Rien à dire

Apologies, dear followers, but it seems that I have nothing in particular to say this week.

Rien. Nada. Niet.

‘Niet’, by the way, while Russian in origin, is frequently used in French to say ‘no way’.

But having ‘rien à dire’ (nothing to say) shall not stop this brave writer from spewing forth a few wise words. Far be it from me to allow writer’s block to deprive you of your weekly dose of — what, exactly? I used to see this blog as a way of a) avenging myself against the slings and arrows of being foreign in France, and b) explaining this great and wonderful land to the ROW (rest of world), and finally c) discovering along the way that I had become, uh, one of them.

Now I find myself struggling with my focus. France, the French people and the French language itself continue to provide a rich and seemingly bottomless source of inspiration for observations which I hope are original, informative and occasionally funny. But lately my heart is not quite in it.

Note that the expression ‘rien à dire’ is, oddly, often used as a compliment. Meaning: There is nothing to criticize here. Ah, if only. My head is filled with complaints and critiques, but I am trying not to listen to them. To focus on the positive. But I don’t want to turn this blog into a travelogue, which others do very well, or an ode to ‘la vie en rose’. Which my life in France is most decidedly not.

There are bigger topics here in France right now that I could blog about. But the ones that seem worthy of a post require more time and energy than I have to give at the moment. And the ones that inspire my muse make me feel like I’m repeating myself.

In the past, when the world made a tiny bit more sense than it does now, I would take refuge in silence. Wait until the muse moved me with words worth sharing. But in this day of social media savvy, of regular posting and fighting for screen time, I am inspired to write about the fact that I have nothing to say.

So forgive me, please. Mea culpa. Pardon my French, or lack thereof. It’s probably just a blip, a minor dysfunction of my normally wagging tongue.

I will hunker down and hibernate for a while and return soon with renewed vim and vigour.

A bientôt!

In the meantime, if you are inspired to say anything, feel free!

Photo by Brannon Naito on Unsplash

Le frometon

There is nothing like a bit of cheese to get you through January — or any day, any time of year. To me, le frometon, as it’s affectionately called, is the perfect comfort food. Along with eggs it is the reason I could live fairly happily as a vegetarian but not as a vegan. Let me give you a tour of a few personal favourites.

Leading a sheltered life outre-Atlantique until my mid-twenties, I was only aware of maybe three types of cheese: cheddar, Swiss and Gouda. I won’t count Philadelphia. Somewhere in the early 1980s our culinary horizons expanded in Canada and I discovered such delicacies as Brie and goat’s cheese.

None of it prepared me for France. The first time I opened the fridge door and was hit by that smell — What or who died? — I knew things were going to be different. Raw-milk cheeses, especially the softer ones like camembert, are like living creatures whose enzymes keep maturing until they reach a level bordering on the putrid. This is when many French cheese lovers consider them ripe.

These days, while cheese is a staple of my diet, I rarely venture into the ‘fromages qui puent’ like camembert. I have nothing against them but it just so happens that my preferred varieties are less inclined to stink up the house.

Comté (the ‘m’ is pronounced like ‘n’) is my go-to hard cheese. Made from unpasteurized cow’s milk in the Franche-Comté province of eastern France, it is ubiquitous in France. I love it for its somewhat rich texture and easygoing flavour — not too strong or too bland. My favourite way to eat it is as a snack, on its own or with an apple. It’s also lovely grated and melted in an omelette.

Saint Agur is my favourite of the blues. Unlike the famous Roquefort, which is a sheep’s milk cheese from the south, it is softer and creamier with a bit of a tang but not the raw force. It is not a traditional cheese but was developed commercially in the Auvergne region to woo the French back to the fading glory of the blues. The move was apparently successful as it is the most-consumed blue cheese in France today.

Le Gruyère Suisse d’Alpage

There are no holes in my favourite Swiss cheese. What we generally think of as Swiss cheese in North America is actually Emmenthal — it’s the one with the holes — and while it originated in Switzerland, it is also made in France. Gruyère Suisse (preferably d’Alpage, meaning from Alpine pastures) is by far the tastier Swiss cheese. Dense and flavourful, my preferred aged variety has little hard crystals that tell you it has reached its nirvana of maturity. Can you see them?

I love goat’s cheese in just about every form. Its tangy taste, its velvety texture. ‘Rocamadour’ is one that I often buy as it’s just the right amount for one serving. A tiny, perfect raw-milk delight.

Okay, I’m going to get some people’s goats now by naming another Swiss cheese. Apologies to my French friends but I live very close to the border and it must be said that the Swiss also know a few things about cheese as well as chocolate.

La tomme Vaudoise is another tiny, perfect wonder of a cheese. It is one of the few whose edible mould of a skin I eat without qualm. It comes from our area, just across the lake on the Swiss side in the Canton of Vaud, and is often flavoured with ‘ail des ours’ (wild garlic leaves), truffles or grilled pine nuts. I enjoy it plain.

