Monday, 28 December 2015

First Christmas in France

Nativity (although I appear to have cut out the most important character!)
 Strange as it seems after 8 years in France and 5 in a relationship with a Frenchie, 2016 was the first year I spent Christmas in France. For the past two years, we've done Christmas with my family and new year with his, and before that we each spent Christmas with our own families and new year with each other.

I was looking forward to it, partly because I like spending time with Understanding Frenchman's parents, who are really good fun, but also because I'm a bit of a sucker for Christmas, and UFM has young nieces and nephews, which meant that fun and excitement were guaranteed. (In my family, we all tend to do our own thing in the morning, then at some point in the afternoon, or even after dinner, someone says, without wanting to sound too uncool and enthusiastic, "Well, shall we open the presents then?" (Christmas dinner is great though - my mum is a good cook!))

In France, the big Christmas meal traditionally takes place on the 24th. We were already in Brittany, and at the end of the afternoon UFM's brother, sister-in-law and their two kids arrived. The children were already wearing Santa hats, which was a good start to the proceedings. Then his sister and her little boy came over, and we chatted and played silly games with the kids.

They went back home in the evening, as the sister's partner also has three teenage children and it would have been a bit much to have everybody. Around 7 or 8 pm, we started with the apéritif. This was followed by foie gras, scallops in sauce, capon and roast potatoes with vegetables, then the traditional chocolate log for dessert.

French Santa passes by around midnight to drop off the presents, and sometimes the children stay up for his arrival, but this year their parents decided that they would go to bed and open their presents in the morning, which they did with remarkably little fuss. (To be fair, the 6 year-old went around 11pm and the 9 year-old at nearly midnight, so maybe fatigue just won over excitement!)

In the morning, the 6 year-old was up early, but this was in fact because he was looking forward to walking the dog with his papi, and it was around ten-thirty before the presents were opened in a big storm of gift wrap and excitement. The younger one still believes in Father Christmas, and in France Santa brings all the presents (although strangely enough he leaves different ones in different houses, for example, some at home and some with each set of grandparents ...) so as the children handed out the gifts, we all said, "Merci, Père-Noël!" The 9 year-old has known for a while that he isn't real, but she likes being in on the secret and is very discreet so that her brother doesn't find out.

After that, we did more presents with UFM's sister and other nephew, then sat down for Christmas lunch. I believe that in some families this is a whole other event, but we just ate the leftovers from the day before, so although there was a lot of food, le réveillon was definitely the more special of the two meals.

In the afternoon we went for a walk up to the local church to look at the nativity scene, then it was time for the children to go home,  and peace reigned again.

In retrospect, what surprised me about French Christmas was how, apart from the presents, it felt very similar to any other family celebration. In general I would say that the French are better at celebratory meals than the British are - traditions like the apéritif, having lots of different wines and spending a long time over each course mean that special occasion meals really do feel like an event. But I think that in the UK, even in my family, where Christmas is pretty low-key, we have lots of things which are specific to the 25th December. For example, although we're not all regular church-goers, we often go to the midnight service, and then there are fun things like crackers and foods like Christmas pudding (which I actually don't like, so that was no big regret.) French Christmas, on the other hand, was very similar to French new year but with Santa Claus. But fun, neverthless!

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Christmas Treat

When I was little, my auntie used to take us to the pantomime every year, either on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day. As we grew older, that morphed into a trip to the cinema, often to see the latest Bond film, or occasionally, if I was lucky, to the ballet. (It was the Pierce Brosnan era, so ballet was definitely preferable to Bond, although I don't think my brothers agreed.)

Now that I'm a grown up, I have a new best treat for Christmas / New Year that I am slowly convincing Understanding Frenchman to make into a tradition: going to the Brittany coast to watch the waves. In 2013, high tides and strong winds combined to make an awesome show of enormous waves crashing on the rocks of the Côte Sauvage. 2014 was less impressive, but we definitely got a good dose of bracing sea air.

This year we went to Cap Fréhel on the north coast. The temperatures have been scarily warm and the tidal coefficient was not particularly high (and yes, I do check well in advance  Maree Info to find the best day), but with blue skies and foaming waves, the beach was stunningly beautiful.

The Beach at Pléhérel

Big Waves

Patterns in the Sand

Les Ecarets


Sunset at Cap Fréhel

Sea Stack and Sea Gull

Maybe when we go to Scotland next week we'll get some more seasonal weather!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Does Being Socially Awkward Make You a Better Linguist?

Passing the time browsing the net as the shortest day of the year drew to a close and the rain poured down outside the window on the muddy fields of rural Brittany, I came across this article on the BBC website:

It doesn't really tell you how to learn 30 languages, which I was a bit disappointed by, but, as well as being pleased to learn that years of language geeking may have gained me an additional 9 years without dementia, I was also intrigued by the idea that the secret to successful language learning may lie in "the depths of our personality" and our ability to be "cultural chameleons".

I've taken part in plenty of discussions and read many articles about whether your personality and behaviour can change when you speak a second language, but it had never occurred to me before that the ability to do this might be a key part of acquiring multilingualism, that being able to speak a foreign tongue like a native actually depends on pretending to be a native speaker of that foreign tongue.

Perhaps this also explains why the people who are good at learning languages (or at least the people who choose to make themselves good at it) are not necessarily the greatest extroverts in the world. When I think of the people I've met studying languages and living abroad, many of us are not the most socially at ease in our native languages, but we tend to enjoy not just constructing long, grammatically complex sentences using sophisticated vocabulary, but also imitating the gestures, linguistic tics and colloquialisms of the new culture (eh ben, oui!). Maybe this is because, feeling less socially secure in our own culture, or being less dependent on feeling socially secure in order to be happy with ourselves, we more easily throw off our habits and adopt others.

