Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Harley Davidson and the Hogs - a phenomenon of our time

Between the 9th and 12th of June 2005 there was a “H.O.G” – meeting in the Gulf of St Tropez. I live here, just two km from the main road, up in the hills. During a week there has been a constant roar, day and night, from the mighty Harley Davidson motorbikes. The roads have been filled with the knights of the Harley Davidson, sitting at ease, upright on their bikes, dressed the peculiar style of the Harley people. They look impressing and elegant, even though the bellies tend to be a bit to heavy. People from all over Europe have been gathering here, having a great time, listening to rock music, getting friends, screwing, drinking beer and booze and finding a common interest in these marvellous machines from America. A fantastic sub culture, created by the very smart motor bike company, Harley Davidson.
Read more about the Hogs…

And what the hell is a hog? The riders call themselves hogs. According the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a hog is a:[I] “…Swine, esp. castrated male, reared for slaughter…”[i/]. – I wonder if ever the Harley Davidson riders have ever read the definition by the dictionary? They would be shocked deep in their bones, imbedded in beer. After seeing the great meeting of all these tough guys (and chicks), the definition seems to me very funny and sometimes accurate.

In the Harley Davidson world, H.O.G. is something else. It is called Harley Davidson Owners Group and was created by the factory in 1983 and, according their homepage, after pressure from owners of bikes to meet others who were proud of their bikes, share common interests and, of course, have fun. - The slogan is: ”Ride and have fun!”
H.O.G. started its first office in Europe in 1991 in order to give service to members and has for the moment about 80000 members in about 500 Chapters (local clubs). The total number of members all around the world is soon one million.

It is a very smart marketing gimmick, tying the customers to the brand and the retailers of the bike. H.D. have created a whole sub-culture, a life style, way of life, way of dressing and a tremendous loyalty.
The owners meet, ride together and organize activities of all kinds. They also rise money for charity, which they claim is one of the most important goals.
Apart from the national meetings, international meetings are organized, like this one in St Tropez. Then the HOGs turn out in great numbers and roar through Europe to meet and have fun. Some fake and put their bikes in trucks, vans or trailers.
So this year they met at the sunny Riviera, a stark contrast to the chic people in St Tropez.
The meeting lasted a week and took place in a big camping lot at the side of the Venice-style village Port Grimaud. The Harleys with their riders buzzed in and out the camping like hornets in their nest.

So I went into the hornets nest. In the ticket office they told me that 15.000(!) bikers had joined the party. I saw number plates from all over Europe, even from the former eastern countries like Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and to my astonishment, Russia. They were all dressed in the peculiar, black leather style, though very personalized and original. Pirate scarves, cowboy hats, helmets in Wehrmacht style, I even saw a knight in full armour, with snake skin boots sticking out.
I remarked that the average age was quite high, surely many grandfathers and grannies like me, but also young, muscular lions, flexing their muscles and accompanying busty babes. Tatoos and piercing seemed to be mandatory. Kids played around, mothers giving breast, tough daddies holding toddlers by hand, leather mummy stiching, granpa with big belly, cowboy hat, beer in hand, calmly taking a nap in his camping chair…

The camping was an enormous playground with market stalls, bars, restaurants, masses of caravans and tents and two rock stages, where different bands performed all day and evening, mostly with nerve breaking music. But the most overwhelming and obvious presence were the Harley Davidson bikes themselves.
When I arrived at the entrance, there was a an enormous parking lot, which was filled with a sea of shining and glittering bikes as far as the eye could see. Bikes were parked all over the camping and the fanciest styled ones were put up for show, surrounded by impressed admirers. There was a constant flow of thundering bikes along the narrow lanes in the camping.
The commercial side of the event was quite evident. The market stalls covered a big space. Vendors had come from all corners of Europe in caravans and trucks to sell their Harley related artefacts.
There were T-shirts with dragons, fire, hell and skulls, baseball caps and scarves decorated in the same way, biking helmets of different forms, ranging from Wehrmacht to the Star Spangled Banner and leather outfits of all imaginable designs. The New Age was represented by esoteric products and you could buy necklaces of skulls, rings of all kinds and different objects and jewels to pierce your flesh. The tatooists were at hard work illustrating empty spaces of already covered skins or first timers.

Seeing the market filled with all these accessories and looking at the leather clad bikers I could not help thinking that the whole thing is utterly childish and naïve. Grown up people driving round dressed like a masquerade in a hopeless blend of American cowboy style and Teutonic knight, with the Iron Cross in forefront. I remember when I was a kid and how my friends and I used to dress in different clothes, from cowboys to pirates. It is the same thing with the hogs. Perhaps it is the whole point with the HOG movement – to dress in fancy costumes, be like a kid, frighten the on lookers, forget the nuisances of everyday, drink beer, meet your buddies, - just to “Ride and have fun!”

The final was impressive. The last evening the party reached its crescendo with an unusually loud rock concert and massive fireworks. I saw it from my garden. It was beautiful with the glittering lights from the harbour of St Tropez as a background.
The day after the bikers formed a giant procession, consisting of thousands of Harleys, slowly rolling through the hot, pittoresque landscape “Provençale”, passing St Tropez, Ramatuelle, Cogolin and the medival town of Grimaud. Each chapter was represented by a flag bearer, sporting their banner.
In the Sunday afternoon the roads were clogged by the hogs going home, many stayed on a couple of days and the roar of the mighty Harley Davidsons was still heard, but after a while it diminished and mixed with the normal sound of the more trivial Hondas, Kawasakis and Ducatis…
Written by Erik Edelstam

Thursday, January 20, 2005

"Suite Française" - the novel that came 62 years too late.

