Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Z is for Zen and the art of living in France

It has been just over a year since we came here to live and the magic is still very much alive.

Granted we are blessed to be living in a particularly lovely corner of France, but even without rose tinted spectacles, the positive aspects of life here far outweigh the negatives.

Plenty of expats will spin you stories of interminable red tape and inflexible bureaucracy. A plethora of fora (or is that forums?) has sprung up, affording the disgruntled and jaded the opportunity to moan about shortcomings of the French way of life.

My feeling is that in being here we have chosen this life. Granted, we can't vote so have no power to change the status quo. But we can practise the gentle art of gratefulness. We can appreciate the slower pace of life; enjoy the finer points of French cuisine and wine; participate in the community around us.

Zen may appear to be a cop out in the search for a topic beginning with Z, but I actually believe that to benefit fully from this life in France, we must be detached from the potential frustrations and focus on the joys of the French way of life. Acceptance brings peace and in the true spirit of Zen practice, observation brings understanding.

I hope my 27 observations this month have enlightened you a little and given you a taste of this life in France.

Post script: Z is also for Zut!

I cannot pass by Z without at least a brief reference to that marvellous word - Zut!

As expressive as any of our more vulgar anglo saxon expletives, it captures perfectly every moment of frustration or disgruntlement.

And it's not even rude. How cool is that?

Zut alors!

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Y is for Y

Y. The shortest word in the French language and yet so very, very useful.

Y means 'here', or 'there'. It means 'of them', 'of it', 'of whatever it is you are talking about.'

Who would have thought such a little, one letter word would have such far reaching consequences?

"How many biscuits are there?" "Il y en a trois." I rest my case.

Monday, 28 April 2014

X is for XL

I am a big bird. I always have been.

One of the things I admire about French women is their sveltesse, their élégance.

It is probably true to say that the majority of French women are still slender. I say still, because I have noticed a marked increase in the last ten years in the number of overweight French women.

When I first started coming here for holidays, any fat woman would be guaranteed to be either British, American or German. Or sometimes Belgian. Now, if you spot a lady with a bit of avoirdupois, she is just as likely to be French. (This is not a sexist observation; there have been porky French men since forever.)

There is a marked difference in attitude to food amongst the girls we have staying here from the boys. Rarely will a boy shun a biscuit or dessert (though I have had some pretty faddy male eaters). But the girls are nearly 90% guaranteed to make a fuss about anything that might be perceived as 'fattening'. I know this is probably the case all over the Western world, but it is interesting to observe that the girls with legs like sparrows whose mothers are slender and élégante eat like sparrows too.

Macdonalds here highlights something too. Where franchises elsewhere in the world are maxing it up and offering bigger and bigger portions, the French version scales it down. There is a whole section of the menu devoted to petite faim and the children's happy meal has a compulsory bag of fruit or compote. They used to do a goats cheese wrap (sadly no longer on offer) and the petite salade comes with a hazelnut oil dressing.

The increase in the girth of many French women has brought one advantage. Years ago I would walk into a boutique to be greeted by a gazelle in thigh length leather boots, appraising my generous form with one haughty glance and declaring there to be nothing in my size in the store. Now at least, there is more available for ladies like me. And I notice the XL is no longer just big enough for an eight year old girl; it is slowly growing to meet the increasing demand.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

W is for Websites

It is the end of April and time for declarations. The first quarter's cotisations and last year's tax must be paid (see I is for Impots).

It's no big deal and it happens everywhere, but here in France there is the issue of the websites to be dealt with.

All the official correspondence that drops into our boitolette tells us brightly that it is quick and painless to perform our declarations online.

The actual websites tell a mighty different story.

I am forming the opinion that the French are not as hot on websites and the worldwide interweb as most of the rest of the world. The favoured methods of communication here are still the telephone and, better, face to face. Email, the bedrock of failsafe correspondence, is only just easing its way into the French way of doing things.

The French adoption of the internet appears slower than the rest of the world and more creaky. These government websites are densely written with gobbledygook; it takes hours of trawling through scribble to find the nugget of information you are seeking. But most infuriating is the fact that after two hours of going through the process of signing up for online declarations (quick and painless I was promised, remember), I am told that I cannot make any declarations just yet. I must try again ultérieurement (later). I must wait for the website fairies to grant me permission.

Elsewhere on the internet, French websites often fail to cut the mustard. Maybe its because they are still used to a formal way to communicating (just take a look at any official letter), but they often feel the need to cram their pages with text that is never going to be read and that only obscures the more important details. What exactly is your address and what are your opening hours?

Today, I shall abandon my laptop and drive the 45 minutes to the offices of URSSAF. I shall be handing them our declarations in person. It feels much safer that way.

Friday, 25 April 2014

V is for Vélos

Ah the bicyclette! Yet another symbol of all that is French!

It's the middle of Spring, the Easter holidays are underway, and we are awash with lycra and hard hats.

You have to schedule at least an extra five minutes to get to the supermarket because you are bound to come up behind a padded botty raised above a razor sharp saddle, beetling its way up one of the steep hills round these parts.

Don't get me wrong. I like cycling. I bought a shiny new(ish) blue one only the other week and plan to ride it along the only flat bit of road we have round here.

Personally, I think the purpose of a bike is to take in the countryside at a leisurely pace. I cannot share the enthusiasm for masochistic peddling when all you can focus on is the tarmac beneath you.

But the French will take their vélos so damn seriously. Even in midweek you can come across coteries of middle aged gentlemen got up like Ninjas, riding three abreast. They take up so much room.

And you rarely see people riding bikes in normal clothes. If a cyclist is wearing jeans they are probably a tourist and German. The French believe you must look the part. Lycra tops, lycra tights, little socky shoe things, and helmets with ski slope profiles presumably for improved aerodynamics.Vive la Tour de France and vive the garb that goes with it.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

U is for Urgences

Healthcare in France is said to be second to none.

There are a few bureaucratic hurdles to be negotiated by the incoming foreigner, and it can take up to two years to be recognised as a valid member of French society, but once you are in receipt of the gilt edged Carte Vitale, your health is in very safe hands.

Let me explain. Healthcare in France is not free, but most people are entitled to at least 70% off the cost of it at the point of delivery, providing they have the magic green plastic card. In addition to this, you can choose to pay for top up insurance which will then write off the remaining 30% you generally have to pay yourself.

So, providing you have the carte and even better if you have a mutuelle insurance, you can benefit from superb care and services.

My forays into the French healthcare have been illuminating. I sliced my finger on a glass and was stitched up in double quick time at the local A&E. I visited my GP about some 'wimmins' troubles' and had scans and blood tests done within the week. The very nice young man with the scanning machine gave me the results and the pictures then and there - how impressive is that?

But my most entertaining brush with the urgences was a year or so ago when I was experiencing a little bother with my heart. A tourist at the time, I had private health insurance so I called the company to ask where I should go for a check up. I think the girl on the phone was new to the job and she leapt at the chance of an all out 'all points' alarm call.

I was told I shouldn't drive myself to the hospital and that transport would be sent. I strolled round to the local creperie with my son and friends to wait for the car. Embarrassed was not the word when I saw an ambulance parking up at the end of the road. Horrified does not describe how I felt when I heard the chopper flying in across the bay.

A very nice paramedic had me strapped and monitored before I could splutter "I say, this really isn't necessary!" Then four hunky policemen in black polo shirts and stubble helped load me into the helicopter. My friend stood by with the camera and helpless laughter.

It was a fabulous ride along the north Brittany coast in an August sunset. It was marred only by the fact that I was prostrate and had to crane my neck to see the azure water crashing against the rocks.

Suffice it to say, on arrival at the hospital I was thoroughly tested and kept in overnight, to be released the next day with no sign of any real problem.

That episode alone convinced me this is a good country to be in if you are at all worried about your health.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

T is for Tutoyer

Tu or Vous? That is the perennial question when chatting to people in France.

We all know from school that vous is polite and tu is familiar, but in reality it is just not as clearcut as that.

Children are easy. I work on the rule of thumb that anyone young enough to be still at school merits a tutoyer, although it gets a little misty around the age of 18. There is a young man who comes for classes in English who is in his final year at school and preparing for the Bac. He is huge. A rugby player and all round jolly tall chap, he towers over me which makes the use of tu seem a little inappropriate.

People one deals with in public life - at the shops, the doctors, the bank, the long list of government agencies you have to deal with if you run a small business - are also easy. Its vous all the way with no deviation.

The tricky bit is how to address those people you chat to regularly. Friends seem to drop into tu quite quickly but there are so many others, acquaintances, neighbours, where it is all as clear as mud.

