Faire mouche

Faire moucheThe heat of summer is upon us and with it, the hordes of unwanted guests. I’m not talking about visitors who’ve flown in from foreign parts, although we’ve had our share of them this year. Family is always welcome, at least for the first week.

No, I’m talking about the winged creatures of the Muscidae family, or common housefly, who set up camp chez nous each summer. Who soil my windows by day and shorten my nights with their blasphemous buzzing.

There are two schools: either you are someone who is not particularly bothered by such things, casually shooing when they get too familiar; or you turn into a veritable Kamikaze fighter when anything flies in your face.

I have two Frenchies (bulldogs, that is). One will look lazily at les mouches and simply twitch his ears. The other jumps to attention then tries to bite the intruder, repeatedly and unsuccessfully. It’s a personality thing.

My husband, when prompted to action, usually by me, is a fairly ineffectual swatter. Either he doesn’t have the killer instinct or his aim is off. Bref, his swat inevitably misses its target. Leaving us with a fly that’s on the alert and several marks on the walls or furniture.

I, on the other hand, will not be so easily foiled. I have perfected my fly-swatting technique to an art. If the little f—r is on a delicate surface that I don’t want dirtied, I perform a downward slash, then move in for the kill when he’s down. If he’s on the kitchen counter or another wipeable surface, I simply come down swift and hard. Always followed by an apology, of course: ‘Sorry, fly.’ In true Canadian style.

Despite these efforts, a seemingly endless troupe of understudies is waiting in the wings, as it were. As soon as one is down, another magically appears. The fly is actually quite an amazing little creature, as I discovered in this TED talk.

Every summer, I lament the fact that French houses don’t have screens. Yet, when we had a new house built two years ago, we didn’t put them in. Guess I’ve grown accustomed to the freedom of French windows, and the indoor-outdoor living that just wouldn’t work with screens. The fly swatter continues to be an essential part of my French summer survival kit.

‘Faire mouche’ means to attain a target, or achieve a goal. Mine is to make my home a no fly zone.

A votre tour: What’s your pet peeve about summer?

 

L’apéro: Favorite summer sips

Pastis on the deckL’apéro, short for apéritif, is not a drink, it’s a happening. In fact, it’s something of a sport in France: around here they call it ‘apérobic’. It can be performed at least daily, anywhere and at any time, individually, in small or large groups.

I’m not much of a one for cocktails or fancy mixed drinks. Mostly I eschew the sweet in favor of the dry, the bitter and the acidic. Thankfully there are always several of those options at hand in France. And summer is the perfect time to enjoy a nice cool one by the beach, at the bar or here on my own deck.

Pastis – de Marseille, bien sûr – is not for everyone. But it is the summer drink par excellence of the south of France. If you’re up for its liquorish flavor, here’s how to enjoy it:

Pour a small amount (according to your taste – I like the equivalent of a couple of shots) over lots of ice. Watch it turn from clear yellow to milky white. Sweat a moment or two along with the glass. Then add water, very cold, to make a refreshing long drink. Enjoy with salted nuts of your choice. Santé!

I enjoy the one but cannot drink two. It’s just too rich. And the aniseed flavor is a novelty that (for me) wears thin all too quickly. Oddly enough, pastis has the reputation in France of being the hard-core drinker’s drink. The one that the men guzzle in all those hole-in-the-wall bars that we women hardly dare to enter.

Citron pressé
Citron pressé

If I should occasionally feel the need to whet my whistle while resting my liver, I might order a citron pressé. This is, quite literally, a fresh squeezed lemon juice (not to be confused with ‘limonade’, a soft drink). It will be served in a tall glass with lots of ice, several packets of sugar on the side and a long spoon for stirring. I don’t mind it straight but a bit of sugar helps the citrusy medicine go down even better.

I remember when I first discovered rosé wine in France. It was a revelation: a wine between red and white that offered a little of each. Then I went back to Canada and tried to find it there. Those were the days when Mateus was the only rosé anybody had ever heard of – sweet, sickly lighter fluid. People believed that rosé was blended from white and red (which does sometimes happen but is not allowed in France).

