Friday, 24 June 2016

On Brexit

I woke up this morning (having followed the referencum count on and off through the night) to the news that the UK has voted to leave the European Union.

I am devastated.

It's a strong word, but it is an accurate description of how I feel. Not because the majority of British voters have made a decision that I strongly disagree with, but because they made it for so entirely the wrong reasons.

Had there been a clean, factual, balanced campaign with respectable leaders on either side of the debate encouraging UK citizens to make an informed choice about whether the best way to work with our international neighbours was through the mechanisms of the EU or by some other (specified) means, I would have been worried and annoyed. But what has actually happened is so much worse than that.

We have been treated to the spectacle of some of the most privileged people in the country preying on the basest fears of ordinary people to convince them their troubles are caused by foreigners (whether they be politicians in Brussels or Romanian builders) and not the consequences of a global financial crisis or the government that they chose to elect. They have been aided and abetted in all of this by the British media at its absolute worst: nearly all the tabloids have been stirring up a "them and us" mentality based on half-truths and downright lies for decades. Nobody embodies this more than Boris Johnson, Eton and Oxford-educated (although ironically born abroad and a former pupil of the European School of Brussels), who had a previous career as a journalist spreading lies about Europe via the Daily Telegraph before moving into politics and who, having been one of the leading representatives of the Leave campaign, is apparently odds-on to be Britain's next prime minister.

I'm not upset and frightened because of what this means for me. I'm upset and frightened because these people have won and because it appears that my country is a place where the worst kind of politics can thrive.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Having a Baby in France: My Experience à la Maternité

  • Maternity care in France, like most of the health service, is excellent. When you give birth you will have access to excellent doctors, stay in a comfortable private room for at least 4 days, and even the hospital food is will be delicious. 

  • Childbirth in France is over-medicalised. Your baby will probably be whipped out of you by C-section before being whisked away from you to spend the night in a nursery being bottle fed before you can weakly cry "Breast is Best!" from your sickbed.

Out there on the big scary internet, giving birth in France is often presented from one or other of these points of view. Based on my own feelings on the subject, eight years of living here and perhaps a pinch of optimism, I was more inclined to believe the first version, but aspects of the second did play on my mind a bit. I didn't have very specific ideas about what I wanted the birth to be like (and was glad I didn't have to spend any ante-natal classes "visualising my birth nest", which is apparently a thing in some circles), but I was keen to avoid unnecessary interventions, have as much contact with the baby as possible after the birth, and at least give breastfeeding a serious try.

And I was lucky, because things worked out perfectly, more or less by accident. When I discovered that I should have registered for a maternity hospital earlier than I did, I sent applications to three hospitals that my GP recommended on our side of Paris, and the only one which could offer me a place was the Maternité des Bluets in the 12th. Les Bluets is a not-for-profit private hospital where the charges are the same as those refunded by social security. It's a "hôpital ami des bébés", which is a label accorded by the WHO and UNICEF largely for the promotion of breastfeeding, and there is a focus on giving birth as naturally as possible. At the same time, it is an actual hospital, with doctors and anaesthetists on hand, an operating theatre and a connecting door to the Hôpital Trousseau, which has a Level 3 neonatal intensive care unit.

I actually went into hospital the day I gave birth with an appointment to be induced, as the baby was measuring large and there was a risk that, because I had diabetes, she would be huge, risking extra complications during the birth. To my great surprise, however, when the midwives did their exams and hooked me up to the monitoring system, it turned out that I was already in labour. I had an epidural, which I had said I wanted because induced births tend to be much more painful than natural ones, but there was a point when I almost regretted it a) because it made me feel really sick and b) because everything was going so easily without. In the end, though, it was just as well I did, as in the last hour my calm, gentle birth turned into a bit of a medical drama when the baby's heartbeat dropped and they couldn't get her out quickly enough. A doctor was called, and as I pushed desperately, with two midwives shoving on my stomach, he used every instrument in the box (which looks like a set of medieval torture instruments) to try to pull the baby out. And then she was there, and she was fine, and I was mostly fine, apart from feeling incredibly weak and almost passing out any time I tried to get upright.

Luckily, the post-natal care was as good as promised. Understanding Frenchman had a pullout bed in my room and was able to take care of the baby as I lay weakly watching him, and we had regular visits from midwives and nurses to check that everything was OK. As well as giving all the appropriate medical treatments, they recommended lovely things like having as much skin-to-skin contact to help the baby get over her scary experience of being born. One night at 2am I was really struggling to feed her and she was screaming her head off, and all I had to do was buzz for a nurse who came to show me what to do and reassure me that everything was working OK. (If that situation had arisen at home, I don't know what I would have done!)

So in the end, my experience was quite medicalised, but certainly not over-medicalised, and we got all the "natural" things that I wanted to.

Also, the hospital food was indeed very tasty.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

And Now We Are Three

Our baby daughter was born last Friday and she is awesome. She likes bath time, sleeping in funny positions and wriggling her tiny little feet, and she has so far been kind enough to sleep really quite a lot (although not always at night). Her birth wasn't easy but she has coped with everything that her first week in the world has thrown at her with remarkable calm (this is not just proud-mummy prejudice - the hospital staff said it too), so until I find a better name to use for her on this blog I think she will be referred to as SCB for Super-Cool Baby.

While giving birth was never going to be pleasant, we had a fantastic experience at the maternity hospital (more on that another time) and are now very happy to be home in our little family of 3.

Life is good.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

That's More Like It!

The sun has finally come out over the past two days and we seem to have jumped from winter to summer in the space of about 24 hours. Today I made the most of feeling quite energetic to wash the windows and clean the fridge (which sounds like classic "nesting" behaviour, but I don't think there was any hormonal impulse there; they were just really dirty and certainly won't get washed after the baby is born!) then took myself out for a walk around the Lac Daumesnil in the Bois de Vincennes.

This part of the park is home to tons of bird life (natural and less natural - I'm pretty sure the peacocks wouldn't be there without human intervention) and pretty much every species seemed to have a cluster of babies trailing in its wake:

Another good thing was that I had another midwife appointment at the beginning of the week and she told me that I am not supposed to be hungry all the time. Admittedly the solution was to eat even more natural yoghurt (when this baby comes out, I am never touching the stuff again) but she also said fruit was ok as long as my blood sugar results were reasonable, so I bought some nice strawberries and peaches and have been feeling much less grumpy!

Sunday, 5 June 2016

A Strange Sunday in Paris

Watching the news at the moment, you might have the impression that France has been hit by the apocalypse. After the burning cars, clouds of tear gas and empty petrol stations of the previous few weeks, we now have endless footage of reporters sent out in waders to stand on the high streets of the villages of the Seine-et-Marne waist deep in water and of homeowners returning in tears to evaluate the damage the floods have wreaked.

So it's been strange to supposedly be living in the middle of all of it and to have life going on exactly as normal. Admittedly, more of my reality than usual has been filtered through the TV screen to the safety of the couch, but I have been out and about every day, and Understanding Frenchman, who crosses the city on public transport to get to work has had no problems either. My German friend came to visit last week and managed to fly in from Berlin, travel to and from the airport twice, visit friends in the north of the Ile-de-France and take a train to Aix-en-Provence and back without encountering any more trouble than having to stand on a crowded RER B train from Charles de Gaulle once. Obviously the flooding is devastating for those who are actually involved, and I certainly don't want to belittle that, but the impression given by the media that the whole country is just one big disaster area is a bit of an exaggeration.

