Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Je ne regrette rien, especially loving Édith Piaf

I enjoy being pretentious just as much as the next person. When I turn on my iPod, I find a range from the totally ridiculous and embarrassing to the occasional song that makes me feel like I should raise my head regally like a ballerina and swivel my hips just a tad more than I usually do.

Prime among these songs is anything by Édith Piaf that pops up on Shuffle.

I was slow to learn about La Môme Piaf. Considering I am nearly 19 and a half, I'm depressed to say I wasted almost two decades without idolizing and impersonating the so-coveted air of French grace.

But now that I've started, it's infected me in every way.

I learned the phrase "raison d'être" while I was reading one of my favorite books of all time, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. On the first page Oskar Schell narrates,
"I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad's voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of "Yellow Submarine," which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d'être, which is a French expression that I know."
Soon after, feigning French-ness would become my own raison d'être. I would carry this affectation with me through watching Édith Piaf portrayed by Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose and in numerous other beacons of French cinema, music, culture, etc.

This morning as I walked to breakfast before starting a horrendous day of class after class after class followed by a rushed dinner and more class, I was startled with the voice of a gravely, tortured, but beautiful angel singing "Allez venez Milord" in my ears. Already angered by the prospect of sitting through classes for hours, one of which makes me feel way in over my head, somehow the voice of the troubled woman that was my dear Édith comforted me for the day ahead.

Édith singing "Milord" on The Ed Sullivan Show

The day went on as usual, but I kept returning back to Édith in my thoughts and on my iPod. Sitting in my room for a few moments before working on assignments, I listened to her singing "Mon Dieu," a beautiful and heartbreaking song she is said to have sung for her lover, Marcel Cerdan, who died in a plane crash in the Azores at 33 years old.

Édith herself did not live long. She died of liver cancer at 47. And if you have the strength to stomach it, watching her deterioration in La Vie en Rose was one of the most astonishing cinematic experiences of my life. 

As greatly as I admire Édith for her musical prowess and her enchanting voice, it is her story that truly brings out the Francophile in me. Édith had a terrible upbringing, she was exploited for her musical talent, she suffered through heartbreak and loss at a young age and she battled with emotional baggage, depression and addiction for years. She was the ultimate fighter, even if she gave in to so much temptation and sadness in her life.

And her music truly is the essence of French culture. In "Milord" she sings "Je ne suis qu'une fille du port, une ombre de la rue," which translates to "I am only a girl from the docks, a shadow from the street." But Édith's strength was in expressing the trials and tribulations of life in the society she lived in.

The lyrics go on "Je soigne les remords, je chante la romance, je chante les milords qui n'ont pas eu de chance," meaning "I take care of the remorse, I sing about romance, I sing about the gentry who have not had luck."

She was the voice of the people, La Môme Piaf, and the perfect example of French brilliance and resilience (even though she saw little of the latter herself).

If there is any excuse to cross a street on the North Shore of Chicago like you would saunter down the Champs-Élysées on your way to l'Arc de Triomphe dans Paris, Édith is it. Even if it makes you look pretentious.

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