Tuesday 27 January 2015
The exchange rate when we first arrived in France was close to 0.50, which meant that we needed to double the euro value of whatever we were buying to work out what we were paying in Australian dollars. Our first shopping experience had us blanching at the sum spent.
We needed grocery items. We were not just on holidays, we had come to France to live for an extended period of time. So, the many essential bits ‘n pieces that one tends to take for granted such as salt, sugar, flour, oil, breadcrumbs and other non-food products such as toilet paper, hand towel and tissues were no longer just there on the shelf to grab as needed. Admittedly even when we are on holidays we try to cook our evening meal and eat picnics at midday wherever possible to reduce costs. I had just spent weeks clearing out seven years of accumulated pantry stocks in Australia, which amounted to considerable waste and lots of requests to friends to take half-opened packets of still-useable products. Just a few days later and on the other side of the world I had to start all over again.
So, in our hire car following the GPS to the supermarket the whole family went. First test was the navigation, including around and around the roundabouts. Yes, we fulfilled the tourist cliché of going the wrong way around, yes, we did hold traffic up as we tried inexpertly to park and yes, my husband and I did exchange a few less than courteous words. It is always easier to drive from the passenger seat.
In Australia the ‘no plastic bags at the check-out’ rule wasn’t yet being enforced, here it was. It seemed to slow things down considerably as each customer unpacked his trolley, and then raced to the other side of the cashier to pack his home-sourced bags as fast as he could to avoid toppling piles of goods that were being scanned faster than they could be packed. The cashier would then just sit with boredom etched on her face, check her nails and wait for the packing customer to be finished whilst the check-out line grew longer and longer. Wasn’t it obvious that this was lost time for the supermarket, and that Internet purchasing and home delivery are not just ideas, they are here and ready to take over the daily practices of consumers if non-efficient supermarkets let them?
We had arrived in France with only a suitcase each and so the children had a very limited array of books and games. Indulgently, and because I was rather overwhelmed by not knowing where things were, what things we needed or wanted and how the system worked, I gave in when my daughter asked for some ‘pâte à prout’ (a fart pot) and my son a Bionicle toy. My rationale for both was that I wanted them to be happy from the start of this imposed adventure plus they were games that could be played with boys and girls who didn’t understand each others language, weren’t they? And, who was I to say 'no' when my husband and I were spoiling ourselves with slabs of cheap cheese.
We had brought Hyperdash from Australia, a game comprising small coloured plastic disks that players ran between in response to its automated voice spouting a colour or number. I had somewhat over-eagerly imagined the children keeping fit racing around outside needing only a few English words to be able to play in French, laughing happily with their new French friends. This toy; however, needed batteries so I sent my oldest daughter off on a search for these whilst I gazed in amazement at the aisle-full of alcohol and their ridiculously low prices.
Altogether we collected only a couple of bags of goods but it was not the rush of the cash register boogie that had the blood draining from my face, it was the 200 euro bill total. Fortunately our Travelcard was accepted, which as we discovered and to our ongoing embarrassment wasn’t always the case, as we certainly did not have enough cash to pay for our frivolous two bags worth.
Once home, after having wondered aloud on the way back if our one-year adventure might have to be cut short because we had under budgeted by a long way, I spread the contents of our shop out on the kitchen table and meticulously compared each item with the bill. I discovered that the three small packets of batteries, valued at twenty euro each, accounted for nearly one third of the shopping bill. Why so expensive? They were the rechargeable kind. A victory of sorts – we had got the wrong item, which turned out to be the right item and we were back to being able to stay in France for, well, hopefully, our year.
Since then, the exchange rate has improved in our favour but very soon after our arrival we had to stop doing the money conversion in our heads. It was too hard to live thinking constantly that if we were in Australia we would be paying less. Mind you, for a while it did take the pleasure out of stopping for a cup of coffee when we might be charged nearly 7 euros (14 dollars) for two cups. My coping strategy - I just thought of the number 7 instead.
