A qualified success

The last time that I visited my coiffeur— let’s call him M. Ciseaux—I was not in search of un nouveau re-looking so much as a further iteration of my Frunch ‘airdoo, which helps me to blend in around these parts. M. Ciseaux begged to differ. Almost as soon as I crossed the threshold, his lip had begun to curl in distaste. Self-consciously, I slunk across the floor and settled myself in front of the mirror. He lifted up tufts of my hair, looking at them with such undisguised horror that I began to question whether perhaps I had acquired some poux, or had only dreamed that I had taken a shower the night before. After a dramatic pause, during which I wished to evaporate, he asked, mais qui, QUI, a fait cette espèce de coupe ?

Busted! Or, as they say here, prise la main dans le sac. It is perfectly true that, just two months previously, in seeking out household economies I had decided to try out one of my two local coiffeurs, both of whom are cheaper M. Ciseaux. The result was not delightful, but neither was it upsetting, and though I had decided that perhaps I might not go back, I had got through eight weeks without giving the matter much more thought. Now that M. Ciseaux had a sharp implement next to my head, however, the matter assumed a greater importance.

It took but a minute for me to confess to my crime. Doubtless my disloyalty stung a bit, but M. Ciseaux seemed far more concerned by two other issues. Firstly, there was the question of how I had managed to survive eight weeks in un tel état catastrophique (answer: just fine, although now I was beginning to worry that I had been walking around looking like Worzel Gummidge). Secondly, it was utterly incompréhensible to him how anyone could possibly have got their diplôme if they went round cutting hair in such an incompétent manner.

At this point I compounded my original error by remarking blithely that there were diplômes and diplômes, and that not everyone could be as doué as M. Ciseaux. I have heard tell that flattery gets you everywhere. Well, not chez le coiffeur, as it turns out. A diplôme, you see, is a diplôme is a diplôme is a diplôme. It is the État Français, no less, which awards professional qualifications, and one would very much doubt that the Président of the République, follicly-challenged though he may be, would dish out hairdressing qualifications to any old sheep-shearer who showed up.

When I made my flippant remark, I had temporarily forgotten that all who wish to succeed at French life must defer to, and live within, a cadre. It all begins when French children rentrent dans le cadre at school, and progresses through coche-ing administrative cases, to its apotheosis which comes with the attainment of a profession: the ultimate cadre, which, whether you are a surgeon, a charpentier, or a leader of men, requires you to be diplômé d’État in a highly specific and prescribed manner.

It is easy enough to forget this overriding need for a specific diplôme for whatever job you do when you are a blundering étrangère. In the UK it remains true that a music degree from a good university can see you through a successful career managing domestic water supply, being a diplomat, or marketing bleach. Here in France your music degree will earn you the right to be… drum roll please… a music teacher. Oh, only if first you sit a number of ferocious academic exams, for without a CRPE, trusting you near even a single pupil would be pure madness. With a CRPE, whether or not you have any aptitude for teaching (about this the CPRE s’en fiche), you are qualified to teach them in their droves. It’s all in the piece of papier, you see.

Me, having blown up lots of balloons, for which I am not qualified, sporting a haircut from someone who was qualified to provide it.

… which all explains why, each time I tell my French friends that I have taken on a new work project, their eyebrows shoot skywards. I freelance for two different media organisations here, having worked only in the public sector in the UK. For me it is a chance to use existing skills in a new context, and to acquire different ones, and I relish my good fortune in having been afforded the opportunity to do so. For some of my French friends my switching trades like this is nothing less than systemic vandalism.

That said, however gung ho about my lack of relevant diplôme I may be, after my latest appointment with M. Ciseaux, I can tell you that I will never, ever, try my hand at being a coiffeuse.



To help me in my forays into professional domains where I have no right to be, please feel free to share this post with anyone who you think might like it… Thank you!


Le grammar-ing

On my fortnightly dash around the hypermarché, I temporarily mislaid the products for washing one’s children. Having zig-zagged fruitlessly up and down several times, I finally gave in and asked an assistant where le shampooing pour enfants could be found. Any native English-speaker who has ever tried to pronounce le shampooing in a hurry will understand my reticence in seeking help on this matter. Needless to say, I mangled the Gallic oingt sound required of me, provoking in my interlocutor first bafflement and then near-hysteria.

Mais vous etes britannique, non ? she asked, through her tears. Le shampooing c’est un mot anglais ! Precisely because I am indeed britannique, I suppose, I smiled and nodded politely at this insult, before taking directions and trotting off obligingly with my trolley. What I should have said, however, is “non ! Le shampooing is not at Engleesh mot. And if it were it would be pronounced “oo” and then “ing” not wuahng. Bim.”

There are many words used in French which, like le shampooing and the even more confused après-shampooing (conditioner), are derived from an English noun, but which, for some inexplicable reason, have had an –ing tacked onto them, when in fact they are neither gerund nor present participle.

For some reason, a high proportion of incorrect –ing words crop up in the field of beauty. A quick stroll around the centre of my local village will produce a hairdresser offering his customers un looking, or (presumably for those whose looking has become a little tired), un relooking. He has even been known to offer un nouveau relooking for anyone willing to risk a third attempt. For those who would be better off sticking their head inside a paper bag, there are doctors who can offer un lifting (a facelift, rather than a session with dumbbells and fake tan).

