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!

Monday, 28 December 2015

First Christmas in France

Nativity (although I appear to have cut out the most important character!)
 Strange as it seems after 8 years in France and 5 in a relationship with a Frenchie, 2016 was the first year I spent Christmas in France. For the past two years, we've done Christmas with my family and new year with his, and before that we each spent Christmas with our own families and new year with each other.

I was looking forward to it, partly because I like spending time with Understanding Frenchman's parents, who are really good fun, but also because I'm a bit of a sucker for Christmas, and UFM has young nieces and nephews, which meant that fun and excitement were guaranteed. (In my family, we all tend to do our own thing in the morning, then at some point in the afternoon, or even after dinner, someone says, without wanting to sound too uncool and enthusiastic, "Well, shall we open the presents then?" (Christmas dinner is great though - my mum is a good cook!))

In France, the big Christmas meal traditionally takes place on the 24th. We were already in Brittany, and at the end of the afternoon UFM's brother, sister-in-law and their two kids arrived. The children were already wearing Santa hats, which was a good start to the proceedings. Then his sister and her little boy came over, and we chatted and played silly games with the kids.

They went back home in the evening, as the sister's partner also has three teenage children and it would have been a bit much to have everybody. Around 7 or 8 pm, we started with the apéritif. This was followed by foie gras, scallops in sauce, capon and roast potatoes with vegetables, then the traditional chocolate log for dessert.

French Santa passes by around midnight to drop off the presents, and sometimes the children stay up for his arrival, but this year their parents decided that they would go to bed and open their presents in the morning, which they did with remarkably little fuss. (To be fair, the 6 year-old went around 11pm and the 9 year-old at nearly midnight, so maybe fatigue just won over excitement!)

In the morning, the 6 year-old was up early, but this was in fact because he was looking forward to walking the dog with his papi, and it was around ten-thirty before the presents were opened in a big storm of gift wrap and excitement. The younger one still believes in Father Christmas, and in France Santa brings all the presents (although strangely enough he leaves different ones in different houses, for example, some at home and some with each set of grandparents ...) so as the children handed out the gifts, we all said, "Merci, Père-Noël!" The 9 year-old has known for a while that he isn't real, but she likes being in on the secret and is very discreet so that her brother doesn't find out.

After that, we did more presents with UFM's sister and other nephew, then sat down for Christmas lunch. I believe that in some families this is a whole other event, but we just ate the leftovers from the day before, so although there was a lot of food, le réveillon was definitely the more special of the two meals.

In the afternoon we went for a walk up to the local church to look at the nativity scene, then it was time for the children to go home,  and peace reigned again.

In retrospect, what surprised me about French Christmas was how, apart from the presents, it felt very similar to any other family celebration. In general I would say that the French are better at celebratory meals than the British are - traditions like the apéritif, having lots of different wines and spending a long time over each course mean that special occasion meals really do feel like an event. But I think that in the UK, even in my family, where Christmas is pretty low-key, we have lots of things which are specific to the 25th December. For example, although we're not all regular church-goers, we often go to the midnight service, and then there are fun things like crackers and foods like Christmas pudding (which I actually don't like, so that was no big regret.) French Christmas, on the other hand, was very similar to French new year but with Santa Claus. But fun, neverthless!

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Christmas Treat

When I was little, my auntie used to take us to the pantomime every year, either on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day. As we grew older, that morphed into a trip to the cinema, often to see the latest Bond film, or occasionally, if I was lucky, to the ballet. (It was the Pierce Brosnan era, so ballet was definitely preferable to Bond, although I don't think my brothers agreed.)

Now that I'm a grown up, I have a new best treat for Christmas / New Year that I am slowly convincing Understanding Frenchman to make into a tradition: going to the Brittany coast to watch the waves. In 2013, high tides and strong winds combined to make an awesome show of enormous waves crashing on the rocks of the Côte Sauvage. 2014 was less impressive, but we definitely got a good dose of bracing sea air.

This year we went to Cap Fréhel on the north coast. The temperatures have been scarily warm and the tidal coefficient was not particularly high (and yes, I do check well in advance  Maree Info to find the best day), but with blue skies and foaming waves, the beach was stunningly beautiful.

The Beach at Pléhérel

Big Waves

Patterns in the Sand

Les Ecarets

Foam!

Sunset at Cap Fréhel

Sea Stack and Sea Gull

Maybe when we go to Scotland next week we'll get some more seasonal weather!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Does Being Socially Awkward Make You a Better Linguist?

