Grossir. The big, fat truth.

Fat catIt’s not pretty. In fact, it may be the least desirable word in the French language. Even less attractive than ‘moche’ and that’s ugly.

‘Grossir’. Oh, the indignity of it! To gain weight, aka ‘grossir’ or ‘prendre du poids’ is the obsession (‘la hantise’) of French women and many French men. Being able to zip up those slim jeans is what keeps the majority of the population in this country on the straight and narrow, at least between vacations and end-of-year fêtes.

The adjective for big, ‘gros’ (or grosse in the feminine form), shares the same roots as that for the vulgar and unrefined. Foul language is called ‘grossier’. I suppose that’s where we get the word ‘gross’ in English – and also the slang expression to ‘gross out’ or disgust someone.

The only acceptable reason to grossir in France is to become gross with child. La grossesse transforms the word into something elegant, even beautiful. But even then it’s something that must be strictly managed.

My babies were both big, and so was my weight gain. I remember one woman asking me, “And your doctor allows you to put on that much weight?” I was stymied by the question. What on earth had my doctor got to do with it? I just ate healthily and figured nature would take its course. But the other expectant mamans worried about their weight gain, wanting to avoid a longer or more difficult delivery at all costs.

I used to be called petite. Mostly because I’m on the short side (5’2”). But even before middle age spread caught up with me, I never fit into French clothing. My body type is all wrong – too big of bone and heavy of limb. Even French shoes don’t fit. German, Swiss, Italian…but not French.

Everything here is on a smaller scale. People and parking spots. There are no supersize menus, no jumbo snack packs and few plus-size shops. The fact is, there is no culture in this country for big.

That is not to say that French woman don’t get fat. Bien sûr qui si! You can’t live in a country filled with gourmet foods and little fitness culture and never gain weight. That’s a myth that’s sold a lot of books.

As much as they love the good things in life, the French care deeply about appearances: elegance, refinement and la ligne. That sells a lot of diet pills, miracle cures and crazy weight loss schemes. None of which works, at least for long.

My late Belle-mère spent much of her life trying to stay slim. She tried everything: pills, Weight Watchers (which she pronounced ‘what-ay-wha-chairs’), even joining a gym. Her diets and exercise regimens worked for awhile but she inevitably yo-yoed back to being a little rounder than she was comfortable with. I only wish she could have found a happy place with her weight. A balance where she enjoyed life, remained active and most importantly, felt good about herself.

French woman do get fat. But they fight it. Mostly they do this by balancing out the weekend’s excesses with a slimmer regime during the week. By avoiding dessert, not snacking, staying active (although not necessarily exercising per se). It’s really about balance and moderation. And a refusal to let bulge creep in.

This summer the good life got the better of me. Not by much. But on my so-called petite frame, a few pounds makes a huge difference. For me, it’s not so much how I look as how I feel, which is gross in every sense of the word. So I’m stepping up the exercise and cutting back on the treats. At least until I feel good about myself again.

Nothing drastic, mind you. Life is too short not to enjoy a daily glass of wine or a slice of cheese, preferably both.

Et vous? How do you feel about your weight or attitudes towards weight in general?

Aucune idée

Hollande hasn't got a clue

Hollande hasn’t got a clue

I have no idea why French President François Hollande is making this face. It could be for any number of reasons.

Perhaps he’s reacting to a question about his popularity. Or lack of. It could be a response to his ex’s new book, in which Valérie Trierweiler casts aspersions not on his sexual prowess so much as his true sentiments towards the poor classes. Someone should have told her that living well is the best revenge, not writing about it. Then again, Hollande should have known that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

But I know what he meant. This face, and its expression, is familiar to anyone who’s ever lived in France. It’s the face fart, or universal expression for ‘aucune idée’ – I haven’t got a clue. And a clue is just what this fellow does not have, it seems, as his popularity slides further into oblivion.

It’s just one of several ways to speak French in sign language. Which gesture is your favorite?

I must confess to a certain penchant for the doigt d’honneur. And I’d be willing to bet it’s a certain former first lady’s too.

La rentrée: We’re back!

Ready for his first ‘rentrée’: my son, Elliott, in the early 90s.

Ready for his first ‘rentrée’: my son, Elliott, in the early 90s.

It’s been more years that I care to remember since I went back to school. Also quite a few since I took my kids for their first day of école maternelle. But every year in the first week of September, I get that back-to-school buzz. It feels like the real start of the year.

‘La rentrée des classes’ heralds much more than just the start of a new school year in France. It’s the rentrée for a whole new schedule of radio and television programs, sporting activities and holidays. It’s also the return of political infighting, strikes and tax bills. We got off to a running start this year, with the entire government under Manuel Valls resigning at the end of August.

The school calendar, set by l’Education Nationale, provides the structure and framework for French life.

French school calendar 2014-2015

French school calendar 2014-2015

France is divided into 3 zones: A, B, and C. This is supposed to help control the chaos on the roads when everyone heads for the ski slopes in February. I like being in zone A, mostly because Paris is in zone C. That means fewer traffic jams for us, although we still get stuck in the stream of vacationers on their way to and from their holiday destinations.

Spreading out the school breaks helps ensure a profitable few months for the resorts during ‘les petites vacances’ in the fall, winter and spring. The year-end break at Christmas and ‘les grandes vacances‘ in the summer are the same for all.

