Sunday, May 22, 2005

Keeping Up

For expatriate Americans in France, many of whom came simply to live an individual Sylvia FitzHemingway Parisian fantasy, there was a time not so long ago when keeping up with the news was serious, time-consuming business. Quite a bit of effort had to be devoted to maintaining one's awareness and understanding, one hoped, of current events. The French popular press (Le Parisien Libéré, France-Soir) covered US and international news, after a fashion, but lack of fluent French reading skills certainly limited the time one could - and would - spend poring over Le Monde's or L'Aurore's turgid prose. The young expat, usually désargenté and with better things than a newspaper to spend money on, such as food and lodging, would invariably find workarounds.

One of them consisted simply of going over to the rue de Berri, if the weather permitted. For years, the New York Herald Tribune's Paris Edition published from those premises. As soon as the most recent version came off the rotaries, the pages were posted up on the outside of the building, behind thick glass at eye level. One could spend as long as one liked perusing the headlines, taking notes from the wantads, checking the latest sports scores ... and encountering other Americans. That pavement was one of the unofficial American expat meeting points in Paris, mentioned only in memoirs and rarely in guidebooks. This lasted until the born-again and subsequently renamed International Herald Tribune decided to rationalize production and move to Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Another workaround was a stop at the mythical American Center for Students and Artists, on the boulevard Raspail. The library on the first floor had subscriptions to various American papers: the Trib was available every day - as were many daily and weekly French papers. Other icons of the American press, such as the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Review of Books, came by boat mail and were ready for reading on demand. Sometimes a visit to the Centre Culturel Americain, on the rue du Dragon or to the Ben Franklin Library in the Place de l'Odéon turned out to be profitable. In a pinch, a visit to the American Library in Paris would always enable one to catch a glimpse of the American press - and of the business-oriented, three-button-suited expat community, those individuals and families who could pay the annual membership fees or persuade their company to cough up for them.

In Paris, there was only one TV station - and four FM stations, all state owned and operated. There were also the radios peripheriques (Europe 1, RTL, Radio Monte Carlo), semi-private stations operating under governmental charter. In common with the French press, their coverage of US news was sparse, not to say nonexistent - and they were all in French. So, comfortably ensconced in a sixth-floor walkup chambre de bonne (for Amerloque, too, lived his Paris fantasy), one learned the power of international radio, and took advantage of it. One spent an hour or so working on one's French language skills. Then one gave oneself up to the pleasure and frustration of shortwave radio.

The Voice of America, Radio Free Europe (RFE), and Radio Liberty could be depended on for the official Washington view, while the BBC and the English broadcasts of Radio Suisse International, and Radio Canada would give the counterpoint. The powerful Radio Moscow, Radio Havana, Radio Tirana and a multitude of Eastern European stations offered the Soviet-bloc approach. One could evaluate international tensions by the change in the number and intensity of Soviet-bloc radio jamming signals: a jammed RFE program in Hungarian or Polish, usually clearly received, meant that international events were on the boil. (Frequently, such jamming increased before a geopolitical move. The Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 was hardly a surprise to those who had noticed that jamming of RFE programs had suddenly increased.)

What of sports, however ? Where in the world could the intermittently-homesick young longhaired American expat, still adapting to French life and learning the language, listen to a baseball game, a football game, or a horse race ? Not read about it, but hear ? At the American Legion post on the rue Pierre Charron ? Harry's Bar ?

Why, on that radio, of course. Very late at night, if the atmospheric conditions were right, one could tune to medium wave and locate an Armed Forces Radio station broadcasting from a base in Belgium or, more usually, Germany. One could hear a Dodgers/Giants game, an NFL Game of the Week, or ... the Kentucky Derby, that most traditionally American of sporting events. One could - and did - thrill to Hank Aaron's hits, Johnny Unitas' TD passes, and Northern Dancer's win.

Times change. In Paris, Dragon and Franklin/Odeon no longer exist, nor does the American Center, swept away by speculation and, more generally, by modern life. The American Legion Post on rue Pierre-Charron is now a hotel. The Cold War is over. One listens to the radio stations of Eastern Europe for genuine news, not propaganda - although sometimes it's a close call indeed. Radio Suisse International has ceased broadcasting in shortwave and is now internet based. The Herald Tribune has become part of the corporate press: its ill-informed Paris "correspondents" now deliver politically correct, carefully expurgated views and stories, far removed from the realities of France and the French people.

