Tuesday, 23 August 2016

On not being French


This blog began its process towards its current incarnation many years ago under the title 'Conversations from France'. Admittedly, it was a misleading title as I had no readership, no followers, no conversations. That would have been hard, as I kept my writing to myself. The stories were penned, I now understand, to help with my recovery from illness.

Today, Paulita, left a comment about my blog and book title on a post by French Village Diaries. This is what she wrote:

I didn't know there was a book, only a blog, so I'll be interested to look for it. I've always wondered where the emphasis goes on this sentence. But YOU are in France, Madame. or But you ARE in France, Madame. or But you are in FRANCE, Madame.

And here was my answer:

Hi Paulita, Catherine here. The title 'But you are in France, Madame' came from a conversation that I was having with one of my daughter's teachers. It came after a few exchanges, and was said with only the slightest lilt over the word France and a big questioning smile. Unarguable!

I knew that I had first written the words to what became the book title in one of my original 'Conversations', so I fossicked through my files today. This, from 2011, is what I found:

Waiting at the school gate this afternoon with one of the teachers, whose job was to supervise the exit of the students, we started talking education. Hesitantly, I suggested that the curriculum did not seem to have changed much since I was last here teaching some twenty years ago. In a moment of refreshing candour she remarked that it was probably more like two hundred years with no change. 

There is a mark accorded out of twenty for most pieces of work that the students complete and parents and children alike constantly compare their moyenne or average overall mark. In some schools, if a student is not doing well, there are soutien or support classes, but in most cases the classroom teacher is not expected to cater for the different ability levels in the classroom. If a child does poorly on a piece of work, comments, such as the one word appraisal ‘catastrophe’ next to the mark, leave nothing to the imagination, nor to the self-esteem. The idea that a child might respond to praise, or to a warm relationship with the teacher is not the norm.

I went to a parent-teacher interview yesterday afternoon to discuss this exact point. I was on time and my daughter showed me up to her teacher’s classroom. He was chatting to another teacher when we appeared and made no real effort to come and greet us, so we waited patiently. When he did come out into the corridor he did not introduce himself, shake hands or engage in conversation. He indicated that the meeting would take place downstairs and headed off with us in tow.

Before sitting down, I introduced myself using my first name and put out my hand to be shaken. He mumbled back his full name as he took my hand, although I suspect he would have been shocked if I had actually dared use it.  There was no animosity or impoliteness from either of us, but he did look surprised at the frankness with which I spoke. He came across as someone sure of himself in his role of teacher but not a self-confident man. It wouldn’t have shocked me to read a poster on the walls listing the rules of the meeting, number one being ‘you are talking to a school teacher and his methods and practices are not to be questioned.’ Of course I did though, question him and, with the assurance of a perfect, unarguable answer, he replied "But you are in France, Madame."

As a justification, this answer seems to be all that is required, not just in a school context but everywhere. I recall a newspaper article that my husband and I were discussing wherein a Frenchman became unruly on a flight after having consumed too much alcohol. He refused to accept that he should abide by the rules for all passengers and be served no more alcohol. His argument to support his position was simply “But I am French.”

On holidays, we stopped to visit the castle of Chambord. Arriving mid-morning, we thought that it might be nice to have a coffee before going into the castle. There were several restaurants and cafés to choose from and the owner of one was out the front getting ready for his lunchtime service. Some instinct made me ask if it would be possible to order just coffee, before we sat down and made ourselves comfortable. “Of course not, I am far too busy and have got too much to do before midday.” I should have known that coffee time had passed. I had been put in my you-are-in-France-Madame place yet again.

Many a similar story abounds, in the travel folklore, of unhelpful Frenchmen. Why is this so? I live here and have many good friends who are French, but until you can prove yourself as someone of interest, which can be hard if you are an English speaker, you do risk being brushed off with a “But you are not French, this is the way we do it here” incomprehension. 

Funnily enough, I was once the target of ‘being French’ discrimination. My sister, speaking English to the sales assistant in Galeries Lafayette, could not have been better served. She was offered gift-wrapping and a smile. I was up next and spoke French. I was offered neither a smile nor coloured paper and ribbon. When I asked if my gift could be wrapped, too, I was told that I would have to go and line up at another counter. At that point, I would have liked to have slapped down on the counter my written assessment and mark out of twenty for her. She wouldn’t have made the moyenne.


To jump back to the present with many years of French living under our belt, I can better understand a lot of the differences that I was dealing with at that time. There is no point in pretending that we will ever be French, but learning the secrets of 'being in France' makes me a very happy Madame.



