Outre-Manche

Outre-manche

We are just back from a few days outre-Manche and I thought I’d share a few impressions of England as seen by a Frenchified anglo.

We heard so much French spoken on the streets at first we thought we were still in Paris. I had read of London being France’s 6th largest city, but it still came as a surprise.

We had booked a small hotel in South Kensington, which I later learned is home to the Lycée Français and an area known as ‘Little Paris’. It was election Sunday, and in the afternoon there was a long queue of voters on the street. Can you tell these people are French? I got very good at sussing them out before they said a word.

Lycée Français

In the bar where we went to toast Macron’s sweep to victory the waitress was also – quelle surprise! – French. Like most French people we met, she was relieved to have escaped an extreme-right government but a bit concerned about being sold to the highest bidder by a former banker.

There was no restaurant in the hotel so we went out for sustenance in the morning – and found ourselves enjoying continental breakfast at the French bakery ‘Paul’. (We made the mistake of a full English one morning at the local pub which part of the ‘Fullers’ chain and it was truly awful – powdered eggs!).

I love London, so our few days there were a treat. Thanks to Osyth (of the excellent blog Half-Baked in Paradise) for suggesting the tour of Spencer House – it was a fascinating glimpse inside a privately owned palace.

Still, I was surprised at how scary the streets were. Not because of terrorists or muggers, but rather because of the lack of clear rules for pedestrians. First of all, there is the issue of the side (left, wrong or otherwise). No matter how many times I crossed the road, I could never be sure which direction the traffic was coming from, so found myself like a terrified extraterrestrial, head wildly turning in all directions before placing a tentative foot on the street. While some areas were marked, others had no indication at all and it was unclear if we had any right of passage.

It seemed that there were signs and ramps for the disabled everywhere, but few or no signs for pedestrians. Not that the disabled don’t deserve the help, but surely we don’t want everyone to end up in a wheelchair?

Wheelchair

I was not exactly inspired by confidence when crossing this bridge.

We left London for the countryside near Nottingham, where we visited our daughter the future veterinarian for a few days. Everywhere we went, I was struck by how explicit the signs were.

Were you raised in a barn?

I’m not sure the fine will deter many.

Signs like these are worthy of a Monty Python sketch.

And in case you’re looking for the bins by the church…

God save the Queen!

Have you seen any good signs lately?

 

 

 

 

Bon ménage

The cleaning lady quit. Again.

(For anyone groaning, “You have a cleaning lady?” you may as well stop reading here.)

I am rarely without a cleaning lady. I use this outmoded term intentionally for two reasons: 1) The commonly used French term is ‘femme de ménage’, even though a former colleague used to proudly refer to her ‘homme de ménage’; I suppose it is technically possible to find a man willing and able to do the job, although I personally doubt the existence of such beings. 2) 99% of cleaners are women, so who are we kidding?

First, let’s get our terms straight. ‘Ménage’ is housework, ‘faire bon ménage’ means to get along well with somebody, and ‘ménage à trois’ you’ve probably already heard of in a slightly different context – this being the main thing on search engines’ minds when I googled ‘ménage’ in search of photos.

The official French term for the profession of cleaner is ‘technicien de surface’, a job which is filled by both sexes in supermarkets, hospitals and office buildings. But when it comes to households and their cleaning or ‘ménage’ (the same word refers to both), women dominate the field.

A series of cleaning ladies has swept through our lives in recent years. I am daily reminded of Patricia, a pixie-like woman with a cloud of red hair who arrived at our door looking like the French rock star Mylène Farmer. It was she who coerced me into adding Léo, one of my current cat bosses, to our ménagerie. Her particular obsession was dust in unreachable corners of the ceiling, and I would often see her perched precariously high while swiping at dust motes. As she was one of those whom we hired ‘au noir’, that is to say under the table, I often feared an accident for which we would be held responsible.

Another called Carole spent hours taking apart and cleaning the Dyson. She also snooped through our papers and regaled me with dirt about other clients, and the number of thongs she found under the bed. She was the only cleaner I have ever let go.

We tried several agencies so as to do things in the above-board way and, as an added incentive, get a tax break. I invariably found these individuals to be less gung ho than their cash-only counterparts. One rather heavyset young woman demanded that I supply her with enough wet wipes to clean the entire house. Another insisted on ironing (against my religion) but refused to take out the garbage. How can you clean a house without emptying the bin? Another scowled the whole time she cleaned, making me sure she hated us, our house and the pets. Later I learned that she had eye trouble, explaining both the frown and her selective vision of dirt.

