An Immigrant in France

two yellowWhat is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

Time and expectations.

When I first moved to Europe, my employers told me that they would appreciate if I would stay at least two years to make it worth all the expense. I thought, “TWO YEARS? Can I do that?”

one yellow
I took these photos last November. They seemed so appropriate for this topic. Putting down roots.

I had lived for just over two years in Africa, without electricity or running water. I figured that Europe was a cakewalk by comparision. Surely I could make it two years.

I decided to cram in as much of the Continent as I could. I found an apartment that met all my criteria: Grand French doors, fireplaces, moldings, impossibly high ceilings, good location, cheap. It not only had moldings but also mold; it was a dump, really, with unreliable heat and scary wiring. I didn’t care. I worked 12 hours a day and then left every weekend. By not spending my pennies on rent, I was able to see a lot of Europe.

scattered yellowThis is where I thank the Schengen Treaty and its 26 members. There were just seven when I moved to Europe. The idea that I could run around even seven countries without border controls was amazing! If you don’t remember all this, watch the very funny “Rien à Declarer” (“Nothing to Declare”) with the utterly insane Benoît Poelvoorde (Belgian) and Dany Boon (French) about how well that went.

Feels like yesterday.

Anyway.

dividedI married a Belgian. Two years turned into six. But I always figured I would go back. And we did, for a year. Then we moved back to Europe, this time to France.

Thanks to Schengen, my husband has the right to live in France, the way a Californian can live in New York, almost. Because I’m married to him, I get to come, too. Our kid has dual nationality (but honestly is a citizen of the world).

What does it mean to adopt a new country? I think it means respecting the local laws, certainly, and also customs, though I don’t think one needs to jettison one’s origins. I make cupcakes and hamburgers and barbecued ribs and lots of Mexican food. I listen to NPR podcasts and read the New York Times. I speak English to my husband and kid; husband speaks to me in French; kid speaks to me in English and to papa in French, which makes for some interesting dinner conversations. (If I dare react to a comment our kid made in French, I will be told, in English, “I wasn’t talking to YOU.” Of course I am in awe and envious of this ability to snap effortlessly and mostly flawlessly from one language to another.)

cookies with warning note
How it rolls in our house.

That said, the looks I get when I speak to my kid in English in public are not the same as for mothers who speak other languages. Once in a while I get a frown, but most often, mothers I don’t even know will sidle up and ask whether I give English lessons (I don’t). Mothers speaking in Arabic get only the frowns.

Why is that? I suspect it’s an assumption of want vs. need. I am in France because I want to be, not because I have to be here. It’s a nice place, I’m a lifelong francophile, and so why not. It’s an expat mindset. This, compared with people who are in France not because they are in love with the country but because they are NOT in love with their own, for economic, political or whatever reasons.

While I pass for French until I open my mouth, others get judged from afar. I am ashamed to say, I’ve done it myself. There was one mother at after-school pickup who wore a headscarf. Being a feminist, I winced every time I saw her. On the one hand, I think we all should be able to wear whatever we want. No body-shaming. But headscarves aren’t about fashion; they are saying half the population is a threat or a nuisance that should be hidden.

from aboveHowever, some friends were interested in a house for sale which happened to be next door to the veiled woman’s house, and so I approached her to get information about it. She was lovely. Charming and smart, though she hadn’t been able to continue her studies. She worked. She basically took care of her mother, who though fairly young didn’t speak French and didn’t drive and needed her daughter to manage every aspect of her life. Her two kids were well-behaved. Her husband had a business.

I’ve been told a number of times, both in France and in Belgium, that I’m a “good” immigrant–legally documented, working, tax-paying, law-abiding. This woman and her family also were “good” immigrants in every one of those ways. Yet, she told me, I was the first person ever to speak to her in our village. I was ashamed that I had let her veil stop me from being friendly. I still see veils as means of oppression, but I make an effort to love the person–or at least smile in the case of strangers–while hating the veil.red amid yellowAt my gym class yesterday, one woman had voted for LePen in Sunday’s run-off; ironically she herself had lived all over the world, untroubled that she should maintain her French identity and customs in other countries but unhappy to be back in France and confronted with people doing the same.

The others all favored Macron, tepidly; their enthusiasm was limited to opposing Le Pen (sound familiar?). They talked about their conflicted feelings about France’s future, about absolutely wanting to preserve the social safety net while wondering whether it hadn’t gotten too generous. Where to draw the line? In a way, Sunday’s election was about 11 different choices of lines to be drawn. Though the challenges are far more complex than a simple line can resolve.

One woman, who works for a social-services agency, described a case she’s dealing with: an elderly couple who just arrived from Azerbaijan. They don’t speak a word of French and both need extensive medical care. That someone from Azerbaijan would prefer to have heart surgery in France isn’t surprising. What is shocking, however, is that they qualify as indigent and don’t have to pay a cent.

red with yellowObviously, that can’t go on. But will it swing as far as Le Pen wants? We’ll find out May 7.

Although this topic is inextricably and unavoidably part of life in France, especially right now, we will turn back toward lighter things on Friday.

 

Walk in the French Countryside

wisteria cepie 2The leaves are all out on the trees now, though some of the flowering trees are still dressed as if going to a ball. And the temperatures have been so warm that the poppies are multiplying before our eyes. Soon entire fields will be red.

wisteria cepie
Wisteria everywhere.

So here are some shots of spring before they are too outdated.

treehouse
A treehouse for watching birds.

The treehouse above is now completely hidden by leaves. It’s quite a setup. I’ve seen a ladder going up to it, but usually the ladder is gone. I’ve never seen a kid around it, and I think it was intended for birdwatching only. It belongs to an elderly (but spry) guy and has many “keep out” signs.

white horse
This was such a dreamy surprise between the trees.
orchard 2
An orchard that from the distance looks like a field of cotton candy.
garden bridges
That isn’t a moat, but…

The culverts along French country roads can be extremely deep. I suppose it’s to handle the runoff when it rains, because around here, a feeble sprinkle is rare–when it rains, it pours.

You can see the little garden sheds. Nothing flimsy about them. They are made of concrete blocks. That makes for a cool getaway in the summer.

garden bridge gate
Gated property.

I would never have the nerve to drive over one of these. Near my parents’ home was a bridge that had rails on the sides, but big openings showing the enormous brown river very far below. I felt sick every time we went over it and I would drive out of my way to a newer bridge with concrete sides that hid the river. Farther south, there is an even older bridge that’s only one lane wide over this major river and you feel as if you are flying instead of driving over the river. I do not find that exciting.

pyrenees
Ah, the Pyrénées.

The weather here has been remarkable. Cloudless days, full view of the mountains. No need for a sweater during the day. The saying is “en avril, ne te découvre pas d’un fil; en mai fais ce qu’il te plaît” — in April, don’t take off even a thread, but in May do as you please.

faucet
I want one!

Isn’t this the coolest faucet? It was on a public fountain in a village. In a lot of places, such a beauty would have been stolen, but here it’s par for the course. I love these little touches. It could have been a plain faucet, but instead it’s a little piece of art.

bridge
See that sky? The trees are full of leaves now.

This little village, with the old Renault (a 3 or 4; not sure), is just so typical, with its line of plane trees and its red tile roofs. Not a soul stirring, either. A few cats and dogs too busy napping to even look up.

chateau
Surprise.

I love the way châteaux peek between trees in the countryside. You can drive along, and suddenly, hey, what’s that in that copse? Why it’s a château. I never get tired of finding them, and love when we venture beyond our usual routes so I can scour the horizon for châteaux.

Segways in TLS
For something completely different.

Finally, this one goes with nothing, but I found it so startling I just had to share it. Yes, châteaux are normal, but Segways are not. This troupe? flock? pack? of Segways zipped by on an otherwise pedestrian street in Toulouse when we were there back during the soldes. Are group Segway outings a thing elsewhere?

 

Time to Wine

looking down hillThe vines are almost all pruned now. The pieds de vigne, or woody parts, stand in perfect rows like so many well-behaved students at assembly. Or sentries, silent, brooding. With a little lower-back pain.

bent and held up with crutchThe vines are old, sometimes 30, even 70 years old. Wine takes time.

The one above reminds me of an old vigneron, or winegrower, who was similarly bent over. He drove a rickety old tractor that putt-putted down the street to his vines. It was a Lamborghini, something that never failed to make me chuckle.

My kid and I always smiled and waved to him as we headed to school and he passed on his way to work. We probably also said bonjour, which I doubt he ever heard over the racket of the Lamborghini’s finely tuned engine. He always brightened and waved back. He seemed amused by children, a good thing for somebody who lives next door to a preschool.

I was amazed that he kept working. He must have been around 90. Years later, somebody told me that he was a mean guy that nobody liked. I felt terrible for him. How did he get such a reputation? Was it deserved? Or was it a label slapped on by somebody for one falling out and then became part of village lore? He seemed sweet to me. And his tiny tractor, with some yellow paint still clinging to its sides, was cause for great excitement for a preschooler.

rows toward vlrzlAfter a good frost but before the first buds on the vines, the vignerons are out pruning (tailler) the vines. It’s usually a solitary job. A beat-up car or camionette parked in an odd place (OMG, what is that car doing there? was there an accident?) is the first clue that somewhere in the expanse of row upon row, a bent figure will be clipping away.

In the years since our kid graduated from the village school to upper grades in town, I no longer get out morning, noon and evening, and I miss out on local news. There are three main sources of information: the knot of parents waiting outside the school doors; the local commerce–bakery and grocery store, mostly; and a loudspeaker system by which the mairie broadcasts announcements. These are preceded by very badly recorded clips of music, usually some pop song that was popular 15-20 years ago and just as often in English as in French, then the announcement, read by one of the mayor’s secretaries with a lavishly thick local accent. More music, the announcement one more time in case you missed it, then more music and out.

However, sometimes the snippet of music is the “Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem mass. And then you listen for who died. I knew most of the old people by sight, not name, smiling and waving on four-times-daily school commutes (9 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 5 p.m.). When our kid declared independence, meaning going to school alone, I had to agree yet I was so worried that I would creep behind, working to keep up while staying far enough back not to be seen. There are some benches near a fountain, under the platane trees, where several old men gather to watch the world go by. My kid would greet them, a high point–well, four points–in their day, often the only person to go by.  And these papis would smile and assure me, as I peeked around the last corner from which I could see all the way to the school down an ancient street too small for cars,  that everything was fine and I could go home. Our little secret.

I missed the announcement of the old vigneron’s passing. I realized I hadn’t seen his tractor in a while, nor did I see him tending his vineyards. Finally I asked someone and learned he had died a few months earlier. I think of him every time I pass one patch, where I often saw him, bent like the vines he was pruning. Sometimes I wave anyway.

vine in the skyI wonder whether the vignerons talk to their vines, which seem so much like individuals, with personalities. I would ask, but I suspect they would look at me like “this American really IS crazy.”

tangle near bgnlPlenty of people talk to their plants. My grandma had a way with African violets. One day, she confided that her secret was that she talked to them. She pulled me into her sun porch, where African violets lined the window sills, to demonstrate: “If you don’t bloom, you’re going out!” she barked at the plants. Bloom they did. Tough love.

The trimmed branches are called sarments, good to add to a barbecue fire for flavor. The word “sarment” often figures in restaurant names.

gnarlyIn 2008, the European Union launched a program to reduce a glut of wine and keep prices from crashing by reducing EU vineyard area by 94,000 hectares a year. Kind of like OPEC for wine. People love to complain about the EU, but united we stand, divided we fall. Without an overall plan, everybody would have said, let the other guy tear up his vineyards. And they all would have suffered as prices fell further. Overall, vineyards in the EU shrank 24% between 2008 and 2015.

ripple effect
Ripple effect. Isn’t it amazing that creeping green shoots can harden into such shapes?

It wasn’t the first time vines have been uprooted. In 92 A.D., the Roman emperor forbade planting new vines in Languedoc and ordered half the vineyards to be destroyed, because French wine was giving Italian wine too much competition.

Since last year, vines have been allowed to be planted once again.

modern dancers
These make me think of modern dancers.

Did you know that 85% of French households say they bought wine for their own consumption during the year, but just over half drink only a once or twice a week; only 16% of the French drink wine daily or almost daily. The average price of a bottle of wine in France is €6.33. And most of it is good stuff, even when it’s cheap.

against skyUpdate: I wrote this a few days ago, and the very next day, leaves popped out on the vines. If they made a noise, the countryside would sound like a popcorn machine right now. They seem to open right before your eyes. I’ll try to get out and Instagram some later today. The leaves have a “just woke up and blinking in the sunshine” air about them.

 

 

 

 

April Fish Day

Fish 1Tomorrow, April 1, may be April Fool’s to you, but in France, it’s the day for the Poisson d’Avril–April Fish Day.

April Fish Day is just one of the tweaks one must learn on moving to France. Among the others: la petite souris (the little mouse), not the tooth fairy, brings a small present, not a coin, for a lost tooth. My kid was honestly horrified at the idea of a mouse running around the house, and preferred to stick with the fairy tale. Another benefit of being bi-national: the mousy fairy brought not only a shiny €2 coin (I know, cheapskate. The average in the U.S. is about double that) but also a present of a book, which had to be wrapped or it wasn’t a present.

In addition, the Easter bunny doesn’t bring Easter eggs; instead that’s the job of the church bells. According to the Catholic Church in France, edited by the Conference of French Bishops (how’s THAT for a source!), between Holy Thursday and Easter, the church bells would fall silent, and when children would ask why, the grown-ups would explain that the bells had gone to Rome. Logical. The pope would bless them before sending them back, and they would bring goodies for the kids. The goodies part certainly helped kids overlook the holes in this lame tale.

The Easter bunny turns out to be German, not that it’s any more logical to have a rabbit hauling eggs.

You can find plenty of chocolate Eastern bunnies in France, because when it comes to chocolate, the French take a big tent approach: the more the merrier.

April Fish Day goes back to the 1500s, when King Charles IX shifted New Year’s Day to Jan. 1, from April 1. The whole calendar thing seemed to be fluid for a long time. In 46 B.C., Julius Caesar created the Julian calendar with 12 months and 365 days, but it started March 1 with spring. Logical.

In 532, the Catholic Church moved the start of the year to Jan. 1, so the new year would begin in the first month following Christmas Day, which had been set as Dec. 25. However (and this is what happens when everybody decides what to do locally), in some places they insisted on starting the year on Easter, in others on Christmas.

The story is that either people who were upset with Jan. 1 gave fish (as a New Year’s gift–presents in those days tended to be comestibles) on April 1 as a middle finger to the king’s edict, OR that it was the pro-Jan. 1 folks who gave fish to the anti-change April Firsters to tease them.

Why fish? Maybe because the zodiac sign March is Pisces–fish? Maybe it has to do with the Christian symbol of a fish? Maybe because some wise guy invented a meme and it went viral?

Around 1900, April 1 was the day to declare one’s love by sending a fish-shaped card. At the same time, chocolate fish became fashionable (see French attitude toward chocolate above). The little fish- and shell-shaped chocolates are called friture (fried foods) appear in shops around April 1 until Easter.

While there is a joke line called Poisson d’Avril (go ahead and laugh at their translation of Darth Vader as Dark Vador), mostly the joke consists of surreptitiously sticking a paper fish on somebody’s back.  Our kid used to get SO excited coloring and cutting out fish of various sizes and sticking them on papa’s back. The Carnivore, unsurprisingly, considers fish a waste of time on the plate, but he played along with the gag excellently, expressing immense astonishment when he would find a fish on his back, regardless of how indelicately it had been taped there. Of course he had to make the discovery in order for other audaciously attached fish to follow.

Fish 2
Do you see the question mark in the bubble from the little fish?

I was sure I had saved some of those fish, but all I found in the art folder was the one here, which interestingly folds out. It was a lot of fun to look through the years of creativity. Funny how when they’re really little, any scribble is so amazing.

I am not sure I approve, but the French kid’s TV channel, Gulli, has a list of jokes to play on parents. I’ll take the fish.

Spring and School in France

cherry tree to danceAs part of the U.S. gets hit by snowstorms and Australians start thinking about winter, here’s a ray of hope: some pretty spring pictures. Since there isn’t much to say about them beyond their captions, today you get completely random pictures while I write about a topic for which I don’t have photos: the quirks (at least in my eyes) of French elementary school.

In France, universities appeared before primary schools: The University of Paris opened in 1160 and the one of the world’s first medical schools opened in 1181 down the road from us in Montpellier. It wasn’t until 1698 that Louis XIV ordered French children to attend school until they were 14.

old buildings
Already getting green

I won’t write about secondary education until I have the value of hindsight. But for the lower grades here are things that blew my mind.

orchard blooms 1
Taking this photo, I sensed somebody behind me and turned around to see:

horsesThey start young–two years old, as long as they are potty trained (propre–clean). It’s preschool, with an emphasis on learning to be civilized, and it’s free. And it’s all day. I thought, how dreadful, but my kid could not wait to get in there, and loved being there all day. As one mother told me, “They get to do all the messy things you don’t want them doing at home” like painting and playing with clay.

The government tries to have a preschool and primary school in each village, close to home. For small villages, that means combined classes. In our village, each classroom held two grades. In tiny villages, a single teacher might hold down the fort with kids ages two to 11, like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

chatonsIn our village, about half the kids go home for lunch, and the lunch break is two hours long. That means kids get out of school around 5 p.m., which seems so late. But it’s good for working parents; their kids can eat at the cafeteria. Before and after class, there is also government-subsidized and -organized daycare, often in the school building or an adjacent one (no transportation issues). Tariffs for the parents’ share are based on hours spent in daycare, family income and number of kids, and range from €5 to €13 a day around here.

They learn more than manners at the maternelle, or preschool. Our kid’s teacher in grand section (five-year-olds, like kindergarten), or GS, had the kids make a “passport” and they spent the year filling it in with different countries: they learned about counting and colors and the alphabet via a trip around the world. They were read stories from different countries, cooked and tasted foreign foods, sang songs from other countries, built huts…it was wonderful. One day when we were in Carcassonne, our kid, still in GS, spied a black man and got all excited. “Do you think he’s from Africa? Which country? There’s Cameroon. And Congo. And Senegal. And Côte d’Ivoire. And a lot of others. I wonder whether he likes winter here. And the food….” On and on it went. Not fear of “the other” but interest, curiosity and excitement. (Our little village isn’t exactly diverse.)

white blooms
Snowy white blossoms

The grades are not 1, 2, 3, etc. There are, in typical French fashion, a bunch of acronyms instead: The two-year-olds are in TPS for très petite section (very small section), followed by PS, or petite section, then MS, or moyenne section (medium section), and GS. How wonderful to be grand–big–when you are just five years old.

It gets more confusing as you climb through the grades. First grade is CP, for cours préparatoire. This is where they learn to read. Second and third grades are CE1 and CE2, for cours élémentaire 1 and 2, the idea being that the second round is a revision and deepening of the first. Fourth and fifth grades are CM1 and CM2, for cours moyen 1 and 2.  Then they go off to middle school, called collège, where sixth grade is sixième–6thbut seventh grade is cinquième–5th–and so on through lycée, or high school. All these mental gymnastics now can’t help but ward off dementia in my old age.

ducksHere’s what really shocked me: already in maternelle, they went on overnight–TWO straight nights–field trips. The first one was to the beach (I thought: are the teachers out of their minds? A pack of preschoolers by open water??? Not to mention keeping them slathered with sun block and hats on). The next year they went sledding in the mountains.

In CP and a few other years, they went cross-country skiing, also in the Pyrénées. (This sounds illogical, but there is no snow here unless you go up in altitude; around Carcassonne, this winter’s snow arrived between 7 and 8 a.m. two Saturdays ago; by 8:30 it had melted.)

like snow
A vineyard enveloped not in snow but weeds. Pretty anyway!

In CE1 or CE2, I forget now, they went rock climbing, with ropes and helmets and everything. In CM1 or CM2, they went spelunking, not just to the pretty cave that has nice paths for tourist visits but also to caves that are wild and unlit (everybody had a helmet with a lamp), where a false step in a dark corner could send one plummeting in a gaping hole to the middle of the Earth. And no cell phone service.

All I can say is that when I was in elementary school, one year we went to the natural history museum and another we went to a pasta factory. There was none of this adventure stuff, and no overnights.

pruning vines
Pruning the grape vines. They stopped and blew me kisses when I stopped taking photos.

As PTA member/room mother, I got to accompany many of my kid’s class outings. The last night would usually involve a boum–a loud dance party–and the kids would get to stay up late. By design!

On the cross-country ski trip, we stayed in a dormitory, girls on one floor, boys on the other. Dinner was in a big cafeteria. I figured we parents would have to keep an eye on things. Far from it! The kids were at their own tables, and the cafeteria ladies set out big dishes at each table; the kids were expected to serve each other–no help from the cafeteria ladies nor the parents. This should not have been so surprising; it’s how the school cafeteria operates. The parents, meanwhile, were at a separate table on the far side of the room (not in peace because two classes of kids–about 50 in all–create a deafening noise even when well-behaved), furnished with carafes of wine. The meal, just like at school or at any restaurant, had a starter, main course, cheese, dessert, and for the adults, coffee–I forgot the exact menu, because it’s been years.

pyrenees
Can you make out the snow-covered Pyrénées?
field with rows
The same field as above (different angle), a few days later, already growing.

Unforgettable, though, was when one of the dads took a sip of the wine, grimaced, and left. He returned with a jerry can of his own wine; he’s a winegrower and never leaves home without a supply of reliably good stuff, I guess. I could not imagine this scenario playing out in the U.S., not even in Napa Valley.

Is it just that the school I attended was bare bones and that such activities were wild and crazy back in the ’60s and ’70s? Do all schools have field trips like this nowadays? I suspect that the French, and perhaps other Europeans, are far more laissez-faire about letting their kids experiment with independence. They don’t do helicopter parenting; it’s more like autopilot, taking control only when there’s a crisis. It seems to work OK.

 

 

 

Written in Stone

crossAfter living here for so long, I forget which things I found different about France. Maybe it’s because I’ve been a francophile since my first Madeline book.

The culture shock has been urban vs. rural rather than Anglo-Saxon vs. French. We arrived from New York City to a village of 700 next to Carcassonne, which itself is no metropolis at 45,000 (not counting the 2 million tourists each year).

I found it hard to adjust to strict hours for everything After living in the city that never sleeps. The stores open at 10, and even the supermarkets don’t open until 8:30 and close at 8 p.m. Smaller shops close between noon and 2 p.m. Many people still go home for lunch. Everything is closed on Sunday. Run out of milk on Saturday night and you’re out of luck until Monday morning. In bigger cities, there are more options.

1663At the same time, people are clearly lucky to have an incredible level of stability in their lives, thanks to this inflexible schedule. Work hours are written in stone, often 9 or 10 a.m. until noon and 2 p.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., for a 35-hour workweek. No scheduling software that dictates at the last minute that you’ll work late tonight and early tomorrow. Dinner time is dinner time. Nothing is open, hardly anybody works late. They go home to their families.

Sundays are dedicated to a big, multigenerational family meal. There might be outings, to a vide grenier (a kind of mass garage sale) or biking or hiking and picking mushrooms or wild asparagus in the woods or visiting one of the many village festivals.

You can tell the value system by what professions DO work on Sundays: bakers, florists (so you can take a bouquet when you go to the in-laws’ house for Sunday dinner), restaurants. Basically it’s about eating. Everything else can wait. And what is eating but an occasion to share a pleasure with friends and family?

1662I would like to say all this shows the French aren’t into mindless consumerism, but they have succumbed as much as anybody else. There are solderies selling the same cheap, cheaply made junk you find in the aisles of big-box stores elsewhere. The only difference is that homes here are smaller than in the U.S., which generally puts a cap on how much stuff can fit.

While I consider myself a city person, I have to admit there are some lovely qualities about French village life. There’s a softness to the people here. A niceness. Yes, I said it: French people are nice. Also a slowness, because why stress? There’s plenty of time. It’s definitely life in the slow lane.

Maybe I settled easily into my adopted country because its values appeal to me. Family first. Good public schools. Good health care for everybody. Clean environment. The system works pretty well and things are in pretty good shape. Competence and professionalism are rampant. When frustrations arise, they usually stem not from ineptness on the part of a bureaucrat or shopkeeper or customer service representative but from that person’s unbudging adherence to some set of rules that might make sense some or even most of the time but that allow for no exceptions. This becomes less surprising when you look at how French verbs are conjugated: there are general rules, and then not so much exceptions but ever-more-specific subsets of rules. No one-offs. The rules are written in stone.

