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: