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.

 

 

 

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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!

 

First Impressions

After 5 hours of scrubbing and cleaning, I left ‘home’ (our home of 2 years to the very day) and drove past vast open spaces, sunflower fields, towns, and vineyards to arrive 6 hours later at our new pad. The next day our affairs also arrived by truck. Apparently, the 47m3 of ‘stuff’ (mostly toys) was under the average French load of 60m3, but it was still way too much and it took days to take it all out of the boxes.

348Just before leaving home, we had the chance to catch-up with some friends that we met in Shanghai (who now live in Paris but who were holidaying on the west coast). 382And then shortly after our arrival, we caught-up with some more ex-ex-pats.

That would surely have to be the biggest benefit of our expatriation experiences…the opportunity to meet (and re-meet) so many people from all over the globe.

Speaking of people, those that I’ve met so far here in Toulouse and the surrounding towns are pretty friendly folk.  363It’s been easy to strike up conversations at the markets and our neighbor has spoilt us with her homegrown produce. Martine even gave me a cooking lesson to show me how to prepare zucchini/courgette flowers the Italian way (she originates from Calabria).

As with many parts of France, the locals here are extremely proud of their village/town/city to the point that they can be caught down-talking the adjoining village/town/city. Generally they appear to have strong personalities, speak frankly, and have less concern about customer service than I’m used to: on numerous occasions shops have been closing well before their posted finishing time.

We are in the Haute Garonne department which is in the Occitanie Region (formally known as the Midi Pyrénées).

The capital of the Haute Garonne is Toulouse, which is also called the Ville Rose (Pink City) due to the color of the bricks from which it has been constructed….although my kids thought that ‘Orange City’ would be a more accurate name.

Even when buildings look like that might not be built with the famous bricks…it turns out that they are!

It makes for a very striking city with impressive squares and lovely little streets and passages.

447The city has the Garonne River running through it and the Canal du Midi runs around it. At the moment the Marie (mayor) has created ‘Toulouse Plage’ along the river which offers a multitude of free activities to the general public. In this photo, people are playing with board games that were on offer with volunteers mulling around to help with the rules. We played ‘Niagara’ which was a good mix of strategy and luck. Compared with Australia, board games seem to be more popular in Europe.

Closer to our new home there is a vast forest (la forêt de Bouconne) and quite a few lovely walking/cycling paths. However, apart from the few quaint traditional brick houses, the architecture is very uninspiring.

I’d say that the first impressions of our new surroundings are mixed but overall positive.

As for forging ahead with new habits?….well I decided to change the side of the bed on which I sleep… just for a change. So besides sleep deprivation, I’ve not made great progress on that front.

However, I have forced myself to go to different places every day and to take different routes whenever possible (my kids would call it ‘getting lost’) just to keep mindful of my actions.

On the move again

In my second ever post (June 4th 2013) I managed to come up with a list of some of the benefits of moving (a little shorter than the list of negatives). I have just read it again to remind myself that there ARE potential benefits of moving …..yes, yes, yes….even though it is typically a highly stressful experience. Benefits such as de-cluttering, discovery, the anticipation of meeting new people and the opportunity for self-reflection.

Having since read the book ‘Better Than Before’ by Gretchen Rubin (which I summarized in a post – Oct 2014), I’d also add to my list that moving also offers the opportunity to start new habits and she writes: ‘Pay close attention to the first few times you do anything because those decisions will shape your baseline habits‘. That’s pretty powerful – I’ll have to be sure to move around very mindfully in my new surrounds.shareasimage

Mental Note: It will also help to have the willingness to actually give up old patterns, and to enjoy the freedom that ensues (but to not be bogged down by the panoply of choices – see earlier post ‘analysis paralysis’ – June 2013). Start With Intention!

In the meantime, I’m still in Challans (in the Vendée département). I just bid farewell to my big sister and my nephew who were visiting for 10 days. My kids were ecstatic to play with their cousin (and he was very patient with them) and my sister was very happy to eat lots of seafood and visit the local area. Thank you Anne and Luc.

