The paradox of France

80km speed limit in France

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” It’s about as French as it gets. It’s as French as croissants, saying “oh la la”, and chic fashion.

Something else very French  seems to be the cultural paradox of progression and tradition.

Traditionally meat lovers, more than 50% of French residents are now reducing their weekly intake of meat. In the past year, veganism alone has doubled to 4%. Add this to the figure for vegetarianism, and around 10% of French residents have already stopped eating meat, yet food outlets still struggle to offer anything without meat, let alone without dairy products. Tradition still rules.

Before and after the 80km/h speed limit reduction in Corsica.  (Copyright Corse-Machine – link to original).

This week, the 90km/h speed limit was reduced to 80km/h in an effort to reduce the high road toll. A sign of progression, yet speeding fines remain low, and many speed cameras don’t work. The public backlash has, as expected, started. One jokey comment I saw asked if it’s worth going through the time, effort and money involved to obtain a driving license when those without one (or disqualified) can drive a two-stroke car on public roads at up to 70km/h. Thankfully, those two-strokes aren’t allowed on the motorways with the 130km/h speed limit.

The joke image on the left is another reaction: before and after the 80km/h speed limit reduction in Corsica (where many road signs are peppered with bullet holes). The speed limit reduction is a start at reducing a high road toll: progression is winning this one.

Also this week, a hundred women signed an open letter published in a French newspaper condemning the #MeToo movement — a movement which denounces sexual assault and harassment. Don’t get me wrong: I can see what the letter is trying to say: women shouldn’t play the victim card, but this poorly written, illogical letter goes no further to fix that problem. Among the sentiments are these two statements:

A woman can, in the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being a man’s sexual object, without being a “whore” or a vile accomplice of the patriarchy.

and:

She can make sure that her wages are equal to a man’s but not feel forever traumatized by a man who rubs himself against her in the subway, even if that is regarded as an offense.

The letter doesn’t address those women leading professional teams who don’t enjoy being a man’s sexual object, nor how this is considered professional. What happens when it’s the boss making the moves? How can anyone — male or female — enjoy being a sexual object in the workplace when accepting such an activity potentially puts others at risk?

As for the subway comment, what on earth do equal wages have to do with a man rubbing his penis against a stranger? The argument, like many others in the letter, makes no sense! You can see the full translation here and make up your own mind.

Having lived in France for more than ten years, I’ve heard the creepy workplace comments and seen the open sexism first hand: when I first moved here, it felt like the sexism clock had turned back twenty years. But I’m also relieved to say that those behaviours have decreased in France, or at least where I live. Let’s hope that this is one aspect of traditional French culture that dwindles further despite this embarrassing open letter, and turns progressive tout de suite.

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France’s most searched dish

Tartiflette with Reblochon cheese

Tartiflette has been listed as Google’s top recipe search for France. So what is tartiflette and is the rest of the world going to jump on the bandwagon?

Tartiflette with Reblochon cheese

AOC Reblochon cheese packetFirst of all, you might be surprised to learn that tartiflette — marketed as a traditional mountain meal — is a new dish, created as recently as 1980 by the association responsible for promoting Reblochon cheese. Reblochon is an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) cheese, so it can only be made in certain areas of Savoie and Haute Savoie in France.

The idea was to increase the dwindling sales of Reblochon cheese by creating a dish that everyone would love. Based on the traditional recipe of péla (potatoes, cheese and onion cooked in a frying pan), tartiflette has lardons (similar to small pieces of bacon) added, and is cooked in an oven.

Tartiflette cheese without Reblochon AOC/PDOLocal restaurants embraced this easy-to-make recipe and Reblochon sales picked up. Now, tartiflette is so popular that cheese companies have started producing “cheese for tartiflette”, as a cheap alternative to Reblochon: it can be produced anywhere in France because it avoids using “Reblochon” on the packaging.

Some restaurants cater for vegetarians by offering tartiflette without the lardons (vegetarians should note that rennet is used in Reblochon production). Another popular menu item is tartichevre (tartiflette made with goat’s cheese instead) and other varieties that include everything from local mushrooms to berries. There’s also croziflette, made with the local pasta called crozet (instead of potatoes), tartiflette pizzas, and more. A French friend introduced me to his very own tartitart — tartiflette encased in a pie crust before baking, presumably because he loves pastry (and it was delicious).