The curly one undergoing some -ings at the hairdresser’s

Comfortingly, if you don’t want any degree of looking or lifting, you can just fall back on un brushing, which is not a brushing at all, but a blow-dry. Or you could be entirely self-reliant and don un jogging (tracksuit) to go for un footing (a jog, not a session of footsie beneath the table), perhaps having previously done le zapping (changed channels on the TV) until you have found a programme showcasing the French equivalent of Mr Motivator. Or you could simply take your clothes into the village for le pressing (dry-cleaning).

A picture which explains why le brushing is sometimes necessary
The curly one after a little light relooking

Many –ing words used in French have a worrying air of incompleteness. When driving about in the countryside it is not uncommon to see signs for le campingLe camping what? Camping stove? Actually, it means campsite, where an –ing had no business in the first place. Similarly you may be directed to leave your car in un parking… which means car park. You may hang your clothes in un dressing (room, otherwise known as a wardrobe). You could even go on an outing to le bowling (alley), wearing un smoking (jacket).

Most upsetting of all is the impression these words convey of their English authenticity. That shop assistant did not mean to be insulting: she was probably quite proud to be deploying a genuinely English word. This misapprehension can lead to some quite disconcerting moments when French people speak in English to you, and say things like Eymileee, I am so pleased to ‘ear zhat you also like zhe fooding. Per’aps you can look at your planning and we can go for dinner and zhen go to a dancing? (Well, that would be lovely, but only once we have done an hour’s crash course on gerunds.)

I find all of this even more peculiar given a context in which the Académie Française attempts to maintain its vice-like grip on every aspect of the langue française. Special distaste is reserved by this venerable institution for evil Anglo-Saxon words which are attempting to penetrate the francophone vocabulary. When Lauren Collins was privileged enough to attend one of the Académie’s meetings, she marvelled over the length of time they dedicated to the formation of French neologisms designed to combat such nasty invading terms as “business as usual” (comme si rien n’était was a popular option). I can’t help but wonder how it is that a country that offers up such reverence to the niceties of its own tongue can show such a casual disregard for the basic grammatical principles of another. If your language is to be swamped, you could at least make sure that it is swamped impeccably…

… or perhaps this bastardisation of English words is all part of a cunning plan to discredit the language of the Anglo-Saxons, which is, after all, laughably simplistic.

In the bleak midwinter

Lyon has a continental winter: that is to say that it is cold. I have stopped remarking on this in the presence of French people, however, because I am bored of finding good-humoured ripostes to the suggestion that, being British, I should be used to freezing temperatures. OK, so the Lyonnais winter is sub-hyperborean, but when it comes to bone-chill it beats London hands-down. Since moving here we might as well have taken out shares in knitwear and doudounes.

Last week saw an afternoon of particularly glacial conditions during which I had the misfortune to need to spend more than five minutes standing outside. Under ordinary circumstances I might have done a few burpees just to stay alive, but the presence of witnesses rendered this inadvisable, so I took up desperate shivering instead.

I had with me the Reader, who was on her way to a dance class. As well as her leotard and tights, we had swaddled her in velour tracksuit bottoms, thick socks, two long sleeved-tops, a high-necked fleece jumper, a thick winter coat, woolly hat, and gloves. Despite looking like a Michelin man, her lips quickly turned blue and her normal pallor increased to the extent that she was almost transparent.

Oh la la, elle a froid, everyone said (for some reason my offspring, despite also being British, are immune to jibes about their constitutional resilience to the cold). Despite exuding all the warmth of an ice-pack, I gave the Reader a hug to demonstrate that her predicament bothered me, too. Then (bingo!) all at once came the two remarks that I should have been expecting from the outset: c’est son cou ! Mais elle ne porte pas d’écharpe ! Oh la la: elle va attraper la grippe !

I shall examine the second statement first. All French people seem to be taught in school that disease springs from changes in temperature. If a French person is cold they will immediately catch a cold. I may be no scientist, but for me it has been fairly convincingly demonstrated that the common cold is caused by a virus, not by air temperature. The good old NHS tells me that becoming cold can increase the likelihood that a virus you are already carrying may become active, but that without the presence of the virus in the first place, nothing will happen.

France may be a nation that prides itself on its scientific rigour, but I have learnt that no amount of pesky evidence will dispel this causal association between ambient temperature and illness. I therefore continue to endure accounts of how someone has travelled between sunny climes and the frozen wastes of the north, the changements de temperature resulting in some terrible maladie. I have also schooled myself in not challenging the idea that the common rhume is the same as the grippe. We may not get the ‘flu in the UK very much, but in France, a runny nose equals the grippe. Point.

Back to the poor Reader, before her limbs become numb with cold. The idea that an exposed neck is particularly dangerous is equally unfounded. Yes, it has often been claimed that we lose most of our body heat through our heads (and, yes, our heads are balanced on our necks), but research published in the British Medical Journal has shown these claims to be false. We may be more sensitive to changes in temperature in our head, face and chest (and by extension, I suppose, neck) than we are in other parts of our body, but these areas lose heat no more quickly than anywhere else.

The French concern with keeping the cou warm at all costs has led to what can only be described as a national obsession with scarf-wearing. From the moment that the thermometer drops below about 20ºC, only the clinically insane would leave the house without a trusty écharpe (it’s acceptable to start the season with chiffon, so long as you progress to wool or fleece at below 10 ºC). Allowing one’s child to step outside without one is almost criminal. (Why do I feel the need to remind you here that the Reader’s neck was not exposed, but was in fact covered by her roll-neck fleece jumper?)

The Reader and her sister in winter scarves, with their aunt, who is lucky to be alive without one

I can only presume that it is from this worship of the magical properties of the écharpe that the French man’s love affair with the man-scarf springs. Take a stroll around any French office and you will see but a tiny smattering of ties. Scarves, on the other hand, you will see aplenty. And whereas in a British workplace a silk or chiffon scarf might be considered to be mildly effete, in France such an item is de rigeur. Indeed, you might be mistaken for thinking that they formed part of the uniform of the workplace.

As part of my regular audit of how French our family may have become, I note that Eadred the Bald has embraced this sartorial choice wholeheartedly. It is relatively difficult to convince him to put on his underpants before donning his man-scarf in the morning, and panic sets in if he can’t find his accessory as he is leaving the house. I even have great difficulty persuading him to take it off before he splatters tomato soup down it at lunchtime.

Eadred boldly exports the man-scarf to an English pub

Mind you. Eadred is ill far less often than the rest of us. Perhaps there is something in this scarf-wearing, after all…



A class act

Every day my daughters enter and leave their school through a door over which is suspended the tricolore, with the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité emblazoned above it. Collecting them one day, I fell to musing aloud about the improbability of finding a Union Jack at the entry to every British school, let alone a national motto, if indeed one existed. I should know better than to muse aloud. On this occasion I found myself face-to-face with a Frenchwoman wearing a particularly unforgiving look. Mais bien sûr que non, she said, before going on to explain that in England we could not have cette devise (freedom, equality, brotherhood) parce que, in England, we had le class system.

The existence of le class system is, of course, undeniable. It is there in daily references to the “silent majority”; in our recriminations over Brexit; and even in our designation of the littlest room as “toilet,” “loo,” or “lavatory”. We all spend a great deal of time publicising our position on the class ladder by emitting subtle signals decipherable only by fellow Brits. There are those who proudly climb a few rungs by “bettering themselves”. There are also those who are intent on clambering down, starting by announcing, in an accent devoid of consonants, that they were born on a council estate to parents who were only recently out of the mines (it being generally accepted in some circles that the area of intersection in the Venn diagram of high birth on the one hand and personal integrity on the other is vanishingly small).

So, yes, we remain ensnared by le class system even in the twenty-first century. Suggesting that France lacks a socially-gradated system, however, would be misleading. Here, as everywhere else, égalité is all very well so long as the moneyed can be privately equal behind the walls of their maisons de maître, and the poor will content themselves with being equal in their high-rises.

It’s not just a matter of money, either. In France, as in the UK, a distinction is made between the picturesque working class of garlic- and beret-wearing paysans and the urban poor, who are routinely suspected of being lazy and scrounging. At the other end of the scale, there are those who proudly vaunt their aristocratic heritage, living in dilapidated piles and driving ancient Renaults, but who would shudder at the thought that they might be placed into the same category as the nouveau riche, with their Porsche Cayennes and their Swarovski crystal.

The problem for any British interloper is that the code in France is subtly different, as Eadred the Bald and I recently discovered. One night a few weeks ago our serious, literary-minded elder daughter (let’s call her the Reader) surprised us by asking to have her ears pierced at the tender age of nine.

According to my well-thumbed British code book, pierced ears before secondary school come under the same social heading as Coca-Cola in baby bottles. As a British parent, you can be certain that, if you allow your child to have their ears pierced at a tender age, sooner or later you will overhear some tight-lipped parent loudly telling their child that they can’t have their ears pierced too because “it’s just not something we believe in at your age”. It is the same phenomenon that attaches to childhood bikinis. I have lost count of the number of times that my children’s two-piece swimsuits have given rise to a frosty silence on the part of British visitors.

The Reader with middle class ears
The Reader with middle class ears

When the Reader made her request, therefore, my instinct was to turn her down. She deserved a reasoned answer, though, and it was here that I stumbled. Yes, letting her have her ears pierced would place us amongst the settee-sitting ranks in the UK, but in France a canapé is just a canapé, and here, pierced lobes are viewed not as a mutilation but as an adornment. When discussing the issue with French mums they could not understand my hesitation. Wasn’t it just a little bit déplacé, I ventured. Pourquoi ? came the baffled response: c’est très joli.

Concluding that our only objection was based on the prejudices of a class system masquerading as a moral code, Eadred and I eventually decided that there was no good reason why the Reader should be prevented from emulating her French peers. So it was that, a week ago, she developed earrings. Her little studs have been greeted with admiration here in Lyon. I am, however, bracing myself for our social descent when we first unveil her disfigurement in the UK…

The Reader with lower-class ears
The Reader with lower-class ears

A question of taste

When our conversational French has deserted us, the fact that Eadred and I hail most recently from London has proved to be a useful conversation-filler at many a dinner party. Usually our interlocutor tells us about their most recent visit there, and all we have to do is nod, smile, ask very basic questions, and patronisingly correct their pronunciation of certain key landmarks, Boooking’amme Palass, for example.

During one deployment of this tactic, I asked some fellow guests whether or not they had eaten well in London. The woman looked positively affronted by my question. Beh, non ! she said, raising her eyebrows when she saw that it was not a joke. The food had, apparently, been gras, pas raffiné and, worse-still, sans interêt.

