La polémique

It is something of a national sport in France. Controversy: it leads to discussion, debate, disagreement. Which is mostly fine with me. I am a bit of a contrarian myself.

I grew up with a healthy sense of controversy. Discord was the essence of our family dynamic. My parents disagreed about everything from religion to politics and my father loudly aired his opinions at the dinner table each night. As the eldest of four children it was up to me to lead on behalf of the youth front. So I can hold my own in an argument.

But the French love of ‘la polémique’ goes too far. It is bad enough when things are normal. Last year it was les gilets jaunes, the yellow vests, an entire movement founded upon nothing more than perceived social and economic injustice. Now that we have an actual crisis, imagine the debate. First it was confinement. The government was insane to want to lock us up in our homes, require papers for every outing. Now it is deconfinement. The government is insane to expect us to go back to work, to put our children in school. They are lying, covering up, incompetent. Likely all three.

Controversy happens at every level of life in France. Not even language is exempt. Case in point: a recent item featured on the 8-oclock news about the correct usage of the word ‘reopen’. Is it, in fact, rouvrir or réouvrir?

“Réouvir,” said my husband, as we watched TV together during lockdown. Ha! I knew the correct answer, having learned it recently enough to remember. Especially as it goes against what I would naturally translate from English.

“No, it’s rourvir,” I said.

“What do you know, you’re not even French!” Clearly, the gloves were off.

Controversy, as I said, is a national sport and it’s also one that flourishes in our marriage. Besides, after several weeks of imposed togetherness, any filter of politeness was lost.

“You’ll see,” I said.

“Rouvir,” said the expert on the nightly news, putting an end to at least one debate in our household. Husband was consoled by the fact that the anglicized ‘réouvrir’ has sufficiently infiltrated his mother tongue that most people get it wrong. Also by the fact that the verb and the noun don’t align. It’s ‘rouvrir’ to reopen, but ‘réouverture’ for reopening.

France began the gradual reopening of the country this week. The lockdown may be over, for now, but the controversy still flourishes. They’re even talking about a second wave, not of the dreaded virus, but something almost as dangerous. Les gilets jaunes are preparing for round two.

I admit I’m somewhat divided about the need for so much debate. On one hand, I admire my fellow countrymen for fighting back. Here in France we all watched aghast as Brexit approached and marvelled at the lack of outrage outre-manche. Clearly our friends in the UK had been sold a bunch of lies and made an ill-informed decision to leave the EU. Yet no one was in the streets. The Brits’ ability to keep calm and carry on, while serving them well in a crisis, borders on apathy when it comes to politics.  

Yet the French are so absorbed in arguing that we have difficulty moving on. The latest polémique is now about whether individual members of the government should be held responsible for mistakes in leading us through the COVID-19 crisis. Did the lack of PPE at the outset of the pandemic lead to healthcare workers losing lives? Clearly. Should our leaders be made to pay? I’m not convinced. Several lawsuits are pending. Time will tell whether they will be found guilty. But given the French need to finger point and the ‘off-with-their-heads’ drive for justice, we will surely be arguing about who is responsible for a long time to come.

All of which makes me long for a dose of peace and harmony.

How do you feel about controversy?

La poisse

I’ve been having a run of bad luck lately. A series of unfortunate events. Nothing too serious or life-threatening (she says, knocking on noggin) yet oh-so frustrating. If it had only been one thing or another, I might have put it down to ‘shit happens’. But no, I fear that I may have la poisse.

Being of an inquiring mind, I had to first understand the origins of this French expression. It comes from the word ‘poix’, a type of glue made of pine resin back in the Middle Ages. From this came a derivative word, ‘poisse’, meaning something sticky that you can’t get rid of, which became a slang expression for misfortune.

I suppose it makes sense. Bad luck is sticky. Once you have it, it seems to attract more of the same.

Mine began a few days before Christmas when my daughter’s flight from the UK to Canada was cancelled at the last minute. There seems to be a run of such things just when people are rushing to get home for family celebrations. It was annoying but no biggie: they rescheduled her for the next day and put her up in a hotel. A few hours later, I was about to board my connecting flight for Toronto when my Canadian passport went missing. I mean it literally evaporated between the security check and the gate. These days you cannot get on a plane bound for Canada without either a Canadian passport or an electronic travel authorization. So I was stuck in Amsterdam, watching my family board without me.

By the time security found my passport (yes, they had it all the time), I was rebooking a flight for the next day. KLM waived most of the charges but it still cost me a couple hundred euros including a night in an airport hotel.

Arriving in Toronto, our vacation rental had no heat or hot water. Thus ensued two days of chasing the owner and the property manager before giving up and moving to a new place on Christmas Eve. In the meantime, my son’s girlfriend got the stomach flu and was out of commission for a day or two.

A week later, as we rang in the new year in Québec City, I got a sore throat that turned into a nagging cold. On our return flight, this led to a nasty case of airplane ear that hurt like hell and made me feel like I was in a decompression chamber for the whole next day.

Arriving home, we discovered that our senior house sitters (we use an association that sends retired people to care for your pets and house while you’re away — normally they do a great job) had been rather less than respectful with our house and pets. We’ll never know exactly what happened but I suspect they enjoyed the house while providing at best haphazard care for our dogs and cats.

The last straw came yesterday, when I dragged my sorry butt to the year’s first fitness class. This is a fabulous class at our local community centre that combines strength, balance and stretching. I didn’t feel 100% but I was pleased to get myself there. Just before it began, I turned to say hello to someone and felt something slip in my back. “No way,” I told myself. “You are doing this.” So I did. An hour and a half later, I realized my mistake. My back was well and truly out. I hobbled to the car and drove home. This morning I can still barely move.

I don’t usually believe in luck, at least not the kind where some benign or evil force controls your life. You make your own luck, that’s always been my philosophy. So I have to question why all this is happening and what I need to learn from it.

First of all, despite the ups and downs, I have been incredibly lucky. Getting on the next day’s flight at such a busy time of year, getting a refund on one rental and finding another, getting upgraded to business class on our return flight. Coming home to our pets in good health after all. So the glass is definitely more than half full. My cold is getting better and in a few days my back should be back to normal.

Secondly, I have learned a few things. One is that I’m too trustful: I trusted security with my documents, and strangers with my home and animals; I will not be so trusting in future. Another is that I can be own worst enemy: I should not have forced myself to exercise when my back was saying no, however inconvenient it might be. And finally, when shit happens, I need to roll with it better.

This year is shaping up to be one of big change for us. More on that later, but in the meantime, I will focus on my learnings from the past few weeks. I don’t really do resolutions, but I have set an intention for 2020: to be present. To me that means breathing into change, not to be distracted by too many demands on my attention, to focus on what matters, to get offline and enjoy one thing at a time.

Wishing you a wonderful new year filled with health and happiness: Bonne année et bonne santé!

What do you hope for in 2020?

Photo credit: Clément Falize on Unsplash

Deux secondes

It was the recurring refrain when my kids were growing up.

“Deux secondes,” my son would say whenever I asked him to do something.

“Deux secondes!” my daughter would call from her room when we were running late for school.

“Je suis à vous dans deux petites secondes,” says the woman at bakery, placing baguettes on the shelf. (Be with you in two seconds.) Two small seconds obviously being much quicker than normal ones.

I’ve never understood why the French require two seconds when all we ever needed was one. “Just a sec!” I used to yell when my mother would call me. But around here two seconds is the norm. Sometimes it’s two minutes (deux minutes!) or even two hours (ne prend pas deux heures!) but whatever the unit of time, two are always required. I guess everything with the French just takes longer.

It is said that patience is a virtue. Unfortunately it is not one with which I am familiar. Two seconds or minutes or hours are too long for me when I want to get somewhere or do something. It goes against my nature to spend any longer doing anything than is absolutely necessary. This philosophy is entirely incompatible with running a business, raising a family or living in France.

So finally, after much reflection, I’ve decided to cultivate the art of patience. Because it seems that patience, like other qualities, is not something that you have to be born with to enjoy.

And I’m starting small.

Two seconds isn’t a lot of time but if you’re mindful, you can make them work for you. In fact, they can be life changing. It’s enough or run a stop sign or get hit by a car. Long enough for your heart to beat a few times, to make up your mind, to have a stroke of good luck. Two seconds was all it took for me to catch a certain Frenchman’s glance across a crowded bar a very long time ago.

So I’m using ‘deux secondes’ as my mantra. Every time I’m about to tell myself — or the dog, or the driver in front of me — to hurry up, I stop and say the magic words: deux secondes. And for that tiny bit of time, I breathe, focus my eyes on something, relax.

I don’t know if the two-second rule will ultimately stop me from stamping my foot or swearing to myself for very long. I may not make it to two minutes, never mind two hours. But so far I’m amazed at what two seconds can do. Even if I can’t be patient for long, I can enjoy two seconds where things slow down. And then somehow, my sense of urgency evaporates.

Are you a patient person?

Carte de fidelité

“La carte du magasin?” the cashier asks dully, mustering all the enthusiasm of someone required to ask the same question of every customer, day in and day out. But it must be asked. He — or more often she — cannot process my purchase without an answer: do I have a store loyalty card?

Oddly, this is the only question anyone in a French store ever asks. Not “How are you today?” or “Are you satisfied with your shopping experience?” or even, “Can I help you?” No, we are sadly limited in our exchanges as to whether or not I have a store card. Mostly I say no, even though I do have a collection of such cards. At home, in a drawer where I keep the massive wallet with all my papers. Mostly the drawer is where it stays.

These days I travel light with just a small change purse and a couple of cards. I know I should carry my ID or at least my drivers license, but I can’t be bothered. In 30 years of driving in France, I’ve only been stopped once and that was by les douaniers, the border control, because I had obviously (from the boxes in my back seat) been shopping in Switzerland and not stopped to declare anything. What can I say? Our closest Ikea is in Geneva. They let me go with a warning. I’m not sure they even asked to see my big, pink French drivers license.

Carton rose

There is something about the term ‘carte de fidelité’ or loyalty card I find oddly endearing. I’m not sure why. I have no loyalty to any store, nor any other sentiment other than gratitude that such places exist within a reasonable drive. Ours is a relationship of convenience. And there is little convenient about such cards.

First is the fact that you need a physical card. You can’t just say your name or give a number, with the exception of a few smaller shops, which means carrying around a lot of plastic. This is especially true if, like me, you are not the faithful type. I confess: I shop around. Fast and furious. Based on my mood, to-do list and whatever a particular store has to offer: a better fish counter, fresh produce or selection of beer or wine.

Then there’s the fact that most of the reward programs require you to go online, log in to your account, and interact with them in some way to get your bonus. Only one store near me offers a simple ‘cagnotte’ or jackpot system in which you cumulate a bonus amount every time you shop that you can apply to future purchases whenever you choose. They even gave me a mini-card that attaches to my key ring. It takes little effort and adds up to a few euros off here and there.

Smaller places like hair salons give you a paper card that they must stamp each time you go. After a dozen services, you get a freebie. Usually I forget the card and start a new one several times, then change to a new place before it’s full.

I wish that store owners would understand that it’s service, not a little bonus after hundreds of euros spent, that wins my loyalty. How about a suggestion book, where I can let you know what’s missing on your shelves? A friendly cashier who actually says hello? Or even tapes that partially open container shut so that what’s inside doesn’t spill everywhere?

Happy staff create happy customers, so give your employees a reason to smile and that will earn you all the loyalty you need.

Do you have any store cards?

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?