N’importe quoi

“N’importe quoi!” The phrase slipped off my tongue so naturally, it was as if I’d been born saying it. Nonsense! Anything at all!

It was one of the first colloquial expressions I picked up in my early days of learning French. Like most such things, it came out of real-life conversation. I’d heard it said around the table, after someone made a silly remark or pushed a joke to the extreme.

“N’importe quoi,” I smiled, shaking my head. It passed without a raised eyebrow so I knew it was good. I’d always liked ‘quoi’ (what); it was easy to pronounce and could even be used by itself in a pinch as a question: “Quoi?” And the ‘n’importe’, which translates roughly to any, either or no matter which, made perfect sense.

But that was just the beginning. As with most expressions, there are layers of meaning that only become clear over time. Beyond a throw-away phrase, I learned that the words are often used for something much darker. ‘Faire du n’importe quoi’ means to do something any old which way, far from the way in which ‘il faut’ — how things should be done. Aside from a few exceptions, situations in which the French excel at pulling rabbits out of hats, they are rather uncomfortable with things that are improvised and undefined. ‘Du n’importe quoi’ borders the dangerous.

We hear a lot of “C’est n’importe quoi!” these days. In fact, it could almost be a catch phrase for the times we live in. Surely Boris Johnson’s answer to a journalist’s question about his party’s twitter feed is a telling example:

On another, slightly less fraught front, I have recently seen some pretty lively examples of n’importe quoi in my daily life. The postman, who not only never rings twice but generally never rings at all, contenting himself to slip a notice saying you were absent into the mailbox, tried a new approach with my neighbour’s parcel. I watched as he drove up to the gate, rang, saw no one was at home and then threw the parcel towards the door, as if trying to sink a basket. The box bounced once and landed with a thud on the driveway. This takes it up a notch to what we call ‘Tout et n’importe quoi’. Anything and everything.

Thankfully there was nothing breakable inside. Still, when I told her what I’d seen, my neighbour went to the post office to complain about this unorthodox delivery method. “It’s so hard to find people in this area,” she was told, with a sad shake of the head. “All the better ones go and work in Switzerland.”

I’ve been doing quite a bit of online shopping lately. But since we saw the excellent film from Ken Loach, ‘Sorry we missed you’, I’ve had second thoughts about home deliveries.

So whenever possible, I’ve been trying to group my orders and have them sent to a ‘relais colis’, a delivery point at a local supermarket. I go there to shop anyway, so it seems to make sense and be a more environmentally friendly approach.

Unfortunately the system still has a few kinks. The first parcel I picked up at one relay point was somewhat battered looking but it didn’t occur to me to check the contents until I got home. On opening it, I found broken glass and a gooey mess inside: my ‘lot de 3’ jars of peanut butter had been put loose inside the box and broken in transit. I got my money back but gained nothing in my carbon footprint.

N’importe quoi!

My second attempt at having merchandise sent to a different delivery point was no more successful. Although I’d ordered several items at one time, Amazon decided to send them at different intervals. (It seems you can no longer request a ‘grouped’ delivery). The second shipment containing the stuff I wanted most (ie the peanut butter) was supposed to arrive at my local Intermarché last week, where I planned to go and get groceries. But instead I got a message saying that in order to deliver it on time, the company had sent my package to a different delivery point, at least 15 km away and not on my route to anywhere. Needless to say, I refused to go and pick it up. After a couple of weeks, it will be returned to sender and I’ll get my money back.

Du grand n’importe quoi.

In the meantime I went to a local health food store and found some peanut butter (organic, crunchy, just peanuts!) for a price only slightly higher than the online shop.

I suspect that such things are not just happening here in France. Have you recently experienced any examples of ‘n’importe quoi’?

A la pesée

A heavy subject is weighing on my mind this week. Let me share some thoughts on fruit and vegetables, or more specifically, the purchase of said foods in French supermarkets.

I do try to buy direct from the producer or at the open-air markets, preferably organic and in season. But the choice of fresh produce is rather less bountiful where we live in the Haute Savoie than in Lyon, for example, or Paris, and the fact is that I often find myself buying fruit and vegetables at the supermarket. Not ideal but ‘pratique’ as we say in French, to be able to get everything in one place. At least in theory.

Items are sold either per unit, ‘à la pièce’, or more often by weight, ‘au poids’. Very few stores do this for you at the checkout so you find yourself jockeying for position in front of one of the few weighing stations in the fruit and veg section.

First, you grab yourself a plastic bag (easier said than done as it is usually on a roll that must be carefully peeled off) or, if you are ecologically inclined, you bring or buy a reusable cotton bag. Fill said bag with chosen product and then approach the scales. If there is no line-up you can be sure that one will form after you immediately, thereby adding to your performance anxiety upon facing the screen.

