I am just back from France where I spent the holiday break with my family, split between Paris and Deauville (my home town). I only go back once a year and it’s always an interesting experience. In many ways, I have the feeling that things don’t change a bit back home. Same old faces on the television, same people in politics, same strikes, same scandals, same artists.

Every year, I go through the same puzzling experience: I feel like a total stranger in France but I am surprised by my ability at not only understanding the language but actually being able to blend in. Believe it or not, but I can really pass as a native. This probably sounds funny to you but it’s constant rediscovery for me. The only giveaway of my expat status is not that I use English words in my French (I love the French language and I do my best to always look for the right French words, even if English words tend to come up more easily), but rather that my sentences and my words sometimes have an American intonation to them. Also, my absolute ignorance of certain events and famous personalities would probably be a dead give away.

Like every year, I am impressed by the amount of SMS messages that French exchange every day. I heard that on January 1st, four million text messages were exchanged between midnight and fifteen past midnight. By 8 o’clock, the number had reached twenty million, to which you need to add SMS messages exchanged on private networks (so 30-40 million is probably a more accurate estimate). The state of affairs in the United States is pathetic compared to Europeans. Hardly anyone even knows what SMS is, much less use it at all.

That being said, I am happy to report that for the first time in three-four years, America seems to have caught up in terms of cell phones: form factor and functionalities are now on par with what French use.

Another thing that is always a wonderful rediscovery is the breadth of French TV news. You need to see it for yourself to realize how much Europe is a reality there. There is not a single TV newscast that doesn’t include at least 30 if not 50% of news from all over Europe. This is something that the US needs to learn very fast. Even San Francisco, probably one of the most varied city in America in terms of ethnic representations, is very much guilty of “nombrilisme” (the act of staring at one’s navel). TV or newspaper, it’s really really hard to find any kind of non-American news.

I also used this time to catch up on French movies. Big disappointment there, I found pretty much all the movies I watched very boring or even pathetic, even those that received reviews from the critics, such as “Le Placard” (which was shown in San Francisco for a while, featuring Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, Jean Rochefort and many other top-notch French actors). I can’t say I even smiled once watching it. I was also exposed to Michel Vaillant on the plane (a comic strip I used to love when I was a kid, and which, even though the script was written by Luc Besson, turns out to be a ridiculously pompous and ludicrous movie). Maybe I watched the wrong movies but it seems to me French screenplay writers are in desperate need of an imagination fix.

I did come back home with a few French DVD’s though (my DVD player is region-free): “L’integrale des Nuls” (a group of French comedians who can be compared to Saturday Night Live and who unfortunately stopped their comic work a few years ago) and “les Inconnus” (same thing). I am looking forward to watching these and my only regret is that I can’t really share them with my non French-speaking friends.

Another thing very unique to France compared to America is Bandes Dessinees. I could translate this to “comic strip” but it’s really not doing this genre justice. First of all, bandes dessinees are sold in hard cover, but also the attention to the scenario and the drawing makes it a full-fledged art, right up there with books and movies. I learned to read with bandes dessinees when I was four years old, so it comes as little surprise that I’m still fascinated by this genre. Throughout the years, I do my best to keep my collection current and I also take every opportunity possible to discover new authors and new heroes.

My recurring purchases are typically Blake and Mortimer, Thorgal, XIII, Largo Wynch, and Yoko Tsuno among others, but I also recently discovered the Aldebaran cycle and also AquaBlue. As for novels, I didn’t have much time to shop around and 95% of my reading is in English anyway, but I did buy Bernard Werber’s latest two novels. Werber is the author of the fascinating “Ants” (and its two sequels). If you think that a fiction novel about ants cannot be interesting, I urge you to read at least the first book, which is available in English if I’m not mistaken.

But Werber didn’t stop there and he wrote riveting novels after that, one of my favorites being the “Thanatonautes”, about near-death experiments. Very recommended, it will make you see things in a very different way. I am very much looking forward to reading my two recent purchases.

I don’t keep up much with French music but I never fail to see if Mylene Farmer or Jean-Jacques Goldman have released any new album. Goldman is a French version of Mark Knopfler (and as a die-hard Dire Straits fan, it’s not a compliment I make easily). He is an outstanding guitarist (actually he also plays the violine and many other instruments), composer and singer. He also wrote countless songs for dozens of famous singers such as Celine Dion. His recent album seems to be very influenced by Irish traditional songs but I need to listen to it more to decide. If you would like to discover this amazing and yet simple guy, I strongly recommend his masterpiece album “Entre gris clair et gris fonce”.

All in all, I enjoyed my trip and nothing can explain what it tastes like to eat French food even at the simplest “troquet du coin”. You need to experience it for yourself.

Happy new year to you all.