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.


If you like my blog, please leave a comment, or share this post with someone else!


Pillars of the local community

Back in the UK, only once in my adult life did I strike up any sort of relationship with my local council. The experience was mutually unsatisfactory, centring as it did on primary school admissions, but it least it increased the scope of our interactions, which had until that point been confined to voting, my payment of council tax, and their collection of my rubbish. I believe this to have been fairly standard: in the UK unless your financial situation is extremely precarious, your local council will have only a minimal visible role to play in your life.

If we gave any thought at all to our local mairie upon arrival in France, it was thus in relation to the known quantities of rubbish and schools. Neither of these issues posing any problems, we promptly forgot that it was there except for a brief interlude—detailed in Beer goggles—during which we hoped that Monsieur le Maire might provide us with a glass of champagne, but were duly disillusioned.

During our first summer in France we had a string of visitors who, as we ferried them into our village from various excursions, commented admiringly about the electronic noticeboard that was situated on the roadside. How marvellous, they remarked, to have such an active mairie and so much going on in the local community. It must be incredibly useful to have all that information displayed so accessibly, they raved. Yes, we muttered, moderately ashamed that it had not occurred to us to avail ourselves of any of the services or animations advertised in lights on the board.

Still: old habits die hard. We had busy lives to lead, boulangeries to haunt, and, besides, who wanted to risk having to stand through another interminable, virtually tee-total reception?

It was after an entire year had passed, and a second invitation to the ceremony of New Year’s vœux had been set aside, that the error of our ways finally dawned upon me. I had taken a ride in a friend’s car, and she had pulled over at the local commerces to buy an éclair au chocolat, or possibly an escargot: I don’t remember precisely, but, oh well, peu importe. She pulled into a space marked out in blue. I considered this to be somewhat reckless: blue spaces are for permit holders only, and in Collonges au Mont d’Or there is an agent of the police municipale who seems to be employed exclusively for the purpose of catching non-permit holders parked in places where they have no right to be. Just as I was about to start hyperventilating about this instance of French disregard for the rules, however, my friend produced a blue disk, which she plopped onto her dashboard, having first adjusted the cardboard clock on its surface to reflect the time of our arrival.

Recognising a parking permit when I saw one, I racked my brain for any conceivable public office that my friend might have held to merit one. Finding none, I finally spluttered out my question: mais où l’as-tu obtenu ? Quoi ? she asked, perplexed, then, indicating the permit with what I considered to be an unhealthy degree of contempt: ça ? Oui, ton permis, I said. At this point, my friend burst into peals of laughter. Mais à la mairie, she responded, shaking her head at my obtuseness.

Once her mirth had subsided, it transpired that all residents of Collonges au Mont d’Or had a perfect right to stride into the mairie and demand a resident’s parking permit at any moment (except during lunch breaks and extended holiday periods, of course). But the very notion of my doing so was utterly absurd, because, évidemment, we would have been given one when we first arrived and presented ourselves at the mairie… In response to my dawning look of horror, my friend gasped. Mais vous ne l’avez jamais fait, c’est ça ? she asked, incredulously.

Of course we had not presented ourselves at the mairie, for goodness’ sake! Can you imagine ever turning up in, say, Chipping Norton, and presenting yourself in the local council offices? The very notion is absurd, and profoundly embarrassing. As arrivals fresh from London, nothing, but nothing, would have compelled us to march into the municipal offices and introduce ourselves. And yet, apparently, here in France, it was the done thing.

We felt the damage in Collonges au Mont d’Or to be irreparable, so it was with great joy that, when we moved into St Cyr au Mont d’Or earlier this year, my husband and I took a moment to stroll down into the village and present ourselves in the mairie. I had initially hidden behind Eadred the Bald’s back, for fear of mockery, but the official on the front desk was most kind and not in the least taken aback by our appearance. We were presented with the inevitable dossier, and left. On rifling through it back home we were overjoyed to note that it contained not just one, but two, parking permits.