Thursday 22 January 2015
It was a Sunday afternoon and we were out and about grimly determined to embrace our new life. We hadn’t yet moved into the house that was to replace our temporary cottage but we wanted to show the children where it was. So, we drove to the end of the lake, admired the bright yellow of the external walls of what was to be home, wondered momentarily at the décor inside and then set off into the nearby village of Faverges, where we stumbled upon their annual vide-greniers. We had a lovely time learning about how these open-air trash and treasure markets work and ended up with a few books and DVDs for the children plus a schoolbag and a cheap pair of rollerblades for my daughter. They were to be the most expensive bargain of the trip.
We hurried home to try them out and within the space of a few giggles and near misses night had fallen as had my daughter. Unaware of how major the pain was we gave her some Panadol, which we had very cleverly thought to bring from Australia, and popped her into bed. The next morning her white face clearly showed that she was still in pain and so I sent her off to school. No, I am not mean and nasty and in my defense I did not know that her wrist was broken plus I was plain scared of whether I would be capable of working out how to help her. As soon as I could I spoke with the lady who owned our cottage and got her advice regarding which doctor to see. I rang, made an appointment and went and picked my daughter up from school an hour later.
The whole experience was tough. We had no idea where the medical centre was and when we arrived at the stated address we found what looked like a block of flats. We hesitated and then figured out that the correct procedure was to press on the entry button to alert the secretaries to one's arrival and then to go in and up the stairs to the correct floor. It was poorly signposted and I presume that they were in the middle of renovations as when we pushed open the hallway door we found a couple of trestle tables and a few people standing around. Nothing looked familiar or at all like an Australian medical centre. I explained that I had telephoned for an appointment and without undue welcome or attention was told to go and wait in another room.
There were other people waiting on the plastic bucket seats but the room that we were sent to was small and otherwise bare. When one’s senses are working overtime, as mine were, I’m sure that you notice things differently. I found myself fixating on a small roughly inch high piece of wood sticking vertically up from the floor, running the full perimeter of the room excluding doorways which was set at about two inches out from the wall. It didn’t make any sense to me but after several minutes of deep concentration it occurred to me that it was to stop the waiting patients' chairs from banging into the wall. I was debating internally whether it would be more aesthetically pleasing to have horizontal marks on the wall from the backs of the chairs or the ugly wooden strip on the floor, when we were called.
After hearing our story but before examining my daughter the doctor confirmed that her wrist would be broken. “It always is, when children are involved, “ he remarked and sent us off to have an X-ray and to buy the bandages necessary for him to make her cast. Off we set on foot to wander around more apartment type buildings with my daughter holding onto her wrist supported by the rough sling that my husband had made for her. At the X-ray stop I was asked if I had a 'carte vitale'. I had no idea what that was but knew that I didn’t have one, so "Non, Madame," I replied, wondering if that would mean immediate ineligibility for treatment. Fortunately not. It just meant that we had to pay the full amount of the consultation up-front. Broken bone confirmed, off to the pharmacy. More hassles there as our credit card was refused. I had enough cash on me but it didn’t stop the chemist ringing me the next day to ask me to come in and make another credit card payment on the basis that the first one had been refused and that I had not paid. “No, incorrect. I have paid,” I said very firmly.
Back at the doctor’s we waited some more before it was our turn again. Cast in place and gathering up our things to go and pay the receptionist as we would have done in Australia, the doctor stopped us and let us know that we needed to pay him directly. Beyond surprise we fished around for notes and coins, watched him put them in the top drawer of his desk before filling out a form for us to present to a health fund if we had one. He then ushered us out of the building via an exit that was not the entrance. We drove home, gave my daughter some more Panadol and, desperately needing de-brief time my husband and I asked her if she was up to going back to school. “Of course.” What child does not want to show off a plaster cast. She came home with signatures and cute little French expressions all over her arm, outwardly happy with her increased notoriety. I felt relieved and depressed in equal doses. Relieved that we had made it through our first major incident and depressed at how hard and different it had been. Little did I know that that would be the start of many more difficult moments including many more hours spent in doctor’s waiting rooms.
