A la pesée

A heavy subject is weighing on my mind this week. Let me share some thoughts on fruit and vegetables, or more specifically, the purchase of said foods in French supermarkets.

I do try to buy direct from the producer or at the open-air markets, preferably organic and in season. But the choice of fresh produce is rather less bountiful where we live in the Haute Savoie than in Lyon, for example, or Paris, and the fact is that I often find myself buying fruit and vegetables at the supermarket. Not ideal but ‘pratique’ as we say in French, to be able to get everything in one place. At least in theory.

Items are sold either per unit, ‘à la pièce’, or more often by weight, ‘au poids’. Very few stores do this for you at the checkout so you find yourself jockeying for position in front of one of the few weighing stations in the fruit and veg section.

First, you grab yourself a plastic bag (easier said than done as it is usually on a roll that must be carefully peeled off) or, if you are ecologically inclined, you bring or buy a reusable cotton bag. Fill said bag with chosen product and then approach the scales. If there is no line-up you can be sure that one will form after you immediately, thereby adding to your performance anxiety upon facing the screen.

As a non-native French speaker, albeit one who knows her way around a supermarket (They don’t call them ‘les courses’ for nothing!), I find the touch screen with its instructions challenging. First you must select the category: ‘fruits’ or ‘légumes’. So far so easy. Although sometimes there will be a third category here already lending confusion: ‘éxotiques’.

Being less of a picture person than a word person, the label is essential. But once I get to the next screen, confusion reigns. A new set of categories, grouping the produce by type, has been introduced, often leaving me perplexed. There is no apparent rhyme or reason in the way this is organized.

A few weeks back, after looking blankly at the screen for several seconds as other shoppers shot daggers into my back, I asked the guy stocking produce why there was no item for kiwis. “C’est marqué groupe kiwis,” he replied. Ah. I had missed an entire category.

The problems with this system are many. Starting with the vocabulary. It’s all very well to know the word for citrus fruit – agrumes. But do most people actually think of squash as ‘cucurbitacea’? Or carrots as ‘légume racine’? Do you look for tomatoes under ‘g’ for group or ‘t’ for tomato? And then there is the taxonomy. I mean, seriously. Who ever heard of ‘légumes soleil’ for peppers, zucchini and eggplant? And how confusing is ‘salades crudité’? ‘Salades’ means lettuce in French and ‘crudités’ means any fresh veg eaten raw. Do I look for carrots there or as a root vegetable?

Okay, maybe I am overthinking this a little. There are pictures to clue me in after all. But when I am standing at the scales with a queue forming behind me, my brain freezes. Inevitably a kind (or impatient) person will point me to the right category as I stand before the screen, finger waving stupidly. “Voilà!” she will say sweetly, as I feign thanks while wishing she would go away.

Pity the non-French speaker who attempts to shop for fresh produce. Pity the beleaguered shoppers who must wait while they learn to think in French. Pity the fruit and veg guy who must think up strange new categories in order to fit hundreds of items on a screen.

I can’t help but note that the Swiss have it all figured out with their usual efficiency. Each item in the fresh produce section is numbered. All you have to do is enter the correct number on the scales. It even trains your brain a wee bit to go through the section thinking, “Carrots 101, broccoli 129’.

How do you get your fruit and veg?

La Petite Ceinture

Did you know that you can explore history and discover the secret green spaces of an old Paris train line known as ‘La Petite Ceinture’?

The little belt, as it was called, circled Paris long before the métro. A rail line built in the second half of the 19th century, it was designed to link the different train stations and provide an efficient way of transporting freight around the French capital’s fortifications. It began serving passengers in 1862 and the complete rail loop, 32 kilometres all around Paris, was completed in 1869.

Le Métropolitain de Paris, built at the turn of the century, brought about the decline of the Petite Ceinture. From 39 million passengers in 1900, during the Exposition Universelle, the traffic fell to just 7 million in 1927. Le métro soon became the preferred way to get around Paris.

The old line closed down in 1934 and entire sections of the railway were left to decay for many decades. Access was forbidden but the old ‘chemin de fer’ became a kind of ‘secret’ greenbelt enjoyed by graffiti artists and those seeking a haven of calm within the city.

In recent years stations and sections of the old line have been restored and transformed, some as modern links in new transit lines like the ‘RER C’ at Courcelles-Levallois. Other sections have been taken over by restaurants, cultural centres and urban green spaces. Full history and a chart of all the sections here on Wikipedia.

Today, you can access 6.5 kilometres of parks and cultural activities on the restored Petite Ceinture line at different spots all around Paris.

This Saturday, August 31st is the ‘Fête de la Petite Ceinture’. Entry is free with fun and games, nature walks, concerts and workshops happening at different times and places. Visit the City of Paris website for details (in French only 🧐😠).

If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris this weekend, check it out!

Do you know La Petite Ceinture? Have you ever walked along the old train line?