Passing the time browsing the net as the shortest day of the year drew to a close and the rain poured down outside the window on the muddy fields of rural Brittany, I came across this article on the BBC website:

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150528-how-to-learn-30-languages

It doesn't really tell you how to learn 30 languages, which I was a bit disappointed by, but, as well as being pleased to learn that years of language geeking may have gained me an additional 9 years without dementia, I was also intrigued by the idea that the secret to successful language learning may lie in "the depths of our personality" and our ability to be "cultural chameleons".

I've taken part in plenty of discussions and read many articles about whether your personality and behaviour can change when you speak a second language, but it had never occurred to me before that the ability to do this might be a key part of acquiring multilingualism, that being able to speak a foreign tongue like a native actually depends on pretending to be a native speaker of that foreign tongue.

Perhaps this also explains why the people who are good at learning languages (or at least the people who choose to make themselves good at it) are not necessarily the greatest extroverts in the world. When I think of the people I've met studying languages and living abroad, many of us are not the most socially at ease in our native languages, but we tend to enjoy not just constructing long, grammatically complex sentences using sophisticated vocabulary, but also imitating the gestures, linguistic tics and colloquialisms of the new culture (eh ben, oui!). Maybe this is because, feeling less socially secure in our own culture, or being less dependent on feeling socially secure in order to be happy with ourselves, we more easily throw off our habits and adopt others.

And the best bit, at least in my personal experience, is that not only do we get to explore new personalities with each new country or language, knowing that we are able to do this is a massive confidence booster at home as well.

What do you think? Do your experiences match the theory?

Sunday, 13 December 2015

(Attempting to) Protest at COP21

If you didn't live in Paris, I suspect it would have been surprisingly easy to miss, or at least only be mildly aware of, the fact that COP21, the massive international climate conference, has been taking place in the city over the past few weeks. Even for Parisians, the main sign that something important was happening was significant transport disruption as several major roads into the city were closed as heads of state arrived at the beginning of the conference.

Since then, depending on your preferred media outlets, you might have seen quite a lot of information, or very little. The Guardian has fairly detailed coverage, as does Le Monde, although the French news has obviously also been focusing a lot on the regional elections this weekend and last.

The aim of COP21 was to produce an agreement that would limit global warming to 2°C by 2100 in comparison with pre-industrial times. Since the final agreement was published yesterday afternoon, politicians have been proudly declaring the conference a great success, but many environmentalists doubt that it will be enough. The main reasons for this are
a) the steps that countries have agreed to take will probably not keep warming below 2°C
b) the agreements are not legally binding
c) climate agreements can be overridden by trade agreements, such as the TTIP, which will potentially allow companies to sue governments if they lose money as a result of steps which the government has taken to protect the environment.

Another somewhat controversial aspect of COP21 was that large protests were banned due to the state of emergency following the 13th November terror attacks. This led to demonstrators coming up with some unusual solutions, such as leaving 12000 shoes on the Place de la République to represent the people who would have been protesting had protests been allowed.

I had been following the conference in the news, but hadn't been involved in any way myself until yesterday. Some good friends were staying with us to take part in the public events around the conference, so on Saturday morning I joined them to participate in the Climate Justice Peace event. As large gatherings were forbidden, the idea was for small groups of people to be present at predefined spots in the city, take photos, send tweets and geolocalise, creating a map that would spell out the letters of Climate Justice Peace.

 
We decided to be part of the group that would make up the C in justice, which was coordinated by Les Amis de la Terre (Friends of the Earth). We gathered on the Place des Vosges and were given maps showing the spots where our group of 6 was supposed to geolocate between 11 and 11:30. (Unlike your typical French protest, this one was very calm and supervised only by a couple of bored looking policemen who I don't think intervened in any way at all.)



Sadly, when the moment arrived  to pinpoint ourselves on the map of Paris, the organisation's website was overwhelmed, and most people's geolocations didn't seem to get through, so we had to resort to a few posts on Twitter after the event.

I had to go home after that, but my friends continued to the Red Lines event on the Avenue de la Grande Armée, where people with red clothes and banners created lines down the road to represent lines which must not be crossed. This was a much larger event which in the end was allowed to go ahead by the police despite earlier suggestions that it might not. The final gathering of the day took place on the Champ de Mars, where peaceful activists surrounded by police, in the tradition of '68, tossed paving stones into the air.

The difference at COP21 in 2015 was that the paving stones were giant inflatable ones.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Christmas is Coming!

Now that we're into December and the weather has finally become cold enough for it to feel like winter (well, it did yesterday - today we're back up around 11 or 12 degrees, which in my book is a bit too hot to be indulging in vin chaud and extra-cosy jumpers), I'm allowing myself to start looking forward to Christmas.

In recent years, actual Christmas has often been quite low-key compared to the days leading up to it (although last year's family extravaganza in the Lake District was fun), but this year Understanding Frenchman and I are spending Christmas together in France with his family, for the first time, believe it or not, and there will be small children and Santa Claus and lots of excitement, so I'm really looking forward to it.