Friday 9 January 2015
I used to be very happy with a sandwich at midday or thereabouts. It was better if the bread had grains or a bit of character as the white plastic-bagged square slices only hold appeal for me when freshly toasted with margarine and vegemite. I wasn’t particularly fussy about what I ate between breakfast and dinner although I knew when I had got lucky and was served up a proper sandwich, usually by my husband. Then, it had good volume, flavour and colour and was definitely always more calorie laden than my restrained attempts. Often I would realize mid-afternoon that I had forgotten to eat anything and then would ravenously scavenge around for nuts, fruit… ok, chocolate, biscuits, cake.
So, what has changed? Why now do I find it normal to sit down at lunchtime and consume an entrée, main course, cheese, dessert with wine and coffee? And have I put on weight in the process? First question, easier to be objective, the second will just have to remain a well-guarded secret. Suffice to say that a book has been written about how French women don’t get fat.
The first step towards the change happened on day 4 after our arrival in France. The children had all headed off to their first day at school, still feeling a bit jet-lagged and decidedly nervous about what was to face them with new pencils, papers and folders in their school-bags but no lunch box. They just don’t exist here. In fact I struggle to come up with a word to describe the phenomena, usually resorting to ‘boîte à pique-nique’.
So, naturally, we said that we would pick them up for lunch. We wanted to make sure that the first morning hadn’t been too traumatic and were eager to enlighten the guilt burden that we were carrying concerning having wrenched them from their well-loved Australian schools and friends into the foreignness of French schooling. We thought that a fresh little salad, followed by pasta and crunchy French bread and then little tubs of cold pudding, the latter pre-prepared from the supermarket, would do the trick. As we were walking distance from the school and freshly off the plane my husband and I also enjoyed a glass of red wine picked up from the wine cellar on the way home. At that stage we thought that we were getting a right royal bargain, only paying 12 euro for the bottle. We laugh now to think that the supermarkets have a big selection at a fraction of the price without the need to undergo an intimidating interrogation about one’s personal preferences from said wine cellars. Reasonable table wines can be had for just 3 euros. But, I digress from the lunch. Once had and enjoyed, both the lunch and the wine, it was a pleasure to be re-served.
The second factor in our changed behaviour came in the form of hand written personally delivered invitations for lunch – yes, our children were regularly invited out for lunch. The two hour window of opportunity, between 11.30am and 1.30pm on school days, gives the children and their families the opportunity to travel home for lunch, take a real break from school, eat and then not want to return. It also gives them the opportunity to be social and in our case the opportunity for the host family to practice their English.
What we didn’t think about was that acceptance came at a price – that of the return invitation. Knowing what ours had eaten when out we simply could not serve up freshly cut homemade baguette with ham, cheese and tomato, perhaps a touch of mustard or mayonnaise and a little side salad. No, it was necessary to plan, shop for and cook a proper meal. What stress, as our newest guests turned out to be unintentionally very French. They were always most polite but hard work all the same, declining some courses and picking at others. Clearly we did not know what the rules of dégustation were and had to find out quickly.
Here is an attempt at deciphering the lunchtime etiquette which was learned by asking the tough questions of my few French aquaintances:-
• Bread, yes always – but definitely cut – not torn
• Water – always, no need for juices or fancy drinks
• Salad – served before or after the main course. Before if it is an entrée and after if it is an accompaniment.
• Size of salad varies according to whether it is served before or after.
• Extra bits and pieces, such as corn, cucumber and tomato in the salad are acceptable if entrée size, it is usually plain if served as an accompaniment.
• Plain salad as an entrée is also fine depending on the heaviness of what is to follow.
Are you following? Let’s continue…
• Main course could be a piece of meat on its own but woe behold anyone who dares serve it up without a sauce.
