Saturday, 31 August 2013

Another French Oxymoron?

Over the summer, I was a guest at an event that I suspect could only happen in France, or, at least, an event that requires that typically French ability to represent what seem to be total contradictions as entirely logical: we were guests at a civil baptism.

I describe this ceremony as contradictory, because a baptism, by definition, is a Christian ceremony. I don't mean that people can't or shouldn't have non-religious ceremonies around the birth or naming of a baby, just that I find it odd that the vehemently secular French state has no problem with appropriating this word for something which is not religious at all.

The second reason why civil baptisms are contradictory is that they take place in the mairie and are led by an elected official, but have no legal significance whatsoever.

For those of you who have never heard of them (and most of the French people I've mentioned it to hadn't), here's a brief description:

A baptême civil is officially known as le parrainage civil (Parrain/marraine means Godfather/Godmother or sponsor). Nonetheless, the word baptême was used repeatedly during the ceremony, which dates from the time of the French Revolution. During the ceremony, the parents acknowledge that if anything happens to them (the word used here is "disparition", which I found a bit odd), their child will be placed in the care of the state, as is, in fact, the case anyway, whether they acknowledge it or not. The not-Godparents then sign a document agreeing to bring up the child according to their parents' values, but this doesn't legally commit them to anything and is described as a purely moral engagement. At the one we went to, the children were then given a commemorative medal, then we all went back to the house for lunch.

When I first heard about civil baptism, I was pretty sceptical, but I wanted to go with an open mind. Mostly, I was doubtful about a ceremony with so little practical significance. Unlike a civil wedding, which alters the legal status of the couple, or a religious baptism, where the child becomes part of the church, a civil baptism changes nothing. I suppose the actual civil equivalent of church baptism is registering a baby's birth, but nobody has a big party for that. The concept seemed to me to have been invented at best to replace something which can't really be replaced, and at worst to make an political point.

The way that the ceremony we attended was conducted did nothing to assuage these doubts. The lady from the mairie talked at length about the revolutionary origins of civil baptism and about the importance of bringing up the child according to the valeurs de la République. So there was a bit about liberté, égalité, fraternité, an awful lot about the secular state, and almost nothing about the children themselves, or their wellbeing, with the result that the speech was more political polemic than anything else.

The part that I felt was much more meaningful came well after we had left the mairie, in our friends' garden. The mother gave a beautiful and moving speech about why they had chosen these particular people to be parrain and marraine and about the values they hoped that they would pass on to their child, then the parrain and marraine gave the child a little gift.

So did I leave with a deeper appreciation of this apparently contradictory event? Well, sort of. On the one hand, I completely understand the parents' desire to commemorate and celebrate the very special task that their dear friends had agreed to undertake for their children. But on the other, psuedo-legal aspect of the part at the mairie felt very forced, and the official's discourse not totally appropriate for the occasion, and I couldn't help thinking it would have felt just as special if it had just been the heartfelt speeches and the little exchange of gifts in the back garden.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The Highest Mountain

Not long after Understanding Frenchman and I first met, he made me a promise. A few short months had been enough for him to understand how much I love the mountains, and after listening to yet another lyrical description of the Ecrins, the Aravis or the Alpes Maritimes, he told me that one day he would take me to the Monts d'Arrée.

Like most people, my first reaction was, "Mont-what?"

But as soon as he told me that the Monts d'Arrée are a chain of peaks in the Massif Armoricain, which along with the Alps, the Pyrenées, the Jura, the Vosges and the Massif Central is considered one of France's principal mountain ranges, and that one of its summits is the highest point in Brittany, I was determined to go.

And so, after our adventures in the magical forest of Huelgoat, we drove to the foot of the Roc'h Trévézel and began our ascent. As you can see from these pictures, the ridge is rocky and dramatic looking, and we did a bit of scrambling.

... but as this picture shows, the top of it is probably less than 50 m above the car park. Although the Monts d"Arrée reach elevations of 385m, most of the climb is a very gentle slope up from sea level, and the bit that sticks out of the plateau is not very high at all.

Nevertheless, I was pretty excited about being at the highest point in Brittany, and at the top of a major mountain range too. Until, that is, we arrived home and I decided to double check my facts before posting boastful claims and cleverly engineered pictures all over Facebook. Lucky I did (or perhaps not): it turns out that according to the most recent geographical surveys, the highest point in Brittany is actually the neighbouring Roc'h Ruz, and not the Roc'h Trévézel at all.

I actually think we might well have climbed the Roc'h Ruz as well, as we did a second, unidentified, peak just after the first which may have been approximately the right place, but as nobody seems to have considered the Roc'h Ruz to be important until very recently, there's very little information about its location out there and it doesn't seem to be marked on any maps. And whatever the precise heights of the mountains (the differences are a question of a few centimetres), they are definitely worth visiting for the cool rock formations and the beautiful views from the top - you can see fields, lakes and forest stretching out in every direction and dotted with little villages, while on the western horizon is the Rade de Brest and the Atlantic Ocean.

I'm choosing to believe that we did climb the right mountain though, especially as my internet research revealed two other distressing facts: the Monts d'Arrée are the highest in Brittany, but the highest in the whole massif is actually in the Mayenne department in the Pays de la Loire, and worst of all, there are two peaks in Normandy that beat their Breton neighbours by about 30 metres!

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Enchanted Forest at the End of the Earth

Le Chaos
To visit the enchanted forest, you must travel to the far, far west of France, to a place called Finistère, the end of the Earth. From the shores of the lake, you take a little path by the side of the river gorge which weaves between mossy boulders as high as a house, into the woods where the light dances with the shadows amongst the trees. Once you have entered the stony gates, if you wander along the meandering paths with open eyes and an open imagination, you will discover many wonderful things.

As you can probably tell from the above paragraph, I'm a bit of a sucker for Breton history and legends. Over the past couple of summers, Understanding Frenchman and I have done a fairly thorough exploration of the Forêt de Brocéliande, home to the Chêne à Guillotin, the Miroir aux Fées and the Fountain of Eternal Youth. This year, however, was the first time that we had been out west to the Forêt de Huelgoat, where there was even more to be discovered.

La Grotte du Diable
Just after the entrance to the forest (which is located at the end of the lake in Huelgoat) is the Grotte du Diable. The story behind the name of the cave is that a Revolutionary fighter once hid there on the run from the Royalist army. Wearing a hat with two feathers in it and carrying a large fork as a weapon, he built a fire and stood behind it. When the partisans entered the cave, they saw his shadow and ran away screaming, convinced that they had seen the devil. As well as this story, the cave is also worth visiting for its dramatic rock formations, as it's actually perched in the boulders above the river gorge. It's now all safely enclosed with metal barriers, but I would still recommend good footwear if you want to go down there.

A little further into the forest is Le Chaos, a large boulder field through which the river flows. The geological origin of the boulders is volcanic: the granite rocks were pushed up from the bowels of the Earth, then developed cracks as they cooled. Rain water running through the fissures changed the shape of the rocks to the heaps of boulders stacked haphazardly on top of each other that you can see today. In the legend, however, they were hurled there by a hungry giant!

La Pierre Tremblante
Our next stop was the Pierre Tremblante. This block of granite is the size of a small van and weighs about 7 tonnes, but if you push it in exactly the correct place, even a child can make it wobble. We were lucky enough to see somebody else do it as we arrived, and after a couple of tries, we were able to move the massive boulder ourselves.

There are a couple of sites with links to Arthurian legends: the Camp d'Artus, and the Grotte d'Artus, where Arthur kept the treasure which Merlin revealed to him in the Val sans Retour in Brocéliande, guarded by flying demons in the form of will-o'the-wisps. And there were some places we didn't see, as we had another mission to complete in Finistère before the daylight faded (more on that another time), but we did make it to the Gouffre de Dahut, the chasm where the dissolute Princess Dahut liked to throw her lovers once she had had her wicked way with them.

Inland Bretagne is always so much quieter than the coast in the summer, and this particular area is so isolated (it takes six or seven hours to drive there from Paris) that even at the height of the holiday season, we had plenty of the sites to ourselves a lot of the time. I would imagine that if you go off-season, it really is absolutely magical. 

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Most Important Thing You Need to Know about Dating a French Man

The internet is full of information for anglophone ladies looking to snare a Frenchie. From knowing whether or not that first kiss means you really are a couple to the difference between "Je t'aime bien" and "Je t'aime" (you might be surprised about which one is the holy grail), the answers are out there (although some of them may not be strictly correct, as Gwan does a great job of explaining in this post.)

In my experience though, there's only one thing that you really need to know: if you get to the stage of meeting your future in-laws, you are supposed to call them vous. And while this might sound obvious, you also have to know that even if they start calling you tu, you're still supposed to vouvoie them back. (It's one of the very few relationships you can have where tutoiement is not reciprocal.)

When I first met Understanding Frenchman's parents, I was lucky enough to have got a heads-up on this. (I think it was on Ksam's blog, so thanks, Sam!) But when I double checked with UFM himself, he said, "No, no, you can call them tu." At the time, this seemed more normal to me. I reasoned that calling them vous was the equivalent of my parents insisting that they were Mr and Mrs, which they would never do.