Monday, 15 August 2016

Strawberries and Champagne



Here, in Australia, it is winter. Strawberries like these are not available. Correction, strawberries that taste like these, are not available.

On his recent trip, my husband had one of those it-makes-complete-sense-in-France experiences. He was shopping, not in a market, a supermarket. Quietly going about his own business, he stopped to admire the fruit. He made no eye contact with anyone else. He did not venture an out-loud comment or exclamation, he just stopped to look. The lady beside him, French of course, wanted to help. She had sensed a moment of indecision and wanted to be sure to support him through it. So, addressing my husband, she gave her approval to the quality, of course the price was irrelevant, and then stopped as she was about to continue on her way, registering that my husband had not responded. She interpreted this as a sure sign that he was not French and, changing to English, continued in her self-appointed mission to ensure that he had the best gastronomic strawberry experience possible.

She advised him on how to eat said strawberries.

No, not with a recipe, not by suggesting a large dob of Chantilly or a perfect dessert wine. Just, how to eat the strawberry.

My husband stopped at this point in his story telling and I looked at him quizzically, still not sure if this was some sort of flirtation, French style, or really was a tale of two strawberries. Not sure about you, but I've always used the green bit to hold onto and chomped into the pointy end first. No! No! No! The pointy bit, apparently, is the sweetest bit and so you need, indeed must, start with the flat bit first and work your way up, saving the best for last.

Still musing over the exact nature of eating à la francaise, he was invited out for dinner that night to eat with our most charming of neighbours at the recently re-furbished restaurant across the road from our house. She insisted that they both start with a champagne aperitif and browsed the wine list to make her selection. Decision made, she called across the sommelier ... who refused to take the order. It was, he explained, not masculine enough for my husband and suggested another champagne that would fit the bill.

By this stage, I was rolling around with laughter. Strawberry etiquette and not-masculine-enough champagne. Only in France. How I love her so.

View from the terrace of the Beau Site restaurant in Talloires on the Annecy Lake

Sunday, 31 July 2016

But you are in France, Madame - Half price on Kindle !

HALF PRICE SUMMER SALE

Great holiday reading for those who are in France, travelling to France or just dreaming of France.

Hop on over to Amazon to secure your copy of But you are in France, Madame.

And then - Let me know what you think (cb222@me.com).

 I'd love to hear from you.


Print versions available here

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

To fill the corner




I am not loyal to any particular radio station. I flick and change at an unkind pace, determined by both ad placement and genre of music, usually with my most-obliging son in the back seat of the car saying little, but occasionally letting me know that "I like this piece" or that "the trumpets are pretty cool", which are amongst his euphemisms for, 'please stop being button happy and give this one a go'. Friday mornings are different. I look forward to radio station Triple J's 'Like a Version'... one band's artistic take on another band's song.

I try and favour Triple J for other reasons, too. They give the small-timers and the not-yet-known the opportunity to be discovered, or at least have their several minutes of fame. The band that caught my attention recently was no longer in that category. They had already had significant success and were combining their 'Version' performance with an announcement of their upcoming tour dates. But, it wasn't so much the song that they played that had me entranced, although I enjoyed that, too, it was what they said about their journey.

Like many bands, they had started doing small gigs - pubs mainly, if they could get them. Single-minded in their pursuit of glory they, nonetheless, set themselves smaller goals on the path to international fame and big concert hall billings. The first of which was 'to fill the corner'... the corner pub that is, with patrons.



Last night, I was invited to speak at a book club. It was my first such invitation and I was delighted. Most of the ladies present had read my book, copies of which were scattered around the coffee table. That made me happy, but it was at the end of the night when one of the attendees asked if we could stay in touch, and presented me with her phone so that I could write in my telephone number, that I had my first, 'I'm on my way to filling the corner' moment. She had already entered my name and, in the space for occupation, she had written 'author'. Me, she was meaning me. Most writers will confirm that being such is a hard slog, filled with self-doubt and financial dependence, but in that moment I did not mind that my total income for most weeks from book sales is less than my 16 yo makes in a night of work. Ok, honestly, in an hour.

PS Thanks to Rusty Marmot for the photos





Thursday, 21 July 2016

Talloires from the inside out

I invite you back to Talloires.


Earlier this week, I proudly showed off our village, one of the jewels of the Annecy Lake.

Today, I take you to Le Cormoran, our beautiful 4-bedroom 18th Century village house, situated close to all the action - boulangerie, poste, tabac, cafés, restaurants, cinéma, supérette ... and a short walk to the lake. Take a look, or visit our holiday rental site click here then contact me on cb222@me.com if I can help you to plan your next skiing, cycling or just-being-in-the-French-Alps holiday.

 


 









 Le Cormoran