Idées reçues

If you spend any time in France, chances are you will find that many French people think the same way on certain subjects. As usual, I beg to differ.

Here in France, like most parts of the world, certain ‘received ideas’ tend to be taken as common sense. This goes beyond commonly held beliefs about history and science —  that Molière died on stage while playing in ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’ (in fact he died at home in his own bed after a performance) or the one about catching cold from the cold (so deeply anchored in the French psyche that no scientific proof to the contrary will be taken seriously) — to a way of seeing the world that is uniquely French.

I was surprised to find an English Wikipedia listing for the French expression idées recues. It seems to have been immortalized from the satirical dictionary of such notions written in the last century by Gustave Flaubert. Here is his original list:

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I resist ‘group think’. I was born a contrarian and will probably go out arguing with the doctors and nurses (yep, it’s still morbid November, folks; see my last post).

Here are some commonly held beliefs that are, in my entirely un-humble opinion, a load of old…(insert preferred word):

The French are undisciplined

This one has it that, due to some innate quality of nature itself, the French are resistant to things like lineups, rules of the road or common acts of civility like picking up trash. This national trait makes them, as a country, essentially ungovernable. While this is often the case, it has more to do with history and culture than something in their DNA.

Air conditioning is unhealthy

Just like you catch a cold from the cold, the fact of living and working in an air-conditioned space can make you physically ill. While it is true that air conditioning is poorly understood and badly integrated into French spaces and thus, you may get a crick in your neck from sitting next to the single vent delivering cold air into a room, the science and technology of cooling allows millions of people around the world to function far more optimally than they would in sweltering heat.

‘Bio’ is nothing more than big business

The average French consumer does not trust organic food. This widely held belief, recently expressed to me at a local fruit and veg store when I dared to ask when they planned to introduce ‘bio’ produce, has it that there is so much chemical contamination in the soil, air and water anyway, that any effort to grow organic food is a waste of time. In fact, this one borders the conspiracy theory in suggesting that it is all a scheme to make people pay more. Several shoppers in the line-up nodded in agreement. I left in frustration, unable to find words in the face of such confirmation bias.

The government is corrupt and in bed with big business

It doesn’t really matter which political party has the majority. Any elected official has his or her own agenda and it generally serves the rich rather than the common man. From there it is a small leap to assume that all governments are corrupt, that there are billions hidden in their coffers while we, the working people, are literally taxed to death. While there may be some truth in this, to think that virtually no one in public life sincerely wants to improve conditions for the people who elected them goes against my nature. Call me naïve. Many have. I can’t help but believe that there are good people in government (and business for that matter).

Sandwiches make you fat/are unhealthy

The idea of eating a sandwich instead of sitting down for a hot meal is extremely unpalatable to the French. I’ve heard colleagues complain that they are not well for the simple reason that they have been forced to eat a sandwich at lunchtime. Not because they ate it at their desk, or were too busy to take a break, but by the nature of the food itself. It seems to me that not all sandwiches are the same; there are good ones and bad ones. Personally I find it healthier eat a freshly made sandwich with good quality ingredients than a piece of meat floating in a salty sauce.

It is dangerous to drive below the speed limit

While this may be true in fact, I take exception to the idea that is has to be this way, at least outside of motorways. The idea of slowing down at all is abhorrent to most French drivers, even for cyclists or pedestrians. The speed limit on secondary roads in France was lowered to 80 km last year but following the uproar of the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement the government caved and decided to let the departments decide for themselves. The majority have put it back to 90 km, despite the fact that the measure seems to have led to a reduction in deaths from road accidents.

The list goes on but I’ll stop there. The fact is that there is a grain of truth in most idées reçues but that doesn’t make them laws of nature.

What commonly held ideas do you struggle with?

Au cimetière

It’s November, so naturally thoughts turn to death here in France.

It is a time of endings. All around us, nature is shrivelling up and battening down the hatches. The lake is a cold, grey sheet with rippling ridges whipped by the wind. Like the elderly themselves, the mountains have donned their winter caps.

Each French village has its cimetière and right now they feature colourful displays of chrysanthemums. November is their time of year. At La Toussaint on the first of the month everybody visits their dearly departed and sets a pot of mums on the grave.

I love visiting cemeteries. I discovered this unusual form of tourism when I was first in Paris many years ago. Père Lachaise is so beautiful and peaceful and it is amazing the famous names whose graves you stumble upon.

Our little village has no famous people buried here and the cemetery is small. Still, I stopped by the graveyard this week and was pleasantly surprised. First of all, by the gorgeous sunset view enjoyed by  those sleeping their eternal sleep. And by the fresh flowers that decorated just about every grave.

It was November 11, Remembrance Day. The town war memorial is just outside the cemetery and it had been decorated for a small ceremony held that morning. It is fitting to see the memories of the dead who fought for our freedom kept alive, even while the world goes a little mad all over again.

But what shocked me at the cemetery was this sign:

It seems that whoever bought this grave concession, their time is up. Basically, there is no eternity in a cemetery unless you pay for it. I googled it: ‘perpetuité’ costs extra, when it is available. Certain graveyards don’t even offer it. Those that do charge a premium. In Paris, the most expensive, it’ll run you 11,500 euros.

I can’t help but wonder: what do they do with the remains when the concession ends? Dig them up and put them in a public burial area? It is ghoulish to think of.

Cremation offers no respite. As it illegal to spread or even keep ashes privately, you are obliged to pay a fee to keep them in a columbarium.

Death is a scam that I hope to avoid for as long as I possibly can. But when it becomes inevitable, I intend to go up in a cloud of smoke. Have my ashes illegally scattered somewhere, maybe in the middle of a lake.

