Grocery Shopping in France

p1090130One 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.

p1080952
Get your shopping cart in the parking lot. You’ll need a jeton (token) or a €1 coin, which helps guarantee you’ll put the cart back.

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.

p1100688
You know you’re in the south of France when the covered walkway in the hypermarket parking lot has trellises of grape vines.

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.

p1100509
The little pig and lamb!

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.

p1090116
Get your fruits and vegetables here if you missed the market.
p1090334
Here in the south of France, it’s a chocolatine, or choco, not a pain au chocolat. Worth a separate trip.

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.

p1080951
At a roundabout, from left, vegetables, eggs, oysters, apples, and, by the red tent, oranges.

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.

p1060810
Endives at the market, still in their dirt.
p1100704
Fresh basil, sold in a pot. Of course.
p1080386
Escargots, alive, already jeûné–kept without food (up to 21 days) in order to clean out their intestines. Aren’t you glad you learned that?
p1090008
Fresh. Some work involved.
p1080413
At a village épicerie: green beans from the garden (picked by hand) and garden tomatoes. Obviously the photo was taken in summer.

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?

P1090365
This?
P1020492
Or this?

 

 

 

Advertisements

Baby Meals in France

IMG_0005We recently enjoyed a visit from a Parisian friend and her 13-month-old, and the baby’s meals struck me as very French. Our own child was never so lucky. We moved here when our kid was three months old, and I pretty much relied on family and friends back in the U.S. for advice. When I started to make friends here, I realized that the whole baby thing was different, but this was many years ago and I had mostly forgotten about it.

IMG_0033
Left, risotto with small vegetables and rosemary. Right, risotto with mushrooms (chunky). Both for 12 months old. Both for night–see the stars?

The biggest difference is that French baby foods are marked by time of day. Protein is for midday and never in the evening. I vaguely recall French moms telling me this back in the day. I searched around a bit to see whether baby foods sold in, say, the U.S. were marked for evening or whether nutritional recommendations said anything about protein in the evening, but I found nothing (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist). I considered calling up a pediatrician, but (1) they don’t have time and (2) there’s a broad range of advice out there. My friend, in fact, was horrified at what her friends feed their children of the same age–cereal in the formula to get the kid to sleep at night, sweets, etc. All I can say is that if there were only one way to raise a child, there wouldn’t be 7 billion people on the Earth today.

IMG_0006
For lunch. Notice also that the baby here is looking lively, whereas the one at the top is sleeping.

There are two arguments about protein at night: that too much protein is taxing on the kidneys, which are delicate at such a young age, and that protein is hard to digest and will disturb sleep. The latter argument also applies to adults, and in fact quite a few of my friends have supper (souper) of soup. And that’s it. They eat a big meal at noon, not at night. All the ones who do this are very trim and fit, by the way, even though they are retired.

IMG_0034
Seen at the supermarket: “My good night dinner.” Vegetable risotto (with smooth texture), left, and lasagne gratin with celery root (not the green stalks! “melting morsels” of the root).

Another thing is that French kids don’t drink milk. Babies get formula in bottles, but when they get bigger, they might have hot chocolate with milk for breakfast and that’s it. In France, McDonald’s Happy Meals don’t have milk among the drink choices, but it’s typical in the U.S., even in school lunches. French kids are expected to drink water (and yes, there exist French parents who give their kids juice and sugary sodas).

IMG_0010
For day: Pot au feu is a kind of soup with beef and vegetables, but the vegetables are whole or, if cut, left in large pieces, so they aren’t all mixed up.

And then there are the menus for babies. Get a load of these:

Navarin de petits légumes, agneau français–a kind of ragoût with lamb and “small vegetables”: carrots, potatoes, butternut squash and mushrooms. This was marked for lunch.

IMG_0007
Tenderness of little vegetables with rice. You can tell it’s for night by the stars and moon. Too cute. The note on the left side says “Suggestion for presentation,” which seems to be humor, since, of course, baby food is puréed.