Will the rest of the world embrace tartiflette the way all of France has? Time will tell, but word seems to be spreading: I noticed it on a few menus in Melbourne last time I was home. Has it appeared on a menu near you?

Tartiflette recipe

Serves 4.

1 kg potatoes (any firm/waxy variety)
200g lardons (or smoked bacon)
2 large onions, sliced
1 large, ripe Reblochon (around 450-500g)
2 tablespoons oil
a dash of wine (if desired – 100ml maximum)
salt
pepper

Preparation

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (gas mark 6 or 7)
  2. Peel the potatoes, dice and rinse, then wipe with a clean cloth.
  3. Add oil to a frying pan and heat the onions until they turn clear.
  4. Add the potatoes and brown them.
  5. Add the bacon and wine and stir through the pan, then remove from heat after a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
  6. Hold the Reblochon upright, like a wheel, and cut in half, creating two wheels.
  7. Pour the potato mix to the gratin dish.
  8. Place the two Reblochon halves on top, with the crust facing down.
  9. Cook for 15-20 minutes.

The dish is usually served with:

  • a simple green salad;
  • a bowl of small gherkins and cocktail onions; and,
  • a plate of cured meat.
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How to deal with snow

Snow in St Jean de Sixt Copyright LeFrancoPhoney

I took this photo last week on a walk around Saint Jean de Sixt. The trees are heavy with snow, glistening in the sunlight, and the fence pictured is laden to the point that the snow is warping between the posts.

Snow in St Jean de Sixt Copyright LeFrancoPhoney

In fact, the photo really doesn’t do it justice. As beautiful as the fresh snow looks when the sun comes out, the roads can be a nightmare. Keeping the roads clear of snow is a winter-long task here in the French Alps, and they’re pretty good at it around La Clusaz and Le Grand Bornand (especially compared with some other ski resorts I’ve lived in).

Haute Savoie magazine with snow clearing detailsEven more amazing are the statistics for the entire Haute Savoie region of France. The magazine contained an article about the winter road services and how the keep traffic flowing on even the stormiest of nights.

Haute Savoie covers an area of 4,388 km². It includes the area on the French side of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) as well as Chamonix and Mont Blanc, Annecy, and further south, almost to Albertville, and a bit further west of Annecy too. It’s a region with plenty of mountains and cities well above sea level.

Surprisingly, the department keeps the roads clear with just 144 snow clearing trucks. However, it’s quite likely that many of those are here in the tourist hot spots of the ski resorts, like the ones here in the Aravis, and that smaller villages without tourists are left with snowy roads while the remaining snow clearers cover a wider area.

In comparison, when driving through Italy’s Aosta valley on the other side of the Mont Blanc tunnel, I noticed small cars and vans with snow clearing equipment tacked on the front. They looked like private vehicles!

Meanwhile, here in Haute Savoie, I drive like a nervous Australian if the road has a few centimetres of snow on it, while some locals make the most of the situation, sliding around in car parks and pulling on their handbrakes. Everyone deals with the snow in their preferred way. Mine is a pair of skis.

Snow clearing statisitics Haute Savoie

A few other stats for a typical Haute Savoie winter, translated from the image above:

  • 29 snow clearing centres
  • 28 snow clearing storage spots
  • 141 snow clearing circuits
  • 445 staff
  • 3,000 km of departmental (free to use) roads to be cleared of snow
  • 24,000 tonnes of salt used
  • on call 24/7
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Rude wine terminology

Pisse Dru French wine etymology

Pisse dru French wine etymology

Beaujolais Nouveau is a relatively new wine in France, and one that cops a fair amount of cynicism from the French (see my post about Beaujolais Nouveau here).

The 2017 batch of Beaujolais Nouveau hit the shelves last week, and I stopped to giggle when I saw the bottles pictured above. The phrase “pisse-dru” literally means to urinate in a straight line. The merchandiser saw me and wanted to explain the history.

Pisse-dru” is also, apparently, a bonafide wine term used in the Beaujolais  wine region, just north of Lyon. So what does it mean? The wine man explained that the term was to refer to the juiciness of the grape. If a harvest produced a lot of juice per grape, the winemakers would describe the grapes as “pisse-dru“. Some smart bunny came up with the idea to include the phrase on bottles in 1955, just a few years after Beaujolais Nouveau had been developed, and the brand Pisse Dru was born.

