Strikes strike…. again.

‘La greve’ (strike), was one of the first words I learned in the French language. But is the French love of striking just another national stereotype? “Evidence suggests the French actually occupy the middle of the pack when it comes to days lost due to strikes. So why the misconception? Because when the French strike, historian Stéphane Sirot says, they do it loudly and visibly.” Indeed, I still remember the sight of my first French ‘greve’ from our apartment balcony in Grenoble many years ago. There was an enormous group of demonstators winding down the avenue holding banners and shouting ‘Tous ensemble, Tous ensemble, oi oi’ (Everyone together). I can’t actually remember what that strike was about, but it was loud and visible.

logo-sncfWhen I typed ‘French train strikes’ into my internet search engine it came up with ‘train strikes 2014’ ‘train strikes 2015′ train strikes 2016’ and the latest ‘train strikes 2018’. I selected 2018: The SNCF workers (Societe Nationale de Chemin de Fer – ‘National Railway Company’) are angry Why? Well, among  the strikers’ main concerns is the plan to end the special employment status of SNCF rail workers, known as cheminots, that allows them a job for life, automatic pay rises and early retirement. (Incidentally, I heard an interview on the radio this week which discussed making the very same changes …which was recorded 39 years ago! Change is difficult.).

But there are also many doubts regarding the move towards opening up the market to competition which is due to begin in 2020 and which follows a decision taken back in 2016 at a European level.  Given that the SNCF debt was estimated at being 46,6 billion euros at the end of 2017, the idea of opening up the national monopoly to competition is no doubt an attractive idea to the government.

In an attempt to appease the angry train drivers, the current government (in power since May 2017) has assured that: only new cheminot recruits will be affected by the changes to employment status, that privitization will only by partial, and that they will pay off the current SNCF debt. But NO, NO and NO! is still the response. As is often the case here, ‘protest first and (perhaps) negociate later’: Train strikes are scheduled for two days out of every five right through to 28 June.

The French general public usually accept strikes as a necessary evil to improve workers’ rights, but for the moment the majority of folk might not actually be in favor of this one.

Ps. In addition to SNCF, some universities and the airline company Air France are also  striking. As France is nearing the 50th birthday of the May 1968 major strikes this wave of striking might very well be a means of ‘celebrating’ the anniversary in an ‘appropriate’ manner.

Tous ensemble, Tous ensemble, oi,

ps. There is even a website dedicated to keeping French citizens up-to-date regarding strikes: c’estlagreve.fr

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Grossophobia

‘In France, vanity is not a vice’ ….. Almost French  (2002)- the author of this book, Sarah Turnbull, then goes on to write ‘Rigorous self-maintenance is imbued from birth – it’s a mark of self-pride.’

When I think back to 1999 when I first arrived in France, some things did strike me as being a little high maintenance (at least compared to Australia at the time). For example there were: the perfectly shiny shoes and lack of sports shoes being worn in the street….a lack of sports clothes, in general, being worn in public, neat hair (which could be explained by a large number of hairdressers) and a low percentage of overweight citizens.

There is an expression in French: ‘Etre bien dans sa peau’ (‘to be well in one’s skin‘) which might best be translated by ‘to feel good about oneself’. It is interesting and perhaps revealing that a physical rather than an emotional reference is used to express a sense of well-being.

One memorable example of ‘rigorous self-maintenance’ that I came across was uncovered during a discussion amongst some of my husband’s old school friends after one of them had just given birth to her first child. One of the very first questions for the new mother was ‘Have you returned to your pre-pregnancy weight yet?’ And not the expected: ‘How’s the baby?’ ‘How are you sleeping?’ ‘Do you need some help?’ or something along those lines. I was shocked but the mother didn’t appear to be and happily engaged in conversation about her physique.

Nevertheless, France has not been spared the worldwide trend of increasing rates of obesity  (interesting OECD report 2017). The rate over the past few years in France has apparently been more rapid than was predicted.