Patate douce, chataigne, pintade fermière du Poitou–sweet potato, chestnuts and guinea hen from the Poitou department. Also for lunch.

Légumes verts, panais, boulghour–Green vegetables (peas, broccoli, carrots, zucchini, coriander), parsnips, bulgur. For evening.

IMG_0035
“My first vegetables…diversification offer.” Left: carrots, white carrots, parsnips, leeks; right: carrots, green beans, zucchini, pumpkin. For 4-6 months old. LEEKS!!!

Douceur de panais, carotte des Landes, polenta–sweetness of parsnips, carrots from the Landes department, polenta.

Other evening meals included broccoli, green beans and rice; and fondue of carrots, sweet corn and quinoa.

Seriously, when is the last time YOU ate parsnips?

IMG_0011
Applesauce with quince.

The snacks included apple with chestnuts; apple with quince; and mirabelle plums with apple. For the all-important quatre heure–four o’clock snack.

My very clever friend orders the Babybio meals online and has them delivered–smart move to not have to carry groceries in Paris. She even had some delivered here.

IMG_0037
At the left, “for exploring from 12 months,” “for savoring from 8 months,” “for getting started from 4/6 months,” “evening dishes” in purple, organic.

To refresh my memory, I strolled through the baby aisle at the supermarket. The shelves are marked by age AND there’s a separate section for evening meals.

IMG_0036
Top: summer vegetables with spaghetti; bottom: vegetables and Basque-style poultry.

All I can say, is these kids eat well. I wouldn’t mind Basque-style poultry with vegetables myself!

So: similar? different? surprising? not?

 

 

Single Payer FAQs in France

P1100672I’ve been reading news about “Medicare for all.” For people outside the U.S., it’s a no-brainer. Of course everybody gets health care. Of course the cost isn’t based on how healthy you are. Of course it’s affordable. Of course you choose your doctor.

I can only really tell you about the French system, which, in nearly 15 years of experience, has been excellent.

P1100674
Helicopter landing at the hospital. Courage to whoever was inside.

Who qualifies?

All French residents get a Carte Vitale, a green chip card with your French social security number (kids under age 16 are on the card of one of their parents). The card itself doesn’t cost anything. Coverage is obligatory. If you are a tourist, however, you aren’t covered and have to pay out of pocket or get your insurance to pay. But the bill won’t be anything like what you’d confront in the U.S.

IMG_6276

 

Emergency room waiting area. Efficient. Carcassonne’s hospital is fairly new.

Who pays?

Everybody. The government insurance covers 77% of health expenses. A further 14% is covered by complementary insurance and almost 9% covered by individuals (co-pay, if you like, but not for everything; it’s mostly for glasses and dental work). The government funding comes from employer and employee payroll taxes (50%), income taxes (35%), taxes on tobacco, alcohol, the pharmaceutical industry and voluntary health insurance companies (13%) and state subsidies (2%).

I was talking to someone in the U.S. who was turned off by single payer, saying that he didn’t want to pay in for lazy people who don’t work. Of course, there are some freeloaders in France, but the cost of keeping them healthy is nothing compared to the taxes evaded by the rich using offshore shell companies. They are the real freeloaders. But psychologically, humans pick on those with less status than us and turn a blind eye to those with more.

Also in France, there’s a list of 30 health conditions that are 100% covered–hospitalization, treatment, doctor visits, medication, etc. These include diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, incapacitating stroke, cystic fibrosis, HIV, malignant cancer, etc.  A friend had a kidney transplant–something stressful enough, and at least she didn’t have to worry about the cost.

P1100676
Where emergency patients get wheeled in on gurneys for triage. Not fancy.

What is this complementary insurance?

Complementary insurance covers all or most of the fees not covered by the government program. It’s voluntary and paid individually. It’s private mutual insurance, meaning it’s nonprofit. Patients lose if profits win. The average in 2017 was €688 per person annually or about €57.33 a month.

