Can you pick the edible mushroom?


French mushroom show at Le Grand Bornand, France
Le Grand Bornand recently hosted a mushroom show. There were mushrooms all over the place, including the two pictured above. The toxic varieties often look ridiculously similar to the edible ones. In the photo above, the mushrooms on the left are edible. The ones on the right are not. To an untrained eye, the only difference was a slight difference in colour, and if the two varieties hadn’t been side by side, I would have found it impossible to distinguish the two. These two aren’t even in the same family of mushrooms (see the number in the top left corner of the cards: if they match, they’re the same family). This is the primary reason I’ve never picked mushrooms here in the French Alps!

Each mushroom had a card next to it, showing its name, its family and whether or not it’s edible. There was an indexing area where each mushroom type had its own card, stored in alphabetic order. Something else shown on the photo above is a number in the top right corner of each card. The toxic mushroom on the right has the number 3,573. This is part of a mushroom index of more than 5,000 mushroom types. Away from the tables of mushrooms was another area where visitors could to look up any of the carefully-maintained (and often hand-written) cards, in alphabetic order, for details of any mushroom type.

Mushroom aficionados were on hand to answer any questions about mushroom types, but they’re obviously not always on your doorstep after you’ve collected wild mushrooms that may or may not be edible. Not to worry: in France, you can take forest mushrooms into your local pharmacy and ask them for advice. Pharmacists in France are trained to identify mushroom types. However, some pharmacists may have forgotten over the years, especially if they work in urban areas where their customers don’t go mushrooming.

Meanwhile, here in the Alps, the mushroom varieties are abundant. Below is just one of the tables showing a couple of mushroom families. The pharmacists here probably know their stuff, but I think I’ll stick to buying the ones at the market all the same.


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French sign about eating garlic

As if the French needed any encouragement, this roadside sign says ‘Mangez de l’ail‘ (‘Eat garlic’). Fortunately, the rolling fields of garlic had no discernible scent when I drove through the region recently. I was avoiding the heavy traffic on the autoroute at the time, opting instead for a longer way around on the back roads in the hope they’d be tractor free.  The plants made my route more pleasant because the views weren’t hampered by these low-growing crops.

It turns out I was very close to one of the many self-proclaimed garlic capitals of France — a little village called Piolenc, near Orange in Provence. The village hosts a garlic festival during the last weekend of August, and I’m sad to say I missed it by just a few weekends.

However, the road itself was a mini-fete, with a few other signs like this one promoting garlic. A tractor held us up at one point, but we made the most of it: my French travel partner read out the phrases on each road sign in the  slowest, most stoic voice possible, like an order given by a magistrate. The seriousness in his voice about eating garlic was comical, and it lightened our mood unexpectedly, regardless of tractor traffic. Apparently, you don’t even need to mangez the garlic to get some positive benefits!


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Groupon ‘deal’ of the month!


Hello! It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me for a mishmash of reasons which I won’t bore you with. Instead, let’s head right into the action. I discovered that Groupon is in France. I don’t know how long Groupon has been here, but I signed up right away and the daily inbox clutter began. For more than a month, the following offer kept appearing:

Glamping in France - French camp sites and accommodationSo, for the bargain price of 119€, I can hang out in a giant plastic tent that looks like it offers very little privacy with its see-through structure, and probably heats up like an ant under a magnifying glass (especially after this summer’s heatwave in France).

With all that sun streaming through, guests must be up with the sparrows. As the dome heats up, throwing off the bed linen and sprawling naked on the hot bed probably isn’t the best option — just in case someone happens to wander on past.

At night, is there a door to close or can any old animal wander in and gnaw at your feet? Is there a chance waking up with a goat on the bed? As an Australian, I have to wonder about spiders and snakes. And don’t even get me started on mosquito bites in a country that doesn’t embrace fly screens.

And what if it rains? Does water seep in underneath? Is the sound of the rain so loud that earplugs are required? Are umbrellas and boots supplied to help guests get to the shower (wherever it is) before taking a nature shower in the rain? As well as an umbrella and boots, is a torch supplied to get to the toilet during the night? I’m guessing that there are no lamps to light the way because they’d light up the dome at night too. Or maybe eye masks and earplugs are part of the deal — like sleeping on a long-haul flight.

All in all, this ‘holiday’ is my nightmare. You’d have to pay me that 119€ to spend a night in there!

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A straightforward French government website!


