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Reflections on my Friday and Saturday Synchronicities: From Formula One to French Nationality

December 11, 2019

Lewis Hamilton head butts Tom Clarkson at F.I.A. prize giving (not really).  ©Photo Brad Spurgeon

Lewis Hamilton head butts Tom Clarkson at F.I.A. prize giving (not really). ©Photo Brad Spurgeon

Last Friday, 6 December 2019, marked the exact anniversary date three years ago that I finished working in my job reporting about Formula One for The New York Times (based in Paris, but writing for both its international and U.S. editions). It was also the day that I was invited to attend the International Automobile Federation‘s prize giving ceremony press conference at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris, where Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes team received their trophy for winning the Formula One titles this year, along with the other F.I.A. champions from other series. So with that personal synchronicity in mind, and as a fan of the series, I attended the press conference, wondering how I would feel about my past life re-emerging on that timely date.

Before I say more about my feelings on that, I want to mention the other synchronicity – the next day, or rather, at around 1:38 AM that same night/next morning: Saturday, 7 December. That day is my birthday – which my brother, Scott, likes to quote Franklin D. Roosevelt on regarding the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor as “a date which will live in infamy” – and in France’s Journal Officiel dated 7 December 2019 published around 1:38 AM that day, I found the decree that said I had become a French citizen. I had been fighting for that honor for 3 1/2 years – ie, since the Brexit referendum – and that it should fall on my birthday, and precisely three years after ending my career as an NYT journalist, was beautiful – and felt full of significance.

Lewis Hamilton talking about his fashion line at the F.I.A. prize giving in Paris

So the whole weekend was a blessed time. Despite having to battle my way through a French transport strike and rain, arriving at the Louvre drenched in both sweat and precipitation (from running through the rain for the last 40 minutes of the journey), the visit to the prize giving was an extraordinary moment. It was the first time I found myself involved in an F.I.A. press conference while no longer reporting for my newspaper. While I did decide that I would do a few tweets and write something about it on this blog – thereby making it a legitimate invitation – my biggest reason for attending was to see the world in which I had lived for more than two decades from my new point of view as a fan only.

I was delighted to meet up again with so many of my former paddock friends and colleagues: Journalists like Joe Saward, Jonathan Noble of Autosport, Frédéric Ferret of L’Equipe, Alain Pernot of Sport-Auto and other publications, and Andrea Cremonesi of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Tom Clarkson, who interviewed the drivers for the F.I.A., or Dieter Rencken, the South African journalist; team press officers like Bradley Lord of Mercedes (who has been press officer in teams that have now won the title 8 times (Renault and Mercedes), and his boss Toto Wolff. And of the drivers, there was Jean-Eric Vergne, the Formula E champion whom I have known since he was 15; Fernando Alonso; and, of course, Lewis Hamilton. And finally, Jean Todt, the president of the F.I.A., whom I first met as the Ferrari team director in 1997, who was also present as the organizer and key officiator of the event, of course.

I guess the word best to describe the experience would be: Flashback! But for the first time attending a press conference, I felt no pressure to produce any reports.

It was, though, very strange to hear the same kinds of questions being asked in the same way by the same people to the same people. It made me wonder how it feels for the drivers and teams to confront the same members of the media year after year, decade after decade. This, of course, is the same situation we find in any media circus: at the White House, the Olympic Games, soccer or even in coverage of show business, fashion or even science, no doubt.

But I thought about how surreal it must feel sometimes for the stars, such as Hamilton and Alonso, (and even for the not as successful drivers who must sit next to these stars and be ignored by the media while all the questions go to the stars, as happened in Alonso’s World Endurance Championship racing team, as the Spaniard received all the questions from the media). How surreal it must be to see the same inquisitors asking the same questions year after year.

And I am not here criticizing the work of my former colleagues or of the F.I.A., all of whom are doing a fabulous job. This is just the nature of the beast. But having been away from it all for so long, it felt strange to find myself plopped right back into the paradigm, as if time had stopped, and all that I had done for the last three years had never existed, and I was again reporting on Formula One and other car racing series.

It was a little like how it felt a few months ago when I visited The National Theatre in London where I had worked 42 years ago as a bartender, and I found the place unchanged. And I thought, had I stayed there and made a career of it, I would have been in a world unchanged, rather than having felt as if I have lived a full, adventurous life since then….

