Sage comme une image

As pretty as a picture or as quiet as a mouse? It depends from which side of the Atlantic you hail. What I understand this French expression to mean is that sometimes life imitates art (et non pas le contraire). So an especially tranquil child can be said to be ‘sage comme une image’. Here is a link to translations in various languages (just scroll down past the French).

This week I made an unexpected discovery, one that I found to be especially ‘sage’ (wise). The Museums of Paris have digitized and made a massive collection of art works available, free, online. These works whose rights are in the public domain offer an incredibly rich source of inspiration for blog posts, websites and more. And it’s absolutely free, so indulge!

Here’s a link to explore the collection. And a translation from the press release courtesy of Google:

This opening of data guarantees free access and reuse of all of digital files, without technical, legal or financial restrictions, for commercial use or not.

Images representing works belonging to the public domain under CCØ license (Creative Commons Zero) are made available to all internet users via the Paris Musées collections portal. Initially, reproductions of 2D works which are not subject to rights are available in Open Content, the images subjected to rights remain in low definition in order to illustrate the files of the collections website. Art lovers can for example download the works of the big names in photography (Atget, Blancard, Marville, Carjat …) or painting (Courbet, Delacroix, Rembrandt, Van Dyck …).

Paris Musées: http://www.parismusees.paris.fr/en/presse

I chose the above image to illustrate this post for fairly obvious reasons. Confinement is evocative of a bohemian life in which we lounge around, read, relax and indulge in otherwise forbidden sloth. The reality is somewhat different for us. Husband is home and we are both working, in my case sporadically and mostly on administrative and creative projects for which I normally have no time. Catching up on my accounts and looking at revamping my professional website. Husband is, as usual, glued to his calls from morning to night, taking short breaks for exercise and dog walks.

We are healthy, touch wood, and for that I am immensely grateful. Had news from a friend, in her forties and otherwise in good health. She and her husband have just passed the worst of a ‘mild’ case of COVID-19. The symptoms peaked ten days in, and included fever and muscle pain, coughing and shortness of breath. She is hoping to feel better in another few days and be clear of the virus in about a week. But if that’s how healthy, relatively young people are affected, I hate to think of what it does to those who are fragile.

So I will try and be ‘sage comme une image’ for the next days and weeks, keep my spirits up in this space and only make grocery runs when needed. I’d love to help out in some way, if only I knew how. Online or by phone? Surely even in confinement there must be ways we can reach out to those in need of moral support. Any ideas?

Hope you are all staying well. Please share your tips and tricks for staying sage!

Image credit: Jean-Louis Forain (1852-1931). Imprimerie H. Herold. “La Vie de Bohême” par Puccini, G.Ricordi & Cie Editeurs, Paris. Affiche. Lithographie couleur, vers 1895. Paris, Musée Carnavalet.

Au bout du rouleau

At the end of our rope? Not yet. But you’d think the French version of the expression, ‘at the end of the roll’, would be apt with the recent run on toilet paper and other necessities.

Thankfully we still have a supply of toilet paper to keep us going. No thanks to the hoarders who seem to be as worried about running out here in France as they are elsewhere. Toilet paper and pasta, it appears, are the lusted-for items. A major pasta company, a news report has told us, is running extra shifts to ensure that we have enough spaghetti, penne and lasagne noodles to nourish us through the coronavirus crisis.

I’ve been avoiding the stores since Macron announced the additional measures this week. Partly because I’m by nature someone who hates to run out of things, so I keep a decent supply of stuff at home. Also because I hate to wait and avoid line-ups like the plague (pun intended). And let’s face it: the less we expose ourselves to others, the less chance we have to spread or catch whatever’s out there

But yesterday I needed a few things and besides, I was curious. So I downloaded the form we are now required to have with us at all times, attesting on our honour that we are doing one of five officially authorized activities:

  1. Going to work, if remote working is not possible
  2. Shopping for food or other essential items
  3. Going to a health-related appointment
  4. Taking care of children, helping a family member or infirm person who requires assistance
  5. Walking the dog or briefly going outside for exercise close to home

I ticked box number 2, dated and signed it, drove to the village and parked. The convenience store (8 à 8) in our village looked empty until I noticed half a dozen people standing outside. Several were wearing masks. As I got closer I realized that two of them were employees. They were letting people in, one at a time, so that there were never more than two customers inside.

We stood there, spaced out by the regulatory distance on the pavement, not looking at each other and in complete silence except for a couple of small children asking their mother endless questions. We don’t talk to each other much in France.

A man passing by popped his head into the group and asked the shopkeeper if there was any bread left, just in case, so he wouldn’t wait for nothing. The fellow nodded vigorously, bringing out a baguette from just inside and taking a coin there on the street. They seemed to know each other, although I could hardly tell as anything he said was muffled behind the mask. “Merci!” the man called as he left.