I’m from Australia and we call things as we see them. Seriously, we have the Blue Mountains because they look blue from a distance, the Snowy Mountains (take a guess), the Great Sandy Desert (duh) and Ninety Mile Beach (really, yes, and it’s lovely). I grew up with this pragmatism in everyday life, and that’s probably why I’m not so keen on tasting things that sound so gross, like “straight piss”. I’ll just hide that bottle away next to the Jesus sausage and that box of coucougnettes (testicles).

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Professional French website fail

RSI payment fail

When Emmanuel Macron became the French president earlier this year, one of his first promises was to close down RSI (Régime Social des Indépendents). RSI is the administrative body that looks after freelancers, like me. We pay large sums in social fees every year, yet have few rights to claim a range of benefits offered to traditionally employed people with pay slips.

I haven’t met a person who isn’t happy about RSI closing down. It’s disorganised, inflexible, expensive and generally broken. This is an organisation that still uses my old address from ten years ago despite my calls, letters and even an in-person visit to change it. Apparently, it’s very difficult to change a business address, so I shouldn’t be surprised that creating a useful website is beyond them. For more than a year, RSI have been encouraging us freelancers to pay online. The email says “It’s simple, rapid and secure” (in French of course). Here’s a snapshot of their state-of-the-art website:

RSI website

 

Despite having some concerns that it wouldn’t be simple, rapid or secure, I clicked on the link to pay my quarterly bill. Can you guess how that went? Bingo!

 

In English, that says “The service has experienced technical problem. Please contact your regional technical support”. I tried calling it once when a previous payment was stuck in a loop before confirmation. Their solution was that I should pay another way.

So today, I’m paying using the technology of the seventies — a cheque book, an envelope and a stamp. It’s simple, rapid and secure.

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Hospitalisation in France

Review of hospital stay in France

I’m home after four days in a French hospital. The scheduled surgery and stay went well. But of course, this is France, so although everything went well, that’s not to say it wasn’t complicated.

It started two months ago, when my surgeon’s assistant set the October date. First up were three hospital appointments — pre-admission (no appointment needed), cardiologist (not typically needed) and anesthesiologist — a week prior to surgery, and I was grateful that the assistant wangled them on the same day. She asked me to sign some papers, and gave me an hour of pre-admission forms to fill in.

Review of hospital stay in France

Prior to pre-admission day, I visited my health insurance provider (called mutuelle in French) twice to give them papers they were ‘missing’. I discovered that anomaly during the initial phone call to the mutuelle to notify them of the surgery and to check a code and price from the surgeon. Confused yet? That code and price tells the mutuelle what the surgery is and how much extra the surgeon wants to charge. Had my mutuelle refused, I would have had yet another call to make — back to the surgeon’s assistant with the message from the mutuelle. It’s all a bit Chinese whispers.

Meanwhile, at the pharmacy, they measured me for compression stockings and gave me more paperwork for my mutuelle, a supply of medical products to use before surgery, and a jar to pee into ten days before surgery, which I was instructed to take to my local pathology centre. With that pee test passed, it was time for the three hospital appointments.

The day started with handing over forms and identification during pre-admission, then onto the cardiologist for some tests (not typically done before surgery unless, like me, you have any sort of tiny, irregular heart rhythm that they want to check). I passed the tests and moved onto the anesthesiologist. More papers were signed and the full procedure was carefully explained (in French), which was reassuring. I left with a prescriptions for a blood clotting test and a French blood type card because, apparently, my Australian blood type card doesn’t have enough details. The pre-admission day took around three hours in total.

French hospital pre-admission washAt home, the night before surgery dictated the usual no eating or drinking from midnight rule. It also involved the Betadine shower — a special soap wash, with instructions on how to wash (twice), then to dry with a clean towel and wear clean sleepwear between clean bed sheets. In the morning, I had to repeat the two-wash Betadine shower and step into clean clothes, ready for hospital.

Ah, hospital. Let the fun begin! I paid extra for a private room, where flower bouquets are forbidden, and patients must bring their own towels and soaps. In a blatant admission of poor hospital food, I also had the option to pay to upgrade my meals!

Once in my hospital room, a nurse tutted that my identification documents had my two first names but my hospital bracelet was missing part of my first name. Well, that’s because I have one first name and one middle name, but of course in France, that’s all too confusing, and so a new hospital bracelet was ordered with my new double first name. The phone line rental turned out to be a bit pointless: the phone never rang because the hospital forgot to activate the line (which is a bit unhelpful when close family on the other side of the world are trying desperately to call).

