Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A Few Sheepish Expressions

One of Understanding Frenchman's favourite things to do as we chat over the dinner table is to drop idiomatic French expressions into the conversation to see whether I continue the discussion without batting an eyelid or interrupt with my (far more usual) Ça veut dire quoi, ______ ?” At which point he always indulges in a little chuckle before giving in and telling me what the saying means.

And so it was last Saturday that I discovered that not only do the French count sheep, just as we do, when they can't get to sleep, but that their name for leapfrog is saute-mouton, or jump-the-sheep. (Perhaps this is because all the frogs in France have had their back legs cut off and fried in oil and garlic ... bwahhahaha)*

This caused me to reflect that there are quite a lot of expressions involving sheep in French. Moutons de Panurge are the equivalent of lemmings, meaning people who mindlessly copy others, and revenir à nos moutons means “let's get back to the subject in hand.” A quick search in my handy Dictionnaire des expressions et locutions also threw up un mouton enragé (someone who rarely gets angry who has just got angry) and le mouton à cinq pattes – the five-footed sheep which is of course extremely difficult to find. (If you want to say that an action is nothing out of the ordinary, however, it's not a sheep that's involved, but a duck, because the expression is ça ne cassera pas quatre pattes d'un canard ... (or trois pattes) depending on where you come from.))

I was going to look up sheep-based sayings in English too, to find out if there were just as many, but then I thought it would be more fun to see how many you can all think of – ideas in the comments box please!

* Actually, as anyone who has lived in France can tell you, French people hardly ever eat frogs' legs and, when I looked it up, I discovered that per capita consumption is only 60g per year, so there must be another explanation for the sheep.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Promenade Photos

A week or so ago, I commented over one of Gwan, Blog Queen of Tours' posts, that while there is plenty to see and do in Paris, it's a hard place to write about, because they chances are that whatever I've done recently, some other expat blogger has got there first and written about it much more stylishly and with greater wit than I ever could. And what is true of writing is even more true of photography. So many beautiful pictures have been taken of this city that sometimes, walking around, it's hard to remember that you're looking at the real thing and not through someone else's lens.

The struggle for originality in a city where every photo is a cliché (in more ways than one) has prevented me from posting photos in the past, but today, as autumn slid into winter and cool blue skies and sunshine provided a backdrop to the end-of-November haze, I couldn't resist getting out my (phone) camera. The results might not be quite Elliot Erwitt standard, but they are at least 100 percent mine:

Not for the first time, it was the Place de la Bastille and the Arsenal that enticed me to get my camera out and get snapping.

Victory and Boats

Must remember this next time I get my iron out !

Bikes and Boat at Bastille

Playing with the light - the Ile Saint Louis and the Pantheon

Rue des Barres - one of the prettiest streets in Paris

This shop entirely devoted to articles produced in monasteries is just behind the church. Could be a good source of Christmas presents!

You aren't allowed sell Parisian wine, but you can grow grapes here in December.

I spent ages waiting for a gap in the traffic and the pedestrians to take this picture. Then the woman moved and a post got in the way. Another frustration of Parisian photography.

I liked the shadow shape of this street lamp in the  Marais

Back near Bastille, in a street where everything was grey.

Can you see Victory now? Getting close enough to take this picture and remain alive was something of a challenge!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Catch Up

After a bit of a time lapse, stories of my recent visit to Milan and Florence are now over on my Italian blog. More tales of how I love, love, loved Bologna coming soon!

Monday, 12 November 2012

Taxing the Rich

When President Hollande announced that he would be introducing a 75% tax rate for France's highest earners, I applauded the sentiment but doubted it was practicable. But now, the French government is proposing another tax on the rich: the rich, chocolatey goodness of Nutella or, more precisely, the palm oil it contains.

This time the target is not disparity of income, but rates of heart disease, with an impact on environmental damage in South East Asia thrown in for good measure, as this article in today's Guardian explains. But, as one commentator points out, the French have been consuming Nutella for decades now, while obesity has only become a concern over the past few years and rates of heart disease remain relatively low. Which is all the more astonishing when you consider that in some parts of the country (Bretagne, I'm looking at you) they  know that Nutella's sticky sweetness is best balanced out by spreading it over a nice thick layer of salted butter.

How long do I have to stay here before l'exception française applies to me too?

Friday, 9 November 2012

Trilingual Travel on the Other Side of the Alps

It's an endlessly occurring experience for Anglophone travellers. You go to another country, bust out your best phrases in the local language, and the serveur, cameriere or Kellner speaks straight back to you in English. "It must be my terrible accent," you think. Or maybe you got a gender wrong. Or quite possibly, it wasn't language at all, but the socks you wore with your sandals, the flaming sunburn or the way you counted on your fingers that gave you away. Either way, Antoine, Giulio or Hans-Peter knew straight away that you were English, American, Irish, Canadian, whatever. Actually, scrub that. Depending on the whiteness of your teeth, he assumed you were either English or American, but that's not really the point. He guessed your mother tongue, so no more speaking foreign languages for you.

Or so it seems. But I have often wondered whether the distinction between nationalities is not more a case of  "from here/ not from here" and whether people who address me in English are either trying to be helpful or delighted to practise with a native speaker rather than being horrified by my massacring of their beautiful mother tongue.

Which is why, travelling in Italy for the first time with Understanding Frenchman and speaking mostly French, I was intrigued to see what effect my masquerading as a francophone would have on the way people reacted to us.

