French fireman calendars

You no doubt heard about the racy French pompiers calendar released near the end of 2015. If not, you can sample it in the video below.

Saint Jean de Sixt fireman calendarHere in Saint Jean de Sixt, our local fire brigade did their annual door knock to sell (through donations) their calendar last week. Were they inspired by that other calendar everyone’s been raving about? Err, not quite. Here’s a red Ferrari, which is pretty much as racy as the calendar gets. Is it to be used as some sort of fire truck? Does a fireman own it? Was it a gift from Italy? Who knows: there’s no further information.

There are photos of the various teams, and I was able to spot our cabinet maker in among the retired firemen (yes, they’re in there too, which is nice). No naked chests or thighs in black and white, but plenty of grey (hair). And then, bizarrely, September comes along with this photo of a car accident.

Saint Jean de Sixt fireman calendar

Okay, it’s not in festive December at least, but I’m glad my birthday isn’t in September. What a downer. I doubled my donation this year in the hope they hire a photographer with some new ideas next year. Or a gym membership. I don’t mind.

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No, these sweets aren’t a joke!

Stopping in for lunch on the way back to Haute Savoie a few weeks ago, I spotted these haute gourmandise sweets for sale. The boxed version on the right is the most bizarre packaging I’ve seen so far in France, with a baby in a basket alongside two busty women sharing the lap of an old man, while a white horse looks on in some weird sitting position.

French sweets - Coucougnettes - which is slang for testicles

The sweets inside are known as Coucougnettes, and once you understand the meaning, things start to fall in place (oh, did I actually write that?). Coucougnettes is slang for testicles. You can buy small pink, soft(ish) sweets which roughly translate to ‘balls’, ‘nuts’ etc.

The wench/horse/baby scene makes a little more sense, but I really can’t imagine giving this box as a gift to anyone. (Ding-dong): “Here, I brought you some knackers and I hope you find them tasty. Plus, you can keep this gorgeous commemorative box!” Okay, I probably wouldn’t buy the sweets as a gift either! You can see the box has “French Lover” written along one of its black edges. Presumably, they’re aiming for an international market, and thankfully, they didn’t translate the name of the sweets. This makes a change from past dodgy English marketing in France, such as the touted “100% balls” savoury product, Ball in Box, or the rather adult lyrics for a Kinder Bueno advert, featuring a little boy and a grown woman.

Inside a French Coucougnette (bollocks) bonbonMy gut instinct was to take a photo rather than buy them, and now I regret it. These French sweets sound quite tasty: each one is made with a roasted almond coated in dark chocolate, then marzipan and brandy, and finally, dipped in raspberry juice — probably to give it that realistic tone. And since I used their photo, I probably should link to the site where you can buy these ‘treats’ if you want to try them for yourself (without the box). Are you tempted?

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Back to the Future – French style

French television - Back to the Future

backtothefuture2What a week! In case you were hiding under a rock, we hit the date programmed into the Delorean in the film ‘Back to the Future Part 2′!

Television stations around the world played the film last night to happy audiences reliving a moment of eighties nostalgia. They probably laughed at the self-tightening shoelaces and shook their heads in the knowledge that we still don’t have a hoverboard, but none of that happened here in France. No.

No. While I read my friends’ social media updates about settling down for the evening to watch Marty McFly and all the fun about to happen in an alternate 2015, I flicked from channel to channel trying to find the film. I remembered it being advertised last week when Back to the Future Part 1 was being shown.

Mais non! I’m in France — the country where you’re  expected to turn up for dinner at a friend’s place at least two hours late; the country where is just now starting to introduce Sunday shopping in some districts of Paris to appease the tourists (err, yes, Paris, the worlds most popular tourist destination); the country that does slow food even at fast food restaurants (honestly, how can it take that long to stick some fries in a bag?).

No, Back to the Future Part 2 is due on the small screens around the country tonight. That’s a day late:

French television - Back to the Future

Yes Doc, that’s right. While the rest of the world was watching you, France was still waiting for le futur.

There’s a reason for this, which a French friend explained to me today. New films are released at the cinema on Wednesdays, so to ensure a good turn-out, French public TV doesn’t air films. Private station Canal+ was taken to court over their airing of films on Wednesday nights, but they argued that they’re a private company who should be able to compete with other private companies, including paid-for movie channels without the Wednesday restriction. They won, by the way. A few public channels now seem to air films, but the majority do not.

Tonight, I’ll be curling up on the couch watching Marty McFly travel to the future of yesterday. It would have been more fun last night.

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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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France Vegatarian - website for vegetarians and vegans in France
Website for vegetarians and vegans in France