We have known our delightful neighbours for seven years. We have shared aperitifs and afternoon tea. We have discussed each other's gardens and even gone through the process of re-routing a shared right of way. Yet we still use vous. They are retired and are older than us, and I was always taught that one should wait for the older person to initiate the tutoyer. Occasionally I have slipped up in conversation and used tu and felt my blushes rising. But no comment has been made, and we still vousvoyer.

A friend was here at the weekend and he was telling us that he has been working in his current job for two years and is still vousvoying with his boss. So the complication does not just arise for foreigners in France. The French struggle with it too. He says that sometimes, they will have a conversation and tu will be used, but the very next day, his boss will be vousvoying again. And as a subordinate and the younger person he does not feel able to broach the subject.

We Brits are possibly luckier. We can mess it up and use the familiar form inappropriately and it will simply be put down to the ignorance of l'etranger. Pity the poor Frenchman and his daily struggle with avoiding a faux pas.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

S is for Sociétés

The Société or Association has a very special place in the fabric of French society. It takes a bit of getting used to, but after a year, we are finally beginning to understand.

Every commune has a clutch of Associations. We have a choice of Tarot, local history, watercolour painting and several others aimed at children and young people. On the surface, the Association is a club. It is a group of like minded people getting together to practise an activity or share a passion.

But a Société enjoys rights and privileges in the commune that other organisations do not. Free room hire is one. Copious free promotion in the local newsletter is another.

And this is why the Association is fascinating to an outsider. It is as though our entertainment is enshrined in the Constitution. We have the right to have our free time occupied in companionable activity and thus it must be facilitated by the State.

There is a statute and a legal structure. An Association must have a board, a responsable and an accountant. There is an AGM and a requirement for bureaucratic reporting. All this so that we can enjoy our stamp collecting or marble rolling with amitié.

Try running classes or offering workshops as an individual and you will soon see the benefit of jumping through the red tape to set up as an Association.

Monday, 21 April 2014

R is for Randonnée

To randonner is very popular in France. You can do it on foot, on your bicycle, in a car, on horseback even. It is the gentle art of wandering the countryside.

Around here, we are awash with footpaths and bridleways. Every day, we are spoilt for choice - coast paths, woodland walks, or hacking across country.

The other day, I took the dogs for a constitutional along the river near our house, aiming for the Chateau More-Vowels-than-Consonants in the distance. We slip-slided along the muddy banks where the high tide had recently deposited its ballast of flotsam, jetsam and tiny crabs. A rather imposing sheep eyed us from a promontory on the other side of the water, setting the dogs on edge and putting the wind up me a bit. I was jolly glad a steep muddy water course separated us.

Into the woods, we found primroses, violets, bluebells and campion smiling in the dappled sunlight. Huge flag irises were preparing for their display along the edge of a murky ditch. And most precious of all, little clusters of orchids had appeared, dotted across the path in places where the horses had blindly trampled.

In my youth, a wild orchid was a rarity indeed. Individual specimens found in a field were protected and visited by the curious. Now it seems, they have made a rip roaring comeback and are thronging the verges and woodland banks as if they had never been gone.

Just opposite the end of our drive is the start of the main coastal path for Cap Frehel. Starting off along the old railway track, the path mounts quickly to give spectacular views of our lovely bay in all its humours. Further along, round the corner and past Fort la Latte, the coastline unravels with precipitous cliffs and breathtaking bays.

Randonner is such a lovely pastime.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Q is for Quincaillerie

                Such a lovely word! Can-kiy-yer-y.

I remember seeing it here and there on shop fronts as a girl on visits to France, but could never quite work out what it was.

In fact, the Quincaillerie is part hardware store and part Aladdin's cave. Stepladders, fishing nets and log baskets spill out across the pavement; zinc buckets and brooms of all sizes hang from butcher's hooks beneath the striped awning; and in the dimness of the interior, you can make out a medley of interesting and useful items you never knew you needed.

The one nearest to us is the Maison Ohier, run by the two Misses Ohier (breaking with tradition for shop naming, as discussed in N is for Noms!). Neither my husband nor I are particularly into DIY or Bricolage, but we do love poking around in this shop.

Aside from the hardware selections you would expect - wood cut to size, widgets and wotsits for screwing, fixing and hanging, light bulbs, paint, and all things needed for DIY - they have a fascinating collection of things for the home.

