Le bon timing

Train times Gare du NordTiming, as they say, is everything.

It is ironic that here in the land of complicated schedules and a season for everything, we must borrow from English to express the notion of timing.

You will find the word ‘timing’ in Larousse and other French dictionaries, translated as ‘minutage’. It seems to particularly focus on an action plan or steps needed to complete a task. The expression ‘le bon timing’ is often associated with business and politics, where timing dictates a strategy of attack. By extension, it is useful to remember as a motto for life in France.

I learned the importance of timing shortly after moving to France. We were invited for drinks with friends and arrived, as is our wont, right on time. Me because being prompt is ingrained along with saying ‘sorry’ and husband because, well, he is always thirsty. To my dismay I discovered that we were the first of the convives, and to add injury to insult, were then made to wait until everyone had arrived before being offered a drink.

“On va attendre les autres?” asked our hosts, glancing pointedly at the array of bottles enticingly standing by. As they clearly assumed we should wait for the others to arrive, we nodded in dumb agreement then proceeded to make polite but dull conversation for the next hour.

After that I became rather laissez-faire about showing up to social events on time. And sometimes had a drink first.

This strategy backfired on occasions when, it turned out, the French are almost obsessively prompt. When it comes to public meetings and events, or closing times, for example, which can be absurdly early. If you don’t get there on time, it will be over before you even get started.

It is traditional in France for le maire to host a new year’s reception for the town’s citizens. We showed up only a little late and missed both the mayor’s speech and our complementary glass of champagne.

There are so many other ways that timing matters in France:

  • There is little point in arriving at a restaurant hoping for a meal before or after the designated serving times at lunch and dinner (generally just before 12:00 until 1:30 or so at lunchtime and not before 7:30 p.m. in the evening). You may not be served and if you are, will certainly not be welcome.
  • Don’t bother trying to join a group or take up an organized activity other than at the beginning of the season in September or possibly at the start of a new year.
  • Do not expect to find strawberries or melon on the menu in the winter or fondue in summer. Seasonal appropriateness must be respected. Don’t look for summer gear in the shops before May or after July. Back-to-school items will be on display everywhere from early August until September. After that, you will have to be content with a few dusty leftovers.
  • As for holidays, you will want to plan your destination well in advance, book early and get a head start on traffic. Don’t forget the school calendar and the various zones (A, B and C) depending on the region.

Alternatively you can always just forget about le timing altogether, sit back and let it ride. Have another glass of wine. Who’s to say? That train may never even show up.

What’s your approach? Do you worry about being on time or always arrive fashionably late?

Liste rouge

Hotline_orange

The phone rang yesterday just as I was getting ready to go out.

“Allô?” I answered automatically, without checking the caller ID. Too late I saw that it said ‘privé’, a sure sign that someone was going to annoy me with a sales pitch.

And he did.

“Bonjour Madame. Blah blah blah – important information about your electricity bill – yada yada yada – produce your own solar powered energy – blah blah blah….”

I let him run on, too polite to cut him off, too tired to nicely interject. When he paused for breath, I asked, rather bluntly: “Vous appelez qui s’il vous plaît? On est liste rouge.” ‘Liste rouge’ being the magic words in French for unlisted phone number, or ex-directory.

“Uhh…Madame Fayard?” he replied.

I have been haunted by the ghost of Madame Fayard ever since we moved here three years ago. Regularly, despite the fact that we pay for the privilege of an unlisted number, I get calls from salespeople desperately seeking the dear lady. Clearly France Telecom waited all of five minutes before recycling the number after she moved away. Or left this world.

“Ce n’est pas le bon numéro,” I announced, curtly advising him that there was no such dame at this number and I would be most grateful if he would remove it from whatever outdated list he was calling from.

Undaunted, the brave fellow pushed on with his narrative. It really didn’t matter, he said, because the information he had was very important and could certainly be of interest to me…

Canadian I may be but my politesse wears thin in the presence of telemarketers.

I cut his spiel short, explaining that the whole point of having an unlisted number was to not have to listen to such information, however interesting. He had the good grace to chuckle at this and hang up.

No matter who is calling these days, I don’t do well with telephones. I’m not sure why this is, other than the fact that I am deaf in one ear, dislike being interrupted and struggle to make myself understood in French. Maybe it’s because I spent half of my youth with a phone growing out of my ear.

