Monday, 20 April 2015
In my busy pre-France life I had no time for reading – other that is, than work related articles and documents. I didn’t allow myself to read for pleasure. I used to tell myself that I had too many other important things to do and convinced myself that I was somehow letting myself, and my high standards down if I gave in and read something just for the sake of enjoying reading it.
When we moved to France this idea that had accompanied me for the previous 25 years was so engrained that, despite the fact that I now did have free time I still couldn’t ‘waste’ it on such a frivolous pursuit.
What prompted me first to seek out the local village library was the children, and admittedly it was more to get them French DVDs. They were doing fewer activities than they used to do in Australia but I had justified the passive DVD watching idea to myself on the premise that it would help them with their French language learning. So I looked around for a video store but they just didn’t seem to exist. The closest that I came across was an ATM-like ‘hole in the wall’ at the village supermarket that had literally just a handful of very outdated adult-oriented movies for loan. I then remembered that in Australia the libraries often had a collection of videos and DVDs for loan and presumed that the same would apply in France. Wrong!
I had been living in France for a month by then – I should have known that this would be another difference between the two countries. The first library that I tried, which was near our first house, looked promising from the outside. It was modern and quite large with two wings of books. By then I had become more used to the idea that public buildings could easily be mistaken for residential premises and hesitated only slightly as I pushed open the door to face two sweetly smiling ladies seated behind a long desk quietly controlling who was going in and out and with what in their bags. I explained that I was new to the area and they assured me that as long as I could prove my address with a ‘justificatif’ and then pay my money that I could start borrowing books straight away. Pay my money – weren’t libraries free in France like they were in Australia? I felt that I couldn’t back out and so did what was required. I moved auspiciously to the books section first and then stealthily attempted to hone in on my real target, the DVDs – but where were they? and what a disappointment when I finally located the single half-empty shelf holding more out-dated adult-oriented movies. To save face with the eagle-eyed librarians I resorted to borrowing books for the children pretending that that had been my principal objective all along.
Just because I was there and because it jumped out at me as a familiar name I also borrowed a book – for me. It was a Tim Winton book in French. I haven’t looked back. I am once again hooked on reading.
We have changed villages and therefore libraries and this time I was a bit more prepared for the interaction that would take place when I first went for a visit– but not the size of the library or their methods. Don’t get me wrong – it is one of my fortnightly pleasures to go down to the library and have a short whispered exchange with one of the many older ladies who man the room. The borrowing system involves exchanging yellowing hand-written cards for book. There are no due dates – and the books seem to date from the period they were written about – a long time ago. There is a table for new releases and a box - one - for children’s books but mostly I concentrate on the ‘B’s. By default the first author that I picked up had the surname Bourdin (genre: easy romance). I methodically returned to her shelf, read all of her books and only realised that I had come to the end of her offerings when the style of my newest loan was so vastly different (more difficult and somewhat educative) than what I had become accustomed to. I re-read the cover and realized that I was reading a Bourdon. I have since progressed to Bordes – and am loving reading once again.
Yesterday I had to return an overdue book as in principle you keep a book for two weeks. I presented my apologies and was told reassuringly not to worry as it was an old one – the word is ‘ancien’. I guess that it will always be ok then – as they are nearly all old.
Monday, 13 April 2015
Charles De Gaulle, French General and politician who led the Free French during the Second World War and was also the architect of the fifth republic and French President from 1959-1969 famously said “Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays où il existe 258 variétés de fromage?” or “How can one lead a country where there are 258 varieties of cheese?” Surely he could have just said “How can one lead a country made up of Frenchmen?" But no, that would have been disrespectful of the personality differences, passion and that little ‘je ne sais quoi’ which mysteriously defines a typical Frenchman. How clever to make the Gallic chest swell with pride at his culinary achievement and his individualism. Yes, you can hear De Gaulle’s compatriots thinking, we do have a lot of cheeses, yes it is probable that we might be the world cheese masters, how clever are we? distracting them from the veiled message that they were just an unruly lot who were hard to control.
It works even to this day. If ever I feel a conversation flagging or progressing into dangerous territory, linguistic or otherwise, I casually throw in what I had for dinner, or lunch, or breakfast last week. It doesn’t matter, as long as it is about food we digress happily out of more-trying-vocabulary quarters and potentially disharmonious sentiments.
On holidays recently in Bourgogne we visited a market. A little market in an out-of-the-way village with a lovely castle, which is open for visits, a main street and not much else. But even small villages have the right to hold a market. It wasn’t busy, unlike the Saturday morning affairs in Annecy where the pleasure of strolling and becoming intimate with the stallholders is reduced to elbowing your way to the stall, queuing for long periods of time and then making your transaction as quickly as possible so as not to annoy those queuing behind you. In fact, quite the opposite, it was almost intimidatingly empty. It was the sort of place where you felt obliged to buy from every stallholder just to show no favouritism. After purchasing vegetables from two different sellers, fresh goats cheeses from the goats cheese lady, bread from the baker and regretfully nodding at the cheap and nasty toy seller we found ourselves in front of a second cheesemaker.
