The world’s grumpiest hitchhiker

Learning how to speak French can be challenging, especially for those who move to France knowing only croissantun, deux, trois, and merci, like me. Everyone has their own methods to improve their language skills, and mine began with driving. I started with the number plate game (before the departmental numbers got smaller on the new number plates). Then, I started reading aloud the departmental numbers on the number plates, and soon enough, ridiculously long numbers such as quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (99) were rolling off my tongue.

Hitchhiking in the French AlpsOnce I’d perfected numbers, I moved on to hitchhikers. The lack of regular public transport around in the Alps means that people hitch between villages often. Even Candide Thovex picks up hitchhikers, so who am I to drive past someone in need of a lift? Besides, hitchhikers are a captive audience, making them excellent victims to practice dodgy French skills on. Most hitchhikers are happy to get to their destination without having to wait any longer by the side of the road, even if it means being polite and patient with the driver massacring the French language.

I’ve learnt loads of small talk from hitchhikers. I’ve chatted about the common stuff like “Vous habitez ici?” (“You live here?”) right through to cultural conversations comparing France with Australia. I hope most hitchhikers have enjoyed the exchanges, even if some cringed as soon as they heard my accent. As my French has improved, I’ve used hitchhikers less for language practice, but I still pick them up out of habit and kindness, especially in bad weather.

Last night, I picked up the grumpiest hitchhiker I’ve ever met. He needed to get to Le Grand Bornand, where I was headed, so he jumped in. I broke the silence by asking in French if he lived there. He grunted like some teenage angsty boy despite being older than that. I tried again, asking if he found it quiet between seasons. Another grunt. I added that in summer, it’s lovely and he didn’t even bother grunting. I was glad Le Grand Bornand was just a few kilometres from where I’d picked him up. I contemplated stopping the car and telling him to get out, but we were already at the village entrance. When I parked in town, I sang a purposely cheerful “voila” but he was already half out the door. I followed up with a melodic “au revoir” (“see you again”) and he grunted one more time.

I wanted to shout after him: “You rude s**t. I hope a tyre splashes mud up you next time, you ungrateful w**ker. Screw the ‘au revoir’ — unless you’re standing near some mud.” The words just weren’t there in French, which means either I need to continue learning French with hitchhikers, or I need to learn to shrug it off with a good old French “bof“.

Bof.

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Le Petit Journal

yann

Back before cable TV stations, France had the usual satellite stations which offered evening shows with audiences. You know the sort, where French people clap (to the wrong beat – this drives me nuts) to familiar songs between segments, laugh at pre-rehearsed jokes and watch slapstick humour. The audience for some reason always sits behind the presenters and the guests.

One day, a new TV station called Canal+ came with its own decoder box so that only subscribers could watch. They left some shows unscrambled in an attempt to gain more subscribers, and it no doubt worked.

Le Petit Journal French TV show on Canal+Today, Canal+ still has segments left unscrambled, and one of those segments in Le Petit Journal. It’s my favourite French TV show. I’m a little bit in love with the twinkling eyes and cheeky smile of presenter Yann Barthès, but I’m more in love with his sharp wit and the show’s modern approach.

Rather than interview aged popstars about their new cookbook, this show has its eye on current affairs, such as the US elections, the Brexit (candidly interviewing Boris Johnson on a train last night, asking him what he thinks of European Parliament president Martin Schulz, who was of course in the studio watching and listening), providing a French perspective with an injection of humour.

Le Petit Journal looks at France with equally sharp eyes. When French prime minister Manual Valls talked about being zen, there was an entire segment showing how unzen he can really be (fast forward to about 50 seconds in):

This is a show that makes learning about French culture a real pleasure. It’s entertaining, thought provoking and educational all at the same time, and even if I don’t understand every word, it’s certainly improved both my French and my awareness of French culture.

Le Petit Journal French television emissionIt’s not all positive though. There’s still a section of Le Petit Journal where French men dress up as women and pretend to be all girly in the office (why can’t they just get women to act as women and kill the cliché stereotypes for an even stronger segment?), and there are still aspects that shock me, like an illustration of a woman’s wide open legs morphing into a cat’s head. Bizarre, ‘arty’ and apparently entirely appropriate for an 8.30pm audience.

