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. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

Expat Revelations: What I've Brought from Scotland to France

Is it universal for expats that when we talk about importing from our motherlands to our adopted homes, the first thing we think of is foodstuffs? My list includes (more or less in order of priority): cheddar cheese, golden syrup, marzipan, glacé cherries and mixed peel for Christmas, marmite, treacle and sugar-free diluting juice. For presents, I bring shortbread and tablet, and I once carried 3 haggises in my suitcase on the Eurostar, but that's an experience I've yet to repeat.

If we expand the categories beyond just what is edible, I also buy a lot of my shoes in the UK because there is a better range of width fittings and I think the quality is better for the price, at least at the high street end of the market. This is also true of socks, tights and underwear, and make-up is also a lot cheaper for the same brands compared with France. And it's not just me - Understanding Frenchman also loves shopping in Edinburgh when we go back, so it can't just be about cultural biases.

I also bring over a lot of books. It's not that reading in French is hard - unless the book is seriously highbrow I don't struggle to understand anything - it's just that it seems easier to find books that I like in English. French books are a bit like clothes and shoes: there are plenty of wonderful high quality literary works and a fair bit of  trash, but if you want something with a plot line you can follow on the train without feeling that your intelligence is being insulted, that's a bit harder to find.

But being an expat (immigrant?) doesn't just mean importing consumer goods. Holly's post kicking off this series of Expat Revelations inspired me to think about some of the less tangible things that I have brought back with me across the Channel:

British manners: I think I say "sorry" and "thank you" a lot less than I used to, but still significantly more than the average French person. And, while I understand that the French way is not necessarily less polite, just differently polite, I'm not sure it's a habit I want to lose entirely.

Music: It annoys Understanding Frenchman no end when I put on my Scottish trad CDs in the car, but it's in my blood, so that's just too bad for him. Oh, and I sing Christmas carols in the shower at this time of year too.

British humour: Understanding Frenchman is always telling me that I'm ironique. That's not something I'm likely to lose, as it seems to be rubbing off on him now, and I'm starting to get a taste of my own sarcastic medicine. Which is awesome.

So there you go - hopefully now I sound like someone who is not totally fixated on her stomach now!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Where is Home?

Home: is it here?
In the film L'Auberge espagnol, which tells the story of an international group of students on the EU study-abroad programme, there is a wonderfully true-to-life part of the opening scenes where the main character is waiting at the airport with tears running down on his face and another sympathetic passenger takes one look at him and simply asks, "Erasmus?" At the end of the film, when the academic year is at an end, the exact same scene is repeated, except that this time the character is not setting of for foreign lands, he's returning "home" to France.

In contrast is the experience of passengers arriving on international flights at East Midlands Airport in England. Rather than the messages you see in most airports welcoming travellers from elsewhere and generally trying to convince them of just how wonderful the local area is, the signs at East Midlands simply read "It's good to be home." While it is undoubtedly true that more people leave the East Midlands to visit Paris than the other way round (the fact that the staff on the plane only speak English and you can only buy your in-flight snacks in pounds sterling are also clear testaments to this), it made me laugh to see how clearly those signs were aimed at the stereotypical Brit who has seen the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night or eaten paella on the beach in Spain but is now just relieved to be back in a civilised country where he or she can be sure of getting a decent cup of tea.

These two snapshots for me sum up the difference between "home" for an expat or immigrant and "home" for someone who has never lived somewhere else. Because "home" isn't just a geographical location; it's the place or places that have shaped us in a positive way and made us the people that we are. As a result, when we arrive we feel joy at the familiarity of the place (which can also be a familiar excitement), and when we leave, we have the sense of leaving a little piece of ourselves behind.

It takes time to feel comfortable with that shaping. I believe that, along with loneliness and missing friends and family, fear of how expatriation might change us is a major part of homesickness. At the beginning, we'd rather avoid all those difficult processes and stay the way we were before. But slowly the changes settle down inside us and we realise that they have become part of who we are.

