Français ou pas?

Higgins

One of the things I enjoy about travelling is the perspective you gain from stepping away from your world. Our recent jaunt to England made me think about some of the things that define the French. How very ‘English’ I sometimes still feel (which for me means anglo-Canadian) and at times how very French I’ve become.

It’s the little things, of course, and readers of this blog will know that I am one for observing the details that make up our lives.

La file d’attente

It starts at the airport. Whenever there is a line up, the difference is immediately apparent. The Brits queue in an orderly fashion; the French must push forward like a force of nature. I find myself somewhere in between, struck with admiration for the ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach of my fellow English natives yet driven by my far more impatient French self to get ahead quickly.

Le parfum

If you smell someone before you see them, there are two possible explanations: either they have not bathed or they are wearing strong perfume. Sometimes both explanations apply. In the latter case, they are very probably French. I can put up with body odour but have a very low tolerance (which is to say almost no tolerance) for perfume. French noses seem to be able to bear stronger scents far better than mine; the idea of a fragrance-free zone is entirely foreign.

Le petit déjeuner

One of the habits I have never acquired after all these years in France is eating just bread for breakfast. I will rarely say no to croissants and other French viennoiseries like pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins and croissant aux amandes (yum!), but my idea of breakfast is a bit more substantial. And if bread is involved, it must be toasted.

Starting the day with a ‘full English’ is horrifying to most French people; personally I enjoy a bit of egg and bacon, but the sausage, beans and black pudding is a bit much. A beer would have made it even better but is this even allowed in the UK so early in the day?

Le café ou thé

The French mostly have coffee with hot milk for breakfast, famously dunking their bread or croissant in a large bowl of the stuff. After that, they tend to drink small cups of espresso café or ‘express’. It is taken black, although sugar is always on offer.

I’m a hybrid there, too, as I love a couple of good strong coffees with milk for breakfast then drink tea in the afternoon. If the espresso is good, I will drink it black after a meal. Coffee culture is everywhere in the UK now but as soon as we left London, I had a hard time getting the kind of coffee I like: strong but not bitter with a bit of milk; not milk with a bit of coffee. Or – horror of horrors – instant coffee.

As for tea, who am I to complain about the nation that made it famous? But there was little evidence of whole tea culture that can be found now even in France, where green is a mainstay and my personal favourite is white (the leaves, not with milk!). French tea drinkers rarely take milk.

La cuisson

If you order meat in a French restaurant, you will usually be asked how you’d like it cooked. ‘La cuisson’ may be medium or rare (rosé or bleu), medium rare (à point) or well done (bien cuit). Ordering anything well done is a very tell-tale sign of English-ness.

Mine is medium rare.

L’apparence

The relaxation of dress standards in recent years has made it harder to put labels on people. So much the better! But there are a few tell-tale signs that will give French people away to those in the know. A scarf even in mild weather (we have very fragile necks!); a certain cut of clothing (the French don’t do oversized); anything well-ironed (rumpled is not a look the French favour). Men will be unshaven, as is the fashion, but they will wear a trendy pair of glasses, skinny jeans and their ‘pullover’ will sport a discreet but fashionable label. Women may appear drab at first glance, then you will notice that their jacket conceals a rather attractive top, that their accessories are coordinated and that underneath that basic ensemble is surely some well-cut lingerie.

En public

French behaviour in public places, aside from pushing in crowds, tends to be discreet. They don’t mingle, or start up conversations with strangers. I noticed this in several pubs where many of the patrons were looking about them and chatting with their neighbours; those with there heads down and sticking strictly to themselves were almost inevitably French. To be fair, the language barrier may be a reason.

Here again, I’m a hybrid. I have a horror of enforced socializing and will almost always gravitate to the edge of a crowd. On the other hand, people often come up to me on the street and ask for directions (more fools they, as I am rarely of much help); start talking to me on buses or in waiting rooms; sitting next to someone we often end up in conversation. My husband is always fascinated by this as it never happens to him. He shakes his head in wonder as I regale him with these stories.

Les bouledogues français

My Frenchie featured in this blog is called Higgins, a British name if there ever was one. And rightly so. On our recent trip, husband reminded me that the French bulldog breed has its origins in Nottingham, where the lace workers who travelled to France had to keep their canine companions small in order to go on the boats across to Calais.

Have you ever been surprised to discover that something you thought of as typically French or English was not at all?

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

Un petit voyage

Salzburg view

I am not the world’s most adventurous traveler. My regular trips across the Atlantic are mostly due to a chance encounter with a Frenchman in a bar back in the last century. When we decided to make it permanent, I succumbed to the undeniable attractions of France. After all, what more romantic city in the world for a wedding than Paris?

Then came the big question: where to go for our honeymoon? My beaux-parents worked for Air France, and were eager to pull a few strings in order to send us to our dream destination. However, when exotic ideas like tropical islands and far off lands were tossed about, we were both less than enthusiastic. Husband because none of the options contained his preferred snowy mountain peaks; I being no fan of air travel and knowing we would soon be back on a plane to Canada for Christmas.

In my fledgling French, I tried to explain that we would be happy to stay in Europe for our honeymoon. Rather than travel half way around the world, could we not just go on un petit voyage? For some reason I never understood, my in-laws found this hilarious. “Tu veux faire un petit voyage?” Beau-père teased. My ‘petit voyage’ became a standing joke.