Eadred the Bald and a cheddar cheese ploughmans (plug-mans as it might be pronounced in France)
Eadred the Bald and a cheddar cheese ploughmans (or plug-man)

I gulped. There are many things that I happily waved goodbye to when we left London, but I still sorely miss the food. When we ate out, I enjoyed taking my pick from Indian, Eritrean, Spanish, Vietnamese, or even British cuisine. When we ate in, I enjoyed experimenting with the readily-available ingredients to make delicious meals from all around the world. Lyonnais gastronomy may have a well-deserved global reputation, but pigs’ trotters and quenelles can wear a little thin after their thousandth iteration, and sometimes I yearn for the exuberant range of flavours that I took for granted in the UK.

Back at the dinner party, I decided to probe a little deeper. What had they eaten? Mais nous avons mangé ce qu’il y avait à manger là-bas… Which was?… Poisson frites. Oh. OK. And what else? Ship’er’s pie. And where had these delicacies been consumed? She wasn’t sure, but from her description it sounded suspiciously like a Wetherspoons pub.

I am still raging, months later, about this contemptuous dismissal of the cuisine of an entire nation based on a deliberately perverse selection of its blandest and poorest-quality offerings. Nonetheless, rage though I might, the negative stereotypes of English cooking persist unchecked in my adopted land, apparently being instilled in citizens of the Republic from the very moment of their birth.

I learnt this lesson the hard way. The process began during our first summer here, when our eldest daughter asked me to make gingerbread men for her end-of-year class goûter. What a lovely idea, I thought, and together we baked up a storm, spending ages cutting out the little gingerbread people and giving them tiny faces and the traditional, but anatomically baffling, three dots down the front of their stomachs. Such offerings had always proved irresistible to small hands in the UK.

The men were not a hit. One child picked up one of their number, turned him around, and asked with ill-concealed disdain, c’est quoi ça ? It was a biscuit in the shape of a man, I explained. Her expression did not soften: c’est un truc anglais ? I confirmed that it was indeed an English thing. She shrugged and put the man back, then whispered to something to her neighbour, who shook her head at me in terror as I loomed overhead with my bizarre British offering. A braver classmate bit into a gingerbread girl and started to cry (c’est trop épicé, her mother informed me).

If the suspicion of small children is to be expected, I find the same quality surprising in adults. Each year at Christmas I amuse myself by making mince pies and taking them to French gatherings. I explain that they are an English delicacy but that they have a taste which is particulier. Some people will bravely hazard a nibble, and the look of shock that crosses their faces upon their first bite is entertaining. Many people will simply turn me down with a look of undisguised horror.


An English friend of mine once took a selection of British cheeses to a pot. Hardly anyone could be convinced to even try the mature cheddar that she had taken great pains to procure (many things here in France sell themselves as cheddar, but they mostly appear to be made of plastic, or have been confused with a block of red Leicester). C’est fort, c’est delicieux, she encouraged. Non, merci, they declined, unapologetically, tucking instead into a wodge of insipid camembert.

Whilst my delicacies are a novelty here, I have been surprised to find high levels of awareness of other British specialitiés. On one occasion I was called into the school kitchen where a menu anglais was being prepared. The cook was at a loss as to how to make the something called le pudding, and was, in desperation, having recourse to some native expertise. I had absolutely no idea what she was trying to make: it seemed to be a sort of sponge cake featuring miscellaneous bits of fruit. Not wishing to increase her panic, I told her that she was doing fine and left her to it. That evening we received a recette anglaise in the girls’ school bags giving instructions for a different version of the mysterious le pudding. I have yet to meet a British person who has ever heard of it, but if that is what passes for British food, I can grudgingly concede some degree of misgiving about it.


The same goes for the hypermarché. On my sporadic visits to the British section of the étranger aisle, I am confronted with a wall of jelly, custard, baked beans and Bisto. Mince pies will never stand a chance if this is how we market ourselves abroad…

non-gourmet English supplies
non-gourmet English supplies



This month, as every month, I have linked up to the Lou Messugo #AllAboutFrance blog linkup, where you will find lots of interesting posts about France.

The letter of the law

A French friend has just returned from a trip to London. When asked for her impressions, I received a five-minute soliloquy on queuing. C’est incroyable, she gasped, breathless: les personnes arrivent à l’arrêt de bus et elles se mettent en rang. C’est bêtement efficace. Mais comment ça se fait ?

Every British person knows in their very bones that the order of precedence for getting on the bus, with the exception of the elderly, disabled and heavily pregnant, is basically first-come,-first-served.** Just as important as following this rule is being seen to follow it. That is why we organise ourselves into a queue, which is merely the visual expression of a deeply ingrained principle.

It’s odd, when you think about it, that France, a country which regulates so comprehensively, can be so apparently lawless in everyday life, whereas England, where the rules are far fewer, obediently toes the (unwritten) line. I have come to the conclusion that this has a great deal to do with the legal systems in the two countries.

Bear with me for a minute… In the UK we have common law, which, however much we howl about the growing weight of the statute book, is minimalist in its approach. It is law by custom and usage, with judges using (and making) precedents in order to reach verdicts.

France, like the majority of countries around the globe, uses a civil law system that derives from Roman law, in which everything is minutely codified. Its own particular version is called the Napoleonic Code, in which all law springs from a series of abstract principles, and is difficult to modify in the face of real life cases.