One of the most original and moving stories in the literary world has been the resurging of Irène Némirovsky, a well known writer in France during the thirties with 13 books behind her. She was, however, arrested by the Nazis the 16th of July 1942, as being a Jewess, and perished of typhus in Auschwitz on August 17. During the two years between the invasion and her arrest she wrote an epic novel about life during the occupation. In 2004 one of her daughters found a manuscript in an old suitcase and started to transcribe it with a magnifying glass. Read the amazing story of how Irène Némorovsky became a best-selling writer 62 years after her tragic death.

Irène Némirovsky vas 16 years old when she fled from the Soviet Union in 1919. Her father, Leon, was a wealthy banker and managed to remake his fortune in Paris, France. She married an exiled Russian, learnt excellent French and started to write. Her first novel, “David Golder”, became a success when it came out 1929 and she was considered as a rising star in the French literary circles. Twelve other novels followed suit and as the war began, she was a hailed and established writer.

Immediately she evacuated her two small daughters to Issy-l’Eveque in Central France, which was the home of the nanny of the children. When the Hitler invaded France in June 1942 and the German army advanced to take Paris, she fled to her children, where her husband, Michael Epstein, later joined. They had a hard time during the occupation, since they were Jews and surrounded by humiliating restrictions, among them wearing the yellow star on their clothes.
She started to write an epic novel that should be like Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. The plan was that it should consist of several parts, “Storm in June”, “Dolce”, “Captivity”, “Battle” and “Peace”. When she was arrested the 16th of July 1942, she had completed two of the first parts and had written notes for the third.
Her eldest daughter Dénise Epstein, at the time 13 years old, remember how the parents in some way knew that they sooner or later would be arrested and deported. They tried to shield themselves from the fear by discussing different topics far away from their troubling reality. The parents were very serious about their situation and did not speak much. When the French Gendarmes finally came, Irène was very calm, did not cry and told her to look after Papa and the sister Elizabeth. She said quietly that she was going away for a trip. She surely knew what was waiting for her. Three months later the father was arrested and died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz the 6th of November 1942. The girls managed to get away thanks to a teacher who hid them and later a nanny who under great risks hid them in different locations until the war was over. The whole time they carried a battered suitcase, filled with Irene’s papers and manuscripts. They, however, sensed that it was something important.

After the war, the children went around to different places in Paris, where former prisoners of war and deportees were assembled, among those the Hotel Lutetia and Gare de l’Est. But the parents had vanished. It was only years later they got to know the exact circumstances of their parents death.
The suitcase was still there, the only link to the past. The daughters thought the papers were a kind of a diary and could not bear to read the last thoughts of their mother. Due to the shortage of paper they were written on small scraps of paper, with tiny scripture. Denise Epstein, now 75, said in an interview that in order to survive and get life going, you had to put such a powerful thing in a drawer and forget about it. In 1975 she made an attempt to read something but could not make it. She had no idea that there were two novels among the pieces of paper. When her sister Elizabeth started to write a biography of her mother she used letters and notes from the suitcase It was published 1992 with the title “Le Mirador”. At the same time Denise started to look through they pages that she had not read before. She discovered that it was, in fact, a novel. But it was a painstaking work with magnifying glass. Some pages consisted of three entire chapters.

The novel, that consists of the two parts, “Storm in June” and “Dolce” is not an ordinary World War II book, it is an intimate picture of the occupied France, with its every day pettiness, jealousy, cooperation and resistance. Which is narrated with sympathy and severity.
In the first part, “Storm in June”, Irène follows families and individuals who join the masses of fugitives leaving Paris. She paints a picture of the chaos and panic, when the limousines of the rich families, which she knew so well, pressed through the crowds on foot, dragging their meagre belongings on different kind of carts. Also the fear of attacking German planes and the hopelessness of what the future might bring.
In “Dolce”, most of the fugitives had returned to Paris and life during occupation takes form. Irène depicts life in a small town she calls Bussy, with its aristocratic family, wealthy landowners, shop keepers, peasants and the German soldiers and officers. It is a story of our human qualities during a difficult time, how people show the worst and the best of themselves, a picture of wartime rural France, that many, even now, would not acknowledge. But she tells the story with passion and humour and sometimes even a German officer can be sympathetic.
When Denise Epstein had finished her transcription of her mothers novel, she put one copy in her drawer and sent another to the archives of The Information Institute of Contemporary Publishing. In April last year she met the writer Myriam Anissimov, who just had published a biography of Romain Gary, a French novelist who had known Irène personally. Anissimov persuaded Denise to get the novel of her mother published by Editions Denoël.
The book, “Suite Française”, was an immediate success and got in top of the bestseller lists in France with more than 150 000 copies sold last fall. It got the prestigious Renaudot prize in November that year and has been lauded by the critics. The rights have been sold to 20 countries during the Frankfurt Book Fair and with the American rights to Alfred A. Knopf, which plan to publish it in 2006.
Denise Epstein, (her sister Elizabeth died 1996) is of course delighted that her mother has come to focus again. Especially since the mother was very disappointed that the French literary establishment, had abandoned her when the Nazis came and the Vichy government took power.
Irène wrote: “ Never forget that the war will pass and that the whole historical part will pale. Try to do as many things as possible to interest people in 52 and 2052…” – She has surely got her point 62 years later.
Written by Erik Edelstam
Sources: International Herald Tribune and Newsweek