The French returned in droves from summer vacation last weekend. There are always the inevitable ‘tardataires’ (late-comers) who must stay away until the last possible moment, but the poor weather this year added to their number as people delayed their departure in hopes of sunnier skies.

The lineups at les grandes surfaces (shopping centers) were long as parents jockeyed to get that last item for the long list of school supplies. They don’t really have to have everything on the first day, of course, but we all have such a sense of fear and awe for the educational system in this country that we daren’t send our children to school without that heavy cartable loaded down with every item the teacher has indicated will be essential for the school year. We are talking about hundreds of sheets of loose leaf paper, whose squares must be of a defined size and color, a specified number of pens and pencils and rulers and erasers and notebooks of various types. In primary school you must add gym slippers and coveralls for art class. Pity the poor parents desperately seeking to satisfy the list. I remember it well. And am feeling just a tad…nostalgic for those lost years.

So today I will go to the local papéterie (paper shop) and buy myself several of my favorite writing tools: fine-point pens and sharp pencils and bright notebooks. Just for old time’s sake.

What’s your fondest memory of going back to school? Or was it rather ‘school’s out for summer?’

Poopville

IMG_1726

Our Frenchies fooled by trompe l’oeil

Before you say, “Another post about poop?” or “Will she ever get her mind out of the gutter?” allow me to apologize. Ever since posting ‘Merde alors!’ and various tributes to all things Swiss, it seems I can’t stop talking about poop. But I swear – juré, craché – this will be the last one from the toilet bowl.

Owning two dogs, (shown opposite during a walk over the border), means that I am frequently faced with the dog poop dilemma. To scoop or not to scoop? In France, outside of cities like Paris and Lyon, there is no law or rule requiring you to do so. But rules of common courtesy apply, so stoop and scoop I do, at least when it lands on anyone’s lawn or sidewalk or anywhere that could possibly be problematic.

French bulldogs are a considerate breed who often, for dignity’s sake, drop their drawers under a hedge, deep in the bush or over the sewer grate. In which case I blithely leave the scene of the grime. But it also happens that the urge comes upon them by a manicured lawn or on a crowded street. Then I do my best to clear up the mess. Sometimes one does get caught sans sac, though, especially in France. When I make my frequent forays across the border to civilization (ie, Switzerland), I discreetly stuff a few extra poop bags in my pocket.

Recently out and about in the touristy town of Yvoire, I discovered a rarity in France: a stack of poop bags provided for the convenience of pet owners. Of which there are un certain nombre in this country, as I posted in Avoir du Chien.

Here, my friends, is everything that is wrong with this country.

French Poop bagThe bag is an example of French innovation. Cleverly designed, costly, and utterly impractical. Both to use, and to provide. It’s made of recycled and biodegradable paper, with a heavy cardboard flap and 4-color instructions printed on one side. A stack of 10 took up all the room that was available in the distributor. I took two (for my two pups), leaving eight. How far will that go?

Furthermore, it’s not easy to scoop the poops with the cardboard – warning: we are entering the TMI zone – the compact turds my pets produce tend to roll away; the occasional semi-liquid messes would soak right through!

The good old plastic bag, placed over one’s hand like a glove to pick up les crottes, then flipped over and knotted, is far easier to use. Cheap to produce and compact to store. And it ties so neatly around the leash!

Surprisingly, it’s not easy to find the things online. I’ve tried, and inevitably get bags that are too small, prone to tearing (yuck!) and clearly not biodegradable.

So that’s my scoop on the poop. What’s yours?

Petit nègre

Petite annonce mal écriteThis note turned up in our mailbox last week, along with the usual jumble of ads from takeaways and real estate agents. (The latter despite the ‘pas de publicité’ injunction displayed loud and clear above our names.)

I was horrified. Not just by the lack of spelling and grammar but by the fact that someone might think that this is the way to find a job.

What does it say about the candidate?

  1. She’s a ‘young’ female student, 21 years old (Questionable, but you don’t technically become an ‘étudiante’ in France until university)
  2. French is not her first language (and clearly, she’s not a language student)
  3. She’s willing to do household labor during the month of August

Those are the facts. But to me it also says that this young woman has no sense of presentation, and presumably doesn’t care about detail. Not exactly the ideal candidate, even for house cleaning.

The ad reminded me of the importance of presenting oneself professionally at all times, no matter what your level on the job ladder. It also spoke to how very French I’ve become in my attitudes towards language. To be able to express oneself correctly in simple written French seems to me the absolute minimum prerequisite for a job in this country.

My French wasn’t that great, either, when I first put together my résumé and started knocking on doors. All the more reason to make sure my CV contained no spelling or grammar mistakes. Okay, I had a little help from husband. But these days, anyone with access to a computer can use spell check.

There is a proverb in French that says: “Les paroles s’envolent, les écrits restent.” Meaning that while the spoken word vanishes into thin air, anything you put in writing has a way of sticking around. It’s one thing to make mistakes when you speak French – that’s understandable for any non-native. A mistake in writing is far more shocking.

There’s also an expression to describe someone who speaks or writes in pidgin English. It’s called petit nègre, and it’s also a kind of creole from the French colonies.

Here is a corrected version of the ad text. Compare the original and see how many mistakes you can find:

“Jeune étudiante, 21 ans, cherche travail pour le mois d’août, repassage, ménage, baby-sitter.”

I count at least 8.

How about you? Would you hire this person? Do spelling mistakes and typos matter to you? Or is literacy over-rated?