“I’m just popping over to Italy”

sant-anna-connobio

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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Unsafe road safety in France

roadsigns

Roadsigns in France, copyright Le Franco PhoneyJust in case it wasn’t obvious that there’s some roadwork going on, here’s some overkill.

This cluster of road signs is right here in Saint Jean de Sixt. It starts with a roadworks sign, then a ‘circulation alternée‘ (changed traffic circulation) sign, followed by a sign to give way according to the traffic lights ahead, then a no overtaking sign, then a speed limit of 50 (which is the impossible speed limit on this windy back road anyway).

And if all those signs don’t take your concentration away from the road long enough to cause an accident, that A4 piece of paper might.

The traffic lights are typical of French roadwork. Oddly, the green light is never activated. You stop on red and you go when the orange starts flashing. This rightly confuses foreign tourists, who, waiting for a green light, don’t know whether to go or not until impatient locals overtake them. It’s not really a problem because anyone left in the queue when the light turns red again simply drives on regardless. The queue stops again when the next confused tourist pulls up.

The locals have it right: ignore all the road signs to improve road safety!

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The best way to visit Versailles Palace

versailles-chateau

versailles-chateau

Summer is coming and that means tourists are already flocking  to the Chateau de Versailles on the outskirts of Paris. Getting there is easy once you’ve boarded the right train, but the place itself is so big that further transport is available once you’ve made it there. Here are my top tips for spending a day at Versailles.

1. Do your research before visiting Versailles

Make sure you check the palace’s ticket website to see a full list of ticket options, as there are plenty of options. There are also maps and information on each of the options. Know what you want to see before you go so you don’t waste time deciding once you get there.

2. Go early

You can book pre-book tickets online but if you aim to get to the palace early, you can beat the queues regardless of whether you’ve pre-booked or not.

3. Prepare for crowds

The palace rooms are extensive, and you could spend hours observing the interiors and listening in on the passing tour guides telling interesting stories to their tour groups. Information boards provide basic information and audio guides are available, so a guided tour isn’t a must (but a nice bonus). Many of the rooms get crowded quickly, so prepare to be pushed by impatient people trying to get through the slow traffic. Don’t stress — it’s part of the Versailles experience.

4. Know your Versailles Palace garden transport options

versailles-statueThe Versailles gardens are vast. Save your energy for the visits and walk in the gardens at the end of the day if you’re not too tired. The mini train is cheap and provides a regular service between all four stops. However, that queue that looks short will take a long time to get through. If you don’t mind paying a bit extra, walk past the train and rent your own electric vehicle instead. You can also hire bikes from the North end of the Grand Canal (along with row boats, which won’t get you far), or do a guided Segway tour, which starts at the South end of the Grand Canal. Some of these options aren’t well advertised within the gardens. If you hire a bike, you will have to leave them at the entrance to the Trianon area and go in on foot.

5. Check lunch options before you go

Eating options are spread out and the prices aren’t always competitive. There are a few restaurants and lots of snack bars which you can see on the interactive map. With some distance between options, it’s worth knowing the location of places before you go, so you don’t spend half the day finding a place everyone is happy with.  A tasty alternative is a picnic, presuming there’s someone in your group who doesn’t mind carrying around a backpack of food. Grab a baguette, some cheese and anything else you like and stop for a coffee later on when your legs have stopped working from all that walking.

6. Don’t miss the last train back

The gardens at the palace are extensive, and the walk back to the train station will be significantly longer if you miss the last mini train back to the palace. Make sure you’re not left stranded by checking out the timetable before you go!

7. Don’t drink the water.

versailles-fishDead fish ahoy!

Do not drink the water from the ponds. I don’t know what’s in there, but the sign confirmed what the dead fish indicated when I visited a few years ago: the water is nasty. Stay away from it.

This was definitely the low point of the visit. It would have been lower had I taken a dip in the water, presumably.

8. Read even more tips

The Chateau de Versailles official website contains an abundance of useful tips right from the horse’s mouth. Spend ten minutes and save time, confusion, stress and money during your visit.

