Which do you aim for: contentment or happiness? No, they aren’t the same thing, even though happy is content in French. Happiness is bonheur, while contentment is contentement.
Contentment is the long-term satisfaction or deep fulfillment that comes from the cumulation of good times, good relationships. Happiness is the sugar high of buying something new, getting promoted, winning. It’s fun, it’s exciting, but it doesn’t sustain.
So much of our lives are geared toward the attainment of happiness, probably because it’s more immediate and it feels darn good. But contentment is what counts.Children are probably the best example of this. It seems they are a source of unending demands and pressures—starting with 4 a.m. feedings and diaper changes, evolving and expanding to learning to drive, then university expenses and so on. Petit enfant, petit soucis. Grand enfant, grand soucis. (Small child, small worries. Big child, big worries.) Research shows parents are less happy than people who are childless.
But children enrich our lives immeasurably. When this tiny person comes into the world, we think we have never loved anyone so much. And yet that love keeps growing and growing.Of course being a parent isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I have nothing but respect for anybody who decides they don’t want to have kids. The conscious choice is so much better than those who have kids because they just happened or had them because of social pressure, and then they don’t take care of them.
We can get contentment in other ways—from other family ties, from work, from friends, from faith, from activities like gardening or sports. Contentment requires an effort over time, and that effort might be disagreeable but the results are worth it.Happiness, by contrast, is a quick fix. Amazon Prime. Want it, get it. Now.
Not to knock that, but no amount of shopping or partying or whatever will fill an empty soul.
Life in France is particularly suited to prioritize contentment over happiness. Shops close in the evenings and on Sundays and holidays—no 24/7 here. Retail therapy takes a back seat to family time.Businesses around here also tend to offer a two-hour lunch break. Meals, in fact, are sacred, a time for conversation and sharing. There is nothing I love more than having a dinner with friends, regardless what is on the table (though that is consistently amazing). At mealtimes, everything else stops.
The absence of air conditioning is another exercise in contentment over happiness. It can feel so good to walk out of the heat and into a cold room. But once you cool down, you need a sweater. Not in France. We slowly adapt to the heat, take the time to walk a little more slowly, choose the shade. And after a while, the high temps actually feel comfortable. Didn’t we wait all winter for these warm days? (It helps that we have cool nights and low humidity.) It’s easier to get out and enjoy the summer when your body is used to the heat.Maybe I’m already getting old and crotchety, but I am losing my taste for thrills. The curtains in our apartments were a huge pain (in every sense of huge) to make, but I doubt I would admire them as much now if I had just ordered them online. The antique furnishings that were found from so many sources and brought back to life. It would have been easier to just buy reproductions, or to do the all-modern-in-an-old-building look that’s so popular. But the hard way is so much more satisfying and unique.From my open window, I hear my friend Merle singing (merle is French for blackbird, so I call him that, though he is operatic and not very country at all), and the cigales thrumming. I smell the grass and the freshly cut wheat from a nearby field. Later I will read the latest installment of the novel my kid is writing and marvel at how these ideas came together and wonder where this vocabulary was picked up (in a good way—it isn’t naughty at all; instead, some of the turns of phrases are bowl me over with their artfulness). I will hang laundry to dry in the breeze and smell fresh in a way no fabric softener can replicate. I will make a pie crust for tonight’s quiche. I will do work that I love. These things give life sweetness and meaning. Nothing thrilling, but all deeply satisfying.
Dry stone walls (pierres seches) are one of the iconic features of the French countryside. “Dry” means no mortar. (The French use “dry” in many circumstances which have nothing to do with “not wet.” For example, a soup can be “dry” if it doesn’t have enough fat–quite aside from a powdered mix. Go figure. To me, soup = wet, therefore not dry. “Dry soup” is one of those phenomenon that make my head explode.)
The walls look as if they were thrown together by teen boys in a hurry to finish so they could do something else, undoubtedly more fun. How else to account for the horizontal/vertical/nonsensical design? Yet, these walls are hundred(s) of years old, a testament to the skill of those who built them. I can point you to several retaining walls and houses of recent vintage that have moved with the earth and bowed or cracked dangerously. Around here, old means strong.This is going to be a photo-heavy post, because I can’t resist the patterns, the way they wave as the terrain has moved, the colors of the lichen, the impossibility of their continued existence. I’ve never met a stone wall I didn’t want to photograph.The walls are home to many creatures: little lizards mostly, but also snakes, spiders and other things that make me scream. Think twice about sitting on them. Not comfortable anyway.Just now, it’s hot hot hot out. The nights are deliciously cool, and during restless breaks in sleep I migrate toward an open window to let the chill breeze wash over me. During the day, we move slowly and snap at each other quickly. We aren’t yet used to the heat.
The stones are ironic. Our house’s two-foot-thick stone walls keeps the inside fairly cool during the day, without air conditioning. The apartments are even cooler. But similar stone walls, out along the edges of fields or in improbably remote spots in the garrigue, soak up the sunshine and spew it out, like retailers with their doors open in winter, heating the street. Passing a sun-baked wall is like passing an open oven.Our house was built after World War II (just old enough to be in the strong category), and had never even been a house before we bought it. It had a big parking lot. UGLY. We wanted to give it un coup de vieux (a hit of age), and found people who wanted to get rid of stones. Can you imagine getting RID of these? I guess if you have a falling-down grange and you want to build something neat and modern, then the stones have to go. The proverbial millstone around one’s neck.
Some low walls, with mortar (fewer spiders and snakes, though there are plenty of adorable lizards), made a huge difference in the charm factor. You can tell they came from two different places.
There’s a divide between France and the U.S., and it has to do with how people take care of their clothes.
Let’s start with washing. Front-load washers have gained popularity in the U.S., but they have long been typical in Europe. They are easier on your clothes than top-load agitators, which really tear them up. However, washing times are longer. Mine has a 15-minute freshen-up cycle, but the shortest real wash cycle takes over an hour and the longest is three hours. That’s in part because the machines heat the water themselves, rather than take it from a hot-water heater.
The models sold here are getting bigger, but they are still a lot smaller than in the U.S. Our old washer held a maximum of four kilos–just under nine pounds. Our new one has a maximum capacity of twice that. According to Consumer Reports, capacities in the U.S. are as high as 28 pounds. (French vocabulary lesson: a laundry room is unebuanderie, a laundromat is une laverie and the old-fashioned outdoor laundries are lavoirs. Dry cleaning is nettoyage à sec, and the place that does it is un pressing or une teinturerie.)
Another difference is drying. Plenty of people don’t even have electric dryers. I put towels in the dryer to keep them soft and fluffy but try to hang everything else outside–again, it’s better for your clothes, better for the environment and it’s free. Sheets definitely go outside. It makes them smell so good!
Related to that: walking around in the mornings, you see windows open, even in the dead of winter, and duvets hanging over the window sills to air out for at least 15 minutes. Bedrooms tend to be minimally heated (and back in the day weren’t heated at all), and we don’t have bitter temperatures, so it isn’t very wasteful.
One reason my friends cite for avoiding dryers, besides making clothes last longer, is the cost of electricity. Looking at my bill, we pay between 6.38 centimes and 10.43 centimes (about 7 cents to 11 cents) per kWh before tax (which is 20%). The tariff varies by time of day, with heures creuses, or off-peak, discounted. I set the timers on the washing machine and dishwasher to run during off peak. Surprisingly, residential rates in the U.S. are higher–an average of 12.90 cents per kWh.
One reason many Americans I know do use dryers: to avoid ironing. Some don’t even own an iron or ironing board. When we briefly lived in the U.S., the Carnivore was delighted to discover a setting on our apartment’s dryer called “fluff,” which he adorably pronounced “floof” the first time. He was so excited about how things came out with only minor wrinkles.
By contrast, Europeans tend to be not just wrinkle-free but to have knife-edge creases. Even jeans get ironed. The Carnivore is very talented with a steam iron (see the ads below). Personally, I hate to iron but have been doing a lot of it lately, pressing the sheets for our rental apartments. We want them to be impeccable.
While I iron my own clothes, I don’t do my kid’s. Some of the local mothers would iron their children’s clothes even for toddlers–who wear things for about two minutes before getting dirty. An extremely scientific survey of my gym class showed most spend two to three hours a week ironing.