Yesterday my hiking friends and I held our annual Christmas walk and cake competition. Every year, we go for a stroll to work up an appetite, then go back to someone's house for a competition where everybody brings a cake and we vote for the best one. I originally wanted to take a Bûche de Noël  but didn't get around to buying all the ingredients in time to have a practice, plus it would have been a bit difficult to transport on a 10km hike. I ended up making mini Christmas logs involving caramel, speculoos biscuits and chocolate which Understanding Frenchman immediately and unsupportively nicknamed crottes parisiennes . I personally thought they tasted delicious, but first place went to a friend's beautiful cheesecake, so they didn't win.

Admittedly, they do look a bit like something you find all too often on Parisian pavements.
Every year in December I make up my mind to send Christmas cards, which isn't a tradition at all in France. Some people send cards in January, but most people seem to just phone their friends for new year wishes. As a result, Christmas cards are hard to find, and most years I've either ended up with no cards, no postal addresses for people or both and had to give up. Since our wedding, however, I do actually have addresses for everyone, so this year's challenge was finding the cards. Sometimes I have a supply bought in the UK, but this year I had none, so being in touch with my crafty side after last August's efforts, I decided to make some.

Christmas Card Production

One thing the wedding definitely taught me, however, was that while personally-designed things are lovely, personally handmade projects become extremely annoying after about the first three items, and that the photocopier can be the amateur stationery designer's best friend. I drew a simple picture in black and white which I photocopied on to card, then sat like a happy eight-year old with my felt tips and swanky silver gel pens (also left over from the wedding) and coloured in. I'm pretty contented with the results, but we'll see if the satisfaction is enough to get me through the long process of writing, addressing and actually taking them to the post office.

Next up is decorating the flat. I would have loved a proper tree, but we're away for two whole weeks over Christmas, so it's not really worth it, so I'll just have to get creative with baubles and coloured paper as usual.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

My Weird Experience at the Gynaecologist's

Because every female in the anglophone expat blogosphere has one, right? That oh-so-embarrassing moment when, in the doctor's consulting room (which probably looks more like their living room than any medical establishment you've ever visited before) you realise that when they say, "Take your clothes off," they mean right now, they mean in front of them and they really do mean all of your clothes.

Well *spoiler alert* my story has nothing to do with getting naked. I remember being a little surprised by that when I went for my first ever appointment with a French doctor, which took place in a leisure centre, was only to be certified fit to join a sports club and, as always happens, was on a day when I happened to be wearing my oldest, greyest knickers. But getting naked for the gynaecologist doesn't bother me. I figure they've seen it all, they're going to see the most private bits anyway, and I've learned my lesson about wearing modest but not holey knickers.

So anyway, I needed to see the gynaecologist and made an appointment by calling one who was recommended by my (wonderful) GP. The receptionist explained that it wouldn't be the usual doctor, but her replacement, and asked if that was OK. Being generally inclined to trust anyone who has qualified from medical school and been approved by the French state to practice, I accepted and went for my first appointment.

The first appoinment was fine, and I was pleased that at the end I was able to pay by card. (Many doctors don't accept card payments, as they have to pay for the equipment and transaction costs and their fees aren't necessarily high enough to cover that.)

Then I had to go back for a follow-up appointment, and that was where things started to get weird. Firstly, she started dropping in all these phrases in English all the time. And I don't mean tricky medical terms that potentially I might not have understood, just normal, everyday English, which was weird, because I hadn't exactly had trouble communicating with her the first time round.

Then she asked me what I weighed and I told her, but said I wasn't totally sure, so she sent me out to weigh myself on the scales in the waiting room. They were electronic, and when I stepped on the first time, they gave me a number about 13 kilos less than my normal weight, then went off completely, so I went back and told her the number was far lower than it should have been, at which point, instead of saying something like, "Oh dear, maybe the battery needs changed," she laughed and declared, "Ah, vous êtes mignonne, vous."

Then she tried to take my pulse rate, but strapped the meter on to the wrong side of my arm, so unsurprisingly it didn't work. (I'm pretty sure you don't have to spend seven years at medical school to know that you find your pulse on the inside of your wrist.)

By this point, I was starting to feel as if I was on an awkward first date with someone who was perfectly pleasant but was more keen on me than I was on them, so I was quite relieved when the time came to pay, and brought out my bank card.

"I don't take card payments," she declared. I said that I was sure I had paid by card the time before but she said, "No, you didn't," so, apologising profusely, I rushed out to the nearest cash machine to withdraw money, then came back and paid her, once again excusing myself for having wasted her time.

Then I checked my bank statement a few days later and saw that there was indeed a card payment taken from my account on the day of the first appointment and in her name.

Now I wasn't bothered by the incident with the pulse meter. I was prepared to forgive her for the scales, even if I don't feel that calling your patients "cute" is really appropriate in a medical professional. But lying to me and making me feel guilty just because she couldn't be arsed to turn on her card reader in the morning? That's pretty unforgivable from somebody you're supposed to be able to trust implicitly to monitor your health and stick weird devices into your lady bits.

If anyone needs a recommendation for a gynaecologist NOT to see in the 4th arrondissement, just let me know!


Saturday, 21 November 2015

Allons enfants de la patrie ... et les anglais aussi

In a week full of sad, serious and difficult news, one video more than any other put a smile on my face. Le Petit Journal sent their journalist to Wembley and managed to convince these two English guys to sing La Marseillaise for the cameras. (Just in case anyone out there doesn't know, there is an enormous rivalry between the English and the French and most English people are not at all confident in foreign languages, so this was a wonderful show of solidarity. It's also hilarious.)

Englishmen with a few pints in them aside, however, it's also been a week where La Marseillaise has been sung far more often and by far more people than usual, and I have not been 100% comfortable with that. The reason? Although I couldn't actually recall the words as well as the two blokes in the video, the lines, "Que du sang impur/abreuve nos sillons" have troubled me for quite some time, and seemed particularly inappropriate under the circumstances.

Apparently I'm not the only one to have been bothered in this way by one particular couplet of France's rousing national anthem, because UFM was watching one of his football programmes the other day and the topic came up. It turns out this is a common misconception, as a history teacher phoned into the show to explain that in fact, at the time when the song was written, the French aristocracy considered that only "blue" blood was pure, and therefore the "sang impur" in fact refers to the sacrifice of ordinary citizens towards a just cause.

I guess I can comfortable get on with learning the rest of the words now. Although violent and bloody, they're still preferable to the British "God Save the Queen", which at one point in its history famously had an extra verse inserted about crushing the rebellious Scots!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Thursday, 12 November 2015

More Smiles on the Metro

If there's one good thing about taking the metro every day to work (apart from when I get a seat and can catch up with my reading), it has to be the adverts. They're like a little window into life (often Parisian life) and, unlike TV adverts, which I hate, I find the posters in the metro quite clever and entertaining.

The current ads for this new website make me laugh, because what could be funnier than an English-language pun that only really works if you have a French accent?


I also like this one, because even if the sleazebags who actually harass women on the metro will unfortunately take no notice notice,  I hope it will at least raise awareness among non-sleazy men, even the best of whom seem to think it isn't such a problem really:


Finally, we took the Transilien train over the weekend and they have a new range of adverts to tackle incivility, of which my favourite was the one which said, "Give up your seat for elderly people and pregnant women. You'll feel better." I think I like that one because it's true!

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Frustration on the Northern Line

As part of our recent travels, Understanding Frenchman and I had the unfortunate experience of using the metro system in an unfamiliar city and it was without a doubt the most frustrating part of our whole trip.

First there was the queueing system to buy tickets. A huge line of people were coralled off into one single line in front of a long bank of ticket machines. It would have been a fair and efficient system except that the queue was positioned so that the people at the front of it couldn't see which machines were free and which ones weren't, and the person who was trying to tell them was standing at the other end and shouting at them, but they couldn't hear her. Some of the machines took cash, some took only cards and some looked as if they were just for topping up travel cards, but in fact you could also buy normal tickets, except nobody knew that, so nobody was using those machines.

Eventually we got to the front and Understanding Frenchman bought two city-centre tickets for the extortionate price of about 14 euros. Each journey is cheaper if you buy a travel card, but it isn't worth it if you're only doing two trips.

Then we went to the ticket barriers, only to discover that the travel card I bought last time I visited this city didn't have enough credit on it, so we had to go through the whole stupid queueing system again. (This is another reason why you don't buy a travel card for a city you don't live in.)

Then we had to figure out which way to go, but the metro maps weren't displayed until after you had to make the decision about which line to take.

And finally, when we were coming back three days later, Understanding Frenchman discovered that the "return" ticket he had bought was only valid on the day of purchase, despite costing exactly the same as two single tickets, so he had to pay again.

If we had been in France, I would have been having a "Why is this such a stupid country?" momens. If we had been in Italy, it would have been a, "Why can't this country be more organised and stop ripping off the tourists?" moment. If we had been in Germany, we would have been cursing stupid German rules that nobody else can follow.

But we weren't. We were in London, in my home country (albeit the part that makes me feel less at home than I do in Paris) and things were supposed to make sense to me.

We were relieved to get on the Eurostar and be whisked back to Paris.

