Fête des mères

In honour of Mother’s Day in France this Sunday, and in memory of my mother who would have been 90 this year, here are a few memories I hold dear.

Her name was Gladys, or Gwladys in the French spelling that picks up on the Welsh origins of the name. This post is not about anything French or Welsh but a woman who in some ways I hardly knew, and yet who was close to me as only a mother can be.

Gladys Catherine Angela Kennedy was born on the 21st day of March. “I came with the Spring,” she liked to say, with a raised eyebrow and the glint of a smile, all the self-deprecating humour of the British bred in her bone.

Perhaps Gladys was a name that needed a sense of humour. The only other Gladys we knew of was a gorilla at the zoo, and a funny looking cleaning lady on the TV commercials. One morning after my parents had been out late at a party, I found her name tag stuck on the toilet seat: “Hello, my name is Gladys.” When we asked why it was there, Dad said it was because that’s where a glad ass should be. He always called her Glad for short. And Glad she mostly was.

My mom (which we always pronounced ‘mum’, in the English way) was mine in the way that only a mother can be. She was the one person I could admit anything to, who understood my fears and helped dry my tears without judging or making fun. In return she confided in me, her eldest, making me feel special and unique.

She was proud to have a first-born girl of many talents. I was good at drawing and could ride a bicycle, had a fine voice and was not afraid of going on stage and showing off in front of people, none of which she was able to do. And when at times I got too big for my britches, she told me so, reminding me that humility was the greatest virtue and that God loves the weakest best.

God was where Gladys and I parted company.

To my eternal disgust, my mother named me after a nun, a certain Sister Mary Ellen that she herself had greatly admired. It probably explains why I later adopted my initials as a nickname. Other than my hero Julie Andrews, who is kicked out of the abbey for being rebellious in the Sound of Music, the only nun I could ever relate to was played by Sally Field. As a child The Flying Nun was one of my favourite TV shows, and I would have sold my soul to stay home to watch it on Sunday mornings rather than getting dressed up and going to mass. Come hell or high water, my mother conscripted all four of us children to attend church with her. Dad, a sometime Anglican, stayed home and read the paper.

The only part I liked about church was the hymns. It was also an opportunity to observe the backs of people’s heads and try to catch them in surreptitious behaviour such as nose picking, shifting suspiciously in their seats (maybe that was why they were called pews!) or catching a few z’s. When I got bored with that, it was my personal ambition to try and make my mother laugh. This didn’t always work but every now and then I would draw her attention to some particularly ridiculous looking hat or a bald fellow singing off-key in the next row. At my best I’d manage to reduce her to tears. It got to a point where if I could only catch her eye, I could get her going with a simple deadpan stare. The poor woman learned to religiously avoid looking at her eldest daughter during mass.

When I reached the grand old age of sixteen I put my foot down, announcing to my mother one Sunday morning that I had decided not to go to church anymore. God was all very well but I just didn’t believe in religion, I explained, standing on the stairs in my pyjamas when they were about to leave for Holy Spirit. Why should the Pope dictate that people spend their Sunday mornings inside some church smelling incense? My idea of spirituality was going outside and communing with nature. Furthermore, it went against my feminist principles: why shouldn’t women be priests? Besides, I declared, figuring I might as well go the whole nine yards, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with sex outside of marriage.

Upon hearing this speech my mother blinked at me in stupefaction: I may as well have told her I was Mary Magdalene. She eventually got past the shock and accepted that, despite having done everything she could do to raise me as a Catholic, I was not cut out to be one of the faithful.

Other than her family and her faith, what kept my mother going in life were her friends, along with her coffee and cigarettes. She drank coffee all day long and was almost never without a smoke. Gladys was a people person. Her friends and acquaintances were many; she got a kick out of people from all walks of life and truly enjoyed listening to their stories. She always laughed, no matter how silly the joke. But although her sense of humour held her in good stead, it was not always enough. Sometimes she was depressed, and these times were hard on all of us.

She was not a very good housekeeper; this was less to do with any innate lack of orderliness but rather of being overwhelmed by life: four children, two large dogs and a husband whose right it was to come home and put his feet up. Our house was never dirty but it was often hard to tell beneath the sea of clutter.

Her priorities were often elsewhere. She was a good cook and a light hand with pastry. She had excellent, expensive taste; she decorated and dressed well, if conservatively. She often went out to church groups and she and my father went to theatre evenings and to play bridge.