Despite those pitfalls, I love this show, so I’m sad to hear rumours that the new head of Canal+, Vincent Bolloré, is thinking of canning Le Petit Journal because it’s too expensive. There aren’t any further details at the moment, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the rumours never become reality.

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Finding vegetarian food in a French supermarket

Vegetarian food in French supermarket

Vegetarian food in French supermarket

Being a vegetarian in France is getting easier, with more products appearing on the shelves each month (and some disappearing, unfortunately). Supermarkets are finally jumping on the bandwagon, with many producing their own range of veggie options.

At Intermarché supermarket, they’re already stocking meat-free products right next to some of the meatiest items possible. Here we have boudin noir (black pudding) right next to the vegetarian patties, because every vegetarian wants to check out the blood-filled sausage before grabbing their box of meat-free joy.

I’m still waiting for Quorn products to appear in my closest Carrefour — something that was meant to happen last year. Apparently, they too are to be stocked in the ‘fresh meat’ section of the supermarket. Yep, that’s correct: vegetarian meat alternatives are going to be stocked next to the meaty items, presumably because people are still hanging out in the meat section trying to figure out exactly how they can cook a meal without meat for that one annoying dinner guest who has jumped on this nouveau meat-free bandwagon. To find vegetarian products in a French supermarket, simply look for meat! France still has some way to go in understanding vegetarianism, it seems. Heaven help the vegans.

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French-style doggy bags – yum yum!

Lately, doggy bags have made French news. There’s a push to prevent food wastage, and to allow people to take the rest of their meals home with them. Restaurants in France are now legally obliged to provide doggy bags.

When I first moved to France, I confused a few waiters by asking for a doggy bag. Taking food out of the restaurant is simply not the done thing here in the French Alps, nor in most other parts of France. When I lived in the UK and Australia, a doggy bag was part of the restaurant experience. For example, I’d order a pizza, but only eat half of it so I’d have room for dessert. The next day, I’d get to enjoy the remainder of my pizza. It was a socially acceptable thing to do.

Here in France, when I asked for the remainder of my pizza to be boxed up in one of those takeaway boxes on the counter, the waiter thought I was crazy. He obliged, but my French dinner partner was beyond embarrassed. The idea in France seems to be to spend hours in a restaurant, eating, talking and drinking, until each course is finished and being digested to the point that the next course may begin. After that first encounter, I’ve opted to eat my pizza and skip dessert — my digestion apparently takes longer than most French people

French style doggy bagRegardless of the new law, I think the real French opinion is captured in the doggy bags already on sale in the supermarket. They’re certainly destined to take something away, but nothing edible. Yes, here in France, the ‘doggy bag’ is used to clean up your dog’s poo. Bon appetit!

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Rate your bread

French bread © LeFrancoPhoney La Cluasz

French bread © LeFrancoPhoney La CluaszAn a country that can talk for hours about bread, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that you can rate your local bakery on a dedicated website, allobaguette.

It’s a given that a baguette is croustillant here in France. If there’s no crunch when you bite into it, it’s simply not a baguette (and I have the scars to prove it). But there’s so much more to French bread.

Baguette quality is influenced by ingredients, cooking temperature, loaf size and the cutting technique for those crusty ridges. But the broader spectrum of bakery goods is also an excellent topic for discussion in France, especially inside bakeries, where customers seem intent on discovering exactly what type of flour is used in a Campagnarde or just how many people that brioche will feed for breakfast. So it makes sense that allobaguette exists. Rate baguettes, loaves, snacks or anything else on offer at your local bakery.

The website made French TV news this week as it now offers an online ordering service. Yep, you can order your baguettes online! You will still need to go to the bakery to pick up your bread, so you’re really only saving payment time (which you’ve already lost in logging into the website). The lady on TV seemed very happy to be able to walk into her local bakery and be handed her baguettes. She made it look so simple.

I decided to try ordering online, but I soon hit a hurdle. I couldn’t find any bakeries in my area that had registered with the site (although they were all listed). I did find a registered bakery in Dunkurque!

Allo Baguette website for online bread orders

I couldn’t find anything about ordering online at that bakery, so I decided to register with the site in case it helped. Far from straightforward, the site first told me I had previously registered, then it couldn’t find my details. Eventually, I registered, but finding a bakery that takes online payments remained a mystery: logging in made no difference.