Yesterday, with a few clicks and a zap or two on satellite/cable TV, Amerloque watched the Preakness Stakes live, en direct. He watched Scrappy T and Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo beaten by the remarkable Afleet Alex. He then went onto internet and clicked into a baseball game. No radio needed, anymore, although as a polychronic medium it's still very nice to have around.

The news and sports are right there on internet, for the asking, whether one is rich or poor. The trick is choosing the news one wants to read and hear, rather than relying on someone else's choice. Times have indeed changed, n'est-ce pas ?


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque


Blogger SuburbaMom said...

I was just saying this the other day. I have no idea what it must have been like to be an expat 25 or more years ago... before the computer. Life is so much easier for us now. I really feel like I'm in touch with my family through email. I know the main headlines in the US from reading the internet. I feel as connected to the US as I want to.

2:29 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Auntie !

I was just saying this the other day. I have no idea what it must have been like to be an expat 25 or more years ago... before the computer.

It was far, far harder to find information, that's for sure. (smile)

Life is so much easier for us now. I really feel like I'm in touch with my family through email. I know the main headlines in the US from reading the internet. I feel as connected to the US as I want to.

Yes, I imagine so. I've noticed that - though I look at the local US paper on internet at frequent intervals - I'm still far more tuned to what's happening here in Europe rather than in my ex-corner of the US.

Sports are a different story. I'm the spectator par excellence. (smile) I have never really apprciated soccer (aka "football") or rugby, and even with the very best of intentions I am only marginally interested in cricket, although that's beginning to change since the arrival of the marvellous Pakistani, Indian and Sri-Lankan players over in the Seine-Saint-Denis.

Now that MLB is available on internet … and there's even some baseball on the cable channel Sport+ ! – spring has really come to Paris.

The "new, improved" International Herald Tribune, though, has missed the boat, as usual. What a loser it is.

For many, many years, on the opening day of the US baseball season, the paper republished a famous poem by the LA Times journalist Dick Roraback, who passed away a few years ago. He wrote it when he was posted here in Paris.

Here it is, for informational and (educational – I claim "fair use") purposes.

The Crack of a Bat

by Dick Roraback

Away on this side of the ocean
When the chestnuts are hinting of green
And the first of the café commandos
Are moving outside for a fine
And the sound of spring beats a bolero
As Paree sheds her coat and her hat
The sound that is missed more than any
Is the sound of the crack of a bat.

There's an animal kind of feeling
There's a stirring down at Vincennes Zoo
And the kid down the hall's getting restless
Taking stairs like a young kangaroo
Now the dandy is walking his poodle
And the concierge sunning her cat
But the heart's with the Cubs and the Tigers
And the sound of the crack of a bat.

In the park on the corner run schoolboys
With a couple of cartons for props
Kicking goals à la Fontaine or Kopa
While a little guy chikies for cops
“Goal for us,” “No it's not,” “You're a liar,”
Then the classical shrieks of a spat
But it's not like a rhubarb at home plate
Or the sound of the crack of a bat.

Here the stadia thrill to the scrumdowns
And the soccer fans flock to the games
And the chic punt the nags out a Longchamp
Where the women are dames and not dames
But it's different at Forbes and at Griffith
The homes of the Buc and the Nat
Where the hotdog and peanut share laurels
With the sound of the crack of a bat.

No, a Yank can't describe to a Frenchman
The rasp of an umpire's call
The continuing charms of statistics
Changing hist'ry with each strike and ball
Nor the self-conscious jog of the slugger
Rounding third with the tip of his hat
Nor the half-smothered grace of a hook slide
Nor the sound of the crack of a bat.

Now, the golfer is buffing his niblick
And the tennis buff's tightening his strings
And the fisherman's flexing his flyrod
Like a thousand and one other springs
Oh, the sports on both sides of the ocean
Have a great deal in common, at that
But the thing that's not HERE
At this time of the year
Is the sound of the crack of a bat.

The meter is wonderful, the references historic and the enthusiasm unfeigned. Reading it aloud to an older Paris hand will bring tears to his/her eyes, with great and wondeful memories.


10:02 AM  
Blogger PutYourFlareOn said...

The times you spoke of I don't hardly know except from similar stories of when my father was station in Korea with the peace corp. I have it easy now with the internet, I can be anywhere I want in the world with a few clicks from my office desk. I have RSS feeds that keep me up to date with my favorite news magazine and can read easily my favorite American newspapers with the easy of my computer.

I am fascinated with how things have evolved and must tell you that I really enjoyed your blog entry today.

1:24 AM  

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