(If you want a very neat summary of the two systems from people far more expert than I am, you would do well to read this article in the Economist.)

If you live within any system for long enough, it affects the way that you think and behave without you realising it. Thus in the UK we are so accustomed to unwritten rules that bus queues materialise out of thin air. In France, the idea that everything must be codified in order to function gives rise to the sort of infantilisation whereby adult musicians are instructed in the arts of punctuality and bringing their own music stand. It also, as all parents of toddlers and adolescents know, leads to a certain degree of pleasure being derived from circumventing the rules. Furthermore, it creates the idea that the rules are inherently right whatever the context – that by doing no more than slavishly following them you yourself become flawless and irreproachable.

Let me illustrate. One of our neighbours, let’s call him Monsieur le Bricoleur, is building a house in the garden of his children’s home, which happens to be just beneath the terrace of our house. We have been subject to several of Monsieur le Bricoleur’s laments about other neighbours’ dislike of his construction. Nous avons tout fait dans la légalité, he says, donc, je ne vois pas le problème. This last pronouncement—that because everything is legal he cannot see why people do not like his house—makes me choke on my croissant.

The law states that Monsieur le Bricoleur cannot build his house closer than four metres to our shared boundary. Garages, however, are exempt, and yes, you guessed it: Monsieur le Bricoleur has kept his house four metres away from the fence but built his garage right up to it. It may be legal to have done this, but the effect is no different from that had he built his house right up against the boundary line. If having the house so close would have made us unhappy, common sense suggests that the garage will too. The fact that one of those scenarios is legal and the other not makes not a morceau of difference to the effect the construction has on us, or to our feelings.

For Monsieur le Bricoleur, however, our feelings are indivisible from the legality of any given situation. Unlike us, with our common-law sense that every individual circumstance will make for subtle variations in the interpretation of the rules, Monsieur le Bricoleur has the civil law feeling that rules are best made in the abstract, and that reality will simply flex to fit them. If the rule says that people will be happy with a garage abutting their land, they will be happy: no need to bother seeking their opinion on the matter or indeed to consult one’s own common sense.

The house just below  our garden
The house just below our garden

There is no getting away from it: we find the new house, in all its worthy legality, moche, especially compared to the nice square of green that preceded it. Other than muttering darkly about this to ourselves, the action that we have taken has been to start planting a hedge that will eventually grow tall enough to hide the house from our view: a pragmatic solution averting all non-neighbourly feeling, we thought.

Prim and proper as we are, we e-mailed Monsieur le Bricoleur to advise him that the hedge would be planted. The response was immediate. He drew to our attention the rules which stipulate that no hedge on any boundary should be higher than two metres tall. He did not pain himself to point out the less convenient part of the law, with which fortunately we were already acquainted, that the hedge can exceed two metres when it is planted two metres from the boundary.

Taking the lead of Monsieur le Bricoleur, we decided, therefore, that, even if the effect on him of a hedge planted two metres back from the boundary would be the same as one planted on the boundary line, or indeed worse if we allowed it to tower above three metres, given that planting such a hedge was entirely within the law, he would be happy about it. When in Rome…




** I should deal with those of you who are already brimming with examples of UK-based queue-violation. I suggest that the reason that you can bring individual examples to mind is that they are not—yet at least—the norm. In France, having my place in the queue ignored is such a commonplace occurrence that I struggle to recall specific incidents. In the UK, the phenomenon is sufficiently rare as to make it remarkable: the exception that proves the rule.



Je t’aime

At the end of term, our younger daughter plonked herself at our kitchen table, rested her chin on her hands, and emitted a stagey sigh. I was busy clattering pans and had presumably failed to react with sufficient concern, so she dismantled her pose before casually reassembling it and sighing with more force. Realising that I was required to play along, I asked her what was wrong. Oh maman, je ne sais pas quoi faire, she said, despairingly: j’ai vraiment trop d’amoureux.

The children are habitually very picky about their choice of language. They speak French to French people and English to English people, and if ever I attempt to speak French to them—usually out of politeness to a French person listening in—I will be met with protests and eye rolling. Our younger daughter will, however, sometimes express herself in French at home when she is talking about a matter of which she has no experience in English (playground politics, for example), or is describing a sensation which, to her, has no English cultural equivalent.

Faced with my sighing six-year-old, I could only surmise, therefore, that the feeling of being overburdened with suitors was irreducibly Gallic in nature. It is true that the same daughters who now clock up six or seven amoureux apiece struggled to find a single one back in the UK.

Coming as I do from the English playground, the idea of being in love at the tender age of four seems rather quaint to me. In the UK schools we frequented, girls and boys started off as friends, but fairly quickly divided themselves into gender-based herds, instantly recognisable by their tribal colours of pink and blue. The idea of remaining friends with a member of the opposite sex became more and more unlikely as the children progressed up the school: by Year One the mere suggestion of girls and boys playing together already elicited groans and titters. The notion of them being “in love” would, no doubt, have caused utter pandemonium.

The French playground presents a very different kind of environment. Lolly pink has not yet become a requirement for girls, so, despite the lack of uniform, from a distance, it is hard to separate out the genders. The point is really, though, that the genders do not separate themselves out. Both our daughters invite boys back home to play as frequently as they do girls, and, although girls tend to steer clear of fist fights at break time, there is no idea that boys climb trees and exchange Pokemon cards whilst girls skip with a rope and have secrets.