This will be an experience to remember next time "France" is driving me nuts!

Sunday, 1 November 2015

October

Autumn has been gorgeous in Paris this year. I read somewhere that for the leaves to turn red, yellow, bronze and gold, the temperature has to drop rapidly between the end of summer and the start of autumn, and that's certainly what happened this year when the mercury fell about ten degrees in the space of three days. This is a photo of my favourite view in the Bois de Vincennes a few weeks ago, and when I walked around the Lac Daumesnil yesterday, it was even more stunning:


My friends and I went on our annual October pilgrimage to the Alps (autumn is by far my favourite season in the mountains) and enjoyed crisp mornings, sunny afternoon siestas and delicious warming dinners of hearty soup and raclette.



While we were in the Alps, I got a message from my brother saying that my new nephew had been born, so our next October trip was over to the UK to meet a teeny tiny baby. In between cuddles, we went for a walk along the South West Coastal Path and were treated to sunshine, fresh air and beautiful sea views.





Finally, we came back to Paris and attended the wedding of two very dear friends. The Mairie du 3ième went to an enormous effort to make the ceremony personal and not just an administrative formality. One of my favourite moments was when the mayor handed them their Livret de Famille (book of family records) and said to them, "There are spaces at the back to record the births of eight children, but you only need to fill them if you want to!"

Monday, 19 October 2015

Give Me A Pause

For years now (if not decades), English-language slogans have been a common feature of advertising in France. I've always found it a bit weird, but I guess it's a similar phenomenon to listening to music where you don't understand the lyrics - the style is more important than the substance.

However, French law decrees that if an advert contains foreign language content, it must be translated. Often it's fun to see how much of the original meaning is kept, or lost - it makes you realise how much advertising contains untranslatable wordplay.

In the case of this advert, however, it was the irony of the translation that made me laugh:


Translation: Un break, un Kitkat


As an example of the translation being even more redundant than the English-language slogan, ça prend vraiment le biscuit.* **



*As no French person said, ever.
** I am quite proud of my bad pun though.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Learning New Words at the Fête des Vendanges

With happy memories of last year's Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre, (even if the vine I bought in a pot turned into a dead stump rather than the beginnings of my own personal vineyard), I was looking forward to this year's. I'm not sure how "authentic" the event really is, but given that it's an opportunity to sample wine, cheese and saucisson in one of my favourite parts of Paris (with the added bonus the past 2 years of some gorgeous early-autumn sunshine), I'm not sure I really care.

Understanding Frenchman and I started off with a glass of St Emilion and a glass of Lalande de Pomerol, which we drank on the steps of the church. (Somehow in France this doesn't seem too sacrilegious!) Deciding that the wine was too heavy to be drunk on its own, UFM went off to find some saucisson to accompany it. Unfortunately, we didn't have a knife, so we had to peel off the skin and just bite into it, which wasn't very elegant, but it still tasted good.

After that, we set off for a wander around the rest of the fair, which turned into a bit of a vocabulary lesson for yours truly:






"Tartempion" means a person who's name you can't remember, normally because you haven't bothered to make the effort because you don't care that much.

I asked UFM to explain the names of some of these drinks to me and they were so rude that he translated them into English instead of explaining in French. When I pointed out to him that we were surrounded by American tourists, so this wasn't exactly the height of discretion, he replied, "I know - I did it because they're more likely to be shocked than French people!"


I made a point of turning up to the Fête this year with an empty stomach, because everywhere you go, there are delicious things to eat being produced in vast quantities. There was giant tartiflette:


Giant barbecue:


And, for less subtle wordplay than the bottles in the second photo:

I was determined to have something I was unlikely to eat elsewhere and finally settled on a sandwich buttered with foie gras, filled with magret de canard and sprinkled with sel de Guérande.


By this point the fair was starting to get really busy and it was hard to wander around any more, so we strolled back through the quiet streets of the 9th to the metro and went home to have grated carrots for dinner!




Saturday, 3 October 2015

Introspection

I was expecting coming back to Paris, and more significantly, work, after a long holiday and the small matter of a wedding and honeymoon, and experience a massive, empty sort of comedown.

In the event, I actually just felt tired.

Really tired.

I like my job a lot, but it can be draining, especially when coupled with 2.5 hours of commuting every day. And so it turned out that when I was expecting post-wedding blues, it was more post-holiday blues that I experienced, and specifically, resentment at the lack of time for my own projects and at the fact that when I did have any free time, I was too exhausted to enjoy it.

Another thing I've been thinking about recently is how for a natural introvert, I have developed a very busy social life over the past few years. When I was at school, I spent a lot of my free time alone, reading, writing, drawing and daydreaming. I was lucky enough to have a few close friends who were similar, so I wasn't ever lonely, but we didn't exactly have a buzzing social life either. University was a bit the same - I had good friends, but the subjects I studied left plenty of room for time alone as well.

