L’apéro

One of my favourite French abbreviations is also a backbone of life in France: l’apéro. In its longer form, ‘apéritif’ sounds stiff and formal. Shortened to apéro (pronounce: a-pay-ROH) it becomes something easy and friendly. One that goes down as lightly as a quaff of champagne on a summer’s evening.

I was reminded of this when we visited old friends and neighbours in Lyon last weekend. It was nothing fancy. We were in the area and wondered if anyone would be around if we stopped by? This is when the true stuff of French friends comes out. From a quick visit it became an evening event that our former neighbours organized on the fly during an otherwise busy weekend. A family reunion in the afternoon, a job that requires being on-call all weekend. Peu importe. We came for drinks and stayed till midnight. The apéro was ‘dinatoire’, meaning it took on the proportions of a meal, with plates of simple nibbles being passed around the big table. We’re talking pâté en croûte, squares of quiche, various dips and breads, chunks of melon, cherries and an apricot clafoutis.

I’ve been to fancier events that have been designed to literally mimic a 5-course dinner: starting with nuts and ‘verrines’ (small glasses) of chilled soup or layered salad; followed by canapés of smoked fish and meat, mini-quiches, etc.; then a platter of various cheeses with bread and finally, fruit pieces and small cakes. At such parties, even the wines follow the usual order: champagne, white or rose, red with cheese and more bubbles with dessert.

Interestingly, the French have a few habits that tend to stick regardless of how fancy the fête: generally, everyone arrives before you serve the first drink. In Canada, we have the habit of getting the guest a drink in his or her hand the instant they walk in the door. In France, we wait until most everyone is assembled, then serve a drink and have a toast, clinking glasses before anyone imbibes a drop. Needless to say, it is best to have friends who arrive on time!

The other thing is the French don’t like to remain standing or even sit in individual conversation groups, as is my preference. Even if it’s only an apéro, everyone will be seated around a common table and a general conversation begun. Once the ice is broken, and especially after a second or third top-up of drinks, the conversation will break into smaller groups. I dislike sitting in the same place for long and so usually find an excuse to get up and move about (and optimally adjust the position of my good ear to be able to hear what is being said.)

We don’t host many parties these days, but we did our share when we lived in the old neighbourhood. It made me smile when one of our friends noted on Saturday that all we were missing was ‘la sauce de Mel’. For the French, everything is a sauce. Salad dressing, dip, you name it. Yet I had no idea that my dip (borrowed from the Best of Bridge) had become a local favourite that bears my name. It’s basically a sun-dried tomato and cream cheese dip with garlic and basil. Very easy and fresh and extremely popular with the French! Recipe here if you’re interested.

Apéro hour is approaching so I’ll wrap this up with a ‘bonne santé’ and ask the essential question: what are you drinking?

Le best of

One of the most overused and mispronounced English expressions I hear right now in the French media is ‘best of’.  Literally this translates in French as ‘meilleur de’ which strikes me as a perfectly acceptable French phrase. So why use the English? Like so many examples of franglais, this remains a mystery.

In summer and over the year-end holidays, all the major networks and radio stations run ‘best of’ programs – essentially repeats of the most memorable moments from live shows broadcast during the year. The expression can be found in everything from publishing to fast food menus.

As you know in France the year runs from September to June, just like the school calendar.

I suppose the news and entertainment media are entitled to a summer vacation just like the rest of us. Also, they need some time to prepare the new line-up that will start in September when we all rush back to school and work. Still, it seems a little slack to simply repackage content that is déjà vu and rerun it for July and August.

But as the saying goes, when in Rome…

This summer I am inspired to do as the French do with my own blog ‘best of’. So I’ll repost some old favourites as well as link to fellow bloggers’ best-loved pieces. While adding new posts as the spirit moves me.

I’ll start my ‘Best of’ with a throwback to this post about franglais from my early days of FranceSays. Check out the video of former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin trying to use English to make a point in a campaign speech. It was a source of razzing and ridicule that carried my favourite French puppets, Les Guignols, now sadly defunct, through many a sketch.

Parlez-vous franglais?

Note that the French say ‘best off’. This makes me smile as it seems somehow appropriate: everyone is ‘off’ on holiday. Perhaps even at their best when off on holiday. In that case, I’d best be off!

Do you have a ‘best of’ example of franglais?

Service national

The man who would become my husband was fresh out of his obligatory French military service when we first met.

“That’s outrageous,” I said. “Conscription in this day and age? A whole year of your life?”

