The dual dilemma

Dual DilemmaPeople sometimes ask me: “Where is home? Canada or France?” The answer is both. Toronto will always be where I’m from. But after living in France for so many years, it is my home. Je suis chez moi ici.

A funny thing happens when I go ‘home’ to Toronto now. Everything seems really familiar. People speak my language, in my accent. I know all the street names. I feel like I belong.

It doesn’t take long for that feeling to go AWOL.

“This is my country, eh? I’ll do the talking,” I say to my husband as we line up at Canadian customs and immigration in Montreal. For some reason known only to Air Canada, our direct flight to Toronto has us deplane and enter Canada in Montreal before continuing on to our destination. Baggage, duty free and all.

My husband and I cannot go anywhere without arguing. He considers himself a seasoned and erudite traveler, and takes pleasure in showing me where to line up and how to do basic operations at those automatic terminals that check you in and print your boarding pass. Most of the time, when he is not overly lording it up, I will listen to his wisdom. But not on my home turf. He may guide me in Europe, Canada is all mine.

The customs agent, a friendly young fellow with a strong Québecois accent, wants to know the purpose of our trip and our final destination. “Visiting family, in Toronto,” I reply in French. He studies our French passports and landing card with interest before stamping them and waving us through. But not before saying something absolutely incomprehensible. The French Canadian accent stretches my adopted tongue into an unrecognizable form of the lingo. I nod and smile as we leave, then turn to my husband for guidance. He may be foreign but his grasp of French will always be better than mine.

“What the hell did he say?” He gives me a look to say, I thought this was your country?

“He told you that he had ticked the box for returning Canadian citizens. I think he was hinting you should have a Canadian passport.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I retorted. “I’m a French citizen now. Why should I bother keeping up two passports?”

“Because you can.” This is one of those silly arguments.

I repeat all the reasons I let my Canadian passport drop: it’s expensive, they have a special photo requirement, you need to have a guarantor. Besides, you don’t need a passport to be a Canadian citizen.

There are advantages to going through customs in the more licentious Québec rather than puritanical Ontario: no one questions our duty-free alcohol allowance. I had duly noted the allotted two bottles of wine on our landing card but neglected to declare a bottle of scotch and a magnum of champagne.

In Toronto, they often bring out sniffer dogs when you pick up your bags. I still remember how I trembled the last time we went through customs at Pearson aiport with two illegal raw-milk camemberts in a suitcase. It is strictly forbidden to bring in any plant or animal materials to Canada. I nearly fainted when a customs agent with a beagle wearing brightly colored Canadian maple leaf came right up to us before sniffing something more interesting in another passenger’s bag. “Relax, they’re only interested in drugs,” my husband whispered. Later, I almost fainted for a different reason when I unearthed those stinkers from our stuff. Never again, I swore.

Once we’ve arrived and settled in, I begin to notice that things are not quite as familiar as they first seem. We go shopping in downtown Toronto and I wonder where stores are that closed years ago. (“This is the Eaton Centre – but where’s Eatons?”). In the massive urban sprawl of the Greater Toronto Area, I am no longer on familiar ground. Christmas Eve finds me doing last minute shopping in Ajax, a remote east-end suburb of the GTA where my parents live. It is big box store and shopping mall paradise. I exit the mall and cannot find the car. I stumble around in the freezing rain, cursing to myself until I realize: this is exactly the kind of thing that used to happen to me in France.

I want to go home, like Dorothy. I tap my heels together three times and find the car.

All of this reminds me of a song from my teenage years:

By the way, I’ve decided to renew my Canadian passport.

Happy New Year everybody!

Ode to Madame Pipi

220px-Madame_PipiIn honor of World Toilet Day, I am dedicating this post to that beloved institution of French life, Madame Pipi. Also known as la dame pipi, it is a mystery as to why this job is invariably held by a woman.

Public toilets, especially clean ones, are much sought after in France, nowhere more so than in cities like Paris. And certainly by no one more than yours truly. Given my distrust of la Sanisette, I have only the greatest appreciation for the important job of the toilet attendant. Unfortunately, she is a dying breed as automation increasingly takes over.

