Saturday, 30 January 2016

Not Much

Not a lot has been happening around here recently, but here are a couple of bits and pieces:

We went apartment viewing again today. After a couple of initial forays, we're starting to get closer to what we want (or at least, the best of what we can reasonably afford!) and we saw two definite possibilities today. The day started off, however, with a bit of a strange experience with the first estate agent. We had initially asked about one flat, and he then proposed a second one which he felt met our criteria better, so we arranged a time to see his suggestion and asked to go to the original one afterwards. The first place we saw (his suggestion) was a nice flat with lots of good points, one of which was the pleasant natural light in the living room, and a couple of small drawbacks. When we came to the end of the visit, we asked the agent about the second one, and he told us quite categorically that we weren't going to like it. His reasons? The light was not as good (which according to him was clearly very important to us, according to him, because we had commented on it) and it was five minutes further from the station, and people who move to the suburbs from Paris "don't realise just how long 17 minutes walking can be." Given that the other flat was bigger, cheaper, and had an additional bedroom (and that we are the kind of people who climb mountains for fun and were therefore not worried about the walking), we still wanted to see it, but he was adamant that it was not for us. The conversation continued to turn in circles for quite a lot longer, including him arguing with me about some aspects of my work which he clearly knew nothing about, until I finally got tired of standing there talking to this annoying man and said to UFM that it was time to leave.

And then he reluctantly told us about three other properties which might meet our criteria better than the one we wanted to see. I wasn't particularly keen to have any more dealings with the guy, but it seemed a shame to miss out on potentially interesting possibilities just because he was clearly the worst salesperson on the planet, and we finally escaped by agreeing for him to send us the details.

Trips to the suburbs seem to be full of odd experiences at the moment. Last weekend UFM and I took a late RER B train back into Paris after dinner at a friend's house. I rarely feel nervous on public transport in Paris, even late at night, but the last trains into town from the suburbs are a notable exception, as they always seem to be full of drunk/drugged oddballs doing things they shouldn't be doing. (There are drunk people on the metro too, but they tend to be friendlier.) On this occasion, it was a lone guy who pulled out a marker pen and started rapidly tagging all the doors of the carriage. I hate seeing things like this because it's so ugly and just has to be cleaned off, but there was no way either I or UFM was going to say anything, so I was listening with interest when a middle-aged man broke away from his group of friends to ask the guy what he was doing. It turned out that middle-aged man just wanted to have an amicable conversation to find out what the young guy was doing, and when the tagger jumped off at the next stop, he went back to report to his friends that the scribbles were supposed to be the guy's name - how fascinating!

It made me reflect that sometimes in France you see this kind of pseudo (or real?) admiration among that generation for certain types of antisocial behaviour that most of them would probably never dream of committing themselves. Perhaps it's a way of reassuring themselves that they still have a little bit of youthful rebellion lurking somewhere inside.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Pregnancy Rules in France and the UK

Every so often when browsing pregnancy-related UK websites, I come across some comment about how British women probably don't need to worry so much about their diet and lifestyle choices when expecting, because across the Channel in France, all the mamans-to be are surely sucking on a Gauloise while sipping a glass of Bordeaux and nibbling some delicious, runny, raw-milk goat's cheese.

Um, no.

While some elements of this stereotype may have once been true (in the same way as British women were once told to drink stout for the sake of their babies' health), this is quite definitely not the case now. By and large, I would say that the advice is similar in both countries, but in fact, if anything, France is the stricter of the two. Both quite categorically state no illegal drugs or smoking, and offer cessation programmes for women who smoke, but the UK seems to be a little less strict on alcohol: in France, it's zero all the way through, while in the UK there is an endless debate over whether a small amount after the first trimester might be ok after all.

In France, the other main obsession seems to be toxoplasmosis. There is a screening test for this, and if you aren't immune (most people nowadays aren't), you have to go back for a monthly blood test, so that if you happen to catch it, you can be treated. To avoid catching it, you can only eat well-cooked meat, you have to wash fruit and vegetables carefully (the maternity clinic recommended using bicarbonate of soda and vinegar, but this sounds too much like window-cleaning fluid to me, so I'm sticking with careful washing), and you can't be in contact with cat litter. In the UK, they don't screen for toxoplasmosis because if you follow the advice, the chances of catching it are so small (something like 0.003 of pregnant women are affected). I'd be interested to know if the chances in France are higher, as there are more dangerous foods around (although you would think this would also mean more people were immune) or if it's just that the French are more into testing for every possible eventuality.

The other food-related risk is listeriosis, where cheese is the main culprit. French advice is to avoid soft cheese and those made with raw milk (although I'm not totally clear on whether made with raw milk if it's pâte cuite is supposed to be OK - both the documents from the hospital and the UK say it is, so I'm going with that, although other sources don't mention it). The UK NHS has an exhaustive list of different types of cheeses which are and are not OK, which would be useful if you could remember it all.