“Is the bakery closed?” I asked the person standing next to me. She shrugged, but the other employee, overhearing my question, replied: “Yes, they had to close because they had no staff. Their employee had to stay home and look after her kids.” Ah, I nodded. I’m sure that many of the people in our village are grateful that the little store does ‘dépôt de pain’ in emergency cases like this. Daily bread is truly the traditional staff of life in France.

Then it was my turn. In I went, along with an older woman who seemed to be intensely studying a wall of canned goods. I skirted around her as quickly as I could (the aisles being too narrow to pass while respecting social distancing rules) and got my fruit and veg, along with a pack of sparkling water. Then I went to the cash desk and waited while the other shopkeeper finished whatever she was stocking on one of the aisles. In the meantime, the other lone shopper decided to join me at the checkout, immediately stepping up close behind me.

I turned and, as politely as I could, suggested she kindly respect the one-metre rule. She backed off in a flurry of French that I didn’t understand. I paid for my groceries with a card (contactless) and left.

Today the window cleaner is coming and I will have to go and get cash to pay him as it’s mostly a side gig. The very high windows on our house are simply too much for us, so he comes twice a year and does them all, inside and out. Hugely efficient and well worth it. It’s not clear as to whether this is technically allowed or not. I’ve heard conflicting reports about the confinement law. Seem it’s okay to have childcare and cleaners in your home on one hand; on the other the fellow who maintains our water heater told me they’re only supposed to do emergency work.

But the thing is: people need to eat. The economy needs to keep going. So for now I’m taking a common sense approach. Distance and hand-washing, yes. Total isolation and plague-like behaviour, non.

How are you approaching confinement? Are you running scared or remaining calm, even nonchalant?

Coup de cœur

A ‘coup de coeur’ is the French expression for falling in love with something. I suppose you could say that your heart is struck by it. Oddly, the expression is rarely used to talk about romance between people but rather for the feeling you get when strongly attracted to things: clothing, pets, music, property.

‘Un coup de coeur’ certainly describes how we felt when we first came to this area. As soon as I realized we could have a house with even a partial view of the lake and within walking distance to its shores, I was in love. There is something special about the light over Lac Léman, often called Lake Geneva.

We also fell in love with the type of light-filled wood-frame house we ended up building. We were inspired by a cottage we’d stayed in a few years earlier when vacationing in Ontario cottage country near Haliburton. And it turns out that a builder in our area here in France, near Annecy, specializes in such ‘maisons à ossature bois’. They are well-built and designed to be adapted to individual needs as you can easily configure the rooms.

When we began looking for a place to buy in this area ten years ago, we quickly discovered that anything already built was overpriced and rarely met our criteria. But if you found a lot, you could build a house to your own specs and it would actually cost you less.

Our builder directed us to this lot and as soon as we saw it, we knew it was for us.

Of course, the cost of building didn’t include all of the myriad extras you need to make it a home: kitchen, window treatments, closets, fireplace. Even paint is extra in France. I suppose they do it this way so that entreprising folk with a bent for DIY can save some money. Unfortunately we are not those people. Still, since we moved in back in 2012, we’ve managed to add all those things. Even landscaped the garden, with a built of help. Back then I started my very first blog to document our journey building a house. Here’s the link, if you’re interested: http://maison-chens.blogspot.com/

Anyone who puts a house up for sale in France hopes that they will luck into a buyer who experiences a real ‘coup de coeur’ for the property. Because if they fall in love with the place, they’ll overlook certain things that less emotional buyers will try to use as negotiating points. Like: All those windows must cost a fortune to keep clean. Or: For that kind of budget, I’d expect to have fewer immediate neighbours. Or even:  It’s a slow market, can you shave 25% off the price?

We have made the decision to sell our house on our own, without going through a real estate agency. Here in France, there is no obligation to do so. For any sale of property, a notary (notaire) handles all of the legal and financial part of the transaction, so it’s not as if we’re sticking our necks out. The agents are experts on marketing, selling, pricing and negotiating. But generally there is only one agent, who handles the transaction on behalf of both buyer and seller, so how can they possibly negotiate in both parties’ interests? Also, the last time we sold our house, the agent didn’t bring a lot to the party; the buyers ended up approaching us directly and making an offer minus the 5% of the agent’s fees.

So far we’ve had a few people visit and seem quite excited about the house. But no offers yet. We’re hoping the spring will help. The garden is coming to life and soon we’ll be opening the pool.

And in the meantime, we’re starting to look at places on the Swiss side. Hoping for another coup de coeur.