• Dessert can be a tub of yogurt or a piece of fruit. It does not have to be fancy but a little homemade apple tart with cream or ice cream would similarly go down a treat.
• Cheese comes before dessert – the French are just incapable of eating anything else once they have eaten their sweets. This last fact I already knew having accompanied a French school trip to England twenty years previously. My French colleague had had to wade through an English high tea of shortbread, sweet sandwiches, savoury biscuits, cheese and cups of tea at 5pm. She had no idea whether she was eating afternoon tea or dinner and politely picked at just a few dry Sao biscuits and cheese and went hungry until the morning.
It is hard now to imagine life without our multiple-layered languorous lunches. Initially, we would somewhat guiltily hide the fact that wine was always on our menu, or justify our consumption under lame pretexts such as 'we are on holidays,' 'we are living like the French,' 'it is so very cheap' or even 'why not, the sun is shining' until we realized that we were not alone. On the ski slopes, in the cafés and restaurants, camping grounds, autoroute parking lots and family kitchens all over France time is devoted to sitting down together and properly eating and drinking, not just consuming at speed. 'Santé, alors.'
My son now asks if what he is being served is an entrée or main meal. We used to smirk indulgently behind our hands but now it seems like a sensible question. And the right answer, 'entrée, but please help yourself to seconds anyway.'
Sunday 4 January 2015
Even before we lived in Menthon-St-Bernard we would occasionally stop at its Café de la Place on the way home from dropping the children at school. Having been up since 5.50 am and then often having had to battle to get the children out the door in the dark plus intensely cold weather conditions and the traffic we could justify a little early morning pause before heading home to the days isolation.
It is always a bit intimidating the first time you walk into a building that is clearly a ‘local’, and our first time in the village café was no exception. Heads turned to look my husband and I up and down, both those who were half-sitting on the tall metal stools, half-leaning on the counter and those who were sitting at the very few but closely packed wooden tables and chairs around the edges of the room. There was a big screen television on the back wall, constantly playing the top 50 songs loudly. It conveniently covered the momentary drop in conversation. We noticed that amongst the crowd there was a gendarme in full uniform chatting casually and several men in bright orange safety vests. The gendarme was having coffee but on the counter there were several half-empty liqueur glasses. As we settled ourselves discretely on the sidelines we watched the orange-vest-clad messieurs finish their alcohol and then walk to the car park where they hopped into their big work trucks and drove off, presumably to handle more heavy machinery. It wasn’t the first time that we wondered about the occupational health and safety practices in France.
But, the cafe had character, a cute name, was warm and we were accepted if not warmly welcomed. So, we went back.
It sits a little back from the main road behind the old stone village fountain that looks like the one that Jack and Jill used to tumble down from in the storybooks of my childhood. No handle to pull up a bucket on a rope but a peaked roof, clear fresh water and low circular stone base. The cobblestones around the fountain lead to the bakery on one side of the café and the newsagent, which stocks all things to do with smoking, so is called le tabac, on the other. The chemist completes the commercial roll call and with its large garish green neon sign lighting up the main road half way to Annecy it unfortunately upsets the natural balance of the square. Actually, it isn't a square at all as the road has cut off one corner but there really is no better translation of the French word ’place’. Every morning in front of the café a blackboard is chalked up with the set meal of the day. There is a menu but with the blackboard option comprising an entrée, main course, dessert, carafe of wine and coffee all for 12 euro 50 most don't bother reading it.
Last year the café underwent renovations and a big red awning was added to make the outside terrace shadier in the summer and give a bit of protection from the rain and snow in the winter. It has big glass windows from calf height up and being an old building, inside it has exposed stone walls, a wooden paneled ceiling, wooden floors and is quite poky. The awning has only accentuated the darkish ambience of the interior.
By rights it isn’t the sort of place that usually attracts me. So, why did we keep stopping there? No doubt we were looking for somewhere that made us feel like we belonged. To that point we had had very few feel-good moments since our arrival in France and we were spending most days fighting uncomfortable administrative battles. We needed a bit of cocooning.
