Intense….

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The month-long intensive English training ‘gig’ has come to an end. It was indeed very intense but I think everyone (including myself) learned a great deal. My lovely trainees presented me with a basket of yummy local goodies on the last day…..I think I must have mentioned my interest in food at some stage!?

In my experience, many French folk think that they have the poorest English skills in Europe. There are probably many factors contributing to this belief (fact?). In any case, teaching English here needs to include a big dose of psychology, along with humor, role plays…..and a little grammar.

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I attended my ‘Ceremonie de Naturalisation’ where I, and 30 or so others, sang the French national anthem (or at least moved our lips) , shook hands with the local Prefet*, received documents regarding what it means to be a French citizen (which included -somewhat belatedly –  the words to the national anthem), and toasted the occasion with a glass of champagne. It was a really nice event which balanced ceremony with conviviality .

However, in the very same week that I was officially welcomed into French society, I saw these flyers posted on cars parked in our town as I walked to the local market:img_8318img_8319img_8317

Following what seems to be a world-wide trend, many people seem to be looking for scapegoats or to be wishing they could go back to ‘the good old days’ rather than looking for solutions for the future. This is a concern as there will be the French presidential elections in April next year.

At least I’ll be able to vote this time!

Meanwhile my dad was whisked into hospital to investigate blood clots on the lung. The tests took a week but did not reveal the cause. The doctors were able to find treatment to reduce the symptoms.

He is feeling better and I send a big THANK YOU to friends and family for their support. The bad news is that long haul aeroplane travel will no longer be an option for him…..which puts an end to our plans to have him visit here in France 😦

*’The prefect (prefet) is somewhat of an odd entity: standing between central and local government, their official role is to ensure local branches of state services function properly and they represent the state and ministers.’ 
‘Often spotted in their official uniforms at opening ceremonies, commemorations and other important events, prefects are public figures but there is a lot more to them than meets the eye. Besides running what amounts to their own business with between 300 and 1,000 staff, the prefects have three main missions: to work with the police and the gendarmerie coordinating security issues; to manage the local branches of state services and their contacts with local government; and to work with different local bodies and companies to support the economy and pass on information on local affairs’.

‘Today, their role is to act on behalf of the government, defend the national interest in their area and implement the government’s policies, free of political pressure’: http://www.connexionfrance.com/prefet-france-what-do-they-do-10662-news-article.html  

More on French food

For the first time since I began this blog I missed posting for a whole month! Why? I think that it is probably due to a number of factors: La Rentree (the back to school routine and with that the extracurricular activities etc… ), the sadness of saying goodbye to Summer (and with it warm weather, long days, stone fruit!), the arrival of a work project that I’ve been given by a local training company (trying to build a full-time, month-long English training course from scratch and without materials), missing Shanghai wonton soup and lots of other stuff (blah blah blah) and then finally, feeling the full weight of mum not being around anymore. I miss her so much. And so, in her memory, I dedicate this post to French food which she enjoyed so much. This might also encourage dad to come across to visit and to eat!

‘The passion for food is one of the most lovable, enjoyable aspects of France. Culinary failures are not treated lightly in this country, not turned into jokes, no more than a barbecue without beer would amuse Australians’. (Almost French, Sarah Turnbull)

It is true, that food is as common a topic of conversation here as the weather is in Britain.

In France ‘Dinner parties are the main way of entertaining … follow the French example and serve entree, main, salad, cheese and dessert’ (Sarah Turnbull)

While it is true that dinner parties are popular and often follow a predictable, and delectable order – entree, main, salad, cheese and dessert – there seems to be a little more flexibility these days:  It is not uncommon to skip the cheese and/salad dishes, or to invite people  ‘chez-soi’ for an ‘aperitif dinatoire’ – which is basically a collection of ‘mise en bouche’ (finger foods) eaten around the coffee table and accompanied by champagne and wine. This is quite a change from the past and perhaps reflects a generation who wants to spend less time in the kitchen or who wants less washing up, or to go to bed earlier…or simply who wants to spend time with friends in a more casual setting.

