Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

A Dream Evening at the Cirque d’Hiver, Today and 24 Years Ago….

November 6, 2017
bradspurgeon

Cirque d'Hiver, Paris

Cirque d’Hiver, Paris

PARIS – The Cirque d’Hiver, or Winter Circus, in Paris is one of the great treasures of the circus arts. After the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus recently – and, for circus lovers, tragically – closed down after more than a hundred years of existence, this Parisian tradition is one of the last remaining great, great circus attractions. Over the weekend, I decided to attend its latest show – called “Exploit” – and was not let down. I threw together some of the videos I took during the show into a single little clip that you can see below. And I also decided on this occasion to republish, on the blog, an article I wrote about this great Paris institution 24 years ago in my blog articles section under the title: Cirque d’Hiver: A Unique Tradition Under the Big Top Ceiling in Paris. It all remains so incredibly true and fresh, and I cannot be happier to report that. The show, as you will see in the video, was stupendous.

A New Not-Book-Review: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, “Joueur d’échecs”

October 18, 2017
bradspurgeon

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

PARIS – Until I began playing chess as an adult nearly 20 years ago, there was no activity either sporting, musical or intellectual in my life that I would do unless I felt at least a tiny level of competence. Chess became almost an addiction – the part about playing on the Internet – but I could never fool myself into thinking I was anything other than a horrible, horrible chess player.

As it happens, my son, Paul, was a very, very good chess player from the age of 7 to 15, playing at the national level in France, both amongst children and adults. He suddenly quit chess completely not long after he turned 15, telling me that it would require more work than it was worth to stay at the top levels as he grew older. That made sense. In any case, he quit, while I continued to play as a hack. But I also continued to watch the players of his age group whom he had known or played against as they rose up the categories. One who I had first become aware of when he was about 8 years old, and who was only 6 months older than Paul, was Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. He was already one of the top young players at that time in France, and he continued to rise steadily up the ratings list and through the hierarchy of national, European and world championships.

Lately, this player has reached as high as No. 2 in the world, and currently sits third in the international ratings list. A couple of weeks ago, in France and in French, he published a book about his life in chess (Joueur d’echecs, Fayard) – at age 27 – and I now learn that while I never doubted that this young player would rise up to challenge for the world title, apparently there were a few times in his career when he had his doubts. His rise up the international standings was not quite as fast as some of his contemporaries – like the current world no. 1, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, or even Sergey Karjakin, of Russia – but if you watched his career as closely as I have, or even just look at his career ratings chart on the site of the FIDE, you see a trajectory that goes up, up, up, steadily.

But despite having seen Vachier-Lagrave play in many tournaments, having exchanged a few words with him and his parents, and having observed him at the chess club that he and my son were both members of a little more than a decade ago, I never felt I had any understanding at all about who this kid was, this boy who was so clearly made for chess in a way that my son Paul, despite his natural talent, was not. So when I learned that this new book about his life had come out, I immediately downloaded it into my Kindle. And I was NOT disappointed.

Part of the reason I am so bad at chess is my simple lack of attention span when it comes to reading any book about how to play chess. But Vachier-Lagrave’s book has NO writing about how to move the pieces or what an opening, middle game or endgame is. This book is all about what it means to be a professional chess player today, and how he got there. One of his main stated goals is to show that while the game of chess may be extremely complicated in the eyes of most people, and the top level players may be associated with the kind of madness we find in books like “The Defense,” by Vladimir Nabokov, or Stefan Zweig’s “Chess Story,” or in famous players like Bobby Fischer, who went slightly off the rails mentally, Vachier-Lagrave sets out to show just how normal a young man he is.

“At the risk of deceiving some people, chess players are not robots, not computers with legs, and not mad scientists,” he writes (here in my translation from the French). “Worse, or rather, better: We are just normal people! With our qualities and our faults, our certainties and our quandaries, some strong points and many weak points. Normal people who are in possession of an abnormal talent – in the first sense of the word, that is, outside the norm – in a specific area, which is the practice of chess.”

He puts chess into a completely different perspective than that of the popular imagination, and for that this is a book that can be of interest to the general reader, although I feel it will mostly be read by an audience of chess players and fans who know who he is. As it turns out, he describes himself almost perfectly whenever he talks about how he may appear from the outside, to others; somewhat diffident appearing, not overly emotional on the outside, but enjoying to let himself go occasionally, including with friends at a bar.

