Friday, 25 January 2013

The Great Plate Debate

The other night, Understanding Frenchman was at mine and I was serving dinner. He watched me as I poured soup into bowls, then took the two plates out from underneath to put our slices of toast on.

"Jen and Arnaud," he said, referring to two friends that we had had dinner with at the weekend, "were having the same conversation as us.The one about the plates."

Jen and Arnaud are a Franco-British couple like us and I was relieved to hear that we are not the only ones who have in depth discussions over the dinner table about aspects of our daily routine which same-nationality couples probably don't even notice, never mind discuss. Like the Great Plate Debate.

Let me explain.

On the first morning of my very first experience of living in a French family, it was rudely brought to my attention that the French, when they serve bread at the table, do not find it necessary to use a plate. I say rudely, because at the same time as we were happily eating bread and jam straight off the kitchen table, so was my host family's large, slobbery black Labrador dog. Very few things would put me off fresh baguette served with thick butter and a layer of confiture, but this was one of them.

Since then, I have had plenty of opportunities to observe that, while the presence of drooling dog was fairly unusual, the absence of plate was not. This caused me to ask myself two profound existential questions. Firstly, why? And secondly, is it important?

I have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer to the first. Perhaps the hard crust of a French baguette makes it less likely to leave crumbs on the table than a British loaf. Perhaps because we more routinely spread on butter, we're more worried about the table getting sticky. Or maybe we have more of a liking for table cloths, or a stronger aversion to wiping hard surfaces.

Luckily, the second question is easier. The answer to this one is quite clearly "not in the slightest." Unless, of course, there's a slavering canine somewhere in the vicinity.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

France's Secret Winter Paradise

I spent last weekend in a region of France where the air is fresh and clean, the mountains are covered in pristine white snow and cosy chalets await your return after a heady day of winter sports. The trees are tall and stretch straight up to the sky like dark green arrows, appearing to have taken on some Swiss discipline from their neighbours just over the border. Local specialities include unique wines, charcuterie and melted cheese dishes. It's beautiful, welcoming and totally inexpensive ... and there's nobody there.
In another part of the world, the Jura mountains would probably be a hot tourist destination, or at least a common place for domestic travellers to spend a relaxing weekend, but positioned next to the stunning glory of the Alps, they seem to get forgotten. Which is all part of their charm.

Admittedly, thrill-seekers could be disappointed here. The slopes are gradual, and most of the downhill ski pistes are gentle blues and greens. For cross-country skiing and snowshoe walking, however, it's perfect. We hired raquettes at the ski station at Les Fourgs and walked everywhere: in deep snow you can literally go where you like, including over fences, tree tops and, if you go in the right direction, the Swiss border. In the evening, we had baked Mont D'Or cheese with charcuterie and potatoes, washed down with local Arbois wine. The Jura may not have world-famous peaks or daredevil ski pistes, but if you want a breath of fresh air far from the crowds, it's absolutely perfect.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Paris proute-proute

Proute-proute: adjective describing a stuck-up person. The  word "proute" also refers to the sound made by the passing of intestinal gas. As this is a family blog, we will leave it to our readers to deduce the connection.

What do you think of when you picture a stereotypical Parisian man? Baguettes, berets and bicycles aside, some of the images that spring to mind may have at least a little grain of truth in them. While generalising is dangerous, especially when it comes to people, fastidious dressing and grooming seem to be more of the norm in this city that anywhere else I've ever lived. In the past 4 years, I've seen more designer stubble and more shiny leather shoes worn at weekends than in the rest of my lifetime, while the number of men I know who iron their underwear has taken an infinite leap (from zero to, well, some).

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of discovering where this particular breed of Parisian man buys his grooming products. Le Comptoir de l'homme is the dream of the serious dandy: a neat boutique where Acqua di Parma and men's moisturisers stand in immaculate rows on the gleaming black and silver shelves and where a charming parisienne of a certain age will analyse monsieur's skin type and recommend an appropriately pricey product.

There's only one arrondissement of Paris that could so appropriately house such a tiny but chic establishment. In a world where there's an H&M and a McDonald's on the Champs Elysees, it's the 6th that truly embodies the Paris of small, independent shops employing expert salespeople to cater for every specialist need of which we all have a notion tucked away in our subconscious.