And then I started working, and moved to Italy and then France, and discovered travel and the joy of socialising that doesn't always centre around getting very drunk and ending the evening in a scruffy nightclub, with people with similar interests and worldviews, and I met Understanding Frenchman and we moved in together, and suddenly there wasn't so much time for reading, writing and daydreaming anymore.

So that has been my goal over the past few weeks: to minimise time spent at work and make good use of my commuting time to either finish job-related things or get on with reading some really good books, and to use the time left over for quiet, introverted activities. I'm still going out and meeting lots of friends, but only for the events I really want to go to. If I'm too tired, I say no.

Because if you're too exhausted to enjoy the free time that you have, what's the point in having any?

Unfortunately, this doesn't make for very interesting blogging material, so for now I'll leave with a photo of the flowers I planted in our window boxes, which make me happy every time I look up from the book I'm reading to gaze out of the window and daydream.


Monday, 7 September 2015

Entire French Nation in Cutlery Shocker

Clearly I am not a very observant person.

Because it took me eight years to discover that in France, not only is it acceptable to eat your breakfast baguette off the table without using a plate, but you can also hold your knife in your left hand and your fork in your right and use the knife to snowplough food on to the fork before scooping it into your mouth.

And I only found out when a friend who is also married to a Frenchman told me that at her in-laws' house, this practice is so common that they actually set the table the opposite way round and she is always getting into trouble for laying out the cutlery in the conventional British fashion.

It's not that this particular way of eating is particularly shocking per se, it's just that in the UK we tend to believe that the French are more sophisticated and refined than we are, and in high-class British etiquette it's considered rude even to turn your fork over and use it like a spoon - even for eating peas, you're supposed to push them on to the back of the fork and raise them delicately to your mouth with your left hand. In real life, most people would turn over the fork, or use it in their right hand to eat foods like rice or baked beans, but using a knife in the left hand is so bizarre to me that I don't think I would even know how to do it.

With nothing more than our upcoming wedding to stress about, I worried for about 5 minutes about how Understanding Frenchman will ever teach our children table manners (if we ever have any children), but then I realised that if it took me 8 years to notice what the French were up to, it couldn't be as serious as all that.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Recreating the Auld Alliance: Our Franco-Scottish Wedding

We did it! Having had not only our low-key wedding at the mairie in Paris but also our 3-day Scottish DIY wedding extravaganza, Understanding Frenchman and I are now quite definitely married. And, having not only survived but spent most of the time with huge smiles beaming across our faces, I thought I'd share some of our experiences of organising what almost certainly was the greatest party of our lives. So here are some thoughts:

Getting married at the mairie in July worked really well for us. Although it was a bit weird being officially married but still having our big day ahead of us (and telling the man in the wine shop that you and your mari need to order wine for your wedding...) it was also nice in the hectic few weeks before our Scottish event to know that whatever might possibly go wrong, we would definitely be married at the end of it because in fact, we already were.

When you walk down the aisle, it can be good to know you're already married!
A venue with on-site accommodation was the right choice. We were initially a bit apprehensive that not all of our guests would appreciate the hostel-style dorms and shared bathrooms at our chosen location, but in the end, with alternatives being hard to find and quite expensive, especially with the current exchange rates, nearly everyone decided staying on-site was the best option. Also, even after 3 days, I didn't feel I'd spent as much time with everyone as I wanted to, so I can't even imagine the frustration if we'd only had a few hours with all those people that we don't get to see often enough and who had travelled a really long way to be there with us.

DIY worked. And our friends are awesome. To have a venue with all the accommodation, for three days, and still stay within our budget, we had to do a LOT of DIY. The only professional services we brought in were caterers for the wedding meal and a ceilidh band for the Scottish dancing in the evening. This meant a lot of organising by us in the months, weeks and days leading up to the wedding, and a lot of hard work by our friends and family both on and before the day, but the end results went beyond all our expectations and were a true testament to the love and friendship of all the people who helped us out.

Serving up le haggis

My mum, brother and sister-in-law cooked haggis for 100 people the night before and one of Understanding Frenchman's friends did all the barbecuing for our final meal the day after. My oldest friend and her mum did all the floristry using flowers I'd ordered from Flowers for Florists (who were incredibly helpful and even sent out the flowers before I'd paid for them after I had a problem with the ordering system on their website.) I bought 500 sheets of tissue paper from a wholesaler supplying packaging materials to small businesses and a big group of friends turned them into giant pompoms, while French-speaking teacher friend organised a decoration-making workshop for all the children who came to the wedding. That same friend also conducted our unofficial wedding ceremony in a way that was touching and beautiful and personal and which I will never forget. And then there were all the people who served drinks and moved tables and handed out programmes and probably did a hundred things to help out that we didn't even ask them to do. If any of them are reading this, thank you: you are the best!

