L’argent du beurre

I hated butter when I was kid. Not so much the taste but the greasy, slimy nature of it. It seems this was an acquired dislike. One of my first memories, which is probably only a memory of a story I was later told, was of reaching my hand into the butter dish and having it slapped away. So began my aversion.

Later in life the sentiment dissipated as I discovered the flavour and richness that butter brings. At first I could only enjoy it as a topping on popcorn, when cooked into something or as a scant scraping on toast. Unfortunately for my cholesterol count, I now like a bit of butter on warm bread (very un-French, other than at breakfast) and add liberal doses of le beurre to everything from sauces to omelettes to veg.

I must admit we’re rather spoiled for butter around here. French butter is heralded by many for its superior quality. The only other butter which might possibly be better is Swiss. Just think of all those alpine pastures with the cows grazing on grass.

There are three kinds of beurre: doux (sweet), demi-sel (semi-salted) and salé (salted). There is even the kind with little salt crystals for those who enjoy the taste of salt explosions. The best butters are churned (‘barrate’) to separate out the buttermilk (‘babeurre’).

There is a French expression which seems particularly apt to me these days: “On ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre.” Literally this means that you cannot have both the butter and the money you make from selling it. Which essentially translates to the English expression, “You can’t have your cake and it eat it too.” Or have it both ways.

Looking for a new place to live means confronting this reality head on. You can downsize and have the same space. You can’t live in or near a town without having some noise. You can’t enjoy a mountain view without having to climb some hills. You can’t enjoy the advantages of good transit connections without have a train line or highway nearby.

When we decided to sell our house and move to something smaller on the Swiss side, we knew we wouldn’t have everything we wanted. So we set a few guidelines for our search. I was prepared to compromise on many things but not on a certain quantity and quality of space.

It has been a bit of a journey. Along the way I learned a few things, or re-learned them:

1. Shit happens. COVID-19 happened. The best-laid plans are nothing in the face of a pandemic.

2. You must stay true to what you want but keep your mind open to unexpected opportunities, go off the path and explore a little.

3. Pictures and online visits are all very well for a first impression but you have to actually see a space to get a feel of whether it’s right for you.

4. Things will eventually fall into place.

And so they have. Against all odds, only one month after lockdown was lifted in France, it seems we have found buyers for our house, and a new place to live in Switzerland. Neither of which quite fit the initial ideas of what we thought. But both feel right. More on our new place soon. I’m too superstitious to share details before we have signed on the dotted line.

In the meantime, there will be butter. I will definitely not be selling but enjoying it.

How do you like your butter — sweet, demi-sel or not at all?

La polémique

It is something of a national sport in France. Controversy: it leads to discussion, debate, disagreement. Which is mostly fine with me. I am a bit of a contrarian myself.

I grew up with a healthy sense of controversy. Discord was the essence of our family dynamic. My parents disagreed about everything from religion to politics and my father loudly aired his opinions at the dinner table each night. As the eldest of four children it was up to me to lead on behalf of the youth front. So I can hold my own in an argument.

But the French love of ‘la polémique’ goes too far. It is bad enough when things are normal. Last year it was les gilets jaunes, the yellow vests, an entire movement founded upon nothing more than perceived social and economic injustice. Now that we have an actual crisis, imagine the debate. First it was confinement. The government was insane to want to lock us up in our homes, require papers for every outing. Now it is deconfinement. The government is insane to expect us to go back to work, to put our children in school. They are lying, covering up, incompetent. Likely all three.

Controversy happens at every level of life in France. Not even language is exempt. Case in point: a recent item featured on the 8-oclock news about the correct usage of the word ‘reopen’. Is it, in fact, rouvrir or réouvrir?

“Réouvir,” said my husband, as we watched TV together during lockdown. Ha! I knew the correct answer, having learned it recently enough to remember. Especially as it goes against what I would naturally translate from English.

“No, it’s rourvir,” I said.

“What do you know, you’re not even French!” Clearly, the gloves were off.

Controversy, as I said, is a national sport and it’s also one that flourishes in our marriage. Besides, after several weeks of imposed togetherness, any filter of politeness was lost.

“You’ll see,” I said.

