La malbouffe

If there is a subject on which the French generally agree, it is the evils of ‘la malbouffe’. ‘Bouffe’ is slang for eating and the term ‘malbouffe’ has come to symbolize the poor eating habits of a fast-food generation.

Et oui – junk food is a problem even here in France, the land of good eats and gastronomic traditions. While most kids at school get a hot lunch, and families still sit down for a home-cooked dinner, the rise in the number of fast-food chains dominated by ‘le Mcdo’ is undeniable. What is worse, in my books, is the price wars through ‘promos’ in the supermarket chains.

France is served by a number of supermarket chains selling everything from diapers to donuts: Carrefour, Auchan, Leclerc, Intermarché, Casino and Super U. From the corner shop to the hypermarket, there is one of these shops in every French town.

You may have heard about the Nutella war that took place a few weeks ago when one store offered a kilo of the stuff at below cost. People flocked to get the deal, and scenes like this ensued:

Et oui! Hallucinant!

It is indeed telling. Not only that this kind of garbage (and I use the word intentionally for any food whose first ingredient is sugar) is consumed so massively, but that economic conditions are such that people would fight over it.

In this France is no different from anywhere else.

But France being France, there is a backlash. One of its mascots is Richard Ramos, a deputy fo the governing party from the department of Loiret in north-central France. Ramos came to fame this past weekend when, during an appearance on the  (excellent) political talk show, C’est Politique, he spread the ‘fake news’ of a so-called toxic preservative used in prepared foods. E330 or citric acid, as it turns out, is not toxic or even carcinogenic. It can cause the enamel of your teeth to erode.

His reputation took a hit but you can’t deny the wave on which he is riding. Ramos, and many others like him, want supermarkets to stop selling off crap like Nutella at cost and start paying a fair price to farmers. To draw attention to this cause, last October he drove a truck full of onions into a supermarket parking lot and dumped them – inviting shoppers to come and help themselves. The message was that the hard-working paysans who grow our food are not able to earn a living wage due to mass-consumerism and the greed of the supermarkets.

Add to the woes of these farmers the growing number of dairy and meat producers who can’t compete with cheaper EU imports and can barely make ends meet —  and you have the makings of a national tragedy.

One that will not be solved by cheap Nutella and a hamburger to go.

What do you think? How can we ensure that agricultural producers make a decent living from their labours? Boycott the big stores? Buy direct? Make greed illegal?

 

On ne peut plus se voir

If the French do one thing very well, it is mutual dislike. In fact, they raise it to an art form. When two people can’t stand each other, they literally can’t ‘see’ each other.

It seems I have become invisible. At least to my neighbour, who has decided she cannot see me. The irony is that I see far more of her than I care to.

My neighbour is a self-proclaimed child of 1968, ‘une soixante-huitarde’ who came of age when the bra-burning, peace-and-love sexual and social revolution hit Paris. She claims she simply cannot wear a top when she sunbathes, and from what I gather, bottoms are also optional.

To set the record straight, and dispel any notion of prudishness, none of this is a problem for me. ‘A chacun le sien’, to each his own, and I’ll even confess as to being a tiny bit envious of her comfort in being à poil. And of course, in the privacy of her own home and even her own backyard, it is truly her business.

Except it’s not. When we were building our house, several of the workmen complained it was distracting to see a nude woman just off the balcony, and at the time the lack of foliage (ours) made it hard to ignore (hers).

At first I thought they were joking, and even made a comment along the lines of: “But she’s no Brigitte Bardot, nor any spring chicken, is she really that much of a distraction?”

After various facial contortions indicating that ‘poulet du printemps’ is not any kind of French, they assured me that age made no difference: the proximity of a stark naked woman transforms any red-blooded male into a voyeur.

Aside from these ongoing visual disturbances, which I now address by closing the blinds and letting the hedge grow tall, I hear quite a bit more of my neighbour than I would choose to. There are frequent family feuds at a volume and intensity that would scare a fishmonger’s wife, and I say that as someone who is known to raise her own voice too high and too often.

Additionally, there is an adult son who likes to come home, open all the doors and windows and blast music to entertain the entire neighbourhood. I believe he is probably the source of the knock-down drag-out disputes. Of course, none of this is any of my business. And if I were a good French neighbour, I would turn my deaf ear and blind eye their way and say nothing.

Aye, but there’s the rub. I’m not entirely French, you see.

So, on a couple of occasions, I have (nicely, in my view, but still perhaps too pointedly to their taste) asked them to lower the volume of said music (the fights I pretend not to hear), when it carried on loudly after 10 p.m. And on one occasion, it seems I unjustly accused them of being the source of said noise when they were quietly watching TV!

