Sunday, 28 June 2015

Choose a Life, Not a Country

There's a particular  kind of click-bait that appears frequently in certain parts of the anglophone media that I find irresistible. For other people it may be the latest celebrity gossip or articles about scroungers and skivers in the Daily Mail that entice them in with those attention-grabbing headlines, then leave them feeling either smug or outraged, and at the same time slightly tainted. For me, it's a particular strain of lifestyle and opinion pieces about France, prevalent in the Daily Telegraph and the New York times but present elsewhere as well, that gets me every time.

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a link to this article in the Telegraph entitled "France is Better than Britain but We're Scared to Admit It." and I tried hard to resist clicking, because often the "France is wonderful" articles are worse that the ones which indulge in le French bashing, reducing the whole country with all its flaws and glories to good food, nice weather and better-behaved children. 

Of course, I didn't resist. I gave in. The article was actually not as trashy as the headline might lead you to believe, touching on productivity and France's lower Gini Coefficient (the measure of inequality) as well as the inevitable sunshine and wine, although I was a bit surprised by the reference to the wonderful toll motorways.*

Nevertheless, the problem with this kind of opinion piece is always the same: it is impossible, at least for countries as economically and politically similar as France and Britain, to decide which one is "better", and trying to do so when you have made the choice to live in a country which is not your own is a very effective way to torture yourself. Most disadvantages have a flip side, and so do most advantages. It's interesting to compare the way different countries do things, because on individual points, we can learn from each other, but if you try to come to a total of credits and debits for your home country of choice, you're unlikely to succeed, and certainly not objectively. Depending on the day, I can find living in France wonderful, terrifying and everything in between, and often it has more to do with my state of mind than anything that's actually happening here. 

But if this is the case, why make the choice to live in a country which is not your own? What justifies deciding to uproot and taking on all the struggles in can bring? Well for starters, there's the personal: after six years in France, I have built up friends, a career and what will soon officially become my family here, and I'm not going to throw that in just because France comes out unfavourably on some set of statistics. Equally, even if it were possible to decide which country was better "on paper" that wouldn't make a blind bit of difference if your life there was horrible. 

The second kind of advantage is less tangible, but when I look back on how and why I became a willing migrant, I realise that it was certainly the root cause, what led me to develop the said friends, career and family in France and not in the UK. I came here, and stayed here, for the glorious enrichment of living in a culture which is not my own. I love the fact that my life is bilingual. If Understanding Frenchman and I have children, I love the fact that they will be bilingual (and we will never have to grapple with the arguments about whether learning a language other than English is worth all the effort it entails). Even if the learning curve slows down after the first few years, I love making baby steps towards a deeper understanding of France. I love the debates that we have over the dinner table where each of us brings the perspective of our different backgrounds, but also enough sensitivity to understand that neither one is necessarily right. 

To be able to experience these things in a country where the scenery is beautiful and the food is excellent is an added bonus, and in fact a huge privilege. 

It more than makes up for the motorway tolls.




* France privatised its motorways in 2006. As far as I know, most people consider that their sale was a massive error of judgement where the state and the driving public lost out massively, while the shareholders have been laughing all the way to the bank ever since.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Macaron Making

I've had Jill Colonna's Mad about Macarons on my shelf for a couple of years now, ever since it was given to me as a present, but despite the fact that she describes the process in a simple, step-by-step manner that should be possible to follow even for a slapdash, go-with-the-feeling type of cook like me, I've never quite dared to go beyond looking at the pretty pictures and enjoying the cheerful, chatty style of her text.

Last weekend, however, I had my pre-wedding girls' get together* (it was going to be a non-gender-specific pre-wedding party, but the boys chickened out) and learning to make macarons seemed like the perfect activity to help my friends get to know each other on a Saturday afternoon in Paris.

We booked a class through a company whose name I'm not going to mention on here because, while they weren't bad enough for public naming and shaming, they turned out not to be exactly a delight to do business with either, and there were some issues with the reservation process. The lesson itself, however, was fine and a good balance of fun and learning.

We turned down a glass of champagne when we arrived, preferring to keep our wits sharp, which turned out to be a good idea (especially as some of us had already had some bubbly earlier in the afternoon ), so it was straight down to work. We started by making three different kinds of filling, all of which required careful weighing, heating and mixing. It was the first, and perhaps the last, time in my life that I had ever weighed egg to the nearest gram.

After that, we had to make the biscuit mix. There are two ways of doing this: the Italian and the French. With the French method, you mix all the ingredients directly, while the Italian method involves heating the sugar to a perfect 118° (we had little thermometers with alarms which went off when it was ready) and apparently gives a crispier meringue. Piping the mixture made me feel as uncoordinated as trying to follow a complicated zumba choreography, but luckily our batter had a good enough consistency for us not to be left with too many misshapes and peaks, which, this not being a hen party, we were all too polite to describe as what they obviously resembled:





After two and a half hours of hard work, our creations were finally complete and ready to be tasted. At this point we decided it was definitely time for a little champagne reward. We were really quite proud of the results, but when we offered some to our teacher, who had been very encouraging all afternoon, she described them only as "edible", in true Parisian style. As predicted, they improved after spending the night in the fridge, and we also happily scoffed a few for breakfast on Sunday morning.

So, will I be attempting to put my skills into practice in the future? Well, if someone can supply me with a proper oven, a mixer, a sugar thermometer  and a nice man to do all the washing up, I suppose I would consider it!



*Can you tell I really detest the term "hen party"?

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Between Britain and France





In French, the Channel Islands are called Les Iles Anglo-Normandes, and that pretty much sums up why they are a funny place for a British person resident in France to visit. They speak English there, but the place names are nearly all French. You can sail there from France, but if you want to catch a plane, you'll have to fly to England first. And you can see the Normandy coast from the beaches, but don't forget to take a UK travel adaptor if you want to plug in your appliances.

Jersey and Guernsey, along with some smaller islands, were part of the Duchy of Normandy at the time of the Norman invasion of England. In the 13th century, Normandy itself became part of France, but the islands remained attached to the British crown as crown dependencies. Elizabeth II is their monarch, but Jersey has its own legal, fiscal and administrative systems and is not part of the EU.

If I had remembered all of this beforehand, I might have taken my UK bank card and a few pounds sterling when we visited last weekend. Luckily I was smart enough to take my passport, and so was allowed on to the ferry that sails from St Malo at a fairly ungodly hour of the morning.

We stayed with a friend in her beautiful flat overlooking the sea and this, coupled with the beautiful weather and the lack of outside communication (we didn't remember adaptors for our phone chargers!) meant that Jersey was something of a real paradise for us as well as a paradis fiscal for millionaires. We spent most of the weekend hiking along coastal trails and even managed a paddle, although my plans for sea-swimming were scuppered when the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the wind picked up on the only day I had my swimming costume in my bag.

We travelled back on the early boat on Monday morning and spent a day enjoying the equally gorgeous St-Malo before driving back to Paris in the evening. With my appetite for summer holidays well and truly whetted, it's been hard to go back to work this week!

