Family, friends and football

Not quite a year yet in our new location and we received our third international visitors last month (with the 4th due next week from California!). It must be the year of travel.

Just short of 80 years of age and with no signs of slowing down, my Aunty Marg and Uncle Rob dropped in via Spain on their way to ……..the Arctic. And one of my old high school friends and her lovely daughter (whom my daughter had been impatiently waiting for) visited on their voyage between Scandanavia and Paris. These visits were an excuse for lots of talking, drinking wine, eating croissants (which we never do otherwise) and exploring more of what this ‘south-west’ region of France has to offer.

DSC_0233We visited Samatan in the Gers (the department to the west of the Haute Garonne where we live) which holds a traditional live poultry market every Monday. And ‘poultry’ includes rabbits here! My relatives pointed out that tying the chickens together by their legs would not be allowed in Australia. It got me thinking about the treatment of animals here (especially as this market also had a section dedicated to the controversial foie-gras) and that made me think back to a classic French cookery book that my gastronomic mother (who is in my thoughts daily) kept on the top of the fridge.

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The rather kitsch (but real!) wrapper from a local butcher’s market stall (rugby is the local sport!). There is no hiding where the products come from, although its perhaps not entirely representative of farm practices.

As I child I was horrified to see photos of dead animals next to the corresponding recipes….but the relationship between the meat on the table and the animals from which it comes is not avoided in this country – as it tends to be in Australia.

DSC_0262Another day and we were off to The Tarn (the department to the north-east). First to wine region of  Gaillac for wine tasting and visiting the quaint (narrow) roads and then to the hill-top village of Cordes sur Ciel.DSC_0271 We ate lunch in the old ‘halles’ (where markets are conducted) and I wondered how the people managed to carry their wares up such a steep 30 minute ascent all of those years ago.

As my friend Geraldine and I explored the center of Toulouse on another day we could ‘hear’ the French football/soccer team playing in one of The World Cup matches (the football World Cup is held every 4 years and is followed closely by fans and non-fans alike): at each French goal there were loud cheers pouring from all of the bars and cafés. It was a festive moment and although I’m not a football fan, I do hope that France gets to the final (only now that Australia has been eliminated). I’m sure it would pick-up the French spirit – at least for a little while.

Geraldine had the ‘honor’ of witnessing the dance routines at my children’s school fete – in the scorching sun – and of the process of resigning my daughter up in an extra-curricular activity for the next academic year: this is something I dread each year. This particular time it involved completing 17 pages of paperwork, attaching numerous documents including a photo, 3 stamped envelopes, medical insurance.. and then standing in a long queue only to be told in the end (as is very often the case) that something was missing or incorrect! Argghhhhh!

We also had two families that we’d met in Shanghai – and who now live one hour away (one to the north and the other to the south) – come over for an Aussie BBQ (although it couldn’t really be called that as there was no beer and we didn’t ask the guests to bring their own meat as Aussie tradition would have it).

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Grilled nectarines – with brown sugar, orange juice and Cointreau

Reconnecting with folk is a wonderful means of sharing and reminiscing about the past but also of exploring and creating new memories……….and of course eating.

Thank you folks!

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Language influences thought…?

One-who-speaks-only-one-language-is-one-person-but-one-who-speaks-two-languages-is-two-people.-Turkish-Proverb.png…’when the linguists Aneta Pavlenko and Jean-Marc Dewaele asked 1,039 bilinguals and multilinguals this question: “Do you feel like a different person sometimes when you use your different languages?”, 65 percent of their respondents said ‘yes’. Judging from anecdotal reports, existing in more than one languages can feel a lot like existing with more than one personality.’

I can definitely identify with that feeling;  I have this strong sense that I’m really not the same person when I’m speaking English as opposed to speaking French. I also have a feeling that it’s far more than just a question of language proficiency.

“To have another language is to possess a second soul”. Charlemagne was a European king in the 700s-800’s

Language influencing thought?…or perhaps Thought influencing language?; ‘The question of how language shapes who you are is a fiercely contested one in the field of linguistics, and has been for many decades’. I admit that I haven’t researched this debate in any great depth but it did come up as part of my studies of Speech and Language Pathology and I do remember reading a few articles at the beginning of this century which tended to support more the idea that Thought influenced Language. However, I’ve recently come across more recent information which tends to support the opposite and which is really quite fascinating:

One piece of research, for example, showed that people’s morals change according to whether they are using their native language or a foreign language  ‘……when people are confronted with moral dilemmas, they respond differently when considering them in a foreign language than when using their native tongue. In your native language, you’re more likely to rely on your gut. In a second language, however, reason takes over.  For example, volunteers read descriptions of acts that appeared to harm no one, but that many people find morally reprehensible—for example, stories in which …someone cooked and ate his dog after it had been killed by a car. Those who read the stories in a foreign language (either English or Italian) judged these actions to be less wrong than those who read them in their native tongue.’

Operating in our second language can have some intriguing psychological effects. We swear more freely and linger longer on embarrassing topics than normal.  According to psychologist Constantinos Hadjichristidis at the University of Trento, a second language discourages us from relying on intuitive thinking.

All of these findings should absolutely be taken into account at international meetings where a lingua franca is being used in order to look for resolutions to problems. Big immoral decisions might be being taken quite unconsciously.

These findings could also go toward explaining my feelings of having a split personality: perhaps my ‘French-self’ is centered in my reasoning head whereas my ‘Anglo-self’ is housed in my sensitive gut (or heart….?) and they could also clarify perhaps why I am more comfortable with my intuitive gut-heart-English-speaking self.

For those of you who are curious, here is a fascinating talk further supporting the idea that language influences thought and behavior (I love Tedtalks!). It looks at how people who use languages that don’t have a specific grammatical form for the future tense – such as Chinese – behave differently (because they  don’t dissociate the present from the future when making decisions).

and this one which explores how the subjunctive mood (which the English language – and the French language use liberally) tend to influence how we experience the world around us. The speaker introduces the idea that the use of the subjunctive (such as ‘should have’, ‘could’…) versus the indicative (or factual – mood) can lead us to live and think in alternative realities rather than in the factual HERE and NOW.

 

 

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

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.