It’s all Greek to me

Kitschy door to a public toilet on Iguana Beach in Crete

Kitschy public toilet on Iguana Beach in Crete

I’ve been wanting to say that for a long time. Ever since I arrived in France and found myself floundering in a sea of incomprehension. But something always seemed to get lost in translation. Until I figured out that it’s not Greek but Chinese that describes what the French find impossible to understand. ‘C’est du Chinois?’ I’m sorry but that just sounds wrong.

Spending a week on the island of Crete is the perfect excuse to finally use the expression. We’re here catching a week of sun and making up for the summer that wasn’t in France. Also the vacation we didn’t find time to take. By ‘vacation’ I mean going away to a place with nothing more urgent to do than sit on a deck chair and watch the waves roll in. And decide what to order for lunch.

So here we are in boutique-hotel heaven on the western part of the island near Chania (pronounced ‘HAH-nea’), enjoying mostly sunny skies and warm but not sweltering temperatures. Where they serve delicious, heart-healthy Cretan diet food and excellent local wines – meaning you can eat and drink to your heart’s delight knowing that any weight you gain will be chock full of omega 3’s and antioxidants. Rest assured, I’m sporting the healthiest of belly rolls.

The crowd at our hotel is a mixed bag – Nordic, German, Swiss, French, Brits and the odd North American transplant like me. Everybody speaks an English of varying accents, including the staff, who are Greek and Turkish. I love the fact that English is the default language that enables people from such different cultures to communicate, even on such a mundane level as ‘Please pass the olive oil’, or ‘May I have an extra beach towel?’

And I find myself doing that thing I do. Where I become a sponge for other people’s verbal tics, speaking with an unfamiliar accent or an oddly European intonation. I’m convinced it’s a form of empathy that makes me do this. Either that or an odd desire to parrot.

I first noticed this when I began to speak French. It was as if the process of learning a foreign tongue made me temporarily lose my own. I found myself stuttering to get words out in my native language, or worse, employing French grammatical constructions in English: “She is the sister of my mother,” I explained to someone who asked about my aunt. He gave me a puzzled look. “You mean your mother’s sister?”

Sometimes my English sounded like a bad translation: “I am desolate,” I would say by way of apology, literally translating ‘je suis désolée’ from French. It wasn’t intentional – it just came out that way. I remember feeling very silly after being introduced to someone and popping out ‘I’m enchanted.’ While ‘Je suis enchantée’ may be perfectly correct in French, it sounds more than a little dated in English.

Whatever the reason, being surrounded by foreign languages leaves me temporarily at a loss for words. Which is probably just as well. It is so incredibly beautiful here that words seem redundant. Even the Greek ones with all those strange characters that defy description. You just want to lay back and watch the waves roll in. Wriggle your toes in the sand. And forget about all the things you don’t understand.



Crossing the border

We live in France, just across the border from Switzerland. Geneva is our closest big city and we’re as often on the Swiss side as we are in France. Work is in Switzerland. So is the airport, the bigger department stores and many of our favorite restaurants.

Crossing the border is no big deal. In fact, it has become largely a technicality, since the Schengen accords abolished the need to control the borders between 26 European countries.

La Haute Savoie

La Haute Savoie

In our corner of Lake Geneva, the border weaves a crooked line through hills and along rivers. When you’re driving around, you may change countries without even realizing it.

Recently we had visitors from Canada who wondered: how can you tell which side of the border you’re on?

It’s not all that obvious. Here in the Haute Savoie part of the French Rhône-Alpes region, we have a toe in Switzerland, a heel in Italy, and a long history of belonging to various sides. Like our sister region, the Savoie, our departmental flag is almost identical to the Swiss flag. Geneva was taken over by France during the revolution and at one point in history, the area where we now live was supposed to be part of French-speaking Switzerland.

« Entrée Savoie » par Florian Pépellin

Sign from our sister department, La Savoie « Entrée Savoie » par Florian Pépellin

But Switzerland is another country. Other than the Swiss flag itself, which proudly flies at every border outpost, here’s what to watch – and listen – for when you cross the border into Switzerland:

  1. Prices in Swiss francs
    One of the first things you will notice is the prices in Swiss Francs. Even if you don’t notice it right away, you’ll soon feel the pinch. One Swiss franc (1 CHF) is worth about .80 EUR cents, but the cost of just about everything is much higher than the exchange rate seems to justify.