The first time I met M. et Mme Frenchman was when they were visiting Paris and it was easy to use vous because most of the time I was addressing both of them. It was only when I first went to Brittany that I realised the situation wasn't entirely clear - did I tutoie them straight off or wait for them to say something? And so I tended to avoid using the word "you" at all (it's amazing what you can do with impersonal constructions such as on and tout se passe bien?) and we ended up in this vicious cycle where because I never used vous, they never officially told me not to and I was left sort of tutoie-ing them but not feeling very comfortable about it.

And then, on the next visit, UFM's sister's boyfriend of ten years, with whom she has a child, came over, and I noticed he was calling them vous. But when I mentioned it to UFM he just said, "Oh yeah, he's from Bordeaux. They're all very formal there." So it wasn't until the next visit again, when his sister-in-law was over with their kids, and he said to me, "Acutally, I think she calls my parents vous," that I started to seriously worry.

Understanding Frenchman didn't really get what I was so upset about. His family are genuinely very nice and very laid back and I think that even if I had made some huge faux pas, they wouldn't have been mortally offended by it. But I couldn't get it out of my mind, and eventually I went on about it so much that he brought it up with his parents one day when I wasn't there, and they said it really was all fine.

The thing is, though, that although I get on really well with both of them, and feel very relaxed when I'm there (I help myself to things from their fridge and we have breakfast in our pyjamas), I've come to understand that the whole tradition, while it still seems a bit stiff and stand-offish to me, actually has some sense to it. It's not exactly the equivalent of Mr and Mrs in English, and it could be a nice way of showing that, while I feel very at home in their house and we laugh and joke a lot together, I still have lots of respect for them as well.

Talking to a group of non-French friends who are all in relationships with French people the other week, it transpired that all of us have broken this rule in one way or another, with varying degrees of horror on the part of the Frenchies involved. (I definitely got off very lightly!)

So the lesson to be learned from this is, if you're going to date a French person, call their parents vous obviously, often, openly and until they tell you not to. Otherwise you could end up avoiding the word "you" around them for decades.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Blonde Highlights and Stolen Lorries

In an attempt to prove my theory about French style vs British style, I found myself walking around town yesterday conducting a mental survey of hairstyles. Realising that this was probably making my company a bit tedious, as half my brain was focused on trying to work out just what degree of straightness and which shades of blonde were natural, and wanting another perspective on the matter, I decided to share my thoughts with the friend (French and male) I was with.

"Of course," he said, after listening to my carefully detailed explanation of how French girls tend to go for more natural-looking styles (the "looking" part is important!) that make the most of their real selves, while British girls often put a lot of effort into changing their appearance to conform to a particular look that has been deemed stylish by someone else.

He continued bluntly, "In France, the aim is to look different from everybody else. In Britain, all the girls look the same. They all dye their hair blonde, et elles sont repaintes comme des camions volés."

If  "apart from you and all your lovely friends (and of course, very stylish blog readers)" hadn't been so clearly implied in what he said I might have been tempted to hit him. Instead, theory confirmed, I just laughed and took note of the funny new French expression

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Flat Hair vs Fluffy Hair and Other Reflections on French Style

While I was in Scotland the other week, I decided to take advantage of spare time and small-town prices to go and get my hair cut. And the consequence of this, as should have been obvious from the start, was that I ended up with a British Girl haircut and all sorts of thoughts going around in my head about the differences between French and British style.

I remember a British friend who had just moved to France once commenting how nice it was to see that French teenage girls seemed to be less obsessed with their appearance than their British counterparts. (My friend is a secondary-school teacher.) As examples of this, she cited the way her former pupils in England nearly all dyed their hair blonde, used fake tan and wouldn't leave the house without a thick layer of makeup on their faces. And it's true that, apart from those who go for full-on bling, the average French adolescent female does seem much more likely to wear slighly geeky glasses (as opposed to contact lenses) and go around with just-got-out-of-bed hair. Particularly outside of Paris, I'm also continually surprised by the popularity of sensible flat shoes with a comfortably thick sole among not-particularly-middle-aged French women.

But let me go back to my haircut. It's not that I don't like it, exactly. It's just not quite what I would have chosen. The first surprise came before the hairdresser even got the scissors out. I didn't need my hair washed and was expecting her to spray it with water, but instead she got the straighteners out. This is a trend that has been around since I was a student, where even people who already have straight hair (like me) feel the need to make it go really straight. As in flat.

The second thing she did was put back in the layers around the back of my head that I once let a stylist cut and spent the best part of a decade trying to get rid of without cutting my hair ridiculously short. The idea of this, like the straighteners, is of course to reduce the volume and add more shape. The thing is, I quite like the volume and I preferred the shape I had before. But now unless I start using straighteners, I risk having volume in the way a haystack has volume, rather than thick, luxuriant locks.

