Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Towards the title


A few things have brought a smile to my face recently.... I reached 100 K views on my Google plus page, there was a slowing down in the number of Instagram followers who were deserting me each day (my daughter keeps telling me to stop taking social media so personally), the banner and publicity material that I had ordered for my market stall arrived and looked, to me anyway, beautiful and exactly as I had hoped, the flyer for my book talk at the library was finalised, and the attendees for the talk itself ran to a waiting list with a full-house on the day. But, nothing compared to having 'But you are in France, Madame' placed on the shelves of a proper bookstore.

I'll be lucky to pocket a couple of dollars per book sold, so the thrill came not from the expectation of financial gain. It came from a sense of validation. The book industry is a tough industry to enter, understand and stand out in and the last three years (two for the writing and one since pushing the button on 'publish') have been hard, filled with self-doubt and disillusionment. I needed this small something to help keep me going.



For those who do not know my family's story, I began writing 'But you are in France, Madame' several months after arriving back in Australia after 3 1/2 years of living in the French Alps. The first few months for the family (years for me) were difficult. I talked a lot, in those early days, about what we had experienced in France. Eventually, talking was not enough and I started to write. Admittedly, I had no certainty of ever finishing something as enormous and unknown as a book and even less of publishing it. I wish I had known how things would turn out as I would have enjoyed the process so much more. Throughout the two years that I was writing, a long list of magnificent book titles presented themselves to me, revealed their unsuitability in the days that followed and were swiftly relegated.

You don't eat sushi outside Paris came, went, came back and stuck and was the title that I eventually used to submit my book to a selection of Australian publishing houses. It was a throw-away line from one of our French friends. We had met in Australia but caught up with him and his family in Italy, in the beautiful city of Florence at the end of our first year abroad. It was a joy to see them and to re-live the time that had passed since both families had undertaken their latest adventures. Affected by the difficulties that were stymying our transition to successful French living, we nonetheless tried to conversationally minimise our deceptions. Our host was not to be fooled. "You don't eat sushi outside Paris", he answered. This was his way of reassuring us and acknowledging that there were indeed rules to be followed but that it was particularly difficult to follow them if you didn't know that they even existed.

I see now that this first title was too obscure plus I didn't hear back from the publishers, so went back to work re-drafting the entire manuscript, including the title.

I loved my next attempt and even had a cover made up for Five go to France (see above). I don't have short hair and my husband is not blond, but the illustrator somehow captured a little of the personalities of the three children in her drawing, despite me giving her only the title and not much else to go on. Potential copyright issues from the publishers of Enid Blyton, whose books I loved as a child, made me pull the rug on that title too.

The story behind the next and final title But you are in France, Madame is one that I have recounted before. It was the conclusion to an actual conversation that I had and a subtle reminder of the existence of a special French something that we were learning to live and appreciate. It felt right, especially when coupled with the photo taken by my husband of our son, running through the streets of Noyers-sur-Serein on one of our family holidays.

My French friends, on the other hand, they smile and nod their heads when they first see the book in print. They require no further explanation of the title.



Thursday, 10 November 2016

Escape to France



I am sharing with you today the latest press release for my book 'But you are in France, Madame' and in my next blog, I will be reflecting on a few personal milestones that I have passed since pressing the 'publish button' one year ago.

PS If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the book, there is a clickable link to the right of this blog page which will take you to the purchasing options. Thanks, as always, for your interest.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Planning our year in France


We have been back living in Australia for a few years. Whilst, in a practical sense, we feel less present than when we were living in France, we are still very much attached. Physically, we have our French village house, which is also our business as it is rented out for holiday lets; emotionally we have our friends, our photos and our memories. 

At various points around our current house we are reminded of our French story. Above my desk is a large canvas photo of the view up to the castle that we had from our balcony and an old postcard holder in our living room makes an excellent display for our French photos. Even curled, I still love stopping, flicking through a packet of images and reminiscing. 

Plus, we have our hopes and plans for the future.