2. Bus stops and public transit
The Swiss are great believers in public transit. Even small villages on the outskirts of big towns are well served by buses and trains. Ferry boats run by the CGN (Swiss national navigation company) take commuters from France to the Swiss side of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva).

3. Better roads and cleaner streets
Everything is well maintained in Switzerland. Which may be one reason why prices are higher.

4. Recycling bins
Even in public places like train stations and on the street, you often see bins specifically for recyclables like plastic.

5. Accent
The French like to make fun of the Swiss Romand accent, a kind of lilt that makes the phrases go up at the end. But then again, the French make fun of accents from everywhere – even within their own country.

 6. English spoken
After so many years in France, it surprised me at first to hear so much English spoken just across the border. You will notice that many different languages are spoken in Switzerland, but most commonly: French, German, Italian and English.

Caninette  7. Dog poop
Along with cleaner, better maintained streets comes a certain mania for picking up. Stoop-and-scoop bags are available pretty well everywhere in Switzerland. And beware of fines if you don’t pick up after le chien!

8. License plates
The plates on Swiss cars begin with the two-letter abbreviation of the Canton: GE for Geneva, VD for Vaud or ZH for Zurich, for example.

9. Vignette
You can’t drive on the Swiss motorways without paying an annual highway tax. I love the efficiency of it – a small price to pay instead of all those annoying tolls in France. La vignette (which you must display on your windshield) costs 40 CHF (33 EUR) and the borders on the main roads (ie, Bardonnex in Geneva) are often patrolled to catch visitors who haven’t paid up.

10. Frontaliers
You will also notice a lot of French license plates on the Swiss side. That’s because jobs are more plentiful and better paid. Les frontaliers, those who live in one country and work in another, are an unpopular bunch: Disliked by the French, who assume there’s something illegal or immoral about earning more money or paying less tax; and tolerated but not really liked or trusted by the Swiss.

I should know. I’m one of them.

What about you? Ever been confused about which side of the border you were on?


Faux pas

Mind the faux pas!I used to think that a ‘faux pas’ (literally, a false step; figuratively, a blunder) was the same as ‘faut pas’ (as in ‘must not’ from the verb ‘falloir’). In the end I realized they are two sides of the same coin: in France, il ne faut pas faire des faux pas. Which hasn’t stopped me from making a considerable number of my own.

Il faut and il ne faut pas are among the most overused words in the French language, deserving of a dedicated post. As for the faux pas, I’ve decided to translate a few of my red-faced moments into a what-not-to-do list.

  1. Do not tell people you live on a ‘cul-de-sac’.
    In English this may describe a highly desirable address; in French, the words have a different connotation, one that is closer to the dead end. (And by the way, in polite company it’s safer to avoid all phrases with the word ‘cul’).
  2. Do not ask for the maître d’
    (or may-truh dee as we anglos pronounce it). You can try ‘maître d’hôtel’ but beware – this is rather posh in French and you may get laughed out of lower-end places.
  3. Do not order dry red wine
    As a rule all French reds are dry. Note that the French generally refer to wine by regions, not cépages (the grape). If you’re in a wine bar you may be able to get away with ordering a glass of Merlot or Chardonnay – but this will blow your chances of passing for a local.
  4. Do not ask for ketchup
    Unless you really want to prove the truth in the French preconceptions about les anglais (and especially les américains) Or possibly unless you order french fries. But if you want to go local, avoid the condiments completely. If you must, stick with Dijon.
  5. Don’t eat (or drink) at your desk
    Meals are social occasions in France, at work as well as in personal life. Coffee is best enjoyed with your colleagues while catching up on the latest news – or ragots (gossip). Sure, you can take the occasional drink to your desk – even eat a sandwich there if there’s a work crunch – but don’t miss out on the many opportunities in French working life to show how well you’ve ‘integrated’ the team.
  6. Do not kiss strangers
    I have nothing against romance, but the customary cheek kissing in France is dangerous ground for foreigners. As a rule, follow the lead of the French with les bises, and don’t kiss anyone unless they kiss you first.
  7. Don’t point when you want to cross
    Nope. Not done in France, even at cross-walks. The cars will not stop anyway unless you’re already crossing. They will laugh, even honk, at how ridiculous you look while standing there pointing.
  8. Don’t ask, don’t tell
    Avoid giving away too much information or asking too many questions. People here don’t want to hear your life story, and they don’t want to tell you theirs. The French reveal little about themselves to anyone who’s not close friends and family.
  9. Don’t swear or use slang
    Remember when your parents said ‘Do as I say, not as I do’? This is kind of a double standard, especially coming from an admitted gutter mouth. But you have to be very fluent indeed to get away with curse words and use the local jargon in French. If you must use an expletive, the safest is probably merde.
  10. Don’t leave without saying goodbye
    This presumes you should also say hello but it ain’t necessarily so. Somehow, while the French rarely introduce themselves and often neglect to say hello, to leave any shared space (whether an elevator or a shop) without saying a vague ‘au revoir’ is universally accepted as rude.