Ironing isn’t limited to France. I remember being impressed by the teen boys in Rome, perched on their Vespas, wearing immaculate white shirts with crisply creased sleeves. Nothing slovenly about them.
When I lived in Brussels, my apartment faced a lovely row of hidden gardens, “Rear Window” style. In a window across the way, a woman (housekeeper, I think), would iron for hours, including the tiniest flouncy baby dresses. And sheets and sheets and sheets.
Another time, I was at the big department store El Corte Inglès in Barcelona. The household appliance department was animated by many demonstrations. There was a woman carving candles. All kinds of shoppers, including families, watched her work. Some of the candles sported the typical curls, while others represented couples in a sexual act. This was something I never saw in the U.S.
And there was a guy ironing. This was no simple steam iron but what the French call a centre de repassage–an ironing center. A big water tank was fixed to the base of the ironing board “so you can iron all day!” my friend marveled. A dozen people–men and women–watched the demo intently.
Do you hang laundry outside? Do you iron? Do you pamper your clothing?
All winter long, the hunters end their Sunday morning sorties with coffee at the community hall, dead beasts strapped to the hoods of their vehicles parked outside. In spring, they return, this time to eat.
On the menu: sanglier (wild boar) and chevreuil (roe deer, a small breed, 25-70 pounds). Of course, the Carnivore wanted to go.
Early in the morning, under the bridge next to the community hall, a fire was started with pieds de vigne (stumps of grape vines). A huge rotisserie (clearly jury-rigged) started turning, two sangliers and one chevreuil. Like many of the diners, I went down the river bank to take pictures of the skewered hulks. A knot of retirees with well-endowed abdomens discussed the scene, as the head cook used a huge dipper (also jury-rigged) to collect the drippings and pour them over the turning meat. “Mmmmm,” one groaned with pleasure. “Ça, c’est bon.” (That’s good.)
“Oui,” moaned another, adding a bit plaintively, “Pour le cholestérol aussi.” (For the cholesterol, too.)
“Bah, j’ai déjà fait un infarc,” says yet another. (Oh, I already had a heart attack.)
“Moi, deux.” (I had two.)
Then they went into details about how many arteries and stents and hospitals and I had to flee before my appetite was ruined.
The apéritif started as usual, outside under the porch of the community hall. A long table with pitchers of white and rosé wine, and bottles of Ricard. Don’t even think about any other brand of pastis around here. Although nobody orders a Ricard or even a pastis. They say “un jaune”–a yellow–because the alcohol oxidizes with water and turns a milky yellow.
The hunters’ gathering was different from others we have attended. Besides the extreme paucity of women and absence of children (just one boy), the demographic was decidedly older, heavier and had many more smokers. It didn’t seem that they didn’t care; instead it seemed that they DID care, especially about giving a big middle finger to rules and “shoulds” about healthy eating and moderation. On the other hand, I never saw so many people for whom the first description would be “jolly.” The cooks, especially. Big guys, their sagging, faded T-shirts stained with smoke and sweat, beaming with pride, their nonstop chuckles occasionally bubbling up into raucous belly laughs. Just recalling them makes me smile.
Anyway, they know how to cook. The first course was a salad, topped with walnuts, warm duck gizzards and a slice of foie gras. Then, after a leisurely pause, came trays groaning with sanglier. It was so heavy, our tray bent and landed on the table (without damage). There was a huge tray for every 10 people or so.The boar was served with potatoes that had roasted in the juices of the meat, and sliced onions also cooked in the meat juices. OMG.The meat itself was perfectly seasoned. With what? The cooks played coy (not just with me; a woman at the next table also tried, unsuccessfully, to wheedle the secret out of them). This led to a big discussion of what each diner detected: mustard, thyme, harissa….and of course the cloves of garlic stuck into the meat all over.
The trays were refilled with more sanglier. As if we weren’t all stuffed.
Next, they came around with the chevreuil. I passed, but the Carnivore was in heaven.
This was followed, in its sweet time, by cheese–a wedge of brie and a chunk of roquefort. The dessert was crème brulée. Then coffee.