The mairie in St Cyr au Mont d'Or
The mairie in St Cyr au Mont d’Or

Once we had become pillars of the local community, we could not stop. We were invited by that first kindly official to a réception for all new arrivals to the commune, which we attended last weekend. It was hot, and there were long speeches, but it was useful, and there was an apéritif, which included saucisson brioché (sophisticated for sausage roll) and wine. Afterwards there was a forum des associations, an annual event in which all the local societies and interest groups present their activities and allow you to enrol. Our enthusiasm for local events has reached such a pitch that the children are getting bored of listening to my frequent exclamations over the marvels presented on the electronic noticeboard.

The girls outside the mairie after the reception for new arrivals. They are wincing because of the sun, or because of my excessive enthusiasm
The girls outside the mairie after the reception for new arrivals. They are wincing because of the sun, or because of my excessive enthusiasm

For such a centralising bureaucracy, local life in France isn’t half flourishing.


If you are interested in reading other blogs about life in France, why not stop by Lou Messugo’s #AllAboutFrance linkup this month?


Blogger recognition award


I am thrilled to have been nominated for a Blogger Recognition Award. Writing a blog post is something of a strange experience: you tap away at your keyboard for a while, read through your post, and send it off into cyberspace. It seems incredible to me that anyone would read what I have written, and so it is really quite exciting to receive some public recognition.

I have been nominated by Vera (thank you, thank you!), who writes a blog about hearing loss called More Than a Bit Deaf. Vera began to lose her hearing after a particularly vicious bout of the ‘flu in her twenties. Now she is retired and her hearing has deteriorated considerably, making many humdrum activities much more challenging, particularly interpreting speech. I love her blog for its humour, honesty and articulacy in the face of personal adversity.

Reading More Than a Bit Deaf has proved to be an education: I know Vera in real-life, but until I read her blog I was almost entirely ignorant of the difficulties she faced every day. Her account has opened my eyes to the experiences of other people experiencing deafness, too. Particularly if you think that deafness has nothing to do with you, I urge you to give Vera’s blog a try, and perhaps even to subscribe to it.

My purpose in writing Lost in Lyon feels a bit frivolous by comparison. I started the blog in early 2015 as a means of communicating with my friends and family in the UK. After a year of hurling myself at French life, I had found that I had begun to remark upon the myriad tiny differences between French and English culture, and I thought that they might be of a more general interest. As well as being fascinated by these differences, I was experiencing a yearning for the security of my own native culture: at that time a dose of the British stiff upper lip felt to me as comforting—and as remote—as a piece of toast and marmite. Writing about this gave me an outlet for my homesickness, but also enabled me to put my Englishness into relief, and to question it as I had never done before.

What I begun experimentally, almost on a whim, has turned into a habit. I write blog posts as a way of disciplining myself to write at all (I have other projects, which need all the discipline they can get); as a means of reframing sometimes quite traumatic experiences with humour; and because I enjoy the possibility of making people laugh.

If there were just two pieces of advice that I would pass on to anyone thinking of starting their own blog, they would be these:

1) Define your subject before you get going. Very few people want to read the inchoate ramblings of anyone’s mind, but they might be interested in ramblings on a particular theme.

2) Start visiting other blogs. Leave comments when you like what you have seen. You’ll learn all sorts of things that you never knew that you wanted to know, and the contacts that you make may discover that they like what you are doing, too.

The rules of this nomination ask me to nominate 15 further blogs for an award. My blog tastes are like my taste in books: catholic. I am, however, a faithful reader of very few. Rather than listing everything that I have ever once looked at, I have chosen to nominate eight blogs, which I visit on a regular basis

Blogs about France

If you read my blog because you are interested in French life, you may be interested in France Says, a blog written by a Canadian woman who arrived in France twenty years ago and has acquired a French husband. I enjoy the appositeness of this blog, which has something pithy to say about every major event in the French calendar, and which brings to my attention some of the linguistic nuances that would otherwise have gone over my head.

When I started out, I found comic inspiration in Bread is Pain, Nancy’s blog about French life. Nancy is/was editing her first novel, so her posts are, by her own admission, rather infrequent, but they are always worth a read and usually a chortle. Nancy, I hope that the book is going well, but hopefully a nomination will prod you back into blogging life…

I can also recommend a visit to Phoebe’s blog Lou Messugo. As well as making readers jealous with her accounts (and pictures) of life on the Côte d’Azur, Phoebe plays host to a monthly link-up called #AllAboutFrance, which has become an invaluable index of blogs about English-speakers living over here. Phoebe has worked tirelessly to make a success of her link-up, and all this alongside running her holiday business and writing her own posts.

