Thursday, 29 January 2015

Our Engagement Story

 Understanding Frenchman and I had been talking about marriage on and off for quite a long time before we got engaged, but (as I suppose is the case for most couples), always in the future and conditional tenses of "one day" and "if". I can't put my finger on exactly what changed this summer, except a sense that, if this was going to happen "one day" it might as well be now. I think we both felt it, but neither of us said anything.
Over the summer, we went to many lovely places that would have been perfect for a proposal. Paris, on a warm July evening. The Pointe du Raz, the most westerly point in France, on a glorious sunny day. An alpine lake with craggy moutain summits behind. A verdant highland forest surrounded by Scotch mist. But somehow it never happened. (I should add at this point that this is not a criticism on my lovely understanding Frenchman, as I was quite prepared to do the asking myself if the moment felt right!)

And so it was that we returned to Paris with a glorious summer behind us, and one Sunday evening, the conversation turned to marriage and the "would you"s turned to "will you," and there we were, engaged.

It might sound like a bit of an anti-climax, but it didn't feel that way. My memories of it all are as much of that unspoken certainty growing between us as of the actual moment when he asked me the question, and as far as I am concerned, we became engaged in not one, but many beautiful places.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Big Project 2015

My big project for 2015 will take place in two countries. It involves about 150 people of multiple nationalities and speaking six different languages. Not all of them have a language in common. It requires my dad, who hasn't been abroad since 1979, to get a passport, and Understanding Frenchman's parents, who have only left France once in their lives, to take international flights. It entails paperwork, form-filling, appointments and certified translations. We will have to coordinate several meals and three nights of accommodation for the aforementioned 150 people, and in the middle of all this, we will have to stand up in front of them and make possibly the most significant speeches of our lives. And I haven't even mentioned the frivolous parts yet.

Luckily, Understanding Frenchman and I will be doing this together, and I cannot imagine a better person to share such a big undertaking with.

Which is just as well, because (just in case you haven't already guessed), we're getting married!

Photo from

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Marchons, Marchons

Today, for the first time in my French life (in fact, the first time in my whole life, but it's only really surprising for the French part), I participated in a manifestation. It was, of course, the Manifestation républicaine which took place following the shootings and hostage takings at the Charlie Hebdo offices, in Montrouge and at the Kosher supermarket at the Porte de Vincennes.

Following the first shootings on Wednesday morning, mixed with the shock and sadness, I felt great pride for my adopted country, as, with the killers still at large, people gathered at the Place de la République to honour the dead. Even the next evening when I went there myself, a crowd was still present, lighting candles or simply standing in silent reflection. It was so calm, dignified and largely spontaneous, and I couldn't imagine a more appropriate response to the tragedy.

I actually found the news of the hostage taking at the Porte de Vincennes more frightening than the first shooting. The first one was over before I heard about it, but this time, I learned what was happening while it was still going on. While other people had talked of the possibility of further attacks, I think I had convinced myself that a few failed copycats were the limit of what was likely to happen, and it was a shock when there was more.

And then, after the story came to its dramatic conclusion at 5pm on Friday, came the reactions. Understanding Frenchman and I had already discussed going to the march today, but, analysing the situation, I was no longer so sure that it was something I was comfortable doing. Je Suis Charlie, which at the beginning seemed a simple statement of solidarity with those who had lost their lives or their loved ones in the attack, as well as a defence of free speech, developed more nuance (at least in my own understanding). While I am one hundred percent in favour of the freedom of speech which allowed the newspaper to publish its satire, the racial stereotyping and level of offence go beyond what I personally am comfortable with, especially when aimed at an often-marginalised minority. Similarly, while I believe absolutely in the need for a secular state, I fear that this principle can be easily appropriated by atheists who use la laicité as a means to impose their own world-view on others, or at least to suppress the free expression of religious beliefs, and I didn't want to march in favour of that.

"Jihadis, stop caricaturing the prophet"

"I am Charlie; I am kosher"

"Peace; freedom; tolerance"
But this afternoon, my fears proved to be unfounded. As we made our way towards République, many of the boards proudly declared that their bearers were from many countries and of many religions. As well as je suis Charlie there were je suis Ahmed, je suis flic and je suis juif, often on the same banner. People wore turbans and kippas and carried rainbow flags. A friend who lives on the route of the march described how every time a group of people noticed the security patrols on the roof of her building, they burst into applause. As well as freedom of speech, people marched for peace and tolerance. In the end, I was totally comfortable with what the march represented, and proud to add my presence to the millions who gathered in defence of les valeurs de la République.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

A Million-Euro Smile?

The other day, I had my first appointment with my new dentist in Paris. It was quite an experience.

When I was little, going to the dentist meant sitting in a leather chair with a spotlight over it while the dentist did a scale and polish using nothing more hi-tech than an electric toothbrush. When I was a bit older, a lot of the UK National Health Service dentists went private and some of the equipment got a bit more fancy, but the treatments were basically the same. My old French dentist was similar: he once did an X-Ray and a small preventative procedure, but basically it was contrôle and détartrage all the way.