There were three huge trays of meat left over. The meal, which started around 1:30, after the apéro, wound up around 5:30. We were all invited to come back for dinner at 8, though most of our fellow diners planned to go home and nap and to skip dinner altogether. We could hear them continue with Part II well into the night.
Oh, and the price? €13 per person, drinks included.
As with the Easter omelette and the fêtes du village, you can get in on these communal dinners. Just look at the notices at the local grocery stores and bakeries, which usually are also where you buy tickets. You need to bring your own cutlery, plates, glasses and napkins.
What 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?”
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.
This 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.
I 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.)
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.
However, 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.At 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.
Obviously, 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.
Sparkling French wine, good food, church. The perfect combo, right?
Every April since 1990, the Toques et Clochers festival raises money for the restoration of a church bell tower around Limoux, in the south of France. A clocher is a bell, and a toque is the tall white hat worn by chefs. The festival is sponsored by the Sieur d’Arques cooperative of Limoux, purveyor of blanquette de Limoux and crémant de Limoux.
Blanquette de Limoux goes back to 1531, when the monks at the nearby Abbey of Saint-Hilaire made the first sparkling wine (supported by documents dating to 1544). Supposedly, Dom Pérignon was one of them, before he was transferred to Champagne in the north; however, like a lot of legends, this one is off because Dom Pérignon was born a century later.
More about blanquette de Limoux and Saint-Hilaire another time. Today, let’s go to the party.
The festival has grown over the years, but the villages haven’t. It no longer is possible to park nearby (you can forget about parking in the villages even when there isn’t a festival because the streets are tiny). All cars are directed to Limoux, and festival-goers go through security before being channeled through a sports hall to buy their glasses (now in plastic) and tokens for tastings, as well as other merchandise. The line was surprisingly quick. Then we went through security again to get onto one of the shuttle buses to Cépie, this year’s village. Cépie was completely closed off except for one point, where we went through security again. The French weren’t messing around. Gendarmes were everywhere, and all the roads to the village were blocked with concrete barriers.
A note here: backpacks were not allowed. This has long been common practice in museums, and a good thing, too, because nobody wants to get whacked by somebody’s backpack when the person wearing it turns around. It seems that backpacks are being rejected elsewhere, so remember to pack a cross-body bag for your travels.
Not only did the organizers think to have event-specific tokens (no refunds), but they even put them on lanyards. You also could buy a cord with a holder for your glass. No wondering where you set it down or which one is yours. They also sold T-shirts, bandanas, aprons and straw hats.
It was packed. Cépie covers just over six square kilometers and has a population of 665 when everybody is home. This weekend, a record 45,000 people packed in for Toques et Clochers. The weather was heavenly and the setting was gorgeous, with the peaks of the Pyrénées peeking above the rooftops.
We arrived just in time for the parade of church replicas. Each village whose belltower has been restored had a replica, often carried atop a wine barrel or wheeled along on a wine barrel by costumed villagers. I loved the variety of epochs for the costumes and the contemporary interpretations.
There were several bands, marching and later on stages around the village (which is so small, the music all mixed together a bit–strains of jazz on the left, country on the right). Drums seem to be a big thing. There was a kids’ corps, a women’s corps, a mixed corps…. Miss Cépie led a throng of small and smaller children, who were dressed (decorated?) as flowers and sunshine. Awww!
The whole village seemed to have taken up the cause. Houses were spiffed up and decorated, mostly with recycled materials–plastic bottles and corks were turned into flowers, insects, even furniture.
We wandered up and down the little lanes, sticking to the shade. Not everybody was prudent; lots of winter white skin was broiled to a painful red by late afternoon. It was a sea of humanity–or at least a good-sized lake. In French, the term is la foule, and when candidates plunge in to shake hands (and there were many local politicos present!), ilsprennent un bain de foule–they take a crowd bath. The Carnivore wasn’t careful and as he tried to scratch his head found his hand grabbed by some ballot-seeker.
Despite the ubiquity of alcohol, the relative youth of the attendees and the tight quarters, the afternoon was extremely good-natured and well-mannered. The organizers had wisely switched to all-plastic, from the glasses to the bottles of wine, and had provided lots of trash points, so there was little litter despite the intense concentration of humanity.