An old postcard holder is an excellent way to display our thousands of photos from France
Strangely, I don't recall the exact moment that we decided to uproot us all and try living on the other side of the world, knowing no-one and only one and a half of us knowing the language (my son was only six...he's the half). But, I still remember quite distinctly the moment that we set our sights on living in Annecy.

Up until that day, we had done a lot of talking, hours of Internet searching and written many long lists of things to do and to decide. We knew by then that we wanted to be close to an international airport, not too isolated but not in a big city, be in an area where we could truly integrate with French speakers and preferably where skiing was an option.




It was mid-afternoon and we were on holidays in Adelaide. The fact that we were on holidays is probably significant as it meant that my husband and I were actually together at that time of day. He had packed a Lonely Planet Guide to France and was flicking through it. The book opened to Annecy and he started reading, he then looked up at me and asked if I knew of the town. Hmmm, did having a page of the Year 7 text book that I used to teach French, dedicated to the beautifully clean Annecy Lake, count?

Finding schools and accommodation seemed to be the most urgent tasks and we had several false starts before we came across a school in Annecy that had both a primary and secondary section, and was able to accept all three of our children. One thing organised and still so much to do. From one day to the next, I declared to a girlfriend that I had come to an important, perhaps surprising, decision - that I was pulling the plug on our year away. Packing up our house, organising our extraction from our entire Australian lives (think insurances, subscriptions, schools, work, clubs...), balancing our finances to be able to go for such a long time, being so far away and intimidated by doing everything in French, even the task of buying light enough suitcases to give us more flexibility with our flight weight allowance, was huge. If I then added to that the bureaucratic expectations of living in France, the difficulties I was having finding suitable accomodation, working out the best way to transfer money (the exchange rate was at a 10-year low) in addition to school runs, normal household chores, birthday parties, confirmations, health checks...it was just overwhelming.

The next afternoon I went and bought our airline tickets.

But, in reality, Annecy was a gamble. I had heard good things about it, that was all.

Last weekend, I wrote an introduction to a book that I was preparing.

C’est le plus bel endroit du monde.” (Winston Churchill)

Churchill was not the only one to think this way. We first stopped to explore the village of Talloires on the Annecy Lake a couple of weeks after our arrival in France. It was an overcast day and the lake’s blue shades, about which Mark Twain had written so beautifully, had been replaced by reflective hues of cloud grey. The mountains were slightly obscured and the streets were empty. A photo of me strolling along Rue André Theuriet that day turned out to be strangely portentous. There, in the background, long before thoughts of purchasing or living permanently in France had entered our heads, was our house; the one that we ended up buying many years later.

Our initial infatuation, over the years, turned into a constant love affair. Living there, we had experienced highs and lows, some predictable and some not-so, but it was the feeling that we got, the lurch in the pit of the stomach, the fleeting reflections that lingered, the sounds, fragrances and beauty that kept on floating by well after our return to Australia that convinced us that we, like Churchill, like Mark Twain, Cézanne, Gide, President Nixon and Napoleon 3, to name just a few, had found a special place in Talloires.


Then at the end of an hour you come to Annecy … which breaks the heart in your bosom, it is so beautiful.” (Mark Twain)

I am sure that we could have found other places in France that would have suited us just as well as Annecy. But, to feel so deeply we had to go and let go in the first place.

Linking this post to AllAboutFrance Number 26




Wednesday, 21 September 2016

One holiday ... 8 or 9 ski stations ?


It is rather presumptuous of me to be posting about skiing. Summer has only just been declared 'over' for another year and, even though the first flocons de neige have made their appearance on mountain summits, causing lake-level murmurings of joy and shivers of anticipation, it will still be a while before the majority of us get to boot up, jacket on and take off. *

In a blog long, long ago I wrote about skiing: my experiences as an adult novice, my clothing challenges and the up-and-down relationship that I have with the overall experience. I am a summer girl who has lived most of her life through mild winters and exceptionally hot summers. The cold takes some management. In this same article, I also wrote about my first trip to the snow with my, then very young, children. My overall recollection is that it was harrowing. The temperature was partly to blame, but the chair-lifts were the stuff of nightmares, very sore arm muscles and a guilty conscience for days thereafter, as I relived the possibility of my small offspring slipping out of my embrace and plunging into the void below.

