Roland, who was taking his legislatively mandated mid-morning break. As I stepped from the cab, the two of them were finishing the dregs of the preceding night’s red wine from juice glasses.
I did not have much time to settle in before Gaspard was at my door looking for company. Once again, he has time on his hands, as he quit his most recent job after a week, and his wife, Madame Mégot, is distracted by her committee work at the Académie Française. It seems that the Minister of Agriculture, having disgraced himself by a sexist remark that there were few women in the Ministry because its work is “too technical”, has especially asked that Madame Mégot represent the Académie on a panel to review provisional standards for certifying organic cigarettes – « les cigarettes bio » in French. Everyone agrees that providing French smokers with pure cigarettes is long overdue. It represents France’s strong commitment to the environment and to the purity of all things ingested in France. In addition, the recent report on industrial competitiveness commissioned by Président Hollande cites the production of organic cigarettes as a key element in the recovery of the country’s industrial preëminence.
The big question facing the panel revolves around the role of street sweepings, a traditional component in the cigarettes of all nations. No one is quite sure how to certify this ingredient as organic. Representatives of agricultural areas argue that Parisian street sweepings (generally acknowledged as the best) contain all sorts of unknown elements, while Parisians point out that Paris does not engage in the haphazard spraying of its streets with chemical fertilizers and pesticides as is common in the countryside. The debate is contentious and promises to keep Madame Mégot occupied for several weeks, so Gaspard has attached himself to my wanderings.
After a long guided tour of the back halls and attics of Versailles yesterday, Gaspard and I settled into a tea room (my choice, not his) to read newspaper reports of the election. Our tea arrived, Gaspard delivered his usual complaint about this drink, and then I heard a sudden loud snort, followed by the words « Quel barbare! Je le connaissais toujours!» [“The barbarian! I always knew it!]
Claims of always having known something are not unusual for Gaspard, but I have not often heard him use the word “barbarian”. Before I could ask the source of his disdain, he shoved an article from Le Figaro at me pointing to a section in which it was reported that part of Mitt Romney’s consolation for losing the election was to treat himself to his favorite food – a peanut-butter and honey sandwich. I did not have the heart to tell Gaspard that this gastronomic crime was probably committed on untoasted Wonder Bread.
I was much more taken by a medical article in Le Monde reporting the latest advances in understanding a uniquely French condition that has baffled researchers for generations - « Syndrome des joues gercées - SJG» [Chafed-cheek Syndrome]. Long considered a genetic condition unique to the French, more than 78% of French children under the age of 10 exhibit symptoms, mostly in the form of chafed cheeks, but occasionally chafed foreheads and bellies. After the age of 10 symptoms decline but rarely disappear completely. Using Nanny Cams imported from the United States, researchers at l’Hôpital Saint-Louis conducted an exhaustive study involving several hundred families under twenty-four hour surveillance for five years. The results prove conclusively that excessive kissing is the source of the problem. Big loud, wet, noisy smooches are the major culprit, but even small tactful pecks on the cheek or small raspberries delivered to the belly take their toll over time. In a controlled study, mothers were separated from their children for fifteen minutes every hour to allow the children’s skin the chance to heal; however, neither could tolerate the treatment and both sides became uncontrollably irritable. In most cases, fathers and even adolescent siblings took up the mother’s responsibility and excessive kissing continued on the sly. From these studies, researchers concluded that barrier creams are the only efficacious treatment.
I noted with some interest that researchers have also proposed a second round of study in which French families will be sent to live with Republican legislators in Washington. Researchers hypothesize that the unrestrained kissing will quell the squalling and tantrums that have made Washington such a joyless place in recent years.
Vive la douceur de France!
Votre fidèle correspondent,