There will be few fireworks in France this New Year’s Eve. In light of recent events, festivities are curtailed and firecrackers forbidden. Terror is still vivid in the hearts and minds of people here, not just in Paris but in remote corners of province. Restaurant takings are down; shoppers have been staying home. Traditionally the most fêted of the French holiday calendar, le réveillon du 31 décembre this year will be ‘en demi-teinte’ – a subdued affair.
But it will be celebrated. Ringing in le nouvel an in style is dear to French hearts. A party of some kind is called for – preferably fancy dress or at least ‘tenue de soirée’. Champagne corks will fly. In Paris people will flock to the Champs Elysées, along with more than the usual number of police.
Over the years in France we have celebrated le réveillon de la Saint Sylvestre in many different ways and places, with family and friends, at quiet dinner parties and more boisterous celebrations.
We recently watched an old VHS videotape – digitized through the wonders of modern technology – of a New Year’s soirée hosted by my in-laws in their suburban Paris home shortly after we were married. It was the late eighties, so the hair was big and the shoulders were wide. There were a dozen convives (guests) in sequinned evening wear – neighbours, colleagues, long-standing friends.
Things were rather formal at first, as we all sat in a circle and made polite conversation. They began to loosen up as the first flutes of champagne were served. We took our places at the table and the meal began with oysters, followed by foie gras. Various white wines were served, then things got serious with the Bordeaux. I believe we ate game of some kind. Then came cheese, an impressive selection of raw-milk fromages from Normandy to Roquefort. By the time we got to dessert, we were back on champagne. Then the real party began with a lot of frantic bobbing around on the dance floor. Thankfully the video was there to prove we were all still standing – things became a little blurry that point.
One memory stands out in my mind from that night, though. When the clock struck midnight we all embraced and exchanged our ‘voeux’ for the year ahead. The French make quite an art of this and I remember feeling rather limited in my repertoire of well wishes. But my Beau-père’s wish was simple, and sincere. He embraced me with a double-cheeked kiss and whispered in my ear: “Un petit garçon pour cette année!”
Our son was born the following September.
This year we are celebrating la Saint Sylvestre as a family in the Alps. There is not much snow, and we’ve had a few hiccups in terms of our health, but our spirits are high and we will see the new year in with joy.
This Christmas we are staying home for the holidays. Seems like every year at this time I get all dewy-eyed about home and what it means to me. So here goes…
Over the years of living in France, Christmas is the one holiday that I have been militant about celebrating the same way as we do in Canada. This is purely cultural: we are not churchgoers or believers in anything other than Santa Claus.
I cannot speak for all French people, and there are strong regional differences especially in the Alsace, but the ones I know do not make the big deal of Noël that we do. As soon as December rolls around, I find myself compelled to decorate the house, bake cookies and listen to Bing Crosby. Within the family we exchange lists and buy gifts for each other, wrap them and put them under the tree on Christmas Eve. We hang stockings and fill them with so much stuff they inevitably fall down. The next day the house is filled with mess and chaos and over-indulgence. Personally, I would not have it any other way.
Here in France the traditional celebration takes place on the 24th. The children receive their gifts at the end of a long ‘repas du reveillon’, during which Père Noël is supposed to have mysteriously done his magic. When my kids were small I refused to do it this way partly because it seemed like torture to keep little ones up so late, only to crank up the excitement with gifts just before they were sent to bed. Also because I am the biggest kid in our family and could not have managed to calmly sit down and enjoy a fancy dinner with presents in the offing!
My beaux-parents never made a big deal about Christmas. They were happy to come to our house and follow the Canadian tradition. And yet every year we went through the same charade of me having to explain to them what would happen when, and they were inevitably lost when we went to bed early on the 24th in anticipation of the big day.
It’s been three years since we moved into our ‘new’ house and it’s only just beginning to not feel new anymore. The stairs are nicked and the walls are scuffed a little, the dogs have peed on the floor enough times to remove any illusion of pristine newness. Perhaps most importantly, we have made enough memories in this house for it to begin to feel like home.