The “toques” part was well-represented, with purveyors of gastronomic goodies, such as bio, or organic, veal burgers, specialty macarons, seafood, cheeses, and lots and lots of duck and foie gras.
Before catching the shuttle bus back to the parking lots, the gendarmes helpfully had a table set up for people to voluntarily test whether they were sober enough to drive.
We avoided that problem by inviting friends to come with us to fill up our car, and then I was the designated driver–water only–called the capitain de la soirée in France and “Bob” in Belgium. I remember driving around Brussels and seeing the electronic signs that usually warn of traffic jams reading “Avec Bob au volant, les fêtes se passent en sécurité” or something like that. I was perplexed. I knew that voler means to fly or to steal (yup!), so volant should mean flying or stealing–the present participle. “With Bob stealing…???” Main non! I just hadn’t acquired an adequate automotive vocabulary–un volant is a steering wheel–flying/stealing/steering…of COURSE. So the slogan was “With Bob (designated driver) behind the wheel, the holidays are safe.” A good idea in any language.
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.
One of those serendipitous moments happened recently as I wiped down a new old sofa and otherwise puttered in the apartment that overlooks the courtyard.
In order to not lose my mind–actually to lose myself inside my mind–while doing uninteresting or unpleasant tasks, I listen to podcasts. No amount of mindfulness is going to make me all zen about mopping the floor or sorting laundry or running (or sewing!). I want to get the job done with minimal pain, and the best analgesic is one that makes me think about something else, the more esoteric, the better. Sometimes I do not want to focus on what I am doing. At all.
The first to entertain me was Lauren Bastide, with the most wonderful, we’re-there-in-the-room conversation with Amandine Gay (“La Poudre“). I was riveted by pieces about the new movie “Tower” and the decline of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (both on “Fresh Air,” which has the greatest interviewer ever, Terry Gross). I discovered Lady Lamb (thanks to “On Point”). People talked about medical mysteries (TED Radio Hour). But then I had no more podcasts left in my feed.
So I switched to the NPR One app, which is like a slot machine for podcasts, except that you never lose. They themselves call it Pandora for public radio–more PG-rated than a slot machine. First I got the founders of Kate Spade talking about how they got started (on “How I Built This“)–a logical progression because both Ted Radio Hour and How I Built This are hosted by Guy Raz, who has the most unbelievable name ever. Then the app decided I needed to hear a show I was unfamiliar with, called “Stuff You Missed in History Class.” WTF? HOW DID THEY KNOW????
I was mostly an A+ student, but I have no idea how I pulled it off in history (my only non-A’s were in gym class–C. “She never makes trouble” was the only nice thing the gym teacher found to say about me, year after year. Yes, I saw my old report cards not long ago). Those dates…they just wouldn’t adhere to my brain cells, even though I am a math lover and have no trouble memorizing zip codes and country dialing codes. However, it didn’t work with history. And it’s too bad, because I have come to love history, though I still don’t remember the dates. I treat dates in history the way I treat recipes–approximations are good enough. Freudian analysis would probably figure it out, but that would take too much time and effort. And anyway, all I really care about are the stories.
The history podcast was about another momentous women’s march–on Versailles! And there I was, on my knees, rubbing an ammonia solution into a Louis XVI sofa to strip it of all traces of its very charming former owner. Louis XVI! The one getting marched on in that very podcast!
An aside here to discuss the fine lady who was getting rid of her sofa. She was suffering from back pain and was going for an operation any day now, though that didn’t stop her from grabbing the coffee table and rolling up the carpet in front of the sofa–the Carnivore and I were going nuts trying to stop her but she was as quick as butter on a hot skillet. She stood about to my shoulder, which, considering I’m short, is nothing. I bet she didn’t weigh 40 kilos. A wisp of a woman.
As the Carnivore manipulated our neighbor’s camionette (a kind of enclosed pickup that’s very common in France) into her driveway, I chatted with Madame about life. The conversation quickly turned to death. She explained that she was keeping one of the armchairs that matched the sofa because it had been her mother’s, who had lived with her before dying. She then segued to her husband, who died suddenly, in his sleep, not long ago (which might have been a few years, I wasn’t sure). Trying to comfort her, I told her that my parents had died recently, relatively quickly, and in light of what I’d seen, I think the quicker the better. I am not alone in this. When I was leaving my post as a teacher in Africa, my students collected messages for me, and one sweet student wished me “a happy family, a happy life and a quick death!”
