Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Brittany: The (Really) Old Stuff

Another interesting thing about Brittany is the number of prehistoric megaliths, many of which you can just stumble across on an ordinary hike. A dolmen is made of slabs of stone, some standing up vertically to form the walls, with others laid horizontally on top to make the roof. (Dol men means "stone table" in Breton.) They would often be covered by mounds of stone (a cairn), earth and stone (a tumulus) or just earth (a tertre - presumbaly the origin of the name of the Place du Tertre in Montmartre). Dolmens were burial sites and often have long, low access corridors leading to the main burial chamber.

There are also standing stones. The most famous are at Carnac, but we also discovered a smaller, but very well looked-after site at Monteneuf, where there's also a reconstruction of a neolithic village. My camera batteries had run out that day but you can see photos here.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

What the French Can REALLY Teach Us About Food

Yesterday I was reading, both on the BBC website and in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, about a recent study which has shown that obesity is set to rise from 25% to 40% of the UK population by 2030, and from one third to one half in the USA. In both articles, one of the main solutions proposed was to tax junk food to make it more expensive.

In my opinion, that's not going to work. It certainly hasn't worked with cigarettes and smoking. People will continue to buy their daily Mars, they just won't be able to afford the apple-a-day as well.

France, on the other hand, is right down at the bottom of the obesity tables for OECD countries. Some people like to argue that that's all down to a Mediterranean diet consisting of lots of veg and olive oil, but I don't buy that. France is the country with over 350 different types of cheese, remember? The country where people eat croissants for breakfast and where the most common type of regional speciality is a sausage. This is not to say that French people don't eat a healthy diet, but merely to point out that if they do, it's not purely down to the natural bounty or culinary traditions of their homeland.

What I believe makes the difference is that in France, people aspire to eat good food. Not healthy food, or diet food, but food that tastes good. Quality matters, and quality means food that is produced slowly, in the right place and the right season, by people who know what they are doing. And when you eat high quality food that tastes good and satisfies your body as well as your appetite, you don't want to eat too much. Try eating yourself sick on dark chocolate instead of a Mars bar. But in France, you might not even want the chocolate, because the fresh fruit is so delicious. And that rich, cheesy Tartiflette might be packed with calories, but when you've eaten it, you'll feel full and you'll be ready to stop, because your hunger and your appetite both agree that you've had enough. That's not really true of a Big Mac. French people respect their food, and when you respect something, you don't abuse it.

To solve the obesity crisis, governments need to make good food both aspirational and affordable. Telling people peaches are healthy isn't going to make them buy them if they're expensive and taste like water. Saying that chicken nuggets are unhealthy won't stop people eating them, but making sure that actual chicken has more flavour will make them choose that instead.

The developed world is in the process of proving that awareness of health risks doesn't stop people trying to satisfy their appetites. The French have proven that when your appetite is truly satisfied, the health risks aren't there.

Friday, 26 August 2011

An Up- to- the- Minute Chat-Up Line

Yesterday, I was on my way to the supermarket when I heard a voice behind me saying, "Pardon, Pardon." In central Paris, I would have upped my pace and kept straight on, but being in Perfect Suburbia, I turned round to look at the man who was speaking.

He paused and took a couple of breaths, as if hesitating, then said, "Mademoiselle, you should be very careful not to come across DSK in the street. You are so charming that he would certainly rape you."

While thinking to myself that this was basically the French equivalent of Berlusconi saying the rape figures in Italy are high because the girls are pretty (the guy was so unsure of himself that there was certainly no threat of him actually attacking me), I decided to take it in the spirit that it was intended and smiled (charmingly, of course) before walking on.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Brittany: The Stuff of Legends

Most people associate Brittany with the seaside, and it's true that, with its endless jagged shores, peninsulas and little islands, the region must have a spectacularly long coastline relative to its size. But there are secrets to be discovered in the interior too, and especially in the ancient forest of Paimpont or Brocéliande, home of Merlin and the fairies of the Arthurian legends.