I have sometimes wondered whether the harmony with which girls and boys co-exist in French culture is due, in part, to French notions of chivalry. From a very tender age, all the boys our daughters have befriended seem to have been taught an etiquette which can probably be summed up as “ladies first”. Our eldest took to having doors held open for her like a duck to water (though she was less keen on being embrassée-d).

When I have expressed surprise at the number of amoureux clocked up by my offspring, I have been informed by the mothers concerned that it is due to their cheveux or their jolies yeux, or the fact that they are très fines. I accepted these explanations uncritically until it occurred to me to wonder what on earth a seven-year-old boy was doing admiring someone’s hair. The English boys we know could not care less about how a person is coiffed. Where on earth do these jeunes gallants, then, pick up the notion that the colour of one’s eyes counts for something?

The answer probably lies in the attitude of their parents. I have long admired the queue of the same middle-aged men at the flower stall every Saturday morning, all of them buying enormous bouquets for their wives, not because it is a special day, but just parce que. Observing these men it’s easy to understand why Valentine’s Day has taken off in the UK (when else would you get bought flowers?) but has not even got a toehold in France (why limit your overblown romantic gestures to a single day of the year?).

Eadred the Bald started buying flowers more often once we had moved to France
Eadred the Bald started buying flowers more often once we had moved to France

I admire somewhat less the corollary of all this door-holding and flower-buying. There is, in France, more of an assumption that the woman will spend a considerable amount of time chez le coiffeur (nice) and at the kitchen sink (less nice) in return for the floral attentions of her man friend. I always have a sneaking suspicion that doors are held open for me only because they are just as likely to be closed in my face in certain male-dominated domains. I am, however, a woman who agreed to get married during the course of a telephone conversation, so who am I to judge…?

Dining a deux: romance is not dead
Dining a deux: romance is not dead



Should you wish to have flowers purchased for you and doors held open, Eurostar is currently featuring Lyon as one of its romantic European destinations. You can read all about it on the Eurostar website, where the sharp-eyed amongst you may spot a small contribution that I have made on the subject. Now that it is possible to travel between London and Lyon without changing train, even the unromantic amongst you might be tempted to hazard a visit.


I have linked up to #PoCoLo.


You must be mistaken

This year our eldest daughter entered CM1, which is equivalent to Year 5 in the UK or 4th grade in the US. Mention this to a French parent with children of similar ages and they might puff out their cheeks whilst simultaneously shaking one of their wrists (Marcel Marceau for “that’s a toughie”). Local mythologies about the difficulty of the curriculum in different year groups aside, there have been moments since the start of term when I, too, have been tempted to puff out my cheeks (I have been too British to succumb, I hasten to add).

So far, you see, CM1 has proved somewhat dispiriting. In most French primary schools, pupils are classified, sometimes on a daily basis, according to a four-tier marking scheme: their work might be deemed très bien, bien, assez bien, or à revoir. The prominence of the word bien on this scale is a major concession to the relatively novel concept of encouraging children in their endeavours. This concession is further underlined by the fact that, until the end of the previous school year—CE1—pupils can make two mistakes and still be très bien, or five and still be bien.

In CM1 no such softness is tolerated, with enseignants adopting the one-strike-and-you’re-out policy for which the French secondary system is so notorious. Given that in this country a misjudged curl on the letter “g” can constitute a mistake, pupils who may regularly have been bien in CE1 can very swiftly be demoted out of the biens altogether into a zone where everything needs looking at again.

After her first encounter with a ruthless marking scheme that took her two errors out of 15 total answers and turned them into an assez bien, our daughter expressed some mild frustration. “If that’s meant to encourage me to do better, it hasn’t,” she said, “they changed the rules. It makes me feel like a baby again”.

Our daughter was articulating what it feels like to be subjected to the enforced infantilisation of a school system that micromanages the cursive of it students. At no point is a French pupil permitted to feel that they have perfected something, because no sooner do they scramble to the top of the mountain then, oup-la, it transpires that they weren’t even on the right mountain in the first place. The system seems hell-bent on proving that it can’t be bested by anyone: if anyone succeeds, it just changes its definition of success.

It is not just at school that French people are infantilised in this way. A week or so ago I was fortunate enough to start playing in a fantastic amateur orchestra in Lyon. As is required by law (in the name of democracy the law requires many strange things of the children of the République), I sat through the AGM when it took place during the first rehearsal. I find these meetings a bit tedious so I let the budget and accounts wash over me. That was until, about halfway through, my attention was caught by one of the organisers reading out to us from a document which sounded suspiciously like the code of conduct to which our children sign up in class each year (je respecte la maîtresse…). It was written entirely in the first person and contained phrases such as “I will turn up on time to rehearsals” and “I will bring my music stand with me”.

How patronising! I looked around, hoping to catch someone’s eye and snigger. How old did these people think we were? Quatre ans ? Surely they could not think that any of us, particularly the ex-professionals in our midst, would be in any doubt about the importance of punctuality or being well-equipped? Would they be instructing us on the importance of hand-washing after visits to the toilettes next? My swivelling head met with blank looks. The French contingent was taking it seriously, or was at the very least, unmoved.

I should not have been at all surprised. You see, French citizens have been schooled in being talked down to from the moment that they came into being. French life is not set up to make you feel like an adult, even when you are one. This is a country where you can receive a dressing down in the boulangerie, for goodness sake; or where the République will decide to vary the speed limit every 500m over a distance of 10km just for the sheer pleasure of catching you out and then sending you a ten-page dossier explaining that you need to pay a fine.