Rosé-Cotes_de_Provence_
Rosé, Côtes de Provence

Now, of course, all that has changed. Rosé has become the summer wine of choice and is available just about everywhere. There are hundreds of choices and this recent article gives a good overview. The latest trend is palest-of-pale rosé, a grey-orange-pink in color. Personally I still prefer the fuller bodied rosés, the Tavels and the Costières de Nîmes.

The French drink rosé all year long but especially in the summer, when it goes so well with just about everything enjoyed outdoors.

Let’s not forget my favorite summer brew. La bière. I would not be a Canadian if I didn’t enjoy beer in the summer. Also in the spring, fall and winter. French beers may not be the world’s best but most bars have them on tap.

Bière, of Corse!
Bière, of Corse!

To order a draft beer or ‘une pression’ in France, you ask for ‘un demi’ (half a pint). Draft beer on a summer day. Does it get any better than this?

How about you? What’s your favorite summer drink?

Smoke-free in the Land of the Gauloises

e-cigaretteI used to be a smoker. ‘Used to’ being the operative words.

Giving up cigarettes was tough. I started smoking in my early teens. Quitting in my late 20s was like losing my best friend; I felt bereft. The grief lasted much longer than the nicotine withdrawal. But it was something I felt I had to do in order to get on with my life.

When I finally gave up my pack-a-day habit, after multiple attempts and false-starts, I figured I was quit of the evil weed forever. Little did I realize how hard it would be to rid myself of second-hand smoke in the land of the Gauloises.

France has a strong cigarette culture. It comes with the cafés, bars and fashion world. I almost regretted being an ex-smoker when I arrived in Paris; it would’ve been fun to smoke with so much entitlement.

That’s changed lately – smokers in France are now finding themselves ostracized just as they were before I left Canada. But the French being, well, French – it’s as if the marginalization of smokers makes them stronger. Those knots of people hovering in doorways (or further, as the smokers’ corners are moved away from the building entrances), in rain or shine, wet or cold, seem to have their own status of cool. They are the hardy, the daring, the I-blow-smoke-in-the-face-of-death survivors.

Back in the day, the smoker’s right to pollute the collective airspace of offices, restaurants, shops and hotels was sacrosanct. You could still smoke on planes! And smoke I did. On those first overseas flights, convinced that every groan of the engine or minor turbulence was the beginning of the end, smoking and drinking were the keep-calm crutches that propelled me across the Atlantic without a meltdown.

So you’d think I’d keep a soft spot in my heart for smokers. After all, I was one of them. Sadly, there’s no one more intolerant of tobacco than a reformed smoker.

Add to the fact that the French cigarette is particularly putrid. Gauloises or Gitanes, the acrid smoke is an assault that rises up my nostrils and into my brain and tickles my irritation factor. Not that many people still smoke those brands, Dieu soit loué (thank God).

To smoke in French is to fume (“fumer”). I remember fuming, literally, as I tried to work in those early days in a cloud of second-hand smoke. Thinking how unfair it was to have struggled to give up smoking only to be forced to breathe in all that poison. And sneezing: it was as if my body had doubly rejected tobacco after I quit by becoming allergic. Usually a sneezing fit was followed by a crashing headache, brought on by suppressed rage or remembered nicotine withdrawal.

The problem resolved itself, mostly. First, I got pregnant. The French are respectful of la maternité: smokers would take one look at my protruding belly and considerately clear the area. And some years ago they changed the laws to make it illegal to smoke in public places, from workplaces to restaurants.

Now they vape.

La clope, as the French fondly and slangly call the fabled smoke, is starting to fade in popularity. The modern way to indulge at table is to vape. E-cigarettes are all the rage here, and for the time being people are allowed to indulge everywhere – indoors and in transit. It probably won’t last, though: the government is threatening to ban vaping in public places by the end of the year.

But despite the high cost and health warnings, French smokers will still puff away. And I resent the fact that they continue to pollute my airspace, even outdoors. It would be nice to be able to enjoy a drink or a meal on a terrace without someone’s ciggy tickling my nose.