There are often little ‘toasts’ served (toasted bread topped with smoked salmon, tapenade, tomato salsa….), ‘cakes’ (savory loaves cooked in log-tins baked with eggs, cheese, flour and choice of vegetables/fish/ham ),   but by far the most popular offering at the moment are ‘verrines’: small glasses  filled with ingredients such as pureed beetroot, avocado mousse, tuna…..etc.  Interestingly, dips (which are ever so popular in Australia) haven’t really taken off here…yet.83bbb16b8e76386f76b4a97bdae5c193apericube

 

 

And then there are the infamous ‘apericubes’ that have apparently been around for over 50-years  . Each little cube is individually wrapped and there is a riddle written on the inside of the wrapper (which are good conversations starters!). I’m not exactly sure what is inside the wrappers. It is supposed to be some kind of cheese, but it can be stored out of the fridge! It’s not exactly high quality fare, but it seems to be an institution. There are even special editions released during the year to celebrate football events, the olympics etc. The one pictured above is a special edition for autumn and includes flavors such as mushroom, pumpkin and cumin, and walnut and blue cheese.

2639615c9163ec95b8553e72021e3762Dessert at such a ‘dinner’ is optional, but might include a home-made seasonal fruit tart, ice-cream, apple crumble (very ‘a la mode’ at the moment) or a pretty dessert from one of the local patisseries.

IMG_7090Like the schools in China, the school canteen offers students a complete hot meal, but unlike China it offers a dessert in addition to the entree and main course. The week’s menu is systematically posted in front of the school gate at the start of the week for parent-scrutiny and to avoid repetition of dishes on the dinner table at home. One Tuesday earlier in the year for example (see menu), my kids ate an entree of beetroot with cheese sauce, spicy beef with bulgur and vegetables followed by a choice of chocolate mousse or a pear for dessert.

There is more and more interest by the canteen in sourcing the products locally and in including a number of organic ingredients.

The children sit around small tables of 6-8 students and serve themselves from a collective dish – which I think is a wonderful means of sharing, discussing and generally enjoying their meal! They have time to eat because the lunch break is 1h30mins long.

That’s quite a change from the warm squashed sandwiches and bruised fruit eaten at my school desk as quickly as possible before going out to play – which is what I recall from my school days.

The school canteen menu on offer is much better than what is offered to children in restaurants – which is typically minced beef with french fries, or chicken nuggets with fries or a toasted cheese sandwich (‘croque monsieur’) followed by ice-cream. The latter is what the kids chose to eat last weekend in a restaurant located right on the beach in Brittany while we enjoyed plump fish in a creamy pumpkin emulsion with tender seasonal vegetables topped with crispy bacon. It is more common than not to find such quality dishes being served in the most unassuming establishments for very reasonable prices – much cheaper, for example, than in Australia.

We enjoyed our fish dish in the company of our friend Delphine whom we hadn’t seen since her visit to us in England eight years before. Thanks Delphine. And thanks mum for giving me an unquenchable interest in food 🙂

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Back from Central France (Auvergne)

France really is a great country to explore. I’m constantly enchanted by the landscape and gastronomy when-ever we venture out and about.

DSC_1398We recently spent a wonderful fortnight in the center of France (the least populated region of the country). One of the highlights was meeting-up with our friends Claire and Fabien (and children) with whom we forged memorable moments during our time together in California. In 2012 they returned to northern-France to live but have since bought a beautiful stone holiday house right in the middle of the Cheylade valley. We spent a lovely time in the present moment but also reminisced and were conscious and grateful for what our passage on the west-coast of the USA did in opening up our minds to other possibilities. From my discussions with expatriates, it seems to be very common for a particular city/country to resonate especially deeply with them for one reason or another.

Another highlight was our yabby (fresh-water crustacean) excursion. I recalled my father’s description of catching them in Australia as a young lad using some meat tied to the end of a piece of string… and it worked a charm. Thanks to Dad we caught over thirty of them. The homemade garlicky mayonnaise saved them from being tasteless. Before and After photos below:

This region of France is punctuated with a range of long-time dormant volcanos.

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Climbing the Puy Mary with spectacular views from the summit. ‘Puy’ is the local term for volcanic hill.