I explained to him that we were not from the region so asked whether he would be kind enough to recommend a couple of local cheeses. He pointed to a strong rind-washed, oozing Epoisses, a soft, slightly denser in the middle Chaource, and then presented the Délice de Bourgogne, otherwise known as the Crémeux. It has a fat content of 76% he added and I stopped in the middle of my “yes, we’ll have that one,” reply only to quickly regather my momentum and say ”yes, we’ll have a thin slice of that one please.” But, was it delicious? Worth every calorie and re-ordered as soon as we spotted some more at the next market.
Later that day the children were discussing cheese. My oldest daughter dared make the outlandish statement that she could name fifty French cheeses. I laughed and went to the computer as she was beginning her list and typed favourite Australian cheeses into my Internet search engine. It was time to laugh again when amongst the esoteric cheese conversations recorded, some jokester had written “I’m really enjoying Dick Smith’s Cheese Spread.” There is no doubt that Australia has cheese of quality but the comment did remind me that before arriving in France my children’s attempts to name cheeses would probably have stopped after three. Let me give it a go – Coon, Tasty and ‘green cheese’. The last was my oldest daughter’s favourite when she could barely walk. She would ask it of her granny when spending the night at her house. It didn’t refer to my mother’s Scottish background and her ‘waste not want not’ approach to food but rather the green wrapping of the aged cheddar that my mother preferred. My children also used to happily munch on individually wrapped cheese slices. I have never seen them in France, and don’t really want to. I can’t even imagine the look of stupefaction I would receive from my children’s friends if ever I did find them and served them up.
My daughter had to admit defeat after thirty-one cheeses. I was impressed. Sure we had been living in France for a couple of years but it only took a couple of months of French living before the children’s tastes and appreciation for food started changing. I vividly recall my daughter running back to me through yet another market, grabbing me by the arm and pulling me back to where she had come from. “You have to taste this cheese,” she said. She had, I did and a great slab was purchased. It was a Beaufort d’été, made from the summer milk of the cows in the pastures around Beaufort. To this day, despite all the competitors for her number one cheese ranking it has not been replaced.
I also smilingly reflect on the afternoon that I observed my three children from a discreet distance. They had a cheese platter in front of them. As they were making up their sandwiches for lunch they discussed the merits of each cheese. The taste and texture were seriously debated and small slices were shaved off to check and re-check on their taste preference. My son was equally as happy participating in the discussion and he had only just turned six. Is it any wonder that this country produces great food and great chefs?
Tuesday, 10 February 2015
The very first time that we took the three children to the snow was in Australia on the Queen’s Birthday weekend, which was the opening weekend of the Australian ski season. We had no intention of skiing as the children were too young and it was uncertain as to whether there would actually be any snow. A patch of artificial snow was made to provide a somewhat authentic backdrop for the official opening photos and newspaper report but to get to this you had to take a chairlift. My youngest child was only a baby and I, having not skied for many years, and never with children, had never considered the safety aspect of children and lifts.
I had just gotten my, not-old-enough-to-walk son out of a carefully selected age and weight appropriate car seat from a car with safety airbags, new properly inflated tyres and a voice-controlled, ok me, driver cautionary system. At the chairlift embarkation point I, like all the other passengers, was offered a benchseat with one metal safety bar at about waist height when sitting to hang on to for safety. The only problem was that waist height when sitting was above head height for my son. The gap was so large that three babies sitting on top of each other could have slipped through it. What should I do? I didn’t want to miss out on all the fun that was only that chairlift away but how could I put my son into the risk zone just to satisfy myself? I decided to ask for advice. The liftie, a young guy certainly not old enough to have children of his own, assured me it was fine to take a young baby on the lift, as long as I held him tightly.
Well, I did, hold him tightly that is. So tightly, that my arms were aching by the time the ride finished. I dared not breathe, let alone move as it felt like if I relaxed a single muscle anywhere in my body I would send him tumbling into the void below. The day ended without incident but I suspect that my ongoing dreams are my punishment for lack of due care.
Strangely enough whilst driving to the ski station this morning I mentioned that I had not slept well because of ski related accident dreams. My daughter said that she had dreamt that there was an avalanche. With the abundant late snow of the last week followed by days of sunshine there certainly is an increased risk of avalanches and this is mentioned frequently on the evening news. At every ski station there is a team responsible for ensuring the security of the slopes. This at times means deliberately placing explosives on slopes judged to be at risk of avalanche to deliberately set one off. However, if you keep to the marked trails the risk is very low. The warnings apply to the real thrill seekers who look for pure virgin slopes, or ‘hors-piste’ skiing.