‘Un café double et un café au lait’ became our standard order. What a shame that the day my husband hopped next door to grab a newspaper and asked me to order for him, not a 'café au lait' but a 'chocolat chaud', the waitress saw me come in and called out "the usual?" "No," I replied, crestfallen and felt sure she would never ask us that question again.
We’ve been back at different times of the day, including to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Meals were not being served so my husband and I had a glass of champagne each instead. Stupidly, I knocked my glass over and broke it so handed over a tip at the counter as I indicated my broken glass. Strangely enough the publican, an enormous guy with a mirthless disposition smiled at me. Were we once again making progress? Did we perhaps just have to show that we were real humans filled with all the usual faults and deficiencies and not just cash happy English speaking tourists passing by and sending loud waves through the peaceful routine-oriented community? Quite possibly, or was he just amused at the unnecessary money outlay which perhaps only served to confirm his previous theory?
Friday 2 January 2015
|Happy New Year Cake. Miam !|
When we started the quiet was tangible. An occasional car passed in the street and a man was out walking his dog but the majority of shutters were closed and lights appeared to be out. Out of respect for the calmness we attempted to be quiet, but the only fireworks that were compliant were a couple of pretty, gyrating crackers with quickly extinguished bursts of light, the rest were impressively loud, many flying through the wet branches of the tall pine trees and exploding loudly in the sky above. Several ricocheted back down to the ground and others appeared to chase my husband in a manically vengeful dance. He was rediscovering the forbidden pleasures of his youth and my son, having never seen fireworks up close was reversing the adult-child relationship, calling out several times to his father to be careful. After a few too many close calls and with his level of anxiety building my son's tone changed, ‘That’s enough now, Daddy!' ‘Just one more,’ said several times over, came the busily engrossed parental reply.
With the promise of more fireworks the next night we persuaded my husband inside only to search in vain for what we had felt sure would be spectacular Parisian fireworks on the television. Cabaret/talk shows were the go. Yearning for something less 'Gallically' serious or at least that we could understand without extensive prior French entertainment history, we hunted down one of our favourite Eddi Izard comedy routines. It gently mocked the simplistic uselessness of the phrases learnt in French class at school and the exaggerated ‘souris est sous la chaise’ and 'singe est sur la branche’ were as puerile as expected and effortlessly succeeded once again in producing out-of-proportion mirth. As always Izzard concluded that the only way he was ever going to be able to fluently drop these memorized, beautifully pronounced schoolboy gems casually into conversation with a gaulois puffing French man was to go to France with a chair, a mouse and a monkey and stroll around heavily wooded areas. Look it up. Be prepared for laughter.
The year before, we were very newly arrived in Annecy and did not expect to know enough people to be invited out. Circumstances lead to us having a perfect evening lakeside around a bonfire and with new friends. Our troubles began when we headed home at three o’clock in the morning and found our house locked, as expected, but bolted internally, preventing us from using our key to get in. Our 16 year-old niece visiting from Australia was ostensibly babysitting. Boy, she must either have been taking revenge for not being out at her own New Year's Eve party or have been in a very deep sleep. No amount of yelling through the keyhole into the downstairs corridor just under her bedroom, throwing rotten quinces up at her window from the ground around the tree in the garden or ringing her mobile number roused her. We kept at it for an hour despite the freezing cold and eventually, out of fear of reprisals from our village neighbours, my husband and I retreated to our car where we fell into a half-prone deep slumber still dressed in our coats, bonnets, gloves and scarves with the engine and car heater on.
