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France’s ‘Little Nicolas’ illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempe dies aged 89

Jean-Jacques Sempe, who illustrated the beloved "Little Nicolas" series of French children's books, has died aged 89.

France's 'Little Nicolas' illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempe dies aged 89
Jean-Jacques Sempe has died aged 89. (Photo: Jacques Demarthon / AFP)

As well as his work on “Le Petit Nicolas”, an idealised vision of childhood in 1950s France that became an international best-seller, Sempe also illustrated more New Yorker magazine covers than any other artist.

“The cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempe died peacefully (Thursday) evening… at his holiday residence, surrounded by his wife and his close friends,” Marc Lecarpentier, his biographer and friend, told AFP.

Sempe, who originally wanted to be a jazz pianist and had a difficult childhood, dropped out of school aged 14 before lying about his age to join the army.

Army life didn’t agree with him, however, and he began selling drawings to Parisian newspapers.

While working at a press agency, he befriended cartooning legend Rene Goscinny of “Asterix” fame and together in 1959 they invented “Little Nicolas”.

“The Nicolas stories were a way to revisit the misery I endured while growing up while making sure everything came out just fine,” Sempe said in 2018.

Today, the books are international best-sellers, with more than 15 million copies sold in 45 countries, and have been adapted into a popular film and cartoon series.

But in 1959 they went largely unnoticed, and he continued to sell drawings to newspapers to make ends meet, an early career he described as “horrible”.

It was only in 1978 when he was hired by The New Yorker that he found sustainable success.

“I was almost 50 and for the first time in my life, I existed! I had finally found my family,” he said.

Childhood

Sempe was born near Bordeaux in the village of Pessac in 1932, the illegitimate son of an affair his mother had with her boss.

He lived in an abusive foster home before his mother took him back, only to subject him to her own violent streak.

“Come closer, I’ll slap you so hard the wall will slap you back,” he remembered her telling him.

They lived with his alcoholic stepfather. Sempe’s true paternity was a mystery that would haunt him for life.

“You don’t know who you are, what you’re built on,” he later said.

In his work, Sempe put diminutive characters in an outsized world of soft lines, revealing amusing and sometimes caustic truths about the world without ever resorting to mockery.

But the kindness that Sempe showed his subjects was in stark contrast to the misery of his own upbringing.

“You never get over your childhood,” he revealed well into his 80s, having avoided the subject for decades.

“You try to sort things out, to make your memories prettier. But you never get over it.”   

For many years, Sempe refused to believe in his talent, attributing what he achieved to hard work and sacrifice.

The artist said he could spend as long as three weeks getting a single drawing right and that he was capable of anything – “not bathing, not sleeping” – to finish work on time.

“The jazz, the tender irony, the subtle intelligence … we will not be able to forget Jean-Jacques Sempe,” French President Emmanuel Macron wrote.

Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak added that his drawings were “timeless.”

“With tenderness, poetry and mischief… he taught us to look at the world with the eyes of a child,” she tweeted.

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CULTURE

A guide for how to survive fall in France for homesick Americans

Looking to recreate American autumn festivities while living in France? Here are some of The Local's tips for how to avoid the seasonal homesickness this year.

A guide for how to survive fall in France for homesick Americans

For many, fall or autumn is a sacred time in the United States, marked by spooky cobwebs, weekends filled with visits to pumpkin patches, jugs of apple cider, and searching for the perfect Halloween costume. 

It is an easy time of year to feel homesick for Americans living in France, especially when it feels like you are missing out on holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving with friends and family at home.

READ MORE: Readers’ tips: How to create an authentic Thanksgiving in France

While it might never be the same as a New England fall, here are some tips on how to make autumn in France feel a bit more like home:

For when you miss pumpkin patches:

Yes this is possible in France! Pumpkins grow in fields across central France, and they are available in most supermarkets once the fall season has begun. However, if you are looking for a traditional pumpkin patch experience, that might be a bit trickier to find. If you devote yourself to a bit of research, then you will likely be able to find a ‘Fête de la Citrouille‘ or ‘Foire à la citrouille‘ (Pumpkin festivals) near you. These are more like fall fairs, complete with ‘heaviest pumpkin’ competitions and food stands.

While these might be a bit different from what you are used to, they are a great way to enjoy pumpkins (in a French way).

Many of these events will be announced on Facebook, so you can start by searching there. 

If you live in the Paris region there are a few pumpkin patches not too far outside of the city. The ‘Fermes de Gally‘ host a yearly pumpkin picking and carving festival. You could also visit “Ferme du Logis” or the “Vergers de Champlain.”