What I realize most through the reading of this book is that like it or not, fair or not, there IS a difference between the extremely talented and those who are not so talented. While Vachier-Lagrave talks about all the hard work he has had to do in his life to achieve the success he has at the moment, he especially emphasises how impossible it is for him to sit eight hours a day, every day, to just study chess. When he does play, he is like a child having fun kicking a soccer ball. It is not work, it is passion. But he never takes it too far, because it is ultimately, also, his profession. In fact, he can go a few days without playing at all, between tournaments. To empty his mind and return with passion again.

But here, no doubt, lies the key to it all – and in contrast to my son’s relationship with chess: First, Vachier-Lagrave says he could never do without chess, that it keeps returning to hims; second, his natural talent is clearly of a massively high level, and his pleasure is rewarded with satisfaction if he works at it so he does not have to work more than he might want to.

But I also found, as I read this book – which, by the way, is extremely intelligently written, and shows a decent cultivation, which is not surprising for a chess player who also took a university degree in math – that the similarities between success in a chess career and success in, say, a racing car driver’s career, are many. I thought often of the memoir, “Aussie Grit,” of Mark Webber, the Formula One driver, as I read this book, because Webber emphasises over and over again the need to go to the absolute limit in order to reach the highest level. Many drivers have talent, but only those who make all the right moves and never give up, arrive at the pinnacle.

There are many talented chess players in the world, but despite Vachier-Lagrave trying to look “normal,” what sets him apart is his exceptional ability to roll with the punches, believe in himself, and to continue that steady rise up the ladder in pursuit of the dream of his childhood to be world champion. This is no doubt due to his exceptional lucidity about how to deal with life’s potential obstacles.

“The pages of the history books are full of these great young hopes who remained great young hopes and never managed to “make it,”” he writes. “Everything is a question of talent, work and desire, but not even those things are enough sometimes. Bad luck and the unpredictable circumstances of life can destroy progress forever, and put to an end a career that looked brilliant before it even started.”

“Grand Prix” by Frankenheimer, and the Shocking Count of Death

September 27, 2017
bradspurgeon

Grand Prix film at Spa

Grand Prix film at Spa

They were the big, daring stars with a halo of danger surrounding them, a sense of not knowing what might be going through their minds for driving at speeds of 300 kph and more in a sport where death was a regular occurrence. Their series was the highest level of its kind, both technologically and in human skill. They travelled from country to country, including in far-flung places away from their home base. They feted their victories in posh parties. And when they lost their racing jobs, they became journalists commentating on the series – and as such were given less respect, or were considered like hyenas smelling blood.

Watching John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film “Grand Prix,” for perhaps the fifth or sixth time last night, I was not only struck more than ever by how little Formula One has really changed in the 51 years since the film was made, but for the first time I also found myself loving the human story that I had always thought was the film’s weak point. And it was really only while watching it yesterday that I suddenly began to do the math and to discover another human story not stated in the film that gives the tale an even deeper feeling of gravitas.

The human story, mixing the racer’s competitive urge and taste for taking risks and the way it affected their personal lives, as well as the technological story and the presentation of the series itself all work in lock-step to produce the greatness of this film. Until Ron Howard’s film “Rush” in 2013, it was commonly felt that there had only been one good film made about the Formula One series, and that was “Grand Prix.” But watching “Grand Prix” with the perspective now of having “Rush” – the story of the 1976 battle between Niki Lauda and James Hunt for the world title – there is another layer that may be added to the 1966 film. The scene in which the driver named Scott Stoddart, who is played by Brian Bedford, tries to recover from his horrible accident and injuries could be seen as a model for the even more horrendous Niki Lauda recovery scenes in “Rush” were it not that the Lauda scenes were based on the true story of Lauda’s life, whereas “Grand Prix” is fiction.

Yves Montand in Grand Prix

Yves Montand in Grand Prix

And yet “Grand Prix” also uses history to weave its tragic tale, including in the parallels to the death of Wolfgang von Trips at Monza in 1961 during a race that should have brought him the World Drivers’ title. Instead, he crashed, killing himself and 15 spectators, while the world title then went to his teammate, Phil Hill, the American driver at Ferrari (who also appears in the film). In “Grand Prix,” it is Jean-Pierre Sarti, the Yves Montand character, who was heading for the title at Monza, who crashes and dies, and so gives the title to the American driver, Pete Aron, played by James Garner, who drives for a Japanese team.

