Fermeture annuelle

Anyone who has spent time in France is familiar with these words: ‘Fermeture annuelle’ or ‘Congés d’été’. Usually on a scrap of paper stuck behind a closed shop window. Most family-run businesses in France close for an annual month of holidays in July or August, which can leave tourists gasping in astonishment.

The epitome of frustration for me was discovering the August closure of Berthillon, the most famous ice cream place in Paris. When an ice cream vendor closes in the summer, presumably its busiest period, it becomes clear that they are not in it for the money. Or not just for the money. Quality of life and the sacrosanct summer holidays are of at least equal importance.

This takes some getting used to, especially for North Americans. The idea of a shop closing its doors for an entire month is inconceivable to our way of thinking. The loss of business for the owners, the boon for the competition, the complete lack of concern for its customers. None of these things seem to worry the French. The customers will be back in September – meanwhile, the beach beckons.

But, as has been pointed out to me, I have been in France for a very long time. And I’ve discovered that a summer holiday is good for the soul. This year I’ve decided to take a blogging break. I’ll still be around – reading, reblogging and dropping in from time to time, but I’ll give my regular updates a rest for the summer.

In the meantime, let’s hear what you are up to this summer. Ant or grasshopper?

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Swedish for ‘I’ll kill you’

Ikea GuyI used to read a column in the newspaper called “Can this marriage be saved?” Both halves of a troubled couple would tell their side of the story, then the marriage counsellor would pronounce an opinion as to whether or not the relationship could survive, and what needed to be done. It was pop psychology at its poppest. Needless to say, I ate it up.

I have never felt the need for this kind of advice. I know my marriage can survive. I know it because we have survived the true test, the only one that matters. My husband and I have survived – you guessed it: Ikea.

Labor and childbirth, bringing up two kids, multiple cats and dogs, an international move, teaching me to drive a standard – all of this pales in comparison to the stress of the ultimate relationship test: Shopping for, loading and assembling furniture from the retailer whose ad campaign – ‘Swedish for common sense’ – I long ago transformed into: ‘Swedish for I’ll kill you.’

Not only have we survived Ikea, we have done it on two continents and in two different languages. No, make that three – we’ve also shopped Ikea in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

In our early days, we went there because we had no money. We urgently needed a fold-out bed that was cheap without breaking his mother’s back – Ikea was there. Then we needed a Billy bookcase because, well, we’re both readers – there were books. Whenever in the store we discovered we needed a whole bunch of bizarrely named items. Ektorp. Kvarnvik. Tidafors.

Then we needed a crib. Heavily pregnant, we schlepped through Ikea in Toronto. Biblical thoughts ran through my head: “She grew hungry in Kitchens, broke waters in Bathrooms, lay down in Bedrooms.”

Our different navigating styles became evident as I instinctively sought the shortcuts (long before they became official, going against the flow of packed humanity). He followed the official routes while moaning and complaining about the whole thing. Ikea for me was a challenge, for him it was plain old suffering.

Our different approaches became even more apparent when it came to loading the car. I wanted to strategize the trunk and figure out a plan, but before I could even think he had shoved it all in (what can I say, it’s a male thing!).

And our differences came to a head when it was time to assemble the f**ing things. While I methodically sorted the various parts, he had the main frame assembled and had thrown out boxes and instructions. Inevitably, there were tensions. We would be missing a screw (I always knew this to be true about myself) or some other essential widget. He would become furious about Ikea and its crap quality, swearing never to return. I would go back by myself the next day, swearing never to allow him access to a screwdriver again.

The crib got assembled. I did not give birth in Bedrooms. Miraculously, our furniture stood straight. Some of it has lasted as long as our marriage.

I have learned how to make the most of our differences. I let him do the heavy work while I hide the instructions and save them in a file. I shop by myself and just ask for his help in unloading the car. Solo, in my Micra, 5’2’’ of determination, I have managed to transport entire wardrobes. Where there’s a will, there’s a woman.

In the latest chapter of my love-hate Ikea relationship, the dog left his mark upon a footstool where the cat was lording it up. I felt love for the Swedes when I saw that the cover was removable and washable. Then I saw how (insert that word again) hard it was to remove the thing, ripping my cuticles in the process. Mostly husband is way more patient than me. And he has stronger hands. So when I washed the cover of the *unpronounceable name* he promised to put it back on for me when it was dry, then promptly forgot and left for the week. I waited three days and then decided to do it myself (did I mention patience is not my virtue?)

If he could do it, I could do it. First, I put on one corner. This did not work, as it would not stretch to fit the other corners. I tugged and I pulled and it started to rip. I cursed and I swore and examined my bloodied cuticles.

I reasoned the technique was just to get it over the entire frame more or less straight, then fix the seams. I did this, congratulating myself on the triumph of rational thinking. Then I tried to fix the velcro. It was upside down. I cursed and swore a bit more. Arv! Flört! Kortvarig!

Sometimes people ask: after so many years in France, which language do you curse in? Both, of course. And occasionally, in Ikea.

What’s your most memorable Ikea moment?

Le plombier Polonais

Polish Plumber Tour EiffelHave you seen the Polish plumber lately? Let me reassure you: he is alive and well and living in France. The Polish plumber came to life in a cartoon published in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo back in 2004. He came to represent everything the French fear most about Europe: unfair competition from cheap East European labour. Le plombier Polonais emerged from the rhetoric as a terrifying idea:

Imagine, a Polish plumber decides to come to work in France. What will become of French plumbers?

