La chorale

I’ve always loved to sing.

When I was a kid I gave some memorable performances in the school choir. My rendition of Eliza Doolittle singing ‘Wouldn’t it be loverly?’ in junior high school is fondly remembered by a few people who are still kind enough to be my friends. Later, I got a guitar and crashed out chords while attempting to sing like my heros Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian and Carole King.

Then, life happened. I stopped singing, except to my kids, in the car and in the shower. Sometimes I’ll belt out a few bars along with Adele as I exercise. It is cathartic, if nothing else.

With the French hit film, ‘Les Choristes’, in 2004, I made a surprising discovery: France has a huge number of choirs. Virtually every tiny town has one or more chorales. Who knew? I decided to join the local choir in our village for fun.

Soucieu-en-Jarrest is famous among a few thousand people for a couple of things. One is ‘la pèche-de-vigne’, the vine peach with its distinctive red flesh whose picking is fêted in the village on the first Sunday of September each year. Another is its organ. The choir was closely associated with the church and at Christmas and Easter we sang hymns and religious dirges accompanied by the powerful strains of that organ.

It was a long way from Eliza Doolittle and Carole King to church organ music. But I didn’t care – the choir was a chance to raise my voice, too long silent, in harmony with others.

I loved the fact that the choir brought together young and old, paysans and professionals, in a shared love of music. And although I was an outsider, who spoke sometimes fractured French, I was quickly taken into its fold. They were a wonderful group of people who were friendly and welcoming.

Life intervened again and I had to quit the choir. We moved away from the Lyonnais to the Haute Savoie, and finally last year I began looking for a choir to join here. This time, I vowed, not a church choir but something a bit more modern. I found one in a neighbourhing town, but its rehearsals were too late in the evening for early-bird me. So I found another, an English-speaking choral group in Geneva. We’ve just started practicing for the Christmas concert to be held in Nyon. The program is a mix of French hymns and English carols and I am quite excited to be part of it.

The best thing about being in an English-speaking choir for me is that they refer to the notes in a way I can understand. Regretfully I never learned the French ‘solfège’ – sight-singing – and can never think of the notes as anything but C or F-sharp rather than ‘Do’ or ‘Fa dièse’. What’s worse, our ‘do-re-mi’ is slightly different, with the French singing ‘si’ instead of ‘ti’. The part of my brain that learned to sing must be closely associated with the part that is responsible for numbers. No matter how long I have spoken French, these functions are hard wired to English.

Alors, vous? Ever belonged to a choir? Do you sing in the shower?

C’est comme ça

Peintres tour eiffel

I know better than to expect service with a smile in France. Around here, we are happy to be served, period. But lately a few particularly awful customer service experiences have me ranting once again.

First there was the painter who was supposed to redo the south-facing façade of our house. It started out well enough. He showed up when promised, twice, sent me a quote for the work, cashed the 40% deposit and began the job in May. Things quickly went downhill. He began by painting over the chrome bolts that are a design feature of our modern house, and dripping paint on several glass panels around the deck. I explained that he needed to protect the area, so he taped down plastic and used a bit of tape. He got half-way through the job when the skies clouded over and spat down a few drops of rain. Then he disappeared for two weeks, leaving us with a half-painted house, plastic bits on the deck and vague promises to come back soon. August, he swore. We are still waiting.

Then there’s the postman. Not only does he never ring twice, often he never rings at all. I find the slip of paper in my letter box, down by the road, saying that he attempted to deliver a parcel while I was out. Des mensonges, Monsieur! I was there. Deaf I may be but I can still hear the door bell. The funny thing about that slip of paper is that, to look at it, you would think it should be easy to get your parcel (assuming you read French; otherwise, bonne chance in decoding this baby!).