RF
RF = République Française

This Gallic certitude, this ability–even penchant–to say non, is inextricable from the French savoir vivre, knowing how to live well. Some rules of French life:

  1. Everything should be made as beautiful as possible. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but aesthetics count, whether it’s how you dress or how you serve dinner or turning down the lights in the evening and lighting a candle for ambience.
  2. Take your time. The French won’t be rushed (maybe behind the wheel, but that’s a different story). Stop for a drink at a café with friends. Linger at dinner. Do your beauty routine.
  3. Smell the roses, literally. Use your senses to pull pleasure from every opportunity. The French are particularly strong in the taste department, but not limited to that.

museumOf course these things can be done anywhere. If you want to feel French this weekend, then put together a good meal of honest food–it doesn’t have to be fancy but it shouldn’t be heavily processed–and share it with some people you care about. Set a pretty table. Take your time to enjoy it all. Voilà!

 

 

 

Signs of Spring

pink-bloomsLast week was the Chandeleur, or Candelmas, yet another pagan tradition co-opted by religion. While the U.S. has Groundhog Day on Feb. 2, the French celebrate that day by making food. Of course. Specifically crêpes.

88-crepes
Many are missing because they were eaten as soon as the sugar got sprinkled on top.

The reason for crêpes is either that they are round like the sun and Feb. 2 is when the days start getting noticeably longer, or that they are round like coins. If you can flip your crêpe (some say it must be the first one–which is always the hardest–some say any of them but you have to be holding a coin in the other hand), you will be prosperous for the year.

I had planned to post this last week, but I was too busy stuffing my mouth with the first sugar I’ve eaten since Christmas. The Carnivore is the Crêpe Master and he doesn’t flip them, so too bad for us. His mother’s recipe is at the bottom.

Spring does, however, seem to be tapping its foot and pushing winter a bit from behind to get it to step out of the way already or at least move faster. (Do you also hate it when the person behind you in line keeps bumping you or touching you, as if you are holding up the line, when, in fact, there are other people ahead of you? Do they think that they can perhaps annoy you so much that you just leave and let them move up one spot in the queue? Answer: NO. Or perhaps they think that nobody else is feeling the pain of standing in line the way they are?)

Anyway, spring. I looked at temperatures this year vs. last, and January was colder, probably because of that cold spell a few weeks ago. But still, I photographed these irises in bloom on Jan. 30. Irises in January???

irises-1And this camellia bush is ready to bust out. I shot it last year in April here.

rhododendronI keep seeing flowers everywhere, and not just the primroses, cyclamens, pansies and decorative cabbages that towns and villages and homeowners plant for winter. (I do love living in a place where one plants flowers for winter.) The wild almonds are starting to flower.

When we bought our house 15 years ago, every field was a vineyard, as far as the eye could see. It seemed like a good idea–vines send roots deep into the ground and resist the summer droughts, and those roots help hold the soil when the rain beats down in torrents.

bare-trees-and-greenThe vines are many decades old, and it’s easy to think it’s always been like this. But I was reading about life years ago, when most of the population worked the land and grew their own food. It was inefficient, and hunger was a big driver of the French Revolution. Farmers grew a bit of everything–some vineyards, yes, but also wheat, oats, flax, olives, barley and hay. It was far from being a monoculture. As farms got bigger and needed fewer workers, they specialized in one thing or another.

fields-distanceToday, under a program to reduce the quantity of wine produced in order to shore up prices, many vineyards have been uprooted and turned over to other crops, like wheat, sunflowers, beans, sorghum and rape. Since the end of January, some have started to peep above the soil and turn everything green, even as the trees remain bare.

Do you see signs of spring yet?

field

The Carnivore’s Mother’s Crêpes

750 grams flour (6 cups)

1 liter whole milk (4 1/4 cups)

2 tablespoons white sugar

6 eggs

1 tablespoon olive oil

a pinch of salt

butter for cooking

Beat the eggs, milk and oil until well mixed. Add the flour, sugar and salt. Mix well. It should be runny, not like pancake batter.

Melt a pat of butter in a shallow skillet. Pour about half a cup of batter into the skillet and rotate to spread the batter evenly. Keep a close eye and turn when it’s brown–with a spatula or, if you’re daring, flip. Cook the other side just enough so it isn’t sticky.

If you want to be a gourmande, sprinkle with sugar right away and keep your stack covered so they stay hot.

Melt another pat of butter before pouring in the next round of batter.

Best eaten warm, but they will keep, covered, for several days. If you haven’t consumed them all before. This recipe serves a crowd (30 crêpes? Something like that).

 

Let Them Eat Cake

st-honore

The French really do win at lifestyle. One of the essentials of the good life in France is that they work to live, not live to work.

This is possible in no small part thanks to the minimum wage, or salaire mimimum interprofessionel de croissance, aka the SMIC (pronounced smeek. The French LOVE abbreviations.).