The discussion, nonetheless, continued about what to do if you did get caught in an avalanche. Firstly and obviously try to avoid it by moving out of its path, but secondly, my husband said, try to swim with it. ‘Swim?’ ‘Yes, and then be quick to act once you and the snow are coming to a stop, make space around your head because once the snow has stopped moving it compacts around you and you can find yourself without a pocket of air to breathe.’ Right, at this point we were still on the road, which was becoming more slippery and icy, the snow was starting to fall and the reassuring metal road barricades, that had been present when we were leaving the village below, had mysteriously disappeared, leaving unwary drivers the distinct possibility of missing a bend and flipping into the steep valley below. Ah, all the reasons why we love skiing so much were all coming back to me – and I hadn’t even thought about the cost of the day’s outing or the fact that it might be cold once we got there.
It was not just cold, it was freezing. The snow was attacking us horizontally and whipping the exposed parts of our faces. The ski lifts were barely visible at car park level and as we watched they disappeared completely from view. The wind was howling and we looked at each other despondently. At least we were wearing appropriate clothing.
After half an hour of procrastination this morning the weather cleared enough for us to decide to get our gear on and ski together. The reasons why we repeatedly go through this complicated ritual each winter were once again exhilaratingly clear.
Monday, 2 February 2015
We discovered a new path yesterday. Out walking through the snow along the track overlooking the village leading to the castle we ran into one of the teachers from the primary school. She mentioned that a new path had been opened close to the castle and descending to the ‘Moulins.’ I was quite excited, as up until now the only way to do a round trip to the castle from the house has been to walk back along the road from Bluffy. I have always found this to be less than relaxing as there is no footpath to speak of and the cars take the bends as a bit of a challenge, fast and tight.
Sure enough, a bit further along on our walk, as advised there was a new wooden gate just off the main track, signposted to the Moulins. We took it and found ourselves coming out alongside La Vallombreuse, an imposing and beautiful old guesthouse, literally the other side of the bridge from our house. The path felt like the backdrop to an Enid Blyton adventure, drooping pine trees partially covered with snow that would make great hide-outs, stone steps hewn into the walled paths, perfect for bandits carrying contraband, an old stone doorway, still standing but leading nowhere, prickly blackberry bushes that would have served as good traps and all just at the base of the castle walls. Covered with snow with the light fading and the twinkling lights of the village appearing below we could have imagined ourselves either the heros of an historical adventure story or the wily smugglers needing to outdo the Famous Five.
More beautiful snow was falling this morning and once all the ski gear was back on, the destination of choice was the secret castle path. This time we went armed with toboggans and cameras. Everyone, except Granny had a go on the toboggans, first along the rather steep track and then as the children became more confident, straight down the even steeper slope trying to avoid the prickly tentacles of the rose bushes hiding just below the surface of the fresh snow. Too tempting was it to not use the field as a battleground for a massive snow fight. Grandpa and my husband quickly fashioned snowballs whilst the children were playing below and when their pile of ammunition on the path above was satisfactory they called the children up, on the pretext that we were heading home. Obediently and unsuspectingly they started up the slope. When they were close enough the signal was given and the attack was launched. Laughingly, the children ducked and weaved and unsuccessfully tried to retaliate. Then, in the spirit of all good Enid Blyton books we headed home to a steaming hot chocolate and a hefty piece of homemade fruitcake.
The morning’s activity cost us nothing and yet the fun factor was at an all-time high. We hadn’t had to get in the car, we hadn’t had to queue and jostle to see what was happening, we hadn’t had to wait around for opening hours and more importantly we had been outside together in the cool fresh mountain air enjoying running around. For the adults, there was the bonus of being able to momentarily regress into child-like behaviour and get away with it.
The reality of growing up was brought home to me recently. A young Australian girl contacted us. Her teacher, a friend of ours had given her our details. She is in France for the period of her summer holidays and is staying with a French family who coincidentally live within walking distance of our house. Even though she did not know us she rang, made a time to come and see us and then spent two hours intelligently and confidently conversing with us. She spoke about her aspirations for the future, her final years of school, her desire to improve her French, the travels that she had been on and the places that she still wanted to visit. I could see myself as a sixteen year old again in her, keen for new experiences and impatient to start the challenges that will open up the world to her.
The conversation left me feeling unsettled and reflective as, although not dissatisfied with the path that life has taken me on so far, I feel the urgency of time passing and a somewhat heightened reflection of past choices. My girlfriend, the same one who recommended that her student come and see us, wrote me a letter before our departure from Australia. She concluded with a poem by Robert Frost entitled The Road Not Taken (below). I still have it and I take it out occasionally to remind myself that the future should be viewed optimistically, as an opportunity and that with an open mind and a dash of stubbornness, ‘way can in fact lead on to exciting way.'
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
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.