It was via Phoebe’s link-up that I discovered Margo’s The Curious Rambler blog. It is a veritable miscellany of interesting curiosities about France: on this site you can learn everything you could ever want to learn about the baguette, for example, and who knew that the hairdryer was a French invention?

Agatha Bertram travels is a very rich blog full of interesting thoughts from a seasoned traveller. If you are interested in France, but other places too, and you like reading and culture, this blog will have a wealth of good posts for you.

Blogs about writing

I am proud to be a pedant. I therefore thank the blogosphere almost daily for the existence of Stroppy Editor, which professes to exist in order to mind other people’s language. Whether it be the split infinitive or the Oxford comma that bothers you, you will find a post to scratch your itch here. Visit the blog and work yourself up into a lather about the endemic of misplaced apostrophes. It’s therapeutic.

On a mildly less pedantic note, Sentence First is an interesting blog written by Stan, an Irishman, about the English language. There you will find grammar, vocabulary, literature, history, and quirks. Stan has won plaudits in many prestigious places, but I salute him nonetheless.

It was inevitable that my eye would be drawn to any blog entitled Nerdy Book Club. This is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking books for their young people to read. There are reviews; they give awards. It’s great.


So there we have it. Thank you again Vera, and thank you to all my favourite blogs for keeping me entertained.

The rules are as follows: write a post…..acknowledge the blogger who nominated you…..give a brief story of how you started blogging…..give two pieces of advice to new bloggers…..nominate 15 deserving bloggers. All done!

Bending the rules

Recently we returned from a family holiday in Spain. Whilst we were there the kids ate at any time from 9 in the evening onwards and went to bed at midnight. We got up between 9 and 10 in the morning, and breakfast and lunch were served at any time we pleased between then and supper. It took us three days of Spanish-style relaxation to loosen the tension that had been spreading across our shoulders every time that we walked into a restaurant at, say, 2.30pm, hoping to be served lunch. Would we be too late? Would the waiter greet our request to spend money in his establishment with the contempt it deserved and show us the door? Oh no, wait. We were no longer in France: it was fine.

As previously observed, you see, lunch in France is served between 12 noon and 2pm (although anyone entering a restaurant at 1.55pm is clearly taking the pipi and will be lucky to be tolerated). Goûter is served between 4 and 5.30pm; the apéro from 6.30pm onwards; and dinner starts at 7.30 with last service at 10 (though see advice about late lunches when considering cutting it fine at the end of the evening). Since breakfast is hardly ever served except in service stations, and only then by surly-looking people who have clearly been dragged out of bed five-minutes previously, it is hard to gauge its precise scheduling requirements. If you even mention such a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon concept as brunch, it will make someone’s head explode, so I advise you in the strongest possible terms not to try it.

A meal being eaten at the outrageous hour of 10pm in Spain
A meal being eaten at the outrageous hour of 10pm in Spain

If I sound dogmatic about this, it is because I have lived in France for two and a half years and learned to my cost that a certain degree of rigidity is applied to mealtimes here. This does not just apply in restaurants, but at home too. Should you, for example, arrange a happy little playdate for your children and suggest that the parents should collect their offspring at about 5.30pm, you should on no account offer them an alcoholic beverage when they arrive. Under such circumstances you will have got off lightly if the only reproving remark directed towards you is non, merci : qui boit du vin à cette heure ?(Answer: me, occasionally, but clearly I am an alcoholic who is beyond all help.) Similarly a birthday party organised between 3 and 5pm would be deemed an utter failure if a) it did not include a goûter, or b) it tried to include any sort of actual meal, or birthday tea in the English sense. Trust me, I have tried both, and the appalled looks that the small invitees gave me on each occasion were enough to make me shrivel.

It is not just at mealtimes that French life is subjected to an unspoken, but immovable timetable. The entire year has its programme which must be adhered to. Thus the summer holidays that must be taken in August; the rule that everything everywhere closes in the week of the quinze août; the rentrée for adults and children alike on 1 September; the very notion that schools should close for two weeks in February to allow their pupils to go skiing; and the refusal to take on new work in May because nobody does any work at all during that month.

One consequence of this rhythm, applied on a blanket basis to all citizens alike, is that bank holidays are not seen as opportunities for small businesses to make money: mais non, small businesses, meaning shops, restaurants, and even some hotels, remain, just like everything else, obstinately fermé. Thus on the fête du travail, more restaurants take the excuse to ne pas travailler than decide to travaillent. Similarly, if you have the misfortune to be driving from, say, Barcelona to Lyon, on the quinze août, you should expect an even more sulky service than normal in the ironically-named motorway service stations, and will also have to brace yourself for overhearing endless diatribes from French nationals in the lengthy queue for a single desultory croissant about how, when they get home, il n’y aura rien qui sera ouvert parce que (defeatist shrug) : c’est le quinze août.

(Sometimes I just long to take these people by the shoulders, shake them roundly, remind them that “thinking outside the box” has elsewhere long been considered a hackneyed concept, and to ask when exactly they themselves expect to start doing it to a sufficient degree to permit them perhaps to open a convenience store on a day when, arguably, more people would appreciate the convenience of it than on any other day…)

Inflexible thinking is a quality I have remarked upon even within the bosom of our own, much-cherished and otherwise blemish-free village. As soon as we arrived in this gorgeous location, we started looking forward to the part of our summer that we had planned to spend at home. I had envisaged blissful gentle strolls down into the village to sip beer in the café in the square, and peaceful meanderings around the local commerces with our various visitors.

Beer in the local café... in July, just before it closed for the rest of the summer
Beer in the local café… in July, just before it closed for the rest of the summer

Well, silly, naïve, little me.

There was I thinking that the village might view the summer months as an opportunity to increase its cash-flow by appealing to holiday-makers drawn to the pretty village up a hill just outside of Lyon. I had clearly forgotten that August is a time when people leave, and that this rule was universally applied. Whoever you are, and wherever you may be, holidays are something that are taken elsewhere (where, presumably, you hope that local businesses will have had the foresight not to leave themselves, although why you cherish this hope having lived in France for more than five minutes, I have no idea). Thus, in St Cyr au Mont d’Or, the summer months are the perfect time to have the city of Lyon dig up the picture-postcard town centre in order to renew the pavements. Or indeed the ideal time to close the bustling café with the breathtaking view, so that it can open in time for…wait for it… the rentrée. Of course, as the leaves begin to fall and the chill sets in at the start of September, my thoughts will be turning to sitting out on the pavement in my local café, when under the August sun and with spare time on my hands I would never have dreamed of such a thing.

The café in August
The café in August


Digging up the picturesque pavements
Digging up the picturesque pavements

I could go on and on, but this blog post is already quite lengthy enough. The instances when French rigidity damages more than just the good humour of a grumpy arrival from happy-go-lucky Spain—the burkini-wearers of Nice, for example—will have to wait until a future post.


I went native in August and neglected this blog, but it is nearly the rentrée and I am back. If you like this post please share it, or get in touch. I would love to hear your views.



Battle of the bands

Most evenings, Eadred the Bald and I play music to the girls (via a speaker, for any of you having painful visions of toe-curling family sing-songs accompanied by saccharine guitar-wielding parents). In some families this would be a spontaneous, joyful event. In ours, it is a matter of deadly seriousness. For, you see, nothing less than the future musical credibility of our offspring is at stake.

I have just made, I admit, a grandiose statement. If you are in any doubt as to whether or not it is justified, I suggest that you take a minute to plug the words musique and accordéon into Google or YouTube. The results will be familiar to you from films about France, for they are the backdrop to many a scene of Breton-striped, beret-adorned, garlic-wreathed, wobbly bicycle-riding down bucolic chemins in the back of beyond. There is the accordion, of course, but then there are also the breathy people behind it chuchoting “bah-be-da-be-da”, and sometimes the throaty crooner up front, whose eau-de-vie fumes you can almost smell as he croaks on and on in melancholic fashion.

Part of me feels a grudging respect for a nation that has stayed sufficiently in touch with its heritage to maintain its peculiar musical traditions in the age of Spotify and Deezer. The other part of me remembers that the act of playing such music often goes by the name of le flan. Who, tell me, can possibly expect to attract respect for their art form when it is named after a flabby beige dessert?

All cheap attempts to make you laugh aside, there is a significant difference between the cultural approaches to music in France and in le monde Anglo-Saxon. My French father-in-law, who is my authority on all matters even slightly tending towards the philosophical, once told us that, in France, the word yaourt was often substituted for the lyrics of any song sung in English. Why? Because substituting yaourt made very little difference to the overall result. Dans les chansons anglaises, la musique est plus importante que les paroles. Dans les chansons françaises ce sont les paroles qui sont primordiales.

Therein, perhaps, lies the explanation for those interminable songs with no discernible melody crooned by ageing hirsute men with twinkling eyes and charisme. There was I busy looking for a rousing tune, whilst the French audience was searching only for poésie.

Then again, why bother having a song at all, if you pay such scant attention to the tune that it virtually ceases to exist? Why not just hold a poetry recital? When I listen to music, I want to be given a melody of at least moderate interest underpinned by some sturdy harmony. If it’s classical music I’m after, I need something more than a couple of thin, breathy flutes fiddling around up high. If it’s anything else, I usually require a bass guitar, or at least a thrilling bass line. And no, I don’t really care whether they are singing about serial killers with silver hammers or about stairways to heaven. So long as the music is good, it is not terribly important what they are saying.

Serge Gainsbourg's Je t'aime
Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime

In a flimsy attempt not to impose our cultural prejudices on the girls, we once played them some Johnny Halliday (or Jon-ee Allidaie, as he is more routinely pronounced, such are the perils of a French artiste picking an English name) followed by some Serge Gainsbourg. The result was prolonged hysteria. We have taken this as a sign that we should continue our nightly grim-faced introductions to music from the other side of La Manche or, at a push, the Atlantic. Yoghurt will yet triumph over flan.

Jon-ee Allidaie
Jon-ee Allidaie

Ah, les britanniques

Eh alors, qu’est-ce que vous avez fait vous britanniques ? Every time that someone has asked me that question since last week, a small corner of my heart has rejoiced in the knowledge that, finally, I have graduated from Anglo-Saxon to Briton. It is just a shame that I have finally been given a reasonable label at the very same moment that I wish most fervently to distance myself from the people I share it with.

I am ashamed to be British at the moment. Not simply because of the worldwide publicity surrounding our suicidal decision to leave the European Union, but also because the news reports emerging from England in the wake of the Brexit vote portray a country that I do not recognise. It is a country that holds dear none of the values that I have been writing about in this blog. How can I possibly bleat on about diversity, integration, and cosmopolitan values, when people are being told to “f*** off back to Africa, you p***” on commuter trams in Manchester?

In France, cultural differences have always seemed to me to be worn close to the surface. Thus nobody ever considered whether or not they were causing offence by describing me as being Anglo-Saxon. I still cannot imagine an equivalent tag being applied to French people in England (who loftily addresses a French person as a “Gaul”, for example?).

This French unabashed public acknowledgement—and sometimes mistrust—of cultural differences can yield results, which, for the politically correct Brit, are somewhat uncomfortable. Take the decision last year to legitimise school meals with no pork-free option, for example, which seemed to inspire certain mayors to create meals where all three courses were constructed solely with pork products on the first day when they were entitled to do so. This defiant display of pig-eating was for me the adult equivalent of a small child who has just won an argument waggling their fingers in their ears and blowing raspberries at their vanquished opponent. Not cricket.

Just a month ago I sat smugly at a dinner party table, listening to someone denounce the burka with considerable force, and declare their perfect conviction that a French person should have the right to rip it forcefully off its wearers in the street. What ever happened to liberté ?, I asked at the time, convinced that I had the killer argument. Surely banning the burka was the ultimate symbol of a nation prepared to embrace freedom for its indigenous people but derisive of it when it came to those from outside? In the UK, I preached, we let other cultures express themselves and that enriched our own culture. We had nothing to fear from people who were different…

Now I watch news reports from my country with a creeping sense of alarm. It seems that the functioning toleration I have always advocated was a mere veil (if you will excuse the pun) across a seething and barely concealed cauldron of racial hatred, petty xenophobia, mutual suspicion, and nastily-expressed egotism. The country about which I felt such a poignant nostalgia just a few weeks ago is not the country that I see making the headlines around the globe.

I feel, therefore, as if, in the wake of the Brexit referendum vote, my French friends and acquaintances have the perfect right to mock me, and to reproach me for my dolt-headed championing of British culture: perhaps I will even allow them a triumphal bim. No, they might never have been prepared to tolerate difference in their midst, but at least they were honest about that. For it transpires that, whatever my naïve delusions, us Brits were guilty of hypocrisie all along. We were only ever pretending to be the good guys.

The dog prefers the floor to being British.
Even the dog prefers the floor to being British since Brexit.

In fact, far from being mocked, criticised or stamped on whilst I was down, I have been overwhelmed by expressions of support and sympathy from the friends I have made here. J’ai honte, I say, and they shrug: mais ce n’est pas ta faute. Ça pourrait arriver même en France.

Although I am grateful for the solidarity, I disagree. Marion Le Pen may have hailed the UK’s decision as the way forward for France, and the far right Front National may be alarmingly popular here, but France is too conscious of the benefits it reaps from its EU membership to vote itself out.

It would be impossible to live in the French countryside without acknowledging the safety net that the EU provides to French farmers (and which they will readily go on strike to protect). Struggling regions have a very clear idea about the side on which their bread is buttered. Travel to the Beaujolais, to take just one small example, and everyone acknowledges with pride that their project to try to boost the local economy and attract newcomers, Beaujolais Vert Votre Avenir, would have made precious little headway without generous EU support. Even if some French people have views on race that would make you shudder, naked self-interest would prevent them from biting off the hand that fed them.

Not so in the UK, of course. The mind could but boggle as Doncaster, which voted 69% to 31% for Brexit, suddenly started scrabbling around in a desperate bid to plug the £133 million hole in its finances which would be left when EU funding was withdrawn. The people of that town had voted against the appalling levels of deprivation they were experiencing by depriving themselves of the one source of hope that remained.

No, you can accuse the French of many things, but perversely engineering their own misery is not one of them. Perhaps Doncaster, and all panicking British towns like it, serve as a good illustration of the reason why there is no serviceable French equivalent to our old adage about cutting off your nose to spite your face.




The simple life

In the UK, every member of the middle classes is a budding interior-designer or an incipient property developer. Long gone are the days when someone’s Everest conservatory was the talk of the neighbourhood for at least a decade, and, aged 18, you left a home that looked exactly as it had done on the day you were born. No, today’s home improvements have smashed the long-coveted conservatory into insignificance, and increasingly elaborate modifications have become a constant requirement for all self-respecting homeowners.

We have some friends who, on a whim, demolished an interior wall over Christmas. Other friends have repainted their living room four times in seven years, necessitating the acquisition of new cushions, curtains, and once even a new sofa, to fit each new colour scheme. We ourselves once remodelled the back of the upstairs of our house solely in response to a water leak through the kitchen ceiling. I was heavily pregnant at the time, and the interval between the first drip dropping and the builders starting work was just four days. And, if you want to sell your house, well, where do you draw the line? I know a person who put their flat on the market thinking that they might give the kitchen a lick of paint. One thing led to another and, within a fortnight, new cabinets were being installed.

Why? House prices doubtless have something to do with it. If your prospects of earning enough money from your day job to buy you that modest family house in Forest Hill are vanishingly small, you may as well chance your arm at acquiring £50k by throwing Dulux and a few screwdrivers around.

Perhaps it is also a desire to distinguish ourselves from the herd that causes this frenzy of building and design. Any child of the middle classes who has done the obligatory ten years in London post-university will know what it feels like to aspire to a Victorian terraced property only to discover, upon arrival, that your particular home looks just like all the other Victorian properties up and down the country. In such a situation, if you want to stand out from the crowd you are going to have to develop and assert your “personal style” pretty quickly.