Madame grasped my arm and said, “Chut!” (Shush!) But then she went on anyway, and we talked about how a slow death does prepare the survivors for the idea that the loved one would be no longer, while a quick death is probably nicer for the person dying but a shock for the family.
This lady was selling some things in her finely furnished (“j’étais décoratrice!”) little house in order to move in with or near to her daughter, who had married an Italian and had followed him to Milan (she contorted her small, thin face at this, as if she had bitten into a spoiled fruit). First an operation on her back in France, then a new life in Italy. I felt sorry for her, abandoning all the stuff that reminded her of happier times–for some people, stuff is an end unto itself, a way to achieve some kind of status, but for others it is a totem of people or memories of happy times, and, though I knew her but for less than an hour, I think that, even if years ago she was in the former category, she now was in the latter). Plus, the weather in Milan is pretty crappy, compared with Aude.
Back to the furniture. The sofa is, obviously, a reproduction of Louis XVI. He’s better known as the husband of Marie Antoinette. I say “obviously” because it’s a sofa-bed, a technology that came somewhat later than the late 1700s. Madame said she bought it in Revel, which is a hub for marquetry and fine furniture making. Considering how heavy it is, I believe her.
Louis XVI came after 15 other Louis (Louises?), the first of whom appeared in 814 A.D. The first Louis had a tough act to follow: Charlemagne. There were LOTS of other kings before the first Louis (who was known as both “the pious” AND “the debonaire”!!!!! How did he manage that?), but they had names like Chilperic and Childeric and Chlothar and Dagobert. (You should know that in some places–like Belgium–a dagobert is not unlike a Dagwood sandwich, giving the mitraillet a run for the money.)
The later Louis (Louises?) became known for their interior décors. We won’t spend time on the earliest ones. Louis II, aka “the stutterer”!! Too bad he didn’t see “The King’s Speech.” There also were Louis the Fat (they really weren’t politically correct in those times) and Louis the Young and Louis the Lion and St. Louis (the IX–9th–who built the “new” town of Carcassonne around 1260). Then Louis X, aka the Quarreler; Louis XI, aka “the prudent, the cunning, the universal spider.” Sorry, but that one is The Best!!! Being Prudent, Cunning AND a Universal Spider? OMG. What a MAN! Or was he a superhero? But that was from 1461-1483. They don’t make them like they used to. Or maybe they do, except for the prudent part, and we are like flies stuck in a trap.
Louis XII was the “father of the people,” followed by a number of other-named monarchs, including Henri II, whose style was much-copied later.
Louis XIII (13th), aka “the Just,” was in the first half of the 1600s. We know that our apartments existed in 1624, though they might have been there earlier. (I will try to get to the bottom of this one day.) His style is known for lots of twists (torsades) and straight lines, which seems like a contradiction, eh?
Louis XIV was known as Louis the Great or the Sun King. Hard to beat that (though his great-grandson, Louis XV–“the Beloved”–seems to have). Fourteen ruled from 1643-1715 and built Versailles. Think glam.
And then we get to Louis XVI (we’re up to 16 here–seize in French, pronounced “says”), the “restorer of French liberty,” who ruled from 1774 to 1792. Note those dates! What happened just two years after 1774? Hmmm! An era of foment all over the place.
Having read “A Tale of Two Cities” (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Sidney Carton: “It’s a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Did you, too, have to memorize that in high school?) and Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” (“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”), I had an impression of the French Revolution as having been a bloody affair directed by perhaps well-meaning but vicious people like Madame Lafarge, Javert, Rousseau and Robespierre and that the revolution was at full swing from the moment the people stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, until the day Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette lost their heads on the guillotine in 1792. But in fact, the revolution started earlier and the king hung on for several years. Talks happened, spiced up by marches, including by nasty women.
Among the problems at the time, as “What You Missed in History Class” explains for us, were bad harvests, government deficits, over-taxation and illiquidity. It boiled down to the masses starving.