As a non-native French speaker, albeit one who knows her way around a supermarket (They don’t call them ‘les courses’ for nothing!), I find the touch screen with its instructions challenging. First you must select the category: ‘fruits’ or ‘légumes’. So far so easy. Although sometimes there will be a third category here already lending confusion: ‘éxotiques’.

Being less of a picture person than a word person, the label is essential. But once I get to the next screen, confusion reigns. A new set of categories, grouping the produce by type, has been introduced, often leaving me perplexed. There is no apparent rhyme or reason in the way this is organized.

A few weeks back, after looking blankly at the screen for several seconds as other shoppers shot daggers into my back, I asked the guy stocking produce why there was no item for kiwis. “C’est marqué groupe kiwis,” he replied. Ah. I had missed an entire category.

The problems with this system are many. Starting with the vocabulary. It’s all very well to know the word for citrus fruit – agrumes. But do most people actually think of squash as ‘cucurbitacea’? Or carrots as ‘légume racine’? Do you look for tomatoes under ‘g’ for group or ‘t’ for tomato? And then there is the taxonomy. I mean, seriously. Who ever heard of ‘légumes soleil’ for peppers, zucchini and eggplant? And how confusing is ‘salades crudité’? ‘Salades’ means lettuce in French and ‘crudités’ means any fresh veg eaten raw. Do I look for carrots there or as a root vegetable?

Okay, maybe I am overthinking this a little. There are pictures to clue me in after all. But when I am standing at the scales with a queue forming behind me, my brain freezes. Inevitably a kind (or impatient) person will point me to the right category as I stand before the screen, finger waving stupidly. “Voilà!” she will say sweetly, as I feign thanks while wishing she would go away.

Pity the non-French speaker who attempts to shop for fresh produce. Pity the beleaguered shoppers who must wait while they learn to think in French. Pity the fruit and veg guy who must think up strange new categories in order to fit hundreds of items on a screen.

I can’t help but note that the Swiss have it all figured out with their usual efficiency. Each item in the fresh produce section is numbered. All you have to do is enter the correct number on the scales. It even trains your brain a wee bit to go through the section thinking, “Carrots 101, broccoli 129’.

How do you get your fruit and veg?

A vos marques

On your marks…today we are off for a quick tour of some iconic French brands. Oddly, the same word for brands, les marques, is also a literal translation of the word ‘mark’ in English. I suppose there is a link if you think of it as a trademark or a mark of quality.

While people here in France are often somewhat resistant to marketing campaigns, French shoppers are nonetheless big on brands.

My late Belle-mère swore by certain brands as being a sign of quality performance, superior workmanship or good taste. She believed that a good product did half the work for you, whether cleaning the clothes, cooking the food or making you look chic.

Being even more resistant to this kind of thinking than the French, I had to disagree. But after a few years of shopping in France I must say she had a point.

Bottled mineral water is a big thing in France and I’ve blogged before about how we have entire supermarket aisles devoted to it. Badoit, pictured above, with its choice of finely or intensely sparkling bubbles, is still one of my favourite French brands.

When it comes to the other kind of bubbly, it’s a different story. I’ve often heard that the best champagnes are the smaller houses rather than the big brands, by my Beau-père swears by Nicolas Feuillatte. And it’s often more competitively priced at the checkout.

 

As for the stinky cheese, the Languetot brand of raw milk camembert is one of the best name brands. ‘Au lait cru’ and ‘moulé à la louche’ are two signs that it’s one the good old fashioned way. Along with the ‘appellation d’origine’ that means it’s the real deal.

Le Petit is pretty good, too.

 

 

As the old ad campaign went, il n’y a que Maille qui maille…

Maille really is the only mustard for me. Dijon, smooth or grainy, and with no mayonnaise mixed in please! I also have a strong penchant for their cider vinegar as posted with my vinaigrette recipe awhile back…

House brands, which many supermarkets do offer in many product lines, are usually cheaper but not always of the same quality as the original. On the other hand, some are very good value for the money; it’s just a matter of trying your luck.

For those who smoke despite all the warning labels, and an appallingly high proportion of the French population still do, Gauloises cigarettes are a classic. Slightly less stinky than the horrible Gitanes.

By sv1ambo (1975 Citroen DS23 Pallas) [CC BY 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons
One of the first cars I noticed on the road here was the old Citroen DS. A big, hulking, low-to-the-ground classic of French engineering. Most French people tend to be true to one  of the big three: Renault, Peugeot or Citroën.

Petit Bâteau is a classic brand of kids’ clothing with the iconic sailor stripes. The 1920s brand expanded into clothes for adults a few years ago. The quality of the cotton is particularly good.