Saturday, 16 May 2015

How Living Abroad Can Make You Passionate About Politics






I say "for anyone who doesn't know" because in France, the election was widely reported and discussed. It felt quite strange seeing my country's politics as headline news on Le journal de 20h.

The main reason for this is that the Conservative party, who won a surprise majority, has promised an in/out referendum on membership of the European Union. Meanwhile Scotland, which is largely pro-Europe, having rejected independence from the UK in a referendum last year, voted massively in favour of the Scottish National Party; hence all the yellow on Maggie's head.The SNP leader has already made it clear that a UK exit from the EU would be considered as a reasonable justification for a second referendum.

All of this made me think not just about my own political opinions, but about the way that they have grown so much stronger over the past ten years or so. I suspect that this has something to do with getting older and more educated about it all, but I wonder if it isn't also caused by spending so many years living in other countries.

When you first move abroad, particularly to a country with high political engagement like France, answering questions about your country's politics can be overwhelming. You go from being an individual with your own opinions to someone who is expected to explain in a few sentences an entire country's perspective, even if you happen to disagree with the majority of your compatriots. And people are not always terribly sensitive to the fact that when you are the only foreigner at a dinner party surrounded by French people who don't understand why the UK might have a different point of view on the Schengen agreement, the Euro or the Common Agricultural Policy, all that intensive questioning can feel quite threatening. (My American friends who were here during the Iraq war had an even tougher time!)

Over time, I've got better at handling those situations. It's partly because I've educated myself about the issues and I know my own standpoints better. It's partly because since the economic crisis, it's a bit more obvious to people why Britain might not have wanted to be part of the Eurozone. It's partly because I speak better French. And it's also because I understand the French perspective better, so I can explain both more clearly and more diplomatically why some British people hold different opinions, without necessarily saying that either is right or wrong.

I believe without a shadow of a doubt that this double understanding, with the ability to comprehend different viewpoints, as well as being able to make honest comparisons between countries, is one of the most valuable things that you can learn from living abroad. It takes a long time though, and it's hard work.

What do you all think? Has living in another country made you more politically engaged? How do you handle those difficult questions?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Gatekeeper of the Secrets of the French State

I promised in my last post that I would let you know the sequel to us completing our wedding application dossier, so (because I know you are all so interested in French bureaucracy), here it is.

Six years enjoying the privileges of being an EU citizen with no need for a carte de séjour must have turned me into a big softie, because I found the whole marriage application process incredibly stressful. My most recent encounters with local administration had led me to believe that the stereotypical fonctionnaire was a dying breed, so it was a bit of a shock to discover after meeting the incredibly helpful person at the electoral registration office and the rapid-response team at the service des impôts that it's in the weddings department that the hardcore old-school cases reside.

We first encountered The Gatekeeper over the phone when, realising that our application process was going to take longer than expected, Understanding Frenchman phoned the mairie to get an idea of what dates might still be available. Not asking for an appointment, you understand, just wanting to know if it was reasonable to expect a Saturday, or a date in July, or if we should plan around having to wait for a Tuesday in November.

But that information is clearly classified at the highest level, because she would tell him nothing.

Then I called to ask for an appointment to hand in the application, which of course can only be done on certain days of the week between the hours of 9 and 4. The Gatekeeper offered me a time, but when I asked her if I could check with my employer about taking time of work to attend, she refused to make the appointment until I had done so. (By which time for all I knew, the appointment would be gone) When I called back later, with nothing confirmed but having decided that my employer would probably be kinder than the French administration, there was nobody to answer the phone for the next hour and a half.

So by the time the day was coming round, I was a nervous wreck. A nervous, angry wreck, I should say, as I was spending far too much time, usually in the wee hours of the morning, thinking about what I would say to her if she asked for any more pieces of paper stamped in triplicated and translated at the cost of a couple of hundred euros a time. (In reality, I would probably just have cried.)

When we arrived at the town hall, we spoke to the nice lady at reception, spotted the helpful man who had given us all the information when we first went to ask about the dossier ... and then we saw her. Although we had both only spoken to her on the phone, she had the forbidding demeanour of a brick wall topped with barbed wire, and we knew it was her.



I don't know if the appointment we had was supposed to be an official audition, but basically all she did was check that the information we had written on our forms matched the paperwork we had given, and hand-wrote it all on another form. She questioned our letter formation in a couple of words, told UFM that what he had written for his witness' profession was not a proper profession, changed Royaume-Uni to Ecosse, and that was about it.

And then, we were finally given access to the precious calendar, which turned out to be an A5 diary with appointments written in in biro. There were plenty of Saturday dates, and even Saturdays in July. It was looking hopeful.

But there was one last piece of paperwork to be filled in. Foreign citizens have to sign a declaration that they are not already married, and the version we had in our dossier was an old one. I would have to go back, and in fact we might both have to go back. She said she would phone me.

In the meantime, however, she would put a wedding date in the diary for us. (Big sigh of relief).

In pencil, of course. (She told us that three times.)

So I have to go back and sign another document in order to have the privilege of having our wedding date written down in ink. But the funniest thing was, when she phoned me back to confirm that only I would have to go, she was very cheery and actually wished me a happy birthday, saying, "I didn't realise when I looked at your birth certificate before."

So that was my present: a wedding date from the mairie.

Written in pencil, of course. 


Friday, 8 May 2015

Putting Together a French Marriage Application

This is going to be a bit of a boring post for anyone who's not looking to get married in France any time soon, but just in case anyone is, I'm putting it out there. When we were putting together our application, I actually found that the information provided by the mairie was very clear, but my own ignorance/incompetence slowed down a few stages in the process, so maybe you can learn from my experience.

We collected our application file from the mairie in person, which was worthwhile, because the section for foreigners has a few things that you don't necessarily need, and the man we spoke to told us what they were. There are three forms to fill in: personal information for each of you, plus details about the witnesses. You also have to provide proof of address (1 document each), which can be an income tax invoice or an EDF bill, a copy of your passport or ID, and copies of the witnesses' ID. French people also have to supply an up-to-date birth certificate (ie issued less than 3 months ago).

As a side note, British people find the idea that a birth certificate can be out-of-date hilarious, but in France,  marriage and PACS are added to your birth records, so the information can actually change and the certificate proves that you're not trying to commit bigamy. What I found much more amusing was that while my certificate copy is printed on thick official paper with an embossed stamp, Understanding Frenchman's resembles an extra-long dry cleaning ticket which could easily have been forged in someone's living room.

Being Scottish, I had to order an official copy of my birth certificate from the registry office in Edinburgh. You can do this over the phone, it costs £15 and takes about a week to arrive. The copy has a date of issue on it, which solves the problem of the original certificate never going out of date. I then sent the copy to the British Embassy in Paris and they used it to supply me with a Certificat de Coutume, a highly expensive (98€) and to me somewhat unnecessary document which basically says that UK law allows me to get married without my parents' consent and that it won't cause me to lose my British nationality.

After that, I sent the official copy of my birth certificate back to the UK for an apostille. This is an extra document which is attached to the certificate and confirms that the signature is genuine. So for £42, a UK civil servant signed a piece of paper which says that another piece of paper signed by a UK civil servant is not a forgery. (I guess it keeps unemployment down.) I found this part confusing, because I thought an apostille was a stamp which could be added after translation, but in fact it's another document which needs to be translated at the same time as the certificate.

Finding a certified translator was reasonably easy, but finding the time to take the document to an office in Paris when I work office hours in the suburbs and then spend an hour on the RER held me up a bit, followed by the above confusion over the apostille, but when I finally got the whole lot back from the translator (66€ this time), we were good to go.

Until, that is, I looked at the information from the mairie again and realised that you have to make an appointment to hand in the dossier. But this post is getting long, so the story of our encounter with the administrative gatekeeper with a heart of gold will have to wait for another day.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Dans le Bugey

If the region of Le Bugey were located anywhere other than the south-east of France, nestled between Lyon, Annecy and Chambéry, in the metaphorical if not the literal shadow of the Alps, it would probably be really famous. Understanding Frenchman and I discovered it by accident, the year my car was nearing the end of its useful life when, unable to drive at over 100km per hour, we abandoned the motorways for the tranquility of the routes nationales. We stopped for a lakeside picnic on the way to Grenoble that summer, fell in love with the scenery and promised we'd be back.


It took us a while, but last weekend, we finally went. We stayed in a gîte in the village of Ceyzérieu and hiked in the nearby mountains. The first day was wet, but our four hours in the downpour were compensated for by this beautiful waterfall at Cerveyrieu. On the second day, we climbed the Grand Colombier, the region's highest mountain at 1538 metres. I would have preferred to stay in the area on the Sunday, but the friends we were with preferred to visit the town of Aix-les-Bains. Although it wasn't a hugely inspiring place, especially on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the lake scenery is beautiful and I was charmed by a mother crested grebe paddling around with ten little babies who took turns to rest from swimming by clambering on to her back.

So there you are: the secret's out. Get there before everybody else does!

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Taking the Tram in Porto


My friend and I were originally planning to go to Marrakesh for our short week away this month, but flights to Morocco were very expensive and flights to Porto were cheap, and neither of us had ever been to Porto and we both quite liked the idea, which is how we ended up arriving last Sunday night with nothing but an Airbnb booking and an unread guidebook to lead us on our way.

Luckily, it turns out that Porto is a very easy place to appreciate without much forward planning, because its pleasures are mostly to do with a somewhat crumbling but elegant aesthetic, lots of old-fashioned charm and discreet people who largely make you feel welcome and leave you in peace.

Our plan for today was to take the tram out of the town centre to Foz, where Porto's beaches are to be found. We had been waiting at the stop for ten minutes or so when a very kind old man, undeterred by our evident lack of Portuguese language skills, came over to explain that there was a strike on and the next tram wasn't for another hour. (Luckily the word for "strike" in Portuguese is "greve", so we could understand that bit!)

We decided to walk out to the beaches anyway, as it wasn't that far and actually a really nice walk, and we spent a happy few hours watching the Atlantic waves crashing on the rocks and eating lunch at a beachfront café. As we were making our way back into town, we caught sight of one of the elusive trams rattling its way along the tracks, and we rushed over to the stop to catch it on its return journey.

We bought the tickets in Portuguese, using about 25% of our entire vocabulary (i.e. about 5 words). After that, we spent the first few minutes of the journey taking photographs, because the trams in Porto, at least on this particular line, are of the old-fashioned variety, made out of varnished wood with bench seating and controlled by large metallic levers, with the only element of modern technology being the swipe machine for validating your travel pass.

A few times along the way, a car or lorry would be blocking the tram tracks, and the driver would tap a little foot-operated bell to make the driver aware of our presence, and each time the car owner would appear reasonably quickly to move the vehicle out of the way with very little fuss being made on either side. At one point, some cheeky teenagers ran alongside the tram and jumped up to hang on to the outside and hitch a free ride, but they had to keep changing sides to avoid being squashed as the tram squeezed through a narrow passageway. To cross a junction, the driver had to get out and press a button on the traffic lights, and at the end of the line she changed the connection to the overhead wires from one end of the tramcar to the other using a mechanical pulley-type device.

In so many ways, that short tram ride seemed to sum up everything we liked about Porto. The way that things which are functional are still in use even although they are old. The kindness of strangers, who were never intrusive but almost unfailingly helpful. And the adventure of travel, when you never quite know what is going to happen, but it usually turns out well in the end.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Learning Portuguese with Duolingo

I mentioned in my new year post that one of my goals for this year/the future is to learn another language. As tends to happen with ambitious resolutions, that one has been quietly left on the back burner since January as I've struggled to find the time even to read more in French or get through the first few chapters of my current Italian novel. But after a Skype chat with a fellow language geek friend who raved about the addictiveness of Duolingo and a trip to Porto on the agenda, I decided to give learning Portuguese a try.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Duolingo, it's a website and app that teaches you foreign languages. It can be used by speakers of lots of different languages, but I have the impression that choosing to work from English gives you the greatest choice of languages to learn. The courses are divided into short sections and you can set yourself a daily goal for the number of sections you want to complete. As you progress through the levels, the language is recycled, so you are continually revising what you have already learned.

What I like about Duolingo:

- It's grammar based. You start by learning a few nouns, verbs and articles and immediately combine them to make sentences. I much prefer this to communicative approaches which teach you hundreds of supposedly useful phrases without developing your understanding of how the language is actually structured and how to build sentences of your own.

- It's quite intuitive. Maybe it's because if you speak other romance languages , Portuguese is quite easy to understand, at least in writing, but I felt that the words and even conjugations were introduced quite naturally. That said, I think if I'd been tackling Turkish, I might have preferred a bit more input and explanation.

- There is speaking involved. This is one of the great advantages of recent language-learning technology: you can say a sentence into the microphone of your computer and the programme will tell you if your pronunciation is accurate enough to be recognised. That said, watching what Duolingo did with my mangled sounds, I wonder if the speech recognition software isn't more understanding than an actual person might be!

What I dislike:

- There's no context. Apart from a few pictures to guide you along the way, you're basically learning language the way a computer does. I suspect that in the long run this makes it much harder to retain the words, never mind actually use them in the real world. To see what the programme is like for learners with a higher level of language, I tried out the Italian course and it had me translating sentences like "The cow does not eat the butter", which is not a sentence I have ever uttered in English, never mind in a foreign language.

- It's very translation-based. With no context for the language, it has to be. And, as anyone who has ever used a foreign language in real life knows, translation will only get you so far before you start saying very strange things to people. I remember the time I tried to tell my French friend that I needed to buy boots for hiking using the word "bottes". This is indeed the French translation of the English word "boots", but hiking boots in France are actually called hiking "shoes", and even smart leather ankle boots are not "bottes" but "bottines". Needless to say, I learned my lesson.

