Le soleil

I have a love-hate relationship with the sun.

Here in France, le soleil is associated with all things bright and beautiful. Sunny days. Warm weather. Long vacations. Joy.

Sunshine is all that is expansive, generous, extroverted.

And I have every reason to love it. The sun rules my birth sign, Leo. Being born under this most powerful of stars, on the first day of the hottest month, my heart is said to be ruled by the sun. Perhaps it is part of my contrary nature but instead of worshiping the sun I fear its power and flee its effects.

In the throes of too much sun I am closed, ungiving, introverted. When at last it sets and darkness falls, I marvel at the moon. Am liberated by its soft cool light.

My aversion to the sun begins in my head but it doesn’t stop there. My eyes feel it first: they water and squint. I must wear dark glasses and shade my face to avoid migraine. My skin suffers most: quick to burn, slow to tan, it comes up in itchy red patches if over-exposed. And as the temperature creeps up, my inner thermostat goes haywire, turning me into a red-faced demon, permanently sticky and evil tempered.

My cupboard is filled with potions and sprays to protect me and my unfairly fair skin. SPF 50 abounds. Most of it renders me even whiter, makes me even more miserable as I sweat beneath the layer of supposedly grease-free protection. Despite all my efforts, hat and glasses, I am outdoors often enough that by midsummer I sport a light tan.

Like any good French citizen, I watch the weather forecast with an eager eye. What can we expect? Will it be a good day, an even better weekend? The stick-like character on my TV screen points and gestures and explains, as I’ve posted about here, the fickle nature of the weather, the inexplicable arrival of clouds and rain. Or the hoped for row of bright yellow circles that means happy days ahead.

For most of us, that is. I for one am thrilled to see the summer heatwave reach an end. We are back to cooler mornings and, even on the hottest days, the sun seems to have lost an edge. It sets a little earlier, giving us a chance to cool the house before going to bed.

My husband experiences the sun like most of his countrymen: with unfettered joy. Its absence depresses him. Not because he likes to be hot or to get a tan but rather because of the light.

Our house is designed to take advantage of the sun, with large windows providing a maximum of exposures on all sides. It seemed like a reasonable idea when we had it built: the Haute Savoie is a mountainous region with cold winters, and we do have a rather nice view. But the reality for me is different. Now we have covered all of the south-facing windows with solar screens and sunshades. When husband is away, I keep them drawn and live as much as possible in the dark. As soon as he returns all is exploded open. The sun floods in, along with the flies. I sweat and I swat and we do battle over the windows.

For all those who worship the sun, this summer has been exceptional. Even the UK, with its near-permanent rain, has had its share of hot and sunny days.

But I worry. Because it seems pretty obvious that this is not a one-off but a disturbing trend. The hottest summer on record. Wild fires in Greece and California. Dry periods with not enough rain then flooding when it comes all at once. Climate change is happening and the sun is leading the attack.

So it’s decided: next year we get air conditioning. I don’t want to add to the planet’s problems by burning more energy but in order to survive the summer I will need at least one portable unit to make work and sleep possible during the onslaught months from June to August.

This attitude is decidedly un-French. As I’ve shared before, most people here hate and fear ‘la clim’ far more than the sun or the heat.

How do you feel about the sun?

A vos marques

On your marks…today we are off for a quick tour of some iconic French brands. Oddly, the same word for brands, les marques, is also a literal translation of the word ‘mark’ in English. I suppose there is a link if you think of it as a trademark or a mark of quality.

While people here in France are often somewhat resistant to marketing campaigns, French shoppers are nonetheless big on brands.

My late Belle-mère swore by certain brands as being a sign of quality performance, superior workmanship or good taste. She believed that a good product did half the work for you, whether cleaning the clothes, cooking the food or making you look chic.

Being even more resistant to this kind of thinking than the French, I had to disagree. But after a few years of shopping in France I must say she had a point.

Bottled mineral water is a big thing in France and I’ve blogged before about how we have entire supermarket aisles devoted to it. Badoit, pictured above, with its choice of finely or intensely sparkling bubbles, is still one of my favourite French brands.

When it comes to the other kind of bubbly, it’s a different story. I’ve often heard that the best champagnes are the smaller houses rather than the big brands, by my Beau-père swears by Nicolas Feuillatte. And it’s often more competitively priced at the checkout.


As for the stinky cheese, the Languetot brand of raw milk camembert is one of the best name brands. ‘Au lait cru’ and ‘moulé à la louche’ are two signs that it’s one the good old fashioned way. Along with the ‘appellation d’origine’ that means it’s the real deal.