It’s a gloomy realisation, but we may all just have to acclimatise ourselves to being no more than assez bien for the rest of our days.


This week I am linking up to the Mama’s Losin’ It writers’ workshop, prompted by the word “mistake”.




When in French: Love in a Second Language, by Lauren Collins

Before moving to France, I swore blind that I would never, ever greet anyone with a coucou. Bonjour, fine; salut, bizarre but ok, but coucou, non, I refused to hail people with a word that made me sound like an idiot bird or a coy two-year-old.

A year on, to my general mortification, I found involuntary coucous spilling from my mouth whenever I spotted the small friends of my offspring. By then, though, my objection to the word had expanded in scope. Although I could hear the difference between the ou and the u sounds in French, and—if I grimaced—could produce the correct variant at any given time, at speed I risked confounding the vowel sounds. There were, as a result, occasions when my cheery greeting provoked a wary attention ! from a nearby parent. You see, coucou, in the mouths of British incompetents, can sound rather like cul cul, and, well, look it up.

Such mishaps have often caused me to wonder just how much of my cultural unease in France is caused by language, and how much by local convention. So you can imagine my delight when I was given a book called When in French: Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins to read. In the book, Lauren, a New Yorker journalist, explores the ways in which language shapes experience by tracing her own journey towards becoming fluent in French. She had a strong motivation for learning the language in the form of Olivier, her French husband, whose very name she could not initially pronounce, and whom she had only ever known through the medium of his third language: English. Their move to Geneva only heightened her desire to be able to communicate with him in his native tongue.


Earlier this week I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Lauren by telephone about her book, and was delighted to discover that she has the same ready wit in person that she does in prose.


With a few economical strokes, in When in French, Lauren Collins conveys the conspicuousness that a non-native feels when trying to live their life in French. “I kept telling waiters that I was dead—je suis finiewhen I meant to say I had finished my salad,” she writes. She is deflated when she discovers that in her proudly-typed message to her mother-in-law acknowledging receipt of a coffee machine, she has announced that she has “physically delivered, through the vagina—a coffee machine”. She also gets the impression that she speaks too loudly and smiles too broadly; and she doesn’t understand how to use the dainty washing facilities at her in-laws’ house without flooding the premises.

I wonder whether Lauren’s felt clumsiness is specific to living within a French culture, or whether it is the fate of anyone living in a foreign tongue. In response she observes that “painful feelings of regression are standard fare” for beginners in any language, but that the French are a “particularly tough crowd”. The rigidity which characterises French life means that there is a specific way that you are meant to walk into a shop and greet everyone (thankfully not by saying coucou). “The French are not great freestylers,” Lauren notes, which means that outsiders quickly find themselves uncomfortably at variance with what is expected.

There is a sense, though, in which the daily humiliation Lauren felt when she first arrived is the factor which has contributed the most to her progress in French. “Embarrassment is a strong motivating factor,” she says: “in a vacuum everyone wants to learn French. I made feeble efforts before moving to Geneva, but I abandoned them all. You need a fire in your belly”. The fire of “not being a laughing stock” proves key in her case.

Lauren’s journey from “newly speechless” to what she modestly describes to me as “proficiency” is fuelled with free French lessons provided by the Geneva authorities and charted by the degree of success with which she can argue with Olivier in French. These arguments are not simply a linguistic challenge but also uncover for her one of the major cultural differences between English- and French-speakers. Sitting in on a meeting of the Académie Française (an experience of which I am inordinately jealous), she realises that, to the French mind:

every word has a single definition, and that every definition corresponds to a single word. […] Watching the committee trying to bend an English phrase to fit the strictures of French […] I apprehended, at last, the structural underpinnings of the impasses at which Olivier and I often stalled. In English, I was seeking consensus—mirroring Olivier’s concerns, wanting to meet in the middle. He was pursuing the right answer in the conviction that there always was one.

I ask whether Lauren still argues with her husband to practice her French. “Yes, but French is no longer just for last-ditch conflict resolution,” she laughs “now we argue organically in French”. Has her attitude to compromise changed? She has, she thinks, become more like Olivier, but he in turn has become more like her. In other words, she compromises by compromising less.

One of the striking things about When in French, and in speaking to Lauren, is the extent to which she not only strives to learn a new language, but also to inhabit the culture that it brings with it, and to understand the subtle interplay between the two. At the start of the book, she finds the correct usage of tu and vous confusing and is frustrated by the formality that this distinction implies. “It seemed cold and snobbish at first” she explains. By the end of the book, she feels very keenly the lack of a vous in English when a US customs official addresses her with what feels like an over-familiar “you”. She comes to realise that “in French the grid was divided differently between public and private, rather than polite and rude”.

I ask Lauren about which division of the grid she prefers now. She says that, although the formality and inflexibility of French really annoyed her at first, she has now come to really appreciate it. She gives the example of fixed eating times. At first she did not understand why she could not just “go with the flow” with food. Now she feels that the rigid eating conventions mean that “you sacrifice your sense of independence and freedom, but you gain a sense of social cohesion and solidarity. Eating together means that you know how to get on in groups”.

She has not gone completely native, of course. Although she likes the certainty of French greetings she is still “seriously crap at doing the bise”.