- I wasn't a big fan of the placement test which I took in Italian, as it seemed to be more a test of knowing the exact content of Duolingo rather than my actual level of Italian. Not quite having a few colloquial phrases to hand and forgetting a couple of vocabulary items set my level much lower than it should have been compared to the objectives of the lessons. (I don't think that's just injured pride speaking!)

So, will I be continuing with Duolingo? Yes, to pick up a bit more Portuguese and because it appeals to my inner geek. But as a way of actually becoming able to communicate fluently with real people, I suspect it has its limitations.



Friday, 17 April 2015

Travels in the South West

A scary number of years ago, when Understanding Frenchman and I had not long been together, we went on our first holiday, a trip to the Pyrenees with a group of friends. I still remember waking up early on the morning or our departure and feeling immense, childlike joy that we were setting off on holiday, packing up my trusty little Clio and setting off on our sunny road trip south.

On the way down, to break up the drive, we stayed in a hotel somewhere south of Rocamadour, with a swimming pool in the middle of the sunflower fields, and had dinner in a tiny medieval town perched on a cliff. As we continued on our journey the next day, we promised ourselves that we would go back. And finally, this year, we did.



We didn't go quite as far south, staying this time in a lovely gîte near Martel. On two of the days, we went hiking, visiting the little towns of Floirac and Carennac on the river Dordogne, then trekking through the stunning gorges of the Parc Naturel Régional des Causse de Quercy to Rocamadour. Rocamadour is a really stunning place, with its sanctuary and monastery practically clinging to the edge of the cliff face, accessible only by narrow cobbled streets and many, many stairs.*

Carennac

Cliffs in Les Causses de Quercy
Rocamadour

On the third day, we visited the Gouffre de Padirac, an immense hole in the ground which leads to a network of caves and passageways, through which runs an underground river.

You make your own way down into the hole, then a guide rows you along the river, a little bit like the Phantom of the Opera, before another guide takes you on a walking tour of the massive natural vault. The only annoying thing is that you're not allowed to take pictures, so here is one that I stole from the tourist office website:



Our gîte was equipped with a fitness room (which we didn't use) and a hammam (which we did), but in all honesty, the best bits of the trip, as well as the amazing sights, involved lots of sunshine, lying around in the garden after a long hike, and having barbecues out on the terrace as night fell and we could actually see the stars come out. As a break from Paris and a little sample of what the summer hopefully has in store, it couldn't have been better!


Actually, you can also drive to the top of the cliff and walk down, but it's not nearly so impressive.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Travelling Back in Time to Medieval Provins

The Routard guide's description of Provins, a medieval town located 90km from Paris on the regional border between the Ile-de-France and Champagne-Ardenne, is an exercise in creating inflated expectations. Admittedly, we didn't follow the instructions to approach the town from the ville haute in order to "experience the shock of entering without any transition into the Middle Ages". We took the Transilien train from Paris-Est, then walked up from the station, meaning that our first views of the old town were set against the backdrop of the D619, a few block-shaped apartment buildings and a BUT furniture warehouse, all prosaic reminders that we do actually live in the 21st century.
View from the Tour César. You can't quite see But and the main road in this picture.

Nevertheless, we had a lovely day in Provins. The sun was out for what seemed like the first time since last October, and we were far enough from Paris to almost feel as if we were on holiday but without the inconvenience of having to book a hotel, pack a suitcase, or even pay a train fare. (Provins is the final stop in Zone 5 of the Transilien network, so you can go there for free on a de-zoned Navigo pass.)

We started by climbing the Tour César, an octagonal tower whose building was begun by the English during the Hundred Years War and which was mainly used as a prison. After that, we walked out to the Porte St Jean and climbed up to the ramparts to admire the view of hoards of children setting out on an Easter egg hunt that was being organised by the tourist office. In Paris, this could have been the beginning of a nightmare scenario for two adults hoping for a tranquil day trip, but in Provins there was space for everyone and everybody seemed calmer somehow.

The Place du Châtel from the tower. Look closely and you might see the old well enthroned in a circle of lime trees among the superb residences which surround it ... or you might just see some spindly branches and old, pretty houses.
We ate lunch at a terrible crêperie at the end of the Place du Châtel, where the dry galettes served with a blob of margarine on top were somewhat offset by the pretty terrace and the view of the square. One prime source of entertainment was a clown giving rides to children on a bicycle with a toy horse that they could sit on attached to the front. The kids' wore expressions of pure joy and the clown himself genuinely seemed almost as happy as they were.

We finished our day in Provins with a look around the Collégiale Saint-Quirice and a stroll out to the Porte de Jouy. With more time, we would probably have visited a couple of the museums and maybe gone to see one of the shows, and I'd also like to go back when the medieval festival is on, but we left satisfied with our visit, despite the best efforts of Le Guide du Routard to set us up for disappointment.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Meet the Parents ... for Parents

Understanding Frenchman and I got our Meet the Parents moments out of the way a long time ago, and apart from my embarrassing tu/vous fiasco (which four years later I am finally just about over) and him using what he thought was the expression "take the piece out of me" (say it in a French accent) the first time he had dinner with my family, we both survived fairly unscathed.

Last weekend, my mum came over to France and it was our parents' turn to meet each other. I found it funny, talking to people about this historic event, how many of them asked me if Understanding Frenchman's parents spoke English, and never the other way round, and I was proud to defend my family's linguistic honour by answering, "No, but my mum speaks really good French," which they all seemed to find surprising. My mum learned French at school, and since I've been living in France, she's made a big effort to resurrect what she knew, so she goes to classes, reads books, and from time to time sends me emails with obscure questions about French grammar. She likes to make out that she isn't making any progress, but I've noticed plenty over the past few years.

Luckily, Understanding Frenchman's parents were also pleasantly surprised and impressed, and in return my mum was very complimentary about their beautiful garden, the house that Understanding Frenchman's dad more or less built himself, and their gorgeous four-year-old grandson who came round to visit on Sunday afternoon and showed off the fact that he had learned to count up to ten in English.

So everything went really well and fond farewells were said on Sunday evening when we caught the train back to Paris. The next step is to introduce my dad to everyone.

Unfortunately, he learned German at school :-(

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Trying On Wedding Dresses in Paris

... was an idea which I found absolutely terrifying. Bridal boutiques have the reputation of being scary places at the best of times, and most of my already-married friends, even in down-to-earth Scotland, had stories of being told by bitchy saleswomen that they were too fat, too skinny, or just not right for any of the outrageously expensive dresses on offer. What chance did I have of a positive experience in Paris, home of stick-insect shaped women and the world's most judgemental salespeople?

I was almost driven to Tati brides, but after scouring a few French wedding blogs for inspiration (I highly recommend Mademoiselle Dentelle to anyone looking for real-life advice about French weddings) I came across addresses and recommendations for a couple of dépôts-vente, took a deep breath and went to try on some dresses.

The first place I tried was Fortunée, in the 11th arrondissement. I turned up here on a Tuesday evening without an appointment, and the lady very kindly let me try on some dresses. She was very nice, not at all scary, and listened carefully to my description of what I was looking for before pointing me in the direction of a couple of dresses and leaving me to browse. I ended up trying on two dresses, both of which were among the lady's original suggestions. The downside of Fortunée was that, being a very small boutique, there wasn't a huge amount of choice, but I found one definite possibility. Many of the dresses had only been worn for shows or displayed in boutiques, so although they were technically not new, they were basically as good as. As as a result, the prices were quite high, but the lady explained to me that she would happily buy those dresses back to resell as truly second-hand, so in the end, they wouldn't break the bank.

At least 2 metres of dress are not visible in this photo!
The secod dépôt-vente I visited was Graine de Coton, in the 15th. This time, I had an appointment, and their organisation was a bit different: they have a large selection of dresses and you choose the ones you're interested in online so that they can have them ready for you to try on. I took advantage of this to pick out four dresses (you can choose up to nine) in very different styles, as even although I had an idea of what I liked, I wanted to be sure. Again, the saleswoman was friendly and not intimidating. I had gone with a friend this time, and she was very accommodating about helping me into the dresses and then leaving us alone to discuss and take pictures. She didn't even mind too much when my friend undid the enormous train on a dress I had already made it clear I was unlikely to buy because the skirt was too wide to fit through the doorway. Of the four I had selected online, there was one I would happily have bought, two definite "no"s and one that was a possibility. Of course, another advantage of the dépôts-vente is that they have new stock coming in all the time, so you never know what you might find!

In the end, I didn't actually buy either of the dresses I liked, and I almost regretted it just because the experiences in both shops was so much better than I expected. (Maybe this blog post will make up for that by giving them a little bit of good publicity!) In the end, though, I found one I absolutely loved online in the UK and had it delivered. So my next challenge is to find a non-terrifying Parisian seamstress to do the alterations...Wish me luck!

Saturday, 21 February 2015

My Anti-Bucket List

Following on from my last post listing five things I would really like to do before I die (and preferably in the near-ish future!) I now bring you the Anti-Bucket List: five things I intend never to do.

The Anti-Bucket List

Climb Mount Everest (or even Mont Blanc):  It's not that I don't understand the urge to be on top of the world, or on top of Europe, but the fact that so many people climb these mountains only for that reason really puts me off. The idea of stepping over dead bodies on the way up, or even acting like Parisians in the metro in order to secure a camping spot (as apparently happens on Mont Blanc) is a complete anathema to the way that I think people should behave in the mountains. I've been up Beinn Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK three times and the third time, I swore it would be the last because the sight of people smoking and drinking beers at the summit and then throwing their rubbish on the ground was so horrible. Plus, highest does not mean most beautiful, and chasing after statistics often results in missing the best bits.

Get a Tattoo: I don't hate tattoos on other people, but I'm really squeamish about the idea of ink on my skin, never mind underneath it. In primary school, I once passed out because we went on a visit somewhere and had to get a stamp on our hands, and I've never been one of these people that can write notes to themselves on their hands. I guess I'll just need to find another way to rebel if I ever have a mid-life crisis.

Be an Olympic Figure Skater: This was my childhood/teenage dream, but I started too late and wasn't nearly talented enough even to get very far at club level. At the time, it was heartbreaking, but looking back, I'm proud that I worked so hard to at least be as good as I could be. It's funny to think that even if I had succeeded, my career would be coming to an end now anyway. I sometimes wish I could go and skate like I used to, on an empty ice-rink, just for the pleasure of it, but I don't miss the bruises, the frustration and the early rises!

Smoke: Apart from the obvious reasons not to, I also know that if I ever did start smoking, I probably wouldn't have the willpower to give up. I'm a very driven person when it comes to working towards my goals (see the bit about figure skating), but when it comes to not doing things, I have zero self discipline. (This theory has mainly been tested with chocolate so far.) Plus, I've always thought that if I was going to do something that dangerous, I'd want it to be a bit more exciting than smoking. Weirdly enough, though, although I've never touched tobacco, I have had dreams about being a smoker and not being able to give up, which I suppose is a good warning to bear in mind.

Read The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: I gave up on The Hobbit and have slept my way through two of the films, so it's not looking likely. I suspect the same probably applies to the Star Wars films. I have read the whole of Les Misérables in the original, though, which I think crowns both of the others as an achievement.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

My Bucket List and Anti-Bucket List

Holly over at Full of Beans and Sausages has inspired me to write about my anti-bucket list, the things that I will never do before I die. However, because I don't think I've ever published my non-anti-bucket list, I've decided to be a bit sneaky and start with that, so you'll have to wait until next time for the things I will never do!

My Bucket List

Travel to South America: There are so many reasons why South America is top of my travel wish-list at the moment. I would love to see the Amazon rainforest. And the Iguaçu Falls. Not to mention all those amazing mountains. I'm pretty sure I could pick up Spanish and Portuguese, and I love the idea of visiting countries which are so far away and foreign and yet being able to speak the local language. 

Learn a Hard Language: the last language I really learned (to the point of fluency) was Italian, and since then I've picked up a bit of Spanish. I'm really happy to know these two languages, but once you can speak one Romance language fluently, the others come so easily that it hardly feels like learning a new language at all. I would be terrible at Mandarin, because I'm good at grammar and vocabulary but not so much with picking up the sounds of a new language. I quite like the idea of Arabic (although that has hard sounds too!) because the writing looks so beautiful. Ideally, my new language would be spoken in a country I'd be likely to visit multiple times and use often. Unfortunately, from that point of view, it looks as if Portuguese will probably be next!

Have a Piece of Writing Published: Writing is one of my favourite things to do. When I was little, I wrote endless stories and poems, and I took a creative writing course as part of my degree and even won a prize for it. Words, grammar and finding the perfect way to express an idea make me deeply happy. Unfortunately, they say that everyone has one novel in them, but if that's the case, mine must be very deeply buried inside, because I have all the language I need to write it but no idea of what the plot could be. Maybe I'll have to go back to poetry, or just be content with my blog until inspiration strikes.

Volunteer: I haven't volunteered for any kind of charity work since I had my lectrice job and had plenty of free hours in my week. Living in Paris makes me so aware, on a daily basis, of how vast the gap between the least and most privileged in society is, and how lucky I am to be somewhere in the middle of all that, so I am currently looking for the best way to use my skills and give a little bit back.

Travel in Style on a Long-Distance Train: I've spent many a night squashed in a swaying, rattling couchette, and even enjoyed the relative luxury of a proper berth on the London-Edinburgh Caledonian Sleeper once, but my ambitions are less paper-sheets-and -be-happy-they-give-you-a-free-bottle-of-water and more Murder on the Orient Express without the murders. I had better start saving now!

Monday, 2 February 2015

The Joys, Trials and Tribulations of Planning a Wedding from Abroad

OK, so I promise I'll stop the stream of wedding-related posts and write about something else soon, but after keeping quiet about our engagement for four months, I've got a few thoughts that have been buzzing around in my head that I want to get out of my system.

