Remembering ‘les poilus’

W2289-Affiche14-18_PoiluType_0_94926The French would not be French if they didn’t do things a little differently.

Known to all in France as ‘le 11 novembre’, the day of remembrance traditionally commemorates the end of the first world war with the signing of the Armistice in 1918. It is really about the unsung heroes of that war, the soldiers known as ‘les poilus’.

Literally, ‘the hairies’, a better translation would be ‘the unshaven’. The term denotes not so much the facial hair as the image of the simple foot soldiers who left their fields and families to fight in the trenches. They are considered the unsung heroes of history as so many of their number died unknown and unrecognized for their sacrifice.

Lazare Ponticelli, a Frenchman of Italian descent, was the last surviving poilu. When he died in 2008 at the age of 110, Jacques Chirac wanted to bury him at the tomb of the unknown soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. True to his origins, however, le poilu refused the honour, preferring to be buried in the family plot.

The public holiday was officially changed by Sarkozy to the ‘Jour du Souvenir’ in 2012. It was meant to broaden the focus of the day in honour of all those fallen in service for France. At that time, so that the memory of the first world war heroes would not be lost, it was decided to reintroduce the French symbol of the poilus, the bleuet de France. The bright blue cornflower was the distinctive colour of the soldiers’ uniforms. It is worn instead of the poppy, although has yet to become as common.


On this day of remembrance in France, however, while our thoughts were meant to be on les poilus and the tomb of the unknown soldier, another image captured everyone’s attention. A handshake between two sworn enemies, who have apparently signed a truce in memory of armistice.


What does Remembrance Day mean to you?


Photo credit:

‘Les poilus’ cut-out: Wikimedia Commons - W2289-Affiche14-18 PoiluType 0 94926 » par G. Morinet pour Éditions Pellerin / Llann Wé² — Travail personnel. Sous licence CC BY-SA 4.0

Find the entrance

Entree_LyonAfter my post about getting lost, I thought I’d share another little challenge of finding one’s way in France.

There is a little game we play in this country. I call it, ‘Find the entrance’.

I discovered this when I arrived in Paris in the 1980s during the midst of a terrorist wave. The main entrances to many public buildings were barricaded by police, with access strictly controlled through a side door. The Alliance Française was one of these high-profile buildings, a hotbed of foreign nationals plotting to conjugate French verbs. I learned to never assume the front door was the entrance, and to always carry proof of identity.

When we moved to Lyon some years later, the plot thickened. Lyon is known as a secretive city and filled with many very old and winding streets including the famous ‘traboules‘. How well I remember going for my first prenatal appointment at Hôtel Dieu in Lyon. (The hospital has since closed and is undergoing renovations to be rebirthed as a luxury hotel and shopping complex). It felt oddly reassuring to be giving birth in such a historic place, always assuming that the medical inner workings were a bit more modern than the exterior.

Hotel DieuThe magnificent Baroque façade of this 17th century building on the Rhône river took up several city blocks. I walked the entire length of it without finding the entrance. Twice. There was a driveway labelled ‘Urgences’ but that seemed to be reserved for ambulances (although later, when my daughter was born, we used that entrance to access the maternity department). There were several large and looming doorways with rounded arches that were closed and without handles. Finally, on my third approach, I noticed a discreet sign saying ‘Entrées hôpital de jour’ (which I later learned means ‘outpatients’).

My little game continues to this day, though we live in a more remote corner of the country.

Mairie DouvaineImagine you have an appointment at la Mairie to get your passport renewed. You know where the city hall is, of course, as it’s usually one of the more obvious buildings in town. Often it has a large clock tower and looks rather like a church, with a sweep of steps and a stately set of wooden doors. Do not be fooled into thinking you should try to open them.

All those gorgeous doorways you see in photos of France? They are not the entrance. Nine times out of ten those doors are locked and only opened on state occasions or emergencies. The real entrance for le public is usually around the block or on the side, through a set of ugly modern doors that slide open, sometimes even with an elevator or a ramp for handicapped access. Practical, if something of a letdown in aesthetic terms.