It's not a hairstyle that looks bad on other people (or even, objectively, on me). It's just that I don't feel it really makes the best advantage of what I like about my hair; instead, it takes a style that might be great for somebody else and puts it on my head. If I want it to look the way it's "supposed" to be, I'll have toput in a lot of effort (for my low-maintenance self) in order to not look like me.

And this, I think, is where French style is different from British. For all we Brits are renowned for our eccentricity, a large majority actually tend to follow the crowd and assume that what someone else is doing (especially if they're on the pages of Hello and Grazia) must be good for them as well. I don't actually believe that French women obsess less about their appearance, or spend less time on it, but I do think that they perhaps direct their efforts more towards making the most of what nature gave them (eg buying expensive face cream) rather than trying to change it altogether (by covering themselves in fake tan). I would also say that I see a lot less flat hair in Paris than I did in the UK. But I suspect that I have readers who are far more stylish than I am, and appreciate the nuances of a look much better than I do, so what do you all think?

P.S. Don't forget to click on the links to my other blog to find out what confetti really means at an Italian wedding and how to make the most of a summer trip to Liguria.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Abandoned Marmite, or Why Some Foods Don't Travel Well

Those of you who are not completely up to date with the critical issues in current international news may have missed the controversy that this advert has stirred up across the British Isles. Some people are shocked by the way the serious themes of child and animal abuse have been evoked for something so frivolous as the marketing of the salty, malty tea time spread. Others think the ad is funny. And then there are the people who are reminded that they actually do have a somewhat neglected jar of Marmite in the cupboard and they had better eat it soon.

In my case, it's not one jar, but two. Two lovingly imported pots of the black, tarry stuff that have been lingering at the back of the shelf for well over a year. (I'm pretty sure it keeps forever though.)

And yet, my mother was horrified to discover that after only one week of my presence in her house, their jar was practically finished, because I have been eating it every day for breakfast and sometimes  for lunch as well.

It seems that there are some foods which just don't travel well, and not because they're fragile or perishable. In the case of Marmite, I think the problem is actually French bread. It doesn't toast well enough, and the flavour of your average baguette is far too delicate to cope with Marmite's strong taste. I rarely buy other kinds of bread from the boulangerie because they're very expensive, come in awkward shapes, and tend to go too hard even for toasting by the second day. And don't even get me started on the weird sugariness of "American Sandwich" bread which you can't even buy in thick slices.

Here are some other foods which fall into this category:

Spritz Aperol: this is probably my favourite summer drink in Italy, but I've never been tempted to bring a bottle home and, despite the recent marketing campaign, I don't see myself ordering it in a UK bar either. It's a drink for hot weather and is best when mixed by an attractive Italian bar man :-)

Fish Suppers: should only be eaten after a day of serious physical work, preferably sitting on a concrete wall while the sea breeze blows slightly damp air in your face.

Cheese fondue: again, you really need to have spent a day in the mountains to deserve this one, and it always tastes better when both the cheese and the wine are local.

Would you add any others to the list?

Monday, 12 August 2013

Lessons Learned from Parking Fines

Just the other day, I parked the car I was driving in a designated parking space by the side of a wide and not particularly busy street. I walked down the road to the parking meter, read the information twice, inserted some coins, collected the ticket and stuck it carefully on the correct side of the windscreen.

A few hours later, I came back to find a big stinking parking ticket tucked under my windscreen wipers.

The cause? I had inadvertently paid at the wrong machine. Had I used the one that was ten metres behind my car rather than twenty in front of it, I would have seen that the conditions for the space I was parked in were not the same. Similar, extremely similar in fact, but not identical. Looking at my surroundings, I could see no explanation for the difference, but was nevertheless forced to admit to myself that I hadn't been careful enough about reading the signs and the fine was technically my own stupid fault.

Normally when this kind of thing happens, I have a tendency to go home and rant to Understanding Frenchman about his stupid, unreasonable country where nothing is clearly explained, everyone is out to get you and public-spirited people like me who try our best to do everything by the book are penalised while the really bad folks get away with murder.

This time I couldn't. The reason? This little incident happened not in the land of Gallic complexity and a Mediterranean attitude towards rules, but in my home city in my dear little beloved Scotland, where I generally choose to believe that the signs are clear, the rules are straightforward and even the traffic wardens might be friendly.

The little lesson I learned might have been to read the parking regulations more carefully in future (especially as fines in Edinburgh are the equivalent of a whopping 40 euros a time), but the bigger one was much more important: bad stuff happens everywhere and not all problems in France are related to its Frenchness.

(And parking wardens everywhere really are out to get you).

Before my trip to Scotland, Understanding Frenchman and I spent a fabulous two weeks in bella Italia. Don't forget to head over to my Italian blog for posts about the beautiful Valle d'Aosta and challenging some cultural stereotypes, with more on Italian weddings and the lovely region of Liguria coming up soon!