Mon singe

I have a monkey on my back. Un singe. See him? No, of course you can’t. He’s a private little fellow.

I’m no addict – he’s not that kind of monkey. But carrying him around all the time can be exhausting. He never shuts up.

There he goes again: What on earth are you writing about? No one is going to have a clue what you mean. A monkey? How ridiculous!

Monkey has his good points. Sometimes he makes me smile.  Il fait le singe, makes like a monkey. And he can be a creative little guy. Bitingly funny. Who would even think of half the stuff he comes up with? Too inappropriate, mostly, to share with anyone else. But in some ways he is my muse.

Most of the time he is an angry little dude who makes me impatient and short-tempered. A kill joy. He can be terrifying, with his dire predictions and irrational fears.

He is my inner critic, my slave driver, cracking his whip. Not good enough, he whispers. Who do you think you are? Often I believe him. Monkey see, monkey do.

Too often he exhausts me to the point where I just give up. No, I will not be good enough. While I’m at it, I won’t be good at all. May as well fool around instead of working. Waste time, kick back, have another glass of wine. I will forget about exercising or writing or doing whatever else I’d planned.

Now it’s time for a change. This year, I’ve decided to make friends with my monkey.

I can’t get rid of him completely. But I am thinking that perhaps I need to work with him. He is part of me after all. And in order to enjoy the good I need to manage the bad.

So I’ll tell him it’s okay not to be perfect. Sometimes good enough is just fine. And failure is okay if it means you really tried. In fact, it can be positive.

He will surely scoff.

And I’ll simply say: Monkey, be quiet. (Not ‘shut up’. Even monkeys deserve respect.) I’ll invite him to take a deep breath, admire the view. I’ll even give him half of my banana.

The rest I’m keeping for myself.

Happy new you!

Have you made any resolutions for 2019?

Dans la joie et la bonne humeur

Foie gras - don't tell my daughter!
Foie gras – don’t tell my daughter!

Something strange happened when I hit the supermarché last week. The store was busy with shoppers but they seemed oddly unhurried. By the entrance the homeless fellow selling his ‘Sans Abri’ newspaper seemed rather upbeat. I may have glimpsed smiles on people’s lips as they flitted about the aisles, loading bottles and nibbles into their baskets. Une animatrice talked a joyful patter while selling off seafood at half-price as shoppers milled about. I believe I even heard Bing Crosby crooning out a seasonal melody over the sound system.

Qu’est-ce qui se passe? I wondered, filling up my cart as usual (after all these years I’ve never lost my North American habit of stocking up). Christmas is past and the sales haven’t started so what is everyone so happy about?

Then the cashier wished me a ‘bon réveillon’, leaving me scrambling to reply in kind. That was it! New Year’s Eve, the one day of the year you can be sure the French will be smiling.

As I posted way back when I first started this blog, I’ve never quite understood why the French are quite so enamoured with New Year’s. Beyond the big blowout on the 31st, there is real sentiment in France around the fresh start in January, and a feeling that our good wishes must be shared with all those we love.

Having neither party nor family to attend to that evening, we booked a table at a restaurant in town – our go-to solution for le réveillon. The few restaurants that are open on New Year’s Eve near us all offer un menu spécial – a fixed price, multiple-course affair with a glass of bubbly to start. After all the cooking and fussing over Christmas, I was happy to ring out the old year with someone else doing the service.

Death becomes her
Ghost of New Year’s past
New year's dinner 2016
Who can resist such artful presentation?

Out of respect for our feathered friends, and our daughter, who is studying to become a vet and has become rather militant about cruelty to animals, we had decided to henceforth abstain from eating foie gras. But when the restaurant had already gone to so much trouble to prepare such a lovely plate (shown in feature photo above), graced with truffle and onion compote, it seemed too cruel not to do it justice.

There followed a dish of white fish floating in a lovely sauce, then medallions of beef filet with a few veg for good measure and two desserts. By the time we got to the end I was feeling silly and playing with the table decorations.

Baubles from the table

How’s that for a bit of bling?

It was a fitting conclusion to a month of over-indulgence. The smiles are still on the faces of the people I pass on the street, probably at least until the end of this week. After a few more wishes of good health, and a slice of galette des rois, quite possibly accompanied by a few more glasses of champagne, it will be time enough to get back to normal.

‘Dans la joie et la bonne humeur’ is an expression that means, quite literally, ‘with joy and good humour’. I’ve often heard it used with a degree of sarcasm, however, referring to the need to pick up the plough and carry on with a smile. New year’s oblige.

Bonne année à tous!

La Saint Sylvestre

Le champagneThere 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.

What shall I wish you for 2016?

Taking French leave

French leaveTo take French leave (or go AWOL as we say in North America) is known in France as ‘filer à l’anglaise’. Like the humble condom (variously known in French and English as a ‘capote anglaise’ or a French letter), this is another example of something that neither side wants to take credit for.

As the year draws to a close, it’s important to take a step back and reflect on what’s been accomplished – and what’s been left undone. So I’m taking a time out – to recharge the proverbial batteries, spend precious time with my family over the holidays and think about where I want to go next year.

I started this blog back in January with the vague notion of sharing my experiences of life in the land of the Gauls while venting twenty years of pent-up frustration over culture clashes and feeling like a stranger in a strange land. It has been cathartic. Also educational: I’ve learned a lot – about myself and the wonderful world of blogging – along the way.

Living in a foreign land means there’s an endless supply of material. Especially one as rich and wonderful as France. I’ve barely begun to exhaust my treasure trove of humorous, embarrassing and sometimes outrageous examples of how things work (or don’t) in this country.

As I clear away some of the clutter from my mental shelves, I find myself struggling to distinguish very clearly what is of interest to anyone but moi.

I feel inspired to hold up different facets of life in France to the light. The tiny nuances of behavior, of mindset and of what makes the French, well, French. And the rest of us, well, foreign.

So, what do you think? Should I continue in the same vein, attempting to decode the culture cues? Do you find the observations of language as interesting as I do? Or would you like to see more positive examples of beautiful things and places that la belle France has to offer?

I would love to hear your thoughts, so please share them in the comments! And the meantime, bonnes fêtes de fin d’année!

Happy Old Year

The month-long New Year’s party is finally over in France.

I for one am relieved when the frenzy of clinging champagne flutes, kissy face and ‘bonne année, bonne santé’ finally comes to a halt in France at the end of January.

I never know what to say, for one thing. The French express their ‘voeux’ or new year’s wishes with uncharacteristic fervor. People you barely know will give you a little speech about how they hope this year will bring you both personal and professional success, good health, sufficient wealth and enough time to enjoy them all…along with your family members whom they will cite by name. My pathetic little ‘bonne année’ in return sounds so completely inadequate I hardly dare mutter the words. January turns into a month of avoidance while I hide until the wave has passed.

And for another, there is no point in making a resolution if you don’t put it into practice. For me the new year is a time to rest your liver, curtail the carbs and hit the exercise mat. If I don’t get January off to the right start, the entire year can quickly degenerate into serial excess.

While I truly love Christmas, I’ve never been much of a one for New Year’s. The hysteria around the change of date, arbitrary at best in the time continuum, leaves me indifferent. And the pressure to party seems, frankly, inane.

But the French get teary eyed and seem to sincerely believe in the promise of le nouvel an just as I still believe in Santa.

In an attempt to get into the spirit of things, here are my voeux to the French for 2013:

‘May this new year bring you a healthy economy, and enough wealth to ensure you keep your AA rating. May your politicians continue to provide les guignols with plenty of fodder. In particular, I wish Parisians the shortest of traffic jams, a minimum of strike days, and enough sun to warm your eight weeks of holidays in the Alps, on the Cote d’Azur or in Corsica.  May Gérard Depardieu live peacefully in Belgium or Russia or wherever he finds haven. Amen.”