Faire de l’oseille

A friend asked me how work was going the other day. “Ca va? Tu fais de l’oseille?”

I had to laugh. It’s a funny sort of expression, and joking is just about the only way you can safely refer to money in conversation.

If there are a lot of words to describe something in a language, is that an indication of its importance? There are certainly a bunch of ways to talk about money in French: argent (money, but also silver), monnaie (currency but also coins or change), liquide (cash), blé (bread), fric, pognon, thune (dough, money, bucks).

Between blé (wheat) and galette (cake), both slang terms for money, do I hear echoes of Marie Antoinette? (“Let them eat cake!” Which, by the way, was one of the original ‘fake news’ and wrongly attributed to that hapless royal.

I like the sound of the word oseille, and the quirkiness of the expression. It reminds me of what we might call in English, ‘the green stuff’. To be fair, we have quite a few ways of talking about money: cash, bucks, George Washingtons, dough, moolah, do-re-mi, rolling in it. Most of these are pretty dated, like moi. I’ll have to rely on any younger bucks among you to update my lingo.

We all need money to live. Having enough not to have to count it all the time certainly makes life easier. It is, however, one of the great taboos of the French culture. It doesn’t do to talk about, to show it off, or spend it too obviously. Money is not something people tend to talk about. How much things cost or, worse, how much you make. Don’t mention the inheritance you got when your grandfather died. Or what you paid for your house. You might as well ask someone their age, religion or political party while you’re at it.

This may well be true in most cultures. But in France I would go further and suggest that people have an issue with wealth, period. It doesn’t do to be rich around here. Thankfully, I am not. And if one day I win the lottery, it’s just a hop across the lake to Switzerland.

The oseille herb, on the other hand, does have real value hiding among its acidic green leaves. When cooked, they reveal a lovely flavour that is delicious in omelettes, sauces and soups. You may know it as sorrel.

How do you like your oseille?

 

Histoire de voisinage

Beware of bad neighbours. I suppose that’s the lesson to be learned from the terrible fire that took 10 lives, injured 33 and left dozens of families homeless in Paris a few days ago.

I’ve posted before about the French art of hating one’s neighbour. At the time, it was funny. Hilarious, even, if you’d like to take a look. But what happened on Monday night at 17 bis, rue Erlanger in the très chic 16th arrondissement of Paris was nothing less than tragic.

It began with a problem that is all too prevalent in French towns and cities where people live so close to each other. Noise. A woman who was playing her music too loudly, too late at night. A couple who had to work the next day. And so the woman dared to knock on the door and ask her neighbour to turn it down.

Did she know she was dealing with someone who had serious mental health issues? Hard to say. What is known is that the woman with the loud music made a rude comment and refused to turn it down. The couple ended up calling the police. At first they refused to come and deal with what surely seemed like a mild dispute between neighbours. Mauvais voisinage. When the couple insisted, they agreed to make the call but took their time getting there. The police showed up an hour later, attempted to reason with the woman, then left.

A few minutes later, the loud-music woman made a comment to the male neighbour, who happened to be a fireman himself, that as he was so good at putting out fires he would certainly enjoy himself. The couple smelled fire and realized she had actually set fire to the place. What happened after that is somewhat confused.

The building blazed liked a tinder box. A recent renovation of a 1970’s building, 8 storeys high, it had an unfortunate location on an inside courtyard, inaccessible from the street. That meant that the firefighters were unable to access it with their trucks or automated equipment. They had to drag their hoses through the inner courtyard and manually raise ladders from one floor to another. A dangerous operation at best. Still, they managed to rescue the 50 people trapped and who had taken refuge on the roof. Eight firefighters were injured in putting out the blaze. It took five hours and 250 pompiers. Neighbouring buildings were evacuated and the jury is still out as to whether the building can be saved.

All because of a bad neighbour.

The woman was arrested and is undergoing psychiatric evaluation. She is 41, the mother of a 10-year-old boy (she does not have custody) and with a history of mental illness and setting fires. She had only just been released from a psychiatric ward.

This was the third deadly incendie to ravage Paris since the end of last year. It’s a horrific reminder that even rich neighbourhoods are vulnerable to crazy people. And cheap insulation (which is one theory as to why the fire spread so fast.)

Once again, kudos and gratitude go out to the brave firefighters, les pompiers de Paris.

The positive side is that residents in the local quartier have come together in a show of support. People are opening their doors to help those who’ve been rendered homeless, donating warm clothes and holding fundraisers. Perhaps people are finally getting to know their neighbours.

And it raises a question: how can we live together in harmony? In a society that creates more and more barriers and walls between people, in which each of us is increasingly isolated as we stare at our own screens, that is a tough question.

I’ve experienced before how it feels to have a neighbour dislike you on sight. It is not pleasant. The usual reaction is simply to avoid each other. That’s the easy answer. Pretend the other person doesn’t exist. Go about your business. Until an emergency happens.

Maybe we need to rethink our approach. Create more connections with those whose lives go on just beyond our doors.

Any thoughts?

L’heure bleue

Heure bleue

Blue was never my favourite colour. Perhaps everyone else just loved it too much. I preferred green — for nature, for hope and for something else, maybe the bit of Irish blood that runs in my veins. Also, it was my mother’s favourite colour.

Lately I’ve come to appreciate the vast talents of blue. I love its myriad shades that mark the seasons here in our corner of Lake Geneva. The skies, of course, but also the mountains and lakes. No two blues are ever quite the same. There are so many variations on its theme, from bright and promising to dark and menacing. It is steel and intensely teal and sometimes it is just impossibly bright.

Lac Léman

And then there is ‘l’heure bleue’, the blue hour. I only just recently learned what this expression means. That magic twilight hour before the sun sets in the evening and rises in the morning, when the entire horizon is somehow infused with blue. It is a light that highly appreciated by artists and has inspired songs.

Blue is also the colour of cold. It describes, at least in English, a quality of sadness that often accompanies these cold months. And what other colour has an entire genre of music named after it? Am I blue? Perhaps not, but I already feel the need for a fresh infusion of spring.

As winter reaches its snowy crescendo and the north wind blows at its coldest, we have some truly amazing blue hours. There is something about the light in January, especially when there’s snow, that is bluer than anything.

Yet during this coldest of winter months, I find myself thinking about those wonderful ‘blue hour’ sunsets over the lake in summer. That first one, when we sat outside by the lake one April evening, that convinced us that this was the place we wanted to come home to.

What is your fondest memory of blue? Or blues?

Maires de France: The Great Debate

When I first heard the expression, ‘Les maires de France’, on the radio years ago, I wondered why they were talking about French mothers. Was there some formal association? Why wasn’t I a member?

Soon enough I realized my mistake, an easy enough one to make for a non-native. Homonyms represent a special challenge. Especially this series: mères, mers and merde. Aside from mothers, we also have seas (although possibly not exclusively belonging to France), and we definitely have, ahem, our share of shit.

Basically, context is everything.

The Mayors of France have been in the news this week as they are instrumental to Macron’s much talked about initiative, ‘Le Grand Débat National’. Kicked off by the government in December in response to the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement, it is, somewhat ironically, not supported by the majority of that group.

The Great Debate, as I shall refer to it here, covers four main areas: the environment (transition écologique); taxation and government spending; democracy and citizenship; public services. It is a grass-roots affair of public consultation previously unseen, at least in my experience, in France.

Between now and April, public debates are being organized by the mayors of each city, town and local community so that people can weigh in on the topics that matter to them. The mayors have been asked to step up and lead the process, on a volunteer basis. Some have declined and citizens are free to organize their own debates. Starting by collecting a list of grievances and suggestions. (I wish them beaucoup de courage!)

It is a hugely ambitious endeavour, and it could be a game changer. Although critics are putting it down to PR exercise, for the first time all French citizens have a chance to give voice to their opinions on how this country is run. Is the role of Senator worth preserving? Which taxes are fair and which should be tossed out? What institutions are in need of urgent reform?

It is all very modern with a dedicated website (https://granddebat.fr/) and with events organized and shared on Facebook. My understanding is that following the live debates, citizens will also have a chance to put their two cents in online.

Emmanuel Macron held a kick-off event last week in the small town of Grand Bourgtheroulde (don’t even try to pronounce it; even journalists can’t) in Normandy, with the mayors from 600 mostly rural communes (French administrative divisions). A fraction of the total of France’s 35,528 mayors. That number alone is an indication of the administrative challenges we face.

France being a country that does not do things by halfway measures, the meeting lasted – wait for it – almost 7 hours. Whether or not you support Macron (I do), you have to admit he gave it his all. The chilly reception from the mayors at the start of the meeting was followed by a standing ovation when it ended.

Perhaps desperate to bring it to an end, six hours into the debate one mayor managed to ask a technical question for which the President had no answer. It added a bit of comic relief.

For anyone with the interest or courage to sit through the marathon exchange, here it is.

I will definitely be adding my two cents. What are yours?

Sapeurs-pompiers: France’s unsung heroes

The two young firefighters belonged to the Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris. Nathanaël, already the father of a 4-year-old boy at 27, came from north-central France; 28-year-old Simon was from a small town in the Savoie. Both had been volunteers before joining the ranks of the professional firefighters at the Château d’Eau station in Paris. Sadly, both men were killed in an explosion from a gas leak in a Paris bakery on Saturday morning.

The scenes of devastation around the site of the explosion at 6, rue de Trévise in the 9th arrondissement were impressive. Two more people lost their lives in addition to the firemen and dozens were injured. Residents in neighbouring buildings were shocked into the streets, in pyjamas, not knowing if it was safe to go home. Such was the force of the blast that six buildings are now considered at risk of collapse. Firefighters had to rescue many older and fragile residents who were unable to get out alone.

Living in a country like France where many buildings and the surrounding infrastructure are truly ‘ancient’ (as the French world for old, ‘ancien’, suggests), such accidents happen more often than they should. The recent collapse of several buildings in Marseille also put the emergency services to the test as they spent days searching for people trapped in the rubble.

So often the vital and heroic work they do goes unrecognized, and their praises are rarely sung.

The majority of France’s sapeurs-pompiers, fire and rescue crews, are volunteers. Outside of the major cities most fire services have only one or two paid professionals who head up the local ranks of volunteers. We rely upon them for much more than putting out fires: they are the first on the scene for emergency medical services, roadside accidents, drownings, floods and disasters of all kinds. They provide emergency training to local citizens, advice on dangers like wasp nests and are often on hand at large gatherings to help keep the public safe.

The word ‘pompiers’, as they are most commonly called, comes from the fellow who manned the ‘pompe’ or water pump; ‘sapeur’ is rather more complicated but has to do with the fact that in the past, often the only way to put out a fire was to destroy or ‘saper’ the building. Credit: Wikipedia.

The distinctive ‘pam pom’ of the fire and emergency sirens can be heard with varying degrees of frequency all over France. It is a sound that I used to find terrifying but which now reassures me. It means that help is on its way, and when you live relatively far from a big city or a hospital, that is reassuring indeed.

I hope I never need them but I am grateful that they will be there when I do.

R.I.P. Nathanaël and Simon.

Merci à tous nos sapeurs-pompiers pour vos bons et loyaux services!