Battre son plein

One month into Spring, nature has reached fever pitch in our corner of France.

The greening of fields and trees is perhaps one or two shades away from its most intense. But the pink and white blossoms on the trees are in full bloom, the fields are intensely yellow with dandelion and rapeseed, every plant is either burgeoning or bearing signs of a bud. Flying insects go about their business everywhere and bump up against the windows in the sun.

The birds do not seem to sleep at all (and I am often awake to hear them). I’ve no idea if these are normal birds, perhaps twittering all night long to protect their young, or night birds. There are a couple of nests in the eaves. Whatever they are, I don’t remember ever hearing quite this much nocturnal peeping before.

It’s a wonderful time of year. In a couple of weeks, the farmers will have plowed the fields for planting, the blossoms will be off the trees and the sun will be high enough to send me scurrying for a hat.

‘Battre son plein’ means to reach a crescendo, a culmination point. The expression is often used to describe an event, like a party or fair (la fête bat son plein). It is thought to find roots in the description of the tide reaching its maximum point before going out, but this is not certain. Some say it has to do with music, others with the moon.

Whatever it is, my heart is beating along with it.

Along with it beats the rest of French life. Macron has called in the military to remove the ‘zadistes’ or squatters from the ill-fated Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport/agricultural development (more on that later). The students are blocking a dozen universities; trains and planes are still regularly cancelled. And this week, following the worrying military strikes in Syria by France, Britain and the US, it was announced that Macron has taken steps to withdraw the Legion of Honour awarded to Assad by former president Jacques Chirac. Why he got it in the first place is a mystery.

As our spring season reaches fever pitch, across the pond snow shovels are still in active duty. And down under, I hear a collective sigh of relief at the passing of the summer’s heat.

Whatever weather is at your door, may you enjoy it while it lasts or herald what’s next.

Happy days!

Nos meilleurs délais

‘Nos meilleurs délais’ is one of those very French expressions I struggle with. In theory it means ‘at our earliest convenience’, ‘in a timely manner’ or simply as soon as possible. In practice, soon is not possible. I find that in France instead of ASAP, ‘delay’ is the operative word.

We are in the midst of a month of delays due to various strikes and it is surely only right and normal that things slow down. But there has been no mail in my box this week and yesterday the internet went down for the better part of the day. Without a word of warning, or explanation.

I tried to be zen. “Work on something that doesn’t require the internet,” my reasonable self told less patient me. Okay. I took a crack at writing the new business proposal I’d been thinking of sending out. But I wanted to check on a quote to include. Then on a company I was planning on contacting. So I tried again. With a different browser. Still no ignition.

I called Orange. That’s the recently rebranded name for the phone service, what most French people still think of as France Telecom. I did not get a human being, bien sûr. After pressing various numbers, including my full, 10-digit land line, I was directed to the right voice box. It informed me that, due to an ‘incident’ in my area, they were unable to help me further. However, if I so wished, I could punch in my mobile number and they would text me when it was resolved. In went my mobile number.

I hung up and promptly received an SMS on my clunky old French cell, the one I keep for essential messages with service providers who only want to send info to a mobile. My smart phone is for work, and that’s a Swiss number. Orange had kindly sent a link to a website where I could get further updates on the internet breakdown. Argh!

Unable to access the link from my (dumb, unconnected) French phone, it occurred to me I could use my iPhone. In fact, it occurred to me that I could connect my computer to my phone’s hotspot via my Swiss provider and get an internet connection. Ignition! It was too slow to be very convenient (as I’m on the edge of network coverage) but it was a start.

Unfortunately Orange wanted my log-in details, which didn’t have. After farting around with that for a while, I finally got a new password and accessed my account. When, after scrolling through various sections, I got to the part about internet service, it said: “We are experiencing a larger than normal request for support and will respond to your request as soon as possible.”

Nos meilleurs délais? I gave up.

Macron has committed to getting all of France wired for ultra-high-speed internet by 2022. But it seems that in order to meet this commitment in a timely manner  not everyone will get fibre but 4G. Fast, but not super fast. Still, our current so-called high speed service here in the boonies is so slow that I’ll take that with pleasure.

The main reason for all of the strikes at the moment is the reform of the ‘cheminots’ or national rail company employees. This has been in the works for some time and has to do with a European directive on opening up the train lines to competition. Although the current SNCF employees have been promised that they will keep all of their rights and salary, they are striking for the future. They want all new hires to also keep their status as public workers, with perks and premiums and the opportunity of a full pension at 52.

Clearly this is not going to happen. But for the unions, and a majority of French, it’s the thin end of the wedge. If the cheminots go down, it’s the end of life as we know it. Automated cashiers and driverless cars and soon we’ll all be force-fed ready meals from MacDo.

In the meantime, five hours later, the internet came back on. I googled to find out whether Orange had been on strike but there was no mention in the news. I have concluded that it was a stealth operation by disgruntled workers in a show of sympathy.

But everybody else and his uncle is on strike this spring: Air France (they want a 6% pay increase), garbage collectors, energy workers, university students. The latter are worrying as they are the ones credited for bringing the country to its knees in May 1968. More on that later.

Have you been affected by any strikes lately?

Au printemps

Spring has been taking its sweet time in making an appearance. Normally the signs are visible by mid-March but this year Easter came and went with nary a blossom. It’s not surprising that the longed-for season of renewal is dragging its feet – winter came in with a bang far later than usual. But this week, enfin! The unmistakable signs of le printemps are here at last.

The birds are the first ones to announce that something is up. Even before we sprang forward by an hour, I could hear them twittering away in the predawn dark. Now there is a flurry of activity going on in the eaves and in the branches at all hours.

 

Hello yellow
Le jaune de forsythia

Forsythia is the first floral sign of spring. Hello yellow! I love it for its brief, joyful burst that heralds so much to come. Its intense yellow hurrah will only last a few weeks at best. It’s joined by bright daffodils and a softer yellow wild flower that grows around the base of trees. Wish I knew its name.

Next: the rain. It has been pouring on and off for the past couple of weeks. We had an actual thunderstorm yesterday. I could feel winter’s cold breath blowing madly against the warmer spring air. It’s colder again this morning so winter may have won the battle but spring will win the war.

Around town, all the signs are there too: the year’s first ‘braderie’ or rummage sale is coming up this weekend and – joy! – the local restaurant by the lake is open again. It closes from October to March as it specializes in local lake fish. Can’t wait to have the season’s first plate of filets de perche, the tiny fish that are cooked ‘à la meunière’ and served simply with a butter and lemon sauce.

Restaurant du Port

But first, there is the obligatory post-winter régime to rid ourselves of excess blubber. Signs have sprouted in the shops promoting ‘cure d’amincissement’, ‘détox’ and ‘minceur’. As for me, I find that it helps to eat less. So I’ve cut out my sweet and salty treats for now and am upping the ante with a bit more exercise.

Another sign of spring is the sudden onset of wardrobe renovation. I went down to the charity shop in the village and splurged on several second-hand finds. Someone who is just my size and has excellent taste must live around here. Then, given that I’d only spent a few euros, I splashed out on a brand new pair of summer sandals online. Oops. Can’t wait to take these babies for a trot.

Les sandales

Now the schoolkids are on holiday for another two weeks. Easter vacation is their last official break before the summer. There has been talk about reducing the (in my opinion, ridiculous) amount of vacation time between the Toussaint, Christmas, Winter and Spring breaks (each of which last two weeks). The mere mention of such a change in the sacrosanct French school calendar has various unions gearing up for action.

Speaking of which: across France, strike season is gaining momentum as the SNCF continues it movement, or lack of. More on that later.

What’s your favourite sign of spring?

Aux toilettes

‘Here fall in ruin the wonders of your cooking.’

Following an emotional week here in France (see note below) and in the spirit of keeping my mind from more noble pursuits, I am going to give you the down and dirty on toilets and bathrooms in France. By special request and dedicated to Kiki!

I have posted before about the mysteries of French grammar when it comes to les toilettes, such as why they are invariably referred to in the plural when most often available only in the singular?

When it comes to the plumbing in people’s homes, however, the plot thickens further. There is essentially one rule that guides such installations: the separation of the clean from the dirty.

A toilet is a dirty place; a bathroom a clean one. So you have the explanation, as far as I can gather, as to why the French insist on separating the WC from the salle de bains.

When we bought a new house a few years back, the builder provided plans which we were able to modify to a degree. For the upstairs, I suggested one room with everything: toilet, sink, bath and shower. The builder looked at me, perplexed by this request: Why would we do that when we had enough room to keep them separate? I was lost for words to explain why it seems only natural and fitting to be able to perform all of one’s ablutions at the same time and in the same space.