You must listen to the podcast to get all the details, but basically, people were fed up with not being fed. Call it a minimum wage issue. The podcasters express doubts that Louis XVI was actually evil incarnate or even just callous but instead suspect that he was way over his head and incompetent. In any case, a revolution was born.
Despite all that bad blood, Louis XVI’s style remains much-coveted today. OK, coveted among people who think that IKEA is great if you are 20 years old and on a small budget but then you should buy furniture that will last more than three years, and that proves it by having lasted already more than 100. Coveted by people who do not want to sit on backless benches at dinner. Who do not think that plastic chairs, even Eames, are chic or comfortable.
But how to keep your Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis straight? (And Louis is pronounced like Louie, not Lewis.) First of all, FirstDibs has a great explainer of the different Louis (Louises?). If you are just starting out, start here. Another great resource is the Metropolitan Museum of Art with essays on French chairs and 18th century French furniture more generally.
As the Louvre explains (and they should know), you have Louis XIV and the Regency from 1660-1725, then Rococo from 1725-1755, then classicism and the reign of Louis XVI from 1755-1790.
When I lived in Brussels and Paris was much closer than from where I am now in the deepest corner of rural France (which actually used to be Spain), I always partook of Les Journées de Patrimoine, in which many buildings of historical significance are opened to the public. Sometimes they are museums that drop their usual ticket charges, but the best are government or private buildings that otherwise are strictly off-limits. Once, I toured the Banc de France–like the Federal Reserve, especially because I visited before the euro–and was in a group of very well-dressed, impeccably coiffed, middle-aged Parisians. The kind of people known as bourgeois, or if younger as BCBG—bon chic, bon genre. I saw a couple, in nearly matching tweed suits (her in a skirt, him in trousers whose crease up until that moment had been razor-sharp), on their hands and knees looking at the underbelly of an antique gilded demi-lune console. It’s true there were amazing antiques in every direction, with computers and papers plonked on top.
The Carnivore is very sensitive about Louis (Louises?), and is partial to No. 16. He searched high and low for a toilet-paper holder that was in the style of Louis XVI. Even though according to this, toilet paper didn’t get cheap enough for the masses until much later. Far more impressive is the history given by ToiletPaperWorld, which mingles Stephen Crane, money and defecation. “French royalty used lace.” No wonder there was a revolution! (The delicacy of the terms the sites uses is an impressive exercise in euphemisms.)
I have seen references around the Internet to “Louis chairs,” to which I think, WHICH Louis? This alone should qualify me for French citizenship. But which Louis matters only if you’re paying top euro for what’s supposed to be the real thing, in which case, you had better know better. For everything else, “Louis” means something sorta French-antique-looking, probably Louis XVI.
All the same, I have seen how the French teach their young to know their Louis (Louises?). From the time our kid was in the equivalent of second grade, the whole memorize-your-kings thing started. Which is probably why, on a different tour during les Journées de Patrimoine, the docent told us the story of a beautifully painted stucco ceiling in the Marais of Paris, and several of the tour-goers objected vociferously to the dates and kings cited. I was dumbstruck to be in the middle of a heated argument about something that had happened 400 years earlier. At the same time, I was full of admiration, because I absolutely cannot remember such dates.
As for serendipity, what is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language (in French, it’s “happy luck,” not nearly as fun a word as serendipity), algorithms and artificial intelligence are snatching it away from us. Serendipity is opening a newspaper and happening to spy something interesting and relevant. Serendipity is walking into a shop and finding just what you need on sale. Serendipity is running into a friend you haven’t seen in ages someplace unexpected (I once bumped into an old dance buddy from NY in the line for the opera in Rome). Now our news is filtered based on what we like, we shop online for things that are pushed to us, and we know where everybody we’ve ever met is at any moment.
Some of my greatest “aha” moments have been when I have read or listened to things that on the surface didn’t interest me in the least. But they were in publications or on programs that I knew did good work, so I gave them my time. And I was rarely disappointed. I never would have sought out “Stuff You Missed in History Class.” But it came to me, with a story that touched exactly on what I was doing.
As 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.
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.
They 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.
In 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.)
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–6th—but 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.
Here’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.)
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.
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.
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.
After 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.
At 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?
I 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Of 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!