Around 6am my husband tried again with grim determination and the more conventional method of knocking loudly on the front door. This time he got a response but no remorse or sympathy from the well-rested one as we trudged silently through the house straight into the warmth and comfort of bed. I’ve had late celebrations before and not got to bed until later than on that particular morning but never before have I had to sleep in the car in the carport, dreaming of the inaccessible luxury of my bed only a few metres away. Happy New Year indeed!
|Those Quinces !|
Thursday 1 January 2015
In French schools, students are graded constantly and the same curriculum is taught the entire country over. Four thirty in the afternoon and standing patiently at the locked school gate for my children to be released along with the other captive collegians I risked mentioning in passing to the female teacher supervising the footpath fraternising that the curriculum did not seem to have changed much since I was last here teaching some twenty years before. In a moment of unexpected but refreshing candour she replied that it was probably more like two hundred years with no change.
There is a mark accorded out of twenty for most pieces of work that the students complete and parents and children alike constantly compare their ‘moyenne’ or average overall mark. In some schools, if a student is not doing well, there are 'soutien' or support classes but in most cases the classroom teacher is not expected to cater for the different ability levels in the classroom and the children are expected to just cope. If a child does poorly on a piece of work it is not uncommon for the teacher to write a straight-to-the-point denigrating comment next to the mark. Imagine the face of your crestfallen offspring faced with the one French word ‘Catastrophe,’ no English explanation needed and scrawled at the bottom of a written assessment task complete with exclamation mark, and you have some idea of teacher feedback practices. The idea that a child might respond to praise or to a warm relationship with the teacher is not the norm.
I went to a parent-teacher interview yesterday afternoon to discuss this exact point. I was on time and my daughter showed me up to her teacher’s classroom. He was chatting to another teacher when we appeared and made no real effort to come and greet us so we waited patiently. When he did come out into the corridor he did not introduce himself, shake hands or engage in conversation. He indicated that the meeting would take place downstairs and headed off with us in tow.
Before sitting down I introduced myself using my first name and put out my hand to be shaken. He mumbled back his full name as he took my hand although I suspect he would have been shocked if I had actually dared use it. There was no animosity or impoliteness from either of us but he did look surprised at the frankness with which I spoke. He came across as someone sure of himself in his role of teacher but not a self-confident man. It wouldn’t have shocked me to read a poster on the walls listing the rules of the meeting, number one being ‘you are talking to a school teacher and so he has superiority and his methods and practices are not to be questioned.’ Of course I did though, question him, and with the assurance of a perfect, unarguable answer he replied ”But you are in France, Madame.”
As a justification this answer seems to be all that is required, not just in a school context but everywhere. I loosely recall a newspaper article that my husband and I were discussing wherein a Frenchman had become unruly on a flight after having consumed too much alcohol. He refused to accept that he should abide by the rules for all passengers and be served no more alcohol. His argument to prove that rules shouldn’t apply equally to him “But I am French.”
On holidays recently we stopped to visit the castle of Chambord. Arriving mid-morning we thought that it might be nice to have a coffee before going into the castle. There were several restaurants and cafes to choose from and the owner of one was out the front getting ready for his lunchtime service. Some instinct made me ask if it would be possible to order just coffee before we sat down and made ourselves comfortable. “Of course not, I am far too busy and have got too much to do before midday.” He was speaking French but my English translation would be something like, “I am French, you are not, what were you thinking?” We went next door.
Many a similar story abounds in the travel folklore of arrogant Parisians and unhelpful and disdainful Frenchmen. Why is this so? I live here and have many good friends who are French but until you can prove yourself as someone of interest, which is particularly hard if you are an English speaker, you do risk being brushed off with a “But you are not French” haughtiness. Smiling does help, as does persistence, developing a thick skin and dropping as early as possible into the conversation that you are from Australia.
Funnily enough I was once the target of ‘being French’ discrimination. My sister, visiting from Australia and speaking English to the sales assistant in Galeries Lafayette, a mildly up-market department store, could not have been better served. She was offered gift-wrapping and a smile. I was up next and spoke French. I was offered neither a smile nor coloured-paper and ribbon. When I asked if my gift could be wrapped I was told that I would have to go and line up at another counter. I would have liked to slap down on the counter my written assessment and mark out of twenty for her. She wouldn’t have made the moyenne.