After surgery, nursing staff visited throughout the night and checked pain levels, blood pressure, temperature and heart rate. The checks continued day and night until I left, along with blood tests every morning before breakfast.

Black coffee was automatically delivered with breakfast and sporadically with lunch, and the tea lady laughed when I asked for a coffee with dinner. “Non, mais non! Pas si tard,” she said, wagging her finger as she left the room. I couldn’t physically make it to coffee machine on the ground floor, which just made that finger wagging even more annoying.

Checking out of hospital was relatively simple: armed with a swathe of new prescriptions for post-surgery care, I collected my security cheque, wrote a new (more expensive!) cheque, and handed over the TV remote control. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, sitting painfully on a straight chair, when I was asked if my stay had been good. Um, was I meant to enjoy it? It’s probably just a nuance of French language that I misconstrued but all I could do was utter ‘uhhh’ and look blank. I blame the drugs. Speaking of which, those new prescriptions have led to a big box of goodies from the pharmacy (mostly covered by my Carte Vitale, but not completely), including injections and bandages administered by the daily nurse.

To wrap up, I have total confidence in the French medical system. I don’t mind that the pre-surgery Betadine scrubs and preparations seemed excessive (much better than being inadequate!), or that the administrative processes leading up to the stay was stressful due to the pages of paperwork alone. During my stay, I received professional care that was focussed on my well-being and recovery alone.

Non-hospital coffeeA week later, I’m here, lying on my couch with compression stockings on and awaiting today’s blood test and anti-clot injection. Recovering at home is comfortable and far more relaxing than a hospital. The calls from Australia are coming in and I’m surrounded by get-well flowers. And most importantly, I can have milky coffee any time I like.

 

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The French Lady of the Lake

I came across a gruesome story this week, about ‘La Dame du Lac‘ (‘The Lady of the Lake’) right here in Annecy. It’s a tale of trickery by the devil himself which changes a young couple’s lives for ever, (you can read the full story in English here, if you prefer the original, read the French version here). If you didn’t click on a link, the story ends with the wife throwing herself off the cliff of le Roc de Chère and plunging into Lake Annecy to drown, where she remains submerged and animated to this day, pulling on the feet of swimmers in the belief they might be her husband, causing them to drown too, and taking them to the bottom of the lake with her.

Since then, I’ve discovered that lakes all over France have myths involving various degrees of aggrieved women throwing themselves into lakes and haunting swimmers for ever after. There are legends about ladies of the lake in the Pyrenees, the Ardèche, further north in Lorraine, and of course plenty around here in Haute Savoie.

Take Tignes for instance. Between Tignes and Val d’Isère lies a lake, with the statue shown below overlooking it. Yep, it’s another lady of a lake.

Lady of the Lake Tignes, France

Photo from artist’s website: liviobenedetti.com/dames-1

This lady has a more recent story. In 1953, the old village of Tignes was flooded to create the dam that the lady now overlooks. Begrudged locals were forced to move out and, of course, legend has it that one lady refused to leave. The statue appeared as recently as 2003 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the village’s flood, and is said to remember the past while looking towards the future. Personally, I’m not convinced that the story of the stubborn lady existed before the statue was made.

I wonder what the Annecy version would be like. Perhaps the statue would show a couple embracing with the devil standing behind looking at his calendar, or perhaps a lady pulling the legs of a stranger with a look of terror on his face.

The thing I love most about these ladies of the lakes is that I had no idea they were ‘a thing’ until this week. Let me explain. I’ve integrated with the French culture in many ways, like making puns in French or reciting the lyrics of some old French song that nobody expects me to know. That initial excitement I felt every time I discovered (and wrote about) some surprising part of French culture has waned over the past few years. The local dame du lac story has bolstered that feeling and it feels great.

I probably won’t ever swim by the cliff le Roc de Chère again though.

 

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Wishing you good gout

My friend Jane sent me an image from a business that went something like this:

There’s a French business for baby food called Good Gout. I guess the business owner liked the alliteration of the ‘G’ and the rhyming of the English and French words. ‘Gout’ in French means ‘taste’, which is obviously appropriate for a food business.