Flowers by Friends
(Incidentally, all our friends were fantastic, but I have the impression that this ability to take the initiative and work together to coordinate events like this is also a particularly French trait. Perhaps it's because in France more weddings, and other significant parties, take place in people's gardens, or the local salle des fêtes, whereas Scottish weddings are usually in places like castles and hotels where more is done for you. Whatever, it was a group of French friends who noticed on the morning of the wedding that we were about to get married next to a barbecue and quickly sourced a table cloth and rustled up a few extra pompoms to keep our wedding chic!)

Spot the BBQ!

Translation is Important. We were lucky to have a friend who could conduct a bilingual wedding ceremony for us. UFM said his vows in French and I spoke mine in English. (It was meant to be the other way round, but in the stress of the moment we forgot!) For the ceremony readings, we put together a little booklet with translations to avoid absolutely everything having to be repeated twice, and we also had French and English versions of all the information, instructions and menus. Probably one of the trickiest things was the speeches - we did ours in both languages, my dad spoke in English and my mum in French, and the best men did a bilingual speech as well. Where we went wrong was having several of these before dinner, as it all took longer than expected and the food got a little bit cold, so if there was one thing I could change about the wedding, it was probably that. We were glad we made the effort with the translations though, as some of the non-English speakers felt a bit lost during the rest of their stay in Scotland, but at least we could say that for the part that was under our control, we had done our best.

French version of our wedding menu

Food is also important, and so is wine... In terms of catering, we were determined to bring in all the good things from both of our cultures. We were happy with the caterers we found, who used lots of local produce and were able to produce a menu to impress even the French guests, (or at least keep their taste buds and digestive systems happy). We bought most of our wine online from www.nicolas.com, tasting bottles from our local shops to choose the ones we wanted and having them delivered to my parents' house in Scotland. (You can have up to 36 bottles delivered internationally at a time before you have to pay customs and excise duty.) Unfortunately, this fell through for our last order, where Nicolas claimed they sent us an email to tell us that the wine we wanted was out of stock, but we never received it and found ourselves ten days from the wedding with no red to serve. Luckily Majestic, a UK company, were there to help and even phoned around several Edinburgh stores to find enough of the wine we wanted and deliver them on time. We ordered cheese from France from the Fromagerie Beillevaire, and that arrived with no greater hitch that the delivery driver complaining that he had to move the package to the back of his van because of the smell, to which UFM replied with a shrug, "yes, eet eez cheeze," thus confirming the reputation of Frenchmen worldwide. We also bought local Scottish cheeses from I.J. Mellis, a specialist in Edinburgh, just to keep things in balance.

... and so is whisky. Our venue had a rule that, although the party could continue as long as we wanted, we had to turn amplified music off and be reasonably quiet after 11pm. I was worried that, well-meaning as our French friends are, they might find this completely incomprehensible, as French weddings tend to go on all night and, in Brittany, traditionally end with the guests cooking onion soup and serving it to the bride and groom sometime around 5am. In the end though, everyone was very understanding, particularly as my brother had brought along a few bottles of single malt and was organising a very civilised whisky tasting just at the moment when we turned the music off.

The sun can shine, even in Scotland. Our trips to Scotland the last two summers had been a bit of a washout weather-wise, so the most we were hoping for on our wedding day was for it not to rain for the entire day. But as the day grew closer, the forecasts grew better, and we were treated to three days of glorious sunshine with just a little interlude of rain the day after the wedding to prove to our guests that they hadn't brought their waterproofs in vain. Maybe we managed to import some French sunshine along with the wine and cheese, but I'd like to believe that Scotland decided to put on her best welcome for our lovely international guests!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

What Slogan Shall We Have for Lunch Today?

One of the most memorable signs I ever noticed that told me I had become accustomed to French life was the day I walked into a UK supermarket and found that it felt too clean. In French supermarkets, the radishes have dirt on them, the fish counter smells of fish, the cheese counter of cheese and, if it's my local Franprix, there's usually some oddly unidentifiable odour coming from the corner of the freezer aisle. In the UK, on the other hand, everything seems to be wrapped in plastic, hermetically sealed and displayed under overly-bright lighting on gleaming white plastic and chrome shelves. It's all lovely and shiny, but to my Frenchified eyes, it doesn't look like food anymore.

This summer, I've been struck by another phenomemon: the prevalence of food marketing. It's everywhere. Take this lunch time, for example, when I went to the store cupboard in my parents' house to look for some fruit. Sure enough, as my mum had said, there were flat peaches in there.

