Mon beau sapin

Canadian ChristmasWe don’t have a Christmas tree at our house this year. Instead, we are going to visit family in Toronto and let them trim the tree.

For us, Christmas in Canada means family and friends, catching up and pigging out, the chaos of too many people and dogs, shopping from the time we get off the plane and as soon as the sales start on Boxing Day. Yes, folks, it’s consumer excess at its merriest. But I won’t regret it. Not for one single moment. Until I’m back home in January, weighing up the damage.

The thing is, we don’t have any of those things here n France. My husband’s family is too few and far apart, our kids are grown and flown (although one will be heading back home soon – more on Generation Boomerang later…). And the shopping opportunities simply don’t compare.

What Christmas in Canada does not usually mean is snow. To my unending disappointment, our visits almost inevitably coincide with a green Christmas in Toronto….generally followed by a big blizzard as soon as we are back on our side of the Atlantic. But I’m packing my boots just in case.

I am taking a blogging break to enjoy the season. Wishing you and yours a holly, jolly Christmas and hope to see you in the New Year!

Chez le coiffeur

Chez le coiffeurThere are almost as many beauty parlors in France as there are bakeries. Which says something about where the French have their priorities.

At this time of year, an appointment chez le coiffeur is a must for every self-respecting Frenchwoman – and man. Looking one’s best for the end-of-year holidays is as essential as uncorking a bottle of champagne and preparing a special meal on Christmas Eve.

One of my first French lessons was learning that you go ‘chez le coiffeur’ rather than ‘au coiffeur’. This applies for any shop or service that has a person behind it. For example, you go chez LeClerc but à Carrefour because there is a Leclerc family but no Monsieur or Madame Carrefour.

Another lesson is that hair is not singular in French but plural. So when you talk about your hair it’s les cheveux (not to be confused with les chevaux unless you’re grooming horses rather than hair). Which also explains why my husband will say: “Your hair are nice like that.” (Isn’t he sweet?)

I have passed many long hours chez le coiffeur, simply because my short hair with blonde highlights requires frequent ministrations from my stylist. Those hours spent waiting for the chemicals to do their magic and transform my chatain clair into shiny blonde streaks have allowed me to observe at leisure the inner workings of the French beauty parlor.

Most salons are independently owned and managed by a single hairdresser. Depending on the size of the place, they may have one or several coiffeurs working for them. Only in the bigger chains like Dessange or in high fashion haute coiffure salons do they have a dedicated receptionist. This means that in between shampooing, rinsing, coloring and snipping, your typical hairstylist is also answering the phone, greeting customers, ringing up receipts and serving coffee.

A French hair salon is never dull. Over the white noise of hairdryers and water running, the piped in radio, the hissing of the coffee machine and collective chatter of les dames (the men are usually silent), the place can work up to quite a hubbub.

Should the wait be rather long, there is always the lure of “la presse people.” All French hair salons, no matter how trendy, share the common denominator of offering customers a selection of the latest rags –Paris Match, Voici and Closer along with more fashion-forward offerings like Elle. How else to stay atop of breaking stories like Hollande’s three-wheeled sexploits, Valérie Trierweiller’s revenge lit or Carla Bruni’s desire to be left alone? If there were any doubt about the need for regular visits chez le coiffeur, the extra incentive of the gossip press seals it.

Many salons offer ‘la carte de fidelité’ or customer loyalty cards that give you a reduction or a freebie of some kind after several services. I suppose this is intended keep people coming back, but I never really understood the need. If you have a good hairdresser, one who understands you and doesn’t talk too much, why go anywhere else?

My dad once commented during a visit to France that he had never seen so many bad dye jobs. I think this is because a lot of French women tend to go for more pronounced colors than are typical for North Americans. This was a few years ago when bright henna was all the rage and also the dip-dye craze with a lot of dark root showing beneath blonde tips.

This year I am wondering: where have all the blondes gone? From the TV screens to the fashion pages, brown hair seems to rule the day. Have you noticed this?

I’m not much of one for changing my hairstyle. Aside from a few kinky perms back in the early 80s, I’ve been pretty faithful to my highlighted short cut for the better part of 30 years.

It hasn’t always been easy to find a coiffeur willing to coiffe to my taste. French stylists tend to prefer longer, looser styles. I like these too, on other people. Just not on me.

And just as it’s chic in English to use French words, hair salons here often play with anglais to sound cutting edge. Sometimes with disastrous double entendres in English, like one in our parts called ‘Hair Mess.’ Oops. Think I’ll give that one a miss.

How about you? What’s your latest scoop from the hair salon?

Find the entrance

Entree_LyonAfter my post about getting lost, I thought I’d share another little challenge of finding one’s way in France.

There is a little game we play in this country. I call it, ‘Find the entrance’.

I discovered this when I arrived in Paris in the 1980s during the midst of a terrorist wave. The main entrances to many public buildings were barricaded by police, with access strictly controlled through a side door. The Alliance Française was one of these high-profile buildings, a hotbed of foreign nationals plotting to conjugate French verbs. I learned to never assume the front door was the entrance, and to always carry proof of identity.

When we moved to Lyon some years later, the plot thickened. Lyon is known as a secretive city and filled with many very old and winding streets including the famous ‘traboules‘. How well I remember going for my first prenatal appointment at Hôtel Dieu in Lyon. (The hospital has since closed and is undergoing renovations to be rebirthed as a luxury hotel and shopping complex). It felt oddly reassuring to be giving birth in such a historic place, always assuming that the medical inner workings were a bit more modern than the exterior.

Hotel DieuThe magnificent Baroque façade of this 17th century building on the Rhône river took up several city blocks. I walked the entire length of it without finding the entrance. Twice. There was a driveway labelled ‘Urgences’ but that seemed to be reserved for ambulances (although later, when my daughter was born, we used that entrance to access the maternity department). There were several large and looming doorways with rounded arches that were closed and without handles. Finally, on my third approach, I noticed a discreet sign saying ‘Entrées hôpital de jour’ (which I later learned means ‘outpatients’).

My little game continues to this day, though we live in a more remote corner of the country.

Mairie DouvaineImagine you have an appointment at la Mairie to get your passport renewed. You know where the city hall is, of course, as it’s usually one of the more obvious buildings in town. Often it has a large clock tower and looks rather like a church, with a sweep of steps and a stately set of wooden doors. Do not be fooled into thinking you should try to open them.

All those gorgeous doorways you see in photos of France? They are not the entrance. Nine times out of ten those doors are locked and only opened on state occasions or emergencies. The real entrance for le public is usually around the block or on the side, through a set of ugly modern doors that slide open, sometimes even with an elevator or a ramp for handicapped access. Practical, if something of a letdown in aesthetic terms.

Even when you find the door, you may not be able to get in. You may need a code, or an appointment, or be outside the official public opening hours from 13:45 to 16:15 (that’s 1:45 to 4:15 pm for North Americans). I exaggerate, if only slightly.

Finding the entrance in France is so much more than getting yourself to the right door. I’m still trying to figure it out.

Sometimes the exit can also be challenging. You have gone through so many sets of doors, corridors and stairways to reach your destination that you may have a hard time remembering the way out. I still get the giggles when I remember my husband, having just blown his stack in a public building following an interminable wait, turned on his heel to leave in a huff. Only he found himself standing in front of two glass doors that were locked. Sortie à gauche, we saw too late. Dignity intact, if slightly bruised, we exited stage right.

Oddly enough, it dawns on me that our new house, the one we had built here in France two years ago, has the front door in the back. Maybe I’ve been here too long…

What about you? Ever have trouble figuring out where the entrance is?

My big fat French wedding

IMG_2632This week marks the 28th anniversary of the day I said oui to a certain Frenchman in Paris. Given the number of years and the copious amounts of champagne we consumed that day, I may be forgiven if it’s a bit of a blur…

Let me share what stands out in my memory of our wedding day.

It began with a lie, albeit a white one. My husband, who can never remember where he left his keys yet can still recite all our old phone numbers, reminded me of this when he caught me telling people we were married in the city of Paris. It all came back: we were supposed to tie the knot at the Mairie of the 7th arrondissement, where we resided, but it turned out they did not perform weddings on Saturdays. So we found a city hall in neighboring Choisy-le-Roi with an attractive building and more accommodating hours. A friend of the family who lived in that town wrote us an attestation sur l’honneur (declaration in good faith) as proof that we resided with her, and we were able to arrange our wedding on a Saturday afternoon in late November.

Rings BWIn France, there are two weddings: a civil ceremony that takes place at city hall, followed by a purely ceremonial church wedding, often with several days or weeks in between. We did not want a church wedding but we did want to make it official and celebrate the event on the same day.

We took our vows before a mustachioed fellow who may have been the mayor or his deputy. Only close family and friends attended the ceremony. Our rings came from Cartier: identical double bands of intertwined white and yellow gold. My husband would lose his within the first months of married life while repainting a bedroom.

I had never imagined myself getting married, much less as a bride in a white dress walking down the aisle. I did not wear a veil but I did carry a bouquet and had flowers in my hair. It was the 80s, so there were a lot of big shoulders and wide silhouettes. I make it a policy never to wear heels; instead I wore satin slippers which unfortunately were ruined during picture taking in the sodden park. My husband wore a tux, which the French call ‘un smoking’. When I look back at our wedding pictures, we look like little bride and groom dolls. Were we ever that young?

Mel and Stefan WeddingIt did not rain on our wedding day, something of a miracle for the end of November. It was quite cold with patches of sunshine as we headed back to my beaux-parents’ home for a short reception in between the service and the celebration. The Canadian delegation included my immediate family – my dearly departed Mom, my Dad, sister and two brothers, along with a maiden aunt (also departed, slightly less dearly) whose alcoholic outpourings had us all fearing a diplomatic incident. In the end she got sloppy but the language barrier prevented her more embarrassing comments from going further than our own ears.

My in-laws were by no means well-to-do, but my husband is an only child and his parents pulled out all the stops for our wedding. We convened for a gala evening at a private club in the Bois de Boulogne. We’d been able to reserve this through contacts of my beau-père who worked on the catering side of Air France. The sumptuous food and the endless flow of champagne and wines owed much of its largesse to the generosity of his contacts in the food and beverage trade.

SpeechesThe speeches were brief and, if memory serves, included a few words in my own fledgling French. Given my horror of emotional speeches at weddings, I was grateful for the fact that the father of the bride’s speech was rather succinct. I believe it was only two words: “Merci beaucoup!”

IMG_2634The high point of the evening, le clou du spectacle as they say in French, and the only time there was not a dry eye in the house, was when the dessert was served. It was well after midnight when several waiters came bearing a magnificent pièce montée stacked with dozens of cakes along with sparklers and dry ice. We all formed a circle and danced around the dessert, as it were, to the stirring music from the popular television show, Champs Elysées.

We sipped and supped into the wee (oui?) hours of the morning, dancing our hearts out to fabulous 80s music between courses. Somewhere around 5 a.m. we poured ourselves home, taking a bottle of champagne with us and unpopping a final cork as the sun came up.

Say what you will about the French, they sure know how to throw a party.

A few days later, we took off for French Polynesia and a honeymoon financed by gifts from our wedding guests. Then we returned to Canada for a second reception for the friends and family on my side who hadn’t been able to come all the way to France. Also a lovely evening, but that’s another story.

I kept my name, or attempted to. All of my French identity papers bear both it and my nom d’épouse. Like it or not, the French will call you by your married name especially when you have children. This doesn’t bother me, as the people who know me use my real name. My husband’s family joke that if their name had been ‘Rockefeller’ I would have taken it. I laugh along with them while knowing that this is simply not true.

Looking back at our wedding photos, unearthed from a box two years after our move, I couldn’t have wished for it any other way.

What’s your fondest memory of a wedding, in France or elsewhere?

5 reasons to love French restaurants

Le-Cochon-lOreille-menuYou may be surprised by this list – it’s not about the food. In France, good food and wine are pretty well a given. But there are a few things about the restaurant experience itself that I appreciate. Of course, by ‘French restaurants’ I mean restaurants in France rather than those that serve French food.

1. Professional wait staff

One thing you can be assured of in France is that you will never be subjected to the phrase, “Hi, my name is Bob and I’ll be your server this evening!” No introductions will be performed, nor will you be asked where you are from or expected to engage in witty repartee with your waiter. And, outside of the touristy parts of Paris and Lyon, chances are the service will be not snooty but smooth and professional. I’ll take efficient service over fake friendly any day

2. You get what you pay for

Restaurants in France have a strict hierarchy, from the simple café-bar that serves the odd jambon-beurre to the Michelin-starred restaurant gastronomique. In between are all the traditional and family-run establishments where you can get a full meal including starter, plat du jour, dessert and coffee at a very reasonable price. It won’t be fancy, but it will be what it claims to be: nothing more or less. A recently voted French law comes into effect in 2015 obliging all restaurants to clearly identify on their menus freshly prepared foods or dishes with a ‘fait maison’ logo.

3. Mineral water

Flat or sparkling, large or small bottle: whether as an apéritif or an accompaniment to any meal, you will always be offered eau minérale (at a cost) along with your wine. If you insist, of course, all restaurants are obliged by law to provide a carafe d’eau (tap water) for free. But don’t be afraid to ask twice.

4. Everything in good time

The French take the time to enjoy a proper meal at lunch and even more so in the evening. You will never feel rushed at table, or (horror!) have your plate removed before you are finished, as has happened to me more than once outside of France. Assuming you are dining at a full-service restaurant, you will be offered, in this order: apéritif, appetizer, main course, cheese or dessert, coffee. You can try to speed it along; it’s like trying to swim against the current. My husband, who prefers the speedier North American style of service, repeatedly asks to have his coffee served with dessert; it invariably arrives after.

5. No need to leave a tip

Tipping is entirely optional in France (as it should be!). Not just in theory but in practice. Service is included with the tax so if you do leave a tip, there’s no need to make it 10% of the bill as you would in many English-speaking countries. Leaving a few coins at the end of a meal is standard recognition for good service and will be appreciated by the wait staff.

And here’s something else I enjoy…

When I first came to France I was frustrated by the fact that you could not find many places in Paris to enjoy a coffee with the wonderful croissants and pastries on offer at every boulangerie-pâtisserie. Now, the advent of Starbucks and the rise in coffee culture in general has led to many bakeries like Paul opening up café service, or ‘salon de thé’ in the fancier places. Truly the best of both worlds.

Et vous? What’s your favorite thing about French restaurants?