Back in the prehistoric days before the internet, I used to spend hours on the phone. Way before technological innovations like call waiting and voicemail, my teenaged marathon phone sessions sometimes went on all night. I didn’t have a phone in my room but there was one in the hall with a very long cord that just reached to the bed. People trying to call our house got the busy signal so long they assumed the phone was off the hook. I remember the parents pounding on my bedroom door in fury: “Get off the phone before I have to get it surgically removed!”

“I have to go,” I’d say with regret to the tragically bored girlfriend or amorous fellow on the other end.

When I first began working in the corporate world in France, I had to use the phone professionally. I was terrified of either cutting off an important caller or not understanding what the person on the other end was saying. Somehow I managed to get my employer to send me on a training course to Paris to learn the proper use of the telephone. This involved role-playing on fake phones while parroting a lot of phrases like ‘Patientez, s’il vous plaît’ (please hold) or ‘Puis-je demander qui est en ligne?’ (May I ask who’s calling?).

Now my main connection to work is an iPhone 6 with unlimited calling capacity. I rarely use it to talk to people, however, and it’s probably just as well. Let’s just say that you don’t want to be around me when it rings. I’m not able to walk and chew gum at the same time, so multitasking is not a strong point. First I have to find the bloody thing somewhere in a pocket or a bag, a challenge when you can’t tell what direction sounds are coming from (oh the joys of single-sided hearing!), make sure my glasses are on so that I can see who it is, figure out what button to press to take the call. By then it has usually gone to voice mail.

As for my home phone, it almost never rings. May Madame Fayard rest in peace.

How do you feel about the telephone? Do you still have a land line or are you entirely mobile?

 

Foie gras

A very famous Canadian has been making headlines in France this week. Pamela Anderson, ex-‘BabeWatch’ star and future Brigitte Bardot, has brought the sad plight of the geese and ducks of southwest France to the attention of l’Assemblée Nationale.

Some wag on a talk show joked that it was the first time in the history of parliament that all of its members showed up.

I first heard about le foie gras from my then-future husband, who regaled me with tales of his best-loved French foods. It came just after oysters and raw-milk cheese. I reacted like a typical North American.

“Fwah grah? What’s that?” I asked, making a face. “Fat liver?” He explained that duck or goose liver – paté as we English speakers insist on calling it – was considered a fine delicacy in France. “But don’t they force feed the geese?” He shrugged, muttering something about gastronomic tradition.

When it came time to taste my first foie gras, at table with his parents during a fancy dinner, I did so with a relatively open mind. By then I had experienced enough good French food to trust them when they said something was good. As tastes and textures went, it wasn’t bad. In fact, I developed a minor appreciation for the stuff, accompanied by toasted brioche and a sweeter white wine.

You cannot live in France without making certain value adjustments. Over the years my attitude on many subjects has adapted, from the time I first ate rabbit to raw meat and runny cheese. When it comes to foie gras I am on the fence.

Eating meat of any kind for me requires a sliding moral scale. I am opposed to cruelty in general and the factory farming of animals horrifies me. I shudder when I see the way our poor pigs are transported to slaughter, and at the thought of chickens in cages or of any animal that doesn’t see the light of day. When you look at the traditional production of foie gras, is it any more cruel than those practices?

Our daughter, who is studying to become a veterinarian, gave us a bit of a tongue lashing for serving foie gras over the holidays. So I think we will be giving it a miss in the future. And to be honest, it will be no great sacrifice. In fact, if I may make a small confession, one that will forever brand me as being decidedly un-French, I find myself increasingly enjoying the pleasures of a more plant-based diet. I still eat meat, along with cheese and eggs, but not as often and in smaller quantities.

The French mostly turn a deaf ear to the pleas of animal rights activists. They are more concerned about cultural traditions, gastronomy and jobs. This is not a particularly vegetarian-friendly culture, although the variety and quality of locally sourced fresh produce makes it entirely possible to pursue such choices here.

Foie gras is a delicacy that I can quite happily live without. I think my own foie will thank me. Not to mention a few hundred ducks.

What about you? Do you eat foie gras or consider it off limits?

Changer de tête

Samson and the lionI’ve been having a bad hair day for what feels like forever. Like the unmistakable first symptoms of a cold, I’ve felt a change coming on. It’s always the same. You keep looking in the mirror, checking your profile, from the back, from the front. Ack. Something’s just not working. Even when I crinkle my eyes and squint.

Time for a ‘change of head’ as we say in French, which for me means a trip to the hairstylist. Here in France you must ‘prendre rendezvous’ (book an appointment) before heading chez le coiffeur. And although it’s only been a month since the last time I sat in that chair, I go back and sing my song of woe.