“Rouvir,” said the expert on the nightly news, putting an end to at least one debate in our household. Husband was consoled by the fact that the anglicized ‘réouvrir’ has sufficiently infiltrated his mother tongue that most people get it wrong. Also by the fact that the verb and the noun don’t align. It’s ‘rouvrir’ to reopen, but ‘réouverture’ for reopening.

France began the gradual reopening of the country this week. The lockdown may be over, for now, but the controversy still flourishes. They’re even talking about a second wave, not of the dreaded virus, but something almost as dangerous. Les gilets jaunes are preparing for round two.

I admit I’m somewhat divided about the need for so much debate. On one hand, I admire my fellow countrymen for fighting back. Here in France we all watched aghast as Brexit approached and marvelled at the lack of outrage outre-manche. Clearly our friends in the UK had been sold a bunch of lies and made an ill-informed decision to leave the EU. Yet no one was in the streets. The Brits’ ability to keep calm and carry on, while serving them well in a crisis, borders on apathy when it comes to politics.  

Yet the French are so absorbed in arguing that we have difficulty moving on. The latest polémique is now about whether individual members of the government should be held responsible for mistakes in leading us through the COVID-19 crisis. Did the lack of PPE at the outset of the pandemic lead to healthcare workers losing lives? Clearly. Should our leaders be made to pay? I’m not convinced. Several lawsuits are pending. Time will tell whether they will be found guilty. But given the French need to finger point and the ‘off-with-their-heads’ drive for justice, we will surely be arguing about who is responsible for a long time to come.

All of which makes me long for a dose of peace and harmony.

How do you feel about controversy?

Guet-apens

There is something particularly horrifying in the idea of setting a trap or organizing an ambush against those whose job it is to protect us. Yet that is what is happening in our second month of lockdown here in France.

I was horrified to learn in the news yesterday that police are being targeted by groups bored by confinement in the Paris suburbs. The media call such acts ‘guets-apens’ (pronounced the same in plural or singular: get app-on), which means n ambush or trap.

Years ago French urban planning in all its wisdom created many ‘banlieues’ (suburbs) or ‘cités’ (projects or housing estates) around major cities like Paris and Lyon. In what was once thought of as modern, these high-density living areas of apartment towers were built, some not so long ago, around roads and hypermarkets rather than parks and communities. The model was presumably American but it doesn’t translate well. In France these low-income areas are a socio-economic disaster. Chronic unemployment, immigration, gangs: basically it’s the whole gamut of urban decay.

Now, with people stuck indoors, and many out of work, these areas are like a powder keg. And it seems a match has been struck.

I get it. I do. It’s starting to feel like forever since we were allowed to go about our business freely in France. For those crammed in apartments, with little or no access to the outdoors, May 11th is just too far away. There’s some relief in sight: kids will go back to school in waves next month, starting with the youngest classes and finally the lycéens. But it’s not enough to defuse the time bomb of pent-up frustration.

This video pulled from YouTube tells a story of what the police are facing. Here they are the target of mortar fireworks. It follows an earlier incident in which a driver refused to stop for a police check and sped away before abandoning the vehicle and running off, leaving four children alone in the car; thankfully they were not injured but it set off a series of riots.

And it’s not the only incident. In the cités especially north of Paris, bored kids go out on scooters and race around in ‘rodeos’ that drive the neighbours to distraction. This escalates to setting bins and cars on fire. The police are called and voilà…un guet-apens. They are shot at, or get bricks or Molotov cocktails thrown at them. Reinforcements are called in, rubber bullets and tear gas are used. It’s a potentially explosive set of circumstances that could easily escalate into full blown riots at a time when police and hospitals are already stretched to breaking point.

The above incident happened in Grigny last week, a suburb south of Paris. Many years ago when we first moved to France I worked in nearby Evry, a local hub for business, teaching English at Berlitz. It is a pretty area, with a lovely forest (Forêt de Sénart) and convenient access to Paris. We briefly considered settling there before deciding to move south to Lyon, which aside from its obvious charms has its own problems but on a smaller scale.

As we enter our final weeks of this confinement (and who knows if there will be others?), and as the weather gets warmer and temperatures soar, I hope that these incidents will remain unfortunate exceptions and not the beginning of deeper discontent.