I should also say here that my mum was super-strict with us about dental care when we were kids. We brushed for two minutes twice a day, took fluoride tablets and were only allowed to eat sweets after dinner and if we cleaned our teeth afterwards. As a result, we all have really healthy teeth: I don't have any fillings and have never had any problems or treatment that wasn't preventative. I'm used to going to the dentist and being complimented on my great teeth and told to keep up the good work and come back in six months for another scale and polish. And that's all.

And so it was that my appointment with my Parisian dentist was a bit of a surprise. He started off with a look in my mouth and some advice about brushing - so far so good. He recommended a couple of products, including some useful tiny little interdental brushes which I am looking forward to using as a more effective alternative to flossing.

Then he inspected my teeth in more detail, wearing a special pair of glasses with a light attached.

Then he took an X-Ray, just to have a better look.

Then he took some more pictures using some kind of special camera that he inserted in different places in my mouth, connected to his computer screen where we had already examined the (perfectly normal) X-Ray.

At various points along the way he commented on what a shame it was that I hadn't had my wisdom teeth extracted and had orthodontic treatment when I was younger.

Then he said I could still have the operation as an adult.

Then he discussed teeth whitening. I initially thought he was talking about a simple product that I could buy in the pharmacy and use at home, but then he mentioned that it would cost three or four hundred euros.

And finally, he cleaned my teeth. Then, as I paid, he made a long list of all the things he planned to do on my next visit.

I left with somewhat mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, I'm all for high-quality healthcare and I paid the standard (refundable) price for my 45 minute checkup with all the fancy equipment. On the other hand, I'm a bit uncomfortable with all the recommendations for expensive treatments, including a very painful operation that no other dentist has ever suggested, when, by his own admission, if I keep doing what I've been doing for years and use those nifty little interdental brushes, my teeth will be just as strong and healthy as they've always been. If I'm honest, I'm quite tempted to find another dentist next time. After all, trying to sell you all sorts of unnecessary extras is bad enough when it comes from a car salesman, but it feels even more unethical, almost like a kind of blackmail, when it's coming from a health professional.

What do you all think? Have you had good experiences with dentistry in France? How does it compare to your home country?

Monday, 5 January 2015

New Year in Petite-Bretagne

After Understanding Frenchman's immersion in British festive traditions, it was my turn to share some celebrations with his family. We had a quick turn around in Paris when we got back from the UK, then went out west to celebrate New Year en Bretagne.
Our train arrived in Rennes and we met up with some friends for a drink. We went to a bar à jeux , a wonderful concept that I've only ever encountered in Rennes but which my friends assure me exists elsewhere in France. A bar à jeux is just what it sounds like - a bar or café where you can order drinks and sit and play board and card games with your friends. The staff are often very knowledgeable about the games and can give recommendations or explain how to play. As our friends had their children with them, we mostly played Penguin Slide, My First Farm and Les Lapins Crétins, but they actually have far more games for adults than for children, and these bars are popular with students.

On our first day out in the country, we woke to find that the entire landscape was covered in thick frost. Luckily I know Understanding Frenchman's family well enough now for them not to find it weird that the first thing I wanted to do after breakfast was go out and take photographs of bits of their garden and the surrounding fields.

New Year's Eve was quiet but pleasant, as we stayed in and ate the traditional meal with Understanding Frenchman's parents. They keep things relatively simple, but that nevertheless meant apéritif with little toasts, foie gras for the starter, duck and roast potatoes for the main course, cheese and pâtisseries from the baker's, so we certainly began the new year with full stomachs!

On New Year's Day, Understanding Frenchman and I worked on creating our latest tradition and drove to the coast to look at the waves. Last year we were treated, purely by chance, to the spectacle of magnificent Atlantic rollers crashing on the cliffs of the Côte Sauvage. This year, despite our best efforts to arrive at the optimum moment just before high tide, the waves were less impressive, but we had a lovely walk and finished up the afternoon watching a beautiful sunset on the western horizon.

We also spent lots of time with Understanding Frenchman's nieces and nephews, which was great fun. They are 4, 5 and 7 and full of beans and joie de vivre. Watching the 4 year-old open his presents from us was better than receiving any of our own, and when the two little boys hid under the table to share out the galette des rois (we were a bit early because you're not really supposed to have it until the 6th of January), it was hilarious to hear them making their choices. (The galette des rois commemorates the 3 kings in the Christmas story, and has a little fève (usually a tiny figurine) hidden in it. The person who finds the fève gets to wear a paper crown, and the tradition is that the youngest person hides under the table and says which slice is to be given to which person to ensure that everyone has an equal chance.) This year, the fèves were actually found by Understanding Frenchman and his brother, but they quickly slipped them into the boys' portions when they weren't looking, ensuring even more delighted laughter. When the 7 year-old found out what they had done, instead of being upset that she didn't get one, she was even happier than the boys because she got to be in on the adults' secret!

I haven't made many resolutions this year, but I have decided, not for the first time, that it would be a good idea to work a bit harder on my French. When we're in Brittany, speaking French nearly all the time, I definitely learn new words and feel more fluent, but on an average day in Paris, I speak English for a large part of the day and French is usually restricted to a couple of hours at most. The result is that I find myself searching for words that I do actually already know and making grammar mistakes that I recognise as soon as they slip out of my mouth, and it's really annoying! I'm still trying to work out exactly what my strategy will be to fix it, so more on that later.

And finally, 2015 is to be the year of a big and extremely exciting project ... but more on that another time too!