When we are between cleaners, as we are now, I put on the red hat I reserve for emergency operations like moving house. I clear the area of pets and clutter, rally the troops (currently diminished to one half-hearted husband), let go a battle cry (“Time to clean!”) and wield my vacuum cleaner with gusto. A couple of hours later, our house is more or less clean. Unfortunately this state is all too transient and, in the hours and days that follow, I am transformed into a clean freak, a kitchen counter kamikaze, toilet seat totalitarian.

When we find another cleaner, I will be able to quit this thankless task and our household will return to its normal state of bon ménage.

How do you approach house cleaning? Or not?

Faire ses valises

overpacked suitcase
This is not my suitcase but it could be

I hate packing. You’d think I’d be good at it by now. But after thirty years of schlepping suitcases and other stuff back and forth outre-Atlantique, I’m still no star.

Part of the problem is that I don’t really like to travel. Don’t get me wrong – I love discovering new places and revisiting ones from the past. It’s the process of getting from point A to point B that gets me. It starts with a necessary narrowing of options. You can’t take it all with you, although I have tried a few times. So you need to decide in advance what you need. Obviously that means anticipating the weather, the situations – who knows if you’ll want to go hiking? What if they don’t have any firm pillows? Inevitably, I over pack.

When visiting family and friends, I usually add a few two (Canada Customs oblige) bottles of bubbly or good red. And then a few odd things from France that people will appreciate: herbes de provence, sea salt, chocolate. This time I made strategic error of bringing some lovely French honey. I thought it well buffered in my running shoe but the glass jar shattered somewhere in transit and spilled its gooey contents all over my suitcase. Thankfully most of my clothes were safe as they were in packing cubes, but those shoes are sure going to get a lot of traction!

I wish I could travel like my husband. He casually tosses a few well-chosen items into a bag and off he goes, carefree. If he forgets something essential, he buys it there. So relaxed is he that inevitably, as the plane takes off, he snores.

img_2083I have taken to capturing these moments on my phone. They provide souvenirs of each trip we take, as well as a bookmark in my photo library. Apparently the tendency to nod off enroute runs in the family, as this recent snap from a holiday flight shows.

I am on a rare solo trip back to Toronto to visit friends and family. It was husband’s idea that I make the trip on my own as he already  all his vacation time skiing. I love that he wants me to enjoy life, although I suspect he’s been plotting ways to get me to pack my bags (‘faire mes valises’) for awhile now.

This morning I’ve unpacked my stuff (which I far prefer to packing), and cleaned all the honey and broken glass from my suitcase. I have vowed that from now on, I’m keeping it simple.

Do you like to pack? Do you travel light or prefer to stay home?

Les Amerlocs

Bonjour les amis,

I have been working on my memoir of late and completely forgot to write this week’s post. In the meantime I stumbled across this video – one of a series that spoofs the experiences of French tourists in the good ole U.S. of A. It’s called ‘Les Amerlocs’ which is a French slang term (not of endearment) for Americans.

I must admit it made me giggle. The couple try to behave in a way that is natural for the French but immediately run into American-style rules that are completely foreign to them. I experienced similar feelings when I first arrived in France and now as a sort of reverse culture shock when I go back to Canada.

If you don’t speak French you will probably get the gist of it from the gestures – and the American beach cop’s lines are in English. The ending is silly but probably reflects what a lot of tourists feel like doing in a foreign place.

Et toi? When was the last time you felt like a stranger in a strange land?

Caractère de cochon

Caractere de cochonWe walked by this place several times on our recent trip to Paris. I was intrigued, not least by the name. Beyond the clever play on words, it reminded me of how often I had confused the false friends caractère and character when I first learned French.

How upset I was when then-to-be husband told me I had a ‘mauvais caractère’. When I realized this meant a bad temper and not a bad character, I had to admit he had a point.

I’m grateful he didn’t go whole hog as it were and say I had a caractère de cochon, which means the same thing only sounds worse. Why the poor pig is blamed for bad temper is beyond me. Dogs are also lumped in with the ill-tempered boar, with the variant on the expression being caractère de chien.

The fact is I do have a terrible temper and am prone to lose it more often than I should. The wall in the living room of my family’s old house bore the stigmata of that time I kicked my clog (those babies had wooden soles and packed a punch) at my brother and it hit the wall instead. “Don’t irk me!” was my battle cry.

Yoga breathing and mindful meditation, along with (purely medicinal, of course) doses of wine, beer and cognac, have helped me to curb my ill-tempered outbursts in recent years. Despite the ready availability of alcohol I must say that living in France hasn’t helped me learn to keep my temper in check. Niceness just isn’t inbred here the way it is in other cultures.

As for the place, I deeply regretted not having gone in for a bite when I read this review by food blogger David Lebovitz. That sandwich! Le jambon!

CARACTEREDECOCHON_3293
Photo credit: http://www.luckymiam.com/en/caractere-de-cochon/

I could just kick myself.

What kind of caractère are you?