Fautes de goût

Bad taste or literally, ‘mistakes in taste’ is the phrase most often used by the French fashion police. Mostly they are undercover. Outside of a few people magazines and reality TV shows, French style rules for what to wear are largely unspoken. But believe me, you know they’re there.

On the street you will observe a certain uniformity in the way people dress, what could even be described as a uniform. Skinny legs, close-fitting waists and nary a panty line. Belts and buckles and laces and earrings. It’s all standard issue.

Brigitte Macron, France’s best-dressed first lady, has the unanimous admiration of her compatriots for rising to every occasion sans faute de goût.

At the office, creativity in putting together an outfit tends to be limited to a small detail, an accessory or an unusual cut. To avoid fashion blunders, flashy colours are a no-no, heels are de rigueur, no mixing of patterns and stripes! It is like an army in military drab.

Quintessentially Parisian style maven Ines de la Fressange advises people to dare to make fashion faux pas. Yet she herself is impeccably classic in her uniform below.

Brazilian-born Cristina Cordula is queen of les Reines du Shopping, a French reality TV show in which the female candidates compete to buy a new outfit on a set budget and model it for each other to see who will qualify as shopping queen. Wrongly pairing neckline with jacket, heels to hem height or mixing too many colours and textures will earn the dreaded ‘faute de goût!’

The way I look at it, the only real mistake you can make in what you wear is to forget who you are. Be true to your own style. Wear what feels good for you, be that in ‘good’ taste or not.

Sometimes I will try to dress to fit an idea that is not mine, say with a few more accessories than usual. Because I’ve seen it on someone else and thought it looked good. So I try it on, check in the mirror and it looks okay. Then I walk around for two minutes and change. Because it’s not me.

Ultimately I opt for what makes me feel good. Which means comfortable and confident. Although I avoid going out in track pants or leggings unless I’m actually running. Exercising is one thing; going to the shops is another, even though styles have loosened up a lot in recent years and the line between street wear and exercise gear has blurred. Even in France.

As Gore Vidal said: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”

What’s your style? Or do you not give a damn?

A la queue leu leu

Par Halfcentury (Travail personnel) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Among the French expressions I love most is ‘à la queue leu leu’. It means to move in single file, one after another or ‘les uns derrières les autres’…

The poetry of those words! I alway imagined they had something to do with elephants, moving in their elegant yet clunky way from head to tail, but it seems the etymology of the expression goes back to wolves (‘leu’ being an old word for ‘loup’ or wolf).

‘Queue’, of course, means tail or something else which I will leave to your imagination.

‘A la queue leu leu’ is often used to describe things that come in a series, like bad news or the long lines of traffic that characterize French life during strike season.

However, it is most often associated with happy occasions and the song of the same name. You will hear it played in the salles des fêtes around France at the end of every festive event from New Year’s Eve to weddings. I’ve also seen it at school fêtes, when even the most staid and stuffy of the teaching staff gets a little silly and everyone ends up snaking around the room in a congo line.

There is something in the air this morning — Spring, I think — that makes me feel like dancing.

Go on, I dare you! Everyone, ‘à la queue leu leu!’

When was the last time you got up and danced?

Vague de froid

Snow in Corsica

After two unseasonably mild months, we are having a real cold snap. The north wind that blows across Lake Geneva (‘la bise noire’, explained here in perfect detail by blogger Alpenhorn) blew its evil breath for three days until last night when, lo and behold, the wind dropped and a blanket of the white stuff descended upon us.

Enfin! While it seems a little unfair that winter should make so late an appearance, it is still well within its rights. What seems ironic is that snow has fallen all over France this winter but not in our corner of the Haute Savoie, where it is usually more abundant.

Even Corsica, southernmost Ile de la Beauté, has had snow! Paris, Nice, Normandy, Toulouse…but until now, nary a flake chez nous. At altitude of course, there has been plenty of snow for the ski bunnies and I’m happy for them. This year, for some reason, I’ve been oddly reluctant to leave my hearth.

It seems the wave of cold known in France as ‘Moscou-Paris’ (Russia again) is actually due to global warming. Cold comfort to those who are without heat, or a roof. In the last few days the ‘Plan Grand Froid’ has kicked in, taking over gymnasiums and other unused spaces to ensure there are beds for the homeless. Sadly, such measures are insufficient and limited to times of extreme cold. In most cases the people must leave the premises by eight oclock the following morning, and brave the icy temperatures outdoors until night fall.

A group of elected officials in Paris spent last night sleeping in the streets to raise awareness of the issue. Good initiative, I thought. But this has been criticized as so much ‘coup de théâtre’; people consider their time would be better spent seeking real solutions than drawing attention to themselves in the media.

That’s just how French people see things.

