It is heartbreaking to see what the pandemic is doing to French culture. Yes, the deaths and long-term suffering are far more important than complaints about culture. I hope the changes don’t take hold, either. It seems the major method of transmission is in family/friends settings, and so life has largely returned to normal with the exception that we have a 6 p.m. curfew in order to rule out get-togethers after work. Restaurants and bars are closed, and I see more and more of them dropping their flimsy lifelines of lunch takeout and “for sale” or “for rent” signs appearing in their windows. I think the survivors will be mobbed when they are allowed to reopen. It’s all everybody wants to do–go out, have a meal or drinks with friends. We crave company.Read more
Have you seen “Emily in Paris”? It’s fun, but oh-la-la! the exaggerations!
The story is about a young social media whiz sent at the last minute to fill in for a French-speaking senior colleague. Our heroine, Emily, is neither senior nor able to speak French. She doesn’t even have experience in the same sector as the Paris office she’s sent to. But she bubbles over about how she’s going to teach them. No wonder they aren’t happy with her.Read more
One of the biggest differences between life in the U.S. and life in Europe is buying groceries. Don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of people who head to the hypermarché once a week and load up their shopping carts with everything from apples to zucchini, with socks and motor oil and kitchen appliances as well.
In fact, the hypermarket was not invented by Walmart (first Supercenter in 1988) or Target (SuperTarget introduced in 1995). It was born in France, when Carrefour opened a combined supermarket-department store combo near Paris in 1963. Like many firsts in history, this one is disputed–GB, a Belgian chain, had opened three hypermarkets in 1961, calling them SuperBazar, which is kind of funny, because un bazar not only is a market but it’s slang for a mess or disorder (GB stood for Grand Bazar). However, Carrefour is the one with the last laugh, because it bought GB in 2000.
We also have food-only supermarkets that don’t take a week to walk across, and épiceries, or small grocery stores. And there are a whole range of specialized stores, such as the Thiriet and Picard chains for frozen foods.
Many French still make separate trips to the fromagerie for cheese, the boucherie for meat, the poissonnerie for fish, the boulangerie for bread, the primeur for fresh produce.
Most towns and even larger villages have markets, along a street or in a square, usually two or three times a week. In tiny villages without an épicerie, itinerant vendors similar to food trucks arrive, one selling produce, another selling fish or cheese….it’s the moment for the little old ladies to get out and gossip. The mairie, or town hall, will make an announcement over loudspeakers set up through the village–the modern town crier–so nobody misses the vendors.
Farmers also set up stands at roundabouts, and not just in summer. Maybe it’s because the winters are mild–we are in the midst of a cold spell with highs in the low 40s and lows flirting with freezing. New England it isn’t. On offer: fresh eggs, fruits, vegetables, mussels and oysters, mushrooms, oranges from Spain sold by a poor Spanish fellow who lives in the truck until the load is sold and he can drive back….
The common thread is freshness. Everything is fresh, fresh, fresh.
Alas, one must go to the hypermarché from time to time for such necessities as laundry soap and toilet paper. Some surprises: The milk is UHT (ultra-high temperature, a treatment that allows it to be stored at room temperature until opened), so it isn’t in the refrigerated aisle and the biggest size is a liter, though you can buy packs of liters. Eggs aren’t washed so they aren’t refrigerated. There’s an entire aisle of emmental (like Swiss cheese, the French go-to cheese that’s on everything from crêpes to pizzas to croque-monsieurs). There are about three kinds of boxed cake mixes and no ready-made frosting. There are about a million kinds of yogurt. And butter. And cream. The industrial cookie aisle is called biscuits industriels–industrial cookies. It makes you think twice about taking anything off those shelves. Never fear–there’s usually a table with fresh-baked goods near the checkout.
Bring your own bags. And a €1 coin or token to unlock a shopping cart. It’s DIY–nobody will bag your stuff much less carry it to your car, and usually you have to weigh your produce yourself on a scale in the aisle that spits out a sticky ticket. Woe unto you if you have stood in line (because there are 36 checkouts but only three open) and haven’t weighed your carrots. You will spend more time standing in line to pay than you spent filling your cart because the people in front of you will inevitably huff and mutter about how slow the people in front of them are, and then they will play with their phones, and then, like the people before them, they will take their sweet time to carefully arrange their purchases in the carts after they’ve been passed through the scanner, and then, while the cashier is tapping her pen and everybody still in line tapping their feet in impatience, they will rummage through their purse to find their checkbook, because OMG what a surprise, they have to pay. Nobody ever fills out the check while standing in line. Nobody. And then they will empty their purse onto the conveyor belt in order to find their driver’s license for ID for the check. More people are paying with cards, but the French still love writing checks. More than once I have been in a checkout line that stretched all the way to the back of the store. Will the manager open more checkout lanes? Never. Unthinkable.
This is why the Carnivore goes to the hypermarket and I go to the outdoor market in the central square on Saturdays. Which would you choose?
One of the things that never fails to astonish me in France is driving along the autoroute–mostly just as soul-sapping as the U.S. Interstate–and then spotting a château, or at least the fairytale towers of one, in the distance.
Despite nearly two decades in Europe, my jaw still drops every time. The A61 autoroute has a great lookout point for admiring la Cité of Carcassonne, too.I apologize for the spottiness of posts over the holidays; I had prepared photos so I could write while we were visiting the Carnivore’s family, and then I went and paid attention to the people in front of me instead of to my screen. It was all very nice, with obscene amounts of rich food. I’ll share some highlights later.