Né quelque part

I was born in Toronto, at St. Michael’s Hospital, somewhere in the wee hours of the first day of August in the middle of the last century. I did not ask to be born but I’m glad I was. I am grateful to have been born at a time and in a place that has allowed me to live, to be safe and have enough to eat, to grow up and get an education and be able to go out and see the world freely.

We are all born somewhere, as Maxime Le Forestier evokes so beautifully in the song that provides the inspiration for this post. I was happy to find this cinematic gem of a music video from 1988.

I remember the song well. It was on the charts shortly after we’d married and before our son was born. We were travelling back and forth between Canada and France a lot back then, with families on both sides. Ultimately we chose to live in France but we can still go back to the country I still think of as home and live there if we choose. How lucky we are, and our children too, to be able to choose between two countries, through accidents of birth.

I was struck by this when the story of the ‘Open Arms’ broke last week. The hundreds migrants packed on board the NGO rescue ship just a couple of hundred metres from Italy’s nearest shores on the island of Lampedusa. Waiting for nearly three weeks while a political battle waged over their right to disembark. Growing increasingly sick, impatient, angry. In desperation, some jumped ship and tried to swim ashore. The saintly people who kept them safe until finally, after the Italian government collapsed, the order came to allow them ashore. Their joy at finding themselves alive and on terra firma.

They are there and I am here because of being born somewhere. Né quelque part. An accident of birth, of time and of place.

Yes, I am white, privileged, rich by some standards. Yes, it is easy for me, a bi-national, with enough food on my table, to be liberal in my thinking. I have not had to fight for a place, or my beliefs, or my rights as a human being. Yet all of those things only make me more convinced that we are all the same. None of us deserves more than any other to be here. Or there.

I recently watched a drama on the BBC called ‘Years and Years’. It brilliantly explored this theme along with that of the future we are living in, today and tomorrow, within a xenophobic political post-Brexit context that was frighteningly real. Emma Thompson was entirely credible as  the populist Prime Minister. It made me think: what is this world we have created in which we scroll through our newsfeeds and skim over the real-life horror stories of human suffering to giggle over cute animal memes and admire each other’s holiday photos?

I am glad to have been born, to have lived through so many changes and hopefully continue to do so for many years more. Yet I wonder: would I feel this way, would I even be here at all, if my parents had lived somewhere else?

So tell me: where were you born? How has it affected your life?

Bonus: Here are the lyrics (with a rough English translation)
from ‘Né quelque part’ by Maxime Le Forestier:

We do not choose our parents, we do not choose our family
On choisit pas ses parents, on choisit pas sa famille

We do not choose the sidewalks of Manila
On choisit pas non plus les trottoirs de Manille

Or Paris or Algiers to learn how to walk
De Paris ou d’Alger pour apprendre à marcher

To be born somewhere
Être né quelque part

To be born somewhere, for one who is born
Être né quelque part, pour celui qui est né

It’s always a coincidence
C’est toujours un hasard

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

There are farmyard birds and birds of passage
Y a des oiseaux de basse cour et des oiseaux de passage

They know where their nests are
Ils savent où sont leur nids

Whether they return from their trip or stay at home
Qu’ils rentrent de voyage ou qu’ils restent chez eux

They know where their eggs are
Ils savent où sont leurs oeufs

To be born somewhere
Être né quelque part

To be born somewhere is to leave when you want
Être né quelque part, c’est partir quand on veut

Come back when you leave
Revenir quand on part

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

Are people born equal in rights
Est-ce que les gens naissent égaux en droits

Where they are born
À l’endroit où ils naissent

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

Are people born equal in rights
Est-ce que les gens naissent égaux en droits

Where they are born
À l’endroit où ils naissent

Whether people are born that way or not
Que les gens naissent pareils ou pas

We do not choose our parents, we do not choose our family
On choisit pas ses parents, on choisit pas sa famille

We do not choose the sidewalks of Manila
On choisit pas non plus les trottoirs de Manille

Or Paris or Algiers to learn how to walk
De Paris ou d’Alger pour apprendre à marcher

I was born somewhere
Je suis né quelque part

I was born somewhere, leave me this landmark
Je suis né quelque part, laissez-moi ce repère

Or I lose my memory
Ou je perds la mémoire

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

Are people born equal in rights
Est-ce que les gens naissent égaux en droits

Where they are born
À l’endroit où ils naissent

Whether people are born that way or not
Que les gens naissent pareils ou pas

Are people born equal in rights
Est-ce que les gens naissent égaux en droits

Where they are born
À l’endroit où ils naissent

Whether people are born that way or not
Que les gens naissent pareils ou pas

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Bruno Jean Bernard Le Forestier / Jean Pierre GuignonNé quelque part lyrics © Salut Ô Éditions, SO2 Édition, Quatryo Éditions

Le Canard enchaîné

How a Chained Duck keeps France on its toes.

I don’t read the newspaper but if I did it would be Le Canard Enchaîné.

The investigative weekly first appeared in Paris in 1915. It was founded during World War I by a couple of French journalists, Maurice and Jeanne Maréchal, to help keep up moral in France. More than 100 years later the newspaper is still going strong, despite the slow demise of print media everywhere.