Here are the results:

Staff of a multinational hotel chain: mostly Italian, but occasionally English, especially when I was alone and they had seen my passport (and also the time I embarrassingly confused the numbers 12 and 200). None of them spoke French to either of us.

Assorted shop staff in Milan, Florence and Bologna: entirely in Italian, even, on occasion to UFM (who speaks no Italian whatsoever) when he was alone.

Charming older waiter at a local, non-touristy restaurant in Florence: spoke to us the entire evening in slightly hesitant French.

Grumpy waiter in Milan: thought we were Spanish but spoke to us in English anyway.

Jumped-up twenty-year old waiter on the main piazza in Bologna: insisted on speaking in English, but his attitude was worthy of a Parisian.

Waiter at a Neapolitan restaurant in Bologna with a group of English-speakers: English to the group, camped up French to Understanding Frenchman, and, inexplicably, to my English friend who speaks fluent Italian, large amounts of German.

African bracelet sellers on the streets of all three cities: every language under the sun.

The conclusion: in Italy, you can get by with English, it's worth trying out your Italian, and if you go to Bracce restaurant in Bologna, the food is amazing and you can speak whatever language you like!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Going Deeper Underground

An added complication of my last-minute getaway to the Alps was that, unlike the rest of my friends, who were heading back to Paris, I was supposed to be in Italy to meet Understanding Frenchman for our first trip together to my other adopted country. Getting from Chamonix to Chambery, the nearest stop on the train line from Paris to Milan, involved a five hour train journey, two connections and an overnight stay along the way, so I was delighted when a bit of Googling threw up a timetable for a bus service through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayeur and onwards to Aosta and Milan.

My delight changed to outright giggles when I discovered that the vehicle that would transport me across the international border was a minibus with about 16 seats and a trailer behind for the luggage. That’s right – I had abandoned my dirty mountain gear in my friend’s car, dressed up in city shoes and a smart jacket and my suitcase was about to travel under the highest mountain in Europe in a trailer.
The bus driver tried to convince us our luggage had fallen off the back somewhere under this bad boy.

It was great fun. A couple of passengers in front of me had struck up a friendship at the station and were carrying out a bilingual conversation with the bus driver, who regaled us with stories of how he illegally parked a bus in Milan, threatened to abandon it when the carabinieri issued him with a fine that he had no money to pay, then had to cough up when he accidentally revealed that although he had didn’t have any hard cash, he did have a carte bleue in his pocket. He joked with the policeman who checked our passports on the French side that he would kidnap him and drive him to Italy if he didn’t hurry up.

And then, a few hours later and after a winding trip past the peaks and castles of the Valle d’Aosta and across the Roman-straight roads of the Northern Italian plains, there I was in Milan ready for the next stage of my adventure.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

First Snow in Chamonix

It was meant to be a quiet, sensible weekend at home in Paris, doing the housework, sorting out paperwork and perhaps indulging in a little trip to the cinema. But then a friend phoned with a reminder that her short-term rented flat in Chamonix had a couple of spare beds and that she was only there for one more month. And so, throwing quiet and sensible to the wind, I rushed out of work on Friday afternoon and straight to the train station.

The weather was so awful on Saturday that had it not been for the great company and two-and-a-half hours of James Bond, it would hardly have seemed worth the trip. But when we came out of the cinema on Saturday night, the pouring rain had been transformed into whirling snowflakes and on the days that followed we were treated to this:

And this:

And this:

It was that gorgeous time of year when autumn in the mountains turns into winter and the golden leaves contrast with the sparkling snow and clear blue sky:

And a short afternoon hike can make you feel on top of the world:

Saturday, 20 October 2012

On est tous Danette (ou Yoplait)

With grey skies pressing down on the rooftops of the city, rain streaming down the windows, and nothing interesting to report in my Parisian life, here is a little nugget of information I discovered about one of France's favourite foodstuffs last week.

Supermarkets have entire aisles devoted to it and the average person consumes over 20kg per year (around 7 times the American average) and France is home to two of the world's best known brands. But with the most of the stuff being mass-produced, it's hardly a traditional product with the status of wine, cheese or saucisson. So just why do the French eat so much yogurt?

Well, industrial production or not, it all goes back to the French habit of eating 3 course meals. In the past, at least one meal per day would end with cheese, hence the establishment of dairy products as a key part of the national diet. A grander meal might involve both cheese and desert. But with more sedentary lifestyles and an increasing awareness of the perils of high fat and cholesterol foods, people are reducing their cheese consumption and looking for healthier alternatives. Eating yogurt at the end of a meal fills the criteria of both dairy product and desert, without adding too many calories. Being a source of protein, it fills you up, while the fruit or sugar versions also satisfy a sweet tooth.

Finally, and, critically for the stereotypical parisienne, yogurt is supposedly one of the magic reasons why French women don't get fat. I'm a bit cynical about the truth of this, but I bet it keeps the sales figures high.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Expat vs Immigrant or Why I Love my EU Passport

Early on in my acquaintance with Understanding Frenchman, I referred to myself in conversation as an expat.

"But you're not an expat," he said. "You don't have an expat contract. You're an immigrant."

"Maybe you're right," I said. "But I don't exactly feel like an immigrant either."