There are many more, of course. My morning would not be complete without a probiotic yogurt of the Activia brand. Nature, bien sûr… With a slice of wholewheat toast from Jacquet.

These are just a few of the marques that have marked my experience in France (for which I have received no promotional consideration, I hasten to add!). What are some of yours?

 

Epic marketing fails

IMG_4277I saw this display of herbal tea at the supermarket the other day and wondered if somehow I’d missed something. Yo, die?

A lot of herbal tea is consumed in France, commonly referred to as ’tisane’. There are entire aisles devoted to tisane at the supermarket, and some pharmacies also sell herbal brews for what ails you.

Apparently this one is a special blend for kids. I’m not sure anyone with the slightest understanding of English will buy it, though. Unless perhaps as a ghoulish joke for Hallowe’en?

Swedish for ‘I’ll kill you’

Ikea GuyI used to read a column in the newspaper called “Can this marriage be saved?” Both halves of a troubled couple would tell their side of the story, then the marriage counsellor would pronounce an opinion as to whether or not the relationship could survive, and what needed to be done. It was pop psychology at its poppest. Needless to say, I ate it up.

I have never felt the need for this kind of advice. I know my marriage can survive. I know it because we have survived the true test, the only one that matters. My husband and I have survived – you guessed it: Ikea.

Labor and childbirth, bringing up two kids, multiple cats and dogs, an international move, teaching me to drive a standard – all of this pales in comparison to the stress of the ultimate relationship test: Shopping for, loading and assembling furniture from the retailer whose ad campaign – ‘Swedish for common sense’ – I long ago transformed into: ‘Swedish for I’ll kill you.’

Not only have we survived Ikea, we have done it on two continents and in two different languages. No, make that three – we’ve also shopped Ikea in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

In our early days, we went there because we had no money. We urgently needed a fold-out bed that was cheap without breaking his mother’s back – Ikea was there. Then we needed a Billy bookcase because, well, we’re both readers – there were books. Whenever in the store we discovered we needed a whole bunch of bizarrely named items. Ektorp. Kvarnvik. Tidafors.

Then we needed a crib. Heavily pregnant, we schlepped through Ikea in Toronto. Biblical thoughts ran through my head: “She grew hungry in Kitchens, broke waters in Bathrooms, lay down in Bedrooms.”

Our different navigating styles became evident as I instinctively sought the shortcuts (long before they became official, going against the flow of packed humanity). He followed the official routes while moaning and complaining about the whole thing. Ikea for me was a challenge, for him it was plain old suffering.

Our different approaches became even more apparent when it came to loading the car. I wanted to strategize the trunk and figure out a plan, but before I could even think he had shoved it all in (what can I say, it’s a male thing!).

And our differences came to a head when it was time to assemble the f**ing things. While I methodically sorted the various parts, he had the main frame assembled and had thrown out boxes and instructions. Inevitably, there were tensions. We would be missing a screw (I always knew this to be true about myself) or some other essential widget. He would become furious about Ikea and its crap quality, swearing never to return. I would go back by myself the next day, swearing never to allow him access to a screwdriver again.

The crib got assembled. I did not give birth in Bedrooms. Miraculously, our furniture stood straight. Some of it has lasted as long as our marriage.

I have learned how to make the most of our differences. I let him do the heavy work while I hide the instructions and save them in a file. I shop by myself and just ask for his help in unloading the car. Solo, in my Micra, 5’2’’ of determination, I have managed to transport entire wardrobes. Where there’s a will, there’s a woman.

In the latest chapter of my love-hate Ikea relationship, the dog left his mark upon a footstool where the cat was lording it up. I felt love for the Swedes when I saw that the cover was removable and washable. Then I saw how (insert that word again) hard it was to remove the thing, ripping my cuticles in the process. Mostly husband is way more patient than me. And he has stronger hands. So when I washed the cover of the *unpronounceable name* he promised to put it back on for me when it was dry, then promptly forgot and left for the week. I waited three days and then decided to do it myself (did I mention patience is not my virtue?)

If he could do it, I could do it. First, I put on one corner. This did not work, as it would not stretch to fit the other corners. I tugged and I pulled and it started to rip. I cursed and I swore and examined my bloodied cuticles.

I reasoned the technique was just to get it over the entire frame more or less straight, then fix the seams. I did this, congratulating myself on the triumph of rational thinking. Then I tried to fix the velcro. It was upside down. I cursed and swore a bit more. Arv! Flört! Kortvarig!

Sometimes people ask: after so many years in France, which language do you curse in? Both, of course. And occasionally, in Ikea.

What’s your most memorable Ikea moment?