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?

Merde.

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.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Lost in Italy

Parigi - Lione - Torino - Milano ... Paris - Lyon - Turin - Milan* 

It's become something of a habit for me to take this train at least once a year, usually in the summer, and my trip of 2012 started on Friday of last week, unsociably early in the morning. With three new books downloaded onto my Kindle, the entire archive of a newly discovered blog to read, and gorgeous scenery flashing by outside the window, I had no worries about how to fill the time. (I may have napped a little too).

And then I stepped off on to the platform in Milan and felt strangely disorientated. It was partly that the train, which used to go directly to Milano Centrale, now terminates at the Porta Garibaldi. I had to take the metro, and I was fairly sure it was the green line, but I couldn't remember which direction and didn't know automatically which buttons to press on the ticket machine. Apparently three years is enough to forget what a metro map looks like.

But it wasn't really that. It wasn't really the language either, because a diet of Rai television , Italian novels and conversations with friends here in Paris is enough to keep the words fairly near the front of my mind from one visit to the next.

What I had forgotten was how to behave. Not my manners, of course, but those small, subconscious signals that we give out that show that we are local or foreign, lost or comfortable in our own skin. How loudly do you speak? Walking into a shop, at what point do you say Buongiorno? Or do you use Ciao? And more than anything, when do you look people in the eye, and when is it safer to keep your glances to yourself?

For a couple of hours, I felt foreign. Then slowly it came creeping back, and I felt at home in Italy again.

My next few posts will be over on my Italian blog.


*Don't you love that in Italian Lyon is called Lion?