9. Visit Versailles for free!

Like a huge number of museums and monuments all over France, Versailles Palace is open for free on the first Sunday of each month from November to March. Some of those days are likely to be uncrowded too! Check the website’s peak day planner to avoid the crowds no matter what day or month you go.

10. What’s yours?

I’m sure some of my readers have some great tips to share too! Feel free to add them in the comments below.

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No, this really is a new French product

ball_in_box

Does anyone sound more attractive than a French person talking about something they love? Take food, for example. Dine with a group of French people and you can be entertained for an entire evening just by listening to those smooth accents discussing whether that tarte tartin was properly caramelised or whether the pastry was overcooked. The conversation really can last all night.

In more private settings away from the dinner table, pillow talk in French is the stuff movies are made of. We love the French! We adore their language, we love their food, and we want to hear them whisper sweet nothings in our ears when the lights go down.

French food product called Ball in Box.So how on earth does a product called “Ball In Box” ever get launched? Here it is, pictured. Ball. In. Box. Apologies if it’s just me, but a delightfully tasty chicken dumpling isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when I read these words. Were they trying to mix the dinner talk with the pillow talk?

In a world where the internet is making everything accessible and where the French are so worried about the intrusion of English words in the French language that they created a board of “immortals” to invent new French words to match new English words, how did a product get called “Ball In Box”?

French food product called Ball in Box.In a company as big as Fleury Michon, how did nobody stop to ask a native English speaker if there my be any detrimental meaning to a product called “Ball In Box”?

Ball In Box.

I visited the Fleury Michon website for an image to go with this blog entry. As if to reassure customers, the text next to the image has a headline that reads: “Ball in box : 100% balls”. Total reassurance there, Fleury Michon. I’m totally reassured that I will never ever buy it.

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La Tarte Tropézienne

tarte-tropezienne

La Tarte Tropézienne is a cream bun with a celebrity history. Apparently, Bridget Bardot loved these tasty treats when they were in their infancy, and encouraged their chef, Alexandre Micka, to come up with a name for them. Their popularity grew from there.

La Tarte Tropezienne, French treat - Le Francophoney blogThis tasty treat is a brioche bun filled with a ‘velvety mix’ of two creams, tasting of custard, cream and orange blossom water.  As you can see, the filling is generous. The bun is topped with chunky lumps of sugar.

The recipe has remained a well-kept secret. Other bakeries copy it, and some have added their own touches, like almonds. Tarte Tropézienne purists (like myself) understand there can be no improvement on perfection, and finding a good Tarte Tropézienne is an ongoing challenge in less tropical places like the French Alps.

Visiting St Tropez a few weeks ago, I made a beeline for the original shop where the Tarte Tropézienne was sold. I bought a slice to eat right away, and a large tarte to share with the friends I was visiting.

So how did it stack up against the previous versions I’d tried? The filling of the single slice lived up to everything I had imagined. Tasty, smooth, creamy, yet light. All four of us who worked our way through the large Tarte Tropézienne agreed that the filling wasn’t as tasty as it should have been. I couldn’t taste any orange blossom water, but perhaps my taste buds had enjoyed the filling so much the first day that they demanded a stronger version the next.

Having tried to make this twice in the past few years and failing, I appreciate the effort required to get the perfect Tarte Tropézienne. For those who might remember my gingerbread boat disaster, here’s more stupidity. The first time around, I made the brioche with levure chemique (raising agent) instead of levure boulanger (yeast). The result was a giant custard cream biscuit. The stupid part was that I knew the difference and just didn’t think about it at the time. The second time, my custard lumped, and when I blended it with the cream mix. thinking I could beat it into submission, the consistency was like rice pudding from a can. It tasted nice between the lumps of badness, but the lumps ruined it. So, any Tarte Tropézienne that doesn’t have almonds and doesn’t have rice-like lumps gets my vote, and the original one does too.