This feels like the first real Christmas here in our new home. The first year was still very unsettled as we had only moved in October and barely had time to unpack our decorations; the second was consumed by the tragedy of my Belle-mère’s untimely passing just a few days before Christmas. Last year we travelled to Canada to visit family in Toronto. Now, finally, we are home for the holidays together here in France.
It is looking like it will be a green Christmas this year. We had a bit of white a few weeks ago but for now the temperatures are mild. No matter. We will light the fire and nibble on shortbread, sip champagne and listen to holiday favourites like this one.
Et vous? Will you be home or away this Christmas? How will you celebrate?
If there is one thing the French do very well it is this. When they are annoyed by something or someone – a traffic jam, a strike, a colleague who is insufferably ignorant. ‘Faire la gueule’ is a very French way to express one’s discontent – without uttering a single word.
It is not always quite so obvious as grumpy cat. Sometimes it’s the absence of a smile (or even the hint of a smile), a subtle hardening of the facial muscles into a form of repressed anger that hints of extreme distaste. I have witnessed this countless times in daily life in France, where a dispute between family members, neighbours and former friends can go on for months, even years. The only outward sign of this war may be in the form of the facial expression. No words will be directly exchanged with the erring party, possibly ever again, although meaningful comments may be made indirectly through others. But rare is the Frenchman who will take the bull by the horns and air his or her, ahem, beef.
This is entirely different from the English way of doing things. (By English, of course, I mean English in the broad sense including all of us Canucks, Yanks, Aussies, Kiwis, etc.). We may disagree but no matter how we feel about the other person, we will likely smile and be polite. In fact, the more we dislike the other person, the bigger the smile will be. That is something the French abhor about the English, as they consider it insincere or ‘faux cul’.
‘Faire la gueule’ means, literally, to make a face. To be in a bad mood, to sulk or generally be unhappy.
‘Avoir de la gueule’, oddly enough, means to look nice or attractive.
Both of these expressions are slang and should be used with caution by non-native speakers. Be wary of any expression including the word ‘gueule’. Officially designating the snout of an animal, when applied to a human being it is one of the worst insults in the French language. In fact, if you hear a French person say, “Ta gueule!” you may wish to flee immediately. Fur is going to fly. All it really means is ‘shut up!’ But it is considered the height of rudeness.
I have also heard the expression used to describe wilting flowers. “Tes fleurs font la gueule.” Oh dear. If even the flowers can sulk in France, we are in trouble.
Have you ever seen this expression on a French person’s face? Or have you ever made it yourself?
Let me share with you a day in the life of our little ménagerie. The word finds its roots in ménage, which means household, so perhaps it’s normal that a collection of animals is part of ours.
I am a dog person. There is no translation for this expression in French. You can say you like dogs, or that you are ‘plus chien que chat.’ You can choose to like neither although you will not be typical of the French who love their pets and generally have one or the other.
Which is to say I am not a cat person. My daughter is a cat person. We got her a kitten for her fourth birthday. Over the years the feline population in our household expanded to two. Madeline moved away to attend university a few years ago and we kept the cats.
The current pair (I’m tempted to say culprits but let’s keep this polite) are Bianca and Leo. Leo was foisted upon us by a former cleaner who saw a window of opportunity when we were momentarily down one. These cat people stick together. He had been rejected by his mother, she explained in a poignant tale of woe, and she’d tried to place him once already but after a week the woman had changed her mind. That person clearly was smarter harder hearted than I. Leo came to stay, although he almost got ejected after doing his business on my bed.
His younger cohort in crime is Bianca. A bit of a princess is our little girl. Or perhaps a white supremacist. In any case, she does not like to mingle with any Tom, Dick or Harry. So she hangs around the house a lot, requiring two litter boxes and frequent displays of worship.
I’m not sure what possessed me to agree to add two puppies to our ménage after the kids left home – put it down to empty-nest syndrome. Our last dog had died in tragic circumstances a few years before and we were feeling, well….outnumbered by the cats. So it really is all the cats’ fault.
My husband and I have always been suckers for dogs. Our preferred breed was chosen before we married, when we met our first French bulldog at a friend’s home in Normandy. A snorting, smelly, impertinent fellow he was – proving the breed to be well deserving of its name. We got our first Frenchie a couple of years later, then a second shortly after. Edouard and Dorothée were our first children. They taught us that, yes, we were capable of taking care of beings other than ourselves, going for walks, picking up poops. We passed our first caretaker tests with flying colors.