I find it interesting the way that the UK advice seems to be much more nuanced, and even debated, than in France, which is a bit the opposite of what I would have expected and I'm sure points to some fascinating cultural difference. I do think French people are more likely to follow strict medical advice than British people - the attitude in the UK towards public health advice often seems to be that people need to be nudged and encouraged in the right direction rather than told the facts and left to make their own decisions. Or is it that French women simply make their own choices about how strictly to follow the rules, while British women want to break them, but prefer to be backed up by a scientific study or two? (This definitely seems to be the case for drinking!)

One cliché which is somewhat true, however, is that the French seem very averse to letting pregnant women gain (too much) weight. When I went to the weird gynaecologist having lost 3 kilos in a fortnight due to morning sickness, she still said nothing about the sickness and told me to manger deux fois mieux, pas deux fois plus. On the other hand, I have one French friend who gained 23 kilos (it's supposed to be about 12) and another 30, so clearly this advice isn't being followed all the time!

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Mid-January Resolutions

I always find it quite difficult to make new year resolutions actually at new year. Either it's too busy, or it's so quiet and relaxing that it's hard to even remember what real life is like, never mind figure out what needs to be improved over the next 12 months. A week or so into the year however, reality comes back into focus and quiet, boring January generally provides a good opportunity to take steps in the right direction.

Here are a few goals which are currently on my mind:

Be Green
I've been working on this for a while now, but there are still many areas for improvement. I already take the train instead of flying  wherever possible (luckily I hate CDG airport enough to make a few extra hours on a train seem like bliss in comparison) and we also walk and take public transport a lot, and don't own a car.  With technology, I have hung on to the same phone for almost 5 years now just by replacing the battery with generic ones bought over the internet (this is why I will never own an iPhone) and I only replaced my laptop last year after I had had the old one for almost a decade. (Admittedly, I also had a work computer, which allowed me to spin that out a bit.) I fear that might have to replace the phone soon, but if I do, I will definitely consider a Fairphone, which is more environmentally friendly and also more socially responsible.

I'm quite good about mending and I get shoes repaired, but I'm also guilty of buying too many cheap clothes which don't last very long. As well as buying fewer but better quality items, I'm going to figure out how to upgrade a few things, for example maybe by dyeing white things which have gone a bit grey and learning how to fix zips.

We try to avoid food waste in our house, but the problem is that because we both eat in the canteen at work we sometimes just don't get through things quickly enough. Recently I've been making lots of soup with tired vegetables and also experimenting with things like eating celery leaves which we often throw away. We would like to eat less red meat, both for health and environmental reasons. Again the canteen is an issue here, but we are trying to have more meals at home with things like egg and cheese. Luckily pregnancy has forced me to cut down on my charcuterie habit, which was a big culprit!

Eat More Healthily
Ok, so this is a classic failed resolution, but I'm not aiming to be angelic forever, just make a few improvements over the next few weeks. When I first found out I was pregnant, I felt nauseous a lot of the time and got in the habit of nibbling on weird (but generally quite healthy) snacks and not eating proper meals. Then the sickness went away, but I have a bad habit of making up for tiredness by eating chocolate and I'm tired a lot of the time now... My aim is simply to get back to eating normal, healthy meals with a few treats, so now I just need to find another cure for tiredness. Unfortunately coffee isn't an option at the moment!

Study German and Read in More Langauges
I decided after our trip to Greece last summer, that rather than dipping into languages for tourist purposes ever time we travel, I should focus on the ones I know and have a chance of using at a good level. In Italian, this is basically a question of reading, but with German, I actually need to work on grammar and vocabulary too. My new strategy is to read German news on Deutsche Welle, which is interesting in terms of finding out the German perspective on current European issues, translate the articles, then read the English translations on the site to make sure I've understood correctly. It takes a bit of motivation though, and I suspect this will be the hardest resolution to keep.

Does anyone have any tips for helping me stick to these?

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Chocolate Tasting and Love of Food

Last night, Understanding Frenchman and I were invited to a friend's house to take part in a chocolate tasting. Our friend's mother, who used to work in the chocolate business, was visiting from the US. In her previous job, she organised tastings for companies, as well as travelling all over the world to find out about people's tastes in chocolate, and she had very kindly prepared a session for us.

We were a diverse group, with French people, Americans, South Americans, Spanish, Romanians and me. Our friend's mum explained that people's tastes are shaped by the culture that they grow up in because of what is available, what they are used to and what they are told is good. She then went on to tell us about the different types of cocoa beans: Criollo, Trinitario and Forastero. Criollo is the rarest, because it is less disease-resistant and produces fewer pods, Forastero is the most common and Trinitario is a hybrid of the two which is supposed to be of a higher quality than Forastero. She also explained about the Dutch Process, where alkalising agent is added to chocolate to make it taste less acidic.