Mom did not approve of swearing but she did use colourful language. She was famous in our family for her expressions: “Go to Putney on a pig!” she would say in moments of duress. Her most cutting criticism was, “She gives me the pip!” And she often asked the iconic question: “Who’s she when she’s out?”

‘Mother’ was the name that Gladys always used when referring to her own mother, my grandmother, upon whom she doted. There was a formality in their relationship that was altogether foreign to me. I detested all things stuffy and stuck up. I wanted us all to be friends and equals, kids and their parents and grandparents, with no artificial boundaries of age or politesse between us.

From the first time they met, Gladys liked and approved of her future French son-in-law – small matter that he was foreign and seven years my junior. She got a kick out of his fractured way of speaking English. “You have a nicer sewer,” he said when he saw her sewing machine; another time he said ‘crow’ and pronounced it like cow, sending her into the kitchen in fits of giggles. He also won points by thoroughly enjoying her home cooking, the ultimate compliment, resulting in a situation of shortage at family suppers that was quickly dubbed, “The Frenchman factor.”

She had a sweet tooth, and when she came over with my family to Paris for our wedding, she made it her personal ambition to visit every pâtisserie and sample every pastry possible. I remember her clapping her hands with delight when a waiter came bearing her dessert, a generously sauced serving of profiteroles.

Gladys passed away far too early, shortly after learning that I was expecting her first grandchild. Many chapters of the family story have unfurled in the years since she left us, and still she is missed and fondly remembered. She lives on in her grandchildren, who resemble her in different ways: a bit of bone structure here, a smile and a kind word there.

My mother’s story is part of me, but her story is not mine. Although I eventually did become a mother, I did it on my own terms. Perhaps being true to myself was the greatest tribute I could pay to Gladys.

gladioli

Bonne fête à toutes les mamans!

Tant de chemin parcouru

I like to look back. Whenever I take a train or a boat I sit backwards, facing the departing view rather than what is rushing towards us.

It occurs to me that at this time 25 years ago we were getting ready to cross the pond. The contents of our lives were on a container ship, our two Frenchies were checked in with our luggage, and we were squeezed into two economy class seats on an Air France flight to Paris with a squirming two-and-half-year-old. I think it was the last time we got away without paying for an extra seat for our son, who is now 27. Our daughter, who turns 24 this year, was in the active planning phase. Enough said.

 

So much water under the bridge, tant de chemin parcouru as we say in French. We moved from my in-laws’ house in Paris to Lyon in the summer of 1992 and never looked back.

Actually, that is untrue. We look back a lot, or at least I do. The years have this way of flying by, and it’s only by looking back and seeing where you’ve been that you get a sense of how far you’ve come.

Where were you 25 years ago?

Sa langue dans sa poche

chatty-cathy

I’ve never been known for being tongue tied.

When I was a little kid, I talked a blue streak. Family lore has it that my younger brother was assumed to be very quiet because I did all the talking for him: “That’s my brother. His name is David. He doesn’t talk very much.”

The first toy I remember getting for Christmas was a doll called Chatty Cathy. My parents probably hoped for a little relief. You pulled a string in her back and she would say things. After a little while the string broke but I kept chatting.

Things changed when I grew up. Shyness came upon me with the awareness of how I sounded to others, of how little I really knew about so many subjects, and how unpleasant it was to be around a loud mouth know-it-all. Either that or I had already used up all my words. Or at least the nice ones. Cursing became my new friend and I learned to do it with flair. Bloody fucking hell. Holy fuckoly. Fuck a duck.

When I first learned French, I was shy about speaking the language. Afraid of looking foolish, of not being understood or of saying something funny or frankly stupid. But once I came to France, there was no room for being timid. It was speak up or be ignored. So I spoke French and was misunderstood, corrected and laughed at. But I learned.

I learned that French is a language of subtlety and suggestion, that there are many indirect ways around things that we English speakers (or at least, we Chatty Cathy’s) would probably barge right into, feet first. I learned that it is not just what you say, but how you say it.

I also learned to swear with the best of them: merde, putain, fait chier.

I still feel shy at times. Whether with family, friends or professional associates I’m rarely the most talkative person in the room. Sometimes I don’t even answer the phone. But I love a good conversation and cannot resist an argument. And when I have something to say, I cannot remain silent.

The French expression ‘ne pas avoir sa langue dans sa poche’ means to be outspoken, to say what you think.

That’s me in the photo, at a team event a few years ago. With my tongue where I usually keep it.

How about you? Do you speak up or hold your peace – and in which language?