Nevertheless, we were tempted out this afternoon to have a look at the state of the world. We started at the Champs-Elysées, which was closed to traffic, so you could stroll comfortably down the middle of the road and there was plenty of space for what would otherwise have been all the crowds. I took advantage of the situation to take a straight-on photo of the Arc-de-Triomphe, which can normally only be done by risking your life standing on the very edge of a traffic island as the cars whizz past. (Unfortunately my camera isn't working as well as it should, so pictures are even greyer and hazier than the current weather actually is.)

After that we walked down towards the Seine to admire la crue. As you can see from the marker, the water isn't anywhere near the famous 1910 level, when MPs apparently used boats to get in and out of the Assemblée Nationale, but it was still an impressive sight. The bridges and banks were lined with people like us watching and taking photos, but the atmosphere was strangely subdued, as if everyone had been silenced by the majestic force of nature. There was less traffic than usual, and on the water, the only boats were the pompiers going up and down, leaving the mighty brown river largely in peace to flow along its broadened course under a sombre grey sky.

For one last strange experience, we walked in front of the Louvre, where the artist JR has made the famous pyramid disappear into thin air:

Then it was back home on the metro to watch more footage of the French apocalypse on the evening news.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Maternity Leave in Paris (The dream vs reality)

When I told people I was expecting a baby in June, a lot of them said, "Oh, that's a lovely time to have a baby!" and I would imagine myself pushing the pram around the park and pausing for a rest in the shade, with baby wearing a little dress and a sunhat to protect her from the glorious (but not yet blazing) sunshine. This delightful fantasy was to be preceded by an equally lovely maternity leave involving gentle strolls and relaxing on a park bench with a book. My other plans involved trying out all the open air swimming pools in Paris, picnics with friends at the weekend and a few meals sitting on a restaurant terrasse with Understanding Frenchman as we enjoyed our last weeks of freedom together.

I'm now into my third week of leave and those plans have been somewhat sabotaged by circumstance.

The first week, we had some really good weather. Understanding Frenchman took days off, and although a fair amount of our time was spent on practical tasks like paperwork for the new flat and ordering nappy deliveries from Auchan, we did get out and about a bit, including a visit to a museum and a stroll along the banks of the Seine. Unfortunately, this was also the week when I felt truly exhausted. Having more or less sailed through pregnancy up until that point, I suddenly needed a little lie-down after the monumental effort of getting dressed in the morning, while climbing the stairs up from the metro left my legs turning to jelly as if I had just summited Everest. I know I was very lucky to get this far before that kicked in, but it did make it more of a shock to the system!

The fatigue did improve after that (I've noticed over the past few weeks that when I do something tiring like travelling or the last couple of weeks at work, the exhaustion seems to kick in as soon as I stop, rather than at the time, then goes away eventually) but the next spanner in the works came in the form of damp, grey weather which has since turned to full-on pouring rain most days. So bye-bye swimming pool and sunbathing. When I bought my maternity clothes, I avoided getting too many winter things and planned my wardrobe for when I was huge around pretty summer dresses. Luckily most of these can be worn with tights, and I haven't yet grown so huge that my coat won't do up!

The final, and truly depressing, thing was being diagnosed with gestational diabetes in week 34. All women tend to experience an increase in their blood sugar as pregnancy goes on, but gestational diabetes is when this natural process goes too far, the body doesn't produce enough insulin and the blood glucose levels get far too high. The risk for the baby is basically that it will grow too big, or some organs will be oversized, while the mother can develop pre-eclampsia and the delivery is likely to be difficult. While insulin can be prescribed, the initial treatment is a strict diet involving nothing with added sugar and limited quantities of carbohydrate. When you've already given up (most) caffeine, alcohol, unpasteurised cheese, raw and lightly-cooked meat and eggs, pâté and certain types of fish, that doesn't leave a lot to enjoy! (Natural yoghurt features about 4 times a day on the eating plan I was given by the hospital.) In addition, as the diet only provides around 1800 calories a day (I don't actually know why, as I thought in the last trimester 2200-2300 was the recommended amount), it also leaves you hungry, which is not fun when you're tired out from all the normal aspects of pregnancy already. (On the plus side, I won't have to worry about losing weight after the birth, because if the baby is as big as they think she is, I'm going to come out of hospital lighter than I started the pregnancy!)

 However, I'm very aware that these are the pregnancy equivalent of first-world-problems, so having got the moaning out of my system, here are some of the things that have been awesome about maternity leave so far:

1. There has been a certain amount of sunshine, and a certain amount of strolling around. And being out and about in Paris is lovely even when you are wearing jeans instead of a summer dress.

2. A good friend of mine has been on maternity leave at the same time, and as her baby was born a week after the due date, we had a fortnight of cinema and lunch dates to enjoy instead of the expected week.

3. Ante-natal classes. Some people say these aren't very helpful, or even skip them out altogether, but I love going. When you haven't got much to do apart from prepare for the arrival of the baby, it's fun to spend a couple of hours sitting around and learning about exactly that. I think it's helped that I'm taking them at the hospital where I'm going to give birth because the best bit hasn't been the biology lessons or the breathing exercises but the explanations of what will actually happen on the day, given by the team of midwives who will be present at the birth. Suddenly it all seems that bit more real.

4. Buying a sewing machine. This was something I'd been thinking about for a while, as I used to love sewing, knitting and making things when I was little, but as an adult had been reduced to taking up hems and sewing on buttons. Making things for the baby seemed like the perfect excuse, so I ordered one online and it was delivered in the first week. So far, my projects have included two little dresses, a baby sleeping bag and re-covering the second hand car seat that we acquired from UFM's brother and which was a bit yellowed from sitting in their attic.

One of these dresses is from a lovely but expensive shop selling fairtrade organic baby clothes. The other is made by moi. You can probably figure out which is which, but I'm still pretty proud of my effort!

Fleece-lined sleeping bag made from some discount fabric and an Ikea blanket. If the weather doesn't improve, we might be using this sooner rather than later!

Nice, clean car seat. Not that we have a car (yet) but it's good to be prepared.

So there we go. Maternity leave hasn't been exactly what I planned, but there have been good bits nonetheless!

Monday, 23 May 2016

Getting Political Again: The Loi du Travail

Much of the French news over the past few months has been dominated by the Loi du travail or the Loi El Khomri, the controversial new employment law that has brought demonstrators to the streets in a way that I don't remember happening since 2006. Even in the French media, much of the coverage has been about the demonstrations, and I've noticed that among my non-French (largely anglophone) friends, Facebook comments and dinner party conversations on the subject mainly focus on the burning cars and the sirens wailing into the night, with political commentary limited to "the French economy is tanking and unemployment is too high, so people just need to suck this up if France is ever going to survive in a globalised world."

A few years ago, my reaction would probably have been the same, but a combination of eight years in France and what I've seen happening in other more economically liberal societies has led me to a better understanding of the other side of the argument. I'm not saying I agree with all the trade unions' demands, and I believe as strongly as anyone (91% of the French population) the casseurs who take advantage of every demonstration to spread violence and vandalism need to be stopped immediately, but in the interests of a balanced perspective, here is my understanding of some of the arguments against the law:

- The law aims to make it easier to fire employees for economic reasons. Companies have to show that they have been making a loss for a certain period of time (which depends on the size of the company) before they are allowed to do this, and this period of time is to be reduced. Certainly, the fact that it is difficult to get rid of employees is often cited as a reason why employers are reluctant to take on new workers. However, easy hiring and firing does not necessarily lead to a strong economy in the long term. The reason for this is that over the last few decades, shareholders have gained more and more control over the decisions that are taken about how companies are run compared to other stakeholders, such as managers and employees (who also have an interest in the wellbeing of the company, as their jobs depend on it). Easy trading of shares means that shareholders are massively more interested in making a quick profit than in the long-term wellbeing of the company. This means it is less likely that they will vote in favour of measures such as training and improved procedures which lead to a real increase in productivity ("good" capitalism) and more likely to approve measures which increase profit in the short term.* So laws which make it easier to get rid of people do not necessarily improve the state of the economy in the long term.