It is possible to live on the minimum wage here. Granted, it would be difficult in big cities where rents are high. But here in the rural south of France, it’s hard to find jobs that pay much more than the SMIC. And everybody I know is doing just fine anyway.

meery-3For 2017, the SMIC is €9.76 an hour or €1,480.27 a month (that comes to €17,763.24 a year, but I’m not sure whether it would be more because people generally are paid a 13th month of salary in order to be able to go on vacation). The workweek is 35 hours.

Looking at 2015 figures from the OECD that compare a bunch of countries using a constant exchange rate, France was at $10.90 an hour vs. $7.20 for the U.S.

The OECD also looks at how countries’ minimum wages compare to average wages of full-time workers. So 1 would mean that everybody earns minimum wage while the closer you get to zero the worse off minimum-wage earners are compared to everybody else. For France, folks earning the SMIC are at 0.62 of the median wage (which the OECD says is more accurate than the mean wage), while in the U.S., minimum wage earners are at 0.36 of the median wage.

In other words, there are rich and poor in France, but the poor are less miserable and the rich not as extravagantly wealthy as in the U.S. (If this post seems simplistic, it’s because it is a blog post, not a book. For the book, check out “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by French economist Thomas Piketty.)

The way to measure this is called the Gini index, with zero being absolute inequality (a few rich have everything and everybody else is destitute) to 1 being absolute equality (no rich, no poor, everybody gets the same thing). Obviously neither extreme is good—one is pretty much slavery and the other gives no incentives. You want some incentives but nothing crazy. In Chile and Mexico, the indexes for 2014 (latest year) are 0.465 and 0.459, respectively. Both countries have rich elites and large poor populations.

The Gini index for France is 0.294. For the U.S., it’s 0.394. Switzerland is at 0.295, almost the same as France, which shows that low inequality doesn’t mean poverty for all. In fact, the poverty rate in France is 8%, in Switzerland is 8.6% and in the U.S. is 17.5%.

meery-2There are a lot of reasons why life in France is good. Socialized medicine is a major factor. Workers pay about 8% and employers kick in about 13% more–so folks with big salaries pay more than folks earning the SMIC; the rates aren’t set according to your health. You don’t lose your health insurance if you lose your job because coverage is universal. In addition, low-income families get help, with public preschool starting at age two (that’s a benefit for rich and poor families), benefits for children and subsidies for nannies/daycare.

France is a lot more like how the U.S. was in the 1950s (a period of low inequality), with white-collar and blue-collar workers living in the same neighborhood in similar (modest) homes. (The average new home size in France is 1,206 square feet, vs. 2,164 square feet in the U.S.)

This makes sense when you start looking at salaries in France for professions that pay more than the SMIC.

I was quite surprised when the manager of my bank branch divulged that she makes €1,800 a month—€21,600 a year. But that’s more than a first-year school teacher, at €1,616 a month (€19392 a year) before taxes (it rises to €3431—€41,172—after 30 years of service). Firemen make €2,311 a month (€27,732 a year) on average.

Nurses start out the same as teachers and max out at €47,710, while general practice doctors earned €72,500 to €83,120 a year in 2011. Among specialists, radiologists are the best paid, at €186,250 to €212,980 a year.

Are you choking on your coffee?

meery-4There are two big reasons for doctors’ low pay compared to U.S. doctors (an average of $223,175 a year for internal medicine): malpractice isn’t like in the U.S. and they have no giant loans to pay off from med school.

My doctor lives in a house a tad bigger than the French average, maybe 1800 square feet, on a street with teachers, nurses, bus drivers, plumbers, acccountants, electricians and lots of retail workers. She has a nicer car and goes on cooler vacations than other people I know around here–and she totally deserves it–but she doesn’t live in a luxe bubble.

When I moved here, my new acquaintances told me I would be able to find a job easily because of being bilingual. The supermarkets would be sure to snatch me up, they said, to help deal with tourists and British expats who don’t speak French. I thought, there is no way I am going to be a checkout clerk at a supermarket. I have a master’s degree.

After living among people who are retail clerks, restaurant workers and other professions, I see things differently. I still don’t want to work in a supermarket. But I had lived in a circle of intellectuals and Type A overachievers who work hard and succeed, yes, but who always got straight A’s. Now I know lots of people who work hard and who never in their lives got an A or even a B, no matter how hard they tried. Unlike in the U.S., they aren’t punished for it.

meery-5I have a friend here who was thrilled when she was hired at McDonald’s. To me, McDonald’s is a good job for high school students. Here, high school students don’t work, certainly not after school. Their job is school, and it’s a full-time job. And here, a job at McDonald’s might be harder than, say, selling dresses, but it’s still a decent job. My friend proudly showed up at school pick-up while wearing her uniform, so all the other parents could see where she worked. Contrast that with a U.S. chieftain of fast food—NOT McDonald’s, which raised its U.S. wages—who said he hires “the best of the worst.”

Let them eat cake.

meery-1Obviously we need incentives for people to do jobs that require training, higher education or a lot of stress. Making a mistake on the job has different ramifications and different stress for a doctor versus a janitor and they need to be paid accordingly. Nobody would spend years studying and then hours bent over a microscope to try to find a cure for cancer if they were going to make the same thing as if they had a job that required no education or dedication. There are jobs that aren’t about clocking in and then switching off when you clock out, and nobody would do them if they paid the SMIC.