So there you have it, my tried-and-true list of easily avoidable French faux pas. Feel free to ignore and stumble on…or even better, please share any of your own!

Bye bye, carton rose

Carton roseThis highly coveted piece of paper will soon be an artefact. The French government has announced the phasing out of the old pink ‘permis de conduire’, fondly referred to as ‘le carton rose’. It will be replaced by a standard credit-card sized piece of plastic. But I’m not giving up mine just yet. Here’s why.

“You’ll have to get a new driver’s license.” Those words didn’t mean much at the time. I’d figured moving to France would mean turning in my old Ontario driver’s license for a French one. I didn’t bargain on having to learn to drive all over again.

“It means you have to pass a test,” my husband explained. I hesitated for a moment over the grammar (it’s ‘passer un test’ in French rather than to take a test as we say in English, which translates somehow as if success were a requirement.) Then I realized. Merde.

“But I already know how to drive!” I wailed. “Standard or just automatic?” My heart sank. I’d learned how to drive in the U.S. on one of those big boats of a car that had automatic everything. No one but hippies drove sticks.

In France, however, the standard is still standard. Automatic transmissions are something of a novelty, generally reserved for little old ladies. The only way to get your driver’s license here is to take the test on a standard.

So I had to learn how to use a stick shift. It is a testament to our marriage that my husband was able to teach me this skill.

For one thing, I am not the world’s most coordinated person. To put it in the words of my dear old dad, I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Any form of driving involves a certain amount of multitasking: eyes on the road, checking your rear- and side-view mirrors, knowing when to step on the gas or the brakes, signalling and turning. Add a clutch and stick-shift into that equation and it’s like learning to juggle.

Second handicap, mine: I’m not a good student. When I can’t do something perfectly right away, I get mad. I don’t give up, mind you, but being around me through the learning process is not for the faint of heart.

Third handicap, his: a tendency to confuse left and right. Frustrating, but no biggie most of the time. As a driving instructor, however, it’s a problem.

If anyone witnessed those early scenes, I am not proud. But I learned to shift with the best of them (although I wore out the clutch on our first car pretty fast).

I also had to learn the ins and outs of the ‘Code de la route’ and take a written test – no small challenge for my then-fledgling French. The rules of the road in France are almost as complex as the grammar. Along the way I learned a lot of new vocabulary: la chaussée (road surface), la roue de secours (spare tire), un céder le passage (yield sign). As for the driving itself, the biggest difference is a little concept called ‘la priorité à droite’. It means you must yield to drivers who arrive on the right. This concept also exists in North America but as uncontrolled intersections are few and far between, it’s rarely an issue.

The French road test is no joke – it’s not uncommon to fail several times. I got it on my first try, perhaps because of my experience as a driver, perhaps because I was visibly pregnant. Most likely because I took the test through a driving school (it was faster and cheaper than applying on my own) and the inspector knew my teacher – they gossiped throughout the ten minutes of my road test.