And the best bit, at least in my personal experience, is that not only do we get to explore new personalities with each new country or language, knowing that we are able to do this is a massive confidence booster at home as well.

What do you think? Do your experiences match the theory?

Sunday, 13 December 2015

(Attempting to) Protest at COP21

If you didn't live in Paris, I suspect it would have been surprisingly easy to miss, or at least only be mildly aware of, the fact that COP21, the massive international climate conference, has been taking place in the city over the past few weeks. Even for Parisians, the main sign that something important was happening was significant transport disruption as several major roads into the city were closed as heads of state arrived at the beginning of the conference.

Since then, depending on your preferred media outlets, you might have seen quite a lot of information, or very little. The Guardian has fairly detailed coverage, as does Le Monde, although the French news has obviously also been focusing a lot on the regional elections this weekend and last.

The aim of COP21 was to produce an agreement that would limit global warming to 2°C by 2100 in comparison with pre-industrial times. Since the final agreement was published yesterday afternoon, politicians have been proudly declaring the conference a great success, but many environmentalists doubt that it will be enough. The main reasons for this are
a) the steps that countries have agreed to take will probably not keep warming below 2°C
b) the agreements are not legally binding
c) climate agreements can be overridden by trade agreements, such as the TTIP, which will potentially allow companies to sue governments if they lose money as a result of steps which the government has taken to protect the environment.

Another somewhat controversial aspect of COP21 was that large protests were banned due to the state of emergency following the 13th November terror attacks. This led to demonstrators coming up with some unusual solutions, such as leaving 12000 shoes on the Place de la République to represent the people who would have been protesting had protests been allowed.

I had been following the conference in the news, but hadn't been involved in any way myself until yesterday. Some good friends were staying with us to take part in the public events around the conference, so on Saturday morning I joined them to participate in the Climate Justice Peace event. As large gatherings were forbidden, the idea was for small groups of people to be present at predefined spots in the city, take photos, send tweets and geolocalise, creating a map that would spell out the letters of Climate Justice Peace.

We decided to be part of the group that would make up the C in justice, which was coordinated by Les Amis de la Terre (Friends of the Earth). We gathered on the Place des Vosges and were given maps showing the spots where our group of 6 was supposed to geolocate between 11 and 11:30. (Unlike your typical French protest, this one was very calm and supervised only by a couple of bored looking policemen who I don't think intervened in any way at all.)

Sadly, when the moment arrived  to pinpoint ourselves on the map of Paris, the organisation's website was overwhelmed, and most people's geolocations didn't seem to get through, so we had to resort to a few posts on Twitter after the event.

I had to go home after that, but my friends continued to the Red Lines event on the Avenue de la Grande Armée, where people with red clothes and banners created lines down the road to represent lines which must not be crossed. This was a much larger event which in the end was allowed to go ahead by the police despite earlier suggestions that it might not. The final gathering of the day took place on the Champ de Mars, where peaceful activists surrounded by police, in the tradition of '68, tossed paving stones into the air.

The difference at COP21 in 2015 was that the paving stones were giant inflatable ones.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Christmas is Coming!

Now that we're into December and the weather has finally become cold enough for it to feel like winter (well, it did yesterday - today we're back up around 11 or 12 degrees, which in my book is a bit too hot to be indulging in vin chaud and extra-cosy jumpers), I'm allowing myself to start looking forward to Christmas.

In recent years, actual Christmas has often been quite low-key compared to the days leading up to it (although last year's family extravaganza in the Lake District was fun), but this year Understanding Frenchman and I are spending Christmas together in France with his family, for the first time, believe it or not, and there will be small children and Santa Claus and lots of excitement, so I'm really looking forward to it.

Yesterday my hiking friends and I held our annual Christmas walk and cake competition. Every year, we go for a stroll to work up an appetite, then go back to someone's house for a competition where everybody brings a cake and we vote for the best one. I originally wanted to take a Bûche de Noël  but didn't get around to buying all the ingredients in time to have a practice, plus it would have been a bit difficult to transport on a 10km hike. I ended up making mini Christmas logs involving caramel, speculoos biscuits and chocolate which Understanding Frenchman immediately and unsupportively nicknamed crottes parisiennes . I personally thought they tasted delicious, but first place went to a friend's beautiful cheesecake, so they didn't win.

Admittedly, they do look a bit like something you find all too often on Parisian pavements.
Every year in December I make up my mind to send Christmas cards, which isn't a tradition at all in France. Some people send cards in January, but most people seem to just phone their friends for new year wishes. As a result, Christmas cards are hard to find, and most years I've either ended up with no cards, no postal addresses for people or both and had to give up. Since our wedding, however, I do actually have addresses for everyone, so this year's challenge was finding the cards. Sometimes I have a supply bought in the UK, but this year I had none, so being in touch with my crafty side after last August's efforts, I decided to make some.

Christmas Card Production

One thing the wedding definitely taught me, however, was that while personally-designed things are lovely, personally handmade projects become extremely annoying after about the first three items, and that the photocopier can be the amateur stationery designer's best friend. I drew a simple picture in black and white which I photocopied on to card, then sat like a happy eight-year old with my felt tips and swanky silver gel pens (also left over from the wedding) and coloured in. I'm pretty contented with the results, but we'll see if the satisfaction is enough to get me through the long process of writing, addressing and actually taking them to the post office.

Next up is decorating the flat. I would have loved a proper tree, but we're away for two whole weeks over Christmas, so it's not really worth it, so I'll just have to get creative with baubles and coloured paper as usual.