La Fête des Morts

IMG_2582‘La Toussaint’ or All Saints’ Day, often referred to in France as ‘La fête des morts’, is a public holiday held on November 1st in commemoration of the dead.

Strange, the cultural differences around this day. ‘Fêter’ means to celebrate but there’s not much festivity in the air. The month of November tends to be gloomy in France and chrysanthemums add about the only color at the cemetery. November really is about honoring, or at least remembering, the dead (followed by Remembrance Day on Nov. 11).

In English-speaking countries, Hallowe’en is the main event: an irreverent but fun-loving ghoul-fest. It is a death-defying, joke-ridden time for everyone from teens to tots to dress up, gorge on candy and shout “Trick or treat, smell my feet, I want something good to eat.”

I’m disappointed that Hallowe’en has never really taken off in France. I like the idea of a special day to honor our dearly departed, but I wish it could happen in a joyful way. To put, as one of my most beloved television comedy characters* once said, the ‘fun’ into funeral.

Remembering those we have lost should be a happy time of shared memories and jokes, of laughter with tears. It doesn’t mean we’re not sad that they’re gone. It means that life is for the living, and deserving of celebration. That those very people we are honouring would probably have wished for us to remember them with a smile.

And at this time of year especially, I could use a jack-o-lantern jolt of brightness and fun. November is my least favorite month of the year. My hypochondriac anxieties tend to rear their ugly head and I become convinced of my impending demise. Perhaps it’s the looming winter that gets me down, as the days grow shorter and darkness falls early. Whatever it is, Hallowe’en has always worked to cheer me up and banish the evil spirits.

DSC00241When my kids were small, we decorated the house, carved a pumpkin or two, loaded up on candy and went trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. There were quite a few families with young children in our village near Lyon, and for awhile it felt like the event was catching on.

But it seems to have fizzled out lately, at least in our parts. The French look upon Hallowe’en as an American import, not really belonging to their culture. Fun for the wee ones, perhaps, but badly timed: it falls in the middle of the Toussaint school holidays when many people go away.

Whether you’re commemorating your dearly departed at the cemetery or warding off the evil spirits in full ghost and goblins regalia, may it be with joy. Wherever you are, and whoever you have lost, may this day bring you fond remembrance.

What about you? How do you celebrate Hallowe’en or All Saints’ Day? Party or bouquet of flowers?

Liz Smith as Nana*Nana, played by the excellent Liz Smith in The Royle Family

All Crete to me

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After a week on the beautiful isle of Crete, I’ve revised the expression ‘It’s all Greek to me’ to mean something completely different. And I simply must share a few of the things that are all Crete to me. One … Continue reading

It’s all Greek to me

Kitschy door to a public toilet on Iguana Beach in Crete

Kitschy public toilet on Iguana Beach in Crete

I’ve been wanting to say that for a long time. Ever since I arrived in France and found myself floundering in a sea of incomprehension. But something always seemed to get lost in translation. Until I figured out that it’s not Greek but Chinese that describes what the French find impossible to understand. ‘C’est du Chinois?’ I’m sorry but that just sounds wrong.

Spending a week on the island of Crete is the perfect excuse to finally use the expression. We’re here catching a week of sun and making up for the summer that wasn’t in France. Also the vacation we didn’t find time to take. By ‘vacation’ I mean going away to a place with nothing more urgent to do than sit on a deck chair and watch the waves roll in. And decide what to order for lunch.

So here we are in boutique-hotel heaven on the western part of the island near Chania (pronounced ‘HAH-nea’), enjoying mostly sunny skies and warm but not sweltering temperatures. Where they serve delicious, heart-healthy Cretan diet food and excellent local wines – meaning you can eat and drink to your heart’s delight knowing that any weight you gain will be chock full of omega 3’s and antioxidants. Rest assured, I’m sporting the healthiest of belly rolls.

The crowd at our hotel is a mixed bag – Nordic, German, Swiss, French, Brits and the odd North American transplant like me. Everybody speaks an English of varying accents, including the staff, who are Greek and Turkish. I love the fact that English is the default language that enables people from such different cultures to communicate, even on such a mundane level as ‘Please pass the olive oil’, or ‘May I have an extra beach towel?’

And I find myself doing that thing I do. Where I become a sponge for other people’s verbal tics, speaking with an unfamiliar accent or an oddly European intonation. I’m convinced it’s a form of empathy that makes me do this. Either that or an odd desire to parrot.

I first noticed this when I began to speak French. It was as if the process of learning a foreign tongue made me temporarily lose my own. I found myself stuttering to get words out in my native language, or worse, employing French grammatical constructions in English: “She is the sister of my mother,” I explained to someone who asked about my aunt. He gave me a puzzled look. “You mean your mother’s sister?”

Sometimes my English sounded like a bad translation: “I am desolate,” I would say by way of apology, literally translating ‘je suis désolée’ from French. It wasn’t intentional – it just came out that way. I remember feeling very silly after being introduced to someone and popping out ‘I’m enchanted.’ While ‘Je suis enchantée’ may be perfectly correct in French, it sounds more than a little dated in English.

Whatever the reason, being surrounded by foreign languages leaves me temporarily at a loss for words. Which is probably just as well. It is so incredibly beautiful here that words seem redundant. Even the Greek ones with all those strange characters that defy description. You just want to lay back and watch the waves roll in. Wriggle your toes in the sand. And forget about all the things you don’t understand.

Capisce?

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Gun shy

Reserve_de_chasseIt’s that time of year again: ‘La Chasse’ as it’s called around here. Hunting season. Leash your pets and beware of stray bullets if you go off the beaten path for a walk in the woods in France.

This time last year I posted about the perils of living in a culture of guns (which generated quite the lively debate in the comments!). I still believe that hunting is a better use of weapons than war or holdups, but still – Je me sens toute petite – I feel completely powerless in the presence of men with guns. Because hunting is, at least in these parts, an almost exclusively male pursuit.

It’s hard to argue with a centuries-old tradition that still puts food on the table. Le gibier (game) is considered a delicacy by many French people, and enjoyed as part of the autumnal menu. But every year there are accidents, some tragic. In my husband’s family, an uncle was killed some years ago by (un)friendly fire from one of his own hunting party in Normandy.

So, if you see signs like this one, beware. A hunting they will go, quite possibly just steps from where you’re walking the dog.

I must admit that while I do eat meat I am not a huge fan of le gibier, which is rather strong tasting. What about you? Are you game for game?

Mousse au chocolat: My deep, dark secret

Mousse au chocolat recipeI was always nervous about anything involving egg whites. Even separating eggs seemed beyond me, having watched my mother fuss over a metal device which seemed to make the whole process rather complicated.

Then I met my husband. Separate eggs? Nothing simpler. He just broke the egg and poured it into his hand, capturing the yoke in his palm and letting the egg white run into the bowl below. Let me reassure any clean freaks in the audience: he washed his hands before (and after) performing this egg-cellent feat.

Need to beat egg whites to stiff peaks? No problem. He would take a whisk and a large bowl, add a pinch of salt and then bang those babies to attention. It does take a few minutes and a good arm, which probably explains why I could never manage it – having neither patience nor skill.

I’ve retained the egg-separating trick and now have a mixer to do the egg whites. So, without further ado, here is how you make the best damn chocolate mousse ever.

This recipe is supposed to serve six. It reminds me of another one of my mother’s expressions: “What do they mean? Six midgets?” Suffice it to say that if you are of sound of body and healthy of appetite, and have a sweet tooth, it can also serve four.

I was amazed to discover there are only 3 ingredients (although the eggs are used in two ways) and absolutely no cooking involved. All you need is very fresh eggs and good chocolate.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablet of dark chocolate – 200 grams
  • 6 Eggs
  • 1 Pinch of salt

Directions:

  1. Melt chocolate in double boiler or on cooktop at lowest heat, then let cool (Use a microwave if you must – personally I dislike this method)
  2. Separate eggs; retain yolks in a medium glass bowl
  3. Add salt to egg whites and beat until they form stiff peaks
  4. Gradually add cooled melted chocolate into egg yolks, stirring well
  5. Using a spatula, gently fold egg whites into chocolate mixture in three batches. Careful not to make the whites fall!
  6. Refrigerate at least 3 hours.
  7. Serve chilled

P.S. My deep dark secret is that recipe is not mine: it’s the one on the back of the Nestlé Dessert Noir.

What’s your favorite dessert, homemade or otherwise? Are you a dab hand with a whisk?