The title ‘Le Canard Enchaîné’ is a play on words taken from ‘canard’ (duck) which is also slang for a newspaper or what in English we might call a ‘rag’, and ‘enchaîné’ which means chained or linked. The Chained Duck has been quacking its revealing stories and satirical cartoons about the French political and business class for decades. The paper is said to have our leaders quaking in their boots. De Gaulle was known to regularly ask: “What has the bird got to say?”

Stop the press: You don’t read the paper? How do you keep yourself informed about what is really going on? I admire people who take the time to read the paper. The level of information you can get from a decent newspaper is far superior to anything available on the web, via radio or television.

France is a country with a lot of newspapers. Major dailies include Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, Les Echos, L’Equipe…to name but a few of the national editions. Alongside these are many respected regional papers: Ouest France, La Voix du Nord, La Dépêche du Midi. The list goes on, along with many local journals and the free press (meaning the papers that are distributed for free to commuters, not necessarily ‘free’ editorially).

The Canard ensures its editorial independence by the fact that it takes no ads and is privately owned, mostly by its own employees. The newspaper practices old-school journalism, relying primarily on leaks from sources from within the government. It is available only in print in France and digitally outside of Europe.

The latest edition of the Canard features stories about shootings in Trumpland, Brexit woes and the ongoing saga of the Notre Dame renovations. The latter story has been in the news this week following revelations of extensive lead pollution resulting from the fire in the cathedral and in the surrounding streets, posing a risk to both local residents and workers. The complexity of securing the site in order to begin the renovations has proven more challenging than first imagined and it is looking like the promised timeline will not be respected. In the meantime, traditionalists and modernists debate over whether to rebuild the structure with the exact same materials, i.e. oak beams, or something more fireproof.

A suivre.

Et toi? Do you read a daily or weekly newspaper?

Objets perdus

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

I hate losing things.

The thing is, most of the time, 99% perhaps, they are not lost. Just misplaced.

My husband is perfectly fine with this. After a few minutes of irritation and rapid searching, he gives up. It’s like he lives his life according to what is possibly the world’s first meme:

“If you love something, set it free.
If it comes back, it is yours;
if it doesn’t, it never was.”

Quote: Richard Bach, author of the 1970s novel ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’.

I, on the other hand, drive myself and those around me mad by embarking on a relentless search. Retracing steps. Picturing the object the last time I saw it. Not resting until I have exhausted every possible avenue of investigation that may lead me back to the thing.

“How do you say, ‘lost and found’ in French?” I asked my husband, when I first tried to retrace a lost object in Paris.

“Objets perdus,” he said. “Or, objets trouvés.” Hmm, I wondered. Which is it? The yin or the yang?

Last week, when I lost my very expensive glasses — the ones with the Alain Mikli frames and the progressive lenses that go dark in the sun — on a trip to Annecy, I left no stone unturned. Searched the car, various bags, called the restaurant where we’d had lunch. Emailed them a reminder. Called the stand-up paddle rental place. They all replied kindly and with patience that sadly, no glasses had been found. Rien.

Heart heavy, I realized that acceptance was probably the best approach.

Yet secretly I began to think about getting new ones. They are my working glasses after all, the only pair that lets me comfortably see my computer screen while reading close up, standing up and walking around. Oh, and if somebody comes to the door, as it happens fairly often, my eyes don’t tear up as they normally do in the sun.

“Wait for a while,” advised my husband. “They may turn up yet. Besides, they are very expensive!” He even volunteered to look for them again. Then forgot all about it.

Granted, he loses things a lot more often than I do. His wallet on our honeymoon, his wedding ring while repainting our first apartment, his keys more times than I can remember. He worries less, manages fine without. Is generally happier. I wish I could be more like that.

Years ago, on a return flight from Croatia, his suitcase vanished into some lost-luggage vortex. It was a smart little Samsonite that I’d bought, and it contained all of his best casual clothes. They never found it. If memory serves, we got $200 compensation. I am still in mourning for one particular summer shirt.

It is the lost part of the thing that upsets me. There is no closure. And let’s face it, is there anything sadder than a single sock? Anything more useless than a key untraceable to its lock? One lone earring, bereft of its mate, leaves me longing for my lost youth. Lost luggage makes me grieve for the perfect items that will never be replaced. Knowing it is out there, somewhere, of virtually no value to anyone but me.

I suppose this means I should work on something that in yoga we call attachment. To be happy, we must strive for non-attachment, which frees us to experience the world in a deeper, more fulfilling way. I am far too attached to things and to my creature comforts in general. I know this to be true. And yet. How wonderful is it to be able to see the world through a comfortable pair of glasses?

The best part of losing things is finding them again. The joy I felt when my glasses turned up yesterday, wedged in their black case in a corner pocket of the trunk, was like a redemption.

All is not lost.

Everything is possible.

Namaste.

P.S. What is the most memorable thing you have ever lost or found?

Feature photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash