Discovering the gems of France

Photo of the Musique En Stock festival in Cluses

The river running through Cluses town centre
French sushi options
French Indian English translation about food quality

Despite living in France for years, I’m amazed at how much there is left to discover right on my doorstep. The perfect example is the Musiques En Stock festival in Cluses. I only found out about the festival when a friend mentioned he was looking forward to seeing Australian band John Butler Trio.

Cluses is a town about forty minutes from La Clusaz. It’s not a tiny place, but it’s far smaller than Annecy. That makes a freebie, ecologically-minded festival even more surprising — especially one that draws acts such as Midlake, The Veils and Nada Surf. With the view of the rugged mountains near Mont Blanc and a mineral-rich river flowing nearby, the festival offered easy access by train, bus and car pooling/parking, two stages; festival memorabilia, food stands, other stalls, and a kids’ entertainment area almost as big as the rest of the festival.

As a music lover, I should have already known about this festival. How have I missed it? France is full of surprising events and landmarks that are simply overlooked I guess.

Although the food was limited to about 10 stands, it was great to see sushi and Indian food amongst the more traditional French options. Both have been adapted to French tastes, with the sushi stand offering banana and Nutella maki and Spéculos (a French cinnamon biscuit) maki for dessert.

Meanwhile, the Indian stand offered entirely vegetarian food! It’s hard to find a restaurant around these parts that offers decent spicy food, and this one was not apologetic about the lack of spices. Quite the opposite: the stand advertised “best qwality” (sic) food with “no piquant” (spices) that would leave a “good feeling inside”. I can confirm that both the food and the music festival left me with a good feeling inside (and spices were available separately). Bring on next year!

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Surely this is like selling fridges to Eskimos

Blue cheese in France

Photo of blue cheese in FranceFrench cheese is loved throughout the world for its high quality and taste. It seems the stinkier the better, and the farms around here in La Clusaz are testament to just how stinky cheese caves can be. When my friends and family ask me to bring cheese to them, Roquefort blue cheese is up there with the most requested varieties. On top of that, no French cheese platter would be complete without a wedge of Roquefort.

You can imagine my surprise when, last week, I spotted these British blue cheeses in a French supermarket. Sacré cœur! There’s been an influx of cheddar varieties, but I never expected to see a blue cheese other than Roquefort on French supermarket shelves. It turns out that the Claxstone Smooth Blue is a pretty popular cheese too, winning the Supreme Champion award at last year’s Nantwich international cheese awards.

But will the French buy it?

My first thoughts were that they wouldn’t, because it would be like Brits buying a Cheddar-like cheese made in France. Surely this is like selling fridges to Eskimos! Then I remembered just how hungry the French are for cheese. If anyone can judge the quality of a cheese, it’s your average French person. While I’m still struggling to figure out which way I’m meant to cut that first piece of cheese on the platter and whether it’s one that should have the crust removed, my French friends have usually sampled all the cheeses and are onto round two. If it’s not already clear, I’m as sophisticated as a Mini Babybel when it comes to cheese. What do I know?

Do you think the French will embrace it?

 

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No, France, you cannot claim Tim Tams!

Photo of Tim Tams on the French regional products shelfWalking through the supermarket the other day, I was surprised to see the tasty Australian Tim Tam biscuit placed right next to a “Regional Products” banner. The Tim Tam biscuit has been hanging around in French supermarkets for a while now, and their shift from the “world products” aisle to the biscuit aisle was already quite a jump. Their new location has now had the local banner of approval added, so locals will take notice. This is great advertising for the biscuity goodness, and it will save me from my duty as an Australian to explain to anyone standing next to them in the biscuit aisle that they’re the best biscuit ever and they won’t regret buying them. I’m not kidding about that, by the way: I have hassled more than one French person into agreeing to purchase the imported biscuit. However, let me be clear here, Carrefour: Tim Tams are not from Haute Savoie.

