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?

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!

Le bon moment

I went to our local butcher shop hoping to pick up something nice to slip on the barbecue this past weekend – which turned out to be a wash-out weather-wise. I should have known better as we are not yet ‘officially’ in BBQ season. The butcher had the basics, of course, but not the nice selection of sausages we usually enjoy grilling up when the fine weather comes.

That should be soon, as we enter the month of May and the annual holiday festival. It starts with Labour Day on May 1st and VE or Victory in Europe day on the 8th; these are followed by the Ascension long weekend from Thursday to Monday at the end of May and the Pentecost holiday Monday in early June. By then we shall be in full seasonal swing and the local shops will be well-stocked with everything from ice-cream to grillades.

It was a timely reminder in case I’d forgotten that here in France, timing is everything. There are no official rules for when you switch your greeting from ‘bonjour’ to ‘bonsoir’ or until what time one can reasonably wish someone a ‘bonne journée’ vs. ‘bon après-midi’ or ‘bonne soirée’. You just have to learn to sense when the timing is right.

Bonjour or ‘good day’ is the standard greeting in France. After that, you can try a ‘rebonjour’ or casually switch to ‘salut’, which is closer to ‘hi’. Oddly, some sort of greeting is always expected but it’s often not clear what it should be. Sometimes people will say ‘hello’ borrowed from English or just ‘hé!’

When I worked full-time in Lyon, it was common to say ‘bonjour’ the first time you saw someone in the morning, then ‘rebonjour’ when you saw them again, and just ‘re’ after that. Some people would get clever with ‘re-re-rebonjour’ or after several such instances ‘re-re-re’ which sounds as if you’re gargling. No wonder we non-natives get confused!

Timing is everything, as they say. Getting a sense for ‘le bon moment’ or le bon timing as the French will often say (which words being ‘officially’ borrowed and how they are pronounced being another topic for which there are no rules), is perhaps the greatest challenge for second-language learners in France.

Have a bonne journée!

Bon dimanche

Dimanche après-midi sur l’île de la Grande Jatte – Georges Seurat

Sundays are sacrosanct in France. Despite the fact that an ever-diminishing number of people attend church, the tradition of Sunday as a day of rest is still going strong.

Shops are closed, although some supermarkets and food shops are open on Sunday mornings until noon. Open-air markets do a booming trade until midday, after which everybody goes for lunch and all business activity ceases. Everyone wishes each other “Bon dimanche!”

Un dimanche – Paul Signac

In France, Sundays are for leisure pursuits and family. Aside from essential services like transport, police and hospitals, nobody works.

Sunday lunch can be an all-afternoon affair. It often ends in a long, post-prandial walk to aid digestion. Then it’s a light supper and early to bed in anticipation of the new week. Monday, not Sunday, is considered the first day of the week.

La promenade du dimanche – Carl Spitzweg

I love Sundays because they are different from the rest of the week. My North American, consumer self used to rail against the French refusal to authorize Sunday openings of stores (other than in the pre-Christmas period, when exceptions are allowed). But I’ve finally come around to the French way of thinking. The fact that the tradition is kept up means we get a true day of rest. Even if you spend it working around the house, gardening or going for a long hike, it is a needed break from the regular routine.

Un dimanche campagnard – Gabriel Dauchot

This morning the sun is shining, a small plane is droning somewhere overhead and my to-do list is on hold. I will take the time to catch up on my reading, sit outside and have a coffee while the birds chirp. I will enjoy what we call the ‘pause dominical’, the Sunday break.

What does Sunday mean to you?