In the end they surprised us with the tickets. My heart fell when I saw the destination: Tahiti. A 20-hour flight from Paris via LA. But that is another story, and one I promise to tell soon. For this post, I want to tell you about the petit voyage that we finally took together last week, 30 years later.

Salzburg cathedral

Salzburg is famous for a few things, at least two of which draw masses of tourists each year. I had been there many years before, in another life, when my tour bus made a brief stop. I had fallen in love with the place and felt sure Zfrenchman would agree, given its spectacular alpine setting.

One of the things Salzburg is known for is, of course, salt. On my first visit, our group donned miners’ overalls and rode a train into the bowels of the earth to explore the salt mines and secret underground saline lake.

The other two things have to do with music. Salzburg is the birthplace of Mozart and the setting for The Sound of Music, two very different musical history notes that today compete for tourist dollars. We discovered that the locals venerate Mozart and loathe The Sound of Music. To find out why, we did what tourists do best and took a tour.

Salzburg.jpg

I should note that as a child The Sound of Music was my favourite movie. Julie Andrews was my hero, not only because she sang like a lark but because she always broke the rules. Between solving a problem like Maria and a Mary Poppins’s spoonful of sugar, I knew by heart every last note of her most famous Hollywood roles. Husband, being French, had never heard of either so we sat down and watched The Sound of Music before we left. To my surprise, he quite enjoyed it. Although why that surprised me I’m not sure. Between the music, the mountains and the struggle against the Nazis, what’s not to love?

Apparently the fact that Hollywood distorted the truth of the Trapp family singers is not particularly loved by the Austrian people. There are many examples; most notably, the family didn’t actually traipse across the Alps to Switzerland as they did at the end of the movie but simply boarded a train to Italy. And poor Maria Von Trapp only ever got $9,000 for what became the highest grossing film of that time.

unadjustednonraw_thumb_3883And while some of the songs from Rogers and Hammerstein’s hugely popular soundtrack still move me to tears, let’s be honest: it is not Mozart. The legacy of that particular musical genius is the true pride of Salzburg. Yet it is overshadowed by the Sound of Music tour buses that fill its streets as Americans and Brits, rather than pay homage to Mozart’s first piano in one of several museums, prefer to spend their money to see where Maria and Georg were married (by the way, this is the church).

Which will bring us back, not to do- a deer, but to our wedding. In honour of which, 30 years later, we enjoyed our petit voyage to Salzburg. We even took in a classical music concert in the famed Mirabell Palace. Mozart would have been proud.

And the best thing was, we didn’t have to fly. We took the train.

By the way, if you go, do try the famous chocolate Sacher torte at the hotel of the same name.

Sacher torte

If you could travel anywhere, where would it be?

 

Mon beau pays

It’s been a great many years since I was last in Canada in the midst of the fall colours. Autumn has always been one of my favourite times of year, at least before the days get too short and the weather too miserable.

I enjoyed this past week’s solo trip visiting friends and family in Toronto, my old stomping ground. This time I could not help but notice that while the city still feels a little like home, I increasingly see it through the eyes of someone who lives in France.

I’ve posted before about how much the French love Canada. C’est un beau pays, they will say. Mon pays de rêve… I used to think they had an idealized view of my country but now I find myself experiencing it differently.

Here are some of things that struck me about my beautiful hometown of Toronto this time around.

Tree canopySo many trees, so little time… the fall colours were not quite at their peak, and they may never get there before winter comes calling.  But even so, a walk through Sunnybrook Park was stunning. There is so much nature to be enjoyed in the city.

The squirrels. These little urban rodents are as common as pigeons in Europe. They are everywhere at the moment, scurrying to gather nuts and squirrel them away for winter. We see a few squirrels in France but they are generally reddish brown, where their Toronto cousins are more often black.

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Toronto is booming. This was already the case when we left 25 years ago. Now, every neighbourhood has come into its own and has its image to maintain. In well-heeled North Toronto, even the sidewalks are branded.

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Halloween is everywhere. As sure as the leaves will fall, the craze of candy and macabre carryings-on will hit the great white north at the end of October. Yes it’s commercial and perhaps a little over the top, but it’s fun. Canadians are rather good at having fun. Halloween is our way of warding off the evil spirits as the days grow short. I eyeballed these cupcakes:

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Le shopping! Toronto is truly a shopper’s paradise. Aside from the sheer number of stores, open all hours, there are so many beautiful arcades. They are the visible part of the many underground passages that link the downtown core, enabling people to move from subway to subway station, restaurant to department store without setting foot outside in the winter.

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Alongside so many emporiums to wealth, the neighbourhood convenience store is a fixture of downtown Toronto neighbourhoods.

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You may wonder: so if you love it so much, why did you leave it? One of the reasons was the high price of Toronto real estate, which made it hard to buy a first house in a nice area. The housing boom is still on and despite all the new builds, bidding wars often erupt for homes in the best and most upcoming neighbourhoods.

The city has changed so much as to be almost unrecognizable to anyone who has been away for a few years. I frequently found myself getting lost and wondering how it was that what used to be so familiar now feels foreign.

I don’t regret choosing France but I do love to go back for a visit.

Have you been to Toronto? Do you have a favourite city, home or away?

 

 

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?