Up until recently local people, believing that the legendary sites should be accessible only to those who truly deserved to find them, would hide the signposts to confuse visitors. Nowadays though, tourism has taken over and most of the places are easy to find, although luckily still not overrun with hoards of people.

The Chêne à Guillotin is a 1000 year old oak tree. Its name comes from the Abbot Guillotin, a resistor of the Revolution who hid in its hollow when he was chased by soldiers. The story goes that an intact spider's web covered the entrance to the tree when the revolutionary fighters passed, leading them to believe that nobody could be inside.

The Fontaine de Barenton is known for its magical ability to summon up storms even in times of drought and was where the knight Yvan defeated the terrible Chevalier Noir or Black knight, as well as being the place where Merlin first met the fairy Viviane. Unfortunately, it didn't have much water in it when we went by.

The Val sans Retour, or Valley of no Return, was put under a spell by the fairy Morgane so that unfaithful knights would find themselves lost in the forest and unable to make their way out. As well as the Miroir aux Fées, you can visit the Arbre d'Or.

This golden tree has nothing to do with the Arthurian legends but was planted after a terrible fire in 1991 to symbolise the fragility of nature and attract visitors to the area. The pointed rocks which surround it are there to protect it from people who fail to understand the message and try to take home pieces of its gold-leaf coating as a souvenir.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

A l'aise Breizh!*

After a week spent reconnecting with my Scottish roots, I went to Brittany with Understanding Frenchman to do the same with his origins. His family live in a small village south-west of Rennes, not far from the middle of the region, making it the perfect base for exploring, especially as his parents very kindly lent us a car for the week. Like most (pseudo) Parisians, my experience of Brittany was limited to St-Malo and Mont-Saint-Michel (which is actually in Normandy these days, much to the disgust of the Bretons) and, while both are beautiful places, they didn't exactly correspond to the image of a remote and weatherbeaten landscape that I had in my head, and exploring the region further had long been on my to-do list. Having a gorgeous local guide to do it with was an added bonus!

Many of the places we visited deserve a post of their own, so for now I'll just say that I liked Brittany a lot. Like the rest of France, it has beautiful landscapes, nice weather (at least in summer, most of the time!), interesting history and good food. But it also has a down-to-earth feel about it: the architecture is more about pretty stone houses and medieval town centres than gothic or baroque splendour, they drink cider instead of wine, and the local patisserie delicacies are butter- laden and heavy as opposed to, well, butter- laden and light.

My desire to get out of the Ile-de-France before living there turns me into a horrible person means that every time I visit a new place, I wonder what it would be like to live there. While the countryside is beautiful, I wouldn't want to live out in the sticks (even if a 5 bedroom house with a swimming pool costs about the same as a Parisian studio), apart from anything else because I suspect that unless you're a farmer or have lived there all your life, it would be very difficult to integrate, but Rennes is a pretty city with a thriving university and cultural scene . Unfortunately though, as Understanding Frenchman explained, there's a reason why there are so many Bretons in Paris: Brittany's universities are of a high standard and produce plenty of well-educated graduates, but outside of agriculture and the highly competitive public sector, there are very few jobs there. Local people leave their hometowns for the big city to find work, then struggle for years to get back again. And if the Bretons can't find a job in their home region, what chance would there be for a foreigner like me?

Ah well ... it's a wee bit too far from the mountains for my taste anyway!

*This is actually a Breton clothing brand that sells stuff with the logo of the little dancing people that people have on their car stickers. The pronunciation of Breizh rhymes with a l'aise.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Why the Roads are Free in Brittany

A long, long, time ago, in 1491, when Anne de Bretagne (described in Wikipedia as "un personnage soucieux de défendre le duché face à l'appétit de ses voisins") married Charles VIII, uniting Brittany with the rest of France, one of the conditions of her marriage was that France was not allowed to levy road tolls in her homeland. Elsewhere in France, many of the motorways have been privatised and companies such as Vinci and Cofiroutes charge hefty fees for their use. While the tolls are expensive, they do pay for a high level of improvement and maintenance, meaning that many of them have 6 lanes and speed limits of 130km/h. In Brittany, on the other hand, the motorways are free to use, with no more than 4 lanes and 110km/h speed limits.