His reply was a Gallic shrug. Military service was only right and normal for the French. After all, it had been in place since 1798. And it wasn’t so bad, he explained. After basic training (during which the young recruits in his division weren’t allowed to use real bullets!) and given that he was a hotel school grad, most of his military service was performed  – you guessed it – in the kitchens, later serving in the officers’ mess.

That was in 1985. France finally abolished its ‘service militaire obligatoire’ in 2002. As a mother whose son was getting close to the age of conscription, I breathed a sigh of relief. In its place they instituted a ‘parcours citoyen’, essentially an instructional course about the military as part of the educational system, complemented by a one-day training course.

Now obligatory national service is back in a new format: a one-month ‘Service national universel’ for all 15 to 16-year-olds. It has begun on a pilot basis in 13 French departments and will be rolled out nationally from 2020.

Macron’s SNU is more societal, culture-building scheme than military service. It designed to inculcate shared values and a sense of engagement, while breaking down social  barriers with two weeks of training camp followed by another two weeks of community service. Those who are interested can also sign up for a voluntary 3-month commitment. The logistics of the whole thing are still being figured out.

France being France, the SNU has been met with skepticism. The spirit of resistance to all things national and smacking of rhetoric is alive and well in this country, as can be heard in the lack of enthusiasm of recruits singing the national anthem, La Marseillaise, in this video of a training session in Tourcoing:

Personally I think it’s a great initiative. If done well it will be a true opportunity for young people across France to meet others from different departments and walks of life. It will be a chance to learn a few basic skills that will serve them well throughout their adult lives: the importance of physical fitness, of community service, what to do in an emergency. It’s only a month, not a year, and presumably financed by the state.

What’s your take on this – is it a good idea or not?

If you’re interested…
– More info on the SNU (in French): https://www.education.gouv.fr/cid136561/le-service-national-universel-snu.html
– BBC report (in English): https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-48755605

La clim

Almost three decades after moving to France I have finally done it. Got the thing I swore I could not live without yet somehow managed to survive sans all these years.

When we first decided to move outre-Atlantique, discovering that France is a country where people live, for the most part, without air conditioning gave me pause.

“No A/C? Seriously? But it gets hot in the summer. How do you sleep?”

The answers were always nonchalant. Prefaced with a Gallic shrug. It’s no big deal. We open the windows. Close the shutters during the day to keep the sun out. Go away on holiday to the sea.

I had little choice but to give it a try. Adapting to life in a new country while working and raising a family took every bit of my energy. But I have sweated my way through too many French summers. Struggled for years to understand why there are no screens on windows, except for a few especially mosquito-prone regions. Kicked off the duvet and the sheet and slept in my birthday suit as the curtains billowed in the breeze. Worse, as not a breath of air stirred the still heat of an August night in the furnace of a city apartment. And I still don’t understand why the French don’t have air conditioning.

For some reason people here always found the idea of a Canadian coming to France and demanding air conditioning funny. I’m not sure why. Any humour in the situation completely sailed over my over-heated head. I’ve posted before about my faulty thermostat. In my family we go lobster red as soon as the temperature hits 25C (75F) and don’t cool down until the first snow.

I tried to explain to my French friends and family that in Toronto we are less concerned about the cold in winter than the heat of summer. “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” I said, trotting out the old refrain from my childhood. My arguments fell on deaf ears.

Mais…it’s only for a few months a year.
So’s winter.
Oui, mais… we are generally away on vacation for a month.
That still leaves two months.
Oui, mais… the really hot weather only lasts a few weeks.
Define hot.
Yes but it’s expensive. It’s a waste of energy. It’s unhealthy. It makes you sick.

In fact the only thing that held me back, other than the cost, was believing that it wouldn’t be effective, would be too noisy or create a different set of problems.

Then, last year, we sweated through our hottest summer yet in the Haute Savoie. This is far from being France’s hottest region but let me tell you, it was warm. Most nights found me tossing and turning and finally sleeping in the basement. I skived off work most afternoons as the temperature in my office on the second floor became unbearable.

This April, I began to look for a supplier of ‘climatisation’. Found two in our area, one of which actually showed up, told me it was entirely feasible to cool the two hottest rooms of our house and provided a quote for a split system – that is, with an outside unit on the balcony and an inside unit up on the wall.

To my considerable amazement, we now have two of these systems in our house. They are quiet and efficient. The temperature is comfortably maintained at 22 C.

I would be tempted to break into the hallelujah chorus at this point but for the fact that the weather has so far been cooler than expected. As mentioned in last week’s post, I turned on the A/C anyway. And last weekend we had a massive hail storm.

But I won’t let it rain on my parade. The advantage of a split system is that it also does heating.

Bring it on!

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.