As for me, I am grateful that yesterday’s power cut only lasted for a few hours. It seems that every year just as the temperatures hit rock bottom, the French electrical utility (formerly EDF, now Enedis) either has difficulty matching the demand or decides to perform maintenance on the lines. Last year we were in the dark for almost 24 hours.

Mostly I am grateful that I don’t have to drive anywhere today. As long as there’s an internet connection I can work from home. But I’ll be sure to get out for a walk with the Frenchies and finally have my day in the snow.

P.S. Rumour has it that next week spring will arrive in all its glory. What the weather like chez vous?

 

Photos d’identité

mug shots

‘La photo d’identité’ or passport picture used to be something of a French specialty. They were de rigueur for just about everything — joining a club, getting a bus pass, starting school or applying for a job. There were automated photo booths in every supermarket and photographers’ shops on all the main strips did a booming trade in portraits.

In various wallets, purse pockets and drawers around my house is a jumble of old ID photos. These records of past lives capture moments, years, entire eras since I first arrived in France back in 1986.

Now you can get them done online and print them yourself. Although I’m not sure this is good enough for official passport purposes.

Like any good French wife and mother I always carried a few photos around as mementos and to be prepared if anyone asked about my family.

This collection documents most of my daughter’s journey from pre-school to young adulthood. The first one cracks me up. That expression! She wasn’t going to take any guff.

She briefly morphed into a mini-me when some well-intentioned professional recommended glasses to ensure she missed not a single letter of the vital early reading years. It was just after that that she rejected all efforts (mostly Belle-mère’s) to give her that cute little B-C-B-G look (bon chic, bon genre, a French version of the well-heeled chic). She grew her hair and became a tomboy par excellence before transforming into a beautiful young woman. More recent photos even show her smiling!

There are fewer ID photos of my son. This may be because he was in constant motion, especially in the early years. One teacher dubbed him ‘Zébulon’, a French cartoon character on a spring who simply can’t stay still. (If you’re interested, he shows up in the video below at about 20 seconds in.)

Husband matured from handsome young man to handsome older man. As he is still my junior by several years, he will always have youth over me. Although possibly not hair.

I am not sharing any recent ID photos. Since they changed the rules in line with the biometric passport, and you are no longer allowed to smile or even form your facial muscles into the semblance of an expression, I will spare you my slack-jawed mug shot.

But I’ll keep the collection for my memory box.

Do you keep a collection of ID photos?

La malbouffe

If there is a subject on which the French generally agree, it is the evils of ‘la malbouffe’. ‘Bouffe’ is slang for eating and the term ‘malbouffe’ has come to symbolize the poor eating habits of a fast-food generation.

Et oui – junk food is a problem even here in France, the land of good eats and gastronomic traditions. While most kids at school get a hot lunch, and families still sit down for a home-cooked dinner, the rise in the number of fast-food chains dominated by ‘le Mcdo’ is undeniable. What is worse, in my books, is the price wars through ‘promos’ in the supermarket chains.

France is served by a number of supermarket chains selling everything from diapers to donuts: Carrefour, Auchan, Leclerc, Intermarché, Casino and Super U. From the corner shop to the hypermarket, there is one of these shops in every French town.

You may have heard about the Nutella war that took place a few weeks ago when one store offered a kilo of the stuff at below cost. People flocked to get the deal, and scenes like this ensued:

Et oui! Hallucinant!

It is indeed telling. Not only that this kind of garbage (and I use the word intentionally for any food whose first ingredient is sugar) is consumed so massively, but that economic conditions are such that people would fight over it.

In this France is no different from anywhere else.

But France being France, there is a backlash. One of its mascots is Richard Ramos, a deputy fo the governing party from the department of Loiret in north-central France. Ramos came to fame this past weekend when, during an appearance on the  (excellent) political talk show, C’est Politique, he spread the ‘fake news’ of a so-called toxic preservative used in prepared foods. E330 or citric acid, as it turns out, is not toxic or even carcinogenic. It can cause the enamel of your teeth to erode.

His reputation took a hit but you can’t deny the wave on which he is riding. Ramos, and many others like him, want supermarkets to stop selling off crap like Nutella at cost and start paying a fair price to farmers. To draw attention to this cause, last October he drove a truck full of onions into a supermarket parking lot and dumped them – inviting shoppers to come and help themselves. The message was that the hard-working paysans who grow our food are not able to earn a living wage due to mass-consumerism and the greed of the supermarkets.

Add to the woes of these farmers the growing number of dairy and meat producers who can’t compete with cheaper EU imports and can barely make ends meet —  and you have the makings of a national tragedy.

One that will not be solved by cheap Nutella and a hamburger to go.

What do you think? How can we ensure that agricultural producers make a decent living from their labours? Boycott the big stores? Buy direct? Make greed illegal?