At least the lady on TV is enjoying her online bakery payments, but it looks like I’ll be handing over my cash in person for now — and tuning in to the flour discussions of the customers in front. C’est la vie français, non?

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Mundolingua language museum in Paris

mundolingua-poster

mundolingua-posterI stumbled across a poster for the Mundolingua museum of languages during a busy long weekend in Paris. Given my love of language and Scrabble, this looked like my type of museum. Miraculously, I saw the poster during my only few spare hours in Paris, and it was just a few streets away. I had to go.

What a place! My French travel partner and I were warmly greeted with a melange of French and English. After some guidance on how to make the most of our visit in our preferred language, we started with a game on the top floor. It was interactive, with a touch screen and earphones, and lots of fun.

In fact, the entire museum is an experience for the senses, with sounds, visuals and plenty of items to touch. The most reluctant of visitors will find something interesting here.

My travel partner shrugged at the giant language tree above our heads while I gasped in happiness. He went ahead to ogle at the Enigma machine, a device embraced for military communication in Germany during World War 2.

Enigma machine at Mundolingua ParisWhile the Enigma machine kept him busy, I sat down to read about the braille machine — something that has always fascinated me. There were loose sheets of paper by the machine and a large board showing the braille code for the alphabet. Was it really okay to test out the machine? At this museum, yes it is. I typed my name in braille, which was more challenging than I’d expected. I could have spent all afternoon on that machine, but there was a lot more to see.

Needing a break, my travel partner relaxed on the couch with a coffee while I got busy on the giant Scrabble carpet. We didn’t have enough time for a full game, so I used the tiles to reflect my feelings.

There were plenty of interesting information points (some with topics I covered during my linguistics studies at university, but presented in a more accessible manner) such as slang, proverbs from around the world, and the history of personal names.

With no time to look at the Rosetta stone, to learn how polygraph lie detectors work or to delve into the library of language books, we thanked the staff and left. I’m already planning a longer visit during my next stay in Paris!

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When and how to kiss in France

haute-savoie-kiss-stats

Living in France means getting your kiss on, and it’s something that’s never bothered me. In fact, as someone who shuns hugging, the cheek kiss is perfect: less overall physical contact, and no awkward moment trying to figure out when to pull away.

It’s a great way to meet new people too because, at a small gathering for example, friends of friends must greet everyone and not just their friends. There’s no sideways looks from others trying to figure out if they know that person who just arrived, and no need to try to break into a group’s circle if you just to find some conversation. Instead, a quick bonsoir and some kisses on cheeks upon arrival break the ice. Personally, I find it much easier to spark up a conversation with someone I’ve already acknowledged, whether I’ve met them before or not. But not everyone feels the same about the bisous. Things can get complicated in social situations, as Paul’s (slightly aggressive!) video below shows:

As Paul points out, one of the challenges is knowing how many kisses are required and which cheek to start on. Different areas of France have different rules, and if you go for the wrong cheek, the kiss could get more intimate. Not to worry — a new French website, combiendebises.com, is here to help. People can vote for the number of kisses typical in their department, along with which cheek to start on. Some departments, such as Vosges (88), know what they’re doing: 96% of voters say there are 2 kisses, and 75% start on the right cheek.

Here in Haute Savoie (74), things are a bit more confusing. Two or three bises? Left or right cheek? The uncertainty is all part of the fun! Over the border in Geneva, the standard is three kisses, and that’s probably influenced the Haute Savoie results.

French depardtments and kissing

As confusing as it is here in Haute Savoie, it gets even more confusing with other non-French people. Do you embrace the French way of greeting friends and faire les bises (while saying “Hi” in English), or do you keep your distance and wait to see if they approach? If they’re a close friend with the same cultural background as you, do you go right in for a hug? Probably best off doing what Paul says and pretending to be sick to avoid the whole thing.

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French fireman calendars

pompier-calendar1

You no doubt heard about the racy French pompiers calendar released near the end of 2015. If not, you can sample it in the video below.

