Mayday, m’aider!

Did you know that the expression ‘mayday’ used as a distress signal comes from French? I did not, although I speak the language and have lived in this country for over twenty years.

Amazing what you learn watching television. I was glued to the news last night watching reports of the Germanwings plane crash in the southern French Alps. A former commercial pilot being interviewed on France 2 says that the mystery of this crash is the fact that there was no call of ‘Mayday, mayday, mayday’ – which must be repeated three times according to international protocol. And suddenly it clicks. Mayday is ‘m’aider’ – meaning ‘help me’ in the formal or infinitive form of the verb.

Like you, I am horrified by this crash. The loss of innocent life, the tragic fate of 150 people who took off for a short-haul flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf on Tuesday morning. Something that low-cost travel has made almost like a taking a bus for many Europeans today.

It is all the more shocking considering that the flight was operated by Germanwings, a low-cost affiliate of Lufthansa, one of the world’s safest and most technically reliable airlines.

Perhaps because it has happened here in France, I find myself obsessing about that 8-minute descent into oblivion. The strange trajectory of the crash into the worst possible mountainous region. The gut-wrenching fear of the passengers, the impossible news for the families, the courage of the crews who must sift through the debris for bodies at 1500 meters near Seynes-les-Alpes.

Like many, I’ve considered the possibility that it could be an act of terror. Suicide or a medical emergency is now looking likely with the discovery that one of the pilots was locked out of the cockpit just before the crash.

My thoughts are with the victims and their families, the hundreds of police and investigators trying to recover the bodies on treacherous terrain at high altitude.

And for anyone who has to get on a plane knowing that their worst fears could be just a ‘mayday’ away.

Grimentz and grumbles

IMG_3089After my one-woman tribute to the 80s on the ski slopes last winter, I swore that this year I would get new gear. If only to keep up with my husband who is fully outfitted in the latest high-tech layers, skis and boots, including a set of seal skins for going uphill. I didn’t make it to new skis but did manage to get a new pair of boots, the most challenging part of the whole operation.

Let’s just say I have a rather substantial calf. A pair of gams that call up images not of limbs so much as tree trunks, or, as one (obviously former) suitor once said: “Your leg looks like something that should be put on a spit and rotated.”

Getting a ski boot I can actually do up without cutting off all the circulation in my lower extremities is a challenge. After terrorizing two salespeople and trying on at least six different models, I finally thought we had a good fit in a Salomon. Last weekend it was time to put them to the test.

Now that the spring is upon us, the Alps offer my kind of fair-weather skiing. We decided to make a weekend of it on the Swiss side, more picturesque and less crowded than France. On Friday night we headed for Grimentz, a cute little village in the Valais region of Switzerland where I’d been once before for a work event.

The trouble began the next morning when I tried to do up the boots. Either my calves had expanded in the weeks since we left the store or the altitude was playing tricks with my brain. We somehow managed to do them up but I was feeling pins and needles by the time we got to the télécabine.

The view from the top

The view from the top

My husband instructed me to wait while he got the ski passes. He has this habit of taking charge whenever we get near a mountain. He then directed me to the gondola lift and up, up, up we went – a full twenty-minute ride to the top. What the–? I tried to catch my breath as we got off the lift but the air was a little thin. This was not what I’d had in mind. I studied the map of ski runs. Where were all the blues? And the restaurant? Hubby looked at the map and pointed out that we were on the other side of the resort, its highest point. Seemed there had been two possible ways up and we had taken the wrong one. A few choice words were exchanged but I’ll spare you having to pardon my French. I admired the view while he did a few red and black runs. We took the next cable car down.

By the time we got down to the nice blue slopes it was almost lunch time. We got in a few runs before heading for a sunny spot on a terrace where, a sausage and a large beer later, I began to enjoy myself.

The boots were still a bit tight but at least I could feel my feet. We skied several runs and enjoyed the afternoon.

IMG_3092The best part of the weekend was being in Grimentz. It is a picturesque mountain village built almost entirely out of wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire hydrant

Which probably explains why there’s a fire hydrant on every corner.

 

Unlike the French, who so often let their ski resorts turn into concrete monstrosities, this place is nothing but old wood and cobbled streets. Lots of good places to eat, too, and the Valaisans make great wine and cheese.

 

 

 

Stay tuned for more adventures next winter!

 

Le quignon

shutterstock_258051422‘Le quignon’ is the pointy end of the baguette. I love the crust so it is my favorite part.

It was also the preferred morsel of my late Belle-Mère, so for years I had to pretend I didn’t care when she scooped it, saying “Un petit quignon, c’est mon préféré.” There were two, of course, but somehow it doesn’t do to compete with your mother-in-law over something so trivial as a piece of bread, given you’ve already absconded with her offspring.

I love how the quignon forms a perfectly bite-sized vehicle for enjoying a nice scoop of runny cheese like Saint Marcellin, or a soft mound of Saint Agur. Almost like a cheese cone.

The problem is that it’s an endangered species. Rare is the baguette that survives the trip home from the bakery without its end being ripped off and devoured.

Depending on your bread type – baguette, épée, batard, ficelle – the quignon can be quite pointy, even sharp. I’ve sliced my gums more than once on this crusty pleasure.

