24 heures

Laumaillé

“Quelle heure est-il?”

If there’s one question you will often hear in France, it’s “What time is it?”. Or more likely the informal construction, which breaks all the rules you are taught but is most commonly used: “Quelle heure il est?”

One of the frustrations I encountered when first moving here was the 24-hour clock. I discovered the French use the military time that I’d only heard before as a kid watching TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and Mash, where they would say ‘Oh-seven-hundred hours, sir!’ for 7:00 a.m. The French use this clock not just in airports and train stations but all the time.

For non-native speakers, this requires some mental gymnastics. First you have to convert the 12-hour time clock we English speakers normally use into the 24-hour version. Alors…7 p.m. becomes 19:00, dix-neuf heures. Ten-thirty becomes 22:30, vingt-deux heures trente. That’s way too much math for me. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m numerically challenged, and the part of my brain that does language doesn’t like to do business with the part that counts.

“But it’s much less confusing than your a.m. and p.m.,” a French colleague said. “Half the time you English speakers forget to add it and we don’t know exactly what time you mean.” Ah, the French love of precision.

However, when you finally get the 24-hour clock down, you discover that although it is the rule, there are often exceptions. Sometimes people will simply say ‘une heure et demi’ for one-thirty in the afternoon. You are supposed to contextually understand that they don’t mean 1:30 a.m. Which I get, but hey, if it’s all about being precise…?

I love digital clocks because they do half the work for you. On the other hand, the clock in the above image known as the cadran Laumaillé in Toulouse makes telling the time especially challenging. There seems to be some mystery around its orgins (perhaps our Toulousaine friend Mélanie of My Virtual Playground can help us with that?)

My relationship with time is strained at the best of times. The big time clock in the sky casts its shadow on my daily doings, making me perpetually stressed and late for lack of time or causing me to over compensate by being early. My assumption that the French would be very Latin and fashionably late proved wrong from the outset.

While my compatriots have a way of seeming all casual and relaxed about time, they are irritatingly prompt for things like meetings and events. I’ve been known to arrive ten minutes late and miss entire speeches. The upside is I’m usually just in time for the drinks.

What’s your relationship with time? Do you use the 24-hour clock?

Bon vivant

“I think I am a good liver,” a French friend recently confided.

“You mean you have a good liver?” I suggested.

“No, I am a good liver. Un bon vivant.”

Well, that is true. He lives well, enjoys the finer things, and seems to truly enjoy whatever he does. And his English is good enough that I knew he didn’t need me to tell him that we don’t say ‘liver’ in that way. He had made his point.

It made me think. I often worry about my liver: I enjoy wine and beer too much for my own good. So I’ll cut back for a few days. Feel healthy, and go back to my old ways.

But do I worry enough about being a ‘good liver’? About enjoying life in every sense, living not just for tomorrow but today? Not even today but now?

I must admit that we have so many ways to enjoy that present moment in France. Not just around the table, or during the traditional ‘apéro’: there is a culture in this country of stopping to smell the roses, or at least enjoy ‘un petit noir’ at a café table, of savouring each change of season. We take holidays. Turn off our phones and other media (although not as often as we should).

But still. I know I focus way too much on my to-do list. Getting things done. Getting stuff. Not making enough new memories. Going off the path to try something different. Living in l’instant présent.

Come to think of it, my friend’s translation is probably closer to the expression: ‘bon viveur‘. As in so many other examples in our two languages, English borrowed from the French to create an expression and give it a whole meaning of its own: not just one who enjoys life, but one who overindulges in its finer things.

Perhaps one really does need a good liver to be a ‘bon vivant’. It certainly helps if you live in France. I suppose that’s why liver detox diets and tips to re-energize this vital organ abound on the French web: drinking rosemary tea, lemon juice and coffee; eating foods rich in antioxidants; avoiding chocolate, cheese and alcohol long enough to allow the liver to regenerate.

Et toi? Are you a good liver?

Blindé

blindé Titus

Something has changed for me since the latest terror attacks. Something subtle, yet disturbing. It’s as if the shock and horror of so many innocent lives lost has diminished a notch, as if somehow this has become the new normal.

Paris. Brussels. Nice. Orlando. Manchester. London.

Yet how can we accept terrorism as the status quo?

The same way the world has grown immune to stories about the migrants drowned at sea. Just as America accepts the hundreds of lives lost each day to guns – ten of which are children. And not so different from our increasing immunity to the latest lunacy of its president. It is becoming harder to separate the tragic from the comic.

Perhaps we have become blindé.

Like the armoured vehicle shown here, known in French as ‘un blindé’, we have toughened our exterior. I read that this model, called Titus, was being tested in Paris to transport security forces following the attacks at the Bataclan. It is tough but moves quickly, and can safely carry 13 men and wounded under fire.

It is not uncommon to see heavy artillery on the streets of Paris.

When I first came to France in 1986, Paris was the midst of a wave of terrorism. A bomb went off in a popular store called Tati on Rue de Rennes, killing seven people and injuring 50. Suddenly there were machine gun-toting military and army tanks on the streets. I was frightened and perplexed. Were we at war?

I learned that for the French it is vital to have a show of force at such times, to see that the government is doing something to maintain order — whether to control student riots, to bring an end to massive strikes and demonstrations, or to protect the people from acts of terror. While I was terrified to see so much visible weaponry, most people found the police presence reassuring.

Yet, how can you protect anyone on the street from a maniac behind the wheel of a van? From someone with a hammer or a knife who takes another by surprise? You can’t, of course, and that is why we must grow tougher. Learn to live with the threat. Keep calm and carry on.

Not immune. Not blasé. But tougher none the less.

‘Se blinder’ means to become used to a threat, to toughen up, thicken one’s skin. It also means to go on a bender, to get rip-roaring drunk.

In a weird way that makes sense. Either way, we are feeling less pain.

So what will it be: get tougher or get drunk?

Do you feel you have become ‘blindé’?

Français ou pas?

Higgins

One of the things I enjoy about travelling is the perspective you gain from stepping away from your world. Our recent jaunt to England made me think about some of the things that define the French. How very ‘English’ I sometimes still feel (which for me means anglo-Canadian) and at times how very French I’ve become.

It’s the little things, of course, and readers of this blog will know that I am one for observing the details that make up our lives.

La file d’attente

It starts at the airport. Whenever there is a line up, the difference is immediately apparent. The Brits queue in an orderly fashion; the French must push forward like a force of nature. I find myself somewhere in between, struck with admiration for the ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach of my fellow English natives yet driven by my far more impatient French self to get ahead quickly.

Le parfum

If you smell someone before you see them, there are two possible explanations: either they have not bathed or they are wearing strong perfume. Sometimes both explanations apply. In the latter case, they are very probably French. I can put up with body odour but have a very low tolerance (which is to say almost no tolerance) for perfume. French noses seem to be able to bear stronger scents far better than mine; the idea of a fragrance-free zone is entirely foreign.

Le petit déjeuner

One of the habits I have never acquired after all these years in France is eating just bread for breakfast. I will rarely say no to croissants and other French viennoiseries like pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins and croissant aux amandes (yum!), but my idea of breakfast is a bit more substantial. And if bread is involved, it must be toasted.

Starting the day with a ‘full English’ is horrifying to most French people; personally I enjoy a bit of egg and bacon, but the sausage, beans and black pudding is a bit much. A beer would have made it even better but is this even allowed in the UK so early in the day?

Le café ou thé

The French mostly have coffee with hot milk for breakfast, famously dunking their bread or croissant in a large bowl of the stuff. After that, they tend to drink small cups of espresso café or ‘express’. It is taken black, although sugar is always on offer.

I’m a hybrid there, too, as I love a couple of good strong coffees with milk for breakfast then drink tea in the afternoon. If the espresso is good, I will drink it black after a meal. Coffee culture is everywhere in the UK now but as soon as we left London, I had a hard time getting the kind of coffee I like: strong but not bitter with a bit of milk; not milk with a bit of coffee. Or – horror of horrors – instant coffee.

As for tea, who am I to complain about the nation that made it famous? But there was little evidence of whole tea culture that can be found now even in France, where green is a mainstay and my personal favourite is white (the leaves, not with milk!). French tea drinkers rarely take milk.