By circumstance rather than definite choice, I tend to be more of a rive droite girl, and much of this area was fairly new to me. And I don't just mean the geography. Never had I been so aware of being surrounded by classically Parisian Parisians. Chic gentlemen aside, you haven't truly experienced les parisiens until you have watched chic women who clearly do all their food shopping in L'Epicerie du Bon Marche and look as though they haven't smiled for decades tottering down the street on their high heels and smoking cigarettes in actual cigarette holders.

So we felt some amusement when we rounded the corner and came across this shop:

I snapped a quick photo, then we headed back to the proletarian districts, which is where I, at least, clearly belong.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

An International Cheese Mystery

As a homesick Scottish girl of simple tastes, one of the foods I missed when I first arrived in France was cheddar (preferably the dyed orange variety). In all of the 365 varieties that France had to offer, nothing could rival the delicious melty goodness of that traditional British staple. I was open to trying new things, but I missed the old.

Careful studying of recipes and intense discussions with friends revealed that the cheese most likely to replace my beloved favourite in the maintaining-a-delicious-flavour-while-not-developing-a-rubbery-texture stakes was Gruyère.

The only problem was where to find it. The French talk about Gruyère a lot. They even mistake it for Emmental when looking for a simile for something that is full of holes.  But to find it in the supermarket, you’d have to be pretty lucky.  Gruyère is made in Switzerland and in France it’s as elusive as the names of the holders of its country’s bank accounts.

It was only last night, when reading an English language article about tourism in the Jura mountains, that I stumbled across the explanation for the mystery. It turns out that the French used to make Gruyère too, until it fell foul of EU AOC regulation, which ruled that, like champagne in Champagne, true Gruyère could only be made in Switzerland. So what used to be called French Gruyère de _____  now simply goes by the name of the region where it is produced, and it’s staring at you from every supermarket cheese aisle. It’s the flavoursome yellow cheese which is really not bad melted on toast. Called Comté.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Paris vs Suburbia

I was recently asked to give advice to a new colleague who has just arrived in France and is looking for a flat. We work out in the suburbs (the nice ones - I avoided the word banlieue in the title because of its negative connotations!) and the question that was put to us was, when you are young and child-free, isn't it better to live in Paris? I am usually happy to share my opinion about just about anything, but this was a subject particularly close to my heart, or at least to my current reality. In my first job in the région parisienne, I was encouraged to live close to my work, and as I had to travel between suburbs as part of my job, it was a good idea, otherwise I could have spent my whole life on public transport. I don't have to do that anymore, but my flat was still conveniently located for work, so I stayed. (My flat is also charming and comfortable and has a fitted kitchen and an inside staircase, so it's very hard to leave.)

Understanding Frenchman, on the other hand, works in central Paris and has lived in the city for years. He has a spacious apartment near the metro which is so well-insulated that he never turns the heating on and which he would also be very reluctant to leave ... on the other side of Paris. And the thought of doing that commute twice a day (almost an hour and a half each way, on a good day) is just too much for me. So this is a subject that we talk about a lot.

My reasoning has always been mostly practical - I'd rather jump on the RER and occasionally run for the last train home when I'm motivated to do something fun in Paris than be forced to crush myself sleepily into its sardine-can carriages every morning and evening. I appreciate the city's beauty far more when walking around it tranquille on a Sunday afternoon than when I'm lugging my shopping home from one of its tiny, cramped supermarkets on a weekday evening. And if you choose in the right place to live, the RER runs several times an hour right up to well past midnight.

But sometimes I wonder if this is something I'll regret in later life. Maybe if I lived in Paris, I'd spend more time popping into its tiny, quirky bars for a quick after-work drink. Perhaps it would be nice to be able to do some shopping on the Grands Boulevards of an evening. In the summer, I might get off the metro a few stops early and watch the sunset over the Seine on the way home. Perhaps in the future it won't be an option and I'll regret not doing it when I was young.

What do you think? For those of you who live in Paris, is it an experience that everyone should have, or does the stress of the daily grind quickly overshadow the magic? And for those of you who don't, would you like to?