A couple of years down the line (and still in a relationship with Understanding Frenchman, despite the powerful implications of this conversation) I still don't really know what I am. I have a permanent local contract at work, but I wouldn't be in the job I'm in if I wasn't British. Likewise, I am perfectly happy living in France, but I didn't come here intending to become French. Having come with no plans to stay forever, the best way I can put it now is that I'm not thinking of leaving any time soon.

And yet, five years is something of a turning point. It's the point where, within the EU, you have to start paying social security where you live and not in your mother country. If you work for an embassy, it's the longest you can stay before they start to fear you may go native and move you on. And, as a friend and I were saying the other night, it's the point where you may not like everything about your host country, but you start to become increasingly zen about accepting it.

The joy of being an EU citizen is that you don't actually have to worry about this stuff very much. You can stay as long as you like, work as long as you can get a job, and transfer your social security contributions when you leave. It's a situation that corresponds almost perfectly to the way I feel right now. My history is Scottish and British, but I've shared enough with France to feel that I can belong here too.

Even if I stay here forever, the only reason I can see for asking for French citizenship is to have the right to vote. I didn't mind being a bystander at the last presidential election, but in four-and-a-half years' time, I want to be involved. I've done the online tests and I'm pretty sure I could pass. But, deep down, I know that if, right now, I became French (even with dual nationality) I'd feel like a fraud. Not because I'm not integrated, not because I don't care about France or understand the French, but because I don't have the history. France is fantastic, but she isn't (yet) mine.

Maybe I'm being over-dramatic. Perhaps national identity is more about practicalities and paperwork than I think it is. Or perhaps, a couple of years down the line, I'll just feel I belong that little bit more. In the meantime, I'll just cling tight to my maroon and gold passport and hope that Britain doesn't leave the EU!

What do you think? For those of you that have taken on another nationality, what does it mean for you? And if you haven't, would you?

Thursday, 27 September 2012

How to be a Happy Expat Part 3: Be Yourself

When I first moved to France, I received several marriage proposals within the first three months. I was chatted up everywhere, from the Champs Elysees to my local bus stop. And I was followed on several occasions in locations ranging from the local forest to the toilets of a cafe on the Rue de Rivoli. Some of it was funny, but mostly it was downright sinister and I wanted it to stop.

That doesn't happen to me any more. Now it could just be that I am older and uglier but to be honest I don't think most of my stalkers/suitors/wannabe fiances were that picky. I suspect it's because I don't stand out as a foreigner any more. Something about the way I walk, the way I dress and, most crucially, the way I make or avoid eye contact with people has changed and I no longer look like the kind of girl who might get engaged within two minutes of meeting a random stranger in the street.

Feeling that I fit in in France is lovely. But even better is the fact that, now that I do (most of the time), I also feel free to choose not to fit in, some of the time. On the Paris metro, for example, the best way to fit in is to avoid human contact of any kind as much as possible. But I've noticed that when people do communicate, whether it's the driver cracking a joke on the loudspeaker or Understanding Frenchman offering to carry someone's buggy up the stairs, people really appreciate it. So now, when the anonymity of the city gets me down, I make a point of giving up my seat, holding the door for people, and thanking them with a big smile when they do the same for me. It might not be very Parisian, but it makes me feel better. And I know enough not to do it with the guy that's going to follow me for half an hour just because I looked him in the eye. Other small acts of rebellion include wearing plastic flip-flops in town just because they're comfy and thanking people, British fashion, more times than is really necessary in any transaction

One of the lessons I've learned from living abroad is that you can't change the world. But sometimes, you can change your world, and that might be all you need to stay sane.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Rolling along the Coulée Verte

I've written a few times about places to go rollerblading in Paris on a Sunday. The banks of the river, beside the canal and the Bois de Vincennes are all good options. But what about on a Saturday, when the traffic on the quais mostly has four wheels and is roaring along at 70 km per hour, the shoppers are out at Bastille and no barriers protect the road through the forest park? With limited options, Understanding Frenchman and I decided to give the Coulée Verte a go.

The Coulée Verte follows the route of an unused railway line from Montparnasse in the city centre to Massy in the southern suburbs. We started at Malakoff Plateau de Vanves metro stop but the first few kilometres weren't really rollerbladeable because the surface was made of earth and gravel. The tarmac starts at Châtillon, where the route also starts to get a bit prettier. It's not really a beginner's itinerary: UFM and I are both pretty confident rollerbladers but there were some fairly scary descents where we couldn't see what might be waiting for us around the corner, particularly just after Fontenay, where we made lots of use of the mobilier urbain.  There's another steep hill at Robinson, but that one is more manageable because it has more space to brake afterwards.

We stopped just after that, at the edge of the Parc de Sceaux, where there is a magnificent view of the chateau, but we plan to go back and do the rest another day. Judging from what we saw, the rest will hopefully be a bit less hair-raising!

Saturday, 15 September 2012

In Defence of La Defense

Last Saturday, on what turned out to be the third-last day of summer, I ended up at La Défense, a place which means several things to me:

- hoards of rush hour commuters squashing like sardines on to the RER.

- a shopping centre where you never see daylight 
- the Auchan supermarket where I once spent 40 minutes queueing for the express checkout 
- a scary half-underground bus station which I have sometimes used on dark nights in the middle of a train strike
- the only place in Paris where the restaurants almost exclusively sell junk food.

From which you will understand that it was a strange location for me to be on a day of 30 degree heat and glorious weekend sunshine.