French logo on French websitesIf you’ve ever tried to look up information such as how to get married in France, buy a car in France or register for work in France, you’re probably familiar with the pointlessness of many French websites.

For starters, you’ll probably need a good grasp on French, with very few sites offering alternative language options. You’ll also need to have a high level of patience to navigate the sites which are typically over complicated and confusing. For example, one of the associations I have to be member of in order to pay my taxes wrote a letter telling me to go to their website and click on the link that says “My payments” (in French). The site had no link. After scouring the options for a good ten minutes, I found the link — with a totally different name — that took me to my previous payments. Well, it would have, except the site had no record of any of my payments, making the entire thing a waste of time.

This is typical in France. Don’t expect to find any equivalent to those British ‘Plain English Campaign’-inspired government websites. No. Expect opening hours that aren’t updated regularly and confusing, ambiguous text for even native French speakers.

With this in mind, I was amused when my friend Chris got in touch to say:

With the exception of the [French] website below, I’ve yet to find one that is intuitive. Even French friends struggle with French websites. They are pig to work with, especially government websites, even when they are in English, like the Australian French consulate website, which refers to other pages when you want more information and eventually lead back to the page you started on. Our friend recently tried just to find the opening hours of the Grenoble Prefecture and continually went around in circles.

Anyway, this French government website is in six languages and exceptionally easy to navigate. What is it you ask? The website for paying speeding fines online!!!

(Chris, I hope you don’t mind me quoting so much of your email. I couldn’t have said it better myself!)

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Free entertainment galore in France


La Clusaz magic festival entertainment July 2015Summer is in full swing here in France, and even in the Alps, the temperatures are unusually warm. Everyone has been enjoying the warm weather — whole businesses, in fact.

Last week, I tried calling a doctor, an accountant and a dentist, and all three were on holiday (the doc has a replacement). It’s my fault: I hadn’t noticed that school holidays had started, which is also when France all but closes down. Even in touristy areas such as Annecy and Thônes, where the three businesses I called are located, many businesses close their doors and take holidays. The trend is so popular that there’s even a name for the big return at the end of the school holidays — ‘la rentrée‘ (the return).

Although it’s frustrating for me with my sensitive tooth (and probably for the replacement doctor stuck at work), there’s one big benefit: free entertainment! There’s something free going on most days either in La Clusaz or Annecy or somewhere nearby. I’ve never lived anywhere else that provides so many freebies! Since the start of June, I’ve seen:

  • Suzanne Vega and other famous acts for free in Cluses;
  • a colour festival in Annecy;
  • fireworks in St Jean de Sixt, La Clusaz and Thônes;
    • The Minions 2 open air cinema outdoors during the Annecy Animation Festival;
  • wandering entertainment in La Clusaz (pictured);
  • live music in St Jean de Sixt;
  • wandering brass band in Thônes;
  • drumming and acrobatics in St Jean de Sixt; and
  • an hour-long show involving a crane and a giant man-made squid (see video, below).

There’s so much free entertainment here that I’ve stopped seeking it out. When I move back to Australia one day, I’m sure I’ll miss these freebies, but at least I’ll be able to visit my dentist during summer.

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Can I sleep at your place?


Antoine de Maximy in North AmericaAntoine de Maximy is a name you’ve probably never heard of. He’s a French man who has travelled the world in an interesting and brave way. With cameras all around him recording his journeys, he asks random people if he can sleep at their place. It sounds mundane but it’s some of the most interesting television I’ve ever watched. He builds connections with the most unlikely of people. Through Antoine’s camera lens, the rest of us get to experience the everyday highs and lows of people from all warps of life.

His full-length film about crossing the US in 2008 aired on French TV this week. I was hooked throughout. The unexpected generosity of strangers and the moments of sadness and reflection were remarkable, and Antoine’s choice of questions sometimes lead to the oddest of situations. “Does you wife wear stockings?” he asked a stranger in his French accent. The stranger nodded and agreed to get him a pair! He hadn’t yet explained that he needed them because his car’s fan belt had broken.

Hearing him struggle to understand ‘Trick or treat’ reminded me of so many similar French language moments for me — that awkward moment when you’ve already asked the speaker to repeat a phrase too many times, but you still don’t understand what’s going on. Seeing him apply his French “why not?”, chilled attitude (like driving right up to George Clooney’s front door just because the gate was open) reminded me of one of the aspects of French culture that I love.