Fernando Alonso talking about his experiences as a multiple world champion in different disciplines

It certainly comes down to our passions: Probably most of the people who have and will spend their lives in Formula One – or at the National Theatre – cannot imagine a life they would love better than that, cannot imagine a life without that environment. I spent 33 years employed by the International Herald Tribune and its successor, the International New York Times. While I would have happily continued, I am even happier that I have been able to transform my life into something else since then – working in the TAC Teatro theater company (back to the past?!), playing my music, writing on other subjects, avoiding much travel, and making films – while remaining a fan of racing.

These observations are probably obvious to most people, and probably I had many of them to a slightly lesser degree while in the thick of reporting on Formula One. But during such an emotional couple of days, it was all perfectly timed: The world DOES change. If we choose to make it change. I no longer cover Formula One as I used to. I still watch every session and race, and I still love it. But I am no longer part of the circus – or perhaps never really was. I am now French, after 36 years living in this country, and while I may feel like that is a fabulous consecration, I suppose that in many ways I have been French for decades.

But no wonder that the thing I found most interesting about the press conference was hearing Hamilton and Alonso talking about their life-changes, about the different worlds they live in, not just Formula One. I managed to film a bit of that, and I am putting it up here on the blog – in my role as a journalist attending a Formula One press conference again….

A bientôt!

Alison Young and Horse Raddish and the Limonaire

August 11, 2014

Alison Young

Alison Young

PARIS – I don’t usually write about something that happened a week ago, but the concerts by Alison Young and Horse Raddish at the Limonaire bar/restaurant in Paris have stayed in my mind for a week, and in fact, I always intended to mention it on the blog. So no matter that I’ve written other things in between. Today, I just wanted to talk about these three subjects, because there ARE three: The singer, the band and the venue.

I’ve never been to the Limonaire before, but this bar-restaurant with a small stage and two wings of tables of to either side is a place I will definitely return to: The vibe is just too cool and laid back, and the stage too fabulous, the music too good not to! My only regret is having eaten a meal before I showed up, worrying partly that it would not be good food, or it would just feel weird or something, to eat during the show.

As it turned out, the show ended after most people had basically finished eating. That’s when the lights went out, and Alison Young, an American from New Orleans, took to the darkened stage under the spotlight and began singing with only the tiniest bits of ukelele thrown in here and there. I was immediately struck by the interesting melodies, lyrics and a feeling that little by little I would associated with all sorts of different kinds of sources, with, oddly, a big dose of British folk-rock from the late ’60s and early ’70s. In fact, afterwards, I spoke to Alison, and told her a lot of her stuff reminded me of Fairport Convention, whose music she said she loved.

But it was her song-writing, her melodies, her very clearly defined musical world that really signals out Alison Young – oh, and another thing….

Introducing Horse Raddish, Alison Young’s Backing Band, and a Tour de Force on Its Own Too

One of the overriding – or should I be saying “under-riding” – things that made her set so interesting, and the music so different, was that her back-up band consisted of the guitarist, drummer and accordion player from the band called Horse Raddish, that was later to play their own set. (There was also a pianist, but I didn’t see if he was from Horse Raddish also.) This backup band gave often some eastern Europe kind of sounds to the music, even klezmer.

horse raddish

horse raddish

That, as it turned out, was no surprise, because the second set of the evening was the fabulous rocking, electric klezmer music of Horse Raddish, adding a clarinet and/or soprano saxes, violin and other unrecognisable – to me – wind instruments. This was romping, exciting, sassy mad klezmer stuff, and its musicians were so adept and having apparently so much fun going crazy, that it was more than infectious. It was superb.

And in the environment of the Limonaire, sitting at a table in the dark and sipping a wine – the manager was happy for clients who came ONLY for the music, dinner was not necessary – it was a real serious challenger to my own usual desire to pass any musical night out on the stage myself rather than listening to others play. I’ll be back for more….

Mini Great and Nice and Cool Time at De Klomp Bar in Nice

May 22, 2013

de klomp

de klomp

NICE, France – Nice is a kind of mini city with a little bit of everything, and last night, on my first night of six in this Mediterranean wonderland, I had a mini experience of the kind I love and speak about so often on this blog. It was the kind that started bad and ended great – but there was something mini about it anyway.

I had begun with the doubtful prospect of finding an open mic at the King’s Pub. I say doubtful because I had not yet managed to find an open mic at the King’s Pub on my Tuesday nights in Nice in the past, so I doubted the Internet site that said there would be one.

It All Started With a Le Cenac Dinner

Still, I went out for a great dinner at a favorite restaurant, Le Cenac, eating fruits de mer and a good red wine of Provence. Then I walked toward old Nice, the old town, where I knew that my first stop would be at the King’s Pub, and if, as I expected, there was no open mic, then I would head off and visit the several other bars and pubs and venues where I have played in the past, hoping to stumble upon music in at least one of them.