The delicious wild raspberries, strawberries and blueberries lining the walking paths helped the kids finally reach our walking destination but slowed down the pace considerably.

 

DSC_1240And I was once again enthralled by the production of Saint Nectaire cheese. We had already visited a St Nectaire producer over a decade ago, but since that time I have experimented in the kitchen myself with microbes in the kitchen with water and milk kefir, kombucha (in a previous post), yogurt, sourdough bread and fermented vegetable productions (with mixed results) and so have a much greater appreciation of the process involved. In addition, I recently read ‘Cooked’- by one of my favorite authors Michael Pollan (in which he dedicates over 20 pages describing this very cheese!) and now I am all the more enthusiastic about what he calls ‘real food’. We saw the cows being milked, followed by the still-warm milk being turned directly into curds and whey, the curds being placed into moulds and salted and then the ageing of the cheeses in volcanic rock caves (which takes 4-6 weeks…one could easily imagine that it would take longer than that to develop the distinctive grey mould ). And to finish, some tasting and buying of the delicious resulting product.

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Goats cheese from another farm: from left to right: fresh, semi-aged, and vintage

To paraphrase Mr Pollan ‘The world becomes more wonderful as soon as we are reminded of the relationships behind a food product: a web of relationships between people, between ourselves and all the other species on which we still depend. Eating and drinking implicate us in the natural world in ways that the industrial economy, with its long and illegible supply chains, would have us forget’. I am sure that is why I found the visit to this farm in the town of Saint Nectaire (and the goat farm we explored) so wonderful: there was no supply chain; no messing with nature via pasteurization etc …just cow/goat to cheese. That’s probably why making my own fermented food also gives me a buzz.

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And as every part of France has it’s own special dish/es, we had to try that of Cantal (a department of Auvergne region). It is called ‘truffade’: potatoes, Cantal cheese and garlic, traditionally served with cured ham and salad. It resembles very much the dishes of other mountainous regions of France such as the ‘tartiflette’ from the Savoie (potato, Reblochon cheese, onions, lardon),  and ‘aligot’ from from the Aveyron (potato and Laguiole cheese) …which we have already happily taste-tested in the past.

Since our return we were thrilled to see our ‘old’ Grenoble-friends Inge and Benoit whom we hadn’t seen for eight years, followed by a reunion with Shanghai-friends Emanuela and Benjamin (who were passing through) and various summer encounters with some of Sebastien’s old school friends and his family. We also made numerous local outings (such as walking and canoeing in the local marsh lands, trips to the beach and blackberry picking) . Our little six year-old even caught an aeroplane by himself to go and spend a week with one of his friends from Shanghai -who is now living in the south of France. He was so proud of himself and (atleast immediately upon his return) very grateful to come back home to his family.

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Its back to school next week ! After an enjoyable, if not long, eight weeks of school vacation.

 

Sigh.

I received my French citizenship (at last) amongst the recent horrific terrorist attacks in France. Many people have been asking about the current ambiance here …..well…life just seems to go on…as do the attacks. Sigh.

Perhaps the craziness surrounding us – all over the globe -has nothing to do with religious, racial or political beliefs. Perhaps much can be explained by the concept of ‘self and other’ (see my last post) and also by the fact that there are desperate individuals in the community who are not fitting-in (or dropping-out of) their networks of friends/families/colleagues and just don’t have the skills to rectify the situation. Skills and abilities such as: calmness; asking for help; empathy and compassion; listening; curiosity; a growth mindset; a respect for self, others and nature; forgiveness;……..  Skills that can (and should) be nurtured at a young age…at home, at *school and in the community. Skills certainly more basic and fundamentally important than reading, writing and arithmetic. Skills that, as individual members of society, we might focus on in our communities. I think back to that much cited quote “Think globally: Act locally”.

Speaking of local, I shift my focus back to summer here in La Vendee. We have been blessed by a visit from our dear friend Nicolas (with whom I spent numerous afternoons on sunny terraces in Grenoble reviewing my new French vocabulary….and drinking coffee).