P1100678

Patient room. The screens are for TV and Internet; you have to buy time.

How high are the taxes?

Employers pay 13% of salary for health care, maternity, disability and death insurance. Self-employed people making under €43,705 a year pay between 1.5% to 6.5%; over that you pay 6.5%.

In the U.S., the average worker contributions are $1,213 a year for a single person and $5,714 for a family. Worker premiums have gone up about 75% over the last 10 years, vs. about 48% for the employer share. About 80% of workers’ employers pay at least half the premium for both single and family coverage. The average cost of insurance for employers is $6,435, with a $6,000 deductible. (Excuse me, I just fainted at that deductible.)

P1100677
Other view of a room. The brown column is a closet.

How does it work?

If you’re sick, you call your doctor. Around here, we sometimes can get in the same day, sometimes not. If it’s urgent, one of the other doctors in the group will take us. We don’t have many emergencies, so we usually make appointments for a week or two in advance for routine checkups. Our long-time doctor moved away, so we shopped around for a new one, trying a few recommended by different friends before settling on someone we liked a lot. The idea of in-network or out-of-network doesn’t exist because there’s just one network. While people are free to shop for a doctor when thinking about switching, the French system does require picking a primary-care doctor to limit abuse, such as how much people can shop for somebody to write them a prescription they might not need.

If you have to go to the hospital, there are no surprise bills from out-of-network doctors you never met or who worked on you when you were unconscious. Some doctors can demand a surcharge, but it’s usually in the tens of euros.

How is it different from the U.S.?

Everything is less fancy. This might be in part because we are in the sticks and not in Paris, but I saw the same thing in Brussels. It’s all nice, but not luxe. One hospital in my hometown had a grand granite entry with a grand piano, carpeting in the halls, sofas and armchairs in the rooms. Here, the hospital is brand-new, heavy on the linoleum, only one hard plastic chair per patient room.

However, granite (or carpeted–EEEWWW) floors don’t make anybody better. All that matters is that the place can be kept clean and that it’s arranged in a functional manner.

P1100683
Vintage formica table in one room. Must have come from the old hospital. Or even the hospital before. Waste not.

The doctors’ offices are pretty simple, too. Always nice, but never fancy. One thing that I found unusual was that the office and examining table are in the same room. You go in, sit at the desk across from the doctor, then get undressed (no paper gowns), get examined, get dressed, your Carte Vitale is read, you pay your €25 and leave. No little exam rooms in a line where a nurse charges in for your vitals, then the doctor comes by for two minutes and disappears. I told one doctor about this, and how the little exam rooms would save a lot of the doctor’s time by not waiting for patients to undress/dress, and she was horrified. Especially with the elderly, she said, it’s important to observe how patients move as they’re dressing. She saw the U.S. system as penny-wise, pound-foolish.

French health care is of very high quality despite being lower cost. France has 3.2 doctors per 1,000 people, fewer than some European countries but more than the U.S., which has 2.5 per 1,000.  Maternal deaths per 100,000 live births dropped  to 8 in 2015 from 15 in 1990, whereas in the U.S. they rose to 14 from 12 in the same years. Check out this article about dying mothers. Life expectancy at birth is 82.4 in France, among the highest in the world, compared to 78.6 in the U.S. Infant mortality is 3.7 per 1,000 live births, vs. 5.9 in the U.S.

In addition, a number of preventive campaigns aim to keep costs down by catching problems early, including free mammograms every two years after age 50, as well as free tests for colorectal cancer.

P1100689

In the lobby, a piano. Not grand. Nor is the lobby.

Isn’t it weird having the government decide what’s covered?

