Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Souvenirs from France

This article was first posted on The Malaysian Insider on 12 November 2011. The original version is reproduced here.

They live a lifestyle where clich├ęs appears original.

Even with an armload, a baguette is conspicuously seen tucked under an armpit. It is almost as if that part of the body, often scorned as an object of odour despair, is made to cater for that precise purpose. I find this curious observation simply marvellous for who would’ve thought that the dreaded armpit can serve as a tool to hold food?

Here, dogs are men’s best friends, even for the destitute and homeless. The odds of encountering a homeless man begging for a stick of cigarette are higher than a stray dog begging for food. A man can be homeless but a dog is usually never without a master. I suppose it makes perfect sense to have someone who loves you unconditionally as your best friend. Dogs certainly make great candidates.

Old and young couples take lingering strolls with their palms locked together, almost always interrupted by long pauses of embrace and kisses. Evidently, their air is not only filled with the scent of expensive perfume but also of love and desire. It is a home where love is often made, not babies.


They live a lifestyle of intricate contradictions that can easily inspire a voluminous collection of great ideas for dinner party conversations.

For example, some women (of any age) may feel completely at ease lying naked on a public beach, but would never be caught dead strutting along the promenade in a g-string bikini, as you would have seen on American television. They make nudity seems natural and unintentional. Nobody blinks or gapes and it’s just another summer of sun and fun.

Foie gras isn’t just a piece of politically incorrect food but one that provokes the question of how well the rest of world are treating their own animals before turning them into American quarter pounders and fried chickens. The cows I’d seen on the Pyrenees are probably one of the healthiest and happiest in the world and needless to say, pets are not meant to be chained and confined to the porch. Neither are they to be subjected to the ridicule of dressing up like human beings.

Prostitution is tolerated more than pretty women who prey on wealthy men (and vice versa). Should sexual morality be held more sacred than deceit, dishonesty and greed?

Among the three virtues upheld by their national motto, liberty is perhaps the one that is most treasured and practised by them. It is often linked to a philosophical way of life, rather than just a literal translation of the word.

Restrictions and obstacles are to be limited and overcome as much as possible so that one can experience joie de vivre to the fullest. Being obedient to the notion that “I-shouldn’t-be-doing-this-because-society-says-so” does not make you decorous, but a body that’s absent mind, spirit and soul.

They talk about politics, religion and sex more openly than Malaysians talk about food. There are no sensitivities surrounding these issues because one of their greatest thinkers once said that he might disagree with what another person said, but he would defend to his death the right of that person’s speech. Plus, it would be completely delusional to believe that if you don’t talk about sex, it means you don’t think about it at all. The same applies to the rest of the other issues. Besides, isn’t it true that dissenting views are the ones that make far more interesting and intelligent conversations? A winning view is one that withstands the test of challenge, not one that is won by default.

I went for a walk on the promenade overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Biarritz on an early Sunday morning. It was quiet and calm as the whole sea resort was still recuperating from the night’s partying. I stopped at one point to breathe in the cold morning air and when I looked down, there was a small group of men and women getting undressed together.

From afar, one wouldn’t take a second look to conclude that they were just a bunch of crazy kids attempting to conquer the cold sea water but for their silvery white hair. Stripped down to their bathing suits, only then were their age revealed. They could easily be at least seventy years old judging from the loose and heavily wrinkled skin all over their tanned body.

They ran towards the sea and dived into the freezing water with the courage and capriciousness of teenage adrenaline. Their total abandonment sent a strange shiver down my spine and it wasn’t until later when I understood that feeling as freedom and happiness.

According to French revolutionists, "Liberty consists of being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man or woman has no bounds other than those that guarantee other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights.”

I learned from them that freedom applies to all; whether you’re a grandfather, a mother of three, blind or a homosexual, as long as you’ve not done anything to have caused that right to be taken away from you. You’re free to live the life you choose and not what society expects of you. Passing judgments should be left in a court of law; not at school, workplace, supermarket, park or even the street.

Perhaps that is why women sunbathe naked but not strut around in mini bikinis. It’s not about parading their bodies for the whole world to see. It’s about feeling free in your own skin.

Maybe that’s what liberty really means.