Sadly, the dynamic duo did not live long, whether due to problems of the breed or medical back luck. A few years (and one failed adoption of a stray) later, a third Frenchie came to stay. By then our own children were center stage (or almost, as they will tell you.) Mooqs was with us for ten years or so, until he became blind and stumbled into the swimming pool. Frenchies are not good swimmers.
Higgins and Humphrey now rule the roost. They are adorable dictators, who have me flying out of bed in the wee hours in the hopes that they will not have weed theirs. I let them out in the backyard first thing, while keeping a close eye on Higgins, who likes to search for truffles (left by the cats) while pretending to relieve himself. I also check the mat in front of the door to make sure that Leo hasn’t left one of his trophies – frequent offerings of mice and bird remains that the dogs are only too happy to devour as an apéritif.
Then it’s breakfast for the dogs while I go down to the basement and let the cats in to the laundry room where their food and litter boxes are kept. Let’s be very clear: cats are nocturnal beings and I am not. We live in the country so the cats are out at night (both are chipped and sterilized, so we are good citizens).
Should any cat people be about to protest: the cats have access to shelter in the cellar via a cat flap with a chip reader. This innovation has paid for itself in that we do not now feed half of the neighborhood cat population when we go away and leave their food out.
Then begins the daily ballet of my life as a cat and dog concierge. Imagine these scenes being played to the music ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ from The Nutcracker.
Take the dogs for their morning walk. Stoop and scoop on as-needs basis (i.e., if on sidewalk, private property or when someone’s looking…). Return home, wipe their feet before letting them in (2 dogs X 4 legs = 8 feet). Make coffee. Leo pussyfoots by kitchen door indicating a desire to go back out. Open door, let cat out.
Take coffee upstairs to office. Remove dogs’ bed from workspace as Higgins snores so loudly I cannot hear myself think, never mind hear clients on the phone.
Bianca then comes by for a cuddle. Give her a scrub and close the door. Start in on work. Urgent mewing from downstairs. Open door and remove dead mouse from doormat. Leo comes in. Bianca goes out. Return to work. Ten minutes later, faint mewing from basement where Bianca has come in through cat flap but now wants in to the house proper. She can wait, I tell myself. Focus on work for ten more minutes.
Strange hacking and gagging sound comes from next door. Humphrey has just vomited his breakfast, along with several other unidentifiable objects. Curse, cover nose and clean it up before Higgins does. Return to work. Mewing becomes more intense. Go to basement, let one cat up as other goes out. Make another coffee. Return to work.
Flash forward to late afternoon, several door openings later. Dogs begin to circle in growing impatience as the time for their second walk gets closer. Go lie down, I order. Click click click, toenails on the floor. Grumble. Groan. Snort. Snore. Snore. Snore. Then click click click. Two pairs of feet, two wet noses. Take H & H for second walk. Clean eight feet again.
Refresh water bowl. Feed dogs. Leo circles impatiently by the stairs. Go down to basement, replenish already half-full cat food. Bianca watches from upstairs.
Evening settles in and it’s time to let dogs out for final utility run. Cats nowhere in sight. Get ready for bed and hear mewing from below stairs. Go down and let Leo out. Bianca nowhere to be seen. Come back upstairs and look for her. Check under beds, behind curtains, no cat. Settle in to bed with book. Eyes grow heavy. Begin to nod off. Plaintive cat call from basement. Go downstairs and let her out.
There are moments when I feel less like a concierge and more like a happy pet owner. When Bianca nestles in beside me and goes into ecstasy as I stroke her. When I look deep into those Frenchie eyes and see love.
The dogs sleep in the upstairs bathroom. There are several practical reasons for this. Our house is open plan and does not have many rooms with doors that close. Once I left them the run of the house and they got into their food. Came down in the morning to find two sausages about to split their casings. What followed was a purging session (both ends) that lasted 24 hours and almost made me split mine. Never again, I swore.