When we first got engaged, Understanding Frenchman and I had no precise ideas of what our wedding would be like. In fact, both of us would have been happy with a quick visit to the mairie accompanied by our parents and a couple of witnesses, followed by a nice meal at a restaurant afterwards. In the end, however, we settled for our other preferred option: to marry in Scotland surrounded by all of our closest friends.

As it turns out, we have a lot of closest friends. And so we find ourselves coordinating a large, 3 day DIY wedding at a somewhat rustic venue from over a thousand kilometres away.

There are actually quite a few advantages to this setup. For example, I'm not the most decisive person in the world, and if I was in Scotland now, I would probably be spending every waking hour researching, visiting and finding alternatives for every aspect of the wedding. From a distance, it's more a case of, if the website looks good, the staff can communicate by email and it's available, we'll take it.

Also, there's an element of getting the best of both worlds in being able to source some things in France and other things in the UK. We made our own invitations, and ordering the card and envelopes from a British company and getting them delivered to my parents probably saved us a small fortune. (This kind of stationery is one of the things that only seems to be available at the luxe market point in France.) The UK high street also seems to have a good selection of simple wedding dresses that can be ordered online too. On the other hand, the cheap wedding shops around the Boulevard de Magenta in Paris will be a great source of paper decorations, we'll probably source our wine in France, and if I decide I want a high-end designer dress after all, there are some amazing dépôts-vente where I could buy one for a fraction of the original price.

There are definitely downsides as well though. One of the most annoying is the way that absolutely everything in the wedding services industry seems to be bespoke, which is like a secret code for "we'll only give you very vague information, accompanied by lots of pretty pictures, unless you come to talk to us in person". Given that even talking on the phone in UK office hours involves me leaving work extra-specially early (I know, I know, I should probably change my mobile call plan), and we haven't actually been to Scotland since we got engaged, this is pretty difficult for us.

The worst thing, though, has to be the waiting. We had to wait to start making the aforementioned invitations until we went back at Christmas and could collect the card from my parents. I am currently waiting to order a dress that I absolutely love online because it can be delivered free to a UK address and we won't be back for a few weeks yet, and desperately hoping that it won't sell out. Even our budget planning is blocked by the fact that we haven't visited the venue yet and don't know exactly what we'll have to pay for. As a major planner, this has me waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night.

At the end of the day though, I think we've made the right choice.. The decision to have our wedding celebrations in Scotland came as much from Understanding Frenchman as from me, and it means a lot to me that he wants to bring all his friends and family to my home country and make it the location of such an important event in our lives. Surely that's worth a bit of waiting and frustration?

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Our Engagement Story




 Understanding Frenchman and I had been talking about marriage on and off for quite a long time before we got engaged, but (as I suppose is the case for most couples), always in the future and conditional tenses of "one day" and "if". I can't put my finger on exactly what changed this summer, except a sense that, if this was going to happen "one day" it might as well be now. I think we both felt it, but neither of us said anything.
Over the summer, we went to many lovely places that would have been perfect for a proposal. Paris, on a warm July evening. The Pointe du Raz, the most westerly point in France, on a glorious sunny day. An alpine lake with craggy moutain summits behind. A verdant highland forest surrounded by Scotch mist. But somehow it never happened. (I should add at this point that this is not a criticism on my lovely understanding Frenchman, as I was quite prepared to do the asking myself if the moment felt right!)

And so it was that we returned to Paris with a glorious summer behind us, and one Sunday evening, the conversation turned to marriage and the "would you"s turned to "will you," and there we were, engaged.


It might sound like a bit of an anti-climax, but it didn't feel that way. My memories of it all are as much of that unspoken certainty growing between us as of the actual moment when he asked me the question, and as far as I am concerned, we became engaged in not one, but many beautiful places.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Big Project 2015

My big project for 2015 will take place in two countries. It involves about 150 people of multiple nationalities and speaking six different languages. Not all of them have a language in common. It requires my dad, who hasn't been abroad since 1979, to get a passport, and Understanding Frenchman's parents, who have only left France once in their lives, to take international flights. It entails paperwork, form-filling, appointments and certified translations. We will have to coordinate several meals and three nights of accommodation for the aforementioned 150 people, and in the middle of all this, we will have to stand up in front of them and make possibly the most significant speeches of our lives. And I haven't even mentioned the frivolous parts yet.

Luckily, Understanding Frenchman and I will be doing this together, and I cannot imagine a better person to share such a big undertaking with.

Which is just as well, because (just in case you haven't already guessed), we're getting married!

Photo from www.popsugar.com

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Marchons, Marchons

Today, for the first time in my French life (in fact, the first time in my whole life, but it's only really surprising for the French part), I participated in a manifestation. It was, of course, the Manifestation républicaine which took place following the shootings and hostage takings at the Charlie Hebdo offices, in Montrouge and at the Kosher supermarket at the Porte de Vincennes.


Following the first shootings on Wednesday morning, mixed with the shock and sadness, I felt great pride for my adopted country, as, with the killers still at large, people gathered at the Place de la République to honour the dead. Even the next evening when I went there myself, a crowd was still present, lighting candles or simply standing in silent reflection. It was so calm, dignified and largely spontaneous, and I couldn't imagine a more appropriate response to the tragedy.

I actually found the news of the hostage taking at the Porte de Vincennes more frightening than the first shooting. The first one was over before I heard about it, but this time, I learned what was happening while it was still going on. While other people had talked of the possibility of further attacks, I think I had convinced myself that a few failed copycats were the limit of what was likely to happen, and it was a shock when there was more.

And then, after the story came to its dramatic conclusion at 5pm on Friday, came the reactions. Understanding Frenchman and I had already discussed going to the march today, but, analysing the situation, I was no longer so sure that it was something I was comfortable doing. Je Suis Charlie, which at the beginning seemed a simple statement of solidarity with those who had lost their lives or their loved ones in the attack, as well as a defence of free speech, developed more nuance (at least in my own understanding). While I am one hundred percent in favour of the freedom of speech which allowed the newspaper to publish its satire, the racial stereotyping and level of offence go beyond what I personally am comfortable with, especially when aimed at an often-marginalised minority. Similarly, while I believe absolutely in the need for a secular state, I fear that this principle can be easily appropriated by atheists who use la laicité as a means to impose their own world-view on others, or at least to suppress the free expression of religious beliefs, and I didn't want to march in favour of that.

"Jihadis, stop caricaturing the prophet"

"I am Charlie; I am kosher"

"Peace; freedom; tolerance"
But this afternoon, my fears proved to be unfounded. As we made our way towards République, many of the boards proudly declared that their bearers were from many countries and of many religions. As well as je suis Charlie there were je suis Ahmed, je suis flic and je suis juif, often on the same banner. People wore turbans and kippas and carried rainbow flags. A friend who lives on the route of the march described how every time a group of people noticed the security patrols on the roof of her building, they burst into applause. As well as freedom of speech, people marched for peace and tolerance. In the end, I was totally comfortable with what the march represented, and proud to add my presence to the millions who gathered in defence of les valeurs de la République.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

A Million-Euro Smile?