“Ils sont affreux!” I say, remembering to use the plural as I describe the horror story of my hair. Too long here, too short there. My head looks like a crème caramel. My roots are too dark, my ends too wispy. Essentially I dislike the shape of my head. Can you make it less…round?

He knows I’m joking, bien sûr. Although I only began seeing Nicolas last summer (I am a faithful sort), he’s already had me in his chair (did I write that?) for many hours. He senses, I am sure, that this winter of my discontent is about more than my roots.

We women may not suffer the indignity of losing our hair, but let’s be clear: we suffer. Monthly, and I don’t mean in that way, although that’s not nothing either. I am talking about a certain dependence on hairstylists in order to look/feel/be great. Even good. Even not like a monster.

Not all women feel this way. Some brave lasses don’t bother with their locks at all. Some chop it all off, bundle it back or let it grow wild and grey. I admire you all. You are beautiful. But let’s be clear: I am a top-down kinda girl. If the hair works, everything else falls into place. No makeup needed and I can throw on any old clothes without feeling like a freak.

Once upon a time I was little blonde angel. It didn’t last long. That is, I was a natural blonde until my teens but the angel part went by the wayside early on. I think this picture of me in first communion gear was the last time I played the part. In the mid-seventies, I did the Farrah Fawcett flip (any under-30s reading this blog will have to Google that). Then came the perm years. I started chopping into those curls somewhere in my twenties until I decided to go short and chic.

Evolution of the coiffure

So I’ve stayed, on and off, ever since. Always short, sometimes chic. But now I’m thinking: what if I grow it out, just a bit? A bit blonder to get me through the dark winter months. Maybe, just maybe, this time I’ll be able to wait it out.

So off I went a few days ago. Played hooky from work (had my laptop with me just in case and besides, I’m on intimate terms with the boss). Showed them a few photos of my last round as a blonde bombshell. The salon I go to now is bigger and has a dedicated colouriste. This makes a huge difference. She was able transform my horrible head in the space of two hours.

Then it was back in the chair with Nicolas. He spent another half hour or so trimming and styling but not cutting. It was worth it. When you’re trying to grow your hair out, a few millimeters of reshaping can make a big difference.

Later that afternoon I emerged from the salon, a new woman. Somewhat the poorer but feeling that it was worth every centime. Like Samson with his hair, I am ready to face down the lion. In fact, I’ve barely even looked in the mirror since.

Care to share any war stories about your locks, lack thereof, or latest look?

La crève

La creveJ’ai chopé la crève.

Caught a nasty cold. None of your average, run-of-the-mill sniffles for me. I do things with gusto.

Interestingly, this French slang word for ‘rhume’ finds its roots in the verb ‘crever’, meaning to pop or burst (as in a flat tire) as well as to pop one’s clogs or kick the can.

It started on Christmas Eve. A low-grade flame in the chest, nothing more. I was fine for the first couple of days, amped by holiday spirit and frequent doses of champagne and single malt. But by Monday last week I was flat out. Coughing up a storm and a head so injected with fluids I had to breathe through my mouth while applying multiple tissues to my nose. It felt like I was drowning.

I hadn’t had a cold like that in years. What the heck happened? Random bad luck or the year-end flushing out of various demons? A few days before I had been to a concert in a church, a place where I would normally never set foot unless to sightsee. I am a sucker for Christmas music, though, and was also scouting out a choir to join in the new year, one of my resolutions to do more things that bring me joy.

Next to me in the crowded church sat a woman who was snorting and hacking away, clearly in the throes of a miserable cold but oblivious to the fact that she was spreading germs while ruining the concert for others with her coughing. It is not done in France to avoid people with colds but after half an hour I couldn’t take it any more, so I got up and moved to the back. The damage was done, however, as 48 hours later I came down with the same symptoms.

The French don’t suffer sickness in silence. They run to the doctor at the first symptoms for a prescription and then to the pharmacy for a boat-load of drugs. Unfortunately they also don’t keep their cold germs to themselves. People go to work and social events with full-blown symptoms which they’d be better off hiding under a blanket for a few days.

I didn’t go to the doctor, nor take any drugs beyond a bit of paracetemol. I am no martyr but I don’t believe in miracles. La crève requires bed rest and plenty of fluids, which is what I gave it (mostly without alcohol). A week later it is almost gone.

So I am starting out the new year with renewed health, and a determination to stay that way. A couple of dry weeks, plenty of garlic and ginger, early to bed and lots of exercise. And if any of you have colds, please stay the hell away.

How’s your health this season? Please share your tricks and tips for keeping the cold germs at bay!