We tasted the different types of chocolate in a similar way to how you taste wine. First we examined the surface to see how shiny it was, then we broke the pieces next to our ears to hear what the snap sounded like. After that we had to smell it, before putting a tiny morsel in our mouths and smoothing it over our palates while breathing in the flavours.

I love doing things like this, basically, I think, because I like food! Even with normal meals, I'm quite a slow eater because I enjoy taking the time to savour the flavours, so it's fun every so often to slow that process right down and really figure out what the different tastes are and why they are there. I find it frustrating, though, when I can't put my finger on a particular flavour and find the exact words to describe it.

Compared to wine, I would say it was less easy to identify the tastes of other foods in the chocolate. (While a lot of wine-tasting notes can be quite pretentious, it's true that you can often pick out fruity, woody or spicy notes and I have even genuinely tasted banana in Beaujolais Nouveau, which often supposedly tastes of exotic fruits.) A few of the chocolates were like this - one was quite fruity, and another had a kind of farmyard-y taste which I associate with goat's cheese (Incidentally, this was the most expensive of all the chocolate we tried, but nobody in the group liked it!). For most of them, however, the biggest differences were in how deep the smell and taste of chocolate was, and whether it had a sharp aftertaste which I would have described as bitter. This taste is quite common in high-quality chocolate but I personally don't like it much.

Most of the chocolate we tasted was from French manufacturer François Pralus, and my favourite was a Brazilian one which had a strong chocolate taste that was quite creamy. Just for fun, our friend's mum had also slipped in some Cadbury's and some Hershey's and I have to admit that the Cadbury's went on my list as the perfect unsophisticated but comforting chocolate, both in its dark and milky varieties. The Hershey's, on the other hand, I found had a really nasty aftertaste, which apparently may be down to the fact that Hershey's, which was originally designed to be long-lasting during the war, is made with soured milk, while the milk in Cadbury's chocolate is caramelised. But of course, I was brought up on Cadbury's chocolate, and it was always given to us as a great treat, so perhaps this preference is purely psychological!

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Responses to French People who Bang on about how their Cuisine is the Best in the World*

You drink UHT milk.

You serve roast meat with only potatoes. Even Brits know that potatoes are mainly carbohydrate, which is why meat should be served with two veg.

You are the second highest per capita consumers of McDonald's in the world.

Calling grated carrots a starter and claiming that you are therefore serving a three course meal is cheating.

You think vodka and orange juice counts as a cocktail. 

Only in Paris have I ever been served a restaurant meal where not only was the food industrially prepared and frozen, it hadn't even been defrosted properly.

Your pâtisserie is superb but your home baking is lamentable. (How else could something as boring as a madeleine achieve such iconic status?)

Your hot drinks are very rarely actually hot.

Crisps do not automatically become nutritious or sophisticated just because you serve them with alcohol and call it an apéritif

This delicious meal we are eating was probably purchased at Picard.

Remove tongue from cheek and continue appreciating everything which is genuinely awesome about French food. 

*See my previous post to find out why these might come in handy

Monday, 4 January 2016

Are the French Really Arrogant?

Understanding Frenchman and I don't often have real arguments, but we quite often have fake ones, usually relating to the quirks and inconsistencies of each of our languages and cultures. Whether the starting point is the bizarre illogicality of the French administration or the very serious question of why the British don't use mixer taps, the debate often ends when UFM comes out with some particularly outlandish statement of French superiority, and I tease him saying, "Et voilà, la fameuse arrogance française." This usually ends the argument because he knows that I don't really think the French are arrogant, but he hates the fact that they have this reputation.

In my experience, France is in many ways a country riddled with self-doubt. From adults who interrupt themselves in the middle of a sentence to check with their interlocutors that they have used the subjunctive correctly to entire TV debates about why the entire nation might be going down the tubes, there are endless examples of how the French can lack confidence. So where does the stereotype come from?

I think the answer lies in the impression that (some) French people (in some situations) give to the outside world of being somewhat haughty and convinced that they are right. But the haughtiness is largely due to the fact that in French, politeness, especially with strangers, means keeping your distance and respecting the right to privacy rather than being overtly friendly. So for example, that snooty waiter is being polite to you by calling you vous and Madame, and not hovering around your table when you might be having a private conversation. By contrast, in the UK or the US, they would approach quickly with a friendly smile and probably ask questions that the French would construe as intrusive (and to which, as UFM repeatedly pointed out when we were in New York last year, they don't really want to know the answers!).

Another factor is the conviction, in France, that there is a correct way to do just about everything. French children are brought up obeying strict social and cultural codes that range from the right colour to use for underlining in their schoolwork, to dressing appropriately for the weather, to the correct food combinations to serve at a dinner party. Usually there are very good reasons for these things, but when a French person says to a foreigner, "Il faut faire comme ça," it can come across as a refusal to acknowledge that there is any other way of doing things and that the foreigner must be wrong.