Ode to Madame Pipi

Madame Pipi is always there

Behind the door, below the stair

Always faithful to her post

You’ll find her where you need her most

Her job’s to see that you do yours

While staying safe and clean, of course!

She mops the floors and puts out paper

Sprays the air with fragrant vapor

She takes your coin, and in you go

Do your business, water flows

You wash your hands, prepare to leave

As Dame Pipi rolls up her sleeves

She scrubs the toilet with her brush

Makes sure that none forgot to flush

If you need supplies, she’ll help you out

Hygienically yours, that dame’s got clout!

So next time you have an urgent need

Remember, she’s a dying breed

Be sure to thank her as you go:

Merci, Madame Pipi, bravo!

 

Go ahead, take the plunge – leave a comment!

Juilletiste ou Aoûtien?

Juilletiste ou Aoutien?If one thing is sacrosanct in France, it’s vacation time. And when the schools close in July and August, it’s more than just the summer holidays: these are les grandes vacances.

Ain’t life grand? Everyone, but everyone – goes away. It’s not enough to simply take time off from work. Il faut partir. The question on everybody’s lips is – “Vous partez? Où?”

A question of only slightly lesser importance than ‘où’ is: ‘Quand?’ When you are leaving is almost as vital as where you are going. And as with any question of faith, there are different schools of belief. The two main camps are those who go away in July – les Juilletistes – and those who wait until August – les Aoûtiens.

Les Juilletistes – These are people who just can’t wait to get away. They long to be first and to come back tanned and relaxed while everyone else is still stressed. And they look forward to a second break when they return during the dead weeks of August. No traffic. No line-ups at the lunch counter. Hardly anyone haunting the office. Not surprisingly, Juilletistes are viewed with suspicion and perhaps a hint of envy.

Les Aoûtiens – They are the traditionalists, the moral majority. Also the self-employed (moi). They are the worker bees. They cannot afford to take off before the half-year financial results have been put to bed, the president has spoken to the nation on the 14th of July, and it is safe to assume that France has rolled up its sidewalks for a long summer’s sièste.

I’m normally an Aoûtienne. Not just for the reasons above, but because I’ve always found it unbearable to be coming back to work when everybody else is on their way to the beach. But this summer is different…this year we have decided to stay put.

We’ve been intending to do this for years. Ever since we entered that enviable bracket of those whose kids have flown the nest and are no longer required to stick to le calendrier des vacances scolaires. When prices often double in France.

For once, we decided to be smart and enjoy the summer in our own backyard. Then take a break in the lower season when most people are back at work.

I didn’t think this would be a problem. I’m a real homebird and looked forward to enjoying the season in our parts for once. We’re lucky enough to live in a beautiful region that attracts a lot of people on holiday. We have a lake nearby and a pool. And this year, this idyllic location has attracted quite a few of our own family as visitors. So we’ve been busy.

But I have to say it feels wrong somehow not to be going anywhere. Last year it was Corsica and the year before, Dubrovnik. Both of which were beautiful. Now, without a trip in the offing, I’m feeling a little antsy.

There’s an expression for this in French: ‘Il faut se dépayser.’ You need to get away, discover something new, have a change of scene.

Don’t you love the fact that the French have specific words to describe the need for a holiday? And for different summer vacationers?

What about you? Juilletiste, Aoûtien or not at all?

For those who read French, this article from Le Figaro drolly explains the entire philosophical debate around the choice.

 

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?

 

How the French stick changed my life

Creative CommonsYou are looking at one of the reasons  we moved to France. Bread, aka le pain. It’s a quality-of-life thing: we figured that even if we had to put our careers on hold, at least we’d be able to enjoy fresh bread every day. Lovely, crusty, light-as-a-feather baguette right out of the oven. Sans preservatives, as I memorably informed my late mother-in-law.

There is a boulangerie on every street corner in Paris and at least one in every village. In thousands of mom-and-pop shops from Nantes to Nice, the baker is at the ovens in the wee hours every morning, and you can buy a warm baguette from about 6:30 a.m. Such unfailing devotion is encrusted* in the very fiber* of le boulanger.