The other day, I had my first appointment with my new dentist in Paris. It was quite an experience.

When I was little, going to the dentist meant sitting in a leather chair with a spotlight over it while the dentist did a scale and polish using nothing more hi-tech than an electric toothbrush. When I was a bit older, a lot of the UK National Health Service dentists went private and some of the equipment got a bit more fancy, but the treatments were basically the same. My old French dentist was similar: he once did an X-Ray and a small preventative procedure, but basically it was contrôle and détartrage all the way.

I should also say here that my mum was super-strict with us about dental care when we were kids. We brushed for two minutes twice a day, took fluoride tablets and were only allowed to eat sweets after dinner and if we cleaned our teeth afterwards. As a result, we all have really healthy teeth: I don't have any fillings and have never had any problems or treatment that wasn't preventative. I'm used to going to the dentist and being complimented on my great teeth and told to keep up the good work and come back in six months for another scale and polish. And that's all.

And so it was that my appointment with my Parisian dentist was a bit of a surprise. He started off with a look in my mouth and some advice about brushing - so far so good. He recommended a couple of products, including some useful tiny little interdental brushes which I am looking forward to using as a more effective alternative to flossing.

Then he inspected my teeth in more detail, wearing a special pair of glasses with a light attached.

Then he took an X-Ray, just to have a better look.

Then he took some more pictures using some kind of special camera that he inserted in different places in my mouth, connected to his computer screen where we had already examined the (perfectly normal) X-Ray.

At various points along the way he commented on what a shame it was that I hadn't had my wisdom teeth extracted and had orthodontic treatment when I was younger.

Then he said I could still have the operation as an adult.

Then he discussed teeth whitening. I initially thought he was talking about a simple product that I could buy in the pharmacy and use at home, but then he mentioned that it would cost three or four hundred euros.

And finally, he cleaned my teeth. Then, as I paid, he made a long list of all the things he planned to do on my next visit.

I left with somewhat mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, I'm all for high-quality healthcare and I paid the standard (refundable) price for my 45 minute checkup with all the fancy equipment. On the other hand, I'm a bit uncomfortable with all the recommendations for expensive treatments, including a very painful operation that no other dentist has ever suggested, when, by his own admission, if I keep doing what I've been doing for years and use those nifty little interdental brushes, my teeth will be just as strong and healthy as they've always been. If I'm honest, I'm quite tempted to find another dentist next time. After all, trying to sell you all sorts of unnecessary extras is bad enough when it comes from a car salesman, but it feels even more unethical, almost like a kind of blackmail, when it's coming from a health professional.

What do you all think? Have you had good experiences with dentistry in France? How does it compare to your home country?

Monday, 5 January 2015

New Year in Petite-Bretagne

After Understanding Frenchman's immersion in British festive traditions, it was my turn to share some celebrations with his family. We had a quick turn around in Paris when we got back from the UK, then went out west to celebrate New Year en Bretagne.
 
Our train arrived in Rennes and we met up with some friends for a drink. We went to a bar à jeux , a wonderful concept that I've only ever encountered in Rennes but which my friends assure me exists elsewhere in France. A bar à jeux is just what it sounds like - a bar or café where you can order drinks and sit and play board and card games with your friends. The staff are often very knowledgeable about the games and can give recommendations or explain how to play. As our friends had their children with them, we mostly played Penguin Slide, My First Farm and Les Lapins Crétins, but they actually have far more games for adults than for children, and these bars are popular with students.

On our first day out in the country, we woke to find that the entire landscape was covered in thick frost. Luckily I know Understanding Frenchman's family well enough now for them not to find it weird that the first thing I wanted to do after breakfast was go out and take photographs of bits of their garden and the surrounding fields.





New Year's Eve was quiet but pleasant, as we stayed in and ate the traditional meal with Understanding Frenchman's parents. They keep things relatively simple, but that nevertheless meant apéritif with little toasts, foie gras for the starter, duck and roast potatoes for the main course, cheese and pâtisseries from the baker's, so we certainly began the new year with full stomachs!

On New Year's Day, Understanding Frenchman and I worked on creating our latest tradition and drove to the coast to look at the waves. Last year we were treated, purely by chance, to the spectacle of magnificent Atlantic rollers crashing on the cliffs of the Côte Sauvage. This year, despite our best efforts to arrive at the optimum moment just before high tide, the waves were less impressive, but we had a lovely walk and finished up the afternoon watching a beautiful sunset on the western horizon.



We also spent lots of time with Understanding Frenchman's nieces and nephews, which was great fun. They are 4, 5 and 7 and full of beans and joie de vivre. Watching the 4 year-old open his presents from us was better than receiving any of our own, and when the two little boys hid under the table to share out the galette des rois (we were a bit early because you're not really supposed to have it until the 6th of January), it was hilarious to hear them making their choices. (The galette des rois commemorates the 3 kings in the Christmas story, and has a little fève (usually a tiny figurine) hidden in it. The person who finds the fève gets to wear a paper crown, and the tradition is that the youngest person hides under the table and says which slice is to be given to which person to ensure that everyone has an equal chance.) This year, the fèves were actually found by Understanding Frenchman and his brother, but they quickly slipped them into the boys' portions when they weren't looking, ensuring even more delighted laughter. When the 7 year-old found out what they had done, instead of being upset that she didn't get one, she was even happier than the boys because she got to be in on the adults' secret!

I haven't made many resolutions this year, but I have decided, not for the first time, that it would be a good idea to work a bit harder on my French. When we're in Brittany, speaking French nearly all the time, I definitely learn new words and feel more fluent, but on an average day in Paris, I speak English for a large part of the day and French is usually restricted to a couple of hours at most. The result is that I find myself searching for words that I do actually already know and making grammar mistakes that I recognise as soon as they slip out of my mouth, and it's really annoying! I'm still trying to work out exactly what my strategy will be to fix it, so more on that later.

And finally, 2015 is to be the year of a big and extremely exciting project ... but more on that another time too!

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Resolution Round-Up

At the risk of inflicting some personal performance management on myself (and in the middle of the holidays too!), I looked back this week to the resolutions that I made at the start of 2014, namely walk more, cook more and blog more, and I'm happy to say that they have largely been achieved.

Fuelled with good intentions, I succeeded in walking at least 30 minutes of my commute even in the dark mornings and early nights of January, and this got easier as the year went on and the weather grew better. Admittedly, it took discovering Zumba a few months later to truly keep my fitness on track, but I'm pleased to be ending 2014 in better shape than I started it. To be continued next year!

Cook more was mainly challenging because during the week Understanding Frenchman and I eat our main meals of the day in our work canteens, while at the weekend we quite often eat out or at friends' houses. As a result, cooking quite often turned into baking, which was nice, but probably not very healthy, for UFM and my colleagues, who were the main consumers of the results. I did try out quite a few recipes from the cookbook my brother gave me for Christmas last year though, made jam in the autumn, and (re-) discovered the joy of soup as a nutritious and satisfying light meal in the evening.

