Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Resolution Round-Up

At the risk of inflicting some personal performance management on myself (and in the middle of the holidays too!), I looked back this week to the resolutions that I made at the start of 2014, namely walk more, cook more and blog more, and I'm happy to say that they have largely been achieved.

Fuelled with good intentions, I succeeded in walking at least 30 minutes of my commute even in the dark mornings and early nights of January, and this got easier as the year went on and the weather grew better. Admittedly, it took discovering Zumba a few months later to truly keep my fitness on track, but I'm pleased to be ending 2014 in better shape than I started it. To be continued next year!

Cook more was mainly challenging because during the week Understanding Frenchman and I eat our main meals of the day in our work canteens, while at the weekend we quite often eat out or at friends' houses. As a result, cooking quite often turned into baking, which was nice, but probably not very healthy, for UFM and my colleagues, who were the main consumers of the results. I did try out quite a few recipes from the cookbook my brother gave me for Christmas last year though, made jam in the autumn, and (re-) discovered the joy of soup as a nutritious and satisfying light meal in the evening.

And finally, blog more. I actually thought I was doing quite well on this, with an average of around 1 post per week (even if their appearance was a bit erratic), but I've just checked my statistics and, including this one, have only published 43 posts this year, compared to 48 in 2013. However, there are several reasons why it's been harder to find interesting things to blog about recently, not least because the longer you stay in a country, the less you feel like commenting on its quirks, and I do think that making this resolution helped me to fight against that. I'd like to say a big thank-you to Holly at Full Of Beans (and Sausages) for her Expat Revelations series, which gave me inspiration for new topics to write about, and also for all the readers' comments this year. Knowing people are out there reading and responding really is the best reason to continue. I've also updated my blog list (on the right hand side) to include some new blogs that I've discovered recently. Reading other blogs is another big source of motivation, so thank you to you all for writing!


Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A Frenchman Abroad

When Understanding Frenchman agreed to spend Christmas with thirteen members of my family and their friends, we joked about the fact that there were bound to be plenty of moments when he was expected to represent the other 59 999 999 French people as well as himself. He declared that he was up to the challenge and decided that if the situation became tense, he was just going to pretend not understand what was going on, but anyone who has been in that situation will know just how awkward it can be at times, especially given some of the negative stereotypes that French and British people have about each other.

I was sitting at the other end of the table when he was asked what the feeling was in France about the potential British exit from the EU, but he seemed to handle the question with a perfect balance of honesty and diplomacy. And in fact, what was more interesting than the international relations questions was the way people interacted with him in situations involving food and wine.

To put this into context, I would say that Understanding Frenchman knows about as much as any ordinary French person about these two subjects, which is to say, perhaps a bit more than the average Brit, but without being any kind of an expert by French standards. We eat in nice restaurants every so often, but home cooking in both of our families is similar: wholesome and tasty but completely unpretentious. We have friends who know a lot about wine and like to learn from them when they choose a bottle, but neither of us can comment on the fine details. Some of the English people there, meanwhile, were real wine lovers and foodies who spend a lot of time cooking and appreciating food.

So it was funny to see how much, by virtue of being French, his opinion counted. Everybody took turns to cook, and sometimes there was almost a sigh of relief when UFM said that the meal was delicious. When we did wine tasting one evening, we were no more expert than anyone else, and yet his comments (and by association, mine) were taken with deep seriousness.

It wasn't in any way an unpleasant situation for him, and when you are new to a group and also not a native speaker of the langauge, it's nice to be listened to. Plus, it's definitely better to stand for 60 million people who know a lot about wine than a nation of lorry drivers who are always on strike!

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Ways in Which I Have Become French

My mum commented to me over Christmas that she thinks I am in the process of becoming more and more French. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think that my work environment and social circle are far too anglophone/international for this to be much the case, but I did think it would be fun to make a list of Gallic habits that I might have acquired over the past few years, so here we go.

1. Wearing Scarves
Not so much a little Hermès number, elegantly knotted over a chic cashmere jumper, but I do wear a scarf with my outdoor clothes much more often than I ever did before. In Scotland, I think I always had the mentality that, however miserable the weather, there was always the possibility that it might get worse, so there always had to be an additional layer that could be donned in the case of really severe conditions.

2. Apéritif Snacks
I used to be someone who would always choose sweet over savoury for a snack. Nowadays, if I'm a bit peckish before dinner time, even if I'm by myself and not having alcohol, I prefer to have a drink of something other than water, and some olives, crudités or little pieces of ham or cheese. This in itself may not be terribly French, but the underlying cause is not wanting to eat sweet and savoury things in the wrong order, which never bothered me in the past.

3. Keeping Trainers for Sport (and fleece jackets for the countryside)
Funnily enough, Understanding Frenchman breaks this rule more often than I do. I suspect he's trying to prove that he's not Parisian.

4. Le Bonjourisme
Not in a dictatorial way, but I do find it feels natural to say hello when I walk into a shop these days. On the other hand, I have also retained my Scottish habit of saying thank you to bus drivers.