 

Monoprix claim Tim Tams as FrenchMeanwhile, posh French supermarket Monoprix has gone a step further, claiming Tim Tams as a product of France. Look, France, you have the monopoly on crepes, croissants, champagne and cheese, and they’re just your famous products beginning with the letter “C”. You cannot claim the Tim Tam. This piece of heaven is definitely Australian. It’s flattering that French supermarkets think so highly of a biscuit from a country which really has no claim on any original food (we could talk about the origins of pavlova all day long, and although cheesy bready dip is a taste sensation with a typically descriptive Aussie name, it’s not even that well known in Australia for us to properly claim it). Flattery gets you lots of places, France, but not when it comes to Tim Tams.

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How to survive Morocco

Moroccon Berber hard selling

Moroccan Berber doing the hard sellI’m back from a two-week trip to Morocco, with stays in Casablanca, Fez, the desert, the mountains, movie sets and more. Morocco is now independent of France, but the French influence is obvious throughout.

Even with this influence, the Moroccon culture is like no other I’ve experienced. The people are mostly friendly, happy and willing to help tourists find their destination if they look lost. The kids returning from school on main roads with no footpaths wave at the passing cars, waiting for a wave back. Haggling can take some getting used to, and as I mentioned last year after my first trip to Morocco, you can start looking like a fool if you go overboard.

One less appealing aspect of Moroccan culture is the hassling. Opening phrases prior to the “come into my shop/pay me” line included:

  • “I like your necklace/earrings/sunglasses.”
  • “Quickly, we close for prayers soon; here, let me show you around.”
  • “You have Moroccan blood, I can tell.”
  • “Where are you from? Oh, ‘(insert TV show phrase they’ve learnt from someone else of your nationality)’.”
  • “Just look in my shop for the pleasure of your eyes.”
  • “Just look in my spice shop/restaurant for the pleasure of your nose.” (Really!)

Despite the “friendly” hard sell, lots of people were genuinely happy just to say hello and chat. Being welcomed to Morocco by strangers in the street was heart warming, and their words were the reason why I tried to smile and keep cool each time someone approached: they weren’t all trying to sell something

The funniest hassle was on a windy mountain pass with stunning views. A man dressed as a local Berber asked one of my friends for painkillers, and my friend wanted to help. He opened his suitcase and started looking. With the rest of us keen to take shelter from the wind, I gave the man the painkillers in my handbag and the man insisted on giving my friend’s ‘wife’ (me) a gift for my kindness. The gift was, of course, no gift at all. The painkiller request was a ploy to get us into his shop, and the offer of a gift quickly turned into him hassling us to buy something. I eventually escaped, with my ‘husband’ telling me in a comically dramatic voice to get out while I could. He was stuck in the shop, and I ran back to the car, where the rest of our group had already taken shelter with the windows up to stop the sellers at the window. It was like we were in some zombie horror film: “Wind the windows up before they get in!”. Our friend eventually escaped, but only after buying two rocks.

 

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Accidentally visiting a dog museum

St Bernard museum in MartignyYou might remember the fluffy St Bernard puppies and dogs I visited a few weekends ago at the Barry Foundation. A friend with a dog as big as a St Bernard had heard about the open day and was armed with a map and directions. We jumped in her car (with her dog taking up most of the space), and we headed through Chamonix and into Switzerland. On the outskirts of Martigny, I realised I hadn’t read her printed directions to get us to the foundation. “No worries,” I said. “I’ve passed the place recently and I remember how to get there.”

Sure enough, I navigated us to the building with a big St Bernard on the side, and there was a festival going on all around.  Most people seemed to be dressed as ancient Romans, and that didn’t put us off. We parked the car, but we really should have noticed that we were in the wrong place. Apart from the jousting Romans eating medieval soup and hanging out in an actual Roman ruin next to the St Bernard building, there were other signs that we chose to ignore:

  1. a private function in the St Bernard restaurant, blocking the public from entering;
  2. a 10€ fee to enter the museum during an open day; and,
  3. not that many people around apart from the frolicking Romans.