So I wouldn't exactly say that home is where the heart is. It's more the places that have entered into your heart, the places which you have allowed to change you, and the places that bring a lump into your throat when you leave and when you arrive.



... Or here?
Thanks to Holly for inspiring this post via another Expat Revelations series.You can find links to more posts on the same subject over at http://www.fullofbeansandsausages.com/.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Lessons Learned from French People: How to Complain in France

As a foreigner living in France, one of the earlier lessons that I learned was that sometimes in a difficult situation, you just have to suck things up and deal with them. When you are newly arrived and trying to acquire a carte de séjour, a place to live, a bank account, a telephone and an electricity connection, the hoops that you have to jump through seem endless, the demands that are made of you appear completely illogical, and the way in which you are treated, as a customer or member of the public, can be very different to what you are used to. Often, when faced with a problem, the easiest way to deal with it is to ignore it, or at least find the least confrontational way around it. In my time here, I have gone from being someone who, while not being a particularly demanding customer, would generally speak up about a issue that bothered me to being more likely to swallow my anger and possibly vent it all on my blog, facebook or to any innocent and sympathetic soul who would listen.

The good news though, is that it doesn't (always) have to be like this. Being here for longer and observing French people in operation at close proximity has taught me a few lessons about how to complain about customer service which I would like to share with you here today.

1. Know who you are dealing with. If it's public administration, sucking it up is probably still the best strategy, although you can sometimes convince them to be kind to you if you go the right way about it. (Stephen Clarke's Talk to the Snail has some great advice on how to do this.) If it's a small business, a lot will depend on whether they perceive you as a potentially valuable customer or just a passing tourist. But large national and international companies (unless they have a monopoly, like the SNCF or ERDF) are often keen to keep you happy if you explain the problem in the right way.

2. Call the unsubscription hotline. A few weeks a go, our internet connection failed, leaving us with no internet, phone or TV for several hours on a Sunday night. Technical support were too busy to take our call, both that evening and the following day (by which time the problem had luckily been resolved), but a quick call to the "cancel your contract" number 24 hours later got us a significant reduction of that month's bill. (Understanding Frenchman has also used this strategy to get discounts with Canal+ in the past just because he finds their full-price service too expensive - always worth a try but we haven't had Canal+ for a few months now after that strategy failed last time.)

3. Listen to their explanations but don't back down. Many procedures are genuinely complicated in France, and there may be a good reason why something doesn't happen as quickly as you had hoped. But if you have paid for a service you haven't received, the company needs to do something about that, whether there is a reasonable explanation or not.

4. Learn to recognise nonsense. When you first arrive in France, many, many things seem illogical, hence the reactions I described at the beginning of this post. After a while, though, you start to understand the reasons behind procedures (see point 3), which can be very good for your stress levels. Nevertheless, there is a certain type of employee who will feed you any kind of nonsense just to get away in time for lunch. A great example of this was the time I once tried to exchange a ticket at the Gare de Lyon after I received an email from the SNCF telling me my train had been cancelled and they first tried to send me to the Gare d'Austerlitz, despite the fact that their ticket bookings are online and nation-wide, then told me it was up to me to prove the cancellation as they had no record of it on their system. Luckily, I was able to whip out my phone and show them the message that they had sent me themselves!

5. Send an email. For a long time, I believed that companies in France found email far too easy to ignore and that face-to-face or phone was best. That's changing though, and writing an email gives you the chance to organise your thoughts and perfect your French, which can be difficult in stressful situations. You can also follow up calls with an email to increase your chances of getting the compensation you want.

6. Let them know that you are upset without upsetting them. I find that French people are often naturally quite defensive, so being too aggressive in your approach can backfire. Explain that you are disappointed and unhappy, and give the reasons why, but don't take it out on the person you are talking to. Apart from anything else, it's probably not their fault. Phrases like "Je voudrais vous signaler ma déception" are useful.