Best of all, it’s on YouTube! If you have time to watch, please do (email subscribers will need to click through to to view):

Antoine has visited many countries, so if you’re wondering how he’d get on in your own country, click around on YouTube and you’ll probably find he’s already been there.

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Bastille Day celebrations or lynch mob?


Driving home from Annecy on Saturday night, I stumbled across a fete in Thônes. It was an early Bastille Day celebration and I was lucky enough to get there at just the right time for the march through town. The brass band started playing and the only lighting was via sticks on fire. I took a video (email subscribers will need to click through to to see the video).

French firemen during 14 July celebrationsWhat you don’t see very clearly on the video is the first lot of marchers without instruments. They’re sapeurs – the firemen who carry axes and wear big, thick, white gloves and everything-proof vinyl aprons. They kind of look like butchers before the blood has stained their uniform. The addition of the axes adds a different dimension altogether. I was unable to capture any decent photos on my phone camera after dark, so I found this photo (with thanks to someone called kaiserdog, who took the photo). These are some of the local Thônes sapeurs.

Maybe you had to be there, but following the parade through town, with men with axes and blood-proof aprons marching to sombre music and others carrying flames, made me feel like I was part of a lynch mob. It just felt weird. A big crowd followed the marching band around town and we ended up almost back where we started before some impressive fireworks took over from band and relieved me of the awkward lynch mob feelings.

The party continued for hours after, and everyone in Thônes was happy to celebrate Bastille Day a few days early. I did it all again last night, with fireworks and a band playing in Saint Jean de Sixt. The big celebrations will hit Annecy tonight, and locals from St Jean and Thônes will no doubt attend. Why celebrate a national day once when you can celebrate it three times?

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French word of the month: canicule


Anyone living in France at the moment will have heard the word ‘canicule‘ numerous times. Everyone is talking about the canicule – the heatwave that hit Europe last week. French TV stations are playing community service announcements about how to survive, and shutters on houses are closed to try to keep the heat out.

To Australians, the high thirties is typical summer weather. We’re used to heatwaves and I remember being bemused when a news item came on the TV in Melbourne during the nineties about the London Zoo sprinkling the animals with water because the weather had reached a balmy 30°C.

Heatwave temperatures in France 2015What I didn’t realise back then is just how different 30°C in Europe is to 30°C in Melbourne. Here in the Alps, like most of France, houses have been built to keep heat in. Once they warm up, they stay warm. On top of that, fewer homes and shops have air conditioning. During a quick visit to a clothes shop on the weekend, I overheard people saying it was too hot to try anything on. The shop had no air conditioning and lots of spotlights, creating even more heat. The staff were sweating and so were the few brave customers.

Australians can escape the heat in pools or by the seaside. Our largest cities are coastal for a reason! Some even have sea breezes late in the day. Local pools are numerous and massive in size compared with the what’s available in France. Although Lake Annecy is just down the road from here, many French citizens have to travel some distance to find a pool, a beach or a lake to cool down in. Sea breezes are limited to those lucky enough to live near a coast. Here in the mountains, there’s been no escape from the heat: overnight temperatures have finally dropped below 20° after some very warm nights last week (and remember, the houses here are built to stay warm during freezing temperatures – even warmer during hot days and nights).

With fewer places for people to cool down, all this fuss about the heatwave really isn’t that surprising. What is surprising is seeing people walking around in jeans and boots! Maybe they’re acclimatising their bodies to the heightened indoor temperatures awaiting them at home.

Heatwave brochure in France 2015

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How sport is done in the French Alps


There’s no shortage of sporting challenges in the French Alps. There’s the standard snow-related sports in winter, and cycling and running in summer, but some other sports that aren’t quite so obvious. Let’s start with Le Grand Bornand, where families can enjoy air rifles!

Air guns in Le Grand Bornand

The description in English starts off well enough:

Discover biathlon, shooting on 10 metres away target with air rifles.

Then it gets weird.

Funny activity for family. It allows you to improve your concentration and your way to handle stress.

Right, so it’s a funny activity and a great way to handle stress. I’m not convinced handing a gun to a stressed person is the best way for them to handle stress. It might be a stress release, but handling the cause of the stress might be better than handling a gun (especially if the cause of the stress is standing nearby).

Differents (sic) options possible: 1 hour shooting initiation…family pack…team building challenges.

Team building? Wow! Let’s hope there’s no-one in that team who holds a grudge and is looking for stress relief, eh?

Meanwhile, Morzine is hosting some sort of the Alpine version of beach volleyball. It’s strip beach volleyball! Here’s what they say about it:

Every time a point is lost, participants have to take off a piece of fancy-dress or wacky clothing provided by the organisers.

Family-friendly strip volley ball in MorzineWacky indeed. Best of all, this activity has Famille Plus status. This is a French tourism accreditation for entertainment for families with children. Yes, bring your kids so they can watch grown-ups strip!

Back to serious sports. Le Bélier is a proper endurance race. It involves running up and down a number of peaks in La Clusaz, with some parts of the trial barely wide enough for faster runners to pass  slower ones. The locals take it seriously. Well, most of them do. Local cross-country World Cup champion, Vincent Vittoz, who has also won Le Bélier before, is probably so fit that he doesn’t need to take it seriously. So, he dressed up as a local Reblochon cheese this year to promote a different competitive angle, as seen in this YouTube video:

Basically, people from the Reblochon cheese-producing region in the Alps (from these parts) are going to run against other cheese-producing regions during Le Bélier. In the video, Vincent is the local cheese and the hero. Cheesy (pun intended) and not of the highest production standards, the video shows both the competitive side of the locals here, as well as the humour, which is always somehow related to local produce or specialties. For example, Candide Thovex (fake-)jumped a cow (and another cow took her revenge). Even the cows have a sense of humour here. You kind of have to when you’re dodging air rifle bullets, burning your eyes on beach volleyball strippers, and being chased by men dressed as cheese.

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“I’m just popping over to Italy”


Lake Maggiore islands. Copyright Le Franco Phoney
When I was growing up in Australia, I was impressed whenever someone said they were “going overseas”. Indeed, the only way to leave the country is to fly over seas (and usually oceans too). Other countries are a long way away.

Years after moving to France, it’s still a novelty to me to be able to switch countries without getting on a plane. And I’m not the only one. When family visited from Australia last month, they were keen to visit Lake Como in Italy. We left the morning after they finished a quick European cruise. One of them remarked how in 24 hours, they had been in the Netherlands, Switzerland, France and now Italy. Four countries in such a short time, and three of them by car! We were all impressed.

Despite bordering France, Italy retains its own strong identity, and we embraced the plentiful food, the friendly hospitality and the laid-back lifestyle. Before reaching Lake Como, we stayed around Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano. I found myself comparing them to Lake Annecy, where people were already swimming and enjoying a variety of sports on the water. Yet on these three lakes, there were nothing but boats. Maybe the Italians like to wait for the water to warm up, or perhaps I now take Lake Annecy for granted.

Of the three lakes, Lake Maggiore won my heart. We did the touristy thing of visiting the islands on the lake. Arriving four hours after leaving France, we ate lunch before buying our tickets and discovered we’d run out of time to visit all three islands. No problem – the two we visited were small and near each other, giving us a relaxing afternoon of eating gelati, meandering around the shops and enjoying the views from garden benches.

Sant Anna church and surrounds. Copyright Le Franco PhoneyIn the evening, we were lucky enough to reserve a table at the Risorante Grotto Sant Anna, right behind the old church and bridge. Intimate, relaxed, delicious, picturesque and welcoming, this restaurant was the perfect place to spend a warm Italian night, dining al fresco. The church in front of the restaurant overlooks a pretty watering spot where a mountain river expands and slows down on its way to Lake Maggiore, and this is a perfect place for a pre- or post-meal walk.

Moving on to the next two lakes was enjoyable, but Como lacked the natural beauty that we found around Lake Maggiore, like the rock formations under the Ponte dei Salti in Verzasca (at the Swiss end of the lake). Again, we were tourists, detouring past George Clooney’s place (sparking a round of “Is that it?” “Maybe it’s this one.” “Oh, I reckon it’s there with the security cameras.”), then opting to use the ferries to get to the main tourist villages and enjoying lunch with the sounds of the water lapping just a few metres from our table. It wasn’t a bad experience. It just wasn’t Lake Maggiore.

After a quick stop in Milan on our final day, we were home in time for dinner. Lake Annecy still tops all three lakes in my proud residential opinion, but being able to drive between countries is still the best of all.


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France Vegatarian - website for vegetarians and vegans in France

Website for vegetarians and vegans in France