- It will be harder to take an employer to tribunal for unfair dismissal. Many people claim that in France there are far too many people who know that they are unsackable and therefore take the mickey by staying in comfortably in their jobs and doing the bare minimum. However, it is a little known fact that France, with all its workers' rights and people who have been put in a cupboard instead of fired, has a higher productivity (measured in terms of GDP per hour worked) than both the UK and the US.

- A contract issued by an employer can override the convention collective (collective bargaining agreement) agreed by the trade unions for different employment sectors. This is one of the most controversial aspects of the law, and it's easy to see why. While it might accord certain employers with specific or unusual needs more flexibility, its also a massive undermining of the trade unions. Given that employers can already offer employees different conditions as long as they are not deemed to be less advantageous than the conditions in the convention collective, this part of the law opens the way for a race to the bottom in terms of working conditions. And when I hear about things like the UK's much-debated zero hours contracts or this story about US poultry farm workers having to wear nappies because they aren't given toilet breaks, I'm glad to live in a country which has higher standards.

- The restrictions on the hours that employees can be asked to work will be less severe, meaning that people can be expected to spend a longer time at work over a given period, and they will work more hours before this is considered as overtime. But it's another misconception about France, largely caused by the 35 hour week, that French people work fewer hours than people in other western countries. This article explains that France works only slightly below the Eurozone average hours per week ... and the countries where people work fewer hours include Germany, Europe's golden child of economics. And even if it were true, why would people who already have jobs working longer hours be a solution to the country's unemployment woes?

(According to the BBC article, countries with lower unemployment also often have a high number of part-timers. At least in the UK, part-timers are often parents (usually mothers) of young and not-so-young children, whereas in France, childcare is cheaper and the school day is more conducive to parents working - which it wouldn't be if people were expected to work more hours on a week-by-week basis. Couple this with the aforementioned zero hours contracts and people being told by Jobcentres to become self-employed doing jobs where it isn't possible for them to make a decent living, and the statistics elsewhere start to look a little less rosy .)

- Finally, foreigners are often surprised that even young people are demonstrating against the law, given that youth unemployment is so high. I suspect that there is an element of lycée strikes being a rite of passage for the students, and I do wonder how many have really reflected on both sides of the issue, but I guess that those who have would argue that they are taking a long-term view. In your twenties, it's easy to put in the long hours and work harder than everyone else to avoid being first in line for a licenciement économique, but when you are older and have other responsibilities (children or ageing parents, for example) it's not so easy. It's also a lot harder to find another job as you get older, particularly for people in their late forties and fifties, who are often seen by recruiters as being over the hill despite the fact that they have ten or twenty years ahead of them before retirement.

So there you go. As I said, I don't agree with all of the demonstrators' claims, but I do think that if you're going to live and work in a country and enjoy the benefits that it brings (hello job security and RTT days!) you should at least accept that these have often been hard-won and understand that privileges usually demand that a sacrifice is made somewhere.

I learned this from Ha Joon Chang's 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, which is a surprisingly easy read for someone with interest in but very little knowledge of economics (like me!).

Saturday, 14 May 2016

How to Make Parisians Smile

A woman smiled at me on the RER the other day. Normally, nobody smiles at strangers on the RER. In fact, even making eye contact without good reason can be an invitation to trouble, and anyone strikes up a conversation is almost definitely weird. But when you have big baby bump on display, the rules are different. People suddenly start to be nice.

And do you know what? I think I needed it. This winter, Paris has not been a particularly fun place to be. Lots of people said that after the terrorist attacks in November, the atmosphere changed, which might be part of it. Also, between flat hunting, the need to take three-hour naps at the weekend, and 11pm becoming my Saturday night bedtime, I have definitely been out socialising less than before, while even spending an hour or so wandering around the shops becomes boring when you know you can't fit into any of the clothes.

And so it was that my experience of "Paris" gradually became restricted to my daily commute, punctuated by annoyance at the people doing things like pushing through the barriers and smoking in the metro stations, sadness at the increasing number of homeless people spending the night in the RER, worry about the total unwillingness of European countries to do anything positive about the refugees and migrants who were probably the main factor in the rise in homelessness, and frustration at the endless suspect packages being found and prolonging the whole nasty experience by up to an hour each time. Oh and guilt, because being tired and grumpy and sad at having to witness the rough sleepers is clearly not even comparable to actually being the person who has spent the night sleeping upright on a plastic bench with nothing but newspaper to keep them warm.

I should add that I actually think that being confronted on a day-to-day basis with all these kinds of social realities is a very good thing. I don't want other people's suffering to be out of sight and therefore out of mind, or to live in a bubble where I can kid myself that everybody is polite and considerate and law-abiding all the time. But it's better when the gritty realities are balanced out by a bit of warmth and human kindness from time to time.

And that's what happened the first day it became warm enough to go out without a coat. One of the security guards at La Défense, whom its usually difficult to get even a "Bonjour" out of, said, "Félicitations - ça pousse!" as I showed him my handbag. People started to offer me their seats on the metro (often, embarrassingly, people who probably needed the seat far more than I did.) Shop assistants smiled and offered their congratulations.

Then there was the guy who, as I walked across the Place de la République, suddenly turned to me and shouted (in English), "Oh my god, you're pregnant!" Paris is still Paris. It still has its fair share of weirdos.

Monday, 2 May 2016

A Thèque-nical Vocabulary Lesson

Bibliothèque  must surely have been one of the words on the vocabulary list for my beginner's French course when I was 12. The second year that I lived in France, I borrowed books and CDs from the médiathèque. In Italy, I learned the meaning of pinacoteca, and by extension, pinacothèque, and since living in Paris I have been to exhibitions at the cinemathèque. But it took pregnancy, an unexpected contact with an infectious disease, and a consultation with a midwife who was also not a native French speaker to teach me that the sérothèque is the place where a medical laboratory stores blood samples after they have been analysed. So if you ever need a "historical" blood test, in my case where they check whether antibodies were present before a more recent exposure to a disease, the lab can take out one of your old samples and analyse it for other things.

I was quite tickled by the idea of a lending library of blood samples, so I did a quick search to find out if there were other -thèque words missing from my vocabulary, and it turns out that the French Wiktionary has a whole list of them. A glyptothèque is a museum of engraved stones, joujouthèque is Quebec French for a collection of games, a candidathèque is a store of CVs, and a carothèque is not a collection of carrots, but a place to keep carottes glaciares, or ice samples from a glacier.

Maybe over the long weekend I'll amuse myself by seeing how many of these new words I can drop into conversation with my in-laws :-)

Friday, 29 April 2016

On Being Sort Of Accidentally Tear-Gassed

Yesterday afternoon I was travelling across Paris, quietly minding my business as I changed from the RER  at Nation. As I stepped on the escalator up towards the metro, I suddenly became aware that there were a lot of people coming down the stairs next to me, covering their faces with their hands and scarves, and someone mentioned the word incendie. Unfortunately, turning around on the escalator wasn't an option, so I had to go all the way to the top, by which time my eyes were starting to sting and I there was a strong chemical smell in the air. This wasn't smoke - it was tear gas.

