Trombes d’eau

Torrential downpours

I should have known better. It was risky of me to turn off the heat. Positively foolhardy to pack away all my sweaters. I further stacked the deck by going away on a tropical vacation, assuming that when I came back it would be full-on summer. In my defence, last year at this time we were already sweltering in the endless summer that began in May.

The kiss of death this year: I had air conditioning installed.

You know where I’m going here: the rotten weather. We had three days of solid rain on our return from Mauritius. Not just rain but torrential downpours. ‘Trombes d’eau’ as we say in French, referring to the trumpets of water that are released in such a cloudburst.

And it was cold. Freezing in fact. So I turned the heat back on. The solar panels stopped working so I put the water heater back on too. Even broke out a few winter woollies.

Lo and behold, the sun has come out. You can thank me in the comments.

As for ‘les trombes d’eau’, I can thank the rain for inspiring me to post about this expression and finally learning how to spell it. For years, hearing it spoken, I had confused it in mind with ‘trompes’ — elephant trunks.

Easy enough, right? They both spray large quantities of water at you. Ironically, I was further confused by the verb, ‘tromper’ meaning to deceive or fool, so similar to ‘tremper’ which means to soak.

The great thing about word play in a second language is that it keeps you endlessly amused while your mistakes provide entertainment for others.

In actual fact, I learned that ‘trombe’ refers to a sort of whirlwind effect when siphons of rain fall at sea. ‘Trombes d’eau’ is when the skies open up and release a sudden downpour.

But all of that is water under the bridge, as it were. We have had plenty of rain. Now it is time for the sun to shine in all its glory.

Fair warning, however: next week I will turn on the A/C.

Expect snow.

Il faut partir…

One of the maxims of French life is that, from time to time, one must get up and go. “Il faut partir,” near or far, but get away from the day-to-day grind and see other sights in order to return refreshed and reinvigorated.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of places to do this in France, or even within the bounds of our European borders. But this year we decided to go a bit further afield. Can you guess where?

Hints: It is in the Indian ocean yet part of the African continent. French is spoken but it is not part of France. We’ll be bringing plenty of mosquito repellent. The flight takes about 12 hours.

I’ll leave you to mull it over while I go offline. All shall be revealed in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, wish me bon voyage!

Le monde est stone

Starmania cast and producers, 1988

Here’s this week’s song for a Saturday — voici ma chanson pour ce samedi.

If there is a song that defines my early days in France, it is this one. Stunning, heartbreakingly beautiful, yet somehow beyond my grasp.

“Why do they sing about the world being ‘stone’,” I asked my husband.

“Because it was the 70’s, everyone was high.”

“So why don’t they say ‘stoned’?”

“We don’t pronounce the ‘d’ in French.”

Hmm. This confuses me. Perhaps he is right but the lyrics mostly talk about the world being a cold, hard place, of being alone and looking for the light. Perhaps it is this very duality that makes the lyrics so enchanting.

This song was one of the biggest hits of the French rock opera, Starmania. We saw the French production in Paris, in 1988, with the second cast featuring a young Maurane, featured on this blog last week. Written by Michel Berger and Luc Plamondon, the musical went on to be adapted in English as ‘Tycoon’, with the lyrics of the English song, ‘The world is stone’ by Tim Rice, immortalized by Cyndi Lauper.

I am torn – which version of this song do I like best? Both are incredibly moving. The beauty of Fabienne Thibeault’s voice in the French version, the energy and originality of Cyndi Lauper’s version. I read that Michel Berger, who wrote the music, not only approved of Lauper’s version but even preferred it.

You decide.

J’ai la tête qui éclate
J’voudrais seulement dormir
M’étendre sur l’asphalte
Et me laisser mourir
Stone
Le monde est stone
Je cherche le soleil
Au milieu de la nuit
J’sais pas si c’est la Terre
Qui tourne à l’envers
Ou bien si c’est moi
Qui m’fait du cinéma
Qui m’fait mon cinéma
Je cherche le soleil
Au milieu de ma nuit
Stone
Le monde est stone
J’ai plus envie d’me battre
J’ai plus envie d’courir
Comme tous ces automates
Qui bâtissent des empires
Que le vent peut détruire
Comme des châteaux de cartes
Stone
Le monde est stone
Laissez moi me débattre
Venez pas m’secourir
Venez plutôt m’abattre
Pour m’empêcher d’souffrir
J’ai la tête qui éclate
J’voudrais seulement dormir
M’étendre sur l’asphalte
Et me laisser mourir

Stone, the world is stone
It’s no trick of the light, it’s hard on the soul
Stone, the world is stone, cold to the touch
And hard on the soul in the gray of the streets
In the neon unknown, I look for a sign
That I’m not on my own, that I’m not here alone
As the still of the night and the choke of the air
And the winners’ delight and the losers’ despair
Closes in left and right, I would love not to care
Stone, the world is stone from a faraway look
Without stars in my eyes through the halls of the rich
And the flats of the poor wherever I go
There’s no warmth anymore
There’s no love anymore
So I turn on my heels, I’m declining the fall
I’ve had all I can take with my back to the wall
Tell the world I’m not in, I’m not taking the call
Stone, the world is stone but I saw it once
With the stars in my eyes when each color rang out
In a thunderous chrome, it’s no trick of the light
I can’t find my way home in a world of stone

Which one do you prefer?