We drove across France through the last dregs of Storm Carmen, although the rain didn’t get ugly until we turned east. At times, through Dordogne, it was so foggy we could barely see the taillights of the car ahead of us. Roadside broom bushes were already covered with yellow flowers because of the unseasonable warmth. It was 16 degrees Celsius (61 Fahrenheit) at 7 this morning. On Jan. 3!!!!
At this time of the year, it’s customary to bestow best wishes on one’s friends and family. Usually Jan. 1 is the day the young pay visits to their elders, although at a certain age that gets tricky. One relative was juggling visits from grown children with visits to some aged aunts. Who is “elder” is a moving target.
One can extend wishes throughout the month of January, and cartes de voeux, or “best wishes” cards, are as big if not bigger than Christmas cards. In person, everyone recites the same formula, like a national mantra for good luck: “Meilleurs voeux, et surtout la santé!” or “best wishes, and above all good health!” And they distribute two or three or four kisses then look you straight in the eye while insisting on the good health part. Because not everybody in the world is cynical; plenty of people–even most, I’d bet–have good hearts and sincerely care.
So if you were here, I would take you by the shoulders and distribute, left/right/left, la bise, and then hold your hand in mine and tell you, sincerely, that I wish you all the best for 2018, and, above all, good health. You’ll have to make do with the virtual version.
If you do something stupid, it’s your problem. The French are big on personal responsibility when it comes to safety.
I was walking along a path around a nearby manmade lake, Lac de la Cavayère. A lovely place, set amid rugged hills of pine forest, with beaches and water sports clustered at one end so the other end remains quiet and wild. And I came across the sign below. Careful: Hold children by the hand.In order to get all the way around, the path had to traverse the dam that created the lake. It was plenty wide—about five feet—with as much grass sloping off on either side. It looked as if the lake side was filled in so if one fell, it was into shallow water, at least at first. But on the other side, there was an almost sheer drop to the valley below. No rails. Just a sign.
This is typical. In France, there exist things that are dangerous, and they either are so obvious that you should just act appropriately, or, in the rare cases of nanny state rearing its head, are noted with signs. In the U.S., the least danger would have to be remedied lest somebody do what they clearly shouldn’t and sue anyway. In France, danger is accepted as a natural part of the world, and it’s on you to deal with it.In the U.S., for example, I was surprised to see seat belts in grocery shopping carts and on horses of a carousel. No such thing in France. In fact, parents are asked to keep off the carousel, except to hold very small kids. If your kids can climb onto the horses, they can ride around the carousel on their own.
The hike to Lastours, a spectacular group of four medieval Cathar châteaux, is on a rugged footpath that winds around a mountain. There are a couple of spots with railings, mostly in wider places where people are apt to stop for a photo and where they can pass each other. Rocks poke out of the ground and pose tripping hazards. A fall could send a person tumbling quite far through the brush.
Watch your step.
The castles are lit at night for a sound and light show. It isn’t easy to wire lighting on a rocky mountain. The wiring, in fact, just snakes up, crossing the path here and there. Code? What code?
We went to a gastronomic fair recently. Tastings of artisanal foods and wine. Boring for kids. So there were pony rides for the little ones and zip lines through the trees for the big ones. Of course.
Tree climbing and zip lines are popular here. At the lake mentioned above, there’s an outfit called Accrobranche (accrocher means to hook onto, and branche is branch) where folks of all ages can zip through the trees. There’s even a line across the lake. You get measured if you’re a kid (the courses you can take depend on height for hooking the safety line), pay, get your equipment and five minutes of training, then zip away. There isn’t any “we aren’t liable for your stupidity” contract. It IS completely safe, as long as you follow the directions.
How many times did my jaw drop when my kid came home with news of a school outing. When I was in school, we visited the art museum. Once we went to a local macaroni factory. We did not go spelunking. Nor did we do rock climbing. Nor swimming in the sea. Nor skiing.
That reminds me of when our kid was about four. We went to a ski resort for sledding. It rarely snows in Carcassonne, and even then it isn’t deep and doesn’t last long enough for sledding. But the Pyrénées are a short drive away. Near the café and the beginner piste, there was a designated spot for sledding. It had a gentle slope that flattened out to a broad plateau to ensure the sleds would slow and then stop on their own. The plateau dropped off to the end of a bustling ski piste, with no barriers between them.
Our kid had a wonderful time. We got a workout. Our kid sledded down and we waited at the bottom to haul the kid-heavy sled back up for another round. But our kid was too little and too inexperienced to understand steering. Instead of slowing to a stop on the plateau where we stood, the sled veered to one side, went off the plateau and down the steep slope, picking up speed and crossing the busy ski piste, luckily not hitting anybody. We tried to run after our screaming kid, but the packed snow was slick—bad for running in boots, while making the sled even faster. Our kid was caught in a snow fence, just barely, but enough to get knocked off the sled, terrified but unhurt. The sled went under the net and flew on down to the bottom of the mountain, stopped by a tree. It took the Carnivore half an hour to go down to get it. That was the end of sledding for a while. All of us were pretty shaken.
This was many years ago. I suspect our kid wasn’t the first to inadvertently steer off the sledding area and into the piste. Years later, our kid took ski lessons, and we’ve returned to this resort for practice. The sledding area is still just there in the open.
With such a laissez-faire attitude about danger, it’s surprising that every person, young or old, who signs up for sports has to have a certificat médical from a doctor, attesting that one can do physical activity. Even yoga. Even ballroom dancing. Even adults—if you join a gym, you need a certificat médical, with a new one every year. From what I’ve seen, the people who go to the gym aren’t the ones whose fitness needs to be certified.
Call it the French paradox.
Tomorrow, 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.
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.