La cuisson

If you order meat in a French restaurant, you will usually be asked how you’d like it cooked. ‘La cuisson’ may be medium or rare (rosé or bleu), medium rare (à point) or well done (bien cuit). Ordering anything well done is a very tell-tale sign of English-ness.

Mine is medium rare.

L’apparence

The relaxation of dress standards in recent years has made it harder to put labels on people. So much the better! But there are a few tell-tale signs that will give French people away to those in the know. A scarf even in mild weather (we have very fragile necks!); a certain cut of clothing (the French don’t do oversized); anything well-ironed (rumpled is not a look the French favour). Men will be unshaven, as is the fashion, but they will wear a trendy pair of glasses, skinny jeans and their ‘pullover’ will sport a discreet but fashionable label. Women may appear drab at first glance, then you will notice that their jacket conceals a rather attractive top, that their accessories are coordinated and that underneath that basic ensemble is surely some well-cut lingerie.

En public

French behaviour in public places, aside from pushing in crowds, tends to be discreet. They don’t mingle, or start up conversations with strangers. I noticed this in several pubs where many of the patrons were looking about them and chatting with their neighbours; those with there heads down and sticking strictly to themselves were almost inevitably French. To be fair, the language barrier may be a reason.

Here again, I’m a hybrid. I have a horror of enforced socializing and will almost always gravitate to the edge of a crowd. On the other hand, people often come up to me on the street and ask for directions (more fools they, as I am rarely of much help); start talking to me on buses or in waiting rooms; sitting next to someone we often end up in conversation. My husband is always fascinated by this as it never happens to him. He shakes his head in wonder as I regale him with these stories.

Les bouledogues français

My Frenchie featured in this blog is called Higgins, a British name if there ever was one. And rightly so. On our recent trip, husband reminded me that the French bulldog breed has its origins in Nottingham, where the lace workers who travelled to France had to keep their canine companions small in order to go on the boats across to Calais.

Have you ever been surprised to discover that something you thought of as typically French or English was not at all?

 

 

 

Fête des mères

In honour of Mother’s Day in France this Sunday, and in memory of my mother who would have been 90 this year, here are a few memories I hold dear.

Her name was Gladys, or Gwladys in the French spelling that picks up on the Welsh origins of the name. This post is not about anything French or Welsh but a woman who in some ways I hardly knew, and yet who was close to me as only a mother can be.

Gladys Catherine Angela Kennedy was born on the 21st day of March. “I came with the Spring,” she liked to say, with a raised eyebrow and the glint of a smile, all the self-deprecating humour of the British bred in her bone.

Perhaps Gladys was a name that needed a sense of humour. The only other Gladys we knew of was a gorilla at the zoo, and a funny looking cleaning lady on the TV commercials. One morning after my parents had been out late at a party, I found her name tag stuck on the toilet seat: “Hello, my name is Gladys.” When we asked why it was there, Dad said it was because that’s where a glad ass should be. He always called her Glad for short. And Glad she mostly was.

My mom (which we always pronounced ‘mum’, in the English way) was mine in the way that only a mother can be. She was the one person I could admit anything to, who understood my fears and helped dry my tears without judging or making fun. In return she confided in me, her eldest, making me feel special and unique.

She was proud to have a first-born girl of many talents. I was good at drawing and could ride a bicycle, had a fine voice and was not afraid of going on stage and showing off in front of people, none of which she was able to do. And when at times I got too big for my britches, she told me so, reminding me that humility was the greatest virtue and that God loves the weakest best.

God was where Gladys and I parted company.

To my eternal disgust, my mother named me after a nun, a certain Sister Mary Ellen that she herself had greatly admired. It probably explains why I later adopted my initials as a nickname. Other than my hero Julie Andrews, who is kicked out of the abbey for being rebellious in the Sound of Music, the only nun I could ever relate to was played by Sally Field. As a child The Flying Nun was one of my favourite TV shows, and I would have sold my soul to stay home to watch it on Sunday mornings rather than getting dressed up and going to mass. Come hell or high water, my mother conscripted all four of us children to attend church with her. Dad, a sometime Anglican, stayed home and read the paper.