Belle lurette

vieux-lyon-00070

The French use the expression ‘depuis belle lurette’ or ‘il y a belle lurette’ when it’s been a good long while since the last time you went somewhere or saw someone.

It had certainly been that. ‘Belle lurette’ since we’d set foot in the capital of the Gauls. So we decided it was time to go back and visit our former hometown of Lyon.

In late December, many of the lights were still out for the Fête des Lumières, the festive tribute to the Virgin Mary that sets the city of Lyon alight each year on December 8th – and now draws coachloads of tourists to witness its famous illuminations.

When we first settled in Lyon back in 1992, the event was little more than a tradition of lighting candles in coloured jars – les lumignons – and setting them along your window ledge.

LumignonsColores

We only lived in the city proper for five years, but they were busy, productive years. Lyon was where we made our first home in France, where our daughter was born, where both our kids went through the school system from maternelle all the way to the baccalauréat. It was where we found work, started our own businesses, made friends and put down roots. When we moved to the nearby Monts du Lyonnais, we continued to commute into town each day. Lyon felt like home.

It wasn’t an easy nut to crack. Lyon is known to be something of a secret city, whose inhabitants live by the motto, ‘vivons heureux, vivons cachés’. Meaning that a happy life is one hidden from public view. (An expression that eluded me at first but one I’ve come to truly appreciate).

Since we moved to the Haute Savoie we had only gone back to Lyon on flying visits to family and friends. We had not set foot on the Presqu’île formed by its two rivers, the Rhone and the Saône, in years.

So we booked a hotel and stayed in the heart of the city. It was a trip down memory lane for us (“You remember that time when…?”), with much of the city achingly familiar.

only-lyon

Yet so much has changed. The city has come up in recent years; there’s a livelier, more modern vibe. The streets are lined with trendy shops, bicycles are everywhere, more languages are spoken. There are still the traditional ‘bouchons’ Lyonnais, the simple restaurants that serve classic French bistro dishes with a lot of warmth and clatter, like the façade shown above. But they are not the only option, as they were all those years ago when we dropped a pin on the map and settled in Lyon.

Il y a belle lurette.

And there are still the other kind of ‘bouchons’ that Lyon is equally famous for. The traffic kind.

bouchon-lyon

Have you been to Lyon? What do you remember?

Outrés

Hand-pressing wine

Here in France it is traditional to celebrate the arrival of les vins primeurs – the most famous of which is the ‘Beaujolais nouveau‘ – on the third Thursday of November. It seems that this year our attention has been on politics and past terrorist acts rather than festivities around the young wines. There’s been barely a ripple in the news and even in the shops I’ve seen little noise around les vins nouveaux.

To be fair, the French are not crazy about young wines, believing that they give you a headache, and tend to view the whole Beaujolais Nouveau craze as a marketing scheme to attract foreigners. It has certainly been more successful overseas.

I happen to enjoy the young wines of the Beaujolais and the Rhône valley and over the years have been an avid consumer of our local produce.

A few kilometres away from our former hometown in the Monts du Lyonnais was the village of Taluyers. The road to that town had but one attraction for us, but one that kept us coming back regularly for years: Le Domaine de Prapin, a grower of the wine called Coteaux du Lyonnais. The Chardonnay whites were truly magical, the still hand-pressed Gamay reds pleasantly fruity. Best of all, we discovered that you could buy directly from the producer. Our car beat a path to their door on many weekends.

wine-skinWe were delighted to learn that you could buy the wine in bulk, en vrac, in a box container with a vacuum-packed bag inside, to keep the wine from spoiling (chance would be a fine thing), and a handy spout for serving. What the English pragmatically referred to as a bag-in-a-box, they simply called une outre, the term loosely referring to a traditional wine skin.

Not only was it more economical to buy the wine this way, it was a relief to have fewer bottles to dispose of. Glass is recycled in collective containers on street corners in France, and there were times when I was tempted to take out our recycling by cover of night – if it weren’t for the noise. Our empties made a satisfying smash as they landed in the container but it was impossible to get rid of them discreetly. I felt as if I should wear a sign that said ‘I am not an alcoholic, I support the local produce’.

In a comedic quirk of the French language, the word ‘outrer’ means to push to the limits of the acceptable, to the outrageous or outlandish. When we ran out of wine, my husband would joke that we were ‘outrés’ and make a quick run over to Prapin.

Outrageous.

Have you enjoyed any of this year’s vins nouveaux? Do you care whether your wine comes from a bottle or a box?