Well, somebody has to do it, and it’s probably better that it’s decided by society at large rather than by your employer, non? Most people don’t realize that larger companies self-insure–in fact 60% of U.S. workers covered by their employers are literally covered by their employers through self insurance. It’s called captive insurance, and it’s a way of using the risk of employee health costs or death benefits (which would be low risk if you have healthy employees) as a hedge against other corporate risks. The company sets aside a pool of money as its own insurance. It contracts with an actual insurance company to administer claims. The employer can decide what to cover or not, although the Affordable Care Act set some standards on that.

That means employers have an interest in whether you’re healthy. A few years ago, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong announced to employees that he was cutting employees’ retirement benefits because of self-insurance payouts for two “distressed” babies.

With single payer like in France, employers help pay in, but risks are spread across the entire country. There are no questions about pre-existing conditions, because participation in the system is obligatory.

While there are certainly cases of people abusing the system (I know a couple who would go for a weeklong “cure” for “arthritis” every year at a spa), for the most part nobody gets surgery for the heck of it, nobody has chemotherapy just because they can get it for free. Health care is one of those things you want to not have to need. It shouldn’t be available only to those who can afford it, certainly not in developed countries.P1100679

French Floats

IMG_6214About two hours before the cyclists of the Tour de France pass by, there’s complete craziness on the route as the beloved caravane parades through, tossing goodies to bystanders.P1100568No homemade homecoming floats here. It’s all professional, promoting the official sponsors of the race. They are simultaneously slick, professional advertisements and laughingly absurd.P1100548Take, for example, the Gaulois chicken brand. Yes, chicken–the cigarettes are Gauloises, feminine. The first vehicle had a chicken on a bike. Yes, it’s the Tour de France, and it was all bicycles all the time. But I learned during a trip in Mali that really tough chicken is called poulet bicyclette–bicycle chicken–so hard to chew that it must have been raised riding a bike, which doesn’t seem like an image to promote. On the other hand, the number of spectators who have eaten tough chicken in Africa is probably low.P1100549They also had nuggets…”Crousty Chicken” is quite the franglais mashup. “Crusty” in French is croustillant.P1100551Gizzards (you KNOW you’re in France when gizzards are all over your salad, whether you asked for them or not)…P1100552And very tantalizing brochettes. They didn’t forget the bun (petit pain--little bread–when something sells like hotcakes here you say “c’est parti comme des petits pains”).IMG_6226It takes a certain nonchalance to drive such a beast, no?

I don’t remember what they were throwing to the crowd, but we didn’t score any. Keychains? Magnets? The top photo shows Vittel, and they handed out bottles of water (no throwing those!). Then a float came by with people spraying the crowd with mist. Years ago, people would dance and jump in the mist, arms in the air, but this time everybody hurried to protect their phones.P1100560This one is very Parisian, n’est-ce pas? The lamp post, the advertising kiosk….Krys is an optician chain.

The floats are an opportunity for people to live out their superstar fantasies. Parading past adulating crowds. Several floats were like Krys, with booming party music and somebody pretending to DJ, and usually some dancers. Never mind that the crowds want freebies and don’t care about you. A person can dream! IMG_6222P1100571Cochonou (cochon is pig; Cochonou is a brand of hard sausage), with its iconic red gingham on iconic Citroën 2CVs. It’s definitely the crowd favorite–they distribute little sachets of sausage. Where else, right?P1100539Juice…P1100535Mickey Mouse magazines…P1100562Madeleines….and they throw out little packets with two madeleines in each! P1100541P1100542This one cracked me up–the family biking and the mother and daughter are smiling but the dad is grimacing. Skoda is a brand of cars built in the Czech Republic, owned by Volkswagen.IMG_6227Candy is dandy…and of course that’s what they tossed out.IMG_6225IMG_6224Laundry soap…we scored a sample of that.