 

 

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Shoot targets underwater in La Clusaz!

underwatershooting

This week, this photo appeared on my Facebook feed:
Underwater shooting in La Clusaz - Le Francophoney blog
Err, what? Is this an actual thing? Underwater shooting in a swimming pool apparently is a thing in La Clusaz and Europe in general.

A bit of research reveals that this sport was borne in the eighties in France, where it’s known as tir sur cible subaquatique. Competitors must be eighteen, so it looks like La Clusaz are hoping to introduce this…erm….’sport’…to future champions. They’re allowed to use a diving mask, fins, snorkel, speargun, diving weights and a wetsuit.

As someone who struggles to remember not to breathe with a snorkel when under water, I can’t imagine how much coordination this activity requires. There’s the holding the breath bit of course, then the staying relatively still in order to aim, actually aiming (with just one hand), and then pulling the trigger without disrupting all that breath-holding, keeping still and aiming.

If nothing else, participants will be able to catch their dinner from Lake Annecy whenever they please.

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The acceptable fart sound

croquemonsuieur

French culture - croque monsieur at the pubIn France, it’s unheard of to start a meal with without saying “Bon appetit“. Cheese is served before dessert. Kids are shooshed if they talk loudly in a public place (making the parents far louder than the kids), and it’s just plain wrong to offer chrysanthemums to a living person. It’s a country that sells croque monsieurs in busy pubs during gigs, because even the toughest punk fan enjoys the tenderness of the melted cheese in a ham and cheese toasty. Etiquette differs between regions as to how many kisses are given when greeting someone, but kisses are always the norm.

Every new arrival learns about these cultural rules over the years, and for me, adopting French etiquette was easy. However, there’s one part of French culture that was hard to embrace. It’s that fart sound made by the mouth. You know, when you were a kid and you pretended to make the sound of a fart when your grandma stood up, and all the other grand kids would laugh? That’s an acceptable sound in France. Seriously.

You might be wondering how the fart sound is used. It’s pretty versatile for answering questions where the answer isn’t certain. Here are some examples:

Q: “What do you want to do today?”
A: “Prpppppp.” (meaning “I’m not fussed.”)

Q: “What time does the film start?”
A: “Prpppppp.” (meaning “I don’t know.”)

Q: “That guy was wrong. We have more sun here in the north, don’t we?”
A: “Prppppp.” (meaning “I’m staying neutral.”)

Q: “Up yours.”
A: “Prpppppp.” (meaning “Up yours too.”)

That last one, being more of a hostile one, is aspirated. Imagine huffing at the same time as making the fart sound, and you’ve got the indignant fart noise of that last example. However, that’s used less than the average fart sound outlined in the other examples. I hear it daily in general conversations with my friends and in public.

I was determined never to use this sound as a word replacement. It just sounds so much like a comedy movie line. Imagine my surprise when I heard myself making fart noises when talking in English to some visiting Australian friends recently. They looked baffled at the sound I’d just made — the only reason I noticed I’d made it.

So how do I fix this when talking in English? Prppppp. I’ve embraced it.

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What France thinks of vegetarians

francevegetarian

A French advertisement starring a family of French vegetariansAhh, look at this rustic hippy scene from the seventies. Hang on, that’s an image from a brand new advertisement on French TV.

The ad represents vegetarians as hippies living in houses with home-made decorations like shells on strings. Add some cotton shirts, bouffant hair and beaded jewelry and we’ve got the perfect hippy family.

Cured meat makers, Aoste, are responsible for the ad, in full, below (with a shortened translation under it).

Dad: “But how come you don’t want to be a vegetarian anymore?”
Son: “I’m sick of always eating the same things — green salad, celery, celery, green salad.”
Dad: “There’s tofu steak.”
Mum: “Sliced soy fillet.”
Son: “Also, nobody ever asked if I wanted to be vegetarian. C’mon, one time.”
Dad: “One single time.”
(Holding hands at the supermarket.)
Mum: “If you really want to do it, do it properly.”
Voiceover: “Aoste, simply irresistible.”

