Sauf exception

Sauf exceptionThe first time I heard the expression ‘sauf exception’ I was sure it was a mistake. Except for exceptions? It sounded like the invention of a bureaucrat somewhere in an ivory tower, a grammatically clunky attempt to make sure there is always a way out of any situation.

Here in the land of the galls (et oui!), it is a useful phrase indeed. There are a lot of rules in France. But never fear – there are always exceptions.

You get used to hearing people say things like:

“En principe, c’est interdit, mais…” (In principle, it’s not allowed, but…”)

“Théoriquement, je n’ai pas le droit…” (“Theoretically, I’m not supposed to…”)

One exception to the exceptions – l’exception qui confirme la règle – is grammar. French is full of rules. Mostly they are unavoidable. There is the small matter of gender, verb groups and little ditties like the COD (complément d’objet direct) vs. the COI (complément d’objet indirect) that affect structure and endings.

I fought against them at first. “But surely you don’t mean that every time I say something, I have to remember whether it’s masculine or feminine?” Et oui….sauf exception. Language is one of the areas of French life with the most rules but relatively few exceptions. You just have to learn them. Suck it up and move on. And, as anyone who has ever tried to learn the language of Shakespeare can tell you, we English-speakers are in no position to complain.

When it comes to the rest, however, you learn to adapt. When we first moved to Lyon, the closest school was just two blocks away. I was thrilled until I discovered that we were in a different arrondissement, and therefore in another périmètre scolaire, whose school was much further away – and in a dingier neighbourhood. Then I learned I could request une dérogation. Both parents had to work, mother was pregnant, bla bla bla…an exception was made.

This lesson served me well. It taught me never to assume that a situation couldn’t be adapted, negotiated or remedied. And that in France, just like the whole world over, rules are meant to be broken. Sauf exception.

It seems that France has now decided to allow exceptions to the rules on Sunday and late-night openings for stores located in tourist areas. See the article in the NY Post on French opening hours. What do you think?

Bien dans mes baskets

Mes basketsWhat we call trainers, sneakers or running shoes, the French call ‘baskets’ or ‘tennis’.

Whatever you call them, I love my running shoes. I just feel good or, ‘bien dans mes baskets’, as the saying goes, whenever I wear them. Unfortunately, here in the land of Coco Chanel, that is not as often as I would like.

With a few notable exceptions, ranging from hipsters in vintage Adidas to a certain strata of society most often found at the local café-bar, French people just do not wear running shoes. Unless they are actually engaged in some form of exercise.

IMG_3905Alas, even sporty types like me can’t always get away without a bit of a heel. This is as high as I get (shoe-wise).

Since leaving the corporate world for the freelance life, I have turned my aversion for heels into an official wardrobe policy. But in case you’re imagining me lounging in my bathrobe all day, let me reassure you: I do get dressed in some form of meet-the-world apparel before going to work in my home office each morning. My footwear, however, remains informal.

I have now acquired quite the collection of what I consider stylish flat shoes (French women may consider that an oxymoron). Let me share with you some of my favorites.

Boots by Arche

When I first came to France I fell in love with the sleek, space-age shoes from Arche. I only have one old pair now, but I still wear them when I want to feel like a character out of Star Trek.




Then there is Mephisto, another French brand. I love these shoes, “Hand-made by master shoemakers”. They are not the most beautiful or fashionable style-wise but they are incredibly comfortable. I’ve been wearing these sandals for three summers now.

Mephisto sandals








While in Berlin last year I discovered these shoes called Nimble Toes. I fell in love with them and bought two pairs. They are cute and comfortable but I must admit, they do make me feel a bit like I have clown feet.

Nimble Toes







These ones are my go-to shoes for around the house. Josef Seibel. I think they’re also German.

Josef Siebel








I have a longstanding love of the Birkenstock and other shoes bordering on the orthopedic. This was one thing that my Belle-mère, who was very accepting of my foreign ways, could not understand. She was slim of ankle and always wore elegant shoes, putting beauty before comfort – a true Française. My daughter, who has no aversion to heights, may have inherited this gene.

What are your favorite shoes? Are you ‘bien dans tes baskets?’

Les souvenirs

Mini Toothbrush DispenserWhen you think of souvenirs, you probably think of kitschy items like snow globes, seashell picture frames or Eiffel Tower key chains. I remember how important such mementos were to the kids when they were small. That coveted item, shark’s tooth or baseball cap, took pride of place on their dresser before being relegated to the memory boxes that still gather dust in our basement.

Now, our souvenirs tend to be digital. These bits of digital flotsam and jetsam that help us to remember where we were and when, what we did and chose to record. A photo shared on Facebook or emailed to family members, an update or a post about something we saw.

Thinking back on our holiday in Corsica two years ago, this unlikely image came to mind. On a scale of importance, how would you rate a mini-toothbrush dispenser in a restaurant bathroom? It seemed incongruous to say the least, given the French propensity for strong flavours in food and cigarettes (although perhaps those things offer an explanation for the market niche). But given the low priority dental hygiene is generally afforded in France, it was unexpected.

It went against all reasonable expectations of things you would find aux toilettes: Condoms, feminine hygiene supplies, even cigarettes all struck me as more plausible items compared to the (relative) superfluity of a mini-toothbrush dispenser. Presumably it was designed for date nights, as nothing kills the mood more than garlic breath or a bit of spinach in the teeth!

Even odder was the attempt to turn the experience of brushing one’s teeth into a mood memory, with choices ranging from ‘sexy’ to ‘pensive’. I did not try the machine, so cannot say whether the prepared brush with its dollop of toothpaste provided a satisfying experience. I tried to find out more about these dispensers through the usual search methods, by Google only rendered a link to a patent describing the invention, and one other in Le Parisien, mentioning the introduction of the machines to certain restaurants.

As souvenirs go, this photo was hardly emblematic of our stay on the beautiful island, which is why it was relegated to a folder of B-roll pictures. But the image stayed with me as a souvenir in the French sense: a memory, something you take away from an experience that lingers in your mind like a perfume.

Et toi? What is your most unusual souvenir of a summer holiday?

Beauty and the beast


Our summer holidays aren’t until September this year. Meanwhile, I find myself dreaming of Corsica, where we went two years ago. Here’s a reblog of my post about the French island of beauty.

Originally posted on FranceSays:

IMG_1267They call it ‘l’île de beauté’. But beauty is only half of the story. Here’s why Corsica is the preferred vacation spot of the French…and why it took me twenty years to get there.

When the rest of the world descends upon the south of France, the French flee to their most cherished summer vacation spot: la Corse. Situated just above Sardinia, the rugged Mediterranean island is actually closer to Italy than France, and the Corsican language resonates like Italian.

For years friends have been urging me to visit Corsica. “C’est magnifique…You won’t regret it….Small, private beaches….Perfect weather….Wild and uninhabited…Food that combines the best of French and Italian.” Hmm…sounds like my kind of vacation place. In fact, with so much going for it, I’m not sure what was holding us back.

Actually, I do. My husband. He had a very negative preconception about les Corses. Macho types…

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The Ballad of the Keukenrolhouder


Whether it’s Paris or Amsterdam, life as an expat is all about small victories. Paper towel holders and all!

Originally posted on Terrifically Lost:


This is the story of a paper towel holder. Or, as it’s known here in the Netherlands, a keukenrolhouder (literally, a “kitchen towel holder”). We have spent the past three months searching for this simple, humble item. We hit up every home goods or cooking store we’ve stumbled across, not just in Amsterdam but in Haarlem, Maastricht, and Utrecht. We scoured every corner of IKEA: nothing. We even considered trying to make one ourselves. And all that time, our sad, untethered roll of paper towels skitted and slid across our counter-top, sometimes falling over, or messily unrolling itself.

Then, finally, we discovered, the local equivalent of Amazon. And even though the site is only in Dutch or Belgian, we managed to search, locate, order, and arrange shipment of the keukenrolhouder! It arrived today. I am disproportionately happy about the appearance of this item in my kitchen.

It hasn’t been…

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