At King’s Pub, I was told by the man who organizes the music, that, No, there was no open mic last night. On the other hand, he told me there was one on Sunday night, and that it starts pretty late – so I knew I had some good times ahead on the weekend.

I left the pub and decided to visit each of the other places that came to mind and in the most logical order: Paddy’s Pub, the Snug pub, Shapko Bar and then Jonathan’s…oh, and it started with a place the name I know not. At each successive bar I found that there was either no music, or no open mic. Mostly no music. That will come later in the week – Shapko is only open Wednesday to Sunday, but it does not exactly have an open mic, from what I can see.

I was feeling really crappy, and my entire sense of optimism faded. In fact, before I visited the last bar, Jonathan’s, I began feeling as if my entire good sense and feeling for the city of Nice was suddenly changing. Had the place gone down hill? I thought of all the fun musical evenings I have had in the past, and I felt I was facing the lowest ebb of musical nullity yet.

I then had the option of breaking out of the old town by turning right and heading the shortest route back to my hotel near the Nice train station, or turning left and taking a longer, more scenic route through the old town where I would perhaps run into a few more bars that, who knew, might have live music?

And Then There Was De Klomp

No sooner had I opted for the optimistic, left turn down a narrow street – like most in the old town – than I heard music coming from a bar on the left, saw hip looking people standing outside smoking, and began to examine the front of the pub, and saw the name of the place: De Klomp. Then, at the same moment I noticed the word “Jam,” chalked up on a sign, and I heard a man from behind asking me if I played music – he saw my guitar on my back – and if I did and I wanted, I could go in and play in the jam.

Wow! So I entered, feeling much lighter and immediately better about Nice and its music scene. It turned out to be a cool, young crowd of listeners, and a nice, low-ceilinged pub with plenty of choices of draught beer. And the man behind the mic playing a Godin guitar – same company as my Seagull S6 – had a great voice and played well. He was young contemporary, the whole place and vibe was just that.

Enter Harry, the Musical Host of the Open Jam at De Klomp

So I approached him after he sang a couple of songs and I ordered a beer, and he said before I had a chance: “I saw you have a guitar. Do you want to play? It’s not actually a jam session tonight, but you are welcome to play.”

This is the attitude I love! It’s the real music attitude, and at once common and not also rarer than it should be, around the world. So I accepted. His name, by the way, was Harry, and he not only plays that night, but also said that he runs a jam session at the bar on Sunday nights, and that I should come. Hmm, that makes for two on Sunday!

After I played my first song, “Wicked Game,” Harry returned and asked if he could play lead with me. So began at least 45 minutes of playing together, and the audience built in size, came closer to the stage, listened, sang along, and applauded warmly. I took a break after sweating out my insides to the point of no return, and Harry took over again completely.

Oh, and another audience member eventually joined Harry for one song, so it did become a kind of open mic, open jam, after all. Still, it was a kind of mini one…. But boy was it gratifying! First night in Nice, very, very nice….

Bad Luck in Paris and Cambrai – or From Pigalle to the Jolly Sailor

August 31, 2012

jolly sailor facade

jolly sailor facade

Bad luck comes in threes, but sometimes has its payoffs. There has been a little break on this blog again not because I have been inactive or ceased to exist, but because I had three days of bad luck events, the last two of which cost me blog time. I already wrote on the blog about Tuesday’s bad luck on the dating front, followed by the payoff at the open mic. Well, on Wednesday and Thursday the bad luck continued in other areas, but also had its payoffs each time.

On Wednesday I had a sudden invitation to go and hear a friend perform at a bar in Pigalle, and she invited me to play a few of my songs. Because I had to get up very early on Thursday to travel to Belgium – where I write these words – I thought this a much better thing to do than the Highlander open mic, where I would be tempted to stay until nearly 2 AM.

I also had plenty of trip preparation to do – packing – but decided to go to this gig in Pigalle. I arrived at 10 PM to find that my friend had been playing for an hour and the bar owner had suddenly discovered that the gig was taking place on a day that it was not supposed to happen, and he asked that it stop immediately (this was done through the booking agent). So the moment I arrived with my guitar and eager ears, I was told the show was over.