I was intrigued, therefore, to read this morning in an article about the best ski stations in France that children in classes run by the ESF (Ecole du Ski Français) now wear magnetised vests. I don't know how wide-spread this practice is, but the safety aim is clear. The claim that they self-release at the top puts my active imagination back into over-drive.

Aside this little vestimentary addition, the article attempted to categorise the stations and came up with an impressive list: Best for beginners, best for intermediate, best for advanced, most reliable snow, most charm and romance, best for partying, best for families, best for snowboarders, best value and best for weekends. Naturally, all up for debate.

From home in Talloires, we can be on the slopes of La Clusaz within forty minutes. We know it well and would agree with its inclusion in many of the categories. Because of its proximity to an international airport, it made it onto the 'Best for weekends' list (Australian readers, sorry! Article aimed at European travellers). If you add in Manigod, Le Grand Bornand and St Jean de Sixt, a single Aravis lift pass gives you access to a respectable 220 km of slopes. More than enough to keep most of us busy for a weekend.


What if you like to ski and you have the luxury of time? La Clusaz is still an excellent possibility, but might I suggest that staying somewhere off the mountain might be an inspired idea? For one, you have the luxury of choice. Why not wake up each morning and choose a ski station depending on the best weather report? We have eight or nine that we would happily go to just for the day. Secondly, if there are members of your party who like skiing but do not want to ski every day, holidaying off the mountain gives them the possibility of many more non-snow-related activities (art galleries, museums, shopping, cinemas, walking tours...). Thirdly, even staying on the slopes will not guarantee that you won't have a decent hike to the lifts each morning. It is true that off the mountain you will have to commit to a drive each day, but for most of the season, we could drive nearly all the way to the lift office, park, dress and purchase our ticket within a few easy steps of the car.  Finally, consider the cost. I know for myself that if I stayed on the slopes, I would buy a use-at-all-time pass, which would have the added pressure of making me feel that I needed to ski constantly to make the most of it. Add to that, the very high cost of winter rental, restaurants and services on the slopes and you have another good reason to stay further afield.


I know that this will not be a good solution for everyone, but we have had several sets of guests stay with us throughout the winter months, some of whom had previously been convinced that there was no other way to holiday in the snow than to stay up high at a single station, but whom, by the end, even after discounting the attraction of our free accommodation, were more than happy with the options that a non-ski-resort stay offered.


*The use of all of these prepositions was for all my English-as-a-second-language French friends who have told me how much they love these pesky little add-on prepositions! (see below ... and for the full article click here)
  • Tickets are available from the box office.
  • Not enough data is available to scientists.
  • No figures are available for the number of goods sold.
  • There are plenty of jobs available in the area.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

it's all in a name


A few years ago, soon after the New Year, I received news that my girlfriend had given birth to her fourth child in Florence. We met in Melbourne, she is French, had her first child in America, second in France, third in Melbourne (named Victoria) and fourth in Florence. And no, it wasn’t a little baby Florence, it was a Nouvel An..toine...nice play on words, thanks to Antoine’s talented multi-lingual father.

It is all in a name. We named our daughter 'Molly', for no other reason than we liked the name. We followed this with May, after my maternal grandmother. Prior to her birth, my husband and I debated the fact that due to her surname also beginning with 'M', this would give her a triple M set of initials. We also reflected momentarily, when we scrutinised our choice for embarrassing pronunciations, innuendos and acronyms and realised that with both names meaning Mary in different countries, we were effectively naming her Mary, Mary... Still, this was not enough to put us off our original choices.