And so Little Has Changed as Formula One Returns to Malaysia for its Final Race outside Kuala Lumpur

As Formula One prepares this weekend to run its final race in Malaysia, after nearly 20 years at the venue outside Kuala Lumpur, our memory in sport remains very short. Watching “Grand Prix” can remind those who like to criticize the series for not being what it once was, that little has changed. Malaysia was one of the many circuits that so-called “purists” liked to say had no place on the calendar of a series that was born in Europe, since the Southeast Asian nation had no racing culture, no car culture, no fans…. But in the film, the series already travelled to Mexico, and in another 10 years it would go to Japan. In fact, a Japanese manufacturer was involved in the film – as was Honda in reality – trying to win races after a couple of seasons without success, and seeking the best driver and having undergone far too much humiliation through losing. Echoes of Honda in the series now.

Too much money linked with Formula One today? In 1966, the tracks around Europe had sponsors plastered everywhere, but they were mostly car-related sponsors – Champion spark plugs, Castrol Oil, Goodyear Tires, etc. Today, it is watch companies like Rolex, Hublot, IWC and many others, or alcohol companies, technology companies, and dozens of other non-racing companies.

Grand Prix film crash

Grand Prix film crash

It is commonly said that Bernie Ecclestone built up Formula One from a kind of gentlemen’s club in that period to the global business it is today. But while it is true that he organized it and made it into a very powerful global sport – one of the most-watched behind the Olympics and World Cup soccer – it is also true that this can be seen in some ways as a natural progression for what was ALWAYS the pinnacle of automobile racing. It has just expanded, developed, and become MORE of what it was, as well as diversifying.

Very few of the underlying narratives have changed, and even most of the circuits from the film are still part of the series, but built up and improved: Spa, Monza, the Nurburgring (although it was not the same circuit), Mexico and Monaco. The glitzy after-party in Monaco still goes on today.

The cars of the day were beautiful objects, and while they are primitive by today’s standards, they were the highest expression of the technology of the day, as with today’s cars.

Nearly Half of the Real Racing Drivers in the Film Would Die Violent Racing-Linked Deaths

But the most shocking part of the film is something we do not see, or we only see if we know the history of what followed. And that brings me back to that bit of mathematical counting I started to do while watching the film. Just over 30 of the drivers of the day were used in the film in small roles, as extras or just on camera as they raced. It was a brilliant blending in of the star actors with the fictional drivers. The most obvious ones being people like Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt or Jim Clark. But knowing what fate held for them is a hugely poignant thing.

Graham Hill and Jo Bonnier, with James Garner and Yves Montand, in Grand Prix film

Graham Hill and Jo Bonnier, with James Garner and Yves Montand, in Grand Prix film

Of those 30 or so drivers, 13 would eventually die in racing accidents – or, as in the case of Graham Hill, while flying his airplane in poor weather returning from a racing test session; or in the case of Giuseppe Farina, after running his car into a telegraph pole while driving to the French Grand Prix of 1966, when he was acting as the double and adviser to Yves Montand in the film.

Also in the film, where Stoddart suffers a huge crash near the harbor in Monaco, the following year, at the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix, Lorenzo Bandini, who was also in the film, was killed in a fiery accident also by the harbor.

And here is the point: While Formula One remains a deadly series, as the death of Jules Bianchi two years ago from injuries in an accident the previous year at the Japanese Grand Prix has shown, it has incontestably become safer than it was. The series depicted by “Grand Prix,” while so similar – or familiar – in most other ways to today’s series, no longer, thank goodness, takes the lives of some of its drivers nearly every year.

No, it is not entirely what it was. It is better.

Grand Prix film Trailer

Brad’s Morning Exercise Music Rundown, 12th Installment: Pete and the HoboSapiens, Downtown Merrylegs, Aaron Bowen, Scott Bricklin, Rose Gabriel, Box for Letters and Paolo Alderighi & Stephanie Trick

September 20, 2017
bradspurgeon

Sit Ups

Sit Ups

For my 12th “Morning Exercise Rundown,” – the 11th of which ran in May 2016 – I have seven musicians or groups to talk about, all of which were discovered in the open mics I attended since then. (Although I have known some of them for a few years.)