There were a couple of policemen at the bottom of the stairs who explained nonchalantly that some of the people at the demonstration on the Place de la Nation (contesting the loi El Khomri, which many perceive as an attack on workers' rights) had turned violent, hence the intervention of the CRS. When I asked for more information (such as, was it safe to leave the station), he said they hadn't had any contact with the police up above and didn't know any more. Nobody else seemed particularly bothered though, so in the end I just followed the crowd, took another exit and walked the rest of the way back.

The side of the square where I exited the station seemed pretty calm and I was actually able to make my way across the marching protestors to head in the right direction for home, but I read some news reports later in the evening saying that around 300 casseurs (hooligans) had disrupted the demonstration and 24 police officers were injured, including one who was seriously hurt when a paving stone was thrown at his head.

To put this into perspective, official estimates of the number of demonstrators range from 170 000 (according to the police) and 500 000 (according to the organisers), so 300 is a tiny proportion of the people who were involved, but sadly this is something that often happens in France: peaceful and legitimate political protest is hijacked by vandals who break windows, burn cars and have no scruples about seriously injuring either the police or anybody else who happens to get in their way. And for that reason, I have a lot of sympathy for the police, who are often criticised for their heavy-handed tactics, but are supposed to control this kind of behaviour.

On the other hand, it doesn't really present a good image to the public if hundreds of people in a metro station are exposed to tear gas and effectively given the choice between breathing it in or heading up to the surface and potentially being caught up in a riot. I was able to get myself out of the situation pretty quickly, but what about someone who had just got off the metro at the other end of that corridor? Or an old person who couldn't move very fast, or parents with small children?

It's a situation that reminds me a lot of football hooliganism a few years ago, where everyone's enjoyment was spoiled by a few people who were more interested in fights than the game and gave the sport a really bad reputation. Perhaps it's time for a similar crackdown on the casseurs.

UPDATE: watching footage of what happened on TV, it looks as if maybe what we were breathing in the station was tear gas which was thrown outside (because there was a LOT) and sucked down the air vents to the metro. So still not a great situation, but maybe less deliberate than it initially appeared!

Monday, 25 April 2016

Maternity Care In France

Medical care during pregnancy in France has a reputation for being excellent. As this is my first experience of maternity care anywhere, I can't really make any comparisons, but I'm prepared to believe it. However, like so many other things in this country, it takes a little time to figure out the system before you get to experience the excellence, so for what it's worth, I thought I'd share my experiences here.

As with other kinds of medical treatment, you have a lot of choices in France. The price of having choices is, of course, that you have to take responsibility for your own decisions, and there is also a fair amount of paperwork to be filled out (with accompanying deadlines), which for a rookie like me was a bit stressful, especially in my exhausted and somewhat emotional first-trimester state.

When I first found out I was pregnant, I actually already had an appointment lined up with a gynaecologist, so I phoned my GP to check if there was anything else I needed to do, and she gave me a prescription for the blood test which would confirm the pregnancy. Her secretary told me I would need this to send to the CAF and the sécurité sociale, which was to be done by the end of the first trimester.

From what I understand, the initial pregnancy consultations can be done by a gynaecologist, a midwife or your GP. If the gynaecologist is also an obstetrician, he or she can "follow" your pregnancy beyond the fourth month, as can a midwife. Midwives in France either practise at maternity hospitals and clinics, or as sage-femmes libérales, but hospital care, at least at my maternity unit, seems to start from the fourth month, so if you want to take the midwife option earlier, you have to find your own libérale one.

Most people I know have had their pregnancies followed by their gynaecologist, but my strange experiences with mine ended in me cancelling my 3-month appointment and stressing massively about what to do next. Understanding Frenchman sensibly suggested, after a week or so of being on the receiving end of my stressing, that I went to see my very nice GP to ask for advice, and that is what I did. One twenty-minute appointment later and I was feeling much more in control of the situation. The key things I learned from her were:

- although you can do the déclaration de grossesse as soon as you have the lab report showing that you're pregnant, it's fine to wait until after the 12 week scan, as you have up to week 14 to get it signed by a doctor and send it in.

- you don't have to travel all the way across town and pay a fortune to get a decent scan, as the weird gynaecologist had told me. My GP was able to recommend an excellent radiologist in our arrondissement and I got an appointment no problem.

- if you live in Paris DO NOT (as the weird gynaecologist advised me) WAIT UNTIL AFTER THE SCAN TO SIGN UP FOR THE MATERNITY CLINIC. It's more a case of peeing on the stick and contacting the hospital as soon as that magic line appears. (OK, I'm exaggerating, but not by much. We are lucky to have several good sector 1 units nearby and when I contacted them at around 10 weeks, two of the three were already full.)

Once I had a place at the maternity unit, I chose to have all my appointments there from 4 months onwards apart from the scans, as they do midwife consultations and also run ante-natal classes, but you can continue to see someone outside for a certain number of weeks, depending on what type of health professional they are. One option which doesn't seem to be widely used is seeing a GP - I asked mine a few pregnancy-related questions in the course of other appointments and she seemed a bit surprised. I have the impression that most women in Paris tend to see someone more specialist, and as a result, GPs are less used to dealing with pregnancies than a UK doctor or a French one in a more rural area might be.

I've been very happy with the midwife consultations I've had so far, as the midwives have all seemed both  professional and approachable, and I like the idea of getting to know the people who may be around for the actual birth. However, I can also see some advantages in seeing a gynaecologist (if you happen to have one who isn't weird!). One is that the hours for the midwife appointments are quite limited and have resulted in me having to take a few half-days off work. Although you are legally entitled to do this, given that my mutuelle would also cover the cost of a Sector 2 gynaecologist where I could get appointments after work, I felt a bit bad about missing all that time. Also, despite my weird experiences at the first two appointments, the gynaecologist had the equipment in her clinic to do a couple of very early scans, and it was nice to have some evidence that there was a baby in there and know that everything was OK at those early stages.

That's probably enough for now. More to follow as my experience progresses!

Thursday, 14 April 2016

That's Not My Name!

There has been a lot of paperwork in my world recently. Between medical information, organising maternity appointments and dealing with social security, I was only half-joking when I claimed that our baby required a full-time secretary before it was even the size of a plum. Now that we're also buying a flat (Did I mention that we're buying a flat? Well, we're buying a flat!), the mountain of documents has been growing ever more rapidly.

Mostly, it's fine. There's a lot to "read and approve", a lot to sign and a lot of appointments to fit in, but generally it's just a case of doing what needs to be done. One hiccup that I've encountered on quite a few occasions, though, is people calling me by the wrong name.

When we got married, I decided not to change my last name to Understanding Frenchman's. I had various reasons for this, including some feminist principles and the fact that his name is funny in English if you don't pronounce it the proper French way, but to be honest the biggest ones were that I like my last name, it goes well with my first name, I've had it all my life and it feels like part of my identity. On the other hand, I can see the attraction of having a "family" name that you share with your husband and children, so I wasn't completely against the idea of changing, and I understand why people do it. As a result, I'm fairly laid-back in everyday life if people decide to call me Mrs or Mme  Frenchman (as long as they don't also use his first name when addressing me - that really does offend my feminist principles!).

On official paperwork, however, it's another story. I'm amazed at the number of times that people or organisations have just assumed that I use his last name, and I'm dreading the day when I can't do something important because I don't have any identity documents with it on them.

The problem is that in France, you never actually change your name, you just (have the option to) adopt your husband/wife's name as a nom d'usage. (Eyelean has an interesting post about this where people have shared their experiences of the different options.) This means that somebody looking at my passport would see my actual name but not necessarily understand that this means I haven't taken my husband's name, since a woman who did use her husband's name would also have her maiden name on her ID card (with the option to add the nom d'usage as well). As a result, it's less obvious that I've decided not to change than it would be in the UK, where you either change your name everywhere or you don't.