Avis de passageTwo options, it says. Choose a new delivery date online or go pick up your parcel at the local post office, anytime from 3 pm the following day. “Mais non,” says the woman who works at our local post office as she explains it to me with a vague school-marmish air. It doesn’t work like that around here. By the time the postman reaches her small post office, at least two working days will have passed (not counting the weekly Wednesday closure). When I express frustration, not only at the poor service but at the erroneous message on the official piece of paper, I get nothing more than a Gallic shrug.

Et oui, c’est comme ça!

Online shopping saves me from having to deal with such characters. Most of the time. As much as I love Amazon, regardless of their tax issues, I shop some French websites for specialty items like pet supplies. Our two Frenchies are excitable types on walks and it takes some good quality leashes to rein them in. After spending a good while researching just the leash I needed (short, strong, flexible grip), I was ready to place my order on a site called Polytrans (the French are not big on sexy brand names).

The site claimed to offer free delivery on orders over 49 euros, so I calculated my order to include an additional item, bringing the total to just over 50 euros. But when it came time to place my order, lo and behold, the site offered me a so-called ‘loyalty discount’ based on a previous order, deducting three euros off the total and adding in 7.50 for delivery. Gah!

I called the number listed on the website for support, politely explaining my case and expecting that they would simply remove the ‘discount’ and let me get on with it. No such luck. All I had to do, the woman explained in a voice that suggested she regularly dealt with dummies, was order some small item to make up the difference and get free delivery. When I told her that I’d already done this, and frankly, their loyalty points were having the opposite effect, she dropped the mask of customer service and said that there was no way she could change the order anyway. Imagine if they had to do that for everyone?

Needless to say, I hung up and took my business elsewhere.

When the French complain about ‘unfair’ competition from the Amazons of this world, I will point out that little example of customer ‘service’. It is just one among so many others. When they moan about the loss of local jobs and soaring unemployment, I will think about my half-painted façade, along with the handful of other jobs (electrical, roof, cleaning) we’d be happy to pay for if only we could find someone willing to do them.

Et oui. C’est comme ça.

Have you had a memorable customer experience lately, in France or elsewhere?

Arriver un pépin


We are in the midst of grape harvesting in our region at the moment, les vendanges. You can see the people with their trucks and machines along the little country roads, and there are signs warning you to be wary.

I am more than happy to oblige. It seems that this vital activity is always on the verge of a crisis – whether from hail or poor weather conditions, pests or other pépins.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this post. The seed that is found inside the grape, along with other fruits like apples, is called le pépin. For reasons that I have not been able to elucidate, this tiny seed or pip is associated with trouble.

To encounter un pépin means to run into a problem of some sort along the way. Readers of this blog will have gathered by now that such things occur not infrequently in France. So although I do not know the etymology of the expression, I can easily imagine how the pip could be associated with trouble and strife.

Eating fruit, for example. Personally, I would much rather drink grapes than eat them. But for those who are amorous of the grape itself, running into pips can be problematic. Do you spit them out? And then there’s wine making. Perhaps the grape seeds themselves are not good for the wine? Something to do with the tannins?

On the other hand, I have recently learned that grape seed oil is a healthful choice for cooking as it has a relatively high smoke point, is full of antioxidants and promotes good cholesterol. And according to this source, you should chew and swallow the seeds as they are healthy for you.

My dear late mother was a source of many wonderful things, not the least of which were her expressions. “She gives me the pip” was one of my favourites.

Pépin le Bref was also the name of a king, the father of Charlemagne. I am useless with history, however, and will leave further explorations of his rather fascinating name to those more qualified.

Will 2016 be a good year? It is hard to say. The summer was slow to start but hot and dry for a good long while. In any case, we’ll find out before long. The first young wines will be out in November.

Until then, may you stay clear of les pépins!



Ça va?

Ca va?

This post is dedicated to the two little French words that just keep on going.

With these two words of vocabulary, you can say a great many things. You can ask if someone’s all right, in general or when they’ve hurt themselves (like Louis de Funès in the above pic), or expand upon them to create an entire conversation.

Ça va?