‘What it means to be fat in France is for the first time up for discussion with the release of the book late last year You’re Not Born Fat’- by Gabrielle Deydier who has been the victim of fatphobia (grossophobia) for much of her life.  “Frenchwomen,” says Gabrielle, “pride themselves as being the most feminine in Europe. There is this feeling that women have to be perfect in every way.” “ Yes obesity has doubled in the past 10 years, that’s much too much. But it does not mean we discriminate against the obese in telling them they can’t work and insulting them.”

Her account of her poor treatment is really very disturbing. I really hope that her book has sparked more discussion and reflection around diversity – and not only in the physical realm, but in learning difficulties, mental illness, sexual orientation etc….

Vanity IS one of the 7 deadly sins after all is it not? (n’est pas?)

Another year over, and a new one just begun.

I forgot to take photos of our food over the Christmas and New Year period, but I can assure you that we did eat well (read ‘copiously’) and that the butter shortage didn’t hamper festivities. In fact supplies of butter seem to be back to normal.

img_8990.jpgOn the return trip from Vendee to Toulouse we spent four days in the Perigord region. This region is renown for truffles, duck and geese products, and walnuts. While we were there we visited the  recently built Lascaux caves center and some of the surrounding villages including the stunning  Rocamadour where we simply had to eat some of the delicious local raw milk cheese of the same name during our picnic lunch there.

The famous Lascaux caves have been closed to the public for many years in order to preserve the important cave paintings within – estimated to be up to 20,000 years old – but the true-to-life replica in the new modern center is amazing.  To this day it is a mystery how the artists managed to paint these enormous, yet accurate, representations of animals (there are no paintings of anything else; no plants, no fire, no people….) in the deep dark recesses of the extensive caves.

Having an old school friend stay for a visit was a good way to kick off the year.  Rachael and I managed to tick a few items of her ‘must do’ list including exploring Toulouse, a visit to a local winery, eating creme brûlée, croque monsieur, and baguettes and cheese and a visit to Carcasonne

 

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Stormy weather at Carcasonne.  At least the gargoyles were fun to watch as they ‘spat’.

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Post-lunch café in Place Saint Georges – yes it is mid-winter!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rachael also helped a great deal in planning our daughter’s 10th birthday party and I must say that the resulting treasure hunt was a great hit with our daughter and her new-found friends.

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Thank you Rachael!

What does one eat in France for the Réveillon?

Firstly, what is the réveillon? It is a loooooong dinner held on the evenings preceding Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The word ‘réveil’ means ‘waking’ and refers to the fact that these dinners traditionally involve staying awake (and eating) until midnight…and beyond.

As the Réveillon approaches, the festive menus are being finalized across the nation. As with any country, the dishes served will vary from family to family, region to region and year to year, but there do seem to be some usual suspects:

– Starting with champagne and some finger foods, especially canapes topped with smoked salmon or caviar for example and it might also feature verrines (see my previous post Oct 2016), nuts…., but unlike Australia, dips are not very common and cheese platters are never served before the meal nor with crackers.

– The entree could be some raw oysters, scallops, lobster, the controversial foie gras, or soup, with a suitable wine to accompany.

– The main dish is the one that seems to be the most flexible and can be anything from fish to beef /game meat or capon (but not often turkey). Vegetables can be found in form of potatoes, pureed winter varieties, grilled or in a gratin ….with wine on offer.

– For the purists, this is then followed by a cheese platter served with crusty bread (possibly a little fancier than the bread offered during the main course and might be fig, walnut, or rye for example) perhaps with a green salad during, before or after – with wine.

– And for dessert, a ‘buche’ (a cake resembling a log of wood) is common. The original and most common one is chocolate but it is possible to find all kinds of variations from the local patisserie such as berry, tropical fruit, pear, coffee and there are even ice-cream varieties available. A buche from a patisserie will set you back about 30€ for 8 people.

