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?

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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’?

Idées reçues

If you spend any time in France, chances are you will find that many French people think the same way on certain subjects. As usual, I beg to differ.

Here in France, like most parts of the world, certain ‘received ideas’ tend to be taken as common sense. This goes beyond commonly held beliefs about history and science —  that Molière died on stage while playing in ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’ (in fact he died at home in his own bed after a performance) or the one about catching cold from the cold (so deeply anchored in the French psyche that no scientific proof to the contrary will be taken seriously) — to a way of seeing the world that is uniquely French.

I was surprised to find an English Wikipedia listing for the French expression idées recues. It seems to have been immortalized from the satirical dictionary of such notions written in the last century by Gustave Flaubert. Here is his original list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dictionary_of_Received_Ideas

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I resist ‘group think’. I was born a contrarian and will probably go out arguing with the doctors and nurses (yep, it’s still morbid November, folks; see my last post).

Here are some commonly held beliefs that are, in my entirely un-humble opinion, a load of old…(insert preferred word):

The French are undisciplined

This one has it that, due to some innate quality of nature itself, the French are resistant to things like lineups, rules of the road or common acts of civility like picking up trash. This national trait makes them, as a country, essentially ungovernable. While this is often the case, it has more to do with history and culture than something in their DNA.

Air conditioning is unhealthy

Just like you catch a cold from the cold, the fact of living and working in an air-conditioned space can make you physically ill. While it is true that air conditioning is poorly understood and badly integrated into French spaces and thus, you may get a crick in your neck from sitting next to the single vent delivering cold air into a room, the science and technology of cooling allows millions of people around the world to function far more optimally than they would in sweltering heat.

‘Bio’ is nothing more than big business

The average French consumer does not trust organic food. This widely held belief, recently expressed to me at a local fruit and veg store when I dared to ask when they planned to introduce ‘bio’ produce, has it that there is so much chemical contamination in the soil, air and water anyway, that any effort to grow organic food is a waste of time. In fact, this one borders the conspiracy theory in suggesting that it is all a scheme to make people pay more. Several shoppers in the line-up nodded in agreement. I left in frustration, unable to find words in the face of such confirmation bias.

The government is corrupt and in bed with big business

It doesn’t really matter which political party has the majority. Any elected official has his or her own agenda and it generally serves the rich rather than the common man. From there it is a small leap to assume that all governments are corrupt, that there are billions hidden in their coffers while we, the working people, are literally taxed to death. While there may be some truth in this, to think that virtually no one in public life sincerely wants to improve conditions for the people who elected them goes against my nature. Call me naïve. Many have. I can’t help but believe that there are good people in government (and business for that matter).

Sandwiches make you fat/are unhealthy

The idea of eating a sandwich instead of sitting down for a hot meal is extremely unpalatable to the French. I’ve heard colleagues complain that they are not well for the simple reason that they have been forced to eat a sandwich at lunchtime. Not because they ate it at their desk, or were too busy to take a break, but by the nature of the food itself. It seems to me that not all sandwiches are the same; there are good ones and bad ones. Personally I find it healthier eat a freshly made sandwich with good quality ingredients than a piece of meat floating in a salty sauce.

It is dangerous to drive below the speed limit

While this may be true in fact, I take exception to the idea that is has to be this way, at least outside of motorways. The idea of slowing down at all is abhorrent to most French drivers, even for cyclists or pedestrians. The speed limit on secondary roads in France was lowered to 80 km last year but following the uproar of the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement the government caved and decided to let the departments decide for themselves. The majority have put it back to 90 km, despite the fact that the measure seems to have led to a reduction in deaths from road accidents.

The list goes on but I’ll stop there. The fact is that there is a grain of truth in most idées reçues but that doesn’t make them laws of nature.

What commonly held ideas do you struggle with?

Au cimetière

It’s November, so naturally thoughts turn to death here in France.

It is a time of endings. All around us, nature is shrivelling up and battening down the hatches. The lake is a cold, grey sheet with rippling ridges whipped by the wind. Like the elderly themselves, the mountains have donned their winter caps.

Each French village has its cimetière and right now they feature colourful displays of chrysanthemums. November is their time of year. At La Toussaint on the first of the month everybody visits their dearly departed and sets a pot of mums on the grave.

I love visiting cemeteries. I discovered this unusual form of tourism when I was first in Paris many years ago. Père Lachaise is so beautiful and peaceful and it is amazing the famous names whose graves you stumble upon.

Our little village has no famous people buried here and the cemetery is small. Still, I stopped by the graveyard this week and was pleasantly surprised. First of all, by the gorgeous sunset view enjoyed by  those sleeping their eternal sleep. And by the fresh flowers that decorated just about every grave.

It was November 11, Remembrance Day. The town war memorial is just outside the cemetery and it had been decorated for a small ceremony held that morning. It is fitting to see the memories of the dead who fought for our freedom kept alive, even while the world goes a little mad all over again.

But what shocked me at the cemetery was this sign:

It seems that whoever bought this grave concession, their time is up. Basically, there is no eternity in a cemetery unless you pay for it. I googled it: ‘perpetuité’ costs extra, when it is available. Certain graveyards don’t even offer it. Those that do charge a premium. In Paris, the most expensive, it’ll run you 11,500 euros.

I can’t help but wonder: what do they do with the remains when the concession ends? Dig them up and put them in a public burial area? It is ghoulish to think of.

Cremation offers no respite. As it illegal to spread or even keep ashes privately, you are obliged to pay a fee to keep them in a columbarium.

Death is a scam that I hope to avoid for as long as I possibly can. But when it becomes inevitable, I intend to go up in a cloud of smoke. Have my ashes illegally scattered somewhere, maybe in the middle of a lake.

My last act will be law-breaking. I kind of like that idea.

Do you visit any cemeteries or places of remembrance?