5. Not Eating on the Run
This isn't some virtuous "I never snack and only eat wholesome 3-course meals" type claim. It's just that I love my food too much to be distracted when I'm eating it.

6. Comfortable Silences
More than the British, French people prefer silence to inane chatter. As someone who's not great at small talk, that suits me.

7. Talking About Sleep
Like food, rest is culturally important in France. I've always loved sleeping, so it's nice to live in a place where a long lie and a siesta are seen as healthy habits rather than laziness. And, just as with food, sleep is an appropriate topic of conversation too.

8. French Kissing
As in, faire la bise. As I explained in my previous post, it's so much easier than not knowing how to introduce yourself at all.

I like to think that some of these positive changes might be down to my being older and wiser as well as more Frenchified, but after 7 years of immersion, it's difficult to tell.

What about you? Have you acquired any good (or bad) habits from an adopted country?

Friday, 26 December 2014

Being a Foreigner: Location or State of Mind?

On our way to spend Christmas with my family this year, Understanding Frenchman and I stopped off to visit a very good friend of mine who lives near Manchester. Now, even in highly pro-independence company in Scotland, I have never heard England described as a foreign country by a Scottish person, but I was intrigued by just how foreign some of our experiences felt to me. My friend had moved house since I last visited her several years ago and nothing about the area, from the place names to the local accent, was particularly familiar. During the weekend, we were invited to a birthday party and spent Sunday afternoon at a folk event at a country pub, so we met a lot of new people, and on several occasions, I found myself feeling just as unsure of what was expected socially as I sometimes do in France (as well as encountering the wonderfully weird tradition of Morris dancing for the first time!).

One such experience was when we arrived at my friend's friend's house for the birthday party. Somebody else let us in the door and, as the hostess was busy in the kitchen, we weren't introduced straight away. When other people arrived, they would wave a general "hi"to everyone and sometimes we were eventually introduced, sometimes not. As the hostess moved directly from being busy cooking the meal to being busy serving the meal, and then looking after an elderly guest, we ended up sitting at her table, eating the food she had just cooked and not even having said hello properly.

Obviously, this would never, ever, ever happen in France. But one of the funny things about British people is that they are often more afraid of the awkward feeling that can arise when making formal introductions than of the awkward situations which can arise when formal introductions aren't made. I, however, found that not having been introduced made me feel very awkward, especially as finding an occasion to say thank-you afterwards also turned out to be difficult.

It's possible that I'm just more accustomed to French habits than I often realise. But given that many of my friends in France are British, or other expats/immigrants, I doubt that's the whole story. I think that sometimes, as foreigners, we blame all of our awkward feelings on our foreign-ness, when in fact encountering any new social group or area of the country, even if it's our own country, can cause us to experience many of those same feelings.

Anyway, whatever the reason, I suppose it was useful for me to learn that all those endless French rounds of faire la bise (and forget the names as soon as you're told them) perhaps serve a useful purpose after all. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

Expat Revelations: What I've Brought from Scotland to France

Is it universal for expats that when we talk about importing from our motherlands to our adopted homes, the first thing we think of is foodstuffs? My list includes (more or less in order of priority): cheddar cheese, golden syrup, marzipan, glacé cherries and mixed peel for Christmas, marmite, treacle and sugar-free diluting juice. For presents, I bring shortbread and tablet, and I once carried 3 haggises in my suitcase on the Eurostar, but that's an experience I've yet to repeat.

If we expand the categories beyond just what is edible, I also buy a lot of my shoes in the UK because there is a better range of width fittings and I think the quality is better for the price, at least at the high street end of the market. This is also true of socks, tights and underwear, and make-up is also a lot cheaper for the same brands compared with France. And it's not just me - Understanding Frenchman also loves shopping in Edinburgh when we go back, so it can't just be about cultural biases.

I also bring over a lot of books. It's not that reading in French is hard - unless the book is seriously highbrow I don't struggle to understand anything - it's just that it seems easier to find books that I like in English. French books are a bit like clothes and shoes: there are plenty of wonderful high quality literary works and a fair bit of  trash, but if you want something with a plot line you can follow on the train without feeling that your intelligence is being insulted, that's a bit harder to find.

But being an expat (immigrant?) doesn't just mean importing consumer goods. Holly's post kicking off this series of Expat Revelations inspired me to think about some of the less tangible things that I have brought back with me across the Channel:

British manners: I think I say "sorry" and "thank you" a lot less than I used to, but still significantly more than the average French person. And, while I understand that the French way is not necessarily less polite, just differently polite, I'm not sure it's a habit I want to lose entirely.

Music: It annoys Understanding Frenchman no end when I put on my Scottish trad CDs in the car, but it's in my blood, so that's just too bad for him. Oh, and I sing Christmas carols in the shower at this time of year too.

British humour: Understanding Frenchman is always telling me that I'm ironique. That's not something I'm likely to lose, as it seems to be rubbing off on him now, and I'm starting to get a taste of my own sarcastic medicine. Which is awesome.

So there you go - hopefully now I sound like someone who is not totally fixated on her stomach now!