So there you have it, the cheeses that most frequently populate my frigo.

Although I do have a confession to make. I could be shot for treason saying this but if I could only have one kind of cheese, it would probably be a good old, sharp cheddar.

Comfort food, right?

What’s your favourite cheese?

Noël chez nous

When you make your home in another country, no matter how much you love it, there is always something you miss. For me it was Christmas.

Everything about the end-of-year holidays in France was different. Starting with the calendar. On Christmas Eve, while we were hanging our stockings and laying out cookies and milk for Santa, my French friends and family were still at table, eating things like oysters and foie gras.

They didn’t have stockings but Santa mysteriously slipped in and left gifts for the little ones while the parents supped. On round three of champagne the adults would wake them to open their gifts and then send them back to bed. At least that’s what people told me: I never saw this with my own eyes. As a parent, and still an overly excited child myself, this was all wrong. How could the kids sleep at all knowing they had new toys to play with?

I'm dreaming of a...

We always did our own thing at Christmas in France, keeping up the traditions that I grew up with in Canada. In our house we played the traditional songs, stuffed our stockings and ate our turkey on the 25th. It was a compromise of sorts: my French in-laws would join us for a special meal on the 24th but Christmas Day was mine. My French family didn’t care much; they weren’t religious, Belle-Mère always reminded me.

Neither was I, but Christmas, while purely cultural, was sacrosanct. The magic of those mornings as children when we woke at dawn and were kings for a day. I needed to replicate that for my kids and somehow also for myself, even though the older I grew the more impossible it seemed.

Against the protests of my husband (The mess! The expense! What a waste!), we always had a real tree, which I decorated profusely. Unfortunately the French don’t believe in watering their trees so we never managed to avoid it drying out and having all the needles drop before New Year’s.

Candy canes were nowhere to be found so it felt like our stockings were missing something. There were no cinnamon buns for breakfast and I wasn’t up to making them from scratch so we had pain-aux-raisins or panettone. Washed down with a mimosa, no matter how early the hour, a tradition my family in Canada had recently instated. Belle-mère would raise an eyebrow, saying something about how we were starting early — at least until I offered her a glass. There is no better way to start a special day than a champagne breakfast.

It was impossible to get a turkey, at least in the early days, so we would have a chapon or pintade (capon or guinea fowl), which the butcher always assured me would be better tasting but didn’t do it for me. And there were never any leftovers, the best part of the turkey!

My husband could not conceive of a celebratory meal without a cheese course so that was another break from tradition. On the upside, the traditional yule log was always easy: the French ‘Bûche de Noël’ is excellent and in plentiful supply in every pastry shop over the fêtes de fin d’année.

There was rarely any snow in Lyon, although we sometimes got a few wet flakes or a powdery dusting. While the French howled about the horrors of the roads, I privately rejoiced.

On the whole, we did pretty well. We certainly didn’t starve. And I managed to ensure an  abundance of wrapping paper and gifts, treats edible and drinkable, that called up the Christmases of my childhood. Most importantly, I created a Christmas tradition for my kids.

What we couldn’t replicate was family and friends. No matter what, I always missed my tribe at Christmas. On alternate years, whenever we could, we went back to Canada for the holidays. Got our dose of fa-la-la and excessive consumption and were happy to settle for a simpler version the following year. And so it goes.

This Christmas is a Canada year for our family (the first in four since we’ve been back) and I am especially happy to be going away. It is pouring rain as I type this, the strikes over pension reforms are ongoing, the UK just voted themselves out by end of January and frankly, I’m done with the news. I’ll be switching off for the next few weeks and hoping to be back with my spirits revived in January.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy and most jolly of holidays. Hope to see you soon in 2020!

Perturbations

One strike may conceal another.

We are seriously ‘perturbés’ in France today. This may not be breaking news for anyone who follows French news. But beyond the disruptions of the massive strike action kicking off today around the country, I fear we are perturbed in a way that is closer to the English meaning of the word.

My diagnosis, dear France, is that we are suffering from generalized anxiety disorder.

Web MD describes those who suffer from GAD as people who “always expect disaster and can’t stop worrying about health, money, family, work, or school. In people with GAD, the worry is often unrealistic or out of proportion with the situation. Daily life becomes a constant state of worry, fear, and dread. Eventually, the anxiety so dominates the person’s thinking that it interferes with daily functioning…”

Depression may also be a symptom. Emmanuel Macron, speaking to students in Amiens, said that the French are too negative, too hard on themselves. Compared to other countries, we don’t have it so bad. He is not wrong, but he misses the point: the French don’t care about what’s going on elsewhere. They want things to be as they were right here in France, twenty, even fifty years ago. This is one reason why our president, as much as I personally think he’s a good leader, has such a high disapproval rating at home.

