Juste ce qu’il faut

How much is just enough? Not so long ago, it seemed I was always wanting more: friends, money, success, travel…a new this, an updated that. Now, suddenly, something is different. I still feel this way at times but lately I find myself thinking that happiness is having just what you need. Or needing what you have.

As the dark days before the winter solstice grow colder and ever shorter, it is important to think about the things have brightened our lives over the year. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy keeping an advent calendar. For each of its 24 days this month I have written down a word that sums up something – or someone – that has made my life happier.

I am lucky to have a great deal to be grateful for; it has been a full year, a good year. Not without moments of sadness and regret. Those bittersweet times are there to remind us just how lucky we are when all the rest is good.

Here are a few of the things that I am especially grateful for this Christmas:

This great big, wonderful world. We went to four islands this year, each of them special and unique in different ways. New Year’s was in Curaçao, a curious and beautiful place indeed. And it was amazing to be able to enjoy this exotic destination in the company of my Canadian family, including my Dad and brother, their better-halves and our kids. Our island adventures this year also included a writing retreat for me in Pantelleria, Italy; a first-ever trip out west to Vancouver and a romantic anniversary week on Madeira.

The people who got us there and back. Even in years when we don’t travel as much, there are still a lot of comings and goings with our jobs and family in different countries and continents. I never go anywhere without mentally preparing for disaster on some level (fingers permanently crossed). And yet, despite a tense couple of landings and a few delayed suitcases, we have all made it home in one piece. I am grateful to all of the hard-working pilots and drivers of planes, trains, buses and taxis who got us there and back. And all those who support them. They don’t hear it enough.

The memories we share. I am both old enough to have a lot of memories and young enough to look forward to making new ones. Also fortunate to have family and friends who remember too. This year, my husband unearthed a box of old cassette tapes from when our kids were small and sent them to be digitized; we are looking forward to watching this marathon memory movie over the holidays. To be in this position, to be able to share those memories, strikes me as very rich indeed. And I would like to share a thought for all those who suffer from dementia and other forms of brain disease.

My blogging buddies. This community we have here on WordPress is something I never imagined would bring so much joy to my life. I originally started this blog as a way to connect with people of similar interests with the idea of getting a book published. It hasn’t happened yet, but each week of writing, reading and commenting on my fellow bloggers’ posts brings me immense satisfaction and a sense of connection. It is a privilege to know you guys!

Family and friends. You know who you are. Thank you for putting up with me. I love you all.

And there are so many more. But how about I kick over to you: what are you grateful for?

La différence

It used to be like going home. Still is, in many ways. But now Canada is a place I visit, a trip down memory lane. The décor is oddly familiar, yet increasingly foreign. And I am like someone recovering from amnesia.

“I remember that!” I’ll think. Quickly followed by “That’s new!” and “What will they think of next?”

Arriving in Vancouver for the very first time, we noticed a great many things big and small. A forest of tall buildings, some of them of questionable architectural taste.

Used to Toronto’s intensely diverse ethnic population, we found Van City to be especially Asian. But like everywhere in Canada, an interesting cultural mix.

Food-wise, Sushi abounds, as does Indian. Coffee culture is on every corner. Not just Starbucks but also independent coffee shops where you can get a truly great cup of java. Not to mention mouth-watering Nanaimo bars and sourdough donuts!

The coffee is also mobile. On the street, everyone seems to be carrying a drink of some kind. But when it comes to alcohol, there is a holdover of historic British rules. At one bar, last call came at 10:45 pm!

Vancouver is a city in constant motion. In the air, sea planes take off and land along the sea wall. On the water, boat traffic of every description, including these sweet little water buses.

Everywhere, people run, ride, cycle, skate, walk dogs. We joined them and cycled around Stanley Park, one of the highlights of our week.

At intersections, the cheeping of birds tells visually impaired pedestrians when to cross. It took me a minute to figure out it wasn’t just a loud bird following us around.

Around town, crows have replaced our domestic flying rats, aka pigeons. We awoke each morning to their raucous cawing; in the streets we observed the constant scavenging of these big black birds.

Abiding impressions? People seem happy. They are friendly. They ask us how we are, where we’re from. I don’t really mind this; in fact, I quite like it. But at first, my reaction is entirely French: do I know you? Why are you talking to me?

The service is attentive, if perhaps overly intrusive. Once the introductions are over, I prefer wait staff to keep a low profile. Instead, we are continually asked how things are going, did we enjoy our entrées? (French confusion – they mean main courses), would we like another drink…? Husband becomes irritated with the freezing A/C everywhere and all the ice in drinks.