Seeing my hesitation, he drove the knife home: “C’est plus propre.” Cleaner sounded like a better option so I nodded dumbly as he kept the upstairs toilet separate from the bath. Downstairs, however, where space was at a premium, I had my way: next to the sink and opposite the shower went our main floor toilet. Not only did we save the cost of an extra door, our guests can wash their hands without having to navigate from one room to the next.

Toilets, much like bathrooms, half-baths, powder rooms and other plumbed spaces dedicated to personal hygiene, are not quite as readily available in France as they are in North America. Our first house had one toilet and a separate bathroom. The times they are a-changing, though, and the proliferation of the water closet with them. Now, you will often find small sinks in main floor toilets, elevating them to the status of the powder room or half-bath. Master bedrooms with ensuites are starting to proliferate in French homes, although most often these adjoining bathrooms do not include a toilet.

The insanity of this still leaves me gape-mouthed as I watch the property shows on TV in which potential buyers rave about the luxury of an ensuite bathroom without a word for the missing WC. Do their nocturnal wanderings happily take them downstairs to pee, I wonder? Or do they use the bidet? Perhaps this explains why I have so often heard the older generation see a bidet and exclaim: “C’est pratique, ça.”

The bidet deserves a post of its own. The mysteries of this plumbing fixture, so oddly reminiscent of the toilet yet with a tap instead of a flush, have long perplexed the English visitor to France. (“We use it to cool the wine!” a fellow Canadian once confided. Another friend raves: “Great for washing your feet!”) Formerly prized by the French as a way of ensuring intimate hygiene when showers and baths were scarce, the bidet has lost popularity since the 1970s and these days is rarely found in new houses. It is, however, rumoured to be making a bit of a comeback.

So, what are the various bathroom equivalents in French and English?

Les toilettes, also known in French slang as les chiottes, are most frequently found in a dedicated room called le WC. Alternatively, le cabinet de toilette.

(“WC? Like Water closet?” I asked in stupefaction when I discovered that toilets in France are identified by this entirely English yet unpronounceable expression. Because the ‘w’ is so unwieldy in French they pronounce it ‘vay say’.)

When it comes to homes and hotel rooms, there are a few terms to keep in mind.

  • WC séparé means a separate toilet. What to call this room in English presents a problem for North American translators. Water closet is literally what it is, i.e. a closet-sized room in which water runs. But that sounds odd. Toilet room? Still strange. Sometimes these toilet rooms have a small sink or ‘lavabo’, what some call a half-bath but for which I can find no specific expression in French.
  • Salle de bains is a bathroom that includes an actual bathtub.
  • Salle d’eau is a bathroom with a shower but no bath.
  • Salle de bains avec WC (or salle d’eau avec WC) is a bathroom that includes a toilet.
  • WC avec lave mains intégré is a new concept that I have just discovered. An actual toilet with a small sink built-in. Have I been leading a sheltered life or is this now a thing?

So there you have it. The scoop on the poop. Hope this helps you navigate the wonderful world of French plumbing.

Oh, and don’t forget to ‘tirer la chasse’ – flush — on your way out!

P.S. I can think of no more fitting way to honour the memory of a man who has become a national hero than to scoot over to FranceTaste’s excellent blog and read her post about Carcassonne in the aftermath of the Trèbes attack.

En grève. On strike!

It’s officially spring, mes amis! And in France that means strike season. As the SNCF and others kick off what will surely be a prolonged strike action (2 days per week for now, a new part-time approach that shows the unions are thinking outside the box…) I have decided to reblog this post from the early days of FranceSays. Hopefully still as fresh as spring!

FranceSays

'One strike may conceal another!' ‘One strike may conceal another’

Note to readers: The management would like to apologize for any inconvenience as the regularly scheduled post cannot be shown this week due to a labour dispute.

This would not be a blog about life in France without a little strike action. The right to strike – faire grève – is deeply engrained in the French culture, and it is one that is regularly exercised.

As the French national rail company, SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français), or, as I’ve heard it popularly referred to: Société Nationale des Connards et de Fainéants – national company of jerks and lazy asses – now enters its second week of strike, I feel inspired to join them.

There is a certain time pressure. The period between the month of long weekends in May and the official start of the summer holiday period in July is all…

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