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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Has Le Franco Phoney turned Austra-Phoney?

Greetings from Australia, where I’ve been helping out with a family illness for the past month. I’m about to head back to France, but being home brought up a few cultural questions.

I started Le Franco Phoney because the French culture felt alien to me, an Australian, who barely spoke the language. More than ten years later and the tables have turned. Returning to Australia has surprised me in the same ways that France surprised me all those years ago. Here are some snippets.

Cleanliness

Insects in French bakery displays, due to no flywire screens, now seem normal to me. In comparison, seeing these trolley wipes at the supermarket were a complete surprise. How posh! Yes, people use them all the time.

Pragmatic advertising

Public toilets are never fun, but at least the advertising on the back of this toilet door is appropriate. Why advertise glamour or fashion to people squeezing one out on the crapper when you could get their attention about something for more pertinent to them at that moment? Talk about a captive audience! I’d forgotten how pragmatic us Aussies can be.

Did I hear this correctly?

Since I’m talking about advertising, let’s talk about fish, because “there’s always something new to learn about fish”. Seriously! This advert says so:


 

What? Who could possibly come up with that line for an advertisement? And what did we learn about fish? Did a group of marketing people have one of those lightbulb moments? “Hey, fish is this MASSIVE mystery to the world. There’s ALWAYS something new to learn about them! Let’s run with that. It’s surefire.” Bonus points for the “school of fish” pun at the end.

“Am I in France?” moment #1

Looking for an Australian postcard in a Melbourne tourist shop, I found some Eiffel Tower minis alongside the Australian flag and other Aussie goodies. Do we have an Eiffel Tower in Melbourne? Did France send us one like they sent the Statue of Liberty to the US? Or did the shop order these towers instead of the Arts Centre with its Eiffel-like spire? Even more disturbing is that there’s a variety of Eiffel Tower models on offer.

“Am I in France?” moment# 2

Long-time readers might remember France’s amazing letterbox. It seems Australians are now onto the trend of creating mini-home letter boxes. This one is a carbon copy in a suburban street.

Down, down (with Coles)

For years, I’ve been blissfully unaware of supermarket Coles’ “Down Down” jingles. French supermarkets have had a wide range of annoying song snippets but none of them compare to this. Every night lately I’ve been going to bed with this ten-second screech on repeat. Over and over. And over.

Sorry about that. I hope by sharing it, the burden is lifted from my shoulders. Down, down, with the burden.

Number plates

Australian states have number plate slogans. Queensland is “The Sunshine State”. Victoria is a bit more confused. It was “The Garden State” when I was little, and in 1994, then-premier Geoff Kennett changed the slogan to “Victoria – On The Move”. Now there’s a whacky mix of the old plates, plus “The Place to Be”,”Stay Alert Stay Alive” and “The Education State”. Being a sport-loving state, Victorians can also get football team number plates, such as the one below for Aussie Rules football team the Geelong Cats. Meanwhile, my mum’s car has no slogan at all and I don’t blame it.

Banter is king

French interaction with strangers is normally limited to greetings when entering buildings or shops. In Australia, it’s not uncommon to casually hear about a shop assistant’s brother who is getting married on the weekend. Elevators aren’t off-limits either: “I’m escaping” a guy in a hospital gown said as he entered a packed hospital lift to get to the ground floor. The occupants made jokes and everyone left with a smile.

Australia, I’m leaving you with a massive smile, clean trolley hands, and a suitcase full of Tim Tams, a mini-Eiffel Tower and some frozen fish meals from Coles stuck inside an awesome letterbox.

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Typical French television?

Sunday morning television in France is no different to the rest of the world. It’s terrible! Queue re-runs of eighties sitcoms and cartoons for kids — surely the only people up on a Sunday morning.

Alas, I’m an early riser, and out of desperation, I switched to local Savoyard channel TV8 Mont Blanc to discover Top Accordéon. Presumably named after Top Hits (a music show of the latest popular music hits), Top Accordéon is a bit spesh. Here’s a sample:

The photo image from the TV doesn’t do it justice: that’s a fluorescent piano accordion and a lot of blue rinse dancers going on, presumably in a very snowy area on a beautiful blue-sky day with a magnificent blue lake in the foreground to complement the music.

The illusion is broken when the next accordion player begins:

Oh. How disappointing. They’re in some school sports hall with one small backdrop of the glacial Alps. On the upside, this accordion is tri-colour (sorry for the blurriness of my TV-photography skills)! Who knew these accordion players were into such bright, loud colours?

I applaud TV8 Mont Blanc for upholding that universal rule of bizarre Sunday morning TV, even in a supposedly sophisticated and chic country like France. Indeed, I was glued to the action! And it gets better:

Yes, that’s a judging panel. Just  like the prime time talent show The Voice, Top Accordéon has judges as well!