Monday, 7 January 2013

La Politesse à Paris

When you think of Parisians on public transport, friendliness and impeccable manners are not always the first thing that come to mind. Passengers push their way on to trains, put their feet on the seats and avoid all eye contact (and that's when they're not being outright abusive - right Ella Coquine?), while often you have more chance of getting a smile from the automated ticket machines than the human personnel behind the bullet-proof glass.*

My trip back from the airport the other day started out as no exception. I dragged my luggage through the blink-and-you-miss-it gates, heaved my suitcase down the unforgiving stares, took my place on the train and didn't even look up as two men took the seats beside me.

Then the ticket inspectors got on. Working in pairs, they made their way down the carriage, checking the stamps on everyone's tickets and zapping the Navigo passes with their little machines. Unfortunately, the guy next to me had a ticket that had been stamped before 7am that morning (a good ten hours beforehand) while his mate's Navigo pass hadn't been charged since the new year.

The inspectors explained that the fine would be 45 euros.

The first man, fumbling in his wallet, asked what would happen if he didn't pay.

Then, said the inspectors, they would ask for ID and the amount would go up to 75 euros.

But you can't make us give you ID, stated one of the men.

No, said the ticket inspectors, but they would call the police, who would escort the men from the train at the next station.

Yes, they said, Mr Invalid Ticket could indeed pay the fine with his carte bleue.

This reminded him, he explained (in a subtle show of bravado) why he stopped using public transport and normally takes his car these days.

Merci, monsieur, they said, giving him his receipt and moving off down the corridor, quietly requesting that another passenger remove his feet from the seats opposite him (which he promptly did) as they went.

Nothing exceptional in all of this, you might think, but what was impressive was the tone in which the whole conversation was carried out. Everyone vouvoie-d everyone else. Nobody raised their voice. Never was there an angry glance or a conflictual stare. Instead, most of the talking was done by the young-ish female inspector, in a quiet, feminine voice accompanied by a winning smile.

I think there might be a lesson in dealing with difficult people for all of us there. And if you want a smile on the Paris metro, try not paying for your ticket. It might be worth the 45 euro fine.

*I make an exception, of course, for the man who once re-validated my ticket when I accidentally exited the metro and gave me a "Happy Christmas" sticker at the same time.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Feliz Año Nuevo

Ten years ago, when I first moved to France, I discovered that one of the things I like to do most in the whole wide world is learn foreign languages and speak them in real, natural contexts. At the time I was studying French and German; soon afterwards I picked up Italian. I spent another year in France, worked in Italy, visited friends in Bavaria and Berlin, moved to Paris, joined a language exchange club, made friends from all over the world.

And then gradually it all just trailed to a halt. A combination of relationships, a career and the realisation that when it comes to life experiences, you sometimes have to compromise quantity for quality mean that I no longer envisage a future where I can move to a new country every couple of years, learning a new language with every border crossing. Because the trouble with having the things you really want in life is that it would be stupid to give them up. And you know that you don't really want to.

It's true that I speak in French every day and I do read and occasionally communicate in Italian or (more rarely) German, but apart from the odd new word or expression, I don't really feel I'm learning much. In fact, I have a nagging feeling that the language-learning part of my mind is slowly rotting away and that the chances of experiencing that glorious moment when it feels as if your whole brain lights up as you produce a complex sentence in a new language without even thinking about it, are fast receding into the distant past.

And so, for 2013, I have decided on a new goal: I'm going to learn Spanish. And, if I pick up Spanish fast enough, possibly Portuguese as well.

This isn't the first time I've tried. I did a month or so of Spanish at school, then tried with cassette tapes (yes, it was that long ago!), and made a vague attempt before a trip to Andalucia a couple of years ago, but each time my efforts and motivation petered out and I was stuck not quite remembering the conjugations and turning every sentence into pidgin Italian.

That's the problem you see. If you speak French and Italian, Spanish should be easy. And it is. So easy that I get bored at the point when the textbook is trying to explain the differences between definite articles or the different forms of "you". But at the same time, I don't actually know what the words in the grammar points are, or quite how you pronounce that word in Spanish so that it doesn't sound Italian.

My plan to get over this has two main prongs of attack. Firstly, I'm going to learn the grammar so fast that I don't have time to get bored of it. The advantage of choosing Spanish as a language to learn is that there are tons of free resources out there on the internet, so you don't have to pay a fortune for endless repetition of things you kind of know already. And as soon as I've blitzed the main points and swotted up on some vocab, I'm going to try the Telenovela Method,  as described on this blog that I found through Jennie's site.