The Morning Exercise Music Philosophy

First, as a reminder, the idea behind this regular – but occasional – column is that for most of my life I avoided classic daily physical exercise because I felt I was able to do without it and it bored me to death. In recent years, I had a kind of flash of aged wisdom and realized that I might bore myself to death if I DON’T exercise. (No time in life for exercise? No! No time in life to NOT exercise!) That did not, however, alleviate the boredom of doing it. So when not doing my nighttime exercise of riding my unicycle around the neighborhood – which does NOT bore me – or jogging – which does bore me to a degree – or riding the apartment cycle in front of the TV, which staves off the boredom – I do my exercises in the morning (sit ups, push ups, etc.) while listening to new (and old) CDs that I acquire from musicians at open mics (and including EPs on SoundCloud or other sites) or from any other source.

I do not pretend to be a music critic, but simply to talk about and describe, and give my impressions of the music I listen to during my morning exercises. Keep in mind that my impressions and opinions, therefore, will have been formed while straining to reach a record number of push ups, sit ups, couch ups, deep knee bends, stretch downs and simply catching my breath. So maybe my opinion will be warped.

Pete and the HoboSapiens


Pete and the HoboSapiens – Time and Place

The thing that really gave me the kick in the butt to get my 11th edition of this morning exercise rundown out fast was the reception yesterday of this video to a new project by Pete Cogavin, his new band called: Pete and the HoboSapiens. I just loved this song, “Time and Place,” and sound and video so much that I thought I should get the thing up on my blog along with the other stuff I have been exercising to as quickly as possible. Pete I met in 2010 or 2011 when he was hosting his own evening of music at Shapko in Nice, France. He let me go up on stage to sing a few songs, as he did most people who asked, in his informal open mic at the time. We met the following year too, I believe, and have kept in touch ever since. I loved his voice and music at the time, but it is clearly growing and developing. There is a song-writing skill here, the music is bright and uplifting, it just bounces along, the voice has its distinct Pete Cogavin quality, and there has been some nice effort put into the video. You can also find Pete and the HoboSapiens’ full new CD on Spotify.

The Downtown Merrylegs: Pollen Cloud

Downtown Merrylegs

Downtown Merrylegs

I discovered this Paris-based English band through performing at the Rush Bar open mic, hosted by the genial Charlie Seymour, an Englishman who has spent decades playing music in bars in Paris without us somehow having run into each other until he began hosting that open mic this year! I usually arrived at the open mic too late to hear his opening set – of which I am ashamed – but one day recently when I gave him a copy of my CD, he gave me a copy of his. What a fabulous surprise this CD and band, The Downtown Merrylegs, most of the songs of which Seymour writes and sings. This is British folk rock of a kind I like, but the thing that was extraordinary was when I suddenly realized how close this man’s voice sounds to one of my favorite singing voices of recent years: Wally Page. Page is a little-known Irishman who has, nevertheless, written songs and performed with Christy Moore, the great Irish traditional singer songwriter of Planxty fame. But while Seymour’s voice may be a dead-ringer for Page’s, the stories they tell are entirely their own.

Aaron Bowen and his Wide Sky and other CDs

Wide Sky - Aaron Bowen

Wide Sky – Aaron Bowen

Aaron Bowen has a story to tell in his music, sure, like most singer songwriters. But this San Diego musician who visits Paris regularly, also has a very cool story to tell about his music, the latest which release is “Wide Sky” from More Than Folk Records in Paris. Working in a business in his 20s he suddenly had to sell the business, and found himself deciding to make a life in music. One day, jamming with a friend, he had written a song and wanted the friend or someone to sing it. “Oh, you can try to sing it yourself,” said the friend. Bowen, a fabulous guitar player from a musical family, said to his friend that he could not sing at all. The friend pushed him to try. He sang the song, and out poured the most mellifluous and original voice the friend had heard in a while – and it hit every single note perfectly. Comparisons now often come to the voice of Paul Simon. Whatever. A new singing, songwriting career was born, and Bowen never looked back. I love this CD, Wide Sky, one of two he gave me in recent months, the other being a thing call Spring Demo. But I’ll keep that to myself for the moment! Oh, and by the way, I just wrote that story about his vocals from memory after a night at a Paris open mic many months ago. It is quite possible that I got some details wrong, but that’s the gist of it!!!!