Fabulously expensive cookware and gadgets for the kitchen are ranged alongside chic wheelie shopping bags and multicoloured household bins.

Our favourite section is the collection of handmade brushes from a German company. Beautifully crafted in wood and natural fibres, they are designed for just about every conceivable use. You can buy a brush to clean your mushrooms, a curved one for removing crumbs from the table, a beard and moustache brush. Whatever you can imagine may need a brush, the Mesdames Ohier will have one to sell you.

Friday, 18 April 2014

P is for Petanque

Another short one today.

I love the French tradition of Petanque. Virtually every town and village has its own boulodrome, a flat, dusty area set aside for the gentle game.

Sometimes called boules, after the balls that are used, it is a team game of enormous popularity. There are apparently 375,000 people registered with Fédération Française de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal, and that's just the people who take it really seriously.


Retired gentlemen on a weekday afternoon, groups of young adults on a Friday evening, families at the weekend, the boulodrome gets good use.

You chuck a little wooden ball (the cochonnet or 'piglet') as far as you can and then see who can get their boule the closest.

We play it on the beach with the children, using garish heavy plastic balls. The curve of the sand and incidental shells and footprints make for an interesting outcome.

I thoroughly recommend Petanque. Fun for all the family and can be played virtually anywhere, though a hot, sandy ground under pollarded lime trees is the most authentic endroit. Especially with the smoke from a Gauloise or two wafting through the air.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

O is for ventes d'Occasion

What to do with all our unwanted stuff? That's the crucial question.

Its that spring cleaning time of year when so much accumulated detritus comes to light. In the UK, we bag it all up in black bin liners and take it to the charity shops or, if it is unsaleable, to the tip. (Apart from the Christmas when I made the mistake of storing our four year old son's presents in a bin liner - came home from work to find the husband had taken them to the tip.)

Here in France, the charity shop doesn't exist. So what shall we do with the jeans that no longer fit, the shoes bought in an extravagant moment that are never going to see the light of day, the purple vase we were given a few Christmases ago?

There is the déchetterie, the repository of all waste. Huge skips line up to receive your rubbish but woe betide you if you put the wrong substance in the wrong bin. There is a man in uniform, who looks not unlike a Camp Commandant in corny war films, who watches over we dumpers with an eagle eye.

It amazes me what people will throw away. Serviceable furniture, pots and pans that have plenty of life left in them, decent curtains and household linens. I once saw a man about to chuck a selection of large terracotta flowerpots. I caught him just in time and they are now gracing my garden (see J is for Jardin) with tulips and geraniums.

I wasn't so lucky with the double mattress. As we are currently desperately in need of one, the pristine mattress that arrived in the back of a little fiat caught my eye immediately, but the tip was busy that day and by the time I had edged my car into the only available space I was too late. The Camp Commandant was cheerfully helping the little old man heave his exceptionally good quality mattress into the mouth of a skip. I still wake in extreme discomfort in the middle of the night, springs digging into my back, and think of that mattress, languishing somewhere in a waste disposal unit or down at the bottom of a very deep hole.

The other option is to sell your unwanted stuff at a Vide Grenier. Much like a jumble sale or car boot, the vide grenier is taken very seriously. Legally, you are entitled to participate in two in a year; any more and you are obliged to pay tax on your earnings.

I did one last year at my son's school. A fabulously sunny day, there were plenty of stalls there offering a whole variety of tat. In amongst the fellow parents and local householders, there was a coterie of professional brocanteurs, those perennial bad lads who flog antiques and 'collectibles'. On the stroke of midday, they set out a table and got out the vin rouge. They continued drinking throughout the afternoon, culminating in a game of 'who can throw the valuable paperweight the furthest'.

But by far my favourite repository for unwanted items is Leboncoin, the online classified ad service. You can literally sell anything on it from a donkey to a child's bicycle. It works on a regional basis, so you can narrow your search down to find that elusive mattress in a town near you.

I will now log on and do just that!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

N is for Noms

A short blog today (well there were two yesterday to make up for it). The naming of shops.

Go into any town or village and you will find a selection of shops exactly as depicted in your school text book. The signs above their premises read: Boulangerie, Patisserie, Boucherie, Charcuterie, Poissonnerie, Quincaillerie, Tabac.