Having specific words for things is a measure of their importance in a language and culture. Just as the Inuit are said to have a multitude of words for snow and Hawaiians for fishing nets, so in France there are a lot of words that describe bread. Let’s look at some of the other words the French use to describe the doughy pleasures of the loaf:

Pain – Bread, obviously, but also smaller baked goods like pain au chocolat or pain aux raisins.

Croûte – The crust. Obviously the best part!

Mie – The doughy inner part of the loaf.

Pain de mie – Also a type of bread – the square kind of loaf typically sliced and used for toast.

Alvéole – This describes the airiness of la mie. This ranges from dense in pain de mie to irregular and airy in a baguette.

AlveoleYou already know how I feel about the French stick.

Et toi? Will you fight me for the quignon or do you prefer a different part of the loaf?

Why I watch ‘la télé’

TV controlMy name is Mel and I am a TV addict. There, I’ve said it. You do not want to get between me and my favorite programs: sitcoms, dramas, the odd soap. TV characters are not just my favorite form of entertainment, they are my close personal friends.

When I first moved to France, I felt alone. The televised offering on the basic French channels was frankly pathetic. There was almost nothing that wasn’t dubbed, and watching reruns of American cop shows when the words don’t match the lips was beyond me. Unless something is offered in the original language (even if that language is not English or French), I refuse to watch it. I don’t mind reading subtitles but I want to hear the real voices.

So we got cable and I was saved. We had the BBC! We even had a few channels with American programs in V.O. (‘Version Originale’ or original language version with subtitles). My life changed as I went to my happy place most evenings, once again in the company of friendly faces.

Then we moved to the country and there was no cable. Desolation set in. Until I discovered…wait for it: Sky TV! We weren’t technically allowed access in France but there were ways around it (if you work for Sky, stop reading now). We had a satellite dish installed on our roof and the Sky+ Box became my new BFF.

Suddenly there was a full complement of British TV channels, including movies, all in English! I raved about how wonderful it was for the kids’ English, how fabulous for them to have access to high-quality programming. You could even add subtitles in English to aid comprehension! Well worth the expense. Who was I kidding? It was My Box, no one else’s.

I still watch my box nightly and enjoy a fabulous lineup of original British and American television, mostly recorded in advance, enabling me to zap through the commercials. But that’s entertainment; for news and information I watch French TV.

There are many reasons to watch French television. Sitcom is not one of them. The French do certain kinds of TV really well, especially live shows. Investigative news and information (Envoyé Spécial, 13h15 le samedi/dimanche). Comedy shorts like ‘Un gars et une fille’, ‘Caméra Café’). I’ve never been a fan of the longer dramas and comedies – the scripting is wooden, more like televised theatre than natural speech, and the dialogue may be clever but is just not funny. Most French people watch films on TV and consider series television to be crap. When I see what’s on offer, I can only agree.

Television is a wonderful tool for learning a language. Watching TV in French did wonders for my comprehension. Not just of the language, although that improved immensely. It also taught me a lot about les Français, what is important to them, how they interact – all the social cues and subtext that make up French culture.

The commercials were also a reason to watch. Back in the day when advertisers still spent big budgets on TV, some of best spots were made in France. The subtlety of the humor was brilliant – but why couldn’t they translate that into decent comedy series?

The nightly news, ‘le 20 heures’, taught me to decode the world according to the French. It is not the same as the world portrayed in North America: international news plays a bigger role, although French politics are centre stage. How the French see the rest of the world, especially les américains, has been key to understanding so many things in this country.

Then I discovered the televised format the French do best: live talk shows. These programs are featured in the access-to-prime time slot leading up to the dinner hour. They usually feature a round table of guests and ‘chroniquers’ or TV hosts/editorialists. So while I get dinner ready and enjoy a glass of something, I get a very French view on politics, current affairs, music, film and entertainment. All in good fun.

For years we faithfully watched ‘Le Grand Journal’ on Canal Plus (a pay channel with free access at certain times.) It features the highly entertaining Les Guignols along with an all-star lineup of international guests promoting books, films, albums. Having worked in television, I can say that the technical production of a nightly program like this is amazing. Over the years I witnessed some of the funniest moments ever captured on live television in France, especially back in the days with Philippe Gildas as host and Antoine de Caunes as funny man. But the hosts changed and I never recovered my love of the show after Michel Denizot left to edit the French version of Vanity Fair.

Now my favorite talk show is C’est à Vous. The premise is a dinner party. The guests arrive, usually bearing a hostess gift like flowers or some interesting trinket, and sit around the table while a chef prepares a meal in the open kitchen. The program continues as dinner is served, replete with wine and dessert. It is all very civilized but with lots of humor and sans prétension.

Plateau 'C'est à vous'I love this show. It is so very French to entertain à table. Socially, people relax and the conversational exchanges are more natural. The program usually ends on a live performance by an up-and-coming artist on stage but much more intimate than the performances on the Grand Journal.

C'est à vous

Hostess with the mostest: Anne-Sopie Lapix on France 5

The program host, Anne-Sophie Lapix, is the essence of the modern French woman:  elegant, natural, not overly made up. Authentic and smart. I cannot praise her enough as she manages to hold it together with warmth and intelligence no matter how stroppy certain guests get or even in a recent medical emergency when one of the co-hosts, Patrick Cohen, fainted on set. So catch it if you can, although I’m not sure it’s accessible outside France.

Do you watch TV? C’mon, you can admit it – we’re all friends here.