While I generally appreciate the fact that the private motorways allow me to get far away from Paris in a relatively short period of time, driving at 70 miles per hour instead of 85 (add ten for the average French driver!) and only having to worry about checking one wing mirror at a time is definitely a de-stress factor in Bretagne for me!

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Big Mountain Trip 2011: The Pyrenees

While my friends and I had a great time laughing at funny place names during our trip to the Pyrenees in July, we did plenty of other things as well.

Understanding Frenchman and I spent a night en route at the Hotel l'Oustal in Vezac in the Perigord. It had a gorgeous (and empty!) swimming pool with a view of two different chateaux and was surrounded by fields of sunflowers. In the evening, we had dinner followed by an evening stroll in La Roque-Gageac and were really quite sad when we had to leave first thing the next morning.

We picked up some more friends in Toulouse and drove to the gite de Miquelet in the mountains behind the town of St Girons. We were pretty excited by the prettiness of the location as well as the fact that the gite, while being charmingly rustic on the outside, was actually very well equipped on the inside. The fact that the electricity had cut out just before we arrived only added to the sense of adventure, although we were quite relieved that we had planned a barbecue for that evening and that the owner offered to refrigerate our food and lend us candles. When the light was gone outside, we lit a fire in the hearth, setting a trend which carried on for the rest of the week.

The next morning it was raining and the electricity was still off but we set out for a hike in the afternoon and were very pleased to come across an EDF lorry and discover that they had found the source of the problem and were getting ready to fix it. We came across EDF vans on four of the seven days of our trip - a lot of electricity is generated in the area but they also have their work cut out providing a service in an area that can be hostile to things like overhead wires.

On our second day we hiked most of the way to the Etang d'Araing, which was a fabulous walk but bad weather and the steepness of the mountain stopped us going all the way down to the lake (which we couldn't see anyway) and we stopped at the highest point, a cool 2221m above sea level. We learned that day that in the Pyrenees, horizontal kilometres are almost irrelevant - it's the vertical ones you have to worry about!

Day three was our walk to the beautiful Cascade d'Ars and turned out to be the only really sunny day of the whole week.

Afterwards we went to the spa at Aulus-les-Bains in the hope of soothing our tired muscles but unfortunately their crummy customer service left us suffering more from high blood pressure and rage.

Wednesday was supposed to be a rest day, but we still managed to drive for a couple of hours over a hairy but spectacular mountain pass to Vicdessos for a three hour hike to the castle of Montreal de Sos and the little village of Olbier before driving back through the medieval town of Foix, where I learned that it's Troyes Foix Sept fait vingt-et-un.

On our last two days, we hiked up to the Refuge d'Estragnous to climb Mont Vallier, which for a long time was thought to be the highest peak in the Pyrenees. It's not, but at 2838m, it was spectacular and high enough to give some of us the beginnings of altitude sickness. The weather on the hike up was miserable but we were rewarded with a friendly reception, warm, comfortable beds and genepy on the house for our efforts. Because of the rain, not many people were staying there and in the evening, all ten or so of us got involved in a game of Jenga which was almost as breathtaking as the climb itself.

All in all, it was an amazing trip and even with the prospect of more holidays before the end of the summer, it was hard to come back to Paris!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

How to Choose Your Next Country

It's pretty much impossible to move to a new country and not make comparisons with the old. For me, this process is plays a huge part in how I learn from travelling - figuring out what's important in different places and why, looking at how some countries deal with certain things better than others, and seeing what could change to make people's lives better. (Actually bringing about change, is, of course a whole lot harder, and this is one of the biggest frustrations of international living!)