 

– Dried fruit, chocolate, ‘Papillotes’ and mandarines might be passed around for those who are still a little peckish. Papillotes are chocolates (of pretty poor quality) that are wrapped in shiny foil paper and sold only at Christmas time (that would be from late October to January!).

– Coffee anyone? (always a short black) Or perhaps a digestive?

In Australia, it is common to eat one predominantly cold family Christmas meal at lunchtime on the 25th in a buffet style. This approach permits guests to select what and how much of each dish they want and the timing allows the whole afternoon to digest (and as the following day is a public holiday, there is also the time to recover…… or eat leftovers).

So ‘Bon Courage!’ (Hang in there!) Not only in order to survive excesses of food and lack of sleep but to be able to try and ‘celebrate’ this time of year for those whose loved ones are no longer around to share it with. I miss my mum – who would have turned 82 this 23rd of December – and I would love to be able to teletransport myself to Australia to spend some time with my dad and my brother and friends and then to the USA to see my big sister and friends.

But the good news is that my dear friend Rachael will be visiting in the first week of 2018!

Disaster in France….No butter!

 

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Salted butter from La Vendee. This butter has salt crystals in it that make a sound when you pass your knife through it.

For a country that consumes more butter than any other, the current butter shortage is a serious matter. For a few weeks now the butter shelves in the supermarkets have been bare, much to my daughter’s dismay: she can no longer eat her Vegemite and butter on toast.

 

Apparently, the troubles began with the end of European milk quotas in 2015 which led to farmers immediately rushing to produce dairy. But that triggered a collapse in milk prices, which drove some producers back out of the market.

But now there is a big increase in global butter consumption, with buttery pastries becoming increasingly popular with Asian consumers (especially the Chinese – which incidentally I witnessed during our time there) and with butter coming back into vogue after decades of westerners eating margarine believing that it was a healthy alternative.

So rising butter demand and falling supply results in increased prices.  However, the price increases have not been transferred to French supermarket shoppers and so French butter producers have resorted to selling their butter abroad for a better price.

Why not just increase the price of butter to customers you ask? This is not possible due to rigidities in France’s system of pricing and distribution – big retailers refuse to pay more for the product and there are strict restrictions on foreign competitors. This situation is likely to continue until annual negotiation meetings due in February 2018.

I can’t imagine the French population surviving until then. We’ll have to wait and see.

 

French cinema and song…….etc

September is not my favorite time of the year…at least in the northern hemisphere. As the days grow shorter and colder the list of administrative tasks grows longer and longer and school and everything else starts again with intensity. The end of  this  scene from the French film Auberge Espagnole (Spanish Apartment) makes me laugh and cry at the same time. It dates back to 2002 but things don’t seem to have changed that much. I have felt like the main character – Xavier – on numerous occasions with all of the paperwork required to set things up such as….changing our postal address, school enrollment, extracurricular activities, etc…

téléchargement cinemaIf you’ve never seen the film, I can highly recommend it and its 2 sequels – Les Poupées Russes (Russian Dolls) and Casse-tête Chinois (Chinese Puzzle) – which all focus on western European life. In addition to the great story, the soundtracks are excellent. As with the majority of French films, these works rely on strong characters, good storylines and talented actors and not on expensive special effects and superstars.

The paperwork was worth it because the kids have been going happily to school each morning and tell me that they LOVE the self-service canteen (where they enjoy a choice of 4 entrees, of 2 main courses with side, followed by cheese or yogurt and then a selection of desserts) but they are NOT happy about the new timetable: The former timetable was 8:45-16:45 Mon, Tues, Thurs and Fri and the new timetable is 8:55-16:30 Mon, Tues, Thurs and Fri AND Wednesday morning 8:55-12:00. In addition, they think that the 2-hour lunch break is a little too long – but they probably need all of that time in order to eat and digest their large lunch!

I’m not particularly impressed by the first poem that our daughter was asked/told to learn by her new teacher which was titled ‘Obeir pour bien grandir’ (Obey in order to grow up well). The lines of the poem promote everything but encouraging independent, creative and inquisitive children.  A sort of ‘subtle’ brainwashing in a way, probably with the teacher’s principal goal being to increase his chances of having a quiet and ‘sage’ class this year.

‘Sage’……hmmmmm. I also really dislike the way that this word ‘sage’ (well-behaved) is employed here. For example, it is invariably used when dropping kids off at a party: ‘sois sage’ (be good). NO! I am certainly not denying that it is really important that a child respects those present at the party. But I am questioning if that should be the focus of the parents parting message; I’m willing to bet that in the same situation in Australia there would be a much higher incidence of hearing parents say ‘have fun’ (and just assuming/trusting that their offspring will be ‘sage’).

illustration-aldebert-enfantillages-3_1-1480933852Speaking of ‘fun’ we took the kids to a music concert this past weekend. The singer was Aldebert and he had the audience (including me) up on their feet jumping and clapping. His songs are aimed at children but he is like the ‘Disney of singers’ because his music appeals to adults too (and not in the annoying ear-worm way of The Wiggles). Like many French singers, the real appeal is usually in the lyrics of their work. Songs that at first might be perceived as just pleasant listening can turn into real gems with closer attention. My first experience of this was when a French teacher asked us to translate ‘Lucie‘ by Pascal Obispo. I am still moved by this song today.

 

 

 

Back from The Spanish Pyrenees

One definite plus of our new location is its proximity to the Spanish border. We took advantage of this fact and spent one fabulous week on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees mountains – in the Aragon Region -in the Province of Huesca- and also in the bordering  Catalonian Region (which is, incidentally, hoping for a referendum later this year in order to leave Spain). The weather was great, the landscape magnificent, the locals very friendly and the food was delicious. Cod, calamari, mushrooms, dried meats (for example the longaniza sausage), red peppers and summer fruit featured regularly:

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The children particularly liked the tradition of tapas and one of the cepe/porcini mushroom dishes was sooooo good that our formally mushroom-hater son asked for a second helping!

DSC_2635The food was far more popular than the mountain hikes …at least according to our kids, despite the stunning beauty of the Aigues Tortes National Park and surrounds and the numerous 12th-century churches that are listed as World Heritage Sites.

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Saint Quirc of Durro

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Saint Climent of Taull

Although, there is a language known as Occitan (or ‘lenga d’oc’) which is spoken here in southern France  (with its roots in Latin, it sounds like a cross between French and Catalan – and  is apparently an official language in Catalonia), I am actually thinking of adding more Spanish to my limited repertoire in preparation for our next trip to Spain.

In the meantime, I’m training my ear to understand the local Toulousain accent: the “ai” sound, for example, is much more nasal and so the word for bread, ‘pain’=/pa~/ spoken with a Toulousain accent sounds more like ‘peng’= /pɛŋɡ/. Also, I found that the locals speak more melodically than other French; they seem to ‘sing’ as they talk.

They also use expressions and vocabulary that I had never heard before. One example is the local word ‘chocolatine’ for  ‘pain au chocolat’ (chocolate croissant). There are certainly many more examples but I haven’t deciphered them yet.

I hope that our two children – who will be starting at their new school next Monday – will be able to understand their teachers. And I hope that I too will be able to understand the locals and manage to build some friendships with other parents….like those below:

imagePlace Saint Georges, Toulouse: That’s where we and 3 other ex-Shanghai couples and kids – who have now relocated in and around Toulouse – reunited for an al fresco dinner (actually, it wasn’t very cool on the terrace but rather hot and sweaty). I couldn’t believe that the large Square – bordered entirely by restaurants – was completely full on a Monday… late into the night.  Toulouse has many universities and it has the reputation of being a ‘party town’.

Something to celebrate, I’ve just finished my 100th blog post!