We begin to feel foreign. At home. Again.

After 30 years in France, I’ve been trained to speak French in public places. In Montreal, it’s natural. In Toronto, slightly weird. In Vancouver, definitely not the norm.

And then there’s the entirely un-French custom of the tip. In Canada, 15% is standard. Anything less is insulting. One place suggested 22% as the norm. The amounts are conveniently added when you pay by card, which virtually everyone does. But it does make the service culture seem a little excessive. Perhaps, compared to the good old French insouciance, a tiny bit fake.

It was time to go home. First, to Toronto, where both the time change (3 hours forward) and the bilingual road signs are a little more familiar. Then, after the Canada Day celebrations, and a good dose of family and friends, we flew back across the ocean to France.

I do love a good holiday. Almost as much as coming home.

How about you?

Respirer

Ocean

Inhale – inspirer. Exhale – expirer. The French words for the act of breathing – la respiration – inspire me to write this post. Breathing is something I do rather well. Not to brag but I’ve been doing it my whole life.

When I was a kid, it occurred to me one day that all this life-essential breathing stuff was happening without my even being aware of it. Suddenly I became gripped with fear that I might forget to take a breath. Until some kind big person explained that even I did, my body would take over and do it for me. Later in life, a sports instructor gave me the best advice ever: “Focus on exhaling and the inhales will take care of themselves.”

The French are good at breathing. Not that they do a lot of yoga or practice breathing per se. But they take the time each day to ‘respirer’. This means stopping to smell the roses, to take a few moments for oneself. It’s probably why we take pride in not answering work emails after hours or during holidays (I’m not quite there yet…). But skipping lunch? No way. Working through the weekend? Non, merci. Foregoing a vacation? Tu plaisantes?

So much can happen in the space of a breath. Time stops as air gently fills your lungs. Oxygen energizes your body and its gentle effervescence hits your brain. The wave passes as you release it back out, along with the nasty stuff accumulated along the way. Relaxation sneaks in.

Breathe in. Can you smell the ocean? Briny, mineral, time-soaked. We are in Portugal for a few days. The sun is playing hide and seek but the air invites me to make the most of every breath.

What’s your favourite way to ‘respirer’?

24 heures

Laumaillé

“Quelle heure est-il?”

If there’s one question you will often hear in France, it’s “What time is it?”. Or more likely the informal construction, which breaks all the rules you are taught but is most commonly used: “Quelle heure il est?”

One of the frustrations I encountered when first moving here was the 24-hour clock. I discovered the French use the military time that I’d only heard before as a kid watching TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and Mash, where they would say ‘Oh-seven-hundred hours, sir!’ for 7:00 a.m. The French use this clock not just in airports and train stations but all the time.

For non-native speakers, this requires some mental gymnastics. First you have to convert the 12-hour time clock we English speakers normally use into the 24-hour version. Alors…7 p.m. becomes 19:00, dix-neuf heures. Ten-thirty becomes 22:30, vingt-deux heures trente. That’s way too much math for me. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m numerically challenged, and the part of my brain that does language doesn’t like to do business with the part that counts.

“But it’s much less confusing than your a.m. and p.m.,” a French colleague said. “Half the time you English speakers forget to add it and we don’t know exactly what time you mean.” Ah, the French love of precision.

However, when you finally get the 24-hour clock down, you discover that although it is the rule, there are often exceptions. Sometimes people will simply say ‘une heure et demi’ for one-thirty in the afternoon. You are supposed to contextually understand that they don’t mean 1:30 a.m. Which I get, but hey, if it’s all about being precise…?

I love digital clocks because they do half the work for you. On the other hand, the clock in the above image known as the cadran Laumaillé in Toulouse makes telling the time especially challenging. There seems to be some mystery around its orgins (perhaps our Toulousaine friend Mélanie of My Virtual Playground can help us with that?)

My relationship with time is strained at the best of times. The big time clock in the sky casts its shadow on my daily doings, making me perpetually stressed and late for lack of time or causing me to over compensate by being early. My assumption that the French would be very Latin and fashionably late proved wrong from the outset.

While my compatriots have a way of seeming all casual and relaxed about time, they are irritatingly prompt for things like meetings and events. I’ve been known to arrive ten minutes late and miss entire speeches. The upside is I’m usually just in time for the drinks.