The French bulldog is an uppity breed with delusions of humanity. Basically it does not accept the notion that it is a dog. Therefore, any attempt to house them in inferior accommodation will result in a trashing of the premises that is simply not worth it. Also the bathroom is tiled which is easier to clean.
Finally, in one of those lovely synchronicities of translation: the word ‘pet’ means fart in French. ‘Nuff said.
How about you? Do you have any pets – or pet peeves?
I am blessed with good health, a gift for which I am more grateful with each passing year. (She says, knocking on noggin). This despite the fact that I have spent many long hours chez le médecin.
You cannot raise a family in France without becoming painfully familiar with the doctor’s waiting room. You are given a carnet de santé or health record book that tracks your child’s health from birth to age 16. There are checkups – visites obligatoires – at various ages and stages of development. There are vaccinations, height and weight charts. There are vitamins and prescriptions for every imaginable ailment. You don’t leave a doctor’s office in France without a prescription for something (more on that to come).
But oh, the hours spent in the salle d’attente! The unending, crashing bore of it. The dog-eared, outdated magazines. The stale air and germ-infested space with little to distract a child.
Le toubib, as the doctor is called in familiar fashion, tends to be a lone wolf. Most doctors practice under the category of ‘profession libérale’ which is a fancy way of saying self-employed. There is no receptionist or medical secretary to take calls or welcome you at the door. Le médecin généraliste, meaning GP or family doctor in French, runs his own practice, does the paperwork and answers the phone.
Another reason for the endless wait is that many doctors offer a daily ‘permanence’ or walk-in clinic. The advantage is that if you are suddenly ill you can get in to see the doctor the same day – provided you are well enough and willing to wait.
In our country village outside of Lyon there were two GP’s, each with his own cabinet on opposite ends of the main street. I saw both early on and quickly chose Dr. Fourré, a heavyset fellow (like his name, which means stuffed) with a calm, soft-spoken manner who actually listened when I spoke, and looked me in the eye. The other doctor was younger and more modern with a computer on his desk. He spent the whole time looking at the screen and seemed like a scared rabbit every time I tried to catch his eye.
How well I remember the long hours in Dr. Fourré’s small and shabby salle d’attente. The permanence was in the afternoon and the after-school rush at 4:30 was epic. Sometimes people would open the door, stick their head in to do a quick count, then disappear. I later discovered that some would literally run across the village to the other doctor’s waiting room and go where the queue was shortest. Later on the two doctors got together and coordinated their hours, so that one had permanence in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
I am not a patient person. I simply do not wait well. Which makes me a very poor patient indeed.
But I will always be grateful to Dr. Fourré as he was the one who sent me for the MRI that revealed my acoustic neuroma, a benign but mushroom-size tumor growing in my inner ear. It was removed by a specialist in Paris a few months later with no lasting consequence other than a total loss of hearing on the left side. But it was the simple country doctor who actually listened to my complaint about not being able to understand conversation – the specialist I’d seen a few weeks before had sent me away with platitudes about hearing loss and aging.
French doctors work long hours for little pay. They are the unsung heroes of the healthcare system.
Many GP’s in France still make house calls, surprisingly enough, although these are an increasingly rare species. There is also a service called SOS Médecins. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area covered by them, you can get a doctor to come to you within hours. Unfortunately, where we now live in the Haute Savoie, it’s either the nearest hospital or the waiting room of the local GP.
The first time I went to see a doctor in France, a couple of things surprised me. One was the complete lack of modesty accorded to the patient. In this case it was a gynecologist who had me undress for the physical exam without providing any kind of gown or sheet to cover up. Fortunately he kept up a steady stream of chatter with a lot of eye contact to cover any awkwardness.
Another surprising thing was the fact that the doctor is addressed as Monsieur or Madame rather than ‘Docteur.’ You can call him Doctor if you wish, but not doing so is not the blasphemy it would be in North America, where medical professionals are like gods.
What I found even more embarrassing than being à poil was having to take out my cheque book and pay the fellow (although I was dressed by then). This had never happened in Canada, or if it had I’d always dealt with a secretary. It seemed almost insulting to write a doctor a cheque. Especially for so little.
Unless you see a physician as a private patient, the amount you will pay for a basic medical consultation is 23 euros. Even my hairstylist charges more than this.