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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Practical information from a festival

I was a tad shocked to see what practical advice the High Five festival website was giving me:

High Five Festival Annecy

“How to come” seems a bit personal for a ski and snowboard festival in Annecy.

It’s truly commendable that the High Five Festival has gone to the effort of translating their French website into English. Too many event websites simply don’t bother. Next step: a native English speaker!

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Food trucks — Annecy style

Food trucks have arrived in Annecy!

Apparently, food trucks in Annecy are unlike those in other places. First of all, let’s talk school holidays. I started a new job during school holidays in France. Entire businesses close during August simply because everyone goes on holidays (I’ve written about la rentrée in the past). It was no surprise that food trucks on a business park were scarce during August. Given Annecy is heaving with tourists in August, popular lakeside spots would no doubt be more profitable. Yet they weren’t there. Many of the local food trucks close in August too. Despite throngs of people at the beaches willing to part with their money, the food trucks aren’t allowed to trade on public property, making beach-side sales somewhat difficult.
Annecy food truck copyright Le Franco Phoney

The food trucks trickled back to where I work a few weeks ago, and I’m relieved that many offer vegetarian alternatives, saving me from having to make my own lunch every day during my disorganised mornings. Last week, I found the food truck that sells south-east Asian food. I was thrilled when the staff said they could do pad Thai without meat (yum!), especially as the only other menu option was meaty. Alas, my colleague wanted the meaty dish and was told they had sold out. Seriously, sold out. They have TWO dishes and they’re a food truck and they’d sold out of one. At least their ingredients must always be fresh! Had my jaw not already hit the ground, the next statement would have made it land with a thud: “You should book ahead,” the food truck lady said. BOOK AHEAD. Yes, apparently, in Annecy, the correct procedure for visiting a food truck is to order your meal before turning up.

On the upside, they take lunch vouchers, but that’s a story for another time.

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Accidental caring

Last Thursday, I found myself in the pretty Jardins de l’Europe in Annecy, wheeling and dealing on a mobile phone while police watched on with loaded guns. This is one of the famous areas of Annecy, right by the lake, between the Pont des Amours (Love Bridge) and the large sightseeing boat docks. So what was I doing?

Rewind four months when I was invited to a meeting completely by accident. A different local Wendy was supposed to be invited, but Facebook’s autocomplete stuck my name in there instead, and everyone at the meeting was as surprised as I was. The meeting was to discuss ways to help kids who had been living on the streets with their families in Annecy for up to five years while their parents awaited papers allowing them to stay and work through refugee status. Nothing happens quickly in France, and 14 families were surviving on the goodwill of charities, a temporary shelter they had commandeered and a couple of adult refugees who had been granted the right to work who were sharing their money. Annecy has given them no assistance, despite the law saying they must at least provide shelter. This has kept me busy, and is one of the reasons I haven’t written my blog for such a long time.

kids3

Rewind to last Wednesday, when I ended up at the beach with some volunteers and ten of those kids so they could enjoy a day at the beach. The kids splashed and played and ate ice cream (I admit that being the Ice Cream Lady instead of Toilet Accompany Lady was more attractive). Skiidy Gonzales kindly donated a van and driver to transport the kids, and as I waved goodbye from the curb at the end of the day, they blew me kisses. They were happy, like kids should be.

And then Thursday came along. At 7am, police entered the refugee’s only shelter and ordered them out at gunpoint. Kids cried and a lady was knocked to the ground. They were overly forceful with the families, but I didn’t know any of this because I was still curled up in bed, sleeping soundly, like many of us.

comfortingI found the refugee families, who had sought shade from the 35° heat at the Jardins de l’Europe, that afternoon. The kids’ faces lacked the carefree smiles of just a day earlier, and they walked with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Would they be sleeping on the streets again tonight, after enjoying the comparative ‘luxury’ of their shelter, where they happily shared bedrooms and showered in cold water, because it’s still better than no shower at all?

After many phone calls, emails and verbal discussions — and always being watched by armed police — we managed to temporarily house everyone. It was not an easy task, and by no means a solution, and the local department continues to ignore the demands of local charities, lawyers and citizens to do the right (and legal) thing to at least provide shelter. Of the 14 families, two were sent to Lyon to face a judge (both families have been freed and have returned to Annecy), two with small children have been rehomed (hooray!), a family with an autistic son was put directly on a plane back to Pristina, and a few remain under some sort of house arrest. All remaining families are at a constant risk of living on the streets between temporary accommodation, but due to their legal refugee situation, they can’t leave the area. They’re basically stuck.

As much as I normally love to write about how much I’m baffled by some aspects of French culture, today, I’m saddened, frustrated and worried for the gentle kids who, through no fault of their own, are dreaming of stability and security instead of ponies. My involvement in this entire situation came about by the wrong Wendy being invited to a meeting. I hope I’ve made a difference, but there’s still so much to do. We need more accidental Wendys.

If you’d like to learn more about what’s been happening in this financially loaded part of France, visit the Lake Aid blog.

If you’d like to help these families through grass-roots charity, where every cent goes to them, you can donate here (we desperately need funds – even if it’s just a few euros!).

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Lisbon review: rock gods, film stars and glorious food

hollywood-vampires-lisbon

The proximity of countries here in Europe continues to impress me, and I’m on a mission to explore at least one new country every year. So, last week, I ‘popped over’ to Portugal. Back in Aus, the only thing I knew about Portugal was Nandos and its peri-peri sauce. One short flight later, I found myself at Rock in Rio Lisbon, which just happened to coincide with my visit, and starred some of my favourite artists. I fell into bed at 4am after seeing various acts including Hollywood Vampires. Yes, that’s Johnny Depp, who looked relaxed, given the death of his mother and the domestic violence accusations, as well as Alice Cooper, Matt Sorum from Guns and Roses and Robert DeLeo from Stone Temple Pilots, along with others. After coconut sweet bun treat the following afternoon upon waking, I was off to explore the rest of Lisbon.

lisbon-cakesMy friends and I were impressed with Lisbon’s cleanliness; the welcoming people; and the architecture, where public squares abound with patterned tiles underfoot and statues towering above. Mostly, we fell in love with the food. Over five days, we didn’t have a bad meal or cake stop (yes, we split our cakes to sample each one, as pictured). It was a personal food fest and I was grateful for the wide variety of meals on offer — in stark contrast to the stodgy cheese and potatoes of the French Alps.

Best of all was the tile painting lesson! We found Marie Caroline on Facebook, and she agreed at short notice to visit our apartment one evening to teach us about the traditions of Azulegjos tiles. My friends and I selected two designs each and painted them with Marie Caroline’s expert and patient guidance. She even offered to post our tiles to us after she’d fired them, and sent a follow-up message the next day wishing us a safe trip home.

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With a happy heart, a tanned face and a suitcase full of pastel de nata custard tarts, I returned to waterlogged France. I’m already planning a trip to Porto!

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Website for vegetarians and vegans in France