In France, having a second name is rare, although a double-barrelled first name is quite common (think Jean-Phillipe, Jean-Paul, Marie-Claire, Anne-Laure...). All of my children have a middle name and when I filled in forms for them in France, I usually went for broke and included them all. As a result, when she started at collège, Molly was down on all the class lists as Molly May. She was initially amused, then mildly taken-aback, but quickly adopted the two-name first name as a badge of honour. She has many of the same characteristics as my grandmother: adventurous, people-oriented, sporty and affable and is delighted that it pleases my mother, May’s daughter, enormously, to have her remembered.

Molly’s Principal contacted me in the first week of her starting at her new school to request permission for her to join a special English class for students of an English-speaking background. Really? I was flabbergasted that such an option would be considered, as my older daughter’s experience, admittedly in a different collège, had been initially to ask her not to waste her time attending English classes and in the following year picking fault with her…English. Of course, I responded affirmatively to the Principal, checking nonetheless what she would be doing in her couple of now-spare periods. She would be required to attend ‘étude’ also known as ‘permanence,’ which were supervised study classes.


I was happy with this option thinking that it might give her more time to grapple with her other subjects in her second language. A small group of ‘surveillants’ supervised these sessions. Most were young and they often did not stay for long at the school as they were filling in time earning a bit of money whilst they were studying or waiting to start studying. Molly, despite being garrulous and outgoing, enjoyed these silent sessions and had a favourite amongst the supervisors. He was a young guy, named Teddy, and in a not-too-subtle mocking of the utility of his own schoolboy English, he took to greeting her with a ‘Molly May, how are you today? Where is my umbrella?’ all said in a thick French accent and with a big smile. Something about that French charm, but we all found this quite irresistible.

My handwriting is not the best. It never has been good; after all I did not go through primary school in France where the emphasis on perfect formation of tiny linked letters begins in the first year of school. My ‘v’ and ‘u’ in particular get confused often but when joining a new skiing group, Molly’s name had been written ‘Mohly’ on the lists. Naturally enough, and probably quite appropriately, I was blamed, as I had filled out the enrolment forms. The positive outcome was that the confusion led to a conversation between my daughter and her instructor about the origin of the name, her background and nationality, so the ice was broken and a relationship established.

My older daughter brought a form down to the kitchen for me to sign. With three children, it was a fairly constant stream of paperasserie (paper work), so often I graced each document with a fairly cursory glance and a rapid signature. However, every signature had to be preceded with the words 'lu et approuvé' or at least the place in which you were doing the signing and the date. The date, I understood, but the place? Did it really matter if I said that I was in Paris or Sydney when putting pen to paper? In any case, on this occasion, I had barely got through three letters of our village name, when over my shoulder were flung the words, ‘could you please write neatly this time’ and then moving closer to watch me, ‘honestly didn’t you learn to write at school?’ And it wasn’t even Mary Mary (and you know how that rhyme continued) who was speaking.



Thursday, 8 September 2016

Seven years ago today or Ode to a sister



Seven years ago today, we left Australia, headed for France. Nostalgic at the best of times, I have been counting down to this departure for days now. I know exactly what I was doing at this time of the afternoon (it is around 3pm as I'm writing), can see the dark clouds overhead and hear the rather violent rainstorm that rushed us through our good-byes at the girls' school gate, know exactly what jumper and jeans I was wearing, can sense the darkness of our late night departure for the airport, well up at the thought of the tears that we shed once there and feel the weight of the extreme tiredness that overcame me whilst waiting to board our aircraft. But, there is one image that is stronger than all the others.

I have to set the scene. Australians, you see, and Melburnians in particular, play football. Not soccer, football. I'm no expert, but let me paint a little picture for you. This sport, peculiar to Aussies, captivates a large percentage of the population every Saturday through the cooler months, draws large crowds at internationally recognised sporting venues (such as the Melbourne and Sydney Cricket Grounds) and is the stuff of dreams for many a young boy (we've still a long way to go before girls will have the same opportunities). Australian Rules Football is played with a ball more oval than round, any part of the body can touch the ball without penalty, players run with, mark, torpedo, pass and kick said ball, and aim to score by getting the ball through the posts at the end of a very large field holding 18 players per side. Of the four goal posts, two are big and two are little and if you get the ball through the two big in the middle of the four, you score six points, and if you put it through the big and a little, only one point ... but I digress.