Entire industries have risen up in response to the ascendency of amateur interior design. Setting aside the builders (who, Brexiters tell us, are all Polish anyway) there are the likes of John Lewis, which boast home departments stuffed to the gills with salivating new home owners. Estate agencies have become savvy too. In some of the better areas, potential buyers would be hard pressed to believe that anyone actually lived in the properties that appear online, so perfectly plumped are the cushions, so marvellously light and sleek are the kitchens. Has some law been passed to prevent the sale of houses with ugly interiors?

Needless to say, this vogue has not yet hit France to anything like the same degree. This becomes immediately apparent when you visit houses that you are considering renting or buying. Not only has nobody purchased a few tasteful coordinating vases and lit some beautifully aromatic candles to entice you to sign on the dotted line, but it can appear that nobody has actually cleaned the property for several years, let alone thought about whether or not their bedding complemented their saucepans. And, whilst we may mock British estate agents for their poor photography, it is alarmingly common for French agents to attempt to sell a house by means of a picture of an upturned plastic chair on a windswept terrace in the middle of one of the worst storms of winter.

This is partly illustrative of lack of concern for the superficial (who, in all honesty, cares where your dining table is from, so long as you can eat off it?), partly due to a cultural frugality (bordering on stinginess), but also, I think, a pragmatism that is not to be found in other areas of French life.

Whilst the British home is insulated by carpets, curtains, cushions and throws, the French home is invariably tiled. This is self-evidently better when your child decides to enter the world ketchup-smearing championship, your dog wees on the floor, or your guest clumps in with muddy shoes. It also enables you to swill red wine with gay abandon, and qui, in their right mind, ne veut pas un verre de rouge with their steak frites of a quiet evening?

This culture goes much further than soft-furnishings, however. I am struck whenever I visit French homes by the total lack of clutter. Homes containing small children are almost entirely devoid of those horrifying downstairs rooms that are drowning in oceans of plastic. It seems that French children are able to entertain themselves without two walkers, three kitchens and twenty annoying beepy things, quite possibly because they are too busy wading through their mountains of devoirs, or becoming champion swimmers in their spare time.

But the adults, too, have less stuff. To give but a trivial example, when I move house I take with me tens of photo frames containing pictures capturing precious moments in the lives of my family and friends. The faces of my nearest and dearest soon proceed to gurn at me from every flat surface in my new abode: even the shoe rack is not exempt. French sideboards, by contrast, bear implements for eating and bowls of fruit, whilst photos are stashed away in albums. No doubt this simplicity is facilitated by the veritable Aladdin’s cave of the French cellar, but, however it is achieved, it does seem to engender a certain lightness of being. Perhaps it is easier to take a two-hour lunch break if you are unencumbered by all the tasteful paraphernalia that hems us Brits in?

Robot and dog
The dog versus robot stand-off on the practical tiled floor

Since moving house, we have been trying to emulate our French friends and live more simply, and with less stuff. The main drawback so far is the fact that we no longer have enough junk to hide the dirt. So far this has led to the acquisition of a robot hoover. It remains to be seen what the ratio of new cleaning items to discarded junk will be over time…


Trust nobody

The other day I went to collect a parcel from a local shop. It being the third time that I had collected something from that particular outlet, the woman recognised my tête anglaise and remembered that I had a verb masquerading as a surname.

Just as she was about to hand over the package, she asked to see my identity card. Catastrophe. I did not have one, I said: us Brits don’t, generally. After the obligatory expressions of shock and bewilderment at the notion that a person could exist without an identity card, non, she said, I cannot give you ze parcel because you do not have your carte d’identité. I proffered my carte vitale—my social security card—which bears my full name and a photo of me, but this was rejected. I did not have my driving licence because for some reason my husband had it in his wallet. Votre passeport alors ? Mais non, surprisingly, given that I had no intention to leave the country that day, I had not slipped it into my handbag before leaving the house. Well then, there was nothing to be done. Without the correct documentation, my parcel would remain in the shop.