7. Be patient. Going through all of the steps above can take some time, especially if you're used to "Anglo-Saxon" customer service. What I have been encouraged to discover recently, though, is that it really can be worth it. And if all else fails:

8. Drink wine :-)

Does anyone else have any top tips to share?


Sunday, 19 October 2014

Moving Gently into Autumn

Autumn is a season that I really like.

In theory, at least. I like those first frissons of cold as I leave the house on a September morning. I like the smell of acorns crunching under my feet as I walk through the forest. I like that sensation, more easily experienced in France than anywhere else I've been, of being closer to the seasons as I eat my way through the fresh produce from the market and wash it down with a glass of post-vendanges wine.*

In reality, the Parisian autumns of the past few years have been somewhat different. Instead of crisp, cold mornings, we've had dull skies and endless rain. Rather than turning glorious shades of burgundy, gold and brown, the leaves have wilted from green to grey, then quickly turned to a slippery mush as soon as they hit the soggy pavements. (Admittedly, the food and wine have always been good.)

This year, however, it's different. There have been some days of pouring rain, but the temperatures have been unseasonably warm, so that when the sun comes out it feels like summer. The weeks since the rentrée have flown by, largely, I'm convinced, because the weather is so nice, it's easy to get out of bed in the mornings. At the same time though, there are enough signs of autumn to allow me to enjoy the change in the season. For some reason, the warm weather seems to have led to more beautiful trees, often with several colours of leaf mixing on an individual branch.





Today, Understanding Frenchman and I were treated to an especially beautiful Sunday. We started off with a trip to the swimming pool and were delighted to find that the movable roof had been rolled back and we could swim in the open air. After that, we went for a walk in the Bois de Vincennes where, exhausted from the swimming, we were able to lie down on grass and watch the clouds scudding across the blue sky as the slowly-turning leaves rustled in the breeze.

Elle est pas belle, la vie?


* I should confess here that I have never participated in the vendanges - the connection is purely psychological.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

A Happy Paris Day

Yesterday was one of those days that make me happy to be in Paris.

It didn't start off so well. I woke up to a grey morning at 7am with the aches and pains of a cold that has been nagging at me since Thursday and spent most of the morning doing housework ... slowly. By midday, however, with the hoovering and bathroom-cleaning out of the way, the next task on my list was to make chocolate brownies. Things were looking up, especially when the brownies came perfectly cooked and not at all burnt out of our notoriously unreliable oven.

By the time I left the flat in the early afternoon, the skies had brightened and so had my spirits. I met my group of expat copines at Anvers metro and we made our way up the Butte de Montmartre to the heart of the Fête des Vendanges.

I hadn't been to the Fête des Vendanges since that memorable occasion back in 2009 when my mother was smacked on the derrière by an official member of the French Society of Bottom Slappers. We didn't see the parade this time (that takes place this afternoon), but we spent more time just strolling among the stalls and trying out different wines. It's not an event where the producers expect to sell large quantities, so rather than offering free tastings with the expectation that you will buy a few bottles afterwards, many of the vendors just sell small glasses for two or three euros each. I didn't buy any bottles to bring home, but my friend did talk me into buying a vine for my windowsill - watch this space to see if Projet Potager one days morphs into Projet Vignoble (or, more realistically, whether I manage to keep the plant alive at all.)



There are also endless opportunities to sample cheese and sausage, and you can buy bigger portions of take-away food such as tartiflette, raclette sandwiches and even a foie gras toastie with caramelised onions. There was also an event called the Ecole du Gout where you could watch chefs preparing food and taste the results, but that was quite crowded and a lot of the time you couldn't really see what was going on.

Apart from one tightly-packed street, however, the rest of the fair was not too crowded at all. The sun was shining on the Butte and it was a beautiful place to enjoy a glass of wine in the open air and gaze out at the views. Montmartre is one of my favourite parts of Paris and I always come back from there a little bit more enamoured of the city I sometimes love to hate. 