Expat blogs and expat books are full of these observations, but how do you know if they are factually correct? How much difference does that French diet actually make to people's health? How much more dangerous is Italian driving really? Is a chalk-and-talk-read-learn-and- regurgiate education system more rigorous or is it numbing children's minds?

This website has many of the answers. Using its collection of studies, which appear to be from reliable sources, expats and expat wannabes can compare countries around the world on everything from population density to quality of death (and yes, I did choose that one because the UK tops the list for end-of-life care services!).

What's important to you when you move abroad?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A Short Trip Away

I'm just back home from a short, unplanned and highly educational 3 day trip. Not to Italy, the south of France or anywhere exotic, but down the road to my local hospital.

It all started on Friday night, when I began to experience stomach pains. Had I been French, I might well have gone to the doctor straight away, or at least first thing on Saturday morning, but being British, I swallowed as many paracetamol as I could and hoped it would pass.

By 5 am on Sunday morning, the pain definitely hadn't passed and in fact had got much worse. Unable to ignore it any longer, I woke up Understanding Frenchman and told him I needed to go to the doctor. With even the nearest open pharmacy being several suburbs away and no on-call doctor in town, our only option was to go to A&E at the local hospital, which last time I needed it was a 5 minute walk from my house but has moved and is now a 20 minute drive away. (It's worth knowing that in France it's the norm for A&E to be your only option out of hours, as very few places now have a medecin de garde.)

As it turned out, A&E was the right place for me anyway, as by ten o'clock (when there were actually some senior doctors on duty), they had decided that I needed surgery. Fairly minor surgery, but requiring a stay in hospital nonetheless.

Lying on the hospital trolley with a drip in my arm, I joked to Understanding Frenchman that this was perhaps my comeuppance for complaining about how ridiculously poor-value my mutuelle has been over the past few years. Not that I have a problem with paying for good healthcare, but my current mutuelle combines spectacularly high charges with spectacularly low benefits and some of the most incompetent administration I have ever seen, for which reasons I'm very glad it will be changing soon!

Anyway, the whole experience turned out to be exactly what one would expect of the French healthcare system: fantastic care combined with some totally risible paperwork. I suspect that had I gone in with a similar complaint in the UK, especially if I had gone on the Friday instead of waiting until Sunday, I would have been sent away to take more paracetamol and see if it got better. In France, within about half an hour of arriving, I had seen a doctor and was hooked up to an IV that was dripping delightful painkillers directly into my bloodstream. They operated the same day and throughout my whole stay, the doctors and nurses were highly competent, helpful and extremely friendly. I stayed in 3 days for an operation that, according to the internet, is often done as an out-patient procedure.

The bureaucratic laughs came at the end. To check out of the hospital, I had to collect my prescriptions and details of follow-up visits from the staff nurse. I even got a prescription for my taxi home! But then, all by myself and with a bag slightly heavier than I really wanted to carry, I had to make my way to another office where there was a queue of about ten people waiting to hand over their papers to collect another piece of paper that would actually allow them to leave the hospital with all the documents they needed and finally, to have a long discussion with the man at the reception about why my taxi prescription said "aller" when I was actually going home.

So, full marks to French healthcare for the actual treatment, but surely "medically excellent" and "free at point of delivery and with minimal bureaucratic hassle" are not completely incompatible ideals?

When is a Fruit not a Fruit?

The other day, Understanding Frenchman had reason to borrow my car and drove it into the city centre. Having heard on the radio that on-street parking in Paris was free for the month of August, he found himself a space, checked with a traffic warden who happened to be working nearby that he was indeed allowed to park there and went to work...

Only to come out at 6pm to find a parking ticket (worth 17 euros since the start of August) on the windscreen.

That evening, he told me how, to his disgust, he had been given "une prune". I'm not normally a fan of civil disobedience, but his experience just goes to show how, even with the best of intentions, getting the odd parking ticket is pretty much unavoidable, so even though the ticket will be in my name, I laughed and asked him to repeat the word that he had used.

The reason parking tickets are called prunes? Because, like the fruit, ils font chier!