But we still need people to wait tables, pick up garbage, clean houses, and sell us stuff in stores. If they do it all day every day, shouldn’t they be able to make a living? In France, they can.

These workers do their jobs, do them well (the professionalism of French waiters is legendary), and go home to their families. In France, they are able to pay their bills as long as they live comfortable but modest lives, which really is all they want. Because they work to live, they don’t live to work.

What matters to them is a good meal with family and friends. With dessert.

tarte-au-citron
This tarte and the Saint-Honoré at the top are from Noez bakery; all the others are from Meery Cake, two great places for desserts in Carcassonne.

Hygge? Non, Merci

p1060468If you follow French news, you’ve probably heard we have a cold snap across the Hexagone. It hasn’t been this cold in five years.

The photo above was taken yesterday. Early-morning temperatures had plunged to minus 7 Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit), but by mid-afternoon, they were around 4 C (39 F), with a brilliant blue sky and tons of sun. Perfect for drying laundry on the line.

Not hygge at all.

p1060439
January roses: Not hygge.
p1060442
More flowers. Not hygge, either.

Hygge is the global rage at the moment: the Danish concept of coziness, cuddling, candles and close friends that is credited with making the Danes the world’s happiest people.

Aside from comfort food with loved ones–de rigueur for the French–the south of France is un-hygge. Everything is geared toward good weather, not winter. The steep slope of some driveways around here made me realize that the residents knew nothing of driving out on ice or of shoveling knee-deep snow.

I wonder whether I’m the only one around here who used to drive from October to April with a snow shovel and a bag of sand in my trunk (sand to improve traction and also to sprinkle under the tires, should I get stuck and find them spinning).

We get a few flakes here almost every winter, but they  rarely survive 24 hours. Should we miss the snow, we need to drive only two and a half or three hours to the Pyrénées ski stations, or even Andorra. In my opinion, that’s the perfect distance for snow.

p1060409
Fountain sprays in January: Hygge? Nope.

I knew I was in the right place when I saw Carcassonne in winter. Bubbling fountains. Flowers in gardens. Café terraces bustling in the dead of winter. Hygge is having your coffee inside, with candles or a fireplace. Sipping your coffee in the sun at a table on the terrace, even though it’s chilly, and watching the people pass, is not hygge at all.

The brightest, sunniest days bring the coldest nights. It’s a small price to pay. Though the architecture-geared-toward-good-weather, paired with the two-foot-thick stone walls in older houses, means pipes often get run outside buildings, and when it does get really cold, like five years ago, they rupture left and right. In fact, at our kid’s school in the village, and now at upper grades in Carcassonne, the restrooms are outside. Not pleasant but further proof that it just doesn’t get very cold.

p1060466
Poolside palms. Hygge fail.

Meanwhile, it’s been fun watching the Carcassonnais going about their business as if they suddenly were in Siberia (which is where this cold front is said to have originated, always mentioned darkly on the weather report. No love lost for Russia in this country). Bundled to the max–emmitouflé–which, I guess is pretty hygge after all.

 

Fog Filter

red-treeBetween the days of hard blue skies, sometimes we awake to discover that the fog has crept in on little cat feet.

Unable to see the rooftops from the window. Unable to see the road up the hill. Unable to see even across the yard. Thick. Dark white. Quiet.

from-hilltopWhen it had lifted enough not to be treacherous to venture out on foot–the roads have no shoulders, and I didn’t want a passing car to send me into a ditch–I was enchanted by the “fog filter” on the countryside.

north-from-hilltopIt’s funny to see how things turn green in winter. The wheat fields are becoming emerald carpets. The grass and weeds between the rows of vines, left to hold the topsoil in place, are lush.

windmillThe pine trees that can become kindling for wild fires in summer are now verdant, as if razzing the deciduous plants whose finery is gone until spring.

bare-vinesSome of the vines have leaves left, but others are bare. Wintry. The wine growers are busy trimming while the weather is mild.

boar-track

Others are out in the vines, too. The other day we were stopped on a main road for a boar hunt that was passing through. I’ve never seen a boar, but I hear there are too many.

red-seeds

Even on a fog-filter day, there are bursts of color. On this side of the hill, only the sound of the wind in the pines and the songs of birds. On the other side, the cars on the departmental road create a constant thrum. Electric vehicles can’t get here fast enough.

And finally, the fog lifts, and we see the majesty of the mountains. Is that still France? Or is it Spain? Or Andorra? In Nepal, the guest house had the Himalayan peaks traced on the window, with names pointing to crest. You stooped until you lined up the mountain view with the correct outlines and figured out which one was Mount Everest. Because they others weren’t high enough to worry about.

mountains

Though I’m mildly curious about which peak is which, I don’t want to let a focus on superlatives like “highest” take away their collective magnificence.

Happy holidays to all. We are taking a break until after the New Year, as the French do, in order to focus on friends and family at hand.