Don’t fret if you’re not in France: you can watch the most recent episode online. Yep, Top Accordéon has its own website, where you can check out photos from each fortnight’s show, buy accordion music CDs (including rainbow accordion man’s contribution), and even buy tickets to upcoming shows! They’re still advertising for last week’s gig, which was just around the corner from me in St-Pierre en Faucigny.  If only I’d known! I’m going to keep and eye out and go to the next one.

Now, to find a dancing partner…

I’m relieved to say that accordion shows aren’t typical French television, but I think most would agree it’s typical Sunday morning TV.

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Marching, Swiss style

Hello, and happy New Year! Apologies for the long break in posts (I was enjoying time with family and friends in Australia, but I’m now back in France, so let’s get cracking).

You have no doubt heard about the Women’s March that happened on 21 January 2017. When a friend mentioned it, I was happy to join her.

The closest march was in Geneva, and I was under-prepared. I had no pink hat, no sign and no idea about the march, but my American friend did. So, armed with comfortable shoes and not too many warm layers (marching would warm me up amply in the below-zero temperatures), I met her in Annecy along with two French men, and we drove to Geneva.

Before the march, we listened to inspiring speeches and songs. Amusing and powerful signs were everywhere — even on dogs.

My feet were freezing and I regretted my choice of shoe, but they would thaw during the march, right? “How long is the march?” I asked my friend. “It’s only 700 metres,” she said. Seven. Hundred. Metres. This must have been the shorted march ever organised! I started marching on the spot as the organiser explained how the march would work; this was, of course, Switzerland, where rules are made to be kept and embraced. To ensure the march was a success, we were asked to respect the police, avoid walking on the road, and acknowledge that we’d be released in groups to cross the bridge. Given the bridge was about half of the walk, it was probably an important announcement.

Our French friends were dumbfounded. One said: “If this were Paris, we’d be taking over the entire bridge and climbing up the lamps”. The other one remarked that respecting the police wouldn’t be high on the agenda. I was relieved we weren’t in France.

As we approached the bridge with feet warming up, the march slowed down. A group started chanting “This is what democracy looks like” over and over again. We were swaying in time to their chant and started mouthing the words with them. This is what democracy looks like, and we felt it.

And then, a steward said: “Next fifty onto the bridge” and we obediently walked on, without question or chanting, staying on the footpath at all times with banks and shops like Dior all around. This is what Swiss democracy looks like.

Addendum: Jokes aside, I’m proud to be one of the estimated 3,000 who attended the march in Geneva, and I will stand up for women’s rights in whatever country I live in.

 

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Keep your dog

French language tranlsation to EnglishOn a recent walk, this sign was kindly translated into German and English.

The French actually says “Keep your dog on a leash”. As long as English speakers keep their dogs, they’re alright on or off the leash, presumably.

In one of the many countries renowned for turfing pets before school holidays (the lucky ones are dropped off to the SPA – the local animal shelters in France), I’m wondering if the French text shouldn’t be cut down too!

 

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The joy of the lunch voucher (chèque déjeuner)

French lunch cheque information

At a job interview, I asked about employee benefits. “Optional health insurance, flexibility, etc. etc. Oh and restaurant vouchers.”

Having never been employed by a French business before, this benefit was a new one for me. I’d seen people handing over vouchers in the past, but never really known anything about them. After the job interview, I laughed them off as a token voucher system that businesses only have to supply if they don’t provide onsite lunch options.

French lunch cheque informationWhen I received my first voucher book, I started to understand their value. Some 22 vouchers landed on my lap in a book resembling a cheque book. Each is worth 7€, and they can be used at most restaurants and supermarkets (normally just one or two per meal/purchase). Although you won’t get change if you spend less than 7€, you can split a meal between cheque and real money.

Basically, I’m now walking around with 154€ tax-free in my handbag each month. The novelty lasted a month. I felt totally French, asking if an establishment would accept a chèque Déjeuner and then ripping off the little piece of paper and handing it over.

The novelty soon wore off when I received my first pay cheque. It turns out I’m paying for about a third of the cheques, so they’re by no means a freebie. As long as I use around 51€ of the cheques per month, I’m no worse off. My boss is paying the rest, so it would be a pity not to use them up. So far, I’ve had no problem spending the lot. It’s just too easy.

For anyone starting a new job in France, the carnet des chèques déjeuner (book of vouchers) is issued at the end of your month, when you’re paid, so you’ll have to wait up to a month (like I did) before receiving your first book. You receive one cheque for each day worked, so if you work just five days before your first pay cheque, you’ll receive a carnet des chèques déjeuner with five vouchers in it.

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Confusing road signs

French roadwork sign La Clusaz

Some road work was done at the end of my street here in Saint Jean de Sixt a few weeks ago. Luckily, the French road workers put up some signs to help the locals with the diversion.

French roadwork sign La Clusaz

Go left or go right — do whatever you like really. How French!

My only question is: why bother with either sign?

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About me

Wendy Hollands writer in Annecy, France

I'm an experienced professional writer based in the French Alps. I enjoy learning French language nuances, winter sports and travel. Read more...

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