And so I've written to the CAF, and I've phoned the lawyers, and I've had my blood group card reissued, and every time I wonder if the 25% of women in France who don't change their names after marriage are all doing the same thing, and if not, what I have to do to avoid the problem arising in the first place!

Monday, 11 April 2016

Are You Really What You Eat?

This week I read an interesting article about nutrition science, or perhaps more specifically, nutrition scientists. It explained how the theory that eating saturated fat, and therefore having a high-cholesterol diet, increases your risk of heart disease has never been proven through rigorous study. Because human biochemistry is much more complex than just, “what goes into your body remains in your body” there can even be an inverse correlation between cholesterol intake and blood cholesterol, as the body regulates the level to compensate for high or low consumption.

At the same time as the “saturated fat as the major dietary cause of heart disease” theory was emerging, another theory about the negative effects of sugar in our diets was also being explored, but the politics of science and the personalities of the scientists involved meant that this research was never widely publicised or included in nutrition guidelines. Instead, particularly in in the US and the UK, and following government advice, people attempted to reduce saturated fat in their diets, generally replacing it with simple carbohydrates. A few decades later, we have an obesity crisis.

Part of the research which “proved” that a high-fat diet caused heart disease was a study involving seven nations which showed that in countries where people had a high saturated fat consumption, like the US, people were having heart attacks right, left and centre, while in Japan, where intake is very low, so is the rate of heart disease. What the researchers omitted to include, however, were countries like France, where red meat, cheese and cream are very much on the menu, but the rate of heart disease remains relatively low.

With all of this information now coming to light, along with research into the effects of a high-sugar diet on our bodies' ability to regulate our weight and our appetite, governments are now trying to reduce people's sugar intake with measures such as tax on fizzy drinks.

However, while this is not a bad thing, I don't believe it's the solution to the problem either. Tax sugar, and manufacturers of processed foods will just replace it with something else which will probably be worse. (Remember how we all thought it was a good idea to replace the natural saturated fat in butter with liquid fats that had been artificially hardened into supposedly healthy “spreads” … until it turned out that it really wasn't?) And as long as we continue eating foods where natural flavours have been replaced by inferior substitutes which make the food “more-ish” because it seems to taste good but isn't quite as satisfying as the real thing, we will continue to get fat. Meanwhile, although my mother-in-law's jam, made with raspberries grown in her husband's garden and slowly ripened by the Breton sunshine, may contain a lot of sugar, the high quality of the product is undeniable.

If in doubt, this Facebook meme that has just appeared on my timeline may be good advice!

The French haven't retained a healthier diet than many other western nations by rigorously applying the results of scientific study to carefully produced ready meals. Rather, a combination of respect for local agriculture and a deeply-ingrained love food and the pleasure it can bring means that they have continued to eat genuinely high-quality food more consistently and for longer than some of the rest of us. It's not foolproof – Big Food in France does its best to pass off its products as local and artisanal, and people with full-time jobs and no time to do a weekday market shop do turn to Carrefour deliveries and Picard just like anywhere else. (And you only have to participate in an average apéritif here to realise that not everything here is deliciously natural and healthy.) But the timing here has been better than it has been in other countries, in the sense that France hasn't thrown away its traditions only, too late, to have their value backed up by scientific study. Let's hope that we can hang on to them, and ditch the Apéricubes instead.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Cassis, Calanques and Cap Canaille

I'm taking a break from my series on Brexit here to talk about something a bit more cheerful. (The next Brexit post, on immigration, is actually sitting in my drafts folder, but it's such a complex and emotive subject that I'm a bit nervous about publishing it, hence the lack of updates over the past couple of weeks.) Understanding Frenchman and I spent Easter weekend in Cassis on what was probably our last trip with our hiking friends before the baby comes along, and it was awesome. My fitness took a nosedive after about 2 months of being pregnant, when I started to get breathless running for buses, but in the end, I think this may have ironically forced me to keep more active, because I keep missing the bus to work and having to walk instead. I'm not as fast as I used to be, and I can't keep up a conversation while walking uphill, but we still managed to clock up quite a few kilometres over the weekend.

On the first afternoon, we followed the trail out west, to the area between Cassis and Marseille known as Les Calanques. The Calanques are narrow inlets of water where a river has dug out its route to the sea between the steep limestone cliffs, and even although it wasn't very sunny, the water was still a gorgeous deep turquoise colour.

 On the second day, we went to Cap Canaille, the highest sea cliffs in mainland Europe at 363 vertical metres.This was a very direct climb up from the town, as there is a road and car park at the top, but no public transport, and definitely tested my remaining lung capacity, but the view from the top, with the dramatic cliff faces and rock formations, looking out over the Calanques, was worth every deeply-drawn breath.

 We had dinner that night at Le Patio, a traditional Provençal restaurant where I learned that the principal difference between soupe de poissons and bouillabaisse is that bouillabaisse is made with actual pieces of fish, while soupe de poissons is made with fish stock and served with garlic mayonnaise.

Our last full day was a bit damp and grey, so after the glorious sunshine at Cap Canaille, we were a bit less motivated to go out, but we managed a short walk on the dry, scrubby hinterland behind the Calanques where the air was full of the scent of rosemary bushes. As it was Easter, we played a traditional German game with boiled eggs, similar to a conker fight, where you have to bash the end of your egg against your opponent's to see which one breaks first. (We had decided against Easter Russian roulette, where you bash eggs against your forehead to find out which of the box has not been boiled beforehand ...)

On our final morning, we woke once more to beautiful weather and had breakfast on the terrace of our gîte, looking out to Cap Canaille. Then it was time to catch the train back to Paris, hoping that the sunshine would catch up with us eventually. (We're still waiting ...)

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Why I'll Be Voting to Stay in in June (Part 2)

Or, more accurately, why I don't think these are good arguments to for Britain to leave the EU. This post: Brussels Regulation.

Argument 3: The EU imposes ridiculous regulations on the UK and its businesses

For as long as I can remember, stories of absurd Brussels regulations have been a recurring event in the British media. There was one about bananas having to have a certain degree of curvature, and another which is something to do with cucumbers. This article from the BBC gives details of a further selection of the best Euromyths, and proceeds to entirely debunk most of them, while this article draws attention to the floppy-haired source of many of the stories.

It's a sad fact that the British media seems to be entirely incapable of balanced, factual reporting on European issues. The temptation to sell more papers with a bit of Frog- or Kraut-bashing is just too strong. There are two problems with this. The first is that a large proportion of the British public actually believes everything they read in the papers. The second is that certain types of (usually right-wing) politicians then get away with sweeping statements about how EU regulation is killing British business, but they don't actually mean rules about selling bananas. They're referring to things like the working time directive, which means that doctors can no longer be expected to work 72 hour weeks (and who wants to be operated on by a surgeon who's already worked 71 hours in 7 days?), maternity rights and environmental regulations.

I actually don't disagree with the argument that the EU can be overly bureaucratic at times, and when you've witnessed the difference between public administration in France, Italy and in the UK, it's easy to see how, when you bring together countries with such disparate expectations of what is normal, some conflict will arise. But that's what compromise is all about, and I would be much prouder of a UK which attempted to improve the situation from the inside, rather than throwing the toys out of the pram and refusing to play anymore, especially when its objections are based on such a biased and factually incorrect view of the situation.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Why I'll Be Voting to Stay In in June (Part One)

Unless you've spent the past few weeks on a desert island with your head buried in a bucket of sand, you almost certainly know that in June this year the UK will hold a referendum on whether to remain a member of the European Union or not. I don't normally post about political subjects, but this is such a hot topic that it almost seems wrong not to.