And finally, blog more. I actually thought I was doing quite well on this, with an average of around 1 post per week (even if their appearance was a bit erratic), but I've just checked my statistics and, including this one, have only published 43 posts this year, compared to 48 in 2013. However, there are several reasons why it's been harder to find interesting things to blog about recently, not least because the longer you stay in a country, the less you feel like commenting on its quirks, and I do think that making this resolution helped me to fight against that. I'd like to say a big thank-you to Holly at Full Of Beans (and Sausages) for her Expat Revelations series, which gave me inspiration for new topics to write about, and also for all the readers' comments this year. Knowing people are out there reading and responding really is the best reason to continue. I've also updated my blog list (on the right hand side) to include some new blogs that I've discovered recently. Reading other blogs is another big source of motivation, so thank you to you all for writing!


 

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A Frenchman Abroad

When Understanding Frenchman agreed to spend Christmas with thirteen members of my family and their friends, we joked about the fact that there were bound to be plenty of moments when he was expected to represent the other 59 999 999 French people as well as himself. He declared that he was up to the challenge and decided that if the situation became tense, he was just going to pretend not understand what was going on, but anyone who has been in that situation will know just how awkward it can be at times, especially given some of the negative stereotypes that French and British people have about each other.

I was sitting at the other end of the table when he was asked what the feeling was in France about the potential British exit from the EU, but he seemed to handle the question with a perfect balance of honesty and diplomacy. And in fact, what was more interesting than the international relations questions was the way people interacted with him in situations involving food and wine.

To put this into context, I would say that Understanding Frenchman knows about as much as any ordinary French person about these two subjects, which is to say, perhaps a bit more than the average Brit, but without being any kind of an expert by French standards. We eat in nice restaurants every so often, but home cooking in both of our families is similar: wholesome and tasty but completely unpretentious. We have friends who know a lot about wine and like to learn from them when they choose a bottle, but neither of us can comment on the fine details. Some of the English people there, meanwhile, were real wine lovers and foodies who spend a lot of time cooking and appreciating food.

So it was funny to see how much, by virtue of being French, his opinion counted. Everybody took turns to cook, and sometimes there was almost a sigh of relief when UFM said that the meal was delicious. When we did wine tasting one evening, we were no more expert than anyone else, and yet his comments (and by association, mine) were taken with deep seriousness.

It wasn't in any way an unpleasant situation for him, and when you are new to a group and also not a native speaker of the langauge, it's nice to be listened to. Plus, it's definitely better to stand for 60 million people who know a lot about wine than a nation of lorry drivers who are always on strike!

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Ways in Which I Have Become French

My mum commented to me over Christmas that she thinks I am in the process of becoming more and more French. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think that my work environment and social circle are far too anglophone/international for this to be much the case, but I did think it would be fun to make a list of Gallic habits that I might have acquired over the past few years, so here we go.

1. Wearing Scarves
Not so much a little Hermès number, elegantly knotted over a chic cashmere jumper, but I do wear a scarf with my outdoor clothes much more often than I ever did before. In Scotland, I think I always had the mentality that, however miserable the weather, there was always the possibility that it might get worse, so there always had to be an additional layer that could be donned in the case of really severe conditions.

2. Apéritif Snacks
I used to be someone who would always choose sweet over savoury for a snack. Nowadays, if I'm a bit peckish before dinner time, even if I'm by myself and not having alcohol, I prefer to have a drink of something other than water, and some olives, crudités or little pieces of ham or cheese. This in itself may not be terribly French, but the underlying cause is not wanting to eat sweet and savoury things in the wrong order, which never bothered me in the past.

3. Keeping Trainers for Sport (and fleece jackets for the countryside)
Funnily enough, Understanding Frenchman breaks this rule more often than I do. I suspect he's trying to prove that he's not Parisian.

4. Le Bonjourisme
Not in a dictatorial way, but I do find it feels natural to say hello when I walk into a shop these days. On the other hand, I have also retained my Scottish habit of saying thank you to bus drivers.

5. Not Eating on the Run
This isn't some virtuous "I never snack and only eat wholesome 3-course meals" type claim. It's just that I love my food too much to be distracted when I'm eating it.

6. Comfortable Silences
More than the British, French people prefer silence to inane chatter. As someone who's not great at small talk, that suits me.

7. Talking About Sleep
Like food, rest is culturally important in France. I've always loved sleeping, so it's nice to live in a place where a long lie and a siesta are seen as healthy habits rather than laziness. And, just as with food, sleep is an appropriate topic of conversation too.

8. French Kissing
As in, faire la bise. As I explained in my previous post, it's so much easier than not knowing how to introduce yourself at all.

I like to think that some of these positive changes might be down to my being older and wiser as well as more Frenchified, but after 7 years of immersion, it's difficult to tell.

What about you? Have you acquired any good (or bad) habits from an adopted country?



Friday, 26 December 2014

Being a Foreigner: Location or State of Mind?

On our way to spend Christmas with my family this year, Understanding Frenchman and I stopped off to visit a very good friend of mine who lives near Manchester. Now, even in highly pro-independence company in Scotland, I have never heard England described as a foreign country by a Scottish person, but I was intrigued by just how foreign some of our experiences felt to me. My friend had moved house since I last visited her several years ago and nothing about the area, from the place names to the local accent, was particularly familiar. During the weekend, we were invited to a birthday party and spent Sunday afternoon at a folk event at a country pub, so we met a lot of new people, and on several occasions, I found myself feeling just as unsure of what was expected socially as I sometimes do in France (as well as encountering the wonderfully weird tradition of Morris dancing for the first time!).

One such experience was when we arrived at my friend's friend's house for the birthday party. Somebody else let us in the door and, as the hostess was busy in the kitchen, we weren't introduced straight away. When other people arrived, they would wave a general "hi"to everyone and sometimes we were eventually introduced, sometimes not. As the hostess moved directly from being busy cooking the meal to being busy serving the meal, and then looking after an elderly guest, we ended up sitting at her table, eating the food she had just cooked and not even having said hello properly.

Obviously, this would never, ever, ever happen in France. But one of the funny things about British people is that they are often more afraid of the awkward feeling that can arise when making formal introductions than of the awkward situations which can arise when formal introductions aren't made. I, however, found that not having been introduced made me feel very awkward, especially as finding an occasion to say thank-you afterwards also turned out to be difficult.

It's possible that I'm just more accustomed to French habits than I often realise. But given that many of my friends in France are British, or other expats/immigrants, I doubt that's the whole story. I think that sometimes, as foreigners, we blame all of our awkward feelings on our foreign-ness, when in fact encountering any new social group or area of the country, even if it's our own country, can cause us to experience many of those same feelings.

Anyway, whatever the reason, I suppose it was useful for me to learn that all those endless French rounds of faire la bise (and forget the names as soon as you're told them) perhaps serve a useful purpose after all.