Players are heroes and are indulgently revered by fans of the sport. This adoration extends to the release each season of player swap cards, purchased in packs, bought, filed and swapped, as necessary, in order to get a full complement of favourite players or team. Unfortunately for our children, my husband prefers cycling and rock-climbing and me, well, I am a girl and I play tennis and hockey, I swim and run and could not tell you which teams are winning and losing, what the player gossip is or how many games are left in the season at any given time.

Back then, Aussie Rules didn't feature much in our home conversations ... until my middle daughter, unrelated to any love of football, set herself a personal challenge, to be the one to acquire the most 'footy' cards in her class. I'm still not quite sure how she did this as she got no pocket money and we certainly weren't buying them for her. Her interest sparked my son's. He was a lot less successful, but completely influenceable, so became a keen supporter of his adored older cousin's team. As a result, his on-board bag (and remember, we had only one suitcase per person for our entire year away) contained an Essendon scarf, pencil case and pen that played the club song (of some interest to the airport security guards). It also contained his stash of footy cards, which that very day had been added to.

It is this image, of my just-turned-six son, with his red-and-black supporter scarf draped around his neck and nearly trailing to the ground, wearing his heavy airplane clothes (so that we could fit more in our hold luggage), leaving my sister's side and running up the footpath in front of her home to greet me, that springs to mind. Smiling and agitating his unopened packet of footy cards in my direction, her gift to him, the huge bandage on his head stood out white and bright in the gloomy afternoon light, and I winced as he stumbled and nearly fell. I looked behind him to my sister and through tears managed a barely audible 'thank-you'.




This was the sister who had put up the five of us pre-departure, had seen her house disappear under a pile of all of the things from our house that we did not know what to do with or did not have the time to take to storage, who had shopped for us, cooked for us, looked after our children as the need arose, listened as we went over and over our 'we're off to France' questions, searching for answers, planned our last special dinner together and then stopped us falling apart as this dinner turned into an unplanned dash to emergency after my son's head split open like a dropped watermelon when he collided with the sharp edge of her kitchen's wooden doorframe.

It is all so clear. Time hasn't blurred the memories, lessened the sentiments or made me want to be doing anything other than setting off again into the unknown with my young family by my side.


If you are interested in reading more of our story, please click here.


Monday, 5 September 2016

"Boy those French! They have a different word for everything." (Steve Martin)


Responding to my last post, where I mentioned my love of reading in French, Ellen (A tiny house in Normandy) suggested that I might take this a bit further for anyone keen to do the same thing. Back living in Sydney, now, and without the full breadth of the French libraries, bookstores, supermarkets and vide-greniers that I have previously had at my disposal, my own reading choices are not really choices at all. I don't discriminate and happily take whatever is rotated through our one French shelf at the local library, be it fiction or non-fiction: biography, reference book, children's story, mystery etc.

Let me preface this post by pointing out that I have been studying the French language since the age of 12 (so a while!). Initially, it was probably the academic nature of the subject that drew me in: the deciphering, code breaking and working out how to put parts together to make a whole. Perhaps, not surprisingly, I was also fascinated by Maths and Music, with similar challenges. From the very beginning, the sounds of the French language were interesting, sometimes difficult, immensely pleasing to try and reproduce, but I'm not sure that communication was what motivated me. After all, I had never left Australia and the world was not connected like it is today.

A year after reading my first "Bonjour! Ca va?" scripted text book dialogues, my sisters and I accompanied my parents to Scotland for my father's sabbatical year at Edinburgh University. Squashed four abreast in the back seat of the family car, we subsequently travelled the continent in our mid-year break, and things started to really change. I encountered languages, food and customs that were unfamiliar to me and, even though we did not visit France on that trip, when a new school year recommenced, my desire to be able to communicate in a different language had been well and truly ignited. My older sister tells me that I used to refuse to speak with her if she didn't try and speak French with me. I'm sure that she is exaggerating, but what a pain I must have been if she's right! (NDLR No need to agree!)