What’s your relationship with time? Do you use the 24-hour clock?

Français ou pas?

Higgins

One of the things I enjoy about travelling is the perspective you gain from stepping away from your world. Our recent jaunt to England made me think about some of the things that define the French. How very ‘English’ I sometimes still feel (which for me means anglo-Canadian) and at times how very French I’ve become.

It’s the little things, of course, and readers of this blog will know that I am one for observing the details that make up our lives.

La file d’attente

It starts at the airport. Whenever there is a line up, the difference is immediately apparent. The Brits queue in an orderly fashion; the French must push forward like a force of nature. I find myself somewhere in between, struck with admiration for the ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach of my fellow English natives yet driven by my far more impatient French self to get ahead quickly.

Le parfum

If you smell someone before you see them, there are two possible explanations: either they have not bathed or they are wearing strong perfume. Sometimes both explanations apply. In the latter case, they are very probably French. I can put up with body odour but have a very low tolerance (which is to say almost no tolerance) for perfume. French noses seem to be able to bear stronger scents far better than mine; the idea of a fragrance-free zone is entirely foreign.

Le petit déjeuner

One of the habits I have never acquired after all these years in France is eating just bread for breakfast. I will rarely say no to croissants and other French viennoiseries like pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins and croissant aux amandes (yum!), but my idea of breakfast is a bit more substantial. And if bread is involved, it must be toasted.

Starting the day with a ‘full English’ is horrifying to most French people; personally I enjoy a bit of egg and bacon, but the sausage, beans and black pudding is a bit much. A beer would have made it even better but is this even allowed in the UK so early in the day?

Le café ou thé

The French mostly have coffee with hot milk for breakfast, famously dunking their bread or croissant in a large bowl of the stuff. After that, they tend to drink small cups of espresso café or ‘express’. It is taken black, although sugar is always on offer.

I’m a hybrid there, too, as I love a couple of good strong coffees with milk for breakfast then drink tea in the afternoon. If the espresso is good, I will drink it black after a meal. Coffee culture is everywhere in the UK now but as soon as we left London, I had a hard time getting the kind of coffee I like: strong but not bitter with a bit of milk; not milk with a bit of coffee. Or – horror of horrors – instant coffee.

As for tea, who am I to complain about the nation that made it famous? But there was little evidence of whole tea culture that can be found now even in France, where green is a mainstay and my personal favourite is white (the leaves, not with milk!). French tea drinkers rarely take milk.

La cuisson

If you order meat in a French restaurant, you will usually be asked how you’d like it cooked. ‘La cuisson’ may be medium or rare (rosé or bleu), medium rare (à point) or well done (bien cuit). Ordering anything well done is a very tell-tale sign of English-ness.

Mine is medium rare.

L’apparence

The relaxation of dress standards in recent years has made it harder to put labels on people. So much the better! But there are a few tell-tale signs that will give French people away to those in the know. A scarf even in mild weather (we have very fragile necks!); a certain cut of clothing (the French don’t do oversized); anything well-ironed (rumpled is not a look the French favour). Men will be unshaven, as is the fashion, but they will wear a trendy pair of glasses, skinny jeans and their ‘pullover’ will sport a discreet but fashionable label. Women may appear drab at first glance, then you will notice that their jacket conceals a rather attractive top, that their accessories are coordinated and that underneath that basic ensemble is surely some well-cut lingerie.

En public

French behaviour in public places, aside from pushing in crowds, tends to be discreet. They don’t mingle, or start up conversations with strangers. I noticed this in several pubs where many of the patrons were looking about them and chatting with their neighbours; those with there heads down and sticking strictly to themselves were almost inevitably French. To be fair, the language barrier may be a reason.

Here again, I’m a hybrid. I have a horror of enforced socializing and will almost always gravitate to the edge of a crowd. On the other hand, people often come up to me on the street and ask for directions (more fools they, as I am rarely of much help); start talking to me on buses or in waiting rooms; sitting next to someone we often end up in conversation. My husband is always fascinated by this as it never happens to him. He shakes his head in wonder as I regale him with these stories.

Les bouledogues français

My Frenchie featured in this blog is called Higgins, a British name if there ever was one. And rightly so. On our recent trip, husband reminded me that the French bulldog breed has its origins in Nottingham, where the lace workers who travelled to France had to keep their canine companions small in order to go on the boats across to Calais.

Have you ever been surprised to discover that something you thought of as typically French or English was not at all?