Even when you find the door, you may not be able to get in. You may need a code, or an appointment, or be outside the official public opening hours from 13:45 to 16:15 (that’s 1:45 to 4:15 pm for North Americans). I exaggerate, if only slightly.

Finding the entrance in France is so much more than getting yourself to the right door. I’m still trying to figure it out.

Sometimes the exit can also be challenging. You have gone through so many sets of doors, corridors and stairways to reach your destination that you may have a hard time remembering the way out. I still get the giggles when I remember my husband, having just blown his stack in a public building following an interminable wait, turned on his heel to leave in a huff. Only he found himself standing in front of two glass doors that were locked. Sortie à gauche, we saw too late. Dignity intact, if slightly bruised, we exited stage right.

Oddly enough, it dawns on me that our new house, the one we had built here in France two years ago, has the front door in the back. Maybe I’ve been here too long…

What about you? Ever have trouble figuring out where the entrance is?


Coq_French flagThat’s French for cock-a-doodle-doo.

And because July 14th is Bastille Day in France, I thought you’d enjoy this symbol of national pride.

We’re taking a day off and will join our compatriots for food, drink and fireworks tonight.

Ever wonder why the Gallic rooster is the emblem of the Gauls? Check out last year’s post on Le Coq Gaulois.

Happy Bastille Day!

Sour grapes

“Du pain, du vin, du Boursin…” This slogan for a popular brand of cream cheese (my personal favorite is Boursin au poivre), reveres one of the exquisite pleasures of French life – bread, cheese and wine. Probably why these spots became a cult favorite here.

Wine – the tradition and availability of the grape – is one of the undisputed advantages of living in France. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the immense history of the vine and the huge variety of vintages, buying wine can be rather compliqué.

Wine brings together art and science, simplicity and snobbery, geography, meteorology, sense and, several glasses later, insensibility. Winemaking was the original biotechnology. It’s a complex subject. And this is a country where people enjoy all of those things.

I appreciate the interest that wine connoisseurs and historians take in understanding the finer points of the noble grape. But sometimes, fairly often in fact, I just want to buy a nice bottle of red. Not something that will knock your socks off. Or a grand vin that requires careful decanting. Just a good, basic wine.

While good French wines are very good indeed, the lowly vins de table can be barely drinkable. The challenge, in my view, is finding a reliably good wine for everyday consumption. There’s nothing more disappointing than to be served a glass of watery red or a white with notes of lighter fluid in a country whose wine-making tradition is epic.

The fact is, you can spend a lot of money on a wine whose value is determined not by how good it tastes but by where it came from. There is no quality-price guarantee with wine. A cheaper bottle can taste much better than a higher-priced one.

Sometimes we’ll go to a good restaurant, fall into the sommelier’s hands, spend more than we intended and find the wine, well, uninspired.

That’s when I feel the sour grapes coming on. But far be it from me to whine. Instead, I put together this fool-proof guide to buying wine in France:

Forget the rules
Why should you let someone else dictate what’s good for you? If you like red wine and want to have it with fish, go for it! Who cares what the wine snobs say? I like Merlot, critics be damned! And no matter what anyone else says, I don’t care for the sweeter whites. So there. The first (and only) rule is: please yourself. (This article says it better than I could.)

Know thy wine-growing regions
Everything you could possibly need to know about French wines is summarized very nicely here. So I won’t repeat it. But pay attention to where the wine is from. This is the only thing you need to know. French wines are identified by their origin, not the grape, but there is a correpondance between the two. Personally, I like the Côtes du Rhone, which are more accessible (price and taste-wise) than the stuffier Bordeaux and temperamental Bourgognes.

Don’t buy wine from supermarkets
This is a ‘do as a I say, not as I do’ guideline (like parental advice, meant to be ignored much of the time). So don’t buy wine at the supermarket, unless:
a) You’ve studied the wine guides and have the inside edge on which ones to buy
b) You have a tried-and-true favorite that’s regularly available on your local supermarket shelves
c) You have no other choice

Obviously, bad and/or overpriced wine is better than no wine.