But I was, and, walking along the parvis from the metro station to the Grande Arche, I was able to experience the more attractive face of the area, where glossy buildings too tall to be allowed in Paris stretch up into the blue sky, the sunlight on the shiny surfaces reflecting to create a multi-faceted display that almost seems to exist in more than three dimensions, and fountains and even greenery create a space that is surprisingly liveable.

 Needless to say, I got my camera out.

Monday, 10 September 2012

How to Avoid Travelling with Low-Cost Airlines

I'm a child of the Ryanair generation. If I ever become a grandmother, I shall sit my offspring's offspring on my knee and regale them with stories of how, back in around 2004, it was possible to fly from one European city to another for under 30 euros return and you didn't even have to pay extra for your suitcase.

Unfortunately, that was back in 2004. That was before low-cost airlines got nasty. Yes, there were taxes that always pushed the fares up above the 99p headline price, but that was about all. You didn't have to pay for luggage, to use your credit card or for the privilege of checking in for your flight. Yes, there was the bus that took you from a car park in a dodgy bit of town to a tin shed with a runway 50 miles from your supposed departure spot, but in the days when you were still allowed to bring your own bottle of water on a plane, being stranded with unpalatable and expensive catering options was less of a problem.

When Understanding Frenchman and I nearly missed our 250 euro EasyJet flight to Dubrovnik because we had spent two hours queueing to drop of the suitcase that cost us 30 euros to put on the plane and to pass through security at a seriously overwhelmed Orly airport I realised that if there ever even was a golden age of cheap flights, it was over.

But that's OK, because there's another solution.

A travel option where you can arrive ten minutes before departure, upgrade to first class for ten euros and bring your own bodyweight in suitcases (as long as you can lift them off the ground). Where you can bring your toiletries, surf the internet and use your mobile phone on board. Where you arrive to buildings that are often masterpieces of architecture right in the middle of the city centre and where nobody tries to sell you scratchcards on board.

Recently, I have travelled from Paris to London for 90 euros return to Milan for 70. Milan to Venice or Bologna is 9 euros, and (with a bit of help from a friend) I even went to Brussels for free. First class to Berlin was cheaper than EasyJet and we're looking at Amsterdam for a budget weekend later this year. Admittedly it's time consuming, but I'd rather spend 8 hours on a soft seat watching the countryside fly by than 2 in an airport where they were too stingy even to put any seats (I'm looking at you, CDG terminal 2B).

It's a means of transport that forces you to relax, sit back and enjoy the experience. To admire the landscape and appreciate the distance you have covered. That gives you time to contemplate your experiences, write in your diary and fit in a little snooze as well. In short, for me, it's a means of transport that allows me to be the kind of traveller I want to be.

Ladies and gentlemen, for your European travel needs, may I suggest letting the train take the strain?

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Decoding l'Apéro

Everybody who lives in France knows what l'apéro is, right? Short for apéritif, the word means a drink, usually alcoholic, that you have before dinner to whet your appetite, although how much whetting is actually done is a bit of a moot point, given that the drinks are almost always accompanied by a selection of crisps, olives, cheesy biscuits and, if you are really lucky, saucisson sec. Right?

Well, sort of.

One evening in Brittany, we were invited to a friend of Understanding Frenchman's  for apéro. Four hours later, we had indeed had some drinks and the aforementioned crisps, olives etc, but also a large selection of little toasts with delicious toppings, some mini-omelettes, and home-made moelleux au chocolat for dessert. It was basically dinner, except that the main course was missing.

A couple of days later, UFM was on the phone to his cousin, trying to arrange to see him and lamenting the fact that it wouldn't be possible for us to eat together before we had to leave to come back to Paris. It was decided that we would go to said cousin's house for a lunchtime apéro the following day. I have to confess, I was a little relieved that it wasn't an invitation to a full-blown meal - UFM's family are lovely, but we had spent the past ten days eating and making small talk for hours on end in other people's back gardens and I was starting to have had enough. But then, as the drinks and crisps were coming to an end, the cousin said, "So, are you going to stay for lunch?" And lunch turned out to be starters of peaches stuffed with tuna, a barbecue with three different kinds of meat, ratatouille, beans, cheese and two different desserts, including a tiramisu that the cousin's wife had made herself.

There was no way that wasn't planned in advance. 

I was mystified. UFM likes to complain when we go out for drinks with my expat friends that it's never very clear where, when or whether we're going to eat (although we almost always do), yet here were all his friends and family doing the same thing. So later, in the car going home, I demanded an explanation. And here it is, The Unofficial Understanding Frenchman Guide to Apéro Invitations:

- Among close friends and family, an apéro will often be followed by an invitation to stay for the actual meal. The reason they don't just invite you for the meal straight away is actually a (very complex) form of politeness: it gives you the chance to decide for yourself, even at the last minute. In the case of the barbecue, if Understanding Frenchman and I had had other things to do that afternoon, we could simply have dropped in for a drink and refused the lunch, leaving our hostess and her family to eat stuffed peaches for a week. 

- If you are invited for an apéro but your hosts know that you will have to travel a long way, it's almost certainly an apéro dinatoire like the one we had in the first example. It's a less formal invitation than a full-on dinner party but won't leave you hungry because you left the apéro at 9pm and had to drive for an hour before you got home for dinner.

