Humour Belge

Humour BelgeBelgians are to the French what Newfies are to Canadians. The butt of many a joke.

The French find the so-called Belgian accent (which is actually the Brussels accent) funny. They find the fact that ‘frites’ (which are not French but Belgian) are the national symbol of their neighbour, funny.

There is just something the French find funny about Belgians. So they make fun of the fries, the flat country, the ‘thick’ people.

The Belgians, while they may not entirely appreciate such jokes, take them with a particular brand of irony and self-deprecating pride.

Some have made a career of la blague Belge. Many popular artists, entertainers and on-air personalities in France are Belgian, including the cartoonist Philippe Geluck, who explains the phenomenon of Belgian humour (in French) here.

And then there is Megan, a YouTube star whose video following Tuesday’s terror attacks has gone viral. Here it is (also in French):

For the non-French speakers, she is saying: “Seriously? You expect that this will keep us down? You really think that the ones who invented the waffle and the frite, the land of chocolate and beer, will not be back out on the streets again tomorrow? Really?)

It doesn’t feel right to laugh or make fun following the unspeakable loss of innocent life. Not In New York, or London, or Paris. But perhaps, after all, it is the right thing in Brussels.

Swedish for ‘I’ll kill you’

Ikea GuyI used to read a column in the newspaper called “Can this marriage be saved?” Both halves of a troubled couple would tell their side of the story, then the marriage counsellor would pronounce an opinion as to whether or not the relationship could survive, and what needed to be done. It was pop psychology at its poppest. Needless to say, I ate it up.

I have never felt the need for this kind of advice. I know my marriage can survive. I know it because we have survived the true test, the only one that matters. My husband and I have survived – you guessed it: Ikea.

Labor and childbirth, bringing up two kids, multiple cats and dogs, an international move, teaching me to drive a standard – all of this pales in comparison to the stress of the ultimate relationship test: Shopping for, loading and assembling furniture from the retailer whose ad campaign – ‘Swedish for common sense’ – I long ago transformed into: ‘Swedish for I’ll kill you.’

Not only have we survived Ikea, we have done it on two continents and in two different languages. No, make that three – we’ve also shopped Ikea in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

In our early days, we went there because we had no money. We urgently needed a fold-out bed that was cheap without breaking his mother’s back – Ikea was there. Then we needed a Billy bookcase because, well, we’re both readers – there were books. Whenever in the store we discovered we needed a whole bunch of bizarrely named items. Ektorp. Kvarnvik. Tidafors.

Then we needed a crib. Heavily pregnant, we schlepped through Ikea in Toronto. Biblical thoughts ran through my head: “She grew hungry in Kitchens, broke waters in Bathrooms, lay down in Bedrooms.”

Our different navigating styles became evident as I instinctively sought the shortcuts (long before they became official, going against the flow of packed humanity). He followed the official routes while moaning and complaining about the whole thing. Ikea for me was a challenge, for him it was plain old suffering.

Our different approaches became even more apparent when it came to loading the car. I wanted to strategize the trunk and figure out a plan, but before I could even think he had shoved it all in (what can I say, it’s a male thing!).

And our differences came to a head when it was time to assemble the f**ing things. While I methodically sorted the various parts, he had the main frame assembled and had thrown out boxes and instructions. Inevitably, there were tensions. We would be missing a screw (I always knew this to be true about myself) or some other essential widget. He would become furious about Ikea and its crap quality, swearing never to return. I would go back by myself the next day, swearing never to allow him access to a screwdriver again.

The crib got assembled. I did not give birth in Bedrooms. Miraculously, our furniture stood straight. Some of it has lasted as long as our marriage.

I have learned how to make the most of our differences. I let him do the heavy work while I hide the instructions and save them in a file. I shop by myself and just ask for his help in unloading the car. Solo, in my Micra, 5’2’’ of determination, I have managed to transport entire wardrobes. Where there’s a will, there’s a woman.

In the latest chapter of my love-hate Ikea relationship, the dog left his mark upon a footstool where the cat was lording it up. I felt love for the Swedes when I saw that the cover was removable and washable. Then I saw how (insert that word again) hard it was to remove the thing, ripping my cuticles in the process. Mostly husband is way more patient than me. And he has stronger hands. So when I washed the cover of the *unpronounceable name* he promised to put it back on for me when it was dry, then promptly forgot and left for the week. I waited three days and then decided to do it myself (did I mention patience is not my virtue?)

If he could do it, I could do it. First, I put on one corner. This did not work, as it would not stretch to fit the other corners. I tugged and I pulled and it started to rip. I cursed and I swore and examined my bloodied cuticles.

I reasoned the technique was just to get it over the entire frame more or less straight, then fix the seams. I did this, congratulating myself on the triumph of rational thinking. Then I tried to fix the velcro. It was upside down. I cursed and swore a bit more. Arv! Flört! Kortvarig!

Sometimes people ask: after so many years in France, which language do you curse in? Both, of course. And occasionally, in Ikea.

What’s your most memorable Ikea moment?

How far to Pétaouchnok?

IMG_3218It’s as foreign and far removed as Timbuktu, and as unpronounceable as any four syllables in French can be. And just where is Pétaouchnok you ask? Theoretically somewhere in Russia or the Ukraine, although it’s an imaginary place. Also known in French as le trou perdu, le bled or le patelin. Pretty well everywhere in provincial France outside of Lyon, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Marseille, Toulouse and Nice. I exaggerate, if only slightly.