It feels like we are all trapped in a guet-apens by this coronavirus. Now more than ever, we need solidarity for those who are suffering from this terrible disease, and especially all those in the police and medical professions who are working so hard to keep us healthy and safe.

How are you feeling?

Torticolis

Stiff neck. Leave it to the French to give it a fancy name!

How can something so much fun to pronounce be so painful to endure? That is the question I’ve been asking myself since being plagued by a stiff neck for the past week.

‘Torticolis’ is the term for a stiff neck in French. I find the French always prefer a highly technical medical term to describe even minor ills: a sore throat is ‘une angine’, an ear infection ‘une otite’, a chest cold ‘une bronchite’ and stomach flu is ‘une gastroentérite’. Note that all such afflictions are feminine in gender. (But that is worthy of another post.)

I am not sure why my neck would choose to play up now. I’ve never had a healthier lifestyle than in the past few weeks of confinement. My workload is low, so no stress there. I’ve been getting lots of sleep, eating healthy home-cooked food and exercising a reasonable amount each day. The only thing I may be doing a bit more than usual is sitting. And looking at my phone. And, come to think of it, worrying about running out of time to do all of the million things I would like to do in life before possibly dying on a respirator.

So maybe I am a bit stressed.

But, unlike the novel coronavirus, there is nothing all that new in this for me. I am a worrier by nature, constantly fighting down negative thoughts. Overall I do pretty well. Stay upbeat and mostly keep the demons away with a good balance of healthy living and therapeutic alcohol.

But back to the torticolis… (Seriously? doesn’t it sound like a fun type of pasta?) It seems I probably have some sort of cervical osteoarthritis, surely exacerbated by being deaf on one side and turning my head all the time to the right. Also sitting in front of a computer and right-side mousing. I spoke to my doctor about this on a video consult yesterday (the only kind he’s doing during the lockdown), which probably didn’t help my neck as I was staring at a screen again. He suggested the possibility of regenerative medicine, and platelet-rich plasma injections.

It certainly sounds promising and I intend to investigate further. While also trying to improve my posture at work, sit less and spend less time online. In the meantime, thanks a million to my friend Meeka for sharing a wonderful video of stretches to help correct forward head posture, along with much helpful info about COVID-19 on her blog.

Hope you are all staying healthy! Anyone else got a pain in the neck, back or other?

Photo by Aidas Ciziunas on Unsplash

Calme ta joie

It is an odd feeling to walk outdoors at the moment. Strangely calm, with no planes and few cars. Yet while human activity seems to have ground to a resounding halt, life goes on.

All around us, nature is blissfully oblivious to the human drama unfolding on its doorstep. Springing, bursting, burgeoning forth in joyful profusion, it doesn’t care about coronavirus.

“Calme ta joie,” I tell the tree, heavy with blossoms a-buzzing. Don’t you know people are dying?

In the field by the road two crows squabble over carrion. Atop the highest tree branch sits a kite, one of the magnificent birds of prey that populate our region, calmly surveying the proceedings. They are a reminder that death is so much a part of life. Survival, each day, depends on it.

I go outside and walk now more than ever, within the restricted perimeter of my authorized one-kilometre radius. As if to say, here I am, alive and well. Good morning world. Fuck you, coronavirus.

Unable to plan beyond the boundaries of personal space and essential commodities, we are no longer sure what day it is. But I am aware, perhaps more than ever, of the season.

The unstoppable chorus of birdsong is a joyful reminder that spring is here, in full swing, morning and night. It was always there in the background, behind the roar of our day-to- day rush. But now we wake to its twittering soundtrack and go to sleep with its last, mournful notes echoing in our dreams.

‘Calme ta joie’ is an expression I first heard when the kids were small. It is often said to children, and the French in general: calm down, stay cool, chill out. Perhaps we envy our more staid British neighbours their ‘keep calm and carry on’ mentality.

Yet It seems oddly appropriate for this strange period of human captivity. You cannot stop the force of nature, of life itself, for long. You can calm it down for a little while but ultimately nature will out.

And for that, I am profoundly joyful.

I leave you with this track, discovered via the googling of the title of this post. The artist, previously unknown to me, is called Clémentine.

Are you feeling joy in the calm?