Ça va, merci. Et toi?

Ça va ça va. Et ta femme?

Ça va bien aussi.

Alors ça va. Bonne journée!

It’s extraordinary how much nuance can be expressed in those two words.

‘Ça va’, when said in a bright tone of voice, means happy. Ça va bien, super, or even super bien adds degrees of delight. If enunciated with an interrogation or a slight downward lilt, it can mean something less joyful. ‘Ça va pas trop mal’, means not bad, but could also mean not great either. When you get to ‘ça va pas trop’ or the ill boding ‘ça peut aller’, you know things are heading south. Until they stop all together.

Now despite our ups and downs, our strikes and our politics, things in France generally always go. Until they don’t go. Which is to say that most of the time ça va, until suddenly ça va pas. And then – Attention!

Ça va pas du tout aller là. Ça va vraiment pas du tout. Du tout du tout du tout!

When things stop going in France, watch out. There will be drama and sparks will fly. Couples divorce. Heads have been known to roll.

Usually after a dramatic episode of ‘ça va pas’ there will be a healing period of ‘ça va mieux’. Things are not fine but they are a bit better. They are going, which is infinitely preferable to not going at all.

‘Rien ne va plus’ (nothing more goes) was the title of a 1997 French film directed by Claude Chabrol about a couple of con artists. The title was inspired by the expression which is used in the world of casinos, about which I know nothing. Truly. But Google tells me this is what the croupier says when no more bets can be placed on the table.

Of course, you know that the ‘ne’ is usually dropped in spoken language. Just like you know that the word ‘ça’ is actually a contraction of the more formal ‘cela’. Some people prefer to say ‘cela’ to give themselves an educated air. Verging on the ridiculous, like the character infamously played by Thierry Lhermite in the French film classic ‘Le Père Noël est une ordure’.

C'est cela oui

As for the photo of Louis de Funès, it is from a 1966 film called ‘La Grande Vadrouille’. I’ve just learned it has been remastered and re-released. Not sure if it can be found anywhere to rent online but it’s out on DVD. I intend to watch it, both for the slapstick silliness that the French do so well and the wonderful scenes of 1960s Paris.

Alors toi, ça va?

Un peu de lecture

Mémé dans les orties

Another thing I love about the fall is the idea of curling up with a book as the temperatures drop and the days grow shorter. Not that I need a seasonal excuse – reading for me is a year-round occupation.

My favourite place to read is also where I write this blog: in bed. Mostly in the mornings. I also read before going to sleep, but my eyes tend to glaze over pretty quickly. I read for pleasure exclusively on paper, not e-books. Besides the fact that screens are not pages to me, anything electronic feels like work. And there is something about holding a book in your hands that I can’t imagine going without.

Although I speak French fluently, I read almost exclusively in English. French often feels like work, and until a few years ago, there were so many gaps in my vocabulary that I was always scrambling to look up words.

I’ve started reading a few French books lately. There was ‘L’élégance du hérisson’ (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) by Muriel Barbery. A couple of novels by Michel Houellebecq. And at the moment, a slice of French life called ‘Mémé dans les Orties’ by Aurélie Valognes.

It’s about a bitter old man who makes life miserable for himself and everyone else who has the misfortune to live in his apartment building. It’s about the pettiness and solitude of everyday life, and, presumably, although I’m only half-way through, how that can all change with the arrival of a few new faces.

I love very human stories like this that combine humour with the bittersweet. Dysfunctional families and quirky love stories. One of my all-time favourite novels is hiding on the bookshelf in this picture. Can you guess which one it is?

By the way, for those who are interested: the title comes from the expression ‘Il ne faut pousser mémé dans les orties.’ I had to look this up as I’d never heard it before. Essentially it’s a way of saying ‘il faut pas pousser’ – or don’t push, meaning don’t exaggerate, take advantage, go too far. At least not so far as to push poor Granny into the nettles!

Do tell me: what are you reading?