As well as imposing strict rules for presenting their written work (I was amazed, in my first teaching job, when I asked the class to write a word in the middle of their page, when several children immediately put up their hands to ask how many squares they should count in from the margin to find the middle), the French school system also instills the idea that being right is very important. If a pupil carries out all the correct steps to solve a maths problem, for example, but makes a silly calculation error, they will have to identify the mistake before being praised for understanding the method. This can be hard on the pupil, but in the long term, I'd prefer to live in a country where the engineers, pharmacists and bankers get their calculations right as well as understanding how they work. In the same way, the foreigner who is corrected for using the wrong gender in a sentence might feel looked down on, but in the long term will probably end up with a better knowledge of grammar.

The importance of being right also applies to debate and discussion. In France, if you are going to defend a point of view, you need to do so with conviction. When I was learning French at school, we were given lists of different ways of saying "I think that ..." to use in our essays, but in real life France these are almost completely useless, as no French person ever introduces an argument with je pense que or à mon avis. If it's your opinion, it's because you are sure that you're right, so why would you suggest that there might be any doubt! However, given the abundance of heated intellectual debate in France, both on TV and around the dinner table, I don't think this is a sign of a nation of people stubbornly refusing to change their minds.

When a mistake has been made, it's true that French people are less likely to admit or apologise for it than British people are. This can be extremely irritating, but most of the time it's not a sign of genuine arrogance, but rather a fear of the criticism that may follow (which I'm sure is largely a consequence of the school system).

There is one area of life, however, where I would say that the French reputation for arrogance is probably justified, and this is when they talk about their food, particularly in relation to other countries' national cuisines. They seem to feel no shame whatsoever in not only declaring French cooking to be the best in the entire world, but also telling people of other nationalities (or maybe it's just Brits and Americans) that their cooking is rubbish as they sit down to eat a meal cooked by those very same people. I've heard it happen so often that it makes me laugh now, and I have enjoyed developing a whole battery of arguments as to why they might be wrong (that's a whole other blog post), but it's the one example where I feel that not only is the arrogance genuine, but the willingness to flaunt it is also pretty rude. The only explanation I can think of as to why this would happen in a country where people are generally very polite, especially in social situations, is that the importance of food trumps the importance of other people's feelings. And all though I don't agree with that, it's a sentiment that the gourmand in me can definitely understand!

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Looking Forward, Looking Back

2015 was a year in which lots of things happened, but when I first started to think back over it, my first thought was that not very much had happened at all. Things were calm at work, with no major changes, and I was able to get on with doing a job I know how to do well. We stayed in the same flat, enjoying the weekly walk to the market and drinks in familiar bars with the same good friends.

On the travel front, I visited some familiar places - Vézélay, the Chamonix Valley and the Southern Alps for hiking, plus a few trips to Brittany - but also discovered some new ones: in France, La Rochelle, Rocamadour and Provins, Jersey, which is sort-of British, and Porto and Greece as foreign trips.

Discovering the Dordogne

Gorgeous Jersey
 I became an auntie for the first time when my brother and his wife had a little boy in October. While we've only visited once so far, I have a feeling that trips over for cuddles might become more frequent in the future!

Oh yes, and we got married. And strange as it may seem, I think that very big change is partly what contributed to the sense of not much happening. Firstly, on a practical level, we devoted a lot of time to organising the wedding, from the hours I spent reading blogs about how to DIY just about everything from flower arrangements to the wedding ceremony, to the time we spent in Scotland when we might otherwise have been adventuring elsewhere. (In case this sounds like moaning, it isn't - I loved pretty much everything about the planning process apart from the terrifying thought that our rather long guest list might turn the whole thing into an expensive, three-day long disaster. Once we got the RSVPs in, everything was fine.) But for all that the wedding was wonderful, and I was delighted we decided to get married and am now extremely happy that we are married, we did it as a celebration of what our relationship already was, not as an event that would change it, and this has turned out to be the reality, because nothing much really has changed ...

Wedding Table Decorations: the product of many house trawling the web, charity shops and Ikea!
... Except that, now that we are no longer planning the biggest party of our lives, we're ready to focus on making other big changes in our lives. We're looking into buying a flat, with all the complicated calculations of finances, square metres and commuting times that that entails. Anyone who is familiar with the Parisian housing market will know that the answers to all those sums are never quite what you want them to be.

And buying a flat has taken on a new sense of urgency, because, all being well, we will be needing an extra bedroom for a little Franco-Scottish baby, expected to arrive in the world in the early summer.

I'm fairly sure that the changes which take place in 2016 will be as real as real can be. Happy new year, everybody!