- Finally, it is actually possible to be invited just for an ordinary apéro. This most commonly happens among neighbours (and in the countryside, people like postmen are also regularly invited in for a drink) because it doesn't take them long to travel and so they can be back home in time to cook their own dinner.

So now you know.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Linguistic Dilemmas in Croatia

Aside from an afternoon in Flemish-speaking Belgium, our trip to Croatia was the first time in my life that I visited a country and had no idea whatsoever of how to speak the local language. For the first time in my life, I became one of those tourists who is entirely dependent on other people speaking English.

A few years ago, I would have hated myself. But recently I have come to accept that it is to the practical advantage of people all over the world to have a shared language, even if I fear many of the consequences. And the truth is, people who provide services to tourists in the most tourist-y bits of Dalmatia really do all speak English far better than I could reproduce Croatian, where the nouns not only have three different genders but also 5 or 6 declensions, and that's not even getting on to thinking about verbs, after a few weeks of study.

In the interest of politeness and maintaining a few shreds of integrity, I did learn some useful phrases, such as "Hello" and "Do you speak English?" Using the first felt awkward, though, because it seemed to imply that we might be able to continue the conversation in Croatian, while the second was pretty redundant, given that on the few occasions where the answer was "no", it was immediately obvious.

A couple of times, though, we ventured out of the tourist bubble, and suddenly every word we had learned became critical. One of these was buying fruit at the market, where we got by with a few words and many gestures. The other was when the English-speaking owner of our rented apartment was away and we had to collect the keys from the neighbour, a very kind older lady who spoke not a word of English.

To me this illustrates perfectly the challenge facing wannabe language learners today. You can get by in the easy places doing the easy things with everybody else's basic English, but if you want to get off the beaten track, integrate into local society or do anything at all that involves diplomacy, you need to be fluent in the foreign language. And fluency is harder to attain, because you get fewer chances to practise the basics.

Most people don't seem to care very much. But what do you think, dear readers? Many of you have become fluent in foreign languages and lived in foreign cultures long enough to reap the benefits, but do you bother when you're just going on holiday? Is it worth it to learn a few phrases when you know that eventually you will have to resort to English? Perhaps it depends on the country?

I'll finish with the end of the story about the apartment lady. "Govorite?" she asked, confronted with our blank expressions. "Ne," we responded, shaking our heads. "Engleski?" I tried, "Francuski?", but with no luck. She led us to the door of our flat and let us in in a wordless emptiness. We didn't know what was going on, were worried that we had disturbed her or commited some kind of a faux - pas. It was only as we were making our way up the stairs that she suddenly said, "Italiano?" "Si, si!" I replied, and so did she. Suddenly the void was filled with communication and, to my great delight, for once it wasn't English that saved the day.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

My Adriatic Swimming Pool

We actually wanted to go to the south of Italy for the last week of our holidays this summer, but a combination of cheaper flights and some pretty pictures in the travel supplement of the newspaper tempted us further east so, with very little advance planning, we touched down in Dubrovnik airport on Monday of last week.

When I say very little advance planning, I mean neither of us had actually opened the guidebook before we got on the plane. We had, however, booked our accommodation in advance and, after a quick overnight stay in Dubrovnik, we were on the fast ferry to the island of Korcula, just as was intended in our very sketchy planning.

Had I paid a bit more attention to the guidebook, I might have been less surprised by how small the town of Korcula actually was. If Dubrovnik is the pearl of the Adriatic, Korcula is a tiny gem nestling  in the setting of its ramparts and surrounded by rolling green hills and azure sea. You could visit it in half a day but it's the kind of place where you can wander the same streets again and again and always find something new to notice.

Nevertheless, it's fair to say that the island is more suited to outdoor activities and there is plenty of gentle hiking and biking to do. One day we hired bikes in Korcula and cycled to Lumbarda, where there are a couple of the Dalmatian coast's rare sandy beaches, then got horribly lost trying to walk to a lighthouse with a very inadequate map, and on another we got the bus up to the inland town of Krnovo and hiked back down, enjoying stunning views of the town, the sea and the mainland on the way.

Mostly, though, it was a bit hot for walking and cycling, especially up steep hills, but that didn't mean that being active was out of the question, because the coast of Croatia is a swimmer's paradise. Like a visual reminder that coastline really is as long as you can measure it to be, it zigzags in and out, with tiny pebbled beaches hidden in every nook and cranny among the rocks. Because of the shingle and the sea-urchins, it's a good idea to wear plastic shoes, and a mat for lying on the rocky (or sometimes concrete) surfaces is a good idea, but the water is crystal clear and sparkling, then turning into the deepest blue as it stretches out in front of you like a genuine infinity swimming pool. There's barely any tide, and the waves tend to come from passing boats, but it mostly gets deep quickly, meaning that you can really swim, rather than just splashing around, and it's so salty that when you get tired you can just lie on your back and float and admire the scenery around you.

The other memorable thing we did on Korcula was watch a performance of Moreska, which is a type of traditional dancing/martial art combined with swords. The dancers/fighters were members of a local association and they were truly amazing. Sparks were flying from the blades of the sword as they struck right and left, with the dancers spinning in circles in the combat, and the weapons were definitely sharp because one of the performers was injured and had to discreetly wipe his bleeding hands on the white cloth they all wore as part of their costumes. That show was probably the one stressful moment in what was otherwise a very relaxing four days!