Monsieur not-Bardot came around the next morning and spoke to my husband, saying that his wife was beside herself with my false accusations. Monsieur FranceSays suggested that I could perhaps be forgiven my mistake as there had been many previous occasions on which the music from their place had been very loud indeed. He also explained that my single-sided deafness makes it hard to correctly pinpoint sounds.

That’s when things went south with my neighbour. A few weeks later, I received a note from her saying that the following Saturday night she would be hosting a party of friends and neighbours (clearly we were not invited) for her birthday. That she hoped I could tolerate a bit of music and voices in the garden on this occasion, given my bedtime at 9:30 p.m. I replied saying that I appreciated her consideration in letting me know.

Husband, who can be a wag, asked me if I had wished her a happy 70th birthday?

When Saturday came, the temperature plummeted and it poured rain. The party was a wash out.

Since then, she ignores me. And I pretend to ignore her ignoring me, calling out a bright ‘Bonjour B…’ whenever we meet.

Perhaps it is my lack of Latin blood, but I find that harbouring dislike for other people usually turns around and bites you in the butt. So I try to get along with everyone, at least superficially. Or at least laugh rather than hate. Life is better that way.

The featured photo is of a famous celebrity feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. I’ll sign off with a video of a famous French love story inspired by 1968, with Serge Gainsbourg and his muse, Jane Birkin. (Warning: you may wish to bleep the sound half-way through if anyone is listening.)

How do you handle difficult neighbours?

En suspens

Larousse defines ‘en suspens’ as a state of momentary interruption. To me it feels like time is standing still. This state of being suspended, in limbo, while we wait and see what the future holds.

I am not normally given to pre-election anxiety. But in light of the surprising results the world has seen this past year whenever voters went to the polls, it is natural to feel anxious. Everywhere you turn in France there is talk of what may be the fall-out after Sunday’s first round of the presidential election.

Sure, there will be a second round two weeks later, on May 7. But by then the choices will be narrowed down to two from the current 11. And if we believe the polls, which I am not particularly inclined to do but at the same time cannot reasonably ignore, we could conceivably find ourselves stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place: Mélenchon on the left, and Le Pen on the right.

That particular scenario is responsible for my sense of creeping discomfort. If it came down to it, I am fairly confident that France would go left. But at what price? The end of Europe as we know it, of free trade and the free movement of its citizens. What would it be like to live in ‘La France Insoumise’ (Undefeated, rebellious France)? There are things I could get excited about: a new constitution (6ème République) that would allow this country to make the kinds of sweeping changes that are needed; a real commitment to investing in renewable energy. But how exactly would we distribute the so-called wealth of our country to better serve its citizens?

What concerns me is that there are so many cynical, deluded and misguided citizens who either will not vote at all, will vote ‘blanc’ as a protest, or will vote for an extreme faction which, however endearing, has no chance making more than a ripple at the polls. Which leaves the window wide open – grande ouverte – for our worst nightmare.

Until next week, then, when we will have a better idea of ‘à quelle sauce on sera mangé’…

C’est comme ça

Peintres tour eiffel

I know better than to expect service with a smile in France. Around here, we are happy to be served, period. But lately a few particularly awful customer service experiences have me ranting once again.

First there was the painter who was supposed to redo the south-facing façade of our house. It started out well enough. He showed up when promised, twice, sent me a quote for the work, cashed the 40% deposit and began the job in May. Things quickly went downhill. He began by painting over the chrome bolts that are a design feature of our modern house, and dripping paint on several glass panels around the deck. I explained that he needed to protect the area, so he taped down plastic and used a bit of tape. He got half-way through the job when the skies clouded over and spat down a few drops of rain. Then he disappeared for two weeks, leaving us with a half-painted house, plastic bits on the deck and vague promises to come back soon. August, he swore. We are still waiting.

Then there’s the postman. Not only does he never ring twice, often he never rings at all. I find the slip of paper in my letter box, down by the road, saying that he attempted to deliver a parcel while I was out. Des mensonges, Monsieur! I was there. Deaf I may be but I can still hear the door bell. The funny thing about that slip of paper is that, to look at it, you would think it should be easy to get your parcel (assuming you read French; otherwise, bonne chance in decoding this baby!).

Avis de passageTwo options, it says. Choose a new delivery date online or go pick up your parcel at the local post office, anytime from 3 pm the following day. “Mais non,” says the woman who works at our local post office as she explains it to me with a vague school-marmish air. It doesn’t work like that around here. By the time the postman reaches her small post office, at least two working days will have passed (not counting the weekly Wednesday closure). When I express frustration, not only at the poor service but at the erroneous message on the official piece of paper, I get nothing more than a Gallic shrug.

Et oui, c’est comme ça!

Online shopping saves me from having to deal with such characters. Most of the time. As much as I love Amazon, regardless of their tax issues, I shop some French websites for specialty items like pet supplies. Our two Frenchies are excitable types on walks and it takes some good quality leashes to rein them in. After spending a good while researching just the leash I needed (short, strong, flexible grip), I was ready to place my order on a site called Polytrans (the French are not big on sexy brand names).

The site claimed to offer free delivery on orders over 49 euros, so I calculated my order to include an additional item, bringing the total to just over 50 euros. But when it came time to place my order, lo and behold, the site offered me a so-called ‘loyalty discount’ based on a previous order, deducting three euros off the total and adding in 7.50 for delivery. Gah!

I called the number listed on the website for support, politely explaining my case and expecting that they would simply remove the ‘discount’ and let me get on with it. No such luck. All I had to do, the woman explained in a voice that suggested she regularly dealt with dummies, was order some small item to make up the difference and get free delivery. When I told her that I’d already done this, and frankly, their loyalty points were having the opposite effect, she dropped the mask of customer service and said that there was no way she could change the order anyway. Imagine if they had to do that for everyone?

Needless to say, I hung up and took my business elsewhere.

When the French complain about ‘unfair’ competition from the Amazons of this world, I will point out that little example of customer ‘service’. It is just one among so many others. When they moan about the loss of local jobs and soaring unemployment, I will think about my half-painted façade, along with the handful of other jobs (electrical, roof, cleaning) we’d be happy to pay for if only we could find someone willing to do them.

Et oui. C’est comme ça.

Have you had a memorable customer experience lately, in France or elsewhere?

Souriez, c’est la rentrée!

Frenchie smiles

It’s that time of year again. Drum roll, please…

C’est la rentrée!

Time to get back: back to school, back to business, back to the grind that is French life. Although you might think this would mean long faces, around here it seems that getting back to work gives us a lot of reasons to smile.

I’ve posted before about how this is my favourite time of year. And it’s not just for the school kids. Although I still have one (mostly) mature student under my roof, la rentrée is the start of a whole new year on many different levels.

First, there’s la rentrée des vacances. The French are back from vacation and they are smiling, at least for the first week. We did not go away anywhere this summer. Instead, we took shorter breaks in the spring, then lounged around all summer while everyone else took off. Although we live in an area that is a draw for tourists, we still feel the deadness of the summer season. Shops close, streets are oddly empty, anything administrative gets lost in an overflowing inbox. We began feeling the first signs of life again last week. Traffic reports went from green to red, tanned faces appeared in the shops and long line-ups sprouted in the grocery store.

Then, there is la rentrée politique. This means that the brief lull in rhetoric is over. My ears had barely stopped ringing from all the noise over Brexit and Trump’s latest antics. And with presidential elections in the offing next spring, French politicians are back with a bang. Nicolas Sarkozy broke the silence by officially announcing his run for a spot on the ticket in 2017. Since he declared his Republican candidacy with a proposed France-wide burkini ban, he will not be getting my vote.

Today is la rentrée des classes. It’s back to school for the kids, which means we will see a lot of freshly scrubbed faces and bright new backpacks on the street. It’s been awhile since my kids were small, even longer since I went back to school myself, yet that buzz of newness and energy still gets me.

The teachers have been back for a week already, having completed la rentrée des professeurs ahead of time to get things ready for a new crop of students. This means new security measures in schools, although I doubt they will be enough to reassure everyone after so many terrifying incidents in the past two years.

I have been enjoying the rentrée audiovisuelle this week. My favourite French access-to-prime-time talk show, C’est à Vous on France 5, is back. Next week will kick off a new season of Le Grand Journal on Canal Plus. And I’ve just learned that Les Guignols, those political puppets extraordinaire, who were banished from the show last year having crossed some sort of line, will be back.

In a week or two it will be time to sign up for activities: yoga, zumba, choir…I’m still debating what to make time for but have decided there will be at least one thing that gets me out each week!

It seems there are lots of reasons to smile. The summer sun is still with us, yet there’s a chill in the morning air that heralds the change of season in a few weeks’ time. I love the fall, and I feel energized at the thought of getting back down to work again.

What’s your favourite thing about la rentrée?