The Polish plumber and his cohorts are back in the news again – with the Greeks on the verge of exiting the EU and the Brits about to vote on their future in it. In France, the latest demon is the ‘Uberization’ of French taxis, which will also bring about the certain demise of its trains and buses. Clearly, we need to stop all forms of progress in order to protect the over-taxed and under-worked French system.

Anyone who has ever tried to find a workman in France can attest to the fact that a little competition can only be a good thing. Case in point: I’ve been trying to get some blinds installed on the south-facing side of my house to protect us from the summer sun. I began in March, signed the quote and left a hefty deposit in April. Last week, after begging and cajoling, I reverted to a threat: if the blinds were not installed this month, I would cancel the order. They called back with a date for end of next week.

We also needed some painting done in our basement. Of course we could do it ourselves, but neither husband nor self are particularly handy. I contacted a company that has done various small jobs for us in the past. They provided a quote the next day, then informed me of a date in mid-June, apologizing for being too busy to start immediately. They came when promised with no reminders on my part.

Plombier Polonais

The Polish plumber became a cheeky tourism campaign for that country. Clever Poles!

The man who runs this business in Polish. He is a charming fellow, although unfortunately he looks nothing like the poster from the tourism office. Monsieur V. hires his labour from the home country and supervises the workers in his native tongue. So I have Polish painters, if not plumbers. They were here first thing yesterday and stayed until 8:00 last night to finish the first part of the job. He has built his business up to a point where his easily identifiable if atrociously decorated vehicles can be seen at job sites all over our area. This leads me to think he must play by the rules and pay the Polish workers a fair wage and benefits in keeping with French law.

This kind of competition should be a wake-up call for the French. Unfortunately it is simply another reason to curse the EU and go out on strike.

Et vous? What’s your experience with the Polish plumber – or his equivalent?

Faire la gueule

Faire la gueleIf there is one thing the French do very well it is this. When they are annoyed by something or someone – a traffic jam, a strike, a colleague who is insufferably ignorant. ‘Faire la gueule’ is a very French way to express one’s discontent – without uttering a single word.

It is not always quite so obvious as grumpy cat. Sometimes it’s the absence of a smile (or even the hint of a smile), a subtle hardening of the facial muscles into a form of repressed anger that hints of extreme distaste. I have witnessed this countless times in daily life in France, where a dispute between family members, neighbours and former friends can go on for months, even years. The only outward sign of this war may be in the form of the facial expression. No words will be directly exchanged with the erring party, possibly ever again, although meaningful comments may be made indirectly through others. But rare is the Frenchman who will take the bull by the horns and air his or her, ahem, beef.

This is entirely different from the English way of doing things. (By English, of course, I mean English in the broad sense including all of us Canucks, Yanks, Aussies, Kiwis, etc.). We may disagree but no matter how we feel about the other person, we will likely smile and be polite. In fact, the more we dislike the other person, the bigger the smile will be. That is something the French abhor about the English, as they consider it insincere or ‘faux cul’.

‘Faire la gueule’ means, literally, to make a face. To be in a bad mood, to sulk or generally be unhappy.

‘Avoir de la gueule’, oddly enough, means to look nice or attractive.

Both of these expressions are slang and should be used with caution by non-native speakers. Be wary of any expression including the word ‘gueule’. Officially designating the snout of an animal, when applied to a human being it is one of the worst insults in the French language. In fact, if you hear a French person say, “Ta gueule!” you may wish to flee immediately. Fur is going to fly. All it really means is ‘shut up!’ But it is considered the height of rudeness.

SunflowersI have also heard the expression used to describe wilting flowers. “Tes fleurs font la gueule.” Oh dear. If even the flowers can sulk in France, we are in trouble.

Have you ever seen this expression on a French person’s face? Or have you ever made it yourself?

Le monde à l’envers

Beach handstandThis is what you say in France when a situation is entirely contrary to the way you think it should be. “C’est le monde à l’envers!” Or another way of saying the same thing: “On marche sur la tête!”

I am tempted to say it is a useful phrase in France – but that would be a cheap shot, undeserving of this blog. Not to mention entirely mostly untrue. If you are sensitive to these small ironies, you will notice them everywhere you go.

Full disclosure: I had to google the definition of irony to make sure I wasn’t using it wrong. Ironically, considering what follows, one of the definitions of the word refers to Greek tragedy.

“A literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.”

Some readers will know that last week found me in Greece on holidays. Leaving behind the changing skies of the Alps, I had every hope of a solid week of sunshine. Instead, this is what happened:

Weather à l'envers

Le monde à l’envers !

I went to visit the Acropolis, the birthplace of civilization, where I was surprised to find readily available public toilets – modern, clean and free. Le monde à l’envers? Perhaps not. It was quite civilized, so that’s just how it should be.

Although in contrast to what is usually available in France, it certainly felt that way.

I took several taxis in Athens and each time the driver spoke no English and had no idea where I was going. I had to show him a map on my phone, which did not seem to help much. Then he would pass me his cell phone to speak to another person who spoke a little English but still had no idea where I wanted to go. All the while driving and texting on a tablet-size device to figure out where to go.

A note on Athens taxi drivers: avoid them. The metro is much more efficient, if rather hot.

I love Greece – it was my third time in that country. It was my first time in Athens, however, and I was a little overwhelmed by the sheer density and size of the metropolis. It was also my first time on the island of Kythnos, a beautiful spot. I will be back. By the way, the sun came out after a day of disruption.

And there is nothing ironic about that.

Where have you been lately? Was it how you expected or le monde à l’envers?