Obviously, if the UK voted to leave the EU, it would be a major hassle for me. I wouldn't have to leave the country, but there would certainly be plenty of paperwork to do, and the idea of queueing outside the prefecture at 4am to obtain a carte de séjour, as some of my American friends have had to do, doesn't really appeal.

However, I understand that it's not up to the rest of my fellow citizens to remain a part of a political institution against their will just for my convenience, so here are the real reasons why I believe the arguments for the UK to leave don't hold water.

Argument 1: EU decisions are made by politicians we never elected and can't get rid of if we want to

This is statement was made by UK Justice Secretary Michael Gove when he declared himself on the side of the "out" campaign last week. Michael Gove represents a constituency in which I have no right to vote, and much as I would like to, I can't get rid of him, and neither could all the members of the constituency in which I vote, even if a majority wanted to. This is exactly analogous to the UK not being able to kick out an MEP from another European country. It's how our democracy works, and the fact that our Justice Secretary thinks that he can get away with pretending not to understand this is somewhat scary.

Argument 2: EU decisions are made by unelected Brussels bureaucrats

The EU is governed by the European Commission, a cabinet government made up of one representative per member state. Commissioners are appointed by the democratically elected heads of state who make up the European Council and approved by the democratically elected European Parliament. This process of indirect election is similar to the system used for the French Senate, and a lot more democratic than the process by which people are appointed to the UK House of Lords. The other "bureaucrats" in Brussels are the equivalent of the UK civil service and government advisors.

Ironically, one of the most undemocratic aspects of European politics is the power of lobbyists in Brussels. If you ask many French people, they would say that the UK is largely to blame for the importing of what was originally much more a feature of American politics into the European Union.

Another supreme irony is that many of the people who complain about the lack of democratic representation in Europe will have voted UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) in the last European elections.  The MEPs from this party make a point of not attending the European Parliament as much as possible and of claiming their parliamentary allowances anyway. And then they claim that the UK has no voice in Europe ...

Up Next: Brussels Regulation and Unchecked Migration

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Cotentin Peninsula

Sometime in January, my hiking friends and I decided that we needed a weekend away to escape the grimness of winter in Paris. Our first choice of destination was the Vosges, but when we realised that the only weekend we all had free was the one when the three holiday zones for French schools collide, we opted for a change of plan.

(For those who are not familiar with the system, the regions of France are divided into three zones and the February and Easter holidays are staggered according to which zone you are in. In February, each zone has two weeks, but staggered over four, so there is one horrific weekend in the middle where everyone is on holiday and if you have the misfortune to end up on a motorway anywhere between a ski resort and a large town, you will probably find yourself stuck in traffic jams at 1 am and wishing you had spent the weekend at home doing housework.)

And so it was that we ended up going to the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. It was damp and windy and grey, but there was, almost literally, nobody else there. And when you have good friends, good food and coast walks in the bracing fresh air, you don't really need any more. (The other reason the Cotentin peninsula is not a hot tourist destination is that it's beautiful coastline is sadly marred by a nuclear waste processing plant, but none of us came back glowing green, so I think that was OK.)

On the first day, we had a wet and windy walk around the coast at Port-Bail. It didn't rain all day, but we did have to encourage ourselves along the way with a trip to the boulangerie for pain aux raisins and macarons. On the second day, however, there was no real need for auto-bribery, because the weather was better and the hike along the length of coast from the beautiful little village of Vauville to the Nez de Jobourg was stunning. My photo doesn't really do it justice, but the vertiginous cliffs and rolling waves, combined with the pretty stone houses and the newborn lambs we spotted along the way really did make for a good day out.

And we didn't sit in a single traffic jam.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Not Much

Not a lot has been happening around here recently, but here are a couple of bits and pieces:

We went apartment viewing again today. After a couple of initial forays, we're starting to get closer to what we want (or at least, the best of what we can reasonably afford!) and we saw two definite possibilities today. The day started off, however, with a bit of a strange experience with the first estate agent. We had initially asked about one flat, and he then proposed a second one which he felt met our criteria better, so we arranged a time to see his suggestion and asked to go to the original one afterwards. The first place we saw (his suggestion) was a nice flat with lots of good points, one of which was the pleasant natural light in the living room, and a couple of small drawbacks. When we came to the end of the visit, we asked the agent about the second one, and he told us quite categorically that we weren't going to like it. His reasons? The light was not as good (which according to him was clearly very important to us, according to him, because we had commented on it) and it was five minutes further from the station, and people who move to the suburbs from Paris "don't realise just how long 17 minutes walking can be." Given that the other flat was bigger, cheaper, and had an additional bedroom (and that we are the kind of people who climb mountains for fun and were therefore not worried about the walking), we still wanted to see it, but he was adamant that it was not for us. The conversation continued to turn in circles for quite a lot longer, including him arguing with me about some aspects of my work which he clearly knew nothing about, until I finally got tired of standing there talking to this annoying man and said to UFM that it was time to leave.

And then he reluctantly told us about three other properties which might meet our criteria better than the one we wanted to see. I wasn't particularly keen to have any more dealings with the guy, but it seemed a shame to miss out on potentially interesting possibilities just because he was clearly the worst salesperson on the planet, and we finally escaped by agreeing for him to send us the details.

Trips to the suburbs seem to be full of odd experiences at the moment. Last weekend UFM and I took a late RER B train back into Paris after dinner at a friend's house. I rarely feel nervous on public transport in Paris, even late at night, but the last trains into town from the suburbs are a notable exception, as they always seem to be full of drunk/drugged oddballs doing things they shouldn't be doing. (There are drunk people on the metro too, but they tend to be friendlier.) On this occasion, it was a lone guy who pulled out a marker pen and started rapidly tagging all the doors of the carriage. I hate seeing things like this because it's so ugly and just has to be cleaned off, but there was no way either I or UFM was going to say anything, so I was listening with interest when a middle-aged man broke away from his group of friends to ask the guy what he was doing. It turned out that middle-aged man just wanted to have an amicable conversation to find out what the young guy was doing, and when the tagger jumped off at the next stop, he went back to report to his friends that the scribbles were supposed to be the guy's name - how fascinating!

It made me reflect that sometimes in France you see this kind of pseudo (or real?) admiration among that generation for certain types of antisocial behaviour that most of them would probably never dream of committing themselves. Perhaps it's a way of reassuring themselves that they still have a little bit of youthful rebellion lurking somewhere inside.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Pregnancy Rules in France and the UK

Every so often when browsing pregnancy-related UK websites, I come across some comment about how British women probably don't need to worry so much about their diet and lifestyle choices when expecting, because across the Channel in France, all the mamans-to be are surely sucking on a Gauloise while sipping a glass of Bordeaux and nibbling some delicious, runny, raw-milk goat's cheese.

Um, no.

While some elements of this stereotype may have once been true (in the same way as British women were once told to drink stout for the sake of their babies' health), this is quite definitely not the case now. By and large, I would say that the advice is similar in both countries, but in fact, if anything, France is the stricter of the two. Both quite categorically state no illegal drugs or smoking, and offer cessation programmes for women who smoke, but the UK seems to be a little less strict on alcohol: in France, it's zero all the way through, while in the UK there is an endless debate over whether a small amount after the first trimester might be ok after all.

In France, the other main obsession seems to be toxoplasmosis. There is a screening test for this, and if you aren't immune (most people nowadays aren't), you have to go back for a monthly blood test, so that if you happen to catch it, you can be treated. To avoid catching it, you can only eat well-cooked meat, you have to wash fruit and vegetables carefully (the maternity clinic recommended using bicarbonate of soda and vinegar, but this sounds too much like window-cleaning fluid to me, so I'm sticking with careful washing), and you can't be in contact with cat litter. In the UK, they don't screen for toxoplasmosis because if you follow the advice, the chances of catching it are so small (something like 0.003 of pregnant women are affected). I'd be interested to know if the chances in France are higher, as there are more dangerous foods around (although you would think this would also mean more people were immune) or if it's just that the French are more into testing for every possible eventuality.

The other food-related risk is listeriosis, where cheese is the main culprit. French advice is to avoid soft cheese and those made with raw milk (although I'm not totally clear on whether made with raw milk if it's pâte cuite is supposed to be OK - both the documents from the hospital and the UK say it is, so I'm going with that, although other sources don't mention it). The UK NHS has an exhaustive list of different types of cheeses which are and are not OK, which would be useful if you could remember it all.

I find it interesting the way that the UK advice seems to be much more nuanced, and even debated, than in France, which is a bit the opposite of what I would have expected and I'm sure points to some fascinating cultural difference. I do think French people are more likely to follow strict medical advice than British people - the attitude in the UK towards public health advice often seems to be that people need to be nudged and encouraged in the right direction rather than told the facts and left to make their own decisions. Or is it that French women simply make their own choices about how strictly to follow the rules, while British women want to break them, but prefer to be backed up by a scientific study or two? (This definitely seems to be the case for drinking!)

One cliché which is somewhat true, however, is that the French seem very averse to letting pregnant women gain (too much) weight. When I went to the weird gynaecologist having lost 3 kilos in a fortnight due to morning sickness, she still said nothing about the sickness and told me to manger deux fois mieux, pas deux fois plus. On the other hand, I have one French friend who gained 23 kilos (it's supposed to be about 12) and another 30, so clearly this advice isn't being followed all the time!

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Mid-January Resolutions

I always find it quite difficult to make new year resolutions actually at new year. Either it's too busy, or it's so quiet and relaxing that it's hard to even remember what real life is like, never mind figure out what needs to be improved over the next 12 months. A week or so into the year however, reality comes back into focus and quiet, boring January generally provides a good opportunity to take steps in the right direction.

Here are a few goals which are currently on my mind:

Be Green
I've been working on this for a while now, but there are still many areas for improvement. I already take the train instead of flying  wherever possible (luckily I hate CDG airport enough to make a few extra hours on a train seem like bliss in comparison) and we also walk and take public transport a lot, and don't own a car.  With technology, I have hung on to the same phone for almost 5 years now just by replacing the battery with generic ones bought over the internet (this is why I will never own an iPhone) and I only replaced my laptop last year after I had had the old one for almost a decade. (Admittedly, I also had a work computer, which allowed me to spin that out a bit.) I fear that might have to replace the phone soon, but if I do, I will definitely consider a Fairphone, which is more environmentally friendly and also more socially responsible.

I'm quite good about mending and I get shoes repaired, but I'm also guilty of buying too many cheap clothes which don't last very long. As well as buying fewer but better quality items, I'm going to figure out how to upgrade a few things, for example maybe by dyeing white things which have gone a bit grey and learning how to fix zips.

We try to avoid food waste in our house, but the problem is that because we both eat in the canteen at work we sometimes just don't get through things quickly enough. Recently I've been making lots of soup with tired vegetables and also experimenting with things like eating celery leaves which we often throw away. We would like to eat less red meat, both for health and environmental reasons. Again the canteen is an issue here, but we are trying to have more meals at home with things like egg and cheese. Luckily pregnancy has forced me to cut down on my charcuterie habit, which was a big culprit!

Eat More Healthily
Ok, so this is a classic failed resolution, but I'm not aiming to be angelic forever, just make a few improvements over the next few weeks. When I first found out I was pregnant, I felt nauseous a lot of the time and got in the habit of nibbling on weird (but generally quite healthy) snacks and not eating proper meals. Then the sickness went away, but I have a bad habit of making up for tiredness by eating chocolate and I'm tired a lot of the time now... My aim is simply to get back to eating normal, healthy meals with a few treats, so now I just need to find another cure for tiredness. Unfortunately coffee isn't an option at the moment!

Study German and Read in More Langauges
I decided after our trip to Greece last summer, that rather than dipping into languages for tourist purposes ever time we travel, I should focus on the ones I know and have a chance of using at a good level. In Italian, this is basically a question of reading, but with German, I actually need to work on grammar and vocabulary too. My new strategy is to read German news on Deutsche Welle, which is interesting in terms of finding out the German perspective on current European issues, translate the articles, then read the English translations on the site to make sure I've understood correctly. It takes a bit of motivation though, and I suspect this will be the hardest resolution to keep.

Does anyone have any tips for helping me stick to these?

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Chocolate Tasting and Love of Food

Last night, Understanding Frenchman and I were invited to a friend's house to take part in a chocolate tasting. Our friend's mother, who used to work in the chocolate business, was visiting from the US. In her previous job, she organised tastings for companies, as well as travelling all over the world to find out about people's tastes in chocolate, and she had very kindly prepared a session for us.

We were a diverse group, with French people, Americans, South Americans, Spanish, Romanians and me. Our friend's mum explained that people's tastes are shaped by the culture that they grow up in because of what is available, what they are used to and what they are told is good. She then went on to tell us about the different types of cocoa beans: Criollo, Trinitario and Forastero. Criollo is the rarest, because it is less disease-resistant and produces fewer pods, Forastero is the most common and Trinitario is a hybrid of the two which is supposed to be of a higher quality than Forastero. She also explained about the Dutch Process, where alkalising agent is added to chocolate to make it taste less acidic.

We tasted the different types of chocolate in a similar way to how you taste wine. First we examined the surface to see how shiny it was, then we broke the pieces next to our ears to hear what the snap sounded like. After that we had to smell it, before putting a tiny morsel in our mouths and smoothing it over our palates while breathing in the flavours.

I love doing things like this, basically, I think, because I like food! Even with normal meals, I'm quite a slow eater because I enjoy taking the time to savour the flavours, so it's fun every so often to slow that process right down and really figure out what the different tastes are and why they are there. I find it frustrating, though, when I can't put my finger on a particular flavour and find the exact words to describe it.

Compared to wine, I would say it was less easy to identify the tastes of other foods in the chocolate. (While a lot of wine-tasting notes can be quite pretentious, it's true that you can often pick out fruity, woody or spicy notes and I have even genuinely tasted banana in Beaujolais Nouveau, which often supposedly tastes of exotic fruits.) A few of the chocolates were like this - one was quite fruity, and another had a kind of farmyard-y taste which I associate with goat's cheese (Incidentally, this was the most expensive of all the chocolate we tried, but nobody in the group liked it!). For most of them, however, the biggest differences were in how deep the smell and taste of chocolate was, and whether it had a sharp aftertaste which I would have described as bitter. This taste is quite common in high-quality chocolate but I personally don't like it much.

Most of the chocolate we tasted was from French manufacturer François Pralus, and my favourite was a Brazilian one which had a strong chocolate taste that was quite creamy. Just for fun, our friend's mum had also slipped in some Cadbury's and some Hershey's and I have to admit that the Cadbury's went on my list as the perfect unsophisticated but comforting chocolate, both in its dark and milky varieties. The Hershey's, on the other hand, I found had a really nasty aftertaste, which apparently may be down to the fact that Hershey's, which was originally designed to be long-lasting during the war, is made with soured milk, while the milk in Cadbury's chocolate is caramelised. But of course, I was brought up on Cadbury's chocolate, and it was always given to us as a great treat, so perhaps this preference is purely psychological!

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Responses to French People who Bang on about how their Cuisine is the Best in the World*

You drink UHT milk.

You serve roast meat with only potatoes. Even Brits know that potatoes are mainly carbohydrate, which is why meat should be served with two veg.

You are the second highest per capita consumers of McDonald's in the world.

Calling grated carrots a starter and claiming that you are therefore serving a three course meal is cheating.

You think vodka and orange juice counts as a cocktail. 

Only in Paris have I ever been served a restaurant meal where not only was the food industrially prepared and frozen, it hadn't even been defrosted properly.

Your pâtisserie is superb but your home baking is lamentable. (How else could something as boring as a madeleine achieve such iconic status?)

Your hot drinks are very rarely actually hot.

Crisps do not automatically become nutritious or sophisticated just because you serve them with alcohol and call it an apéritif

This delicious meal we are eating was probably purchased at Picard.

Remove tongue from cheek and continue appreciating everything which is genuinely awesome about French food. 

*See my previous post to find out why these might come in handy

Monday, 4 January 2016

Are the French Really Arrogant?

Understanding Frenchman and I don't often have real arguments, but we quite often have fake ones, usually relating to the quirks and inconsistencies of each of our languages and cultures. Whether the starting point is the bizarre illogicality of the French administration or the very serious question of why the British don't use mixer taps, the debate often ends when UFM comes out with some particularly outlandish statement of French superiority, and I tease him saying, "Et voilà, la fameuse arrogance française." This usually ends the argument because he knows that I don't really think the French are arrogant, but he hates the fact that they have this reputation.

In my experience, France is in many ways a country riddled with self-doubt. From adults who interrupt themselves in the middle of a sentence to check with their interlocutors that they have used the subjunctive correctly to entire TV debates about why the entire nation might be going down the tubes, there are endless examples of how the French can lack confidence. So where does the stereotype come from?

I think the answer lies in the impression that (some) French people (in some situations) give to the outside world of being somewhat haughty and convinced that they are right. But the haughtiness is largely due to the fact that in French, politeness, especially with strangers, means keeping your distance and respecting the right to privacy rather than being overtly friendly. So for example, that snooty waiter is being polite to you by calling you vous and Madame, and not hovering around your table when you might be having a private conversation. By contrast, in the UK or the US, they would approach quickly with a friendly smile and probably ask questions that the French would construe as intrusive (and to which, as UFM repeatedly pointed out when we were in New York last year, they don't really want to know the answers!).

Another factor is the conviction, in France, that there is a correct way to do just about everything. French children are brought up obeying strict social and cultural codes that range from the right colour to use for underlining in their schoolwork, to dressing appropriately for the weather, to the correct food combinations to serve at a dinner party. Usually there are very good reasons for these things, but when a French person says to a foreigner, "Il faut faire comme ça," it can come across as a refusal to acknowledge that there is any other way of doing things and that the foreigner must be wrong.

As well as imposing strict rules for presenting their written work (I was amazed, in my first teaching job, when I asked the class to write a word in the middle of their page, when several children immediately put up their hands to ask how many squares they should count in from the margin to find the middle), the French school system also instills the idea that being right is very important. If a pupil carries out all the correct steps to solve a maths problem, for example, but makes a silly calculation error, they will have to identify the mistake before being praised for understanding the method. This can be hard on the pupil, but in the long term, I'd prefer to live in a country where the engineers, pharmacists and bankers get their calculations right as well as understanding how they work. In the same way, the foreigner who is corrected for using the wrong gender in a sentence might feel looked down on, but in the long term will probably end up with a better knowledge of grammar.

The importance of being right also applies to debate and discussion. In France, if you are going to defend a point of view, you need to do so with conviction. When I was learning French at school, we were given lists of different ways of saying "I think that ..." to use in our essays, but in real life France these are almost completely useless, as no French person ever introduces an argument with je pense que or à mon avis. If it's your opinion, it's because you are sure that you're right, so why would you suggest that there might be any doubt! However, given the abundance of heated intellectual debate in France, both on TV and around the dinner table, I don't think this is a sign of a nation of people stubbornly refusing to change their minds.

When a mistake has been made, it's true that French people are less likely to admit or apologise for it than British people are. This can be extremely irritating, but most of the time it's not a sign of genuine arrogance, but rather a fear of the criticism that may follow (which I'm sure is largely a consequence of the school system).

There is one area of life, however, where I would say that the French reputation for arrogance is probably justified, and this is when they talk about their food, particularly in relation to other countries' national cuisines. They seem to feel no shame whatsoever in not only declaring French cooking to be the best in the entire world, but also telling people of other nationalities (or maybe it's just Brits and Americans) that their cooking is rubbish as they sit down to eat a meal cooked by those very same people. I've heard it happen so often that it makes me laugh now, and I have enjoyed developing a whole battery of arguments as to why they might be wrong (that's a whole other blog post), but it's the one example where I feel that not only is the arrogance genuine, but the willingness to flaunt it is also pretty rude. The only explanation I can think of as to why this would happen in a country where people are generally very polite, especially in social situations, is that the importance of food trumps the importance of other people's feelings. And all though I don't agree with that, it's a sentiment that the gourmand in me can definitely understand!

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Looking Forward, Looking Back

2015 was a year in which lots of things happened, but when I first started to think back over it, my first thought was that not very much had happened at all. Things were calm at work, with no major changes, and I was able to get on with doing a job I know how to do well. We stayed in the same flat, enjoying the weekly walk to the market and drinks in familiar bars with the same good friends.

On the travel front, I visited some familiar places - Vézélay, the Chamonix Valley and the Southern Alps for hiking, plus a few trips to Brittany - but also discovered some new ones: in France, La Rochelle, Rocamadour and Provins, Jersey, which is sort-of British, and Porto and Greece as foreign trips.

Discovering the Dordogne

Gorgeous Jersey
 I became an auntie for the first time when my brother and his wife had a little boy in October. While we've only visited once so far, I have a feeling that trips over for cuddles might become more frequent in the future!

Oh yes, and we got married. And strange as it may seem, I think that very big change is partly what contributed to the sense of not much happening. Firstly, on a practical level, we devoted a lot of time to organising the wedding, from the hours I spent reading blogs about how to DIY just about everything from flower arrangements to the wedding ceremony, to the time we spent in Scotland when we might otherwise have been adventuring elsewhere. (In case this sounds like moaning, it isn't - I loved pretty much everything about the planning process apart from the terrifying thought that our rather long guest list might turn the whole thing into an expensive, three-day long disaster. Once we got the RSVPs in, everything was fine.) But for all that the wedding was wonderful, and I was delighted we decided to get married and am now extremely happy that we are married, we did it as a celebration of what our relationship already was, not as an event that would change it, and this has turned out to be the reality, because nothing much really has changed ...

Wedding Table Decorations: the product of many house trawling the web, charity shops and Ikea!
... Except that, now that we are no longer planning the biggest party of our lives, we're ready to focus on making other big changes in our lives. We're looking into buying a flat, with all the complicated calculations of finances, square metres and commuting times that that entails. Anyone who is familiar with the Parisian housing market will know that the answers to all those sums are never quite what you want them to be.

And buying a flat has taken on a new sense of urgency, because, all being well, we will be needing an extra bedroom for a little Franco-Scottish baby, expected to arrive in the world in the early summer.

I'm fairly sure that the changes which take place in 2016 will be as real as real can be. Happy new year, everybody!