As the school holidays (all 8 weeks of them) have begun we have taken advantage of seeing friends and some of the sites that La Vendee has to offer including the beaches, salt marshes, coastal pine forests and the child-friendly Chabotterie Logis chateau and the Historial de la Vendee – both which focus especially on the **Vendee War.

I have also been busy delectably degusting the season’s offerings including cherry clafoutis and seafood. I also finally got the chance to taste a local speciality – grilled eel. It was precisely at the moment of it being served that Sebastien casually mentioned that eel really wasn’t that good and indeed it was a ‘muddy’ disappointment.

Now I wish a Happy 80th birthday to my dear dad – who is encouraged to wing himself over here for a plate or two of oysters.

* There are teachers who understand the importance of developing social and emotional intelligence and my children were lucky enough to have had one in Santa Barbara – Juliette http://www.earthandskysb.com/

**I described the pride of the Vendee folk in a previous post (Oct 2015). Here’s a very crude summary of what happened around the time of the revolution once the king’s head had been chopped off: The monarchies surrounding France were worried that their heads would soon be rolling and so declared war on France. The French Revolutionary Army lacked manpower to defend all of the French borders and so conscripted tens of thousands of men to join their cause – but numerous parts of France (La Vendee included) were pro-king and pro-church and refused to join. And so a violent civil war erupted.

Self and Other. Who are you?

 

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…or who speaks broken French.

I was talking to my worldly friend Frank the other day about the frustration of having a ‘foreign’ accent. He – a French man currently living in London – understood what I was talking about, AND feeling. As part of his studies in diplomacy he has come across the concept of ‘self and other’: to know who we are, according to this theory, involves categorizing people into groups…

‘Ideas of similarity and difference are central to the way in which we achieve a sense of identity and social belonging. Identities have some element of exclusivity. Just as when we formally join a club or an organisation, social membership depends upon fulfilling a set of criteria. It just so happens that such criteria are socially-constructed (that is, created by societies and social groups). As such ‘we’ cannot belong to any group unless ‘they’ (other people) do not belong to ‘our’ group.’ Othersociologist.com

So people/societies are driven to construct informal ‘groups’  in order to have a sense of identity. I wonder if individuals could actually have a sense of who they are without this element of exclusion (which is oh so evident among children and adolescents)?

The other day after speaking to a couple of boys I heard them exclaim as I walked away  – *”She’s not French!”…which I suppose is a perfect example of the boys identifying themselves (‘We are French’) by excluding me. Interestingly research indicates that when people experience a drop in self-esteem, they become more likely to express prejudice. (Understandingprejudice.org) .   This fact adds a little more light on the discriminatory behavior certain folk express.

There are laws against discriminating people according to their religious beliefs, sexual preferences, skin color …. and apparently linguistic discrimination is also forbidden by most international laws except – according to Philippe Blancher, Professor of sociolinguistics, and author of the book “Discriminations : combattre la glottophobie” (Published dec 2015) – in many cases in France.

It would appear, according to  Philippe Blancher, that France has a serious problem of ‘glottophobie’. Glottophobie is discrimination based on language : certain people (and interestingly not only the immigrant population but many French citizens themselves!) are treated differently, considered inferior or rejected because of their language (vocabulary, grammar, accent….). He goes so far as to say that there is a minority of people in France using ‘standard’, ‘correct’, ‘well-groomed’ French who silently dominate the majority  using ‘popular’, ‘local’ language.

In my last post I mentioned that some changes to the French language are being adapted, but Mr Blancher states that the idea that the French language be ‘fixed’, ‘frozen’ and ‘perfect’ is still very much commonplace and I’d have to agree.

Well! So much for pursuing my speech therapy career here! Speaking of which, I actually did a 3-day observation-training at a rehabilitation hospital a week ago and simply can’t ever imagine ever having the ‘well-groomed’ standard French that is expected of such a position.

* For those of you wondering if I’ve received my French citizenship yet…the answer is no. But now that I reflect on the procedure for applying for citizenship, I was required to have, at the very minimum, a reasonable level of French which was formally tested. This is an example of what Mr Blancher was talking about in his book on glottophobie in France. I’m pretty sure that no other European country has such a language requirement of it’s immigrants.