For when you want to celebrate Halloween:

You have a few options for trick-or-treating, if that’s your thing. You can always organise a private event with some other Halloween enthusiasts. Though, keep in mind that in France people say “des bonbons ou un sort” instead of ‘trick-or-treat’ in English. The other option is to see whether your local mairie is hosting an event. While Halloween is definitely not as popular in France as it is in the United States, it is becoming more common. 

If you are looking for a more official, organised event, you might consider going to the “Disney Halloween Festival.” During the festivities, the ‘villains’ take over the park, which is fully decorated for Halloween. When you enter the park, you’ll be greeted by smiling scarecrows with pumpkins on their heads, lanterns lighting up the park, and characters in ‘scary’ (kid-friendly) costumes.

During the actual Halloween weekend, the park hosts dedicated soirées. Tickets usually go for 79€ to 89€ per person.

Another option, particularly if you have older kids looking for a scarier Halloween, might be Parc Asterix. Each year, usually for the entirety of the month of October, the park is decked out in autumn colours with pumpkins, corn, and even straw bales. If you want to take younger children, you can go to the ‘Petit frisson’ (small scare) section. 

For when you miss pumpkin flavoured everything:

You do not have to give up pumpkin spice if you stay in France this fall! Starbucks (with locations across the country) sells pumpkin spice lattes.

If you want to make your own PSL, you can find ‘pumpkin spice’ in France (with a bit of effort). Carrefour reportedly sells the seasoning (see HERE). For the truly determined, you can find pumpkin spice on French Amazon too. 

The best bet for finding pumpkin spice – for all your baking and coffee needs – is to see if there is a local American épicerie or store near you. You might try the “Brooklyn Fizz” store in Lyon; “The Great McCoy” market in Paris; or the “Épicerie Americaine” in Bordeaux.

If there are not any, you can always try the online store “My American Market.”

For pumpkin scented candles, you can either replace with another fall scent (search: “bougie parfumées automne“) or you can order a Bath and Body Works candle online – see HERE

Finally, if you are looking to make a homemade pumpkin pie, consider doing so with an actual pumpkin. Pumpkin purée is hard to come by in France, but chopping up the pumpkin yourself is certainly one way to satisfy the craving.

For when you miss apple picking and cider:

In France, Normandy and Brittany are known for apple production, with their own apple cider traditions. Take a trip to Normandy and enjoy apple and cider festivals – learn more HERE.  

READ MORE: French figures: The drink that sparked a regional crockery battle

While the festivals might be lacking in apple cider donuts, you can always try your hand in making some homemade. Most of the ingredients should be accessible, though you might struggle a bit early in the season with locating nutmeg (muscade en français). As the fall season goes on, most large grocery store chains ought to stock up.

For apple pie cravings, consider trying the French equivalent: tarte aux pommes. Though it might be exactly the same as American apple pie with vanilla ice cream on top, it is still delicious and available in most boulangeries. 

If you live in the Paris area, or you are visiting, you can check out Boneshaker Donuts. The owners combine French and American traditions, and always have a full fall assortment. 

For when you miss American football:

Another source of homesickness for many Americans is the lack of American football on television in France. 

If you have a VPN on your computer, you might not run into this issue as much, but for those looking to simply watch football on cable TV, you have some options as well.

Comparitech recommends France’s two official NFL broadcasters: L’Equipe and beIN Sports. L’Equipe reportedly airs every Sunday game and playoff live, including the Super Bowl. It is free to use, so you do not need to purchase a premium subscription to view NFL games. 

Another tip might be to visit Irish, British or Scottish pubs in your area. Oftentimes, they will have access to sports channels that air NFL games too. 

For college football, Hulu’s live TV option should allow you to stream most games. 

Unfortunately, the ESPN + subscription will locate your IP address, so this is not possible without a VPN. However, you can purchase the NFL Game Pass and use it from France. You can choose between watching the Redzone or simply a single, specific game. This also allows you to split your screen, so you can watch multiple games at once.

For when you are just generally homesick:

While this might not be the perfect antidote, it might be an opportunity to make the most out of France’s fall traditions. You can start creating new hobbies and pastimes that might just become your craving this time next year. Visit a spooky French cemetery, go to your local market and buy fresh squash and Brussels sprouts, sip mulled wine, or even go out foraging for mushrooms.

The Local put together a full guide to autumn in France HERE.

READ MORE: 11 ways to make the most of autumn in France

If you are missing the foliage, consider going for a hike or weekend trip to any of these French locations that are known for stunning fall views. 

At the end of the day, if you really cannot handle being far from home during autumn, consider simply visiting the US. While flights to the US are always going to be pricey, the trip is usually cheaper in autumn than during peak times, such as summer vacation or Christmas. This off-season trip might be what you (and your wallet) needs.

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