Sunday, 28 June 2015

Choose a Life, Not a Country

There's a particular  kind of click-bait that appears frequently in certain parts of the anglophone media that I find irresistible. For other people it may be the latest celebrity gossip or articles about scroungers and skivers in the Daily Mail that entice them in with those attention-grabbing headlines, then leave them feeling either smug or outraged, and at the same time slightly tainted. For me, it's a particular strain of lifestyle and opinion pieces about France, prevalent in the Daily Telegraph and the New York times but present elsewhere as well, that gets me every time.

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a link to this article in the Telegraph entitled "France is Better than Britain but We're Scared to Admit It." and I tried hard to resist clicking, because often the "France is wonderful" articles are worse that the ones which indulge in le French bashing, reducing the whole country with all its flaws and glories to good food, nice weather and better-behaved children. 

Of course, I didn't resist. I gave in. The article was actually not as trashy as the headline might lead you to believe, touching on productivity and France's lower Gini Coefficient (the measure of inequality) as well as the inevitable sunshine and wine, although I was a bit surprised by the reference to the wonderful toll motorways.*

Nevertheless, the problem with this kind of opinion piece is always the same: it is impossible, at least for countries as economically and politically similar as France and Britain, to decide which one is "better", and trying to do so when you have made the choice to live in a country which is not your own is a very effective way to torture yourself. Most disadvantages have a flip side, and so do most advantages. It's interesting to compare the way different countries do things, because on individual points, we can learn from each other, but if you try to come to a total of credits and debits for your home country of choice, you're unlikely to succeed, and certainly not objectively. Depending on the day, I can find living in France wonderful, terrifying and everything in between, and often it has more to do with my state of mind than anything that's actually happening here. 

But if this is the case, why make the choice to live in a country which is not your own? What justifies deciding to uproot and taking on all the struggles in can bring? Well for starters, there's the personal: after six years in France, I have built up friends, a career and what will soon officially become my family here, and I'm not going to throw that in just because France comes out unfavourably on some set of statistics. Equally, even if it were possible to decide which country was better "on paper" that wouldn't make a blind bit of difference if your life there was horrible. 

The second kind of advantage is less tangible, but when I look back on how and why I became a willing migrant, I realise that it was certainly the root cause, what led me to develop the said friends, career and family in France and not in the UK. I came here, and stayed here, for the glorious enrichment of living in a culture which is not my own. I love the fact that my life is bilingual. If Understanding Frenchman and I have children, I love the fact that they will be bilingual (and we will never have to grapple with the arguments about whether learning a language other than English is worth all the effort it entails). Even if the learning curve slows down after the first few years, I love making baby steps towards a deeper understanding of France. I love the debates that we have over the dinner table where each of us brings the perspective of our different backgrounds, but also enough sensitivity to understand that neither one is necessarily right. 

To be able to experience these things in a country where the scenery is beautiful and the food is excellent is an added bonus, and in fact a huge privilege. 

It more than makes up for the motorway tolls.

* France privatised its motorways in 2006. As far as I know, most people consider that their sale was a massive error of judgement where the state and the driving public lost out massively, while the shareholders have been laughing all the way to the bank ever since.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Macaron Making

I've had Jill Colonna's Mad about Macarons on my shelf for a couple of years now, ever since it was given to me as a present, but despite the fact that she describes the process in a simple, step-by-step manner that should be possible to follow even for a slapdash, go-with-the-feeling type of cook like me, I've never quite dared to go beyond looking at the pretty pictures and enjoying the cheerful, chatty style of her text.

Last weekend, however, I had my pre-wedding girls' get together* (it was going to be a non-gender-specific pre-wedding party, but the boys chickened out) and learning to make macarons seemed like the perfect activity to help my friends get to know each other on a Saturday afternoon in Paris.

We booked a class through a company whose name I'm not going to mention on here because, while they weren't bad enough for public naming and shaming, they turned out not to be exactly a delight to do business with either, and there were some issues with the reservation process. The lesson itself, however, was fine and a good balance of fun and learning.

We turned down a glass of champagne when we arrived, preferring to keep our wits sharp, which turned out to be a good idea (especially as some of us had already had some bubbly earlier in the afternoon ), so it was straight down to work. We started by making three different kinds of filling, all of which required careful weighing, heating and mixing. It was the first, and perhaps the last, time in my life that I had ever weighed egg to the nearest gram.

After that, we had to make the biscuit mix. There are two ways of doing this: the Italian and the French. With the French method, you mix all the ingredients directly, while the Italian method involves heating the sugar to a perfect 118° (we had little thermometers with alarms which went off when it was ready) and apparently gives a crispier meringue. Piping the mixture made me feel as uncoordinated as trying to follow a complicated zumba choreography, but luckily our batter had a good enough consistency for us not to be left with too many misshapes and peaks, which, this not being a hen party, we were all too polite to describe as what they obviously resembled:

After two and a half hours of hard work, our creations were finally complete and ready to be tasted. At this point we decided it was definitely time for a little champagne reward. We were really quite proud of the results, but when we offered some to our teacher, who had been very encouraging all afternoon, she described them only as "edible", in true Parisian style. As predicted, they improved after spending the night in the fridge, and we also happily scoffed a few for breakfast on Sunday morning.

So, will I be attempting to put my skills into practice in the future? Well, if someone can supply me with a proper oven, a mixer, a sugar thermometer  and a nice man to do all the washing up, I suppose I would consider it!

*Can you tell I really detest the term "hen party"?