My last act will be law-breaking. I kind of like that idea.

Do you visit any cemeteries or places of remembrance?

Deux secondes

It was the recurring refrain when my kids were growing up.

“Deux secondes,” my son would say whenever I asked him to do something.

“Deux secondes!” my daughter would call from her room when we were running late for school.

“Je suis à vous dans deux petites secondes,” says the woman at bakery, placing baguettes on the shelf. (Be with you in two seconds.) Two small seconds obviously being much quicker than normal ones.

I’ve never understood why the French require two seconds when all we ever needed was one. “Just a sec!” I used to yell when my mother would call me. But around here two seconds is the norm. Sometimes it’s two minutes (deux minutes!) or even two hours (ne prend pas deux heures!) but whatever the unit of time, two are always required. I guess everything with the French just takes longer.

It is said that patience is a virtue. Unfortunately it is not one with which I am familiar. Two seconds or minutes or hours are too long for me when I want to get somewhere or do something. It goes against my nature to spend any longer doing anything than is absolutely necessary. This philosophy is entirely incompatible with running a business, raising a family or living in France.

So finally, after much reflection, I’ve decided to cultivate the art of patience. Because it seems that patience, like other qualities, is not something that you have to be born with to enjoy.

And I’m starting small.

Two seconds isn’t a lot of time but if you’re mindful, you can make them work for you. In fact, they can be life changing. It’s enough or run a stop sign or get hit by a car. Long enough for your heart to beat a few times, to make up your mind, to have a stroke of good luck. Two seconds was all it took for me to catch a certain Frenchman’s glance across a crowded bar a very long time ago.

So I’m using ‘deux secondes’ as my mantra. Every time I’m about to tell myself — or the dog, or the driver in front of me — to hurry up, I stop and say the magic words: deux secondes. And for that tiny bit of time, I breathe, focus my eyes on something, relax.

I don’t know if the two-second rule will ultimately stop me from stamping my foot or swearing to myself for very long. I may not make it to two minutes, never mind two hours. But so far I’m amazed at what two seconds can do. Even if I can’t be patient for long, I can enjoy two seconds where things slow down. And then somehow, my sense of urgency evaporates.

Are you a patient person?

Bec et ongle

It is rare to find an exact translation of an expression from one language to another. Which is why ‘se défendre bec et ongle’ is a gift.

‘To fight tooth and nail’ for something is one of those colourful idioms that is immediately understood. When I first heard it used in French, I understood the reference and by extension that ‘bec et ongle’ translated to beak and claw, or tooth and nail.

We can thank the Latin for providing the original expression: unguibus et rostro. It is used as a motto by various organizations of the military, as pictured above, and also the city of Valence, France.

Amshudhagar [CC BY-SA 3.0 (

‘Bec’ is a funny kind of word as it refers not just to a bird’s mouth but also to the human ‘beak’. ‘Faire un bec,’ also means to give someone a kiss. It makes me think of something my Dad used to say: ‘a pow in the kisser’, describing a punch in the nose.

There’s also, ‘clouer le bec’ which means to shut someone’s trap. ‘Tomber sur le bec’, to fall flat on your face and ‘rester le bec dans l’eau’ — to be left hanging, high and dry, or in the lurch.

‘Ongle’, on the other hand, has been taken over by the modern love of nail art. I cannot think of this word without remembering my late Belle-mère, whose love of the false nail was legendary in our family. The trouble was that they were always breaking or falling off. After she visited we would find bits of them in remote corners of the house and refrigerator.

As for bec et ongle, I find it interesting that the rooster is often used to illustrate this expression. I’ve posted before about the Coq Gaulois as the symbol of France. And it’s somehow fitting: if there is a people that will fight tooth and nail for something, it is the French.

Is there anything you would you fight for, bec et ongle? Do you have a favourite idiomatic expression?

La truffe

Their rich yet subtle aroma is earthy and reminiscent of rich chocolate. They are prized for the intense flavour they bring to cooking and the rarity of their supply. They are most often found in certain regions of France and Italy.

Truffles are found growing in the root systems of trees like oak, beech, birch, hazel, pine, and poplar, especially where the soil is light and high in limestone. In France, the Périgord region in the southwestern part of the country is most famous for its prized black truffles or ‘la truffe noire du Périgord.’ The best white ones are said to come from Alba, Italy.

Truffles can be cultivated but are most often found growing wild under trees. Truffle pigs or dogs can be trained to earth them up, but the pigs are more inclined to eat the bounty before the hunters can grab them. I guess because they are, um, pigs?

Oddly enough, some of the best truffle dogs look quite like the prized truffles themselves, don’t you think?

One of the things I love most about truffles is the word play in French. ‘La truffe’ is either a truffle or — you guessed it — the canine sniffer that finds them. In other words, a dog’s nose.

The resemblance is quite remarkable, n’est-ce pas? Although I wouldn’t want to eat a dog’s truffle, especially if it looked like my dog’s (not the one pictured below, which actually doesn’t look bad…). And also as I know where it’s been!

However, as much as the authentic truffle is to be savoured, there is a disturbing trend in restaurants these days to use truffle oil, a fake, chemical flavour that bears little resemblance to the real deal. Personally, as I am highly sensitive to perfumes and other synthetic (chemical) smells, it gives me a headache.

I enjoy the taste of truffles but am not crazy enough about them to go truffle hunting or pay the price for the privilege of slicing off shavings from one of the little nuggets to flavour a nice risotto. I will happily order such a dish if prepared with authentic truffles by a good chef. I recently heard about one such place in Paris, an Italian restaurant:

How do you feel about truffles? Have you ever been truffle hunting?