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Quelle Horreur!

"I ate a croissant on the metro the other day," said my friend. From her tone of voice and her demeanour, you would have expected a crime more heinous - eating chocolate cake out of the bin, for example, or a lifelong vegan confessing to just having devoured a plate of offal. And because we were amongst non-French, our gasps of horror and cries of shock were mainly put on for the occasion.

But who hasn't been there? Had one of those days when you have to get across town in your lunchbreak, or go to an after-work gym class, and been absolutely starving and surrounded by shops selling delicious food, but had neither the location nor the time to eat it in? And so you end up, as my friend did, breaking off tiny morsels inside the paper back and conveying them surreptitiously to your mouth and hoping that your fellow-passengers' disapproval won't result in you being thrown off the train and possibly expelled from the country as well.

There are other activities, however, which seem to be far more socially acceptable in France than they are in the UK. Public displays of affection, for example, or clipping your fingernails on the bus.

My friends and I spent quite a long time discussing the whys and wherefores of these apparent contradictions and finally came to a clear conclusion. Eating pastries on the metro is not shocking because you might be spreading crumbs, leaving litter or annoying your fellow passengers with overly-loud chewing noises. It's just that by eating your snack on a crowded train, without even a table, a cup of coffee and some quality conversation to accompany it, is showing remarkable disrespect for the croissant. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Allô allô

Ever since I changed my phone from a cheap pay-and-go one to a real, grown-up contract a couple of years ago, I've noticed that I get a lot more calls and texts from people who have the wrong number. I once listened my way through voicemail messages from a group of people who were all concerned that they hadn't seen one of their colleagues for several days, I've been invited to many parties by a person called Genevieve and an anonymous texter reliably sends me greetings for every religious festival in the Muslin calendar.

So when I picked up and a woman's voice said, "Bonjour Madame Machin" the other day, I didn't hesitate to explain that I was not Madame Machin and that she must have got the wrong number.

Luckily she tried again, and luckily I picked up again, and luckily I listened again to her first few sentences, because it turned out that what she had said the first time round was not, "Bonjour Madame Machin", but "Bonjour, Madame Machin," which makes a world of difference, because the lady did not think that she was phoning Madame Machin, she was Madame Machin, and she really did want to speak to me.

Now I did know that people sometimes use this formula on the phone as a shortcut for the very formal sounding "Madame So-and-So à l'appareil" that I was taught at school but I guess that a) it's fairly unusual in this day and age for someone to refer to themselves as M/Mme and not just use their full name and b) there's normally a bit more of a clue in the intonation than what I heard on this particular occasion. (Tip: never answer your phone to strangers on a metro platform with a train going by.) Other than that, I don't really have any rules for hearing that critical comma, but I thought that by posting my latest embarrassing adventure in the French language on here, I might encourage a handful of readers to listen very carefully when they pick up the phone and perhaps help you to avoid missing a few important calls.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Expat Revelations: My Biggest Fear

So, once again I'm a bit behind in writing my contribution to Holly's Expat Revelations series, but as the final topic, My Biggest Fears as an Expat,  was the one which spoke to me the most out of the four fascinating topics, I'm going to sneak this post in a few days late. Shh!

In my case, it's actually a question of my biggest fear as an immigrant, because the worry that keeps me awake at night is one that didn't start until I was seriously contemplating a long-term future in France. It's a fear that I can only imagine will grow the longer I stay, and beside it all the niggles I had at the beginning pale into insignificance.

Put in a nutshell, I am terrified that one day I will need to go back to Scotland to live and that the life choices I have made will make that impossible.

This possibility is probably greatly exaggerated in my mind compared to what would be likely to happen in reality. In reality, it would probably be more a question of wanting to go back than needing to, and more probable that it would be complicated than impossible. But that's the nature of fears.

The most likely scenario involves ageing parents needing cared for and myself trapped by career or family that keep me in France. I also feel a little pang when I see my friends' kids growing up with Scottish accents, going to local schools and generally having experiences not dissimilar to the ones my friends and I had ourselves, and know that's unlikely to be the case for my children if Understanding Frenchman and I ever have any. And I'm scared of losing my job here, knowing that it would be much harder to find another one in France but that working in France for years could make it difficult to find work at home.

Of course,  there are plenty of reasons why I should also NOT be worrying about these things right now, of which my expat/immigrant friends remind me regularly when we talk about these things. The trouble is, when you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, logical, reasonable thoughts aren't often the first ones that come to mind!

Monday, 25 August 2014

Expat Revelations: How I've Changed Since Expatriation

Coming back from our holiday in Scotland this summer, as Understanding Frenchman and I hauled our luggage on to the train that would take us south, to. London and eventually to Paris, I was taken back in my mind to the day over a decade ago when I made that journey for the first time, all alone and dragging an even bigger suitcase behind me. It was a crossroads in my life, and I can't think of a single other moment when I have embarked on a path with so little knowledge of where it might eventually lead me. And so, this time round, it was the perfect moment to reflect on the next topic in the Expat Revelations series: how I've changed since expatriation.

Without a doubt, moving to France changed me. And yet, it's so hard to define exactly how. As someone else in this series commented, it's difficult to separate the changes that come with maturity from the consequences of expatriation, perhaps especially when you move abroad when you're young. Nevertheless, if I'm going to get to the point with this post, I suppose I'd better try.

I can relate to people from different cultures. When I returned to the UK after first living abroad, I was very conscious of how much people (particularly younger people - the age I was at the time) often depend on cultural references when interacting with each other. Making international friends forces you to seek out the more fundamental things that you have in common, but then you have the fun of sharing your cultural references and learning all about theirs.

I realise that opposing points of view can sometimes both be right. If I'm honest, I think I knew this intellectually for a long time before I started to really understand what it meant. Often, cultural differences come down to giving priority to different values, but people from both cultures would nevertheless acknowledge that the other culture's values are important. For example, a French friend who worked in Belgium commented that the. Belgians place enormous importance on a kind of democracy in the workplace. This is good in the sense that people get to have their say and feel their contributions are valued, but my friend found it very inefficient compared to the more hierarchical French system where the managers take a decision and everyone else (supposedly!) does as they're told.

I don't believe everything I read in the papers. There's nothing like reading the UK press's take on French affairs to make you realise that journalists, even resident foreign correspondents, don't always understand much about the society that they're writing about. Often they don't even get the facts right, never mind understand the context. This is why, for example, people in the UK think that the French all expect to retire at 62, when in fact the vast majority of my generation will work until 67 ... just like in the UK.

I can explain the make-up of the United Kingdom exactly (if you want to know yourself, try watching this excellent video), but I no longer get offended when people mix up the different terms (unless they're English of course).

I have different fears ... but that's a topic for next time!

Friday, 22 August 2014

Expat Revelations: Seeking comfort in a Strange Land

I managed to miss the deadline for the second post in Holly's Expat Revelations linkup, mostly because, far from seeking comfort in a strange land, this week I have been in a very familiar land and between catching up with family and friends and four glorious internet-free days in the Highlands, I'm a bit behind on everything.

After seven years of living in France, I tend not to experience homesickness much (and ironically, when I do, it's usually when I'm back in Scotland and am reminded of what I'm missing!) but there was certainly a period which I haven't blogged about much when I went through the full range of loneliness, frustration and regret that can arise when you move to a place where you know absolutely nobody and a job that isn't quite what you hoped would be and have to deal with the horrors of the French administration to boot. Nowadays, my need for comfort tends to result more from the trials of commuting and the trials of dealing with the odd stereotypically rude Parisian but a lot of the solutions are the same:

Appreciate what's wonderful about the country you live in: in my case, this can mean eating a delicious French treat, strolling around Paris with my camera or planning a trip to somewhere beautiful.

Talk to a native: a sympathetic local can help you understand a complicated administrative procedure, explain the logic behind systems and events that have you baffled and even just serve as a useful reminder that while there might be better ways of doing certain things, most of the sixty-million people who live in your adopted country seem to be getting on just fine.

Read blogs: as well as being a place to share frustrations, blogs can be a fantastic source of inspiration and a reminder of all the positive aspects of living abroad. I also find that writing mine makes me seek out what's positive and interesting in my life and makes me focus on that. Blogs also help by confirming that  a) other people have made this life choice and survived and even enjoyed the experience, and b) you are not insane for doing the same thing.

"Therapy": this is what my expat friends and I call meeting up for wine and a moan. In the middle of a tough week, it gives us something to look forward to, and by the end of the first glass, we've usually finished whining!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Go West

When you think of Brittany, what do you picture in your mind? Wide, sandy beaches and wild, rocky coastline? Tiny harbours and the the gliding sails of little boats on the horizon? White cottages with blue paintwork against a blue sky? Galettes, cider and steaming piles of delicious moules frites?

Most of these things can be found all over Brittany,  but if it's the picture-postcard images that you're looking for, the best place is without a doubt the department of  Finistère in the far west of the region. And that is where, armed with swimming suits, towels, and very few plans, Understanding Frenchman and I went for this year's Breton holiday.

We stayed in the Locronan, a little village officially described as a "petit cité de charme", and it was indeed charming.


On the way we visited the old walled city of Concarneau and, walking along the coast in a nearby nature reserve, finally saw the beautiful turquoise sea that features in so many photographs of la Bretagne but can be quite elusive in reality.



On our first full day, we visited the Pointe du Raz, the most western point on mainland France. Declining to pay 6 euros for the car park, we parked near a little harbour in the village of Plogoff and walked for about an hour around the coast to reach the point, which seemed like a much nicer way of arriving. We thought it might be heaving with tourists, but in fact it was quite calm.



After the Pointe du Raz we spent a wonderful afternoon playing in the waves at the Baie des Trépassés, a beautiful beach just to the north-east of the point. The water was cold, but so clear and inviting-looking that it didn't take us long to dive in and start enjoying the surf. After that, we made our way back to Locronan along the country roads of Cap Sizun, stopping to admire the cliffs and windmills on the way.

There's weekly nocturnal market in Locronan on Thursday evenings in the summer, but after a quick look around the stalls, we realised it was going to be difficult to find somewhere to eat that evening, as everywhere was booked up, so we drove down to the harbour town of Douarnenez. It was pretty, but much less touristy and more of a working port than some of the other places we visited, and it took us a while to find the street with all the restaurants in it. Trip Advisor gave us a good tip, though, and we had dinner at the Crêperie Tout le Monde, where everything was delicious but the best speciality was the Breizh Twixx, a buckwheat pancake filled with salted butter caramel and covered in chocolate sauce.

We were a bit pessimistic about our last day in Finistère because the weather forecast was terrible and we woke up to grey skies and rain. We abandoned our plans to go to the Crozon peninsula, and instead decided to drive back east along the coast, stopping off at the Pointe de la Torche and the village of Penmarc'h on the way. In fact, we were lucky and the rain stopped just as we arrived at the Pointe de la Torche. Even in good weather, the vast beach at La Torche is better known for surfing than swimming, as the strong currents mean that the sea is quite dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. We spent an hour or so strolling along the sands and admiring any of the surfers who actually managed to stay upright on their boards.



On the way back, we stopped off in Vannes to visit one of UFM's relatives. Vannes is a beautiful little city, but on a day in August that wasn't very great for going to the beach, it was absolutely heaving, and in addition, there was a braderie, where all the town centre shops were selling discounted items on stalls in the streets, so you couldn't really move for people. We went up to the ramparts and strolled past the port, then attempted to leave despite the traffic jams which stretched from one roundabout to the next, creating absolute gridlock. We can always go back sometime in the depths of winter to explore the rest!