When I finally got my new driver’s license it felt like a mere formality. I’d been driving for almost a year with my Canadian license anyway and had learned the real rules of the road: watch your rear and always pull over for anyone going faster than you. If in doubt, let the person on the right go first. And no matter how mad you get, don’t flip the birdie, especially at men (see my earlier post on gestures).

Now let me share a deep, dark secret: I have two French driver’s licenses. It happened a few years ago when I’d thought my original license was lost, and had it replaced. Then I found the old one lurking in the corner of a disused wallet. So even if I have to hand over the more recent one in exchange for a laminated card, I’ll keep the old carton rose as a souvenir.

But I’m in no rush to make the switch. This being the old world, we have until 2033. By then, I’m not even sure I’ll need a driver’s license. And in the meantime, I look a lot younger.

Eurovision Kitsch Contest


The word ‘kitsch’ comes from German and describes a form of popular art that is adored by the masses but of questionable artistic value. What better word to describe the Eurovision Song Contest?

I have been a proud fan of Eurovision since arriving on this continent in the last millennium. Watching the annual televised event back in the 90s felt lonely and obscure, although Terry Wogan’s dry commentary on the BBC made me feel at home. This was way before reality TV, way before social media gave us hundreds of ways to connect with each other. It was a rare moment to combine the pleasures of:

  • Feeling European – one of the reasons we moved here but had difficulty experiencing in France
  • Nostalgia – the competition brought back memories of American beauty pageants when we so joyfully picked apart the tackiness of Miss Georgia’s dress or New York’s nose
  • Making fun of accents as representatives of far-flung countries called in with their votes in fractured French or English (suddenly my French didn’t seem so bad!)
  • Laughing at the costumes, staging and the songs themselves – if you’ve never seen a Eurovision event, over-the-top doesn’t quite do it justice

In recent years the trend for Eurovision contestants has been to push the limits of bad taste towards the frankly bizarre – European folklore and cultural stereotypes, Gothically inspired pop fantasy, machine-head metal and over-the-top ballads with wind machines and strange dancers. Check out last year’s dancing Russian Babushkas (who actually made it to the final).

One oddity of Eurovision is that you don’t have to be a national of the country you represent. Céline Dion won for Switzerland in 1988 (Note to the Swiss: if you would like to adopt her, I believe I speak for most Canadians when I say we’d be fine with that).

This year’s Eurovision was held in Sweden, home of ABBA, who won the contest in 1974 with “Waterloo”. Sweden won again last year with this less than memorable tune from Loreen. The tradition is that the winning country hosts the following year’s event. This gives countries that no one has ever heard of a chance to promote themselves to the rest of the world. One of my favorite parts of the show are the travelogues about the host country.

Last year’s broadcast from Baku, Azerbaijan continued the kitsch tradition with the theme ‘Light your fire.’ And this year’s edition, live from Malmo on the southern tip of Sweden, came under the banner of ‘We are one’. Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole point of Eurovision is divisiveness, backbiting and politics. Deep rifts that go beyond the language barriers and dig in almost as deep as the nails of those beauty pageant contestants.

The debate rages as to whether it’s the song that matters. The voting is complex to say the least and has evolved over the years but to summarize, each country votes for itself, and if it sees it has no possible chance of winning, then votes for its closest neighbours (unless they are at war), or failing that, geopolitical region. When former Eastern block countries start voting for each other, everybody else gets blown out of the water.

And what about France? The French have a long tradition of la chanson française and this won them top honours at Eurovision five times in the early years of the contest, which kicked off in 1956. France hasn’t won since 1977 but as one of Europe’s ‘big five’ we are guaranteed a spot in the final. All the others must compete through the semi-finals in order to make it to the Saturday night spectacular – this year, with 26 singers and their backup groups and an international audience of 125 million viewers.

To be honest, it’s all getting a little too slick and commercial. The lines are blurring between Eurovision and reality shows like The Voice. This year’s winner is Emmelie de Forest from Denmark, and the song, Only Teardrops, has chart potential.

But that won’t stop me from tuning in next year. Vive Copenhagen!