Scott Bricklin, Not Lost at all, on Lost Till Dawn

Scott Bricklin - Lost Till Dawn

Scott Bricklin – Lost Till Dawn

Scott Bricklin is a hugely talented multi-instrumentalist from Philadelphia, who had a previous life on a label somewhere in the U.S. with a band with his brother. Now a permanent Paris expat, he is keeping very busy playing here and around Europe, and has just come out with another album of his cool, laid back folk rock. (At least that’s the way I hear it.) What makes this very homogenous album really interesting for me, and maybe for one or two readers of this blog, is that unlike the last CD of Bricklin that I heard – on which he played basically all the instruments – here on “Lost Till Dawn,” a good most of the CD consists of Bricklin playing along with Félix Beguin and Jeremy Norris. These are the same three performers who played on the first five songs on my CD, “Out of a Jam.” (Beguin also played on two of the other five tracks on my CD.) So it was really cool to hear what other fabulous sounds these guys could make, and it was not a disappointment.

Wrapping Up With Rose Gabriel, Box for Letters and Paolo Alderighi & Stephanie Trick

And so I come to the round up area at the end of this morning exercise report. I’m not rounding up these final CDs because they are in any way lesser in my heart, but because, holy crap, if I don’t get this page out there tonight, who knows how much longer I’ll be sitting on it before I finish it! It has already been so long!

Rose Gabriel

Rose Gabriel

I am not one to love country music, but the songs, stories and vocals of Rose Gabriel’s very personal “Desert Flowers” completely subjugated me. Rose is from Austin, Texas, and I have also seen her a couple of times in Paris. But it was not until I listened to her CD that I really sat back and realized the original voice and stories she had to tell – although the last performance I saw of her at the Rush Bar in Paris was so great that I wasted no time at all listening to the CD she had given me that night!! All about life growing up in Texas, this is very coollll… or rather, hot.

Box for Letters

Box for Letters

I met the lead singer, songwriter, for the Malaysian Band “Box for Letters,” on my last trip to Kuala Lumpur last year, and found a highly original voice and temperament, and another extraordinary story to tell: Here was a man with a promising musical career who suddenly, very young, had a terrible motorcycle accident. Among the multiple injuries were a severely fractured jaw. It seemed his singing and playing career was over. But no. It took him a year or two, but he came back with this beautiful recording – Cerap.

Alderighi and Trick

Alderighi and Trick

Finally, and this is not last as least, Double Trio, is the fabulous live album of Paolo Alderighi and Stephanie Trick, a married couple who are both leading stride piano players. I have written about them several times before on this blog, which is why I am not doing more here now, but this CD (with Marty Eggers on bass and Danny Coots on drums) is a real fabulous demonstration of what this couple can do live in their four-hands act. I had the great pleasure of hearing them in Milan recently, and I can attest to it that this CD is a perfect representation of what they do. Alderighi is from Milan, by the way, and is certainly Italy’s greatest young jazz export, and Trick is from the home of stride piano, St. Louis – where they both spend much of the little time they have when not travelling to put on shows!

Well, that rounds that up. Another morning exercise crop of CDs and SoundClouds, my 12th edition since I started doing this in April of 2013….

Four More Years of the Great Singapore Grand Prix – and a Look Back at the First Race of 2008

September 16, 2017
bradspurgeon

Singapore Grand Prix starting grid with the Singapore Eye in the background.  Photo: © Brad Spurgeon

Singapore Grand Prix starting grid with the Singapore Eye in the background. Photo: © Brad Spurgeon

What is wrong with these Formula One fans and pundits who have been criticising the series for decades about its global expansion, and loss of “traditional” circuits in Europe? Sure, there is only one race in Italy, one in Spain, one in Germany (sometimes), and for years no race in France – soon to be rectified. Hold it, do we need more than one in each country? In fact, for me the Singapore Grand Prix not only always lived up to its expectations, but it went far beyond them to become one of the top races in the series. So no wonder that Formula One has been able to extend the deal in the city state for another four years of the race, as announced yesterday. For me, the Singapore race, the third practice of which is taking place as I write these words, is simply one of the best, most exciting and interesting races of the season – one of the hottest, in every way….

I do not recall a single time being able to walk from the MRT station closest to the circuit to the media center of the circuit without having worked up a full-body sweat that led to me adopting the habit of wearing a T-Shirt to go there, and bringing a fresh change of shirt to start the day – or afternoon, rather, since it is a night race. It is a long-haul from Europe to Singapore, and the country is so small and without a long tradition of top auto racing culture; but how can a series that calls itself the pinnacle of racing in the world pretend to be anything like that without actually racing all around the world? For me, the global expansion is both necessary and enriching, for the series, for the fans and for the participants. What a fabulous adventure. And, of course, I personally always enjoyed the discovery of the musical culture, as with my wonderful encounters in the open mics, jams and gigs of Singapore – like the time I met “the Dean Martin of Singapore.”

In my second look-back on this new section of my blog, I am posting my first race preview for the Singapore Grand Prix, published just before the 2008 inaugural race.

The 10th Edition of the Singapore Grand Prix – and a New Racing Section to this Blog

September 14, 2017
bradspurgeon

Chase Carey of Liberty Media at Singapore GP 2016. Photo:  Brad Spurgeon

Chase Carey of Liberty Media at Singapore GP 2016. Photo: Brad Spurgeon

This weekend marks the 10th edition of the Singapore Grand Prix, the first running of which took place in 2008, as Formula One’s first ever night race. As it happened, that first edition would take place just as the world financial markets began to fall apart in the beginning of the financial crisis the effects of which we are still feeling today. I recall the strange atmosphere in the paddock perfectly: We were gathered in the financial hub of Southeast Asia in the slickest racing environment in a downtown setting that we had ever seen, and basking in the paddock in an atmosphere of wealth and luxury. While all the talk was about the underpinnings of that wealth and luxury falling apart around us – banks going bust, the global financial system sinking into an apparent abyss, and with it, the prospect of so many of the series’ sponsors pulling out and leaving Formula One adrift in a series that survives on begging for money.

As the series continues to negotiate for a new contract with Singapore, and in a season in which a new company has taken over the running of the series – the U.S.-based Liberty Media – I thought it would be a great time to look back at a couple of the stories that I wrote in the past, as well as to start a new auto racing section on this blog. Today I am running what I feel is the biggest story I wrote about Formula One as almost classical theater, a big, world story of glamour, glitz and drama. This was a Page 1 story in the International Herald Tribune, and later ran in the New York Times, and summed up the state of Formula One at the time, at its biggest race of the season: The Monaco Grand Prix. Read the story and tell me if the series is the same today 15 years later?

Tomorrow, I will run my preview for the first ever Singapore Grand Prix, and talk a little more about how the weekends go in Singapore.

By the way, while we all thought the first night race and the collapsing financial markets were the biggest story of the weekend in 2008, it turned out that there was a much, much bigger sporting story going on behind the scenes. But that scandal would only be revealed a year later when Nelson Piquet Jr. told the world that he (and his team directors) had staged a fake crash in order to help his teammate at Renault, Fernando Alonso, with his race strategy. The help would lead to Alonso’s first victory that season, and a year later, to the banning of two of the team’s directors from the series in one of the sport’s worst cheating scandals. Last year also marked the beginning of the Liberty Media story, as the announcement of the takeover of Formula One had just been made at the beginning of the month and Chase Carey, the new boss, visited the Singapore paddock – his first ever visit to a Formula One Grand Prix.

My Own Personal Refugee Crisis – Nanterre Prefecture by Way of Brexit

August 22, 2017
bradspurgeon

doubling back snaking line up at Nanterre prefecture for people with rendezvous

doubling back snaking line up at Nanterre prefecture for people with rendezvous

NANTERRE, France – Thanks to the non-democratic and fixed Brexit referendum in the UK – the population most concerned by the vote, that is, the British passport holders living in the EU, were not allowed to vote – I have entered into a nearly full-time job of seeking out French nationality. I’ve been working on this since July 2016. I have yet to hand over my documents to the French authorities to start the process. Today, I arrived at the Nanterre police prefecture to do just that, only to find that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees and other foreigners standing outside in three different line ups, and by the time I figured out where I was supposed to go, I had already missed my meeting. This was the second meeting I missed, and it can take weeks or months to get a meeting. But this time, rather than feeling a huge sense of anger and frustration, I felt only sympathy for the refugees and others who could not even get the official convocation that I had, and who have to wait hours, days, nights, in front of the prefecture.

This, I learned, by both speaking to people in the lineup and then doing some research online, has been going on for months. It is due both to the refugee crisis in Europe as well as problems within the administration of the public offices of the prefecture. It has been particularly bad since June, although the last time I went with my convocation in hand in early June, there was not any such line up. Otherwise, I would have been warned that it was necessary for me to arrive at least 45 minutes in advance of my 10-minute rendezvous if I wanted to get into the building.

tail end of line up at Nanterre prefecture

tail end of line up at Nanterre prefecture

I was struck by the incredible changes we are seeing in our world today and over the last 35 years. In 1983, while I was preparing in Toronto, Canada to come to study French at the Sorbonne, a colleague of mine at the Globe and Mail newspaper where I was working, said to me: “Your father was born in England, wasn’t he?” I said he was, although he had lived since he was 2 years old in Canada and had never held a British passport, so could hardly be considered English. My colleague said that by virtue of my father’s birth in the UK I was eligible to become British myself. If I became British, I would then be able to work legally in the European Union. So why not try?

It seemed like a great idea. I called the British Consulate in Toronto, asked if this was true, they said it was, they sent me the four or so pages of the application form by mail, I filled it out and sent the relevant paper or two proving my father’s birthplace, and seven days later I received in the mail my British passport and nationality. I never had an interview, never set foot in an embassy, consulate, police station or other official place. I had no lines to sit in, nothing to do but claim my citizenship, then take the flight to Paris, fall in love with the city at first sight, learn French at the Sorbonne, find a job and stay at that same company for the next 33 years, marry a Frenchwoman, father a couple of French (and Canadian) children, and live happily ever after.

Until, of course, the non-democratic, fixed referendum in the UK about Brexit.

Small part of a line up at Nanterre Prefecture

Small part of a line up at Nanterre Prefecture

No, wait. In the early 1990s, by point of comparison, I did decide at one point after the birth of my two children to take French nationality for myself. This would be around 1993 or 1994. I went to the prefecture in Paris, took the application form, and filled it out, gathered together the significantly greater number of papers to that of my British nationality experience, and I filed them with the relevant authorities. I then found myself having to go into one personal meeting after another with the prefecture of my arrondissement, then the main prefecture of police in Paris, also I think with my local mayor’s office – although I’m not completely sure about that one – but in any case, I found myself frustrated at a very busy time of my life having to do one meeting after another, and often finding “long” queues of perhaps 30 people waiting for interviews as well.

When comparing that experience to my British nationality experience, I finally decided that it was too time consuming, and anyway, I had the British nationality, and the Canadian nationality, so why did I really need the French nationality. Would it not be cool, I thought, for my two children to really have a Canadian father, without the French nationality part. Would it not be cool that they could really say their Dad was a foreigner?

So, in what I now regret massively, I ended the process of seeking nationality. I was then told that I had to write a letter explaining to the French authorities exactly why I had ended this process. So I wrote the truth: There is far too much bureaucracy to go through, far too many meetings, far too many lines to wait in, etc.

more line up at Nanterre prefecture

more line up at Nanterre prefecture

I still have my original application form and the paper that says what pieces of identity and other paperwork were necessary to obtain French citizenship. It is minuscule by comparison to today’s necessary paperwork. Minuscule.

Yes, flash forward 2016 and the fixed, undemocratic Brexit vote in the UK forcing British expats to seek out local nationality in their country of EU adoption – or wait with crossed fingers that some kind of solution can be found for these people to not have to return to the UK in a future glut of refugee proportions. The first step was to download from the Nanterre prefecture – the relevant authority where I live – the application form and list of necessary documents. The list is as long as the Bible, and now includes such things as an official paper to prove that you comprehend the French language. This has been instituted since 2012. It is not necessary that you actually comprehend the language, just that you have a paper that says you do. According to my researches, my diploma from the Sorbonne will do this trick, so I felt lucky on that.

But I have spent a couple of hundred euros or more having official translations made of things like my long-form birth certificate, a proof of my parents’ place of marriage and date of marriage (in 1953!, and both are dead), and one or two other items. I have had to provide a proof that I have paid my taxes in France for the last three or so years, and this proof can only come in the shape of a particular official paper from my local tax office. Obtaining that paper is what caused me to miss my first appointment in June, by the way, as the local tax office blamed a computer breakdown that morning for them being unable to get the document. (Although I could see instantly that the person whose job it was to get the document did not want to do the job that morning. She did it that afternoon, but it was too late.)

I have to provide proof of ownership of my apartment, my employment history in France, my personal addresses for practically my entire life, a stamp to pay for the work of the bureaucracy…the list goes on and on and on. And it takes forever to accumulate all of these papers.

But the worst part has been the part of the process that has been automated to help the unfortunate, under-staffed civil servants of the prefecture of Nanterre: In order to obtain a rendezvous of 10 minutes to hand over all of these documents and begin the process of naturalisation, I have to go onto the web site of the prefecture and make that rendezvous via a special dedicated page and system. This, I learned after months of trying and failing, can only be done on Mondays at high noon!

Yes, every Monday only, the Nanterre prefecture reboots the citizenship rendezvous system and the charge begins. Try it out for yourself! Go to the site, and at noon, start your slot machine going. I have tried week after week for up to an hour and a half each time to try to get through the process of booking a rendezvous. That period is spent getting through various stages of the process before I either find that the place I am being promised no longer exists – it’s first come, first serve and the computer seems to accept hundreds of people for each spot before the fastest mouse manipulator wins the meeting – or the site simple “times out.”

view from across the street of Nanterre prefecture and its refugees

view from across the street of Nanterre prefecture and its refugees

What is happening, of course, is that there are thousands of people, perhaps even 10s of thousands of people, every Monday logging in at the same moment and trying to win the lottery. This kills the server of the prefecture. The whole process goes on until all of the rendezvous spots have been taken, and then it goes dead for another week.

I first learned of this process in around January or February, and scored my first successful rendezvous hit in around early May for the meeting in early June. I missed that meeting by about five minutes thanks to the tax office mishap, but even then it was hopeless as I did not even have that tax office piece of paper proving that I had, yes, paid all my taxes for the last 3 years (as well as the last 33 years).

As an aside, although the tax office sent me that piece of paper that afternoon and told me that they would send the original by post, it took another three emails over the next six or eight weeks to actually receive the original by post, and ensure that I had all the documents ready for this morning’s rendezvous. (Which, by the way, I was able to score in a record three week period of seeking.)

Today, having left 40 minutes early from my home to do the 17 minute-drive to the prefecture, I was feeling very proud of myself until I encountered traffic on the quays due to a car stopped on the edge of the road, which resulted in my not arriving 20 or 24 minutes early for the meeting, but only about 11 minutes early. And that is when I encountered the refugee crisis and realized that I had once again missed my appointment and would have another couple of months of waiting to do before I could even leave my papers (which I keep having to update in certain areas with newer papers as time moves on, by the way).

Today, I spoke to a couple of people in the line ups and realized they came from all over. One guy was a Sri Lankan trying to get a refugee visa for his passport. He told me he had been coming for days without success. He was in the line yesterday for three hours before being refused entry.

There were three different line ups, including the shortest line up being for people with the piece of paper I had, the convocation. But that line up was being controlled by policemen, and they were holding off the line up and sending people in through the gate in groups in order to go through the security check before being allowed to enter the building. That security check line was about 25-people thick when I had already hit the deadline for my meeting, and I knew that I would be 15 to 20 minutes late for a meeting that was set for precisely 9:55, with only a 5-minute allowance for lateness.

It was a lost battle. Again. But my heart went out above all to these unfortunate refugees and others – I read in one of the reports (in the Huffington Post) that a 77-year-old man who has lived in France for more than 50 years slept out in front of the prefecture in an effort to renew his papers, after a career of 40 or so years working at Renault and many other years elsewhere. (Update: Here is yet another article from the French press about the crisis at the Nanterre prefecture, this time Libération, published as recently as yesterday and sent to me today by a friend after they read this story by me.

It all made me realize that my own refugee crisis is nothing compared to theirs…but ultimately it also did anger me once again about the spoiled children of the UK who rigged the election in a country that has it so good it has lost its sense of proportion. The UK doesn’t like being in the EU? It wants to create the sorts of difficulties I am now facing for millions of people on every level of society and business? Look at Syria. Look at many African nations. Look at Afghanistan. Look at the countries in the world with REAL problems, and why make more rather than thrive?

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