Librairie de la Lune Brassaï (c1931-4)
These days, we spend quite a bit of time in Le Havre (more of which another time). I am totally back in love with France after a cooling-off period following a less-than-brilliant time studying languages at university. I now realise that I may have been able write essays about Rousseau and Corneille, Pascal and Baudelaire, but I couldn't discuss anything topical, political or practical in French. In fact, I couldn't do much in French at all after my degree.
I could, however, imagine an alternative, chic me, as someone who effortlessly adopted all the badges of chic French style. In summer I'd sit outside cafes and drink pastis and coolly swirl the water as the drink turned cloudy. In winter I'd sit inside cafes with mosaic floors and zinc-topped bars, drink tiny cups of black coffee, and read Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (and understand them). I'd light Gitanes with Bic lighters, dab Chanel No 5 behind my ears, watch Jules et Jim and other Nouvelle Vague films at the cinema, eat barely-cooked 'blue' steaks and choucroute followed by îles flottantes, explain everything with reference to Michel Foucault, and rave about a 300-page novel which does not use the letter 'e'. And I would be onto my third or fourth reading of Proust.
The problem was, and still is, that I don't actually like any of these things. Despite the seductively lovely labels on pastis, I can't bear the taste. I don't drink black coffee and any reading of Existentialist philosophy would probably not last longer than a grand crème anyway (but I'd be very happy in any of the cafes in this book). I've never smoked a cigarette in my life, although Gitanes and Gauloises packets looked so good before all the warnings were printed on them, and I'd happily collect Bic lighters just to get a set with all the colours. Perfume makes me sneeze, Jules et Jim left me cold, choucroute from Alsace looks like something Desperate Dan would order, and barely cooked egg whites do not constitute a good mouthful of dessert in my book.
Jacques Tati in Mon Oncle
In the end, I've accepted I'll never be chic. My beloved Maigret novels by Georges Simenon are despised by many intellectuals, kir is seen as passé in some places, Jacques Tati/M Hulot films are nowhere near as edgy and sexy as Truffaut and Godard, and I prefer Jacques Prévert's simple Paroles to highbrow philosophy. I eat steak à point but which does not bleed all over the plate, am still on a quest to find the best lemon tart in France, and A la recherche du temps perdu has just replaced Middlemarch as the book I'm mostly likely to take about forty years to get round to reading.
I'm now past caring about chic-ness, but the legacy of a literature degree has continued to bother me and I have been re-learning useful French for nearly two years. This, more than any Dior dress or knowledge of Alain Robbe-Grillet's work, is what really makes a difference in Le Havre.