Now I’m surrounded by boxes – many of them empty! In the process of procrastination, I came across this clever poem by a famous French writer called Georges Perec, about moving (déménagement). It’s a long list of the verbs/actions that accompany the process of moving. However, George finishes the poem as he closes the door of the apartment that he is leaving. Therefore he omits the equally long list of actions that need to take place at the other end upon opening the door at one’s new home.

Here is the poem for the francophones.

Déménager

Quitter un appartement. Vider les lieux.
Décamper. Faire place nette. Débarrasser le
plancher.
Inventorier ranger classer trier
Eliminer jeter fourguer
Casser
Brûler
Descendre desceller déclouer décoller dévisser
décrocher
Débrancher détacher couper tirer démonter
plier couper
Rouler
Empaqueter emballer sangler nouer empiler
rassembler entasser ficeler envelopper protéger
recouvrir entourer serrer
Enlever porter soulever
Balayer
Fermer
Partir

Georges PEREC
” Espèces d’espaces ”

I’ll be back,  posting from Pibrac (a village just outside Toulouse) once I’ve completed all of these actions (above) and more.

 

Salicorne

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I mentioned this plant in a previous post (Sept 2015). At the time I’d picked some and bitten into it and had found it very unpalatable.  It is a marine plant which grows in swampy areas (which are common in this particular area on the west coast of France) and it is usually preserved in brine and served with pork terrines and the like. The other day I found it being sold fresh (apparently salicorne is best eaten in the springtime as tends to be tough and fibrous the rest of the year) and I couldn’t resist finding out, first of all, what it is called in English, and secondly, how I might prepare it to make it palatable.

  1. glasswort or pickleweed
  2. after soaking it in water and rinsing it well, I blanched it very quickly then tossed it into the wok with some chopped garlic – which incidentally makes anything and everything, including snails, taste great.  I ate the remaining raw weed another day as a salad with a bit of vinaigrette, a totally different experience but potentially repeatable – although I doubt I’ll find it in our new location down south due to the relatively hot and dry climate there.

I was actually near Toulouse last week for 24 hours to check-out some potential homes. Although the housing visits were fruitless, I happily stumbled across the weekly open-air market in the village where we will be based and was delighted to see all of the usual suspects displayed along the Esplanade: good quality cheese, fish, bread, fruit, and vegetable stands overflowing with fresh produce. There were piles of plump, red, juicy cherries for under €4.00 a kilogram! I was also pleased to learn that the locals enjoy food so much that they hold an annual festival (Le marché Gourmand of Pibrac) for those who enjoy eating (…that would have to be the majority of French folk) which is happening on the 24th of this month. I won’t be able to go but I’ll be sure to be there in 2018.

Official moving date = 3rd week of July. Between now and then is typically a busy time of the year: there are school evaluations, field trips, school fairs, end of year performances (music concerts, sports tournaments), birthday parties for children born in summer (for fear of their guests being unavailable during the summer vacation), late dinner parties and bbq’s which take advantage of the extended daylight, town festivals of all sorts (such as the Marché Gourmand), tying up loose ends at work, vacation planning,  spring cleaning and gardening, and this year, even more political elections (by the end of the month there will have been 6 for the year!). Everything stops in France in the month of August so it’s a scramble to stuff as much in before then. However, In my experience, it’s nothing compared with the intensity of September when EVERYTHING starts up again with great fervor.

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On a recent long weekend, we went to the Château de Tiffauges which at one time belonged to a rather sinister fellow called Gilles de Rais better known as Bluebeard. There were numerous things to do including archery, crossbow, riding ‘horses’ and watching demonstrations of medieval weaponry

I  just have to mention the fleeting but thoroughly enjoyable visit from our mélomane friend Fabrice – whom I hadn’t seen for over 9 years. Recently he has been living between Brittany and Saint Pierre and Miquelon – now that’s a part of France that you may not have (like me) known about! Merci Fabrice et à bientôt.