Six of them. Neatly packaged on a plastic tray and wrapped in a plastic cover bearing the slogan "Sweet, aromatic and easy to eat."



My Frenchified soul was practically insulted. Because why would a peach ever not be sweet? (Because it's been grown under artificial light in a greenhouse in the Netherlands, picked before it was ripe and shipped over to be sold, hard and yellow in a UK supermarket, that's why.) And "aromatic" - well if they hadn't entirely sealed it off in plastic, I might have been able to judge that for myself. And as for "easy to eat", is eating fruit really so difficult that we need the supermarket marketing companies to persuade us that it won't be a completely unbearable experience?

Food advertising does exist in France, of course. One of my favourites was the adverts on the metro for yoghurt that were around a few months ago announcing, "Prochain gargouillis dans 4 minutes," and I do have a memory of something rude involving a type of sausage. I was also amazed when I first arrived in France in 2002 at how many products aimed at children were described as being "full of sugar to give you lots of energy!" But the marketing doesn't seem to be everywhere, and it doesn't seem quite so insidious as it is in the UK.

Another thing I've noticed relates to the nature of the slogans. In France, the packaging might describe the product in a tempting way, using words like "onctueux" or "moelleux", or it might go into detail about the origins or manufacture of the product. In the UK, the wording implies much more about the consumer and his or her relationship with food. This is particulary obvious with desserts, which are nearly always "indulgent" or maybe even "sinful".

Sadly, I think this says a lot about just how broken that relationship with food is in so many cases. Because do you know what, UK food marketers? I can decide to eat a chocolate dessert as part of my reasonably healthy diet just because it tastes nice and I enjoy it. It doesn't have to be because I "deserve" it, or because I'm "indulging", or because I'm trying to fill some terrible hole in my psyche with sweet, fatty food. And I don't feel the need to go to confession, or even to the gym, to make up for it, either.

And while my lunchtime peaches were indeed "easy to eat", the experience was somewhat spoiled by the fact that I spent the whole time I was eating ranting internally about a slogan which I found very hard to swallow.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Parent-Pleasing Paris

When my parents came over for our French wedding, they stayed for a few days and I had to put a bit of thought into how to entertain them. My mum comes over fairly often and has seen most of the major sights, and while it was my dad's first visit in a long time, I wasn't sure that queueing with the  tourists to go up the Eiffel Tower or visit Notre Dame in the middle of a heatwave was the best way to convince him to come back for more.

Both my parents like walking, but on hot, crowded pavements, not so much, so we started out with a stroll along the Promenade Plantée, and they were impressed by how well kept the gardens were, even if the flowers this summer are not quite as impressive as I remember last year's being. (Maybe la canicule got to them as well as to my little window boxes.) When we arrived at Bastille, we admired the July Column and tried hard to remember enough French history to figure out which revolution was which. (The column celebrates the July 1830 revolution, Les Trois Glorieuses, which led to the fall of Charles X, who became king after the restoration of the monarchy. He was replaced by Louis-Philippe I, Duke of Orléans.) After that, we strolled around the Port de l'Arsenal and found a nice park bench on which to rest our weary legs.

We walked a little further into town for lunch at Place Ste Catherine, a secluded square near St Paul metro which is a great place if you want to sit on a terrace away from the traffic and the crowds, then made our way back to Bastille to embark upon my great inspiration for the day: a trip up the canal with Canauxrama boat tours.

Unlike the Bateaux Mouches and other companies who operate mainly on the Seine, the Canauxrama tour is small and personal. While there aren't a huge number of sights and monuments on the canals, the guide gave explanations of the history of different areas and told interesting anecdotes in French and excellent English (with that great accent that only French people who have learned English really, really well seem to acquire - it doesn't sound typically French, just very dignified and a little bit exotic!). The tour starts by going through the canal tunnel under the Place de la Bastille, where you can look up to the crypt of the July Column, where apparently lie the remains of some nuns who were accidentally killed in the revolution. The tunnels have street signs, so you can tell where you are relative to the city above.

In the tunnel

Going through a lock

Bassin de la Villette

The trip that we took takes you up to the Bassin de la Villette, going through several locks on the way. I'd seen the locks operating plenty of times, but it was fun to be actually on the boat. If you take the tour that goes up the canal rather than down, be prepared to be sprayed in the face with canal water as the lock fills up! It takes 2.5 hours to travel the whole length, and the balance of commentary and sitting back relaxing and enjoying the view was just perfect for a hot summer's day. It's a fun way for visitors to discover "real" Paris and I enjoyed showing my parents the parts of the town where I actually live my life, as well as learning some interesting snippets of history along the way.