I noticed that the people on the floats were wearing harnesses that were attached to the vehicles. It was kind of odd to see the ones who were on bikes (not on the road but atop the floats, a common theme) or dancing tied to the float. The ones who were throwing stuff really leaned out, and I suppose the sponsors didn’t want falls, even though the floats go much more slowly than the racers, at least in towns.IMG_6217Promoting the movie Hotel Transylvania 3…IMG_6218IMG_6219FDJ is France de Jeux–the lottery operator. Notice the symbol is a four-leaf clover. IMG_6221McCain is a brand of French fries. Notice that they’re in a fryer basket–there’s even the handle on the back.IMG_6223Bic pens, native to France, are so iconic that many people don’t say stylo (pen) but instead say Bic, the way people refer to a photocopy as a Xerox or a paper tissue as a Kleenex.

Lots of fun, with lots of scrambling for prizes. If you want to see an old guy race a young kid, just throw a free refrigerator magnet in between them.

On Tuesday, I did a post about the actual cyclists. And if you missed them, you can see the posts from when the Tour came to Carcassonne two years ago: the caravane and the race itself.

Did you know about the Tour de France caravane?

 

 

 

 

 

French Home Lessons

IMG_3090First lesson: “At school one learns lots of good and useful things: one learns to correctly speak and write one’s mother tongue; one learns the history and geography of one’s country; one learns above all to know and love chores of all sorts that morality commands us.”P1090437So begins a 1919 French home economics book aimed at middle school girls. It was among the trove of treasures we found in various cupboards, cellars and attics of the apartments we renovated. P1090440It instructs in detail, well, everything. For example, how to set a table: “First, place a cotton cover on the table, over which you lay the tablecloth. This cover absorbs the noise caused by contact with utensils, and prevents glasses from breaking.”

“Then, you place the plates, leaving an interval of at least 60 centimeters between them. The guests shouldn’t bump elbows or feel restricted in their movements.”

I guess today we have the Internet for these kinds of details, though what’s out there is mostly about selling something.P1090438The treasure trove also contained portfolios done by the previous owner herself, on sewing, cutting (separate from sewing!) and layette. Girls were steered along a narrow path 75 years ago.

The ones related to sewing fascinated me. I grew up learning to sew. My mom made a lot of my clothes, very much like Ramona’s in Beverly Cleary’s books. I remember going to the fabric store and flipping through the pattern catalogs, where anything was possible. The suits I wore to my first post-college job I made myself. They were dreadful. And I HATE sewing. But while I might not enjoy it, it is useful to know. P1090415

P1090416
“Pieces on thick fabric”
P1090417
Cross-stitch.

P1090418

P1090421
General notions of sewing. Necessary materials: thimble, two pairs of scissors, long needles (50mm) for thread, pins, tailor’s chalk…

P1090422P1090423P1090424I can’t sew without a pattern (unless it’s a simple rectangle, like curtains), just as I can’t play piano without sheet music. Sewing without a pattern–creating a pattern–is like composing music or at least like improvising jazz. I am in awe.P1090427P1090428

P1090429
How to make different kinds of sleeves.

P1090430

And then there’s the absolute worst: ironing.P1090425

P1090426
Instructions for ironing napkins, including folding.

Did you take home ec? I refused. I also refused to take typing, upsetting my mother to no end, though I eventually took it in summer school and now can type as fast as a person talks. I’m still not sure an entire year-long class on sewing, ironing and baby care is a good use of school time, but we might be a lot healthier and less wasteful if people knew how to cook and how to repair their clothes. The wonderful blogger Garance Doré (a must for francophiles!) interviewed Jean Touitou, the founder of A.P.C., who said that everyone should know how to mend their clothes, to not throw away perfectly good pieces that are, say, missing a button.

The young generation seems to be into DIY; the last time I was in a fabric store here, the other customers were very young, pierced and tattooed. I had the impression they knew not just how to mend but how to create and improvise–play jazz with material.

Do you mend? Iron? Actually sew and enjoy it?

Le Shopping Outlet

P1080406France doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but le Black Friday is gaining popularity, right behind Halloween.