AND hot off the press I’m excited to announce that my big sister and ‘big’ nephew (at 13 years of age he’s taller than her) will be arriving for a visit in a few weeks!

Classy!

I don’t remember exactly when my kids started to enjoy toilet humour, but at the time I thought that it would be but a passing phase. At 9 and 7 years of age I can attest that it’s still going strong, and that I hear ‘caca’ (‘poo’) ‘pipi’ (‘wee’) ‘prout’ (‘fart’) ‘fesses’ (bottom) – amongst other words – on a pretty regular basis.

DSC_1853However,  recently when I glanced at the labels on the bottles of wine on the dinner table I have to admit that I was slightly amused by the toilet humour that they aroused in my mind: ‘Pisse’ and ‘Arse’ …. not exactly the classiest names for a fine beverage. The name ‘Arse’ could pass as inoffensive in the French language, but I don’t think that ‘piss/e’ is really the best marketing choice for either French or English speakers.DSC_1856

Obviously the labels didn’t prevent me from buying them! To be honest I didn’t pay too much attention to the labels but rather to the shape of the bottle.

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By looking at a bottle of wine one can tell from which part of France it is from and more or less from which grape varieties it has been made, and thus the taste – although due to the French regulations about irrigating grape vines (or rather NOT irrigating them) the quality of the grapes, and thus the resulting wine, can vary greatly from year-to-year.

I would elect wines from the Bordeaux region as my favorite, perhaps that’s because I find them similar to a good ‘ol Australian red.

Speaking of elections, if any one has been following French politics recently you would be aware that we have a new (and very young) President. Compared with some other recently appointed heads of state around the world, I think he is pretty …..classy!

Move over tooth fairy…make way for THE mouse!

My son’s fifth baby tooth fell out this week. He carefully placed it in a small box under his pillow overnight in anticipation of a monetary exchange by morning (1€ is the going rate in our household). As most of us Anglo-Saxons know, the ‘person’ responsible for this exchange is, of course, the Tooth Fairy. However, in France, the task is carried out by a ‘Petite Souris’ (Little mouse)

It made me think about some of the other differences in traditions here in France in the month of April.

First of all there is a saying ‘En avril ne te decouvre pas d’un fil’ (‘In April don’t take off one thread’ meaning that despite the sunny weather, one should keep the cardigan). This is generally wise advice in my experience.

Then Easter chocolate season begins weeks before the actual date (there’s no difference there with Australia!). Chocolate shops (of which there are numerous in every town and city) are full of high-quality shiny chocolate rabbits, chickens, ducks, bunnies, but especially fish and bells. Yes, fish and bells!

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What’s with the fish?

April 1st involves some little pranks – especially sticking paper fish on the backs of unsuspecting people – and is known as ‘poisson d’avril’ (‘April fish’). I presume that the chocolate shops use this day as an excuse to make chocolate fish throughout the whole month of April. Very small fish, often called ‘friture’, are very popular and are made with 70% dark, milk, or orange flavored chocolate. The quality of the chocolate here is really very good compared with the Cadbury-style chocolate of my youth.cadbury egg

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And the bells?

Easter Bunny (just like the tooth fairy) doesn’t exist in France. Bells with wings are responsible for leaving chocolate eggs in the garden to be found on Easter Sunday. The Catholic tradition dictates that Church bells do not ring between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, to commemorate the death of Christ and his resurrection. The oral tradition says that the bells fly to Rome during this time to be blessed by the Pope, and then return from this trip loaded with chocolate.

Finally, even though the French have plenty of public holidays to mark Christian religious events, Good Friday is not one of them. The children, however, are on school vacation again (The ‘vacances de printemps’ = spring holiday). I was curious to find out whether my kids were spending more days in the year away from school than in it. Here is what I found: The average Australian child spends 200 days a year at school, the average European 186 and the average French child….(drum roll) ….144 days. Ah voila!