This, for me, was an example of the mistrust, both institutional and social, that is written into every transaction that takes place in everyday French life. It did not matter that the woman in the shop knew who I was: her role was to mistrust me. Presumably my two previous, legitimate, visits had all been part of an elaborate ruse to trick her into allowing me to make this third visit, unsupported by any passport, during which I would somehow, somehow… well, do something incredibly méchant, that’s what.

Such mistrust is not confined to postal transactions.  Industrial and political mistrust is currently wreaking havoc with ordinary French lives: it even touches the lives of the ordinary British people who have opted to live in the pitchfork waving hexagon.

A week ago, finding the petrol tank in our car running low, I decided to fill up. I turned into the forecourt of the nearest petrol station, only to discover that there were barriers in front of every pump bearing improvised signs which announced that the patrons were desolés, but that both petrol and diesel were en rupture. Feeling slightly jittery, I crossed the river to another petrol station where, happily, there were a number of cars on the forecourt. It was not until I had swung cheerfully in that I realised that there were chains across all the petrol pumps. Only diesel was available: petrol was, here too, en rupture.

Now in fully-blown panic, I drove to a third petrol station, even further away. I kept my speed right down, eliciting furious honks all round, for fear of burning up too much of the now-precious resource in my petrol tank. Fortunately, two of the ten petrol-dispensing pumps at the next station were in operation, and I was able to fill up. There was, however, a long queue of similarly nervous-looking people, and the notices heralding limited availability made me worry for the people at the back of the line.

The petrol shortage that I was experiencing was caused by a strike by workers at French petrol plants, large numbers of whom were protesting about the controversial loi travail being proposed by the Government. This being France, you will already have deduced that the strike was not confined to petrol workers. Beh non. They were joined in their outraged disquiet by numerous other disgruntled workers, notably in the domain of transport. Across France, as trains were cancelled willy-nilly, planes grounded, and the roads clogged with those cars that dared to use their last litres of fuel, people were seen desperately dusting off bicycles that they had not ridden for 20 years in a last-ditch attempt to salvage their daily commute. Rumour has it that even Madame Lipstick remembered that she had a pair of feet that had skills other than depressing the accelerator pedal.

Depending on the point of view that you (mis)trust the most, the loi de travail is either there to enact much-needed reforms to the labour market that will help get the one in three young people who are currently unemployed into work and boost the stagnating French economy, or to remove the last skimpy vestiges of protection from the already embattled French worker. (See here or here for a more reliable summary of this parlous state of affairs).

No matter what the rights and wrongs of the matter are, I have been astonished by the levels of deeply ingrained mistrust that I have heard expressed on the subject. One acquaintance informed me in solemn tones that the proposed law signalled the end of France’s fine socialist tradition. It was about allowing the grand chefs, every last one of whom was deeply and intrinsically evil, to force their employees to work during August and then to fire them unceremoniously in order to fill their posts with cheap foreign labour, or possibly even robots. Were all patrons necessarily evil, though? I was met with a disbelieving stare. Mais, oui : il faut se méfier d’eux tous. There we had it: mistrust of one’s employer was a prerequisite: as obvious and necessary as buying one’s daily baguette.


On the other hand, in the rarefied air of our local commune, the opposite sentiments are equally caricatured. C’est la guerre, remarked one otherwise mild-mannered, red corduroy-sporting neighbour: zese people will hhhhruin the Frunch economy. Ziss week, plus d’essence. Next week, they will be guillotining people devant la Mairie. (Personally, I think the strikers resemble less a set of bloodthirsty Robespierres than a set of stroppy toddlers, but there you go.) The Unions, too, it seems, can never be trusted.

United we stand (apart from the greedy bosses and the lazy workers)
United we stand (apart from the greedy bosses and the lazy workers)
All this mistrust seems to me to create a series of set piece tableaux: whichever side you belong to, there is the goodie and there is the baddie. The goodies are good. The baddies are bad. The one should never trust the other. The two can never be reconciled. I put this down to too many stimulants in the form of black coffee and red wine. Perhaps if the French learned to drink a good milky cuppa, they’d imbibe with it the art of the compromise, or just the good old British art of a fudge.


For a more jolly view of French life, I would recommend visiting the #AllAboutFrance linky…


If you have something to say, please leave me a comment.

If you like this blog, please share it!