Saint Jean de Sixt fireman calendarHere in Saint Jean de Sixt, our local fire brigade did their annual door knock to sell (through donations) their calendar last week. Were they inspired by that other calendar everyone’s been raving about? Err, not quite. Here’s a red Ferrari, which is pretty much as racy as the calendar gets. Is it to be used as some sort of fire truck? Does a fireman own it? Was it a gift from Italy? Who knows: there’s no further information.

There are photos of the various teams, and I was able to spot our cabinet maker in among the retired firemen (yes, they’re in there too, which is nice). No naked chests or thighs in black and white, but plenty of grey (hair). And then, bizarrely, September comes along with this photo of a car accident.

Saint Jean de Sixt fireman calendar

Okay, it’s not in festive December at least, but I’m glad my birthday isn’t in September. What a downer. I doubled my donation this year in the hope they hire a photographer with some new ideas next year. Or a gym membership. I don’t mind.

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No, these sweets aren’t a joke!

Stopping in for lunch on the way back to Haute Savoie a few weeks ago, I spotted these haute gourmandise sweets for sale. The boxed version on the right is the most bizarre packaging I’ve seen so far in France, with a baby in a basket alongside two busty women sharing the lap of an old man, while a white horse looks on in some weird sitting position.

French sweets - Coucougnettes - which is slang for testicles

The sweets inside are known as Coucougnettes, and once you understand the meaning, things start to fall in place (oh, did I actually write that?). Coucougnettes is slang for testicles. You can buy small pink, soft(ish) sweets which roughly translate to ‘balls’, ‘nuts’ etc.

The wench/horse/baby scene makes a little more sense, but I really can’t imagine giving this box as a gift to anyone. (Ding-dong): “Here, I brought you some knackers and I hope you find them tasty. Plus, you can keep this gorgeous commemorative box!” Okay, I probably wouldn’t buy the sweets as a gift either! You can see the box has “French Lover” written along one of its black edges. Presumably, they’re aiming for an international market, and thankfully, they didn’t translate the name of the sweets. This makes a change from past dodgy English marketing in France, such as the touted “100% balls” savoury product, Ball in Box, or the rather adult lyrics for a Kinder Bueno advert, featuring a little boy and a grown woman.

Inside a French Coucougnette (bollocks) bonbonMy gut instinct was to take a photo rather than buy them, and now I regret it. These French sweets sound quite tasty: each one is made with a roasted almond coated in dark chocolate, then marzipan and brandy, and finally, dipped in raspberry juice — probably to give it that realistic tone. And since I used their photo, I probably should link to the site where you can buy these ‘treats’ if you want to try them for yourself (without the box). Are you tempted?

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Back to the Future – French style

French television - Back to the Future

backtothefuture2What a week! In case you were hiding under a rock, we hit the date programmed into the Delorean in the film ‘Back to the Future Part 2′!

Television stations around the world played the film last night to happy audiences reliving a moment of eighties nostalgia. They probably laughed at the self-tightening shoelaces and shook their heads in the knowledge that we still don’t have a hoverboard, but none of that happened here in France. No.

No. While I read my friends’ social media updates about settling down for the evening to watch Marty McFly and all the fun about to happen in an alternate 2015, I flicked from channel to channel trying to find the film. I remembered it being advertised last week when Back to the Future Part 1 was being shown.

Mais non! I’m in France — the country where you’re  expected to turn up for dinner at a friend’s place at least two hours late; the country where is just now starting to introduce Sunday shopping in some districts of Paris to appease the tourists (err, yes, Paris, the worlds most popular tourist destination); the country that does slow food even at fast food restaurants (honestly, how can it take that long to stick some fries in a bag?).

No, Back to the Future Part 2 is due on the small screens around the country tonight. That’s a day late:

French television - Back to the Future

Yes Doc, that’s right. While the rest of the world was watching you, France was still waiting for le futur.

There’s a reason for this, which a French friend explained to me today. New films are released at the cinema on Wednesdays, so to ensure a good turn-out, French public TV doesn’t air films. Private station Canal+ was taken to court over their airing of films on Wednesday nights, but they argued that they’re a private company who should be able to compete with other private companies, including paid-for movie channels without the Wednesday restriction. They won, by the way. A few public channels now seem to air films, but the majority do not.

Tonight, I’ll be curling up on the couch watching Marty McFly travel to the future of yesterday. It would have been more fun last night.

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