Le Petit is pretty good, too.



As the old ad campaign went, il n’y a que Maille qui maille…

Maille really is the only mustard for me. Dijon, smooth or grainy, and with no mayonnaise mixed in please! I also have a strong penchant for their cider vinegar as posted with my vinaigrette recipe awhile back…

House brands, which many supermarkets do offer in many product lines, are usually cheaper but not always of the same quality as the original. On the other hand, some are very good value for the money; it’s just a matter of trying your luck.

For those who smoke despite all the warning labels, and an appallingly high proportion of the French population still do, Gauloises cigarettes are a classic. Slightly less stinky than the horrible Gitanes.

By sv1ambo (1975 Citroen DS23 Pallas) [CC BY 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons
One of the first cars I noticed on the road here was the old Citroen DS. A big, hulking, low-to-the-ground classic of French engineering. Most French people tend to be true to one  of the big three: Renault, Peugeot or Citroën.

Petit Bâteau is a classic brand of kids’ clothing with the iconic sailor stripes. The 1920s brand expanded into clothes for adults a few years ago. The quality of the cotton is particularly good.

There are many more, of course. My morning would not be complete without a probiotic yogurt of the Activia brand. Nature, bien sûr… With a slice of wholewheat toast from Jacquet.

These are just a few of the marques that have marked my experience in France (for which I have received no promotional consideration, I hasten to add!). What are some of yours?


Millésime 1957

The year I came into the world people drove cars with fins that looked like this.

Just about everybody smoked.

Men and women still wore hats to work. Women dressed like this.

A new house cost less than $12K, and a yearly salary was around $4,500.

Elvis Presley was all shook up. Fans flocked to see him star in the movie Jailhouse Rock.

Heart throb Harry Belafonte crooned his way to fame with the Banana Boat Song (Day O) while bombshell Brigitte Bardot headlined in the French romantic comedy La Parisienne.

The frisbee was invented.

The cool kids were watching American Bandstand.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz filmed the final episode of I Love Lucy, a TV comedy about a screwball redhead married to a foreign guy with a funny accent. (Years of watching reruns of that show as a kid may have influenced me slightly).

The Russians launched Sputnik, starting the space race. The Soviet space dog, a stray from Moscow called Laika, was the first animal launched in space and, sadly, the first to die.

John Diefenbaker became Prime Minister of Canada, leading the Progressive Conservative party to victory for the first time since 1930. Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the Canadian parliament.

The Suez Canal crisis ended. Canada’s Lester B. Pearson, who would later be prime minister, won a Nobel peace prize for deescalating the situation with the first UN peacekeeping force.

The Treaty of Rome was signed, bringing about the creation of the European Economic Community.

The 44th edition of the Tour de France was won by Jacques Anquetil, who went on to win it five times.

French fashion designer Christian Dior died while on holiday in Italy. It was never confirmed whether the cause of death was choking on a fish bone or from a heart attack after a strenuous sexual encounter.

In 1957, the peak of the baby boom years, the life expectancy in the US was 66.4 years for a male and 72.7 for a female.

Millésime, by the way, is the French word for vintage or a year in which something special is produced. 1957 was a very good year and I am happy to have been born on this day.

Even happier to be here today to remember so many things that have happened since.

Where were you in 1957?

Or where were your parents, if you were still just a gleam in their eye?

La foule

I used to love crowds. Losing myself in them. Feeling a sort of freedom, a safety in numbers. Being carried along on a busy street amidst people from all walks of life. There is something of that joy in this song, La Foule, as immortalized by Edith Piaf. But crowds can be temperamental and I have learned to distrust them. Especially in France.

At first I was fooled by the French word, la foule. It sounded so joyous, like something fun, a little wild and crazy, or perhaps a delicious dessert. Then I noticed the reaction of my Belle-mère every time the word came up. When I asked, she was categorical:

“J’ai horreur de la la foule.” Well, that was clear enough. Horror could not be good.

And then I experienced the crowds. The first time I remember feeling frightened in a crowd was at the Fête des Lumières, held each 8th of December in Lyon. From our first experience of walking through the streets of our neighbourhood to the old town to admire the candles, lumignons, in all the windows, it became a tourist event and they started busing people in from all over. There were so many people crowding to get across the footbridge to the presqu’ile that it was scary. All too easy to imagine the movement of panic that could easily lead to people getting crushed or trampled.