The only part I liked about church was the hymns. It was also an opportunity to observe the backs of people’s heads and try to catch them in surreptitious behaviour such as nose picking, shifting suspiciously in their seats (maybe that was why they were called pews!) or catching a few z’s. When I got bored with that, it was my personal ambition to try and make my mother laugh. This didn’t always work but every now and then I would draw her attention to some particularly ridiculous looking hat or a bald fellow singing off-key in the next row. At my best I’d manage to reduce her to tears. It got to a point where if I could only catch her eye, I could get her going with a simple deadpan stare. The poor woman learned to religiously avoid looking at her eldest daughter during mass.

When I reached the grand old age of sixteen I put my foot down, announcing to my mother one Sunday morning that I had decided not to go to church anymore. God was all very well but I just didn’t believe in religion, I explained, standing on the stairs in my pyjamas when they were about to leave for Holy Spirit. Why should the Pope dictate that people spend their Sunday mornings inside some church smelling incense? My idea of spirituality was going outside and communing with nature. Furthermore, it went against my feminist principles: why shouldn’t women be priests? Besides, I declared, figuring I might as well go the whole nine yards, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with sex outside of marriage.

Upon hearing this speech my mother blinked at me in stupefaction: I may as well have told her I was Mary Magdalene. She eventually got past the shock and accepted that, despite having done everything she could do to raise me as a Catholic, I was not cut out to be one of the faithful.

Other than her family and her faith, what kept my mother going in life were her friends, along with her coffee and cigarettes. She drank coffee all day long and was almost never without a smoke. Gladys was a people person. Her friends and acquaintances were many; she got a kick out of people from all walks of life and truly enjoyed listening to their stories. She always laughed, no matter how silly the joke. But although her sense of humour held her in good stead, it was not always enough. Sometimes she was depressed, and these times were hard on all of us.

She was not a very good housekeeper; this was less to do with any innate lack of orderliness but rather of being overwhelmed by life: four children, two large dogs and a husband whose right it was to come home and put his feet up. Our house was never dirty but it was often hard to tell beneath the sea of clutter.

Her priorities were often elsewhere. She was a good cook and a light hand with pastry. She had excellent, expensive taste; she decorated and dressed well, if conservatively. She often went out to church groups and she and my father went to theatre evenings and to play bridge.

Mom did not approve of swearing but she did use colourful language. She was famous in our family for her expressions: “Go to Putney on a pig!” she would say in moments of duress. Her most cutting criticism was, “She gives me the pip!” And she often asked the iconic question: “Who’s she when she’s out?”

‘Mother’ was the name that Gladys always used when referring to her own mother, my grandmother, upon whom she doted. There was a formality in their relationship that was altogether foreign to me. I detested all things stuffy and stuck up. I wanted us all to be friends and equals, kids and their parents and grandparents, with no artificial boundaries of age or politesse between us.

From the first time they met, Gladys liked and approved of her future French son-in-law – small matter that he was foreign and seven years my junior. She got a kick out of his fractured way of speaking English. “You have a nicer sewer,” he said when he saw her sewing machine; another time he said ‘crow’ and pronounced it like cow, sending her into the kitchen in fits of giggles. He also won points by thoroughly enjoying her home cooking, the ultimate compliment, resulting in a situation of shortage at family suppers that was quickly dubbed, “The Frenchman factor.”

She had a sweet tooth, and when she came over with my family to Paris for our wedding, she made it her personal ambition to visit every pâtisserie and sample every pastry possible. I remember her clapping her hands with delight when a waiter came bearing her dessert, a generously sauced serving of profiteroles.

Gladys passed away far too early, shortly after learning that I was expecting her first grandchild. Many chapters of the family story have unfurled in the years since she left us, and still she is missed and fondly remembered. She lives on in her grandchildren, who resemble her in different ways: a bit of bone structure here, a smile and a kind word there.

My mother’s story is part of me, but her story is not mine. Although I eventually did become a mother, I did it on my own terms. Perhaps being true to myself was the greatest tribute I could pay to Gladys.

gladioli

Bonne fête à toutes les mamans!