The last part of my plan relates to motivation. I've swithered over Spanish for so long because on the one hand it seems too easy, but on the other it's the language that I'm most likely to use, both in the near future and repeatedly in the long term. So along with my resolutions to study, I'm planning to go to Spain again this year, in the hope that I'll finally be able to talk to my friend's boyfriend and understand her toddler, while Understanding Frenchman and I are investigating the possibility of a trip to South America sometime in the next year or so ... by which time I will definitely hopefully be fluent in Portuguese as well (I can dream, OK?).

Finally, I'm publishing all of this on my blog in the hope that it will provide some extrinsic motivation. If anybody fancies being my online study partner, so that we can kick each other into gear any time we get lazy, please let me know!

Friday, 4 January 2013

A Franco-Scottish New Year

Princes Street at Dusk
With Christnas being so close to the weekend this year and the inexplicable absence of EasyJet flights to Edinburgh on Saturdays, I took the risk of leaving my departure for the motherland until five-thirty on Christmas Eve. I was convinced that it was going to be the nightmare of nightmares but in fact the whole thing was almost ridiculously calm, presumably because all the stressy people who normally make flying a nightmare by bringing too much luggage and queueing to get on before the plane has even arrived at the gate had already done their travelling and only civilised people were left. But, believing that the whole thing would take a long time to recover from, I arranged to stay at my parents' for ten whole days, which was quite long enough to sink into a glorious haze of long lies, mulled wine and having my washing done that I am only just emerging from now.

It was also high time for Understanding Frenchman to spend some time getting to know the quirks of my little country and my crazy family to allow him to appreciate what he might be getting himself in for, so he joined me just after Christmas to celebrate Hogmanay in Scotland.
Country walks chez mes parents

Because the Scots Kirk was historically against the idea of indulgent celebrating of religious occasions, New Year in Scotland is traditionally a bigger party than Christmas, and this year my family followed the same pattern. Christmas was quiet, but by the 31st, all the family was there. We didn't go into town for Hogmanay itself, so poor Understanding Frenchman got to witness champagne-fuelled singing and accordian playing at midnight, flanked on one side by family card games and on the other by heated political discussion instead. Luckily he came out still smiling and was even able to teach us the French version of Auld Lang Syne (Ce n'est qu'un au revoir, if you're interested.)

Night Afore Fiesta
The rest of the time, though, we did a pretty good job of making the most of what Edinburgh had to offer around New Year. On the 30th, we watched the torchlit procession to Calton Hill, made up of a pipe band, a few Shetland Vikings in costume, followed by several thousand members of the public who were also carrying large flaming sticks, all with very little evidence of either health and safety precautions or any fire-related problems. With hindsight, we realised it would have been better to climb the hill earlier, as there was a dance production going on at the top, while the procession itself was not all that exciting to watch once the band and the Vikings had gone past, but the fireworks display at the end was very impressive.

From the Royal Museum roof terrace
Edinburgh Castle
In the interest of being educated, we visited Our Dynamic Earth, a relatively new museum which explains the origins of our planet and how life began. It's very showy - you can stand on model of an erupting volcano and gaze into the primordial soup - but kids would probably learn more from it than adults, because I felt that I knew most of the actual information content already.  We also went to the Royal Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, which is amazing. The artefacts and models that I remember looking at as a child are still there but they've added lots of interactive exhibits and activities and there was something new to learn at every turn. We spent an hour and a half there and it was nowhere near long enough to even scratch the surface of one section. I'll be going back!

The Royal Mile
The other thing I really enjoyed was just spending time in pubs and coffee shops soaking up the cosiness. In Scotland, night falls at around 4 o'clock in December and so people really make an effort to fight against the cold and the darkness with warm lighting, hot food and drinks and pretty Christmas decorations. I've written before about how Paris doesn't really do cosy, so I stocked up on a winter's worth of warm pub comfort in the few days we were there. We even managed lunch at the Elephant House, a lovely Edinburgh coffee shop that you nearly always have to queue for now that word has got out that JK Rowling wrote large parts of the Harry Potter books there.

And of course we had to have a trip to Marks and Spencer's, where Understanding Frenchman likes to buy his shirts. That's proof of integration for you.