Then I began to notice that French squares and other public places like street markets and shopping malls on a Saturday afternoon were a little too busy for my liking. The crowds were too dense, in more ways than one. Much has been written about culture and personal space, and for the first time I became aware of mine. Apparently my personal comfort zone is about twice the size of other people’s.

Another place I discovered my fear of la foule was at concerts. There is a tradition here of standing at concerts. There are no floor seats – everyone just crowds together in the pit. This is the cool place to be, where the fun happens. Not for me. I’m short, for one thing, and I panic when surrounded too closely by beings taller than myself. Having a seat that defines a no-go zone is essential.

There is also navigation style. I try to weave in and out of crowds as quickly as possible without stepping on any toes. I am aware of the other guy, the one I’m trying to avoid. I stay on the right, then pass on the left. This also applies to supermarkets where I will park my shopping cart out of the way while studying the aisles (I’m a label reader); others have no compunction about standing in front of their cart and blocking traffic in both directions.

French shoppers tend to dawdle, particularly when out in groups on a Saturday. Inevitably I find myself bumping into other people or politely asking them to move. Nobody else seems to do this; I’m not sure why. But they have somehow cultivated a quality that I seem to lack: being oblivious.

To be fair, it’s not just in France that this happens. I just notice it here more because of the increased density. There are simply more people who flock to the same places at the same times. So now I avoid the busy times. Skip the events with the biggest crowds. Leave la foule for others to enjoy.

Do you have a particular memory, fond or frightened, of being in a crowd?

Le foot et moi

Supporters de foot

Let me begin by saying that I am no sports fan. This applies equally and unilaterally to all sports, with the exception of any that I happen to be doing. That means no Olympics, no Rolland Garros, no Tour de France, no golf, no baseball. Not even hockey, my home country’s national sport.

I am especially grateful for having married a man who is not particularly interested in watching televised sports. The sound of cheering fans on TV makes me vaguely nauseous. The inane banter of the sportscasters and their hysterical cries in anticipation of a goal make me crazy. If I had to listen to that every weekend we would probably not have made it out of the starting blocks.

There have been two notable exceptions to this policy. The first was in 1998, the other on Sunday. When I discovered a horrible truth about myself: it’s probably just as well that I’m not a regular sports fan. Because when I do root for a team, I become a nasty, screaming banshee with murder in my heart.

But French. Down to my deepest primal self.

In 1998, we had only recently moved outside of Lyon to the sleepy village of Soucieu-en-Jarrest. We barely knew our neighbours when word came that the final was going to be shown on a big screen at the football field just around the corner from our house. When it looked like things were going well for Les Bleus, we packed up the kids and joined every other inhabitant of our village out on the field at the stadium. Suddenly it seemed like we knew everybody. The mood was high and the draft beer flowed freely. When we won, there was a collective sense of joy that took over every last one of us. We were the Champions! And we joined arms and sang the theme song of our team along with everyone else: I will survive. It was epic.

So when it happened that we were in our old village on Sunday visiting friends, we were not-so-secretly hoping that we could stage a rematch performance on the football field. Alas, it was not to be. Times have changed, our friends explained, and it seemed the town could no longer organize such an event without proper security measures, bla bla bla.

That didn’t stop us from watching the game. And perhaps it’s just as well that no one but my closest family witnessed my performance. In between a spectacular flow of curses in both languages, I would have cheerfully ripped the pony tail off that Croatian player.

And then it happened. We are the champions again!

You can see the difference that 20 years has made to the celebrations in the video below from Le Monde. Due to the risks associated with terrorism and crowd control, the bus carrying Les Bleus along the Champs Elysées on Monday was segregated by police and a separate lane from the public. It zipped through in less than 20 minutes whereas in 1998, the players were surrounded by their fans and the whole procession lasted two hours.

Still, I think that all this sports fan malarkey isn’t really for me. Patriotism, nationalism, bigotry, competition against those who hail from other places. In the end, this kind of display represents everything I detest.

Not to forget the violence against women, out-of-control crowds looting stores and other drunken behaviour that often accompanies such events.

And yet. People need heroes. Kids need dreams. We all need a reason to cheer. The Elysée Palace invited kids from all walks of life to share in the VIP event. Sport can indeed be a great leveler. And so I will probably make an exception and wave the flag for France again.

Once every 20 years isn’t bad, right? And If France makes it to the World Cup Final in 2038, that should just about give me time to recover.

Are you a sports fan?