Have you ever fallen in love with a place?

A vendre

Would you like to buy a house in France? Ours is for sale. It’s a new build, bright and modern, overlooking a lovely view of the lake and mountains.

It’s what we call in French ‘une maison à ossature bois’. A timber structure or a wood frame house. It’s designed to let in the light, and the views, which perfectly suits our location near Lake Geneva. We fell in love with the idea after spending a summer holiday at a cottage in Canada. It had a similar structure, and when it came time to look for a new home, we discovered a builder in our area who specializes in this type of structure. And then we lucked into our lot. Just the right size for us, big enough to have a pool and a garden but not a massive amount of land to look after. And those views!

What did I learn after building this house? You can have too many windows. As beautiful as the views are, sometimes it feels like a fish bowl. And we’ve spent a fortune in window coverings. Also, with the rising temperatures, there is a definite greenhouse effect. Last year we had air conditioning put in upstairs.

And then there is the location. I truly love living by a lake, and in the country. That is not up for grabs. But as I work from home and we are at least half an hour from the city, it does feel isolated at times. It would be nice to be nearer a bigger town with a few shops and services.

Also, I realize that I could happily live in about half the space. And that if I have access to greenery nearby, I don’t need my own garden. In fact, there is little point in having a garden if you don’t want to spend your time caring for it. Which neither of us really does.

I never imagined we’d leave this house. It was just ten years ago that we decided to sell our first home near Lyon and move to the Haute Savoie. Back then we were both working in the Geneva area and commuting back and forth each week. But things change. I got laid off from my former full-time position in pharma communications just as we were breaking ground. Husband now works on the other side of Switzerland in Zug, a 3-4 hour drive. He’s away most of the week while I work freelance from my home office. As much as I enjoy having space around me, this house is too big for one person.

So, we’ve decided to sell our house and downsize. The breaking news is that, after almost 30 years in this country, I will be moving away from France. We won’t be far. Just across the lake, a few hundred kilometres east. Where they speak a different language, and a funny dialect to boot.

But first we have to sell our house.

A suivre.

La ou les quenelle(s)?

I first discovered ‘quenelles’ when we moved to Lyon many years ago. A specialty of la cuisine lyonnaise, the quenelle is a sausage-shaped delicacy made of dough and finely minced fish or meat that is covered in sauce and baked in the oven until it blows up to twice its size and splits open, browning and bubbling in its dish.

Among the choices on the menu when we first began exploring the ‘bouchons Lyonnais’ — restaurants so small they were named after the cork in the wine bottle — the quenelle was certainly among the safest. Pigs’ trotters and tripe sausage were not for me.

I remember ordering, in my careful French, the quenelle only to have the waiter repeat: “Laq’nelle?” He had a twinkle in his eye so I’m not sure if I was missing out on a joke or he was just showing off the local lingo.

Later I discovered that quenelles could be found in most major supermarkets in France. The dish soon became a staple. It was a go-to dinner when the kids were small. Easy, quick, delicious. One that I’d forgotten about for some years in my drive to eat fewer prepared foods. Last week, though, on a cold night, I rediscovered les quenelles. Quelle joie!

It’s a simple thing, really, and typical of the humble origins of Lyon’s cuisine, yet the quenelle can be so delightfully flavoured and sauced that it rises — literally and figuratively — above its grade.

What I do is buy a better grade of quenelle, i.e. not the cheapest ones that are the most industrial looking but an artisanal brand. One with brochet or pike is my preference. Sometimes they’re called ‘délices’ as they’re not allowed to use the term ‘quenelle’ unless it meets certain criteria (yep, this is France!)

I then laid them out in a shallow baking dish and while the oven preheated, made a sauce. I can manage a fair Béchamel sauce, even using skim milk. I made it fairly thin (not too much flour) as the quenelles need to soak up lots of liquid in order to puff up nicely. But I added a couple of handfuls of grated comté cheese at the end for richness. The result was delightful. And accompanied by fresh wilted spinach (straight out of the bag, for time’s sake) sautéed with a bit of onion, the meal felt reasonably well-balanced.

You should be aware that ‘la quenelle’ has a dark side, however. The term became known in the last decade for a gesture popularized by the comedian, Dieudonné. He is known for his politics as well as his (questionable) humour and thanks to him, ‘la quenelle’ came to be known as a kind of reverse Nazi salute. I’ve heard it explained many different ways, as a subversive sort of ‘fuck you’ to the establishment, in reference to a sexual act (you don’t want to know) and, most disturbingly, as an antisemitic gesture.

To avoid any confusion, we generally refer to ‘les quenelles’ as the dish and ‘la quenelle’ as the gesture. I know which one I’ll have!

Have you ever had quenelles?