Just as bizarre and foreign sounding are most of the place names that appear on the signs of French towns – their sister cities or twin towns as they call them over here. Twinning or jumelage in French is a kind of socioeconomic mentoring between towns of different places and cultures intended to foster better understanding and economic ties. The European list is here if you’re interested.

Our current town is too small to have a twin, but nearby Evian has two. I am still waiting to see one that says ‘Ville jumeléé avec Pétaouchnok.’

The twinning program in its current form began after the second world war, which explains why so many French towns are twinned with German ones. There was certainly a need to bridge the huge gap between European countries in the post-war period. As one of my all-time favorite television programs so brilliantly spoofed:

I wonder whether twinning exists on a different level.

The street was used to live on was called Le Couchant, referring to the sunset. We had been living there for ten years when, on the other side of town, they built a new development with a street called Le Levant, or the rising sun. One day my daughter asked if we thought that there was a family living there who were just like us, only opposites. Where the Dad was always giving orders and the Mom was really happy all the time. Out of the mouths of babes.

Does your town have a twin? How do you say ‘trou perdu’?

 

 

Costard cravate

Costard-cravateDid you know that French men wear costumes to work?

‘Costard-cravate’ is the familiar term for a suit and tie, the uniform of the French businessman. The official name is le costume, or more correctly, according to the dictionary, le complet, although I have never heard this term used.

For special occasions, in a funny turn of franglais, they wear un smoking, or what we call a tuxedo. A.k.a. a monkey suit.

The business casual craze has been slow to catch on in France. Le costume is still de rigueur for les hommes in the corporate world, finance and politics. For women there’s a bit more flexibility but classic apparel for the career girl is un tailleur, or skirt suit.

This is slowly changing, however, in the much of the European business world. My husband, who now manages IT projects for a biopharma company, goes to work in jeans and sports gear. Dressing up means wearing chinos and a shirt with a collar. I have to admit I prefer this most of the time. But I sort of miss seeing him in a suit now and then.

When I was a kid, my Dad would leave for work every morning in a suit and tie, usually topped by an overcoat, a hat on his head and carrying a leather attaché case. I thought all men did this, until I discovered that not everyone’s Dad worked in an office.

Not having to wear a suit and tie is one of the reasons I’m grateful not to be a man.

When I first left school and went to work in an office, I hated having to put on stockings and heels. Dressing up like a secretary felt a lot like wearing a costume. So I decided to get a job in advertising, where only the suits wore suits. Copywriters and art directors could get away with just about anything as long as they were ‘creative.’

Now I work freelance and when I go to out to client meetings I try to look professional yet still feel like myself. The rest of the time, working at my home office, I might wear the same clothes that I do for yoga.

What about you? Is it costard-cravate or do you prefer to keep it casual?

All Crete to me

All Crete to me

After a week on the beautiful isle of Crete, I’ve revised the expression ‘It’s all Greek to me’ to mean something completely different. And I simply must share a few of the things that are all Crete to me.

One of the things I love about living in Europe is how close you are to so many amazing destinations. Crete was a bit far for Easyjet: it’s fine for a quick hop but the seats aren’t all that comfortable for a flight of almost 3 hours. But the low-cost airfares make this an affordable destination for French travelers.

There are just so many things to love about Crete. Here are my favorites:

IMG_2426The weather.  We were worried that mid-October might be a bit late for the beach. We need not have feared. It was mostly in the mid-20s, although there were a few clouds and windy days with cooler temps. That did not keep me out of the water. I love the salt water of the sea, and there were waves enough for a bit of body surfing.

I am fair skinned and usually have difficulty staying put in the sun. But as the sun was weaker at this time of year, I was able to stick it out and have actually got a nice tan on my legs. Too bad it’s just in time to cover them up for winter back home!

 

IMG_2507The beaches. The sand on Crete is like brown sugar, and there is very little else underfoot. You can walk out a long way in the crystal clear water before it gets deep.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2456Under the changing skies, the sea has more shades of cerulean than I ever imagined. The crashing of waves and cooling sea breezes were wonderfully relaxing.

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The food. This is Cretan health food: Feta that fêtes the sheep, tomatoes so ripe they taste like sauce off the vine. Ubiquitous olives and honey and thyme.

 

 

 

Yummy yoghurt thick as whipped cream.

 

 

 

 

Pastries of fine phyllo filled with spinach and cheese.

 

 

 

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The drinks. Some very nice wines: Crisp whites, round rosés and reds of surprising depth. And damn good beer – Mythos – for me, the only drink on the beach.

 

 

 

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The fauna. Everywhere, cats. Feral, feline and offering hours of free entertainment. And kri-kri, the little mountain goats that give us such beautiful goat’s cheese.

 

 

 

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The fishing. Harbors filled with fishing boats of every color. Who bring back the wonders of the sea.

Tiny fish in a marinade. Savoury sardines. Fresh sea bass. Squid and calamari…

 

 

 

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The Flora. Surprising in its colour and variety. Red earth and porous rock. Forests of tamaris trees. Dried golden stems and deep purple petals, sage green and yellow stars.

 

 

 

 

I returned from Crete restored and replenished, feeling like this plante grasse (succulent) that grows wild on Crete – plump little green stems all rosy on the tips.

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Have you ever been to the Greek islands? Do you have a favorite holiday spot?