Dépôts sauvages

People are pigs. That’s what I thought when I saw this pile of waste by the side of the road on my morning run last Sunday. On an otherwise scenic road just next to the woods by the lake. Sadly, examples of littering or illegal dumping are all too common in the fields, forests and country lanes of rural France.

All over France you see warnings against dumping or ‘dépôts sauvages’, sometimes accompanied by signs threatening steep fines. They seem to have little effect. Often you see a sign like this one, just next to a pile of rubbish that somebody couldn’t be bothered to take to the dump.

Sometimes they set it on fire. To help it decompose or to burn the evidence?

One mayor got so annoyed by seeing the recycling bins in his town swamped with junk that he took the initiative to track the owners and ‘return to sender’ as the song goes and this report explains.

In the Île-de-France region outside of Paris is a massive dumping ground that locals have been lobbying to get cleaned up with no result. It’s private land, which means years of legal steps before the authorities will take action. In the meantime, toxic waste like asbestos from building materials leaches into the surrounding soil and groundwater.

It is easy to conclude that people are pigs. They are often lazy, selfish and completely oblivious to the impact of their actions. But we still need to figure out a solution to prevent it or clean it up. So I ask myself: why do people dump their waste rather than take it to the ‘déchetterie’?

The problem in France is that the official dumps require that locals produce proof of residency in order to access them. Professionals like contractors are supposed to pay to dump their waste. Also, you need a car. Not everyone who lives outside of cities can drive. So that old mattress ends up by the recycling bins.

So what’s the answer? Clearly we can’t to put video cameras on each corner or policemen on every country byway. I see two potential solutions.

  1. Find another way of financing the dumps so that anyone can go there, regardless of where they live or whether they are individuals or professionals. Do it with an ‘eco-tax’ on building materials, or via a combined contribution from property owners and the tourist tax that is levied on every rental or hotel stay.
  2. Arrange monthly pickups of larger items with the garbage collection. They do this just across the border in Switzerland, where every second Thursday (or something like that) you are allowed to put large items out for collection at the curb. Hint: if anyone is looking for good recycled stuff, do a quick tour of Swiss city streets before the garbage trucks on special pickup days.

When I checked again the other day, the mess by the side of our road was gone. The local authorities must have removed it right away as they know from painful experience that such dumping tends to multiply faster than a you can say ‘pas de dépôt sauvage’.

What do you think about such ‘wild deposits’?

Giboulées de mars

The sky grows dark. The wind picks up. The temperature drops. A few fat drops blow down at an odd angle, turning to freezing rain. Just as quickly, the sun pokes through the clouds. A few minutes later, the patches of wet are drying on the ground.

And then the cycle starts again. Sometimes several times a day.

March is famous for its ‘giboulées’, less thrillingly known as showers in English. They can happen anytime as we transition from winter to spring. I’ve even seen this unstable weather last almost until summer.

I don’t mind it so much. It reminds us that better days are coming. It brings needed water for the gardens. It seems, in a world gone mad, an entirely normal rite of passage in the change of seasons.

If, as the saying goes, April showers bring May flowers, it all happens a lot earlier in France. Some of the flowers are already out in the lower altitudes of the Haute Savoie, and things are much further along in the south.

According to Météo France, our venerated weather experts, the giboulée phenomenon is due to a contrast of colder air above and warmer air below, and the instability of the atmosphere in between. Here you go with the whole story explained in detail (in French):

As you can see we take our weather seriously around here.

This situation of instability strikes me as somehow fitting. As the Brits waffle over whether to stay or go, on what terms and when, as improbable skirmishes and political polarizations seemingly become more extreme around the world each day, I watch the skies above at their most turbulent and enjoy this meteorological drama. It seems safer and far more predictable than the human kind.

Just a few more days until it’s officially spring, mes amis.

What does the change of seasons mean to you?

La campagne

It’s the mud on your shoes. The smell of manure heavy in the air. The green and yellow waves of densely planted fields. The baa-ing of sheep, the cackle of hens and the incessant crowing of roosters. Yep, this is the ode of an adopted country girl, folks.

I first discovered the countryside shortly after arriving in Paris. The irony of a Canadian coming to France and getting back to nature escaped me completely at the time. I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, a very big city. There were no farms nearby. The closest I ever came to a cow was at the fair. Eggs came from the store in pristine white shells from which any trace of chicken shit had been removed.

Imagine my surprise in discovering that that just outside of la capitale are huge farm fields, pastoral landscapes dotted with cows and orchards. The drive from Paris to Evreux in Normandy, where my husband’s family are from, only takes an hour and a half. Driving out of the city, you quickly leave the urban sprawl behind.

France is defined by its countryside: pastoral landscapes, rolling green pastures, vineyards, fields of rapeseed, lavender and sunflower.

Many local farmers keep just a few cows and sheep.

Where we live now, residential buildings and houses surround the still-working farm fields. Just around the corner, where I walk my dogs each day, is a field with a few sheep. A house down the street keeps goats in the yard and the next to the apartment parking lot next door is a hen house with a wired-in chicken run.

We can get a fine for not picking up after our dogs but the horses leave droppings on the sidewalk that can last throughout the winter.

It is part of what it means to live in a country village in France, even one that in a peri-urban area that is also close to the city.

You put up with the noise and the dust of the tractors in the neighbouring field, even as you hope that whatever they are spraying is not toxic. I remind myself to be grateful that the farmers do their noble job to put food on our tables. It’s a hard life and one that barely allows them to make a living.

Each year, as I’ve posted before, the Salon de l’Agriculture has its annual hay-day* as farmers from all over France mingle with politicians seeking photo ops to showcase their finest produce and beauteous beasts. And each year, we hear reports of the dire straits of modern-day agriculture in France. Les paysans, the farmers (or peasants, but without the negative connotation) use this platform to draw attention to their plight: encroaching urbanisation, land being bought up by Chinese investors, EU quotas, drought.

Factory farming, industrial agriculture and the intensive cultivation of crops is less developed in France than in North America or even Spain. Which is not to say it doesn’t exist – but it is balanced out by many smaller operations, mom-and-pop family farms that make up the majority of agriculture land use in France.

The concern is that land formerly devoted to farming in France is gradually shrinking – from 32 million hectares in 2006 to 28 million in 2010. It’s being taken over by tourism and housing development,  increasing urbanisation.

Lately I’ve been wondering if I would be able to adapt to city life again. Thinking towards a possible future downsizing, a return to a more urban lifestyle. Yet I know that I need a certain amount of peace and quiet to be happy, so it wouldn’t be in the heart of a big city. And I also know that I don’t want to be far from fields and trees, to hear the birds greet each day. But the advantage to living in provincial France is that the country will always be just across the doorstep.

Guess I’m a bit of city mouse, but mostly a country mouse.

How about you?

*A pun is the lowest form of wit, just as the bun is the lowest form of wheat.

Du pain sur la planche

Bread on my cutting board

Take a bite of my favourite loaf. It’s soft and dense, still warm from the oven, fragrant with rye and walnuts. Delicious, right? Then why is having ‘du pain sur la planche’ equated with having a lot of work?

Perhaps it is because the baker – le boulanger – has his work cut out for him. Kneading and rolling, at the ovens before dawn, the baker on every corner must have fresh baguettes and épis and pains de campagnes ready early each morning.

It seems the expression, ‘avoir du pain sur la planche’, has morphed over the years. At first, having bread on one’s board meant wealth. That was back in the day when the bread was made to last a long time. Then, sometime in the last century, the meaning changed. Perhaps because people began to buy their bread fresh each day. And the skinny, white baguette, delicious just out of the oven, is stale soon after.

I’ve had plenty of bread on my board so to speak for the past several months. As a freelancer that can be a double-edged sword. You are grateful for the work coming in but you never know where the next job will come from, so you really need to be thinking ahead, networking and taking care of finding new clients. That is the part of the freelance life I enjoy the least.

But I need to do it to keep the bread coming in.

Come to think of it, equating bread with work makes perfect sense. You can’t have one without the other. To have a lot on your plate, as we say in English, isn’t so different.

Sometimes lately it all feels so overwhelming. Here in France we are in a phase where there is so much to do, at every level of society. It seems that everything is such a mess. People are out protesting in the streets each week. Beyond our borders is no better. Even the weather has gone crazy.

Yet the birds are back singing and signs of spring are unmistakable. Each day the baker manages to turn out little marvels like this loaf.

For that, I am grateful.

Et toi?



How I love a hat. Sadly, I look ridiculous in most of them. It takes a special person to wear a hat well and, while they are increasingly rare these days, no one does it better than the French.

Like so many other things, hats are not always hats in France. If you refer to your baseball cap as a chapeau, you will quickly be corrected: Vous voulez dire une casquette? A ski hat is un bonnet (not even a toque, as we Canucks call it!). Just to keep us on our toes, a chef’s hat in French is called une toque (pronounced: tuck), a term that can also refer to the master chefs themselves, like the late Monsieur Paul.

There is a delightful generic term for hats in French: un couvre-chef. I have no idea where it comes from, but it makes perfect poetic sense: ‘couvre’ is cover and ‘chef’ in this sense is your head.

So let’s look at a few examples. With the passing of Karl Lagerfeld this week, it seems somehow fitting to start by tipping my hat to the great house of Chanel.

* Side note: it may be just me and advancing age, but the first thing I want to know when someone dies is what they died of. The Kaiser of fashion, as he was known, was 85 and died in hospital after a ‘brief illness’. The iconic Chanel designer was known for keeping things private, and also being quite the health buff, but rumours are that it was pancreatic cancer.

Coco Chanel was a milliner in her early days, and was also often seen sporting a hat. I love the model’s expression in this pic – it looks like the grande dame may have been poking her with a pin!

Geneviève de Fontenay is the former head of the Miss France pageant and probably the Frenchwoman most famous for her hats.

Brigitte Macron must not like the way she looks in hats as she is never seen wearing them. Her husband, on the other hand, looks pretty good with a lid. The French president is seen here trying on a chechia, the traditional Tunisian version of the beret.

Speaking of which, the beret so often depicted in movies about France is rarely seen here. Perhaps the indigenous population of beret-wearing, baguette-toting Frenchmen have all retired to a remote village in the south of France, a place where accordion music plays on every street corner.

Pablo Picasso, who lived in the south of France, wore his beret well.

Those remote country villages may be patrolled by gendarmes who wear the traditional képi, as made famous by Louis de Funès in Le Gendarme de St. Tropez.

On a more serious note, we should not forget the kippa (nor confuse it with the képi as I often do), also called a yarmulke. The traditional cap worn by Jewish men has been in the news this week along with the frightening resurgence of anti-Semitic acts in France. I am horrified to see this happening, don’t understand it and can’t explain it.

The expression in the title of this post, ‘Chapeau!’ or ‘chapeau bas’, means to tip one’s hat in admiration or congratulate someone for a good performance. As can be seen in this photo from The Avengers, a television series known rather verbosely in France as ‘Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir’ (bowler hat and leather boots).

I do love a bowler hat.

Hats off to you for reading this far!

Do you have a favourite hat?