Did you see the son’s teardrop as he’s downing that delicious meat?

I’m a vegetarian, and the first time I saw this I laughed. Aoste must have produced this with their tongues firmly in their cheeks, going for every stereotype apart from deadlocks (I’m guilty of once being that stereotype, so I can only laugh!).

As much as the ad amuses me, it’s a reminder of just how cringeworthy some places in France are for vegetarians. The mountains is one of them. Here are a few moments I’ve experienced, all spoken in French at the time:

1. The snack bar

Me: “I’m looking for a sandwich without meat.”
Server: “Sorry, we don’t have any cheese sandwiches.”
Because we all know that that lettuce, tomato, cucumber, roasted vegetables and boiled eggs are made of meat. Really, France, is it that hard to just leave the meat out of a few sandwiches?

2. The posh Italian restaurant

My friend: “She’s a vegetarian.”
Waiter: “We have this salmon dish…”
Me (wishing my friend hadn’t said anything – it’s easier that way) : “I don’t eat fish, but I’ve found…”
Waiter: “There’s a chicken dish here.” (pointing to menu)
Me: “Chicken is meat.”
Waiter: “No, it’s not.”
Me: “Yes, it is.”
(Repeat last two lines about three times)

3. The New Year’s Eve celebrations – set menu

Two vegetarians on big table of friends were given one massive salad each, served as a main, between the entrees and mains offered to the meat eaters (so we had to watch, hungry, while the others ate their entrees, then be watched as we scoffed a lot of lettuce). A salad. Really? Happy bloody New Year.

However, the acceptance of vegetarianism in France is slowly getting better, with more options on the market every year. Traditional places like La Clusaz are always going to take a bit longer to catch on, and while the Parisians are probably howling with laughter at the Aosta commercial, the locals here are probably shaking their heads about hippy vegetarian types and saying “Ah, les cons” (“Ah, the idiots”).

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Is this sign really needed?

'Not drinking water' sign in French toilet.This photo needs little commentary. Public toilets in La Clusaz are often shared by both sexes, and when I walked into this one, the sight of urinals didn’t surprise me. The sign, however, did. It says “Water not drinkable.”

Who is this sign for? Who tried to drink out of a urinal?

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Switching to winter tyres in France

wintertyres

Last year, I bought a new car. It has big tyres, so I looked at the cost of snow tyres and thinner wheels online, hoping it would be cheaper than in La Clusaz or Annecy.

Undecided, I visited Norauto for advice. The guy was super helpful and provided three printed quotes. He offered a loyalty card with 15% off any purchase, bringing the total price down out to around the same as the online prices. “Just call the number on the paper if you want to book your car in,” he said. Too easy!

It really was too easy to be true. It seems that my first Norauto experience was in some parallel world with customer care. Why? Because I called that number almost hourly for four days and only once did someone pick up. Apparently put off by my accent, she hung up within 20 seconds of me speaking.

Undeterred, I drove to Norauto. There was a queue, yet staff wandered past doing more important things than serving customers. After 30 minutes, it took a further 30 minutes to make the appointment for 10 days’ time (it would take that long for my new winter tyres to be mounted on my new winter wheels).

Buying winter tyres in FranceI arrived early for my appointment and queued for another half an hour just to hand over the keys! No, you can’t pay by cheque, and of course my French bank card has a counter transaction limit. One trip to the bank later (work wouldn’t start until I’d handed over ALL the cash), the mechanics did the job in a mere 25 minutes. On top of that, they were helpful. After the soul-destroying queueing, this was a lovely surprise, and I’m happy with their work. Still, a 25-minute job took up an hour and a half of arrange.

The picture shown arrived in my inbox and says “Did you know that your card gives you access to a range of advantages?” Can it give me back my hour and a half? Norauto, I think I’ll be going elsewhere next time. No advantage is worth the length of time wasted waiting in your shop!

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France Vegatarian - website for vegetarians and vegans in France

Website for vegetarians and vegans in France