Today marks the beginning of a general strike in France. From teachers to transport workers, everybody and his uncle is unhappy about the pension reform that Macron is trying to push through. Basically, it is a simplification of the current, extremely complex system where each sector has its own plan, with dozens of schemes offering different terms and conditions for retirement, to a universal points-based pension plan for all. The last time a government tried to mess with pensions was in 1995, when the general strike made such a ‘pagaille‘ of things that Jacques Chirac and and Alain Juppé were forced to withdraw the controversial measures. So today’s strike, which has been talked about for months, must have the current government quaking in its boots.

What this means for regular people is a very big mess. Beyond the inconvenience, there is more fear and anxiety. Our GAD is getting worse.

People who don’t absolutely have to travel have been asked to stay home, employees who can are being allowed to work from home, and everybody else is muddling through. Because while they can cancel trains and flights, postpone meetings and otherwise organize different events, the frail and elderly still need caring for, hospitals are filled with patients and people need to eat.

If the disease were acute rather than chronic, you might hope for the fever to pass and the patient to get better. In this case, I fear the only cure may be a revolution. Here’s hoping we can make it to the end of the year without it coming to that!

‘Bon courage’ to all those who are affected. Best of luck and please share your war stories!

N’importe quoi

“N’importe quoi!” The phrase slipped off my tongue so naturally, it was as if I’d been born saying it. Nonsense! Anything at all!

It was one of the first colloquial expressions I picked up in my early days of learning French. Like most such things, it came out of real-life conversation. I’d heard it said around the table, after someone made a silly remark or pushed a joke to the extreme.

“N’importe quoi,” I smiled, shaking my head. It passed without a raised eyebrow so I knew it was good. I’d always liked ‘quoi’ (what); it was easy to pronounce and could even be used by itself in a pinch as a question: “Quoi?” And the ‘n’importe’, which translates roughly to any, either or no matter which, made perfect sense.

But that was just the beginning. As with most expressions, there are layers of meaning that only become clear over time. Beyond a throw-away phrase, I learned that the words are often used for something much darker. ‘Faire du n’importe quoi’ means to do something any old which way, far from the way in which ‘il faut’ — how things should be done. Aside from a few exceptions, situations in which the French excel at pulling rabbits out of hats, they are rather uncomfortable with things that are improvised and undefined. ‘Du n’importe quoi’ borders the dangerous.

We hear a lot of “C’est n’importe quoi!” these days. In fact, it could almost be a catch phrase for the times we live in. Surely Boris Johnson’s answer to a journalist’s question about his party’s twitter feed is a telling example:

On another, slightly less fraught front, I have recently seen some pretty lively examples of n’importe quoi in my daily life. The postman, who not only never rings twice but generally never rings at all, contenting himself to slip a notice saying you were absent into the mailbox, tried a new approach with my neighbour’s parcel. I watched as he drove up to the gate, rang, saw no one was at home and then threw the parcel towards the door, as if trying to sink a basket. The box bounced once and landed with a thud on the driveway. This takes it up a notch to what we call ‘Tout et n’importe quoi’. Anything and everything.

Thankfully there was nothing breakable inside. Still, when I told her what I’d seen, my neighbour went to the post office to complain about this unorthodox delivery method. “It’s so hard to find people in this area,” she was told, with a sad shake of the head. “All the better ones go and work in Switzerland.”

I’ve been doing quite a bit of online shopping lately. But since we saw the excellent film from Ken Loach, ‘Sorry we missed you’, I’ve had second thoughts about home deliveries.

So whenever possible, I’ve been trying to group my orders and have them sent to a ‘relais colis’, a delivery point at a local supermarket. I go there to shop anyway, so it seems to make sense and be a more environmentally friendly approach.

Unfortunately the system still has a few kinks. The first parcel I picked up at one relay point was somewhat battered looking but it didn’t occur to me to check the contents until I got home. On opening it, I found broken glass and a gooey mess inside: my ‘lot de 3’ jars of peanut butter had been put loose inside the box and broken in transit. I got my money back but gained nothing in my carbon footprint.

N’importe quoi!

My second attempt at having merchandise sent to a different delivery point was no more successful. Although I’d ordered several items at one time, Amazon decided to send them at different intervals. (It seems you can no longer request a ‘grouped’ delivery). The second shipment containing the stuff I wanted most (ie the peanut butter) was supposed to arrive at my local Intermarché last week, where I planned to go and get groceries. But instead I got a message saying that in order to deliver it on time, the company had sent my package to a different delivery point, at least 15 km away and not on my route to anywhere. Needless to say, I refused to go and pick it up. After a couple of weeks, it will be returned to sender and I’ll get my money back.

Du grand n’importe quoi.

In the meantime I went to a local health food store and found some peanut butter (organic, crunchy, just peanuts!) for a price only slightly higher than the online shop.

I suspect that such things are not just happening here in France. Have you recently experienced any examples of ‘n’importe quoi’?