Friday, 24 August 2012

Where Was I? Competition Solution and Winners

If you've been reading my past few posts, you'll have figured out by now that we were indeed in Brittany for the first part of August. Congratulations to Ksam, who also got the exact location and purpose of our visit: the Festival Interceltique de Lorient.

The Festival Interceltique is a week-long annual gathering of Celts from around the world where strange languages are spoken and the sound of the bagpipes is everywhere. The Celtic nations are the ones on the flag in the photo (clockwise from top left: Brittany, Isle of Man, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Ireland) plus Asturias and Galicia in Spain, while the Celtic diaspora includes populations in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Cuba, Mexico and this year's special guests, the Acadians from Canada, whose homelands were shown in the map photo.

Galician Piper
Normally the town is heaving during the festival but this was a quiet year and we strolled around the market and watched a free concert with no difficulty. We visited a stall selling cheese from Cornwall and tried some bizarre but delicious flavours of cheddar: curry, onion and vinegar and strawberries and champagne. The British reputation for eccentricity is being well upheld. We also couldn't resist a Kouign Amann (the cake in the photo), a Breton heart attack in pastry form that is essentially bread dough with lots and lots of warm, melty butter and caramelised sugar. We could have had haggis for lunch but my mother always told me not to eat haggis unless I knew where it came from, and a thousand miles from its possible origins seemed a bit too far away to be sure, so we opted for an Asturian menu instead: sausage with spicy sauce, meat and potato stew and rice pudding for desert. Despite numerous opportunities, we didn't actually drink any Guinness.

Asturian Lunch

Having eaten our way across the Celtic nations, we watched some Breton dancing, which involves lots of walking around in circles stamping your feet and turning your hands forwards and backwards in the right direction, but is a lot more technical (and interesting) than than makes it sound, so we didn't feel we could join in. The dancers were accompanied by musicians playing the fiddle, accordeon and bombarde, which is the instrument in one of the quiz pictures.

Celtic coast walk to burn off some celtic calories.
We opted instead for a walk along the coast west of the town and I caught my first glimpses of the Breton end of the Earth (Finistere). It was a fun day but the best part of the festival is actually the closing show, which we didn't have tickets and so ended up watching on TV at home instead.

Thank you to everyone who entered the competition - it was fun to read your comments and see what the guesses were. Ksam, you win first prize but I decided to have a runner up chosen at random from everyone who commented and Understanding Frenchman picked Zhu at random. If you guys email your postal addresses to englishprof at hotmail dot fr, I'll send you your prizes!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Belle Ile

Back in the summer of 2003, a friend and I tried to go on a trip to Brittany. Unfortunately, it was in the middle of a massive train strike and the man at the ticket office just laughed at us and told us to go and ride our bikes in the forest instead. I suspect that we probably did.

And so it was that I had a dream of north-west France long before I went there. In my head, Brittany was the wild, Celtic west of France, and my imagination was fuelled by images of ragged coastline under permanent attack from an angry sea, with hinterlands covered in heathery scrub and fiddle music in every pub.

I didn't want to admit it to myself, but the first time I actually found myself en Bretagne, I was a little disappointed. The sea was a gorgeous azure blue, the coastline was somewhat rocky and the gwenn ha dubh fluttered from the ramparts of Saint-Malo but the beaches were seaside resorts patterned with stripy parasols arranged in perfect rows and the coastal path was a concrete promenade bordered by the civilised gardens of English-style houses. (The crepes, on the other hand, were delicious.)

Since then I've learned a little more. West of Dinard, the sentier des Douaniers winds its way along an increasingly wild coast where modern bungalows and sandcastle shops are interspersed with promontories covered with heather and gorse. Particularly inland, the pretty stone cottages are there, and I even managed to find the fiddle music in Normandy. Still missing, though, were the jagged rocks and the roaring waves, and those magnificent lighthouses surrounded by clouds of sea-spray that you see on Breton calendars everywhere.

And then I went to Belle-Ile, and found everything that I was looking for.

Le Palais
We took the ferry from Quiberon, arriving at Le Palais just after 11am. You can also sail from Vannes and tickets from either cost about 30 euros return. I would have bought a day ticket for the bus but Understanding Frenchman was feeling adventurous and wanted to hire a scooter. By walking a few hundred metres from the sea-front, we were able to find one, but if you're interested in hiring a car (there are some dinky little ones that look like they're made of Lego if you're not bothered about going too fast) it would be worth arriving early or booking in advance. A little fearful, I wrapped my arms around his waist and we were off!

Boats at Sauzon
Our first stop was Sauzon, another port further up the coast, where we ate galettes and kouign amman sitting on a wall, then we made our way west as fast as our little 50cc bike would let us.

Pointe des Poulains
I was already happy with what I had seen and was looking forward to exploring the coastline some more, but when, still a good 5 minute walk from the cliffs at the Pointe des Poulains, we could already sea the waves exploding over the rocks, I realised it was going to be even better than I expected. And I was right. The photos don't really do justice to either the scale or the movement of the water, even although we stayed for at least an hour with me trying to capture everything on camera and Understanding Frenchman being particularly understanding.

After that, we went on to L'Apothecairerie to admire even higher cliffs, a huge natural arch, and this little staircase cut into the rock where you used to be able to walk until it became too dangerous.

Aiguilles du Coton
We had accidentally timed it so that high tide occurred around the time we arrived at the Aiguilles du Coton, so named because the spray rising behind them looks like the heads of cotton plants. The rocks themselves are supposed to resemble Mont-Saint-Michel, a howling dog, a
chicken, a sphinx and the profile of Louis XIV. Can you work out which is which?

We finished by taking a tour around the east end of the island, which was also very pretty, although less exciting, especially as we had mastered the technique of going round the bends on the scooter by that point!

Friday, 17 August 2012

Of Mary and Motorbikes

Anybody who lives in France knows that the 15th of August is a big national holiday. And, as such, as well as being the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is a day when you probably want to stay off the roads, because the whole country is probably trying to go somewhere.

Here in Brittany*, not only is the religious aspect of the day well-celebrated, with statues being paraded around villages in the traditional fashion, but there's an extra reason to stay off the roads as well: ten or twenty thousand motorcyclists descend on the small town of Porcaro to be blessed by the priest in a ceremony named "Madonne des Motards" or "Madonna of the Bikers" before riding around a circuit of 60km or so, waving on the way at the residents of the local towns and tossing sweets to the children.

Alternatively, if parading petrolheads aren't really your thing, you can head to the fabulously named town of Pleucadeuc, where you may start to wonder if all those roaring engines have given you double vision, because the 15th August is the date of the Grand Rassemblement des 2 et Plus, a grand gathering where twins, triplets and other multiple-birth siblings can attend mass together and enjoy a free aperitif.

It's all happening here en Bretagne!

* I realise this is a big clue in the Where Am I competition in my last post. The answers so far have been close but I thought somebody might figure out a few more details. You can post as many answers as you like but I'll only enter names into the prize draw once!

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Blogger Travel Quiz: Where am I?

Understanding Frenchman and I are on holiday. If you can guess from the pictures below where we are and what we've been doing, leave a comment in the box for the chance to win a mystery prize!
Lunch: Sausage with spicy sauce, bean casserole, meat stew with plenty of garlic and bean broth.
A Helpful Map ... sort of

A piper ... but where's his kilt?
There was plenty of this around ...
And a few of these...

We bought some of this

Some local scenery

How many flags do you recognise? And what is the connection?

Monday, 13 August 2012

How to be a Happy Expat Part 2

"You're must be quite a Francophile," people have stated to me on more than one occasion.

The response is a resounding "no", but only in my head. Outwardly, I just shrug my shoulders and say, "Perhaps."

Because how do you explain to someone that hasn't been there that twenty years of language learning, an honours degree, five years in a country, the ability to bluff convincingly about the difference between the different wine regions and a long-term relationship with a very nice French man are not enough to justify the slapping on of that label?

There are many things that I love about France, from the vast scope of its landscapes to the smallest details of its social customs. There are many things I dislike too, most of which I've ranted about  discussed in a mature and sensible manner on this blog already.

When I go home, I experience the exact same thing in reverse. Things to love, things to hate. Things that are better in France, things that the French could learn from us. Comparisons are inevitable.

But while I still enjoy examining the differences on an intellectual level, I find that, the longer I live in France, the less these external differences provoke me to agonise over whether being here is the right decision. It's partly because the longer I've stayed, the better things have worked out. But it's also because I've figured out that choosing to live here doesn't mean I have to love everything about it, and nor do I have to buy into all of it. Likewise, as this very funny blog post explains much more humorously than I could, when things go wrong, it's not necessarily France's fault either.

And that's why I dislike the term "Francophile". A country and its culture is far too much to love or admire in its entirety. Trying to decide whether the country deserves it or not is exhausting as well as impossible. But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy being here.

In summary: am I a lover of France? Perhaps not. Do I love living in France? Oh yes.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

How to be a Happy Expat (Version Two)

This summer for me marks the end of my fifth year in France. 5 years, four jobs, three addresses, two attempts to return home, and somehow, I find myself feeling settled and happy in this country, with no real desire to move on any time soon. I don't regret (m)any of the experiences I've had along the way and I suspect many of the lessons can only be learned the hard way, but, for what it's worth, here are my pearls of wisdom about how to turn a university year abroad into over half a decade of international living.

1. Location is important.

When I was young and naive, living in France was my goal and I didn't think terribly hard about the finer details. I've had some great experiences in the less visited regions of provincial France, and in my first year in particular, there were lots of advantages in being off the beaten tourist/expat track, but in the long term, a place that wouldn't make you happy in your home country isn't going to be that much different just because it's abroad. This isn't to say that everyone should live in the capital or the tourist havens, just that you need to weigh up the pros and cons just as carefully as you would in your native land.

2. Find your career

Not an easy one for foreigners in any country, and particularly not in France, where being different is often not an advantage. I happen to work in a sector where it's fairly easy to find a job anywhere in the world, but ironically it was returning home after years 1 and 2 that gave me the option of coming back to France to continue a satisfying career that I love. If I had been more focused on staying in France, either for myself or for somebody else, that would never have happened.

3. Have a balanced attitude to language.

During my first two years in France, I was very focused on speaking French at every opportunity (and luckily, in deepest Picardie, the opportunities to do anything else were pretty limited!). Now that my French is fluent, though, I really appreciate that I have a lot of contact with native English speakers as well. My French may have plateau-ed a little, but I think this is an OK trade-off for the fact that I get to maintain a linguistic balance in my life. There was a time when I avoided speaking English, and often felt taken advantage of if French people wanted to speak English with me, but I suspect I lost out on some interesting friendships as a result. By all means work hard to learn the local language, but don't underestimate the value of being able to express yourself in your mother tongue too!