It’s nowhere near as crazy as in the U.S. For one thing, France has soldes–sales–twice a year, starting in mid-January and mid-July, and they last for six weeks, with bigger markdowns (and less choice) as time goes on.

P1080410
The “soldes” signs, in case you’re under a rock and not aware that the entire country is consumed by biannual discounts.

The French are pros at faire le pont—taking a bridge day between a mid-week holiday and the weekend—but with no Thanksgiving, the Friday after is just another workday.

France doesn’t have many malls of the Mall of America, “Clueless,” senior-speed-walker genre. The centres commercials usually are anchored by supermarkets, there usually are no food courts and they’re just much smaller.  I will admit it can be efficient to hit 20 stores without setting foot outside when you have a deadline to find something AND it’s 20 below zero. Happily, the weather here is not as brutal so I don’t miss the lack of malls at all.

P1060403
This is not a mall. It is a charming courtyard in downtown Toulouse. The pleasures of strolling the streets.

At the end of the summer soldes, my shopping buddy and I did the rounds in Toulouse. I was limited to leche-vitrine (window-licking, which is the wonderful French term for window shopping), but I got vicarious thrills by her spending. We strolled around the center, where many of the streets have been closed to traffic, except for bikes, which are now ubiquitous, and (parked) food carts. I love strolling in Toulouse. It’s a big city but not in a dangerous, pushy way, except on the périphérique. It’s mostly clean, with beautiful architecture, interesting boutiques, lovely little parks and squares, and a fun sprinkling of eccentrics to make hicksters smile. Don’t you want to go into a shop that has flying bare-breasted women nibbling on grapes over the entrance (see the top photo)?

P1080401
Some more Toulouse love: Those shutters! Those railings! Those bricks!
P1060406
Three–count ’em, THREE–lions. You don’t get that at the mall. The fountain (la fontaine Boulbonne) is an allegory representing the Garonne river offering electrical power to the city. Allegories are also in short supply at the mall.
P1080403
Some traditional architecture. See below.

Despite our best efforts to cover the entire downtown, a couple of items on the list hadn’t been found, at least not in the desired fit. On the way home, I asked whether she wanted to check out the factory outlet center in Nailloux. Why not, she said.

P1080411
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in France anymore. No, Dorothy, this isn’t Kansas. It IS France!

It was a real mind trip. I had a similar experience going to the French-owned American-style Italian restaurant chain. I thought I was in the Midwest. We drove up a hill with waving fields of wheat on either side of the divided highway. At the top of the hill, we turned toward the flapping flags, and came upon a wonder of an American-style “outdoor” mall, designed to look like an old-fashioned main street rather than the dolled-up strip mall such things really are. They have none of the climatic convenience of a real mall and none of the charm of a real downtown. A few, like Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, are pretty enough, but a little sterile, with no real link to the surrounding city.

P1080407
Parking for a billion people? Check.

Anyway, Nailloux Outlet Village is one of them. Vaguely Spanish/Mediterranean/medieval (fake half-timbered) architecture. Music piped to its sterile sidewalks. Oceans of parking. Familiar brands: Levi’s, Nike, Samsonite…Also many French names: Little Marcel, Princesse TamTam, Comptoire des Cotonniers, Gérard Darel….and more.

P1080412
FAKE half-timbered buildings. And pseudo-Spanish something.

My buddy scored jeans that fit and some running shoes. We had ice cream in the “plaza.” I had a hard time speaking French and an urge to call up one of my friends back home to come on over and meet us. Le Temps des Cerises aside, it felt like an island of America.

These outlet villages are all over France. Here’s a link to a list. For all my complaining about the architecture, there are bargains to be had.

And there’s even an outlet village not far away, in Spain, north of Barcelona: La Roca Village.

Haven’t been there yet. Going from France to Spain and thinking I’m in America might make my head explode.

How to Live Like the French

P1070601I see articles about la belle vie française all over the Internet. Most of them promise that if you just buy the 10 products they suggest, then you, too, will have a beautiful life, full of stylish clothes, high ceilings and herringbone floors, well-behaved children and delicious home-cooked meals.