As Jane said, “How can you make baby food and call it Good Gout?”

I’m pretty sure, however, that if I were to start a business with a name that uses French and English words mixed together, I’d check to make sure it didn’t sound weird in either language. Good Gout has professional photos, a fast, good-looking website, and probably very tasty baby food. So how did the business get so professional without checking if ‘gout’ means anything in English? Mes amis français, ‘gout’ en anglais est le maladie ‘goutte‘ en français !

French parents across the country are no doubt giving their babies Good Gout. And with the rest of the world’s love of all things French, perhaps Good Gout have dreams of exporting to other countries. So, the rest of the world, would you feed your kids Good Gout?

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The French-British flagged castle

French castle with French-British flag

I recently visited this castle with a funny flag, but where is it? The grey sky, the Tudor façade and the neat, green grass might indicate England, but it’s not. So where was I?

The answer is the north of France. The exact location will be revealed later. This castle, with its half-British and half-French flag, was built in 1222 by a Frenchman. Since then it’s been commandeered by both the Brits and the French during various wars through the centuries, and legally owned by both nationalities in more peaceful times too. Henry VIII is one of the many members of royalty to have visited the castle.

The castle isn’t just for royalty: Charles Dickens stayed here when it was owned by his friend, Sir John Hare. Apparently, he spent time there with his lover, Ellen Ternan, and the change of scenery may well have influenced his stories or characters.

Another Brit, John Whitley, played a very important role. His work was to increase tourism in the neighbouring beach-side village of Le Touquet-Paris-Plage. After some years and resistance from locals, he focussed his marketing efforts just along the coast, buying the castle and its surrounds in 1897. He decided to market the beach-side village by the castle as a posh holiday spot and sporting mecca, eventually buying huge areas of land in the years to follow. He succeeded, and the village now boasts all sorts of hidden homes on salubrious plots of land among the pine forests, with golf courses nestled close by for the residents to enjoy, plus an an avenue named after him in the heart of the populated forest.

The castle was occupied by the British army during the first world war, and has more recently been used by a scientist and a group of nuns (not at the same time). In 1979, it was used in Roman Polanski’s film, Tess.

Although it’s now owned by the local French council, the castle’s British history lives on today, with exhibitions and events held on the site celebrating British culture. The one thing that definitely shouldn’t be considered British is the name of the castle, which is also the village name. In French, it’s pronounced ‘ard-eh-lor’. In English? Well how would you say ‘Hardelot’?

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Fidget spinners arrive in France…kind of…

French hand spinner

French fidget spinner
The fidget spinner has been a huge retail success in many countries, and France is now in on the act too.

But wait, what’s that? The ‘Hand Spinner’? Yep! In France, where English words are creeping in despite the efforts of the Acadamie Francais, I guess it should be no surprise that the name changed from English to different English.

But why would the product marketers bother changing ‘fidget’ to ‘hand’? Many French adults learnt that English stalwart song ‘If you’re appy and you know it clap your ands’) at school, and those who can pronounce the ‘h’ often, and understandably, mix up the usage. They might say ‘air’ for ‘hair’ based on the correct pronunciation of ‘hour’, for example, or just invent an ‘h’, such as ‘(h)axe’. In French, an axe is ‘hache‘. It’s why burgers are called ‘steak hache‘ (literally, ‘axed steak’, but realistically, ‘chopped meat’). The ‘h’ isn’t pronounced in ‘hache‘, but some Frenchies like to add it into the English version anyway.

French hand spinnerI wondered if it was just a cheap version of the fidget spinner being sold at one supermarket, so I checked some more catalogues.

The very next catalogue had a more expensive fidget spinner, but it was still marketed as a Hand Spinner, complete with an explanation in French on how to use it.

I asked a French friend why she thought the name had changed and she explained it very logically. The English word ‘fidget’ isn’t commonly known in France, whereas ‘hands’ is well understood, even by non-English speakers (probably thanks to that song singing at school).

And for anyone coming to France who is seeking a fidget spinner, don’t think you’re getting offer lightly just because the name is in English. You will need to ask for one with a French accent. Something like ‘Un and spin-nur (s’il vous plaît)’ should do the trick.

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About me

Wendy Hollands writer in Annecy, France

I'm an experienced technical writer based in the French Alps. I enjoy learning French language nuances, winter sports and travel. Drop by wendyhollands.com, my other site.

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