When in French: Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins is published in the UK by 4th Estate, and you can buy a copy here. It would make an excellent present for anyone you know who has tried to live in a different language.


When you’ve read it, please come back to this post and leave a short review.




Sorry isn’t good enough

Each morning I leave the house for the school bus stop at 7.25 am. By that time it is likely that I will have apologised about fifteen times already, and been apologised to about the same number of times. Our family manners culture remains quintessentially British in this respect. So it is that Eadred the Bald tells me, one minute after getting out of bed, that he is tired: “I’m sorry,” I say. He reminds me that I need to take the car in to have its exhaust pipe mended: he’s “sorry” about that. A child is “sorry” that they have left their jumper at school the day before. I’m repeatedly “sorry” two minutes after having screeched at everyone to hurry up and get out of the house. It rains: we engage in an orgy of regret. We have apology Tourette’s.

Two children, already wrung out with apologising before they even set off for school
Two children, already wrung out with apologising before they even set off for school

I concede that our family, and British people in general, are penitent to an absurd degree about things which they have no need, or indeed any right, to be sorry for. A French friend has suggested to me that it is hypocrite to apologise for something that has nothing to do with you. Whilst in the moment this made my hackles rise, I have to admit that she had a point.

Despite this concession, saying sorry to someone remains, for me, a mark of empathy, a ritual display of the solicitousness which we owe to those around us. It may not be my fault that every child in my daughter’s class has to take their turn at reciting four verses of a tedious poem about la rentrée, but nonetheless I feel her pain. I am, at some level, “sorry”. And when my husband apologises to me for the rain, his emotional support somehow bears me up and carries me through (and, more to the point from his point of view, disarms me before I can throw a hissy fit).

Imagine, then, emerging from this cloistered world where everyone is repeatedly sorry into the Lyon rush hour. In Lyon, hardly anyone is ever sorry about anything, but if they are, they make sure never to manifest their contrition during l’heure de pointe.

So it was that, the other day, we rounded a tight corner in our car only to come face-to-face with a motorcyclist hurtling full pelt in our direction on the wrong side of the road. It was a bit of a shock. It may not have been our fault, but we didn’t want to kill the man, so we juddered to a halt. We awaited the flurry of mouthed apologies and hand signals signifying submission that would surely ensue.

We had, of course, forgotten that we were in France. There was to be no contrition or even expression of relief. Indeed, I believe a few gros mots may have been sent in our direction, and the rider’s gesticulations seemed somehow to imply that it was our car—travelling as it had been at the speed of an arthritic snail on the correct side of the carriageway—that was at fault. Presumably an apology would have endangered his sense of self (far better to endanger his physical existence than risk an implosion of his esprit). Whatever.

In case any of you are tempted to ascribe Monsieur Moto’s lack of contrition to his masculinity rather than his Frenchness, I can assure you that I have a voluminous supply of further examples, refreshed daily, which pays no heed to gender, creed or age. In the supermarché it frequently arises that I am walked into by some aged dame avoiding all eye contact and using her chariot as a battering ram. It is extremely rare in these circumstances that an acknowledgement, let alone an apology, will be issued for the grievous bodily harm which ensues. In fact, it takes every last millimetre of self-restraint that I possess not to apologise myself, the dame’s lack of remorse reaching such a pitch that I convince myself that it must have been me who was at fault all along.

In the boulangerie I have been known to ask for a pain complet when either none remain or none was ever made. Were I the one behind the counter, both my British servility and my business sense would lead me to apologise for the lack of wholemeal baked goods, perhaps give an explanation, and offer an alternative in their stead. Not so the lady in question. Il n’y en a pas, she says, without cracking a smile (cue my departure, tail between my legs).

During a meeting of volunteers, I witnessed one person receive a fearsome dressing-down from the chief volunteer about some failure in the work that they had done (for free), which had led to a mild inconvenience for someone else. By the end of the speech, even though the reprimand had nothing whatsoever to do with me, I could feel my face burning bright red, and my hands trembling. The person in question, however, managed to maintain a look of complete impassivity throughout. There was a pause at the end of the tirade. I held my breath, waiting for the apology that would come gushing forth. I heard a clock ticking. Then, bof, she shrugged. There was a further pause, before, finally, qu’est-ce que tu veux ? she asked, rhetorically. I could barely credit my ears. What could she be thinking? Surely this lack of contrition was going to further inflame her accuser… but no. The meeting was off once more on its merry way and no further mention was made of the heinous crime. As reticent as people are about apologising, it seems that nobody really requires to be apologised to either.

It has only recently occurred to me that I can play my natural contrition to my advantage in such an environment. When I in turn received a dressing down during the course of my inglorious volunteering career, I was ready straight away with a fulsome and heart-felt apology. As I stammered out my expressions of regret and deep repentance, every head in the room swivelled in my direction and regarded me with a blend of horror and pity more potent even than that normally reserved for my manglings of their language. I had barely got started on my sorry encomium when I was interrupted: non, non, ne t’inquiète pas, murmured my chastiser: ce n’est pas grave. Not grave? A moment ago it had been a matter of such gravity that I doubted that any of us in the room would survive to tell the tale. What had changed?

Quite simply, I think that I had flummoxed them all. Perhaps they had never heard an apology before? At any rate, they didn’t know what to do with it, and I, well, I got off lightly. Which is why I am sticking to my training regime of fifteen apologies before even leaving the house.


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