I would have considered that very bad luck, had it not been for my need to get to bed early to travel the next day. But it was also good luck because it showed me just how nasty bar owners and their booking agents can be sometimes, as the singer was absolutely crushed that her gig had been called off – in the middle of the gig! And there was no suggestion she would be paid. This, I thought, was really crappy luck, but a bit of a good thing for me to see, and a subject, nevertheless, to write about on this blog. AND a warning to be very careful about who you book a gig with.

So I got home, got to bed early and took off for Belgium, where I am spending the weekend reporting on the Formula One race. Driving my Ford Focus along the highway nearly two hours outside Paris and about 15 minutes from the Belgian border, the car suddenly shut itself off. The engine died. I pulled off to the side of the road and could not start the engine. There I was in the middle of nowhere, on the side of the highway, with my Focus – which had just had a 900 euro check up – dead.

It turned out that I was not completely in the middle of nowhere. I was 23 kilometers from the town of Cambrai, which had been a home of many fine music composers in the middle ages. It had also been the scene of the first successful tank battle in World War I, among other things. The car, it turned out, had also broken down at lunchtime, and Cambrai not only has many restaurants, but four of them happen to be right near the Ford garage to which the highway rescue service took my car to have it fixed. There was also a Europcar rental place, from which I was obliged later to rent a car as my car could NOT be fixed immediately.

I was feeling particularly bad about the situation as I was giving a lift to the race to my friend Joe Saward, a fellow Formula One journalist. So we went looking at the restaurants for lunch, and I decided I did not like the one closest to the Ford place. Joe went along with that. But then I did not like the next closest one after that, and we spied one a little way down the road and went to it. It was called the Jolly Sailor, and it seemed the best of the three. Or at least the most appealing.

Now, can you imagine my surprise when I entered the Jolly Sailor and found it had two rooms, two pianos, a 12-string guitar and what looked like an electric guitar in a case, and British flags all over the walls. I sat and ordered my meal and I eventually asked one of the managers – turned out to be the owner – why there were so many instruments around.

His name was David, and he turned out to be British – English, in fact. He told me that he played the piano and sang for the guests, and that the restaurant also invited some of his friends and other diners to play and sing, when they can, and that it was essential an open stage, or open mic. Now how could that possibly have happened to me, I wondered. My blog has as its theme primarily the open mic adventures I live, and here I was breaking down in my car in the middle of nowhere in northern France, and finding myself landing in an open mic run by a Brit.

David later performed, and it was even more interesting to find out in the middle of nowhere, this kind of Noel Coward of the French countryside, and I could not quite believe the situation into which I had fallen. But I thought that whatever might have been my third bit of bad luck in as many days, I definitely had some cool material for my blog! I also felt better that Joe had been entertained too – oh, dear, and Joe has written about it on HIS blog.

Playing at the King’s Pub in Nice and Finding the Right Stuff

May 23, 2012

I never expected to do a nearly 1-hour set in a bar in old Nice last night. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I’d find any place to play the whole time I am here until next Monday. But I stumbled on the King’s Pub, noticed they hold an open mic sometimes on Thursdays and Sundays, went in, asked when the next open mic was, got told it would be in nearly two weeks, looked disappointed, got offered to go on stage then and there to play. So I went up, never got asked to get down!

I could not believe my good fortune, but it had to do with the mindset of Christian, the manager of this rock, pop, folk venue in Nice, a mainstay of the live music scene. I had arrived in Nice at dinner time, had to finish doing three articles for my Monaco Grand Prix preview, worked until nearly 10 PM, ran out and found a restaurant, ate, then decided to digest my food by walking around Old Nice checking out the various venues to see if I could plan for playing somewhere later on the trip.

But I had my guitar with me, as always, and the vibe passed with Christian, and the stage was already set up with the equipment of the musician for last night, Matthieu Saque, who was just as open and willing as was Christian to allow me to go on stage and play.

The sound system was great, the monitor was perfectly set up, and later in my set – which lasted 45 minutes to an hour – Matthieu came up and pointed out that I could also use the vocal mixer button to give my voice a bit of harmony.

All in all, it was a superb evening, a great way to digest my food – truffle pasta, confit de canard and baba au rhum, plus a good local red wine – and to discover this very cool bar, the music of Matthieu and Christian and his group. Because it turns out that Christian, the manager, has a band called The Running Birds, that plays at the pub sometimes – he is also doing a different duo thing tonight and tomorrow at the pub – and they are opening up the show this Saturday at the Nikaia for The Scorpions.

Can anything be much cooler than that for a first night in Nice where I expected nothing and inherited the world? The audience was appreciative, and kept asking me to play, so you cannot feel any better while playing than having that happen.

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