One of my first challenges in France was being able to go into the local bakery and buy what I wanted. There are so many kinds of bread, often with no labels at all to help you identify them. Like so many things in France, il faut savoir. The classic French stick, la baguette, seemed like the safest bet. At least I knew what that was called. And was able to pronounce it.

Despite this, I would experience a sort of stage fright when going to the bakery. I’d rehearse the words in my head and get my change ready in advance so as not to be caught unprepared.

‘Je voudrais une baguette, s’il vous plaît,’ I would say primly, attempting a smile.

The baker-woman (inevitably the baker is a man, and the woman who serves you his wife), would look at me impassibly, then pass me a French stick with the words: ‘Deux francs cinquante.’ No smile. I handed over the money (we still used French francs back in the day) and exited stage left. That was the sum total of my interactions at the bakery for several weeks.

There were other, friendlier places in our quartier. But this small bakery with barely a sign on the door had the neighborhood’s best bread (very likely why the woman felt no need to be friendly.)

Then the day came when I dared to take it a step further. I’d noticed that most people didn’t bother formulating an entire sentence, so I dropped the ‘je voudrais’ (which my husband was always telling me was just this side of polite). More importantly, I observed other customers asking for a particular ‘cuisson’ – ‘done-ness’ of the bread: bien cuite (crusty), peu cuite (pale) or, my preferred in-between state, pas trop cuite.

‘Une baguette, pas trop cuite, s’il vous plaît,’ I ventured.

The woman really looked at me for the first time, seeming to register a person attached to the request. She reached for a perfect, lightly bronzed baguette and added, “Deux francs cinquante.” The rest of the exchange was as before.

After several weeks, a couple of things changed. I would enter the bakery, start to ask for a baguette and before I could complete the request, she would hand me a ‘pas trop cuite.” With the tiniest glimmer of a smile. I was a regular.

Later I would graduate to asking for other kinds of bread: un pain (a full-size, broader loaf), un bâtard (half way between the baguette and le pain), a boule, flûte or pain de campagne. Seigle (rye) or levain (sour-dough).

I also learned the proper way to ask for croissants, or ‘viennoiseries.’ That’s the generic word for the category of baked goods that includes croissants, pain au chocolat, pain au raisin, brioche and a host of other calorie-laden breakfast treats. Yet even when I could say all those things, it was sometimes hard to choose, and they always seemed to expect that you knew exactly what you wanted as soon as you walked in.

‘Madame?’ the baker-woman asked. ‘Uhhh….je voudrais un pain au chocolat, et puis…’ I raked my brain to decide what else and blanked. ‘Je vais réfléchir,’ I concluded. I’m going to think about it. She looked at me like I was a few centimes short of a franc, then moved on to serve the next customer while I pondered my life-changing choice of croissants.

Here are a few things I learned about French bakeries:

  • There are two kinds of bakery: boulangeries for bread and pâtisseries for cakes and pastries. Most do both but almost always specialize in one thing more than another. Hence, the best bread will not be found at the same place that sells the best cakes.
  • The name ‘Boulangerie’ may only be used by a professional baker whose bread is baked on the premises; anything else must be called a ‘Dépôt de pain’ (bread depot).
  • ‘Maitre Artisan’ is an additional sign of quality and your guarantee that the bread is baked with care by a qualified boulanger or his apprentice.
  • The price of bread is not regulated per se but a complex set of rules governs its production and selling price; the bakery must display a price list including the types and weight of each kind of bread sold.

These days I almost never buy plain old baguette. In recent years, the French have gone whole grain, introducing a much wider range of organic, whole wheat and multigrain breads. My current favorite is a ficelle aux céreales (thinner than a baguette so you get more crust).

But the humble baguette de pain remains the staple of the French bakery. And perhaps my most humble memory of those early stumbling steps in French.

So, what’s your favorite loaf? French or otherwise?

*The pun is the lowest form of wit, just as the bun is the lowest form of wheat.