My friend stayed outside as her dog wasn’t allowed in the museum, and I went in to check it out. Inside was a plethora of St Bernard mementos, pictured, plus the history of the dog in French only. There were some cheesy films involving avalanches and people miraculously surviving them with just a few centimetres of snow on them. Beethoven the film was also looping in the TV corner, dubbed into French with English subtitles.

There were some dogs out the back who were caged like zoo animals and who looked bored on their concrete floors, despite the plentiful toys and the company of other dogs.

Luckily, we stumbled across a tourist information office on our way out of town and discovered the real Barry Foundation address, where we continued the St Bernard ogling for the rest of the afternoon.

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How to get a Samsung phone fixed in France

One of the problems with buying a phone on a British website and receiving it from a German address is knowing who to contact when it breaks. My Samsung phone broke under warranty, so I want to a phone shop in Annecy to ask what the best course of action would be. The Phone House didn’t sell me the phone in the first place, so I was honest, explaining my situation and asking the shop assistant, as someone in the phone industry, what my best course of action would be. I asked if he knew of anywhere I could take it in Annecy to be repaired under warranty. He shrugged and wasn’t all that helpful in his response, saying it would probably need to be sent back to Germany and that he wasn’t prepared to help me. He ended the conversation with my French friend, preferring to make eye contact with him whenever he replied to one of my questions. That sinking feeling of language rejection crept in. I hadn’t expected his help in fixing the phone, but the attitude was all too familiar: talk to the French person because the foreigner won’t understand.

Broken Samsung phoneOutside the shop, I remembered a phone repair/sales shop in Annecy that had unlocked a phone I had inherited from Australia. The service had been friendly and fast so I walked back to ask how much they would charge to fix the phone, regardless of warranty. The guy at Magic Phone walked me through the non-warranty, paid options with a smile, and he was patient with my accent, holding my eye contact throughout our conversation. He then added that there’s a Samsung service centre just a five-minute walk away. That’s a service centre for Samsung and other major models of phones that repairs phones under warranty. The man at The Phone House must have known about the place. If not, he really should have.

Five minutes later, I was handing over my phone for a freebie repair job. Five days later, it was back in my hands and working correctly, and it only took that long because they had to trace the warranty back to Germany. My trusty, tiny mobile is currently working hard for me in the desert villages of Morocco! If your phone breaks in France, don’t give up too quickly: the solutions are out there.

 

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Visiting the original St Bernard dogs

stbernardpupwalk

St Bernard dog attached to trailer
Did you know that Saint Bernard dogs were originally called Barry dogs? I learnt this when I visited the Barry Foundation in Martigny, Switzerland last weekend. The foundation was only set up in 2005 to continue breeding dogs like the legendary dog called Barry, who lived at the Great Saint Bernard Pass from 1800 to 1812 and saved more than 40 people’s lives as they crossed the difficult terrain. The dogs come in both the fluffy variety that we know from films like ‘Beethoven’, and also in a more labrador-like short-hair variety.

St Bernard certified puppies!The foundation is literally the breeding ground for St Bernard dogs, and their goal is to protect, support and preserve the breed. Last weekend was their open day, and it meant lots of dog patting, and watching various shows where the dogs were trained to do tricks. One dog stripped her trainer of her shoes AND socks, unzipped her jacket and removed that, and even took off her belt. The crowd predictably yelled out for it not to stop there, but it did. There was also a lot of hearts melting at the site of the puppy fluff balls romping around in their play pen.

St Bernard puppyFor anyone who would like to visit the dogs but can’t make an open day, you can also visit the dogs in their original place of existing — the Great Saint Bernard Pass. There was no mention of the saint himself, but you may remember that he came from just down the road here in France, leaving his family who lived in the Menthon Saint Bernard castle the night before his wedding (with folklore saying he jumped from a window that was built centuries later) to aid pilgrims crossing the pass from Italy to Switzerland. The first doggy aid didn’t arrive until the late 17th Century, and it took more than another century for the St Bernard dog breed to be officially registered. His name was not Barry, but Léon. As for the original Barry, he spent the last few years of his life convalescing in Bern before popping his clogs in 1814. You can visit him at Switzerland’s natural history museum, where he’s been stuffed, restored and restuffed as required.