4. Make local friends

Again, not always easy, but very important. Many of the best things about life in France occur in private circles (and, more specifically, around the dinner table!). Having French (or whatever nationality) friends, or (and I hate to wheel out the old cliche, but it's true) a French partner, allows you to enjoy all the things that make these crazy "What is going on here?" moments of the first year or so worth putting up with.Take the time to get to know people well and you'll gradually start to understand why things are they way they are too.

5. Make international friends.

Easy to do in Paris, perhaps harder elsewhere, but this is one of the best parts of living abroad for me. Being fellow-foreigners is an excuse to meet all kinds of interesting people and international friends can sate your appetite for foreign culture long after your French environment has started to feel like home.

Those are my tips. What are yours?

How to be a Happy Expat, Part One

The original version of this post was written in the middle of the night after a couple of hours in the pub, with the inevitable consequence that much of what I wrote was the blindingly obvious stated in a somewhat incoherent way.

I think I will re-post it later after some much-needed editing.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Le mot de Cambronne

In France, you can wish somebody bon just about anything: bonjour, bon courage, bon app, bonnes vacances, and, my personal favourite, bonne fin de dimanche. But one expression which is often avoided is bonne chance. Not because the French are too rational to believe in luck, but because, as in many other cultures, wishing somebody good luck is thought, even more superstitiously, to bring about bad luck. To avoid doing so, in English we have the dramatic "break a leg" and the Italians wish each other the daringly romantic in bocca al lupo ("into the mouth of the wolf").

So what do the French say?


But luckily for those of us who are too refined to resort to scatological humour at critical moments in our loved ones' lives, there is an alternative.

For, during the Battle of Waterloo, the famous General Cambronne was called upon to surrender himself to the British. The story goes that he replied that he would rather die than do so. When summoned a second time, he simply replied, "Merde!"

The British were apparently so impressed by his strength of character that, instead of killing him they merely took him prisoner.

Cambronne denied this for the rest of his life, but the legend nevertheless took root and Je te dis le mot de Cambronne became a perfectly normal way to wish somebody luck.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Génépi Tasting in the Alps

Not the stuff we actually tasted this time, which
got drunk before I could take a photo!
My last post may have given the impression that I spent my holidays engaged entirely in healthy, sporty activities. This is mostly true, but there was one day when we did something that was definitely not healthy or sporty, although perhaps could be described at a push as "cultural": we went génépi tasting. Génépi is a liqueur that is produced in the Alps from a small plant with yellow flowers that has the same name. In taste it's similar to Chartreuse: herbal, strongly alcoholic and sweet, although not in a sickly way. 

We visited the producers in the town of Corps. The man explained to us that there are in fact two different modes of production: macération(soaking)and distillation. Macération is the traditional method, where the plants are soaked in the alcohol, while distillation uses an alambic to produce a substance similar to an essential oil of the plant, which is then mixed with alcohol and sugar. Some producers add colour to their distilled product, but the one made by soaking is usually a natural shade of yellowy-green. Both kinds can be made sweeter or drier, with the drier varieties having a higher alcohol content.
We tasted sweet and dry versions of both types and I definitely preferred the génépi macération. It has an earthy, woody taste that was particularly obvious in the drier one, which was probably my favourite even though I normally have quite a sweet tooth. And if you are looking for a healthier alternative, the plant can also be made into a herbal tea that is supposed to help to treat colds.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Les Alpes

A week last Saturday, I woke up to find the first rays of light peeking through the gap in my bedroom window blind and rolled over to find Understanding Frenchman similarly wide-eyed and alert beside me. The alarm wasn't due to go off for another hour, but within ten minutes we were up and dressed. The reason? We were off on holiday, and as excited about it as little children.

And so, just like when I was a little child, within an hour we had the car loaded up and were headed for the mountains.

Our destination, the Champsaur valley, which is south of Grenoble and north of Gap, was perfect. The Champsaur Valley itself is quite wide and lined with fields, farmland and forests. At its head is the sparkling Lac du Sautet and Gap was easily accesible from our end for transport and shops. Best of all, though, are the mountains that flank the valley: towering ridges to the west and, to the east, the stunningly beautiful Parc des Ecrins, a vast wilderness of lonely valleys, glaciers and dramatic peaks that include some of France's highest mountains.

Our gite, which we shared with ten friends, had a games room, a terrace, a barbecue and a large garden, all of which we made full use of. We were warned by the gite owner that our neighbours might be noisy on the first night, because the vieille fille of the village was finally getting PACSed, but if it was a problem, we were  to go round and join them for a drink. (Some of my friends did.)

We hiked most days, usually to a col with a beautiful view or to one of the more accessible summits. We failed to climb the Vieux Chaillol, mostly because we didn't realise how close it was and get up early enough in the morning to make it all the way to the top, but every day had something to make it special. The weather was warm and sunny, but never really too hot. On our rest day from hiking, we hired canoes on the Lac du Sautet and paddled to a hidden beach for lunch, before coming back, diving into the lake and having a ridiculous amount of fun on the inflatable toys.

I came home thinking how incredibly lucky I am to be living in this beautiful country with such gorgeous places only a few hours' drive away, and, above all, to have a great group of friends to share it with. Life is good.