They are lying to you.

The secret ingredient can’t be bought in a store, not even on Amazon.

What the French have is time. And they generally choose to spend it making their lives beautiful. P1060893They benefit from a 35-hour workweek and a minimum wage that’s enough to actually live on (largely thanks to other government aid) so they don’t have to work multiple jobs.

P1040987Even so, lots of French will tell you they need more time. It’s like money. It’s rare anybody says they have too much. The French are a bit like the folks who earn half a million a year and consider themselves middle class because they see so many millionaires and billionaires with so much more.

Plus, the French are no slouches when it comes to complaining. Even what’s right could be better.

And why not. One shouldn’t rest on one’s laurels.

Here’s why time—and what you do with it—is the special sauce that makes life beautiful.

—Home cooking takes time. There’s shopping, prepping, cooking, preparing the table, eating. It requires planning and forethought. Parisians might shop every day. Out here en province, they tend to hit the supermarket every week to stock up, but also to buy at the open-air markets, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, oops. There also are plenty of roadside stands and little produce-only shops called primeurs, for fresh produce on non-market days.

Cooking meals takes time. Many jobs in France start later and end later, making dinner time later as well.

P1020492
Is this your idea of buying groceries?

—Relationships take time. Those long lunches are for camaraderie, whether with co-workers or friends you meet up with. Restaurants have decent lunch specials, and some employers give cheques repas—meal tickets. Maybe once or twice a week, folks hit the gym during lunch (it really fills up at noon), but that’s also an opportunity to socialize. Even shopping is social—the market is lined with cafés where people greet their friends and stop for a coffee or glass of wine.

—Families take time. (See home cooking.) Meals aren’t the only thing, but they are the excuse for a lot. 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 in fall or asparagus in spring 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 for Sunday dinner), restaurants. Basically it’s about eating. Everything else can wait.

I found it hard to adjust to strict hours for everything after living in the city that never sleeps. Most shops open at 10, and even the supermarkets don’t open until 9. 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. There are a few stores starting to open on Sunday mornings, but they are the exceptions.

IMG_4549
Taking time to smell the coffee.

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 late, nobody works late. They go home to their families.

Danger in Any Language

IMG_4446If 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.IMG_4444In 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.P1060263In 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.

671.Lastours6
Three of the four castles at Lastours. Note the electrical wire strung across the hills in the lower left.

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?

IMG_4826
Never mind the ponies; everybody is watching the people dangling from the trees.

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.

IMG_4823
Five at once!

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.

IMG_0570
This means, “Look out!”

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.

Rock climbing
Just another day in second grade.

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.

05.FEBRUARY 12 - 05
No photos of the runaway sled on the ski slope, but here’s a shot of the only time it snowed enough here for the kids to sled.

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.

Accrobranche 1
More kids in trees.

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.

Franco-American-Italiano

P1080351I’ve had culture shock many times, but this one took the gâteau.

A few years ago, a restaurant was built on the edge of a parking lot of a Carcassonne strip mall. It was intriguing, because the whole strip-mall restaurant thing is not very French. As it rose, it felt as if it were a mirage transported from the the middle of America.

P1080354
Even thought it looks like Kansas, I’m telling you, Toto, we really aren’t in Kansas anymore. 

Yet, it turned out to be an Italian restaurant. In France. My kid had bugged me from the building’s foundations being poured that we HAD to go. When I first stepped inside, I had a hard time to speak French. English came out. It was stronger than any logic, because the throng waiting to be seated all were chatting in French. But my brain was telling me I had stepped into suburban U.S.A. It was the oddest thing.

P1070889
No idea how the funky light effect happened.

Parking lot location: check.

Non-commital modern yet somewhat Mediterranean architecture: check.

Upbeat pop music: check.

Soaring ceilings: check.