Find a local ‘caviste’
Why not let someone else do the work for you? The specialty retailler will preselect good value wines and make them available to you, the customer, at a reasonable price. He or she will also be a source of advice if you want to expand your palate, or offer a special bottle as a gift.

Think global, drink local
As a general rule, we always try and drink the local vintage. Why? The less industrialized and more natural a wine is, the better it will be. French wisdom has it that it’s ‘plus sain’ (healthier) to drink a simple wine grown and bottled at the local vineyard than one that’s been blended and added to and shipped around the world.

The down side of that is that the offering of anything but French wine in France is poor. You will find a few basic Italian and Spanish bottles. The wines of the new world are virtually unknown. By the way, if you go to Switzerland, do drink the local wines. They are excellent – which is probably why the Swiss don’t export them.

Good year, bad year?
‘Millésime’ describes the year in which the wine is grown and harvested. Thanks to the ever-evolving skills of the vintner, young wines are increasingly drinkable. That’s a good thing as they don’t tend to age very well in our household. Or age at all.

Whether or not a particular year will yield good wine is a complex question largely influenced by the weather (a sunny growing season with sufficient rain is ideal). That’s a lot to remember. So if you want to buy good millésime you’ll want to get help on that. Check the experts:

An app for that?
It seems there’s also a multitude of apps that let you find out what wine to pair with what food, share what you’re drinking with friends, discover wines of one region or brand…all fairly useless IMHO.

How about a ‘wine advisor’ rating of vintages and millésimes with a label scanner? Actually, no, what I really want is a divining rod, that will let me pick up a bottle and just know that it will please me. That it won’t be corked. That I will have a good quality price experience. And a good time drinking it.

Does anyone have an app for that?

Historically challenged

Plaque_Rue_du_8_Mai_1945_(Poissy)Let me tell you a shameful little secret: I was never very good at history. All those names, dates, places…I remember the storyline but have a hard time retaining the details.

For many years I kept this to myself, nodding sagely when people mentioned some historical event while racking my brain for an anchor,  a random detail, something, anything to put it into context. The war. Right. First or second? World or other?

My grandfather fought in one of those wars. There was an old steel helmet in the basement of my grandparents’ house in Toronto, along with other wartime memorabilia. Whenever we heard the story about that helmet – how they used it for everything from washing their socks to cooking their soup – everybody laughed. But to a child, the idea of war and guns and people being killed was simply terrifying. My mother would tell me not to worry – it was all long ago and in a far-away country.

Then one day I moved to a far-away country. And had to reckon with my historically challenged self.

The first time I visited my future parents-in-laws’ home in the suburbs of Paris, I wondered: “Why is their street named after a date?” It was called ‘Rue du 8 mai 1945’.

“End of the war,” explained my husband. I started to nod, then gave up the act and looked at him blankly – if we were going to be married, he might as well know the truth.

“Which one?” I think he believed I was joking.

My shame was complete when we took a trip to Normandy. You cannot visit this part of France without becoming painfully aware of history. War memorials, those endless graveyards of white markers. And beautiful beaches, forever associated with the Allied landings.

I felt terribly guilty when a fellow at the war museum put his arm around me and told me I should feel proud to be Canadian. I nodded and smiled and took refuge in the fact that I hardly spoke any French.

Living in France is a real-life history lesson. Many places are named after historical figures and dates. Every town has a street called Charles de Gaulle or a square called 11 novembre.

Over the years, I’ve soaked up a fair bit of history by osmosis. Vichy is not just a mineral water or wonderful soup but was the name of the collaborationist government under Marshal Pétain. Reims is not just where champagne comes from but where the Germans surrendered. And Evian-les-bains, in our corner of France, is famous not just for its waters but is also where the French signed an end to the war with Algeria in 1962.

I still rely heavily on the Internet for details when vagueness strikes. Also on my husband, who knows his history by heart like a good Frenchman. And who still gets a chuckle out of my historically and geographically challenged moments.

Happy VE Day!