Last week was World No Tobacco Day and I realized it’s been about 25 years since I my last cigarette. And guess what? I don’t miss it all. No butts about it.

How about you? Are you addicted to or offended by the evil weed?

Chez soi: There’s no place like home

I love how the French word ‘chez’ describes home. It even sounds welcoming: Viens chez nous. Come over to our place. And you don’t go to the butcher’s shop, you go ‘chez le boucher,’ ‘chez le boulanger,’ etc. You learn this one early in French as it’s a classic mistake to say ‘au’ instead of ‘chez’ when referring to shops with a person behind the name.

The concept of house and home is very dear to the French. And to me: I’ve always been a homebody. They call this being ‘casanier’ in French. I like having a place to hang my hat. This means I’m not a huge fan of travel and indeed, cannot travel light. My husband always laughs when I carefully unpack my clothes in hotel rooms; he’s perfectly happy living out of a suitcase. But for anything longer than a weekend, I pack a pillow and have been known to bring the toaster.

Ever since I arrived in France I’ve been like Dorothy, tapping her heels and saying ‘there’s no place like home.’

My first chez moi was in the seventh arrondissement of Paris, a one-bedroom sublet with a partial view of the Eiffel tower (you had to crane your head out of the kitchen window to see a bit of it sticking up over a neighboring rooftop). It was furnished in someone else’s taste (there was a lot of pink). We lived there for less than a year and it never really felt like home.

Fast forward to Lyon, 3ème arrondissement. Our family’s first home in France was a roomy 3-bedroom apartment on the rive gauche of the Rhône, not far from the business centre of Lyon. Long on old-world charm, it had dizzyingly high ceilings with crown moldings, antique fixtures and floor tiles, herring-bone hardwood floors….but was rather short on modern conveniences (the ‘central heating’ was a single gas heater, centrally located in the front hall).

Although we were only renting, we (read: my husband) scraped off several layers of flocked and flowered wall paper from every surface (including the ceiling) and repainted before moving in. We had no balcony but our bedroom window overlooked a treed inner courtyard. It was only a few blocks to the nearest park for airing kids and dogs. We stayed for five years – long enough to feel almost at home.

Next stop: home ownership. After so much time in the city, we were ready for some fresh air. For several months we searched for something we liked and could actually afford. In the end, we bought a piece of land in a small town half an hour outside Lyon, found a builder and chose a plan for our new house. Building was cheaper than buying an existing house as you got a break on taxes.

Our first house was a typical new French single-family home. It was a brick construction set in a small housing development (lotissement) where several other families had each built a different house. It looked out over les Monts du Lyonnais on one side and a small farmer’s field on the other. It did not have finished closets, kitchen or bathroom fittings. Those little extras are considered as part of the décor; most new houses here are delivered as empty shells.  But we had a roof over our heads and could really see the skies for the first time in years. I felt like I’d arrived in Kansas.

Small wonder I never wanted to leave. But the day came a few years ago when we decided to uproot (for absolutely, positively the LAST time) and move on. More precisely, 160 kilometers northeast.

Our new house is on the French side of the border with Switzerland (after so much time and effort integrating here, I wasn’t ready to abandon la belle France). It’s located in another small town in the countryside, overlooking Lake Geneva on one side and the Alps on the other. We also built this house, buoyed by our first experience, equal amounts of optimism and, perhaps, foolhardiness. It’s similar in many ways to our first house – but on steroids.

It’s an A-frame wood structure with a lot of glass – based on what some call a ‘flat-pack’ or prefab home but customized and built by a professional builder (neither of us being handy with tools or implements other than those used for cooking.) It was a much bigger project – this time we were able to get a built-in kitchen and finish the closets. Even after a year and a half, we’re still working out some of the bugs.

As lovely as our new home is, it took me awhile to get over our old house. The one where our kids grew up, where we struggled through the lean years and put down roots. But I’m finally beginning to feel chez moi. Now that I’ve unpacked the toaster.