Naturally enough, the resources at my disposition back then were extremely limited. I didn't have podcasts, 24-hour news services, Youtube and song clips with convenient translations to refine my aural skills, French speakers were thin on the ground in suburban Adelaide and the terraced houses of Morningside, and written material was confined to the inked sheets that my French teachers printed off for us and dusty editions of Hugo, Voltaire, Flaubert, Zola, Camus... when I hit University later on.

Today, what a different world.

What has not changed, though, is that learning requires commitment, patience, hard work, practice and determination. If you think that you will just pick things up by being exposed to the language, everyday or on the odd occasion, you will probably be disappointed.

But, let's go back to reading:



  • Read everything that you can lay your hands on...bus tickets, concert programs, flyers, advertisements, invitations, bills, Facebook posts...
  • When you read these familiar documents you know roughly what should be where, but pay attention and look up anything (vocab, verb conjugation, tense) that is unfamiliar to you. Keep a notebook on you or use the Notes function on your phone to record new words that interest you or that you want to look up later.
  • Even as an adult, children's books are for you. Imagiers or Baby books with single words and pictures, hardcover books with one or two sentences and bright, simple pictures, familiar stories from your childhood (see Peter Pan and Le Club des Cinq (Famous Five) below). Read them aloud, read them often and if you have children, read them to your children.
  • When you are cooking, look up your recipes on the Internet or spoil yourself with a print edition (see Mon cours de cuisine below).
  • Subscribe to a French magazine for children. A brand new magazine is a treat to receive in the post every month or so. Select according to your level of language. Cultural affairs are much more accessible initially in this format than in a daily newspaper.
  • Just as it is for young learners, it is easier to persist with something that interests you (see below Insectes, L'Australie, Dinosaures)
  • After the heavily illustrated books, progress to children's novels and young adult fiction (see below Sheltie et le poney abandonné and Poisson d'Avril).
  • Familiar mysteries and crime stories (such as the John Le Carré novel below).
  • Best-sellers such as Harry Potter and Dan Brown's Da Vinci code
  • Historical fiction (such as Régine Deforges, an interesting French author whose erotica writing was ahead of her times, but who is equally as well known for her trilogy, which begins with La bicyclette bleue and starts in 1939 in WW2 France.)
  • For easy romances and quick reads take your time browsing and selecting from the Pocket Books  selection.
  • Try simpler classics such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince
  • Get a news feed from France Info to your phone, consult it without moderation and keep abreast of the news of the world at the same time as working on your French.
  • Consult the books and ebooks at Decitrefnac and make your choice.
  • Finally, read as often as you can and enjoy!

 

                


Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments box below.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Book Obsessed guest post


A very short blog today to share the link to Book Obsessed and thank Cécile for accepting me to guest blog on her site.

Cecile works as an English-French translator but also manages this lovely site featuring author guest posts and book reviews. Do take a look.


Tuesday, 30 August 2016

19ième Montée de La Tournette


Leaving at 7.30 am from the Talloires Port this Sun 4th September, if you are brave enough!

At 2351 m, La Tournette is the highest of the mountains around Lake Annecy. Many choose to drive to the Chalet de l'Aulp and complete the track to the top on foot (count on 3 hours). It is a strenuous enough walk, requiring the use of chains and ladders in the more difficult sections. Bravo, therefore, to all those who add speed and competition to the mix!

If spectating is more your thing, the celebratory buffet lunch will begin around 13h in Talloires... never an event without food and drink in this part of the world.






Kindle Summer Sale of Catherine's book ends tomorrow

Kindle Summer Sale ends tomorrow.
Here is the link that you need.
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01BN54FXS#nav-subnav
A very big thank-you to everyone who has supported me with a purchase.


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