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.

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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.

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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

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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…

 

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** 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.

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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

 

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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.

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I have linked up to #PoCoLo.

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.

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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

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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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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.

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

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Blogger recognition award

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.

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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.

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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.

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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