Roaring decibels: check.

Open kitchen to give us the impression of authenticity: check.

Mob of people waiting to be seated: check.

Where were we? Was it really Carcassonne? It certainly wasn’t French. It certainly wasn’t Italian–it was Italian as imagined by Americans. Except that the chain IS French: Del Arte is part of Groupe LeDuff, which was founded by the now-multibillionaire Louis LeDuff in 1976.

P1080358
Helpful photo of la Cité on the back side for those who are completely disoriented.

Groupe LeDuff started with la Brioche Dorée (the Golden Brioche), and has added other chains, including Bruegger’s (the bagel chain), Timothy’s World Coffee, Mimi’s Cafe, La Madeleine, among others. Almost 2,000 restaurants, in 90 countries.

P1080353
The neighborhood. There are several more stores, but the strip is hard to capture in one shot.

The food was OK. Not great, yet far from terrible. As one often gets in parking-lot restaurants like Olive Garden and Applebee’s and Carrabba’s. And at the beginning, the whole concept was so unusual for here that it drew crowds. Concept aside, good–no, GREAT–food is easy to find here, along with authentic authenticity. I don’t want to slam Del Arte–it isn’t bad at all. Just meh.

P1070888
Obviously these were taken at an off-hour. Because the parking lot is full during meal times.

Recently, two Subway sandwich outlets also opened in Carcassonne, one in the center of town and the other in yet another of the strip malls that blight the periphery of town. I was following two couples of Americans down the main pedestrian street, overhearing them talk about lunch (it’s easy to overhear Americans, in part because I understand what they’re saying with zero effort and in part because of the volume of normal American speaking). I thought about telling them of a couple of options. I consider myself an ambassador for Carcassonne and want even strangers to have a good time here. Before I caught up to them, they swung into Subway.IMG_4320Subway is fine. I have eaten plenty of Subway sandwiches in the U.S. But why would a person go all the way to France and then eat the same thing as back home? It isn’t as if there’s a big risk of ordering something disgusting by mistake. Most French sandwiches involve some combination of ham, cheese or hard sausage, or else some sort of tuna salad, chicken salad or shrimp/fake crab salad. With lettuce and tomato. On awesome bread. What’s to fear? Eating local specialties is one of the key ways to explore local culture.

IMG_3198
A plain white shirt with a twist, at La Brune, an interesting boutique in the center of town.

The same thing is true with other shops. The world is becoming more and more similar. On the one hand, it’s kind of cool that tastes are shared by so many people. Can you hate somebody who wears the same jeans and T-shirts that you do? (I suppose so, but it does make people seem less foreign–and hence more relatable–than when each little region had its own traditional dress.) Now you can get the same clothes at Zara or H&M in Amsterdam as in Abu Dhabi, Astana or Austin. That’s great–if you see something new in a magazine or on Instagram, you can buy it easily, even if you don’t live in a fashion capital. On the other hand, the little boutiques with really cool, unique stuff are going under, unable to compete on price and unable to change stock as fast as the fast fashion giants. Fashion is supposed to be about expressing oneself, but it’s increasingly about following the herd.

 

It’s something to consider, whether you’re traveling or shopping and dining at home. Do you seek safety in the numbers? Or do you stand out from the herd?

 

 

 

 

 

French Laundry

P1070271There’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 une buanderie, a laundromat is une laverie and the old-fashioned outdoor laundries are lavoirsDry cleaning is nettoyage à sec, and the place that does it is un pressing or une teinturerie.)

P1070742Another 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.

rue trivalle
A lot going on here: the bed linens getting aired in the open windows in winter–you can see the photo was taken at Christmas time. The drying rack is set on the sidewalk to get the job done faster. Carcassonne is still the kind of small city where you can leave your stuff outside safely.

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.

laurastar_go_l1312238813132A_154512423
This baby goes for a cool €700.

Do you hang laundry outside? Do you iron? Do you pamper your clothing?