France’s best baguettes

Baguettes at “Le Capitole” bakery in Nice, France, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The baguette is the most popular loaf of French bread. There are 32,000 bakers and cake-makers (boulangers-pâtissiers) in France. Like so many things that the French take seriously, the profession is regulated. What this means is that you can’t make it up. Cela ne s’invente pas. There are rules and regulations around the fabrication of the humble baguette de pain and a professional association that sets the standards and governs the making and baking of our daily bread.

Every year, the Confédération Nationale de la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie Française holds a contest to crown the baker who makes the best ‘baguette de tradition’. Now, the traditional French stick is not to be confused with its lesser cousin, ‘la baguette industrielle’. The industrial or ordinary type of baguette can be found in every French supermarket or ‘point chaud’ and while some centimes cheaper is far inferior in terms of quality.

Traditional baguette is made by an artisan baker at a relatively small scale and according to a strict set of rules. The flour must be of a specific type (55), with nothing added other than yeast and salt, then kneaded for a minimal amount of time, weighed, divided and allowed to rise. It is then shaped by hand into the iconic long ‘baguette’ shape before being baked in an oven with a stone floor.

The criteria for the ‘best’ baguette are the following (20 points for each):

  • Aspect – the look or appearance of the loaf
  • Croûte (couleur/croustillant) – the colour and crustiness of the crust
  • Arôme – its flavour or taste
  • Mie (couleur / alvéolage) – the colour and cellular structure of the white, doughy part of the bread (which must not be overly dense)
  • Mâche – its chewiness or mouth feel
The word ‘alvéole’ comes from the cells of a bee-hive but its holes should be irregular.

The best baguette is somewhat irregular looking, with a nicely browned, crusty exterior and a soft, airy interior. It has a bit of character in terms of taste but is essentially a perfect backdrop for other flavours: cheese, sauces, pâtés…

This year’s top prizes at the national level were handed out in Paris on May 15th. The three top bakers are in Franche-Comté, Brittany and Ardèche: https://www.boulangerie.org/blog/concours-national-de-la-meilleure-baguette-de-tradition-francaise-les-resultats-2/

In April, the winners of the 25th annual competition in Paris were announced. The baguettes of this year’s winning baker, Fabrice Leroy, can be found at the Leroy-Monti bakery in Paris’s 12th arrondissement and also grace the president’s table at the Elysée Palace (if you are lucky enough to be invited). https://www.sortiraparis.com/news/in-paris/articles/190183-paris-best-baguette-winner-is-leroy-monti-bakery-in-the-12th-arrondissement/lang/en

How do you like your bread? Dense and doughy or light and fluffy?

La vache!

Pity the poor cow. They give us milk and cheese, meat and leather, are the source of sustenance and prosperity. They are venerated in some cultures yet treated like so much merchandise and with a flagrant lack of humanity in others. Adding insult to injury, the word ‘cow’ is never used as a compliment.

‘La vache’ expresses surprise in French. Whether a ‘wow’ or a ‘damn’, either positive or negative. It is slang but not vulgar.

However, to say someone or something is ‘vache’ means it’s not nice. Nasty, mean, tough… Arrête d’être vache! Stop being a cow!            

To do something mean to someone is to ‘faire une vacherie’. It seems somehow unjust that the language always attributes the feminine gender to such behaviour. I’ve seen it in both men and women. Note that in French, however, it is ‘une vache’ but ‘un boeuf’.

Until recently I thought these were just different names for male and female. I did not know that milk cows (‘vache laitière’, not to be confused with ‘vache à lait’…) are a completely different subset of the bovine species from beef cattle. Ah, the ignorance of the city mouse!

However, to be really mean and horrible takes being a cow a step further.

In my early days in the French corporate world, a colleague pulled me aside and told me to watch myself around so-and-so. “Attention,” she said, “C’est une peau de vache.

“A cow skin? Whatever does that mean?” I asked. Turns out that this is worst kind of person, the one who will smile to your face and stab you in the back as soon as you’re not looking. Worse, they will go to any length to get what they want.

Yet the poor cow’s hide makes such a lovely chair!

Aside from having their name so often taken in vain, the French cow’s life is not so bad. We have many small, family-run farms where just a few cattle graze in the fields.

Perhaps this is why the most famous of French cows is always smiling. The cheesy laughing cow of course!

Do you have a favourite expression involving cows?