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Start gardening (wait…)…NOW

French calendar of saints.I’ve been introduced to this helpful French proverb, in poem format:

11, 12, 13 mai : Les Saints de Glace
Les trois saints au sang de navet,
Pancrace, Mamert, et Servais
Sont bien nommés les saints de glace,
Mamert, Servais et Pancrace.

…which translates to:

11, 12, 13 May: The Ice Saints
The three saints with blood from a turnip,
Pankration, Mamertus and Servais
They’re well named the ice saints,
Mamert, Servais and Pankration.

French calendar of saints - close-up.You might now be wondering how that’s a helpful proverb. There’s an old calendar, with each day named after a different saint throughout the year. These three saints span from the 11th to the 13th of May. They represent the last of the cold weather, so that vegetables can be planted after these three days in May without frost attacking them. I haven’t checked in past years, but this year, the prediction was spot on. The weather was cold on all three days, and snow fell all the way down to 900 metres on the 13th.

Today isn’t much warmer, but the overnight temperature isn’t expected to drop to just 1°C like it did last night. So, gardeners in France, get planting from today because the cold weather has officially finished.

If you’d like to find out more, the calendar thumbnail above links to the full-size saints calendar, and the lower image links to the Wikipedia page for weather saints. Happy gardening!

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The importance of French pronunciation

Photo of Pantoufle the French deaf cat. Copyright Le Francophoney.French can be a tricky language when it comes to pronunciation. For mysterious reasons, the basic rule is that the last letter of a word isn’t pronounced. For example, ‘un croissant‘ is pronounced without the ‘t’. However, if it’s made plural with an ‘s’ (‘deux croissants‘), neither the ‘t’ nor the ‘s’ are pronounced. Trying to conjugate verbs for the first time without the guidance of a French speaker is inviting disaster! Pantoufle the cat, pictured, proved just how important pronunciation is last week, but I’ll get to that later.

Pronunciation is sometimes very important to get right. For example, the difference between puppy and poo is just one letter which appears in both the written forms (‘chiot’ vs ‘chiotte’). Verbalise that ‘t’ and you’re saying ‘oh what a cute shit!’ to that person walking their puppy.

Another common mispronunciation is ‘gare‘ (train station) and ‘guerre‘ (war). I’ve confused more than one French person by asking where the war is. ‘Gare‘ is pronounced more like ‘gar’. This isn’t to be confused with ‘gars‘ (a guy), which doesn’t have the same rolling ‘r’ that ‘gare‘ has.

Hear the words for yourself!


Listen to ‘chiot, chiotte, gars, gare, guerre, sourd, saoul‘ pronounced by a French man.

Just last week, I created a really awkward moment when a man walked past and pointed out my cat to his young daughter. I tried to say she’s deaf (‘sourd‘ — the ‘d’ is not pronounced) but instead I said she’s drunk (‘saoul‘). My Australian brain can’t differentiate between the two, and had no idea why the man went quiet. I added that she can’t hear a thing and he gasped in relief: “Ah, sourd“. Yeah, that’s what I said, didn’t I? Nope.

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Juggling personal life, leisure and work

Airport carpet copyright Le Franco Phoney - blog in France
Apologies for the gap between blog entries: it’s been a busy few weeks since returning from Australia. I’ve been trying to define exactly where ‘home’ is. When you’re travelling, you’re away from home, but what if your destination becomes home?

Coming ‘home’ to La Clusaz just a week before the lifts closed meant I wanted to spend the whole week skiing. But what about work? Mine is pretty flexible, but I still needed to catch up. The pressure was on to ski and work, yet I was happy just to enjoy home domesticity.

Being able to prioritise and compromise is important during long-term travel, but when does long-term travel become ‘home’. Is it the familiarity with a place? The habits that build up over time? Who you share your home with? It’s no doubt different for each person, and I still prefer to think of my French home as a base for travelling around the Northern hemisphere. Australia will always have my heart. And so, the juggling continues. Next trip: Moroccan dessert!

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Website for vegetarians and vegans in France