Aside from the occasional strapline bearing the owner’s name, French shopkeepers do not deem it necessary to give their establishments cute names.


Only the hairdressers venture into drollery. There’s a Miln’hair near us and a Baln’hair in a nearby town - though I don’t get the joke with that one.


Other than that, businesses do exactly what is said on the sides of their vans. Electricité, plomberie, maconnerie, jardinage, couverture, zingerie. Maybe it has something to do with the pigeonholing tax system. (See I is for Impôts)

And I love the way their surnames are given in CAPITALS, like Luke PICARD, or FESSARD Michelle. No fuss, no frills, we all know exactly who does what and how to spell their name.

As a postscript, I have just found this set of business names from the UK. I think it demonstrates the difference between us very well when it comes to the naming of shops!

M is also for Mairie

I can’t claim to be documenting the idiosyncrasies of life in France without mentioning the Mairie.

Familiar to anyone who has studied French at school, the Mairie is the grand building in the centre of any town or village, flying the tricolore and sporting a bust of Marianne with the words liberté, égalité, fraternité.

We were told at school at the Mairie is the town hall. But actually isn't really. It is the hub of the community.

France is divided into départements, of which there are 92 on the mainland. These break down into pays which are a collection of communes. And it is to the commune that the Mairie belongs.


When we arrived, we reported to the Mairie as we had been advised to do, and found ourselves greeted like long lost friends and ushered into the office of Madame le Maire herself. We chatted a bit, answering her questions about our livelihoods, our past, our intentions. It was like an interview with the headmistress.

It was several months later when we realised how central the Mairie is to the life of the commune. One of our dogs had gone missing, off on an adventure in the woods behind our house. We searched, put up notices and went to the vet’s to see if anyone had reported finding her. Finally, when all hope was nearly lost, we went to the Mairie with a photo for the weekly bulletin and were met with joyous exclamations. She had been found, probably no more than an hour after she slipped her lead, by one of the Mairie’s handymen and had been accompanying him all week.

In case of any query, concern or anxiety, the Mairie is where you turn. So much more than a font of information, the Mairie is where you will register your births, deaths and marriages; it’s where your boundary dispute will be discussed; your application for photovoltaic panels be turned down on grounds of not fitting in with the local architecture. It is where you will turn when you want to arrange a knees up in a local salle, or to accommodate your association’s weekly meetings. It is the hub of gossip and the breeding ground for entente cordiale with your fellow members of the commune.

Where the British town hall is aloof and formal, the Mairie is welcoming and friendly, enshrining at least one of the three tenets of the French constitution - fraternité.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

M is for Marché

To market, to market, to buy a fat pig.

Still central to the French way of life is the weekly market. Where we are, there is a market just about every day of the week in one of the local villages, throughout the year. Sometimes small (the veg lady, the butcher, a fish van and maybe the local goats' cheese maker) in the main, the markets here are pretty impressive, with a wide selection of both food and other useful items.

Near us, Matignon market offers the very old lady who sells all sorts of hats in all sorts of weather. There are numerous clothes sellers, spanning the spectrum from utilitarian ladies' crimplene frocks to frothy 'designer' numbers you could only ever find in France.

There are the men flogging gadgets to improve the quality of your life - things for cleaning floors, opening jars, frying food. There is usually at least one stall selling mattresses and any number of chic displays of household linens.

Bags feature largely, whether the Algerian men with their selection of leather goods brought over from Africa or the haughty ladies with their knocked off Cath Kidston and French lookalikes.


Its the highlight of the week, wandering past the long stalls of vegetables, exclaiming with delight as something new appears in season. Right now, the asparagus is making a comeback and I saw some early strawberries last week. There are cheeses, olives, locally gathered honey; cold meats, whole tables taken up with baskets of different flavours of saucisson; vans selling freshly cooked paella or whole spit roast chickens; producers from surrounding farms offloading their cauliflowers as large as full moons; a dodgy bloke who sells live rabbits and hens for the pot and for rearing; the gentleman selling a huge array of sweets exclaiming in English "Ze rrrrabbit ees free" as he offers a balloon to my son.

The market is the place to meet people, pass the time of day. With your bags laden with fruit and veg, a baguette tucked under your arm, there is always time to duck into one of the coffee shops for a quick cafe (see C is for Café). It is a pleasurable way to do the shopping and one which keeps you in touch with the seasons and the origins of the food on your table.