Outre-mer

Salish Sea

This week, we leave our usual ramblings and observations about life in France for a holiday outre-mer, across the pond to Canada. A postcard from the Salish Sea where this blogger has crossed not just the pond but the entire country to discover Canada’s western sea wall.

We’re just back from a catamaran tour with the Prince of Whales — a cool and breezy way to discover the beautiful Salish Sea, so named after the Coast Salish peoples who traditionally populate the coastal waters along British Columbia and the Gulf Islands to the northwestern United States.

They promised whales and whales they delivered! A pod of Orcas kept us entertained for an hour or more near the San Juan islands on the US side.

I did not know when we stopped in Victoria that the killer whales had in fact just made an unusual appearance in the harbour. I can understand how their presence next to all this water traffic might be disconcerting, but after all, they were here first! The place was hopping with sea planes, ferry boats and little water taxis. I wonder why we don’t have these in Geneva?

Then again, we also don’t have the seals, water lions or the cormorants that have completely taken over this little island.

These seals were so much a part of the scenery that at first I thought they were rocks.

All in all it was a remarkable day. We were glad of the blankets on board as the wind was brisk and the air quite chilly.

 

Also glad to have these just in case. Still, with whales nearby no one wanted to see a man overboard.

I’ll share more on Vancouver and Whistler before we go to Toronto to celebrate Canada Day next week. A plus! x

L’école buissonière

I played hooky last week. Skipped off school and went AWOL. Or, as we say in French, went to ‘bush’ school.

That’s not really true but it is how it felt. I signed up for a week’s retreat on the remote Sicilian island of Pantelleria with a group called Wide Open Writing (WOW).

It was a chance to go off the path and enjoy a holiday break while devoting time to myself — and to writing. Not the PR work I do for a living, or the blogging I do here, but in pursuit of the storytelling muse that lives inside us all.

For a week our group enjoyed the rugged beauty of this volcanic island that is actually closer to Tunisia than Italy. That did not mean warmer, however, as it was windswept and chilly a good part of the week. But when the sun came out it was wonderful!

All week long we met twice daily to think, write, read our work and share thoughts. The idea wasn’t to critique each other’s writing so much as to give positive feedback. It was an experience at times intense, hilarious, emotional, beautiful and moving. I found a sense of kinship with this group of writers from all walks of life and at different stages of finding their voice. There was also yoga and meditation for those so inclined.

I stayed in a dammuso, the thick-walled stone cottages unique to Pantelleria. They are designed with domed roofs to capture the rain water.

Water so essential for irrigating the capers, olive trees and vines that grow here…and these days also for more leisurely pursuits.

Walled gardens are also part of Pantelleria’s unique heritage. This one in a vineyard was built to protect the precious lime tree growing within.

On our last day we visited the Donna Fugata vineyard where a variety of the ancient Muscat grape called Zibibbo is grown to make the island’s famous Passito, a sweeter apperitif wine, among others.

Throughout the week, we also ate and drank copious amounts of Sicilian food and wine.

This dessert is called bacio pantesco. It’s a kind of waffle pastry filled with delicately perfumed ricotta.

One of the things I love most about living in France is how close we are to so many amazing places. It wasn’t easy to get to Pantelleria, as it involved three flights via Rome and Palermo. The last one on this Air Mistral plane operated by the Italian Post.

You can learn a lot when you skip school, or ‘faire l’école buisonnière’, as the French call it. It was a bit of a splurge, but well worth it. Besides, getting away is good for the soul.

Do you remember skipping school?

Nos meilleurs délais

‘Nos meilleurs délais’ is one of those very French expressions I struggle with. In theory it means ‘at our earliest convenience’, ‘in a timely manner’ or simply as soon as possible. In practice, soon is not possible. I find that in France instead of ASAP, ‘delay’ is the operative word.

We are in the midst of a month of delays due to various strikes and it is surely only right and normal that things slow down. But there has been no mail in my box this week and yesterday the internet went down for the better part of the day. Without a word of warning, or explanation.

I tried to be zen. “Work on something that doesn’t require the internet,” my reasonable self told less patient me. Okay. I took a crack at writing the new business proposal I’d been thinking of sending out. But I wanted to check on a quote to include. Then on a company I was planning on contacting. So I tried again. With a different browser. Still no ignition.

I called Orange. That’s the recently rebranded name for the phone service, what most French people still think of as France Telecom. I did not get a human being, bien sûr. After pressing various numbers, including my full, 10-digit land line, I was directed to the right voice box. It informed me that, due to an ‘incident’ in my area, they were unable to help me further. However, if I so wished, I could punch in my mobile number and they would text me when it was resolved. In went my mobile number.

I hung up and promptly received an SMS on my clunky old French cell, the one I keep for essential messages with service providers who only want to send info to a mobile. My smart phone is for work, and that’s a Swiss number. Orange had kindly sent a link to a website where I could get further updates on the internet breakdown. Argh!

Unable to access the link from my (dumb, unconnected) French phone, it occurred to me I could use my iPhone. In fact, it occurred to me that I could connect my computer to my phone’s hotspot via my Swiss provider and get an internet connection. Ignition! It was too slow to be very convenient (as I’m on the edge of network coverage) but it was a start.

Unfortunately Orange wanted my log-in details, which didn’t have. After farting around with that for a while, I finally got a new password and accessed my account. When, after scrolling through various sections, I got to the part about internet service, it said: “We are experiencing a larger than normal request for support and will respond to your request as soon as possible.”

Nos meilleurs délais? I gave up.

Macron has committed to getting all of France wired for ultra-high-speed internet by 2022. But it seems that in order to meet this commitment in a timely manner  not everyone will get fibre but 4G. Fast, but not super fast. Still, our current so-called high speed service here in the boonies is so slow that I’ll take that with pleasure.

The main reason for all of the strikes at the moment is the reform of the ‘cheminots’ or national rail company employees. This has been in the works for some time and has to do with a European directive on opening up the train lines to competition. Although the current SNCF employees have been promised that they will keep all of their rights and salary, they are striking for the future. They want all new hires to also keep their status as public workers, with perks and premiums and the opportunity of a full pension at 52.

Clearly this is not going to happen. But for the unions, and a majority of French, it’s the thin end of the wedge. If the cheminots go down, it’s the end of life as we know it. Automated cashiers and driverless cars and soon we’ll all be force-fed ready meals from MacDo.

In the meantime, five hours later, the internet came back on. I googled to find out whether Orange had been on strike but there was no mention in the news. I have concluded that it was a stealth operation by disgruntled workers in a show of sympathy.

But everybody else and his uncle is on strike this spring: Air France (they want a 6% pay increase), garbage collectors, energy workers, university students. The latter are worrying as they are the ones credited for bringing the country to its knees in May 1968. More on that later.

Have you been affected by any strikes lately?

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?