 

 

Quoi?! (what?!)

You may, or more probably may not, have heard about the controversial changes to the French language earlier this year. Changes to over 2000 French words were approved to simplify them for school children (and me!). The Académie française is the French council for matters relating to the French Language …and had apparently approved these changes years before.

French linguistic purists were horrified by the removal from many words of one of their favourite accents – the pointy little circumflex hat (ˆ) that sits on top of certain vowels – and allowing the word for onion to be spelled ognon (formally ‘oignon’).

“What makes this subject so controversial is that people are passionate about it. To change spelling touches on their childhood, reminds them of the pain, the effort, the successes needed to learn the rules and triumph. The circumflex accents are a kind of trophy,”The Guardian Feb 5 2016

Most people I’ve asked about the changes have been against and I’m not sure whether that disapproval is rooted in nostalgia, a belief that the changes are dumbing down the language or a conviction that suffering through hours of spelling lessons and dictation (and lots of red pen corrections) is a necessary rite of passage to becoming a worthy French citizen.

Personally, I’m quite happy about the changes 🙂 French, like English, is a living language and so will naturally evolve over time.

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Speaking of which, about a year ago I noticed a change in the Australian-English language. I had heard it but I actually saw it posted all over a major supermarket during my last visit to Australia: “There’s 42 cards” which without contraction would be “There IS 42 cards” rather than the correct form: “There ARE 42 cards”. This incorrect use of the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ (‘is’ instead of ‘are’) is now part of the Australian-English living language….It does sound wrong though.

The English language doesn’t have the equivalent of the French Academy. It wouldn’t be possible in any case because there is no longer a ‘standard English’. I have lived in a number of anglophone countries (Australia, England, The United States) I can attest to the fact that English vocabulary and grammar is very ‘fluid’. If only the French language was as fluid, flexible and forgiving about grammar as it is becoming about spelling!

The other side.

My time recently spent on the other side of the world certainly had its fair share of sadness and turmoil (see last post) BUT it did have another side…and I was still able to let some joy, lightness and space into my life (as is my intention):

I am so very grateful for:

The time I spent with my Dad, sister, brother and his lovely girlfriend;

Being reunited and supported by my dear childhood friends;

Reconnecting with my wonderful cousins, uncle, and aunts;

Getting to know my mum and dad’s friends better;

..and hearing from all of these people (above) about how my special mother had touched their lives in so many different ways was truly heart warming.

I was also blessed by:

Remembering how friendly and cool Australians are in general;

Hearing some of my favorite birds singing every day from the comfort of my cosy childhood bed: the magpies, kookaburras, plovers and butcher birds ;

Wandering around Melbourne and enjoying the asian food, the excellent coffee, street art, trams…the general Aussie ambiance;

The good ‘ol Aussie BBQ! Dad has become quite the master chef;

Enjoying the Australian sky (which is somehow different from anywhere else in the world..brighter…bigger!) and the Australian forest/bush including kangaroos, wallabies, lizards, and birds and Climbing Mount Cannibal numerous times – which is a little hill not far from home and which I climb each time I visit;

Taking part (ie:being forced by my sister to take part) in ParkRun (a world-wide weekly free 5km fun run) and re-discovering that I quite like a short run when my knee is not painful and when I can manage to come first in my age-category.

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Melbourne:coffee capital of the world

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Just one of the lovely laneways of Melbourne.

 

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Melbourne:best Asian food outside Asia.

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On top of Mount Cannibal..on top of the world!

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Sister Anne ecstatic about finally getting to a sausage sizzle at the local Bunnings (hardware) store.

And there was also the liberating time (6 weeks!) away from my husband and children…and of course the joy of finding them again  🙂

There is always ‘The Other Side’….

My cousin Martin is the Rector of Bondi Anglican Churches (yes that IS on the coast of Sydney…nice right?) and he did a wonderful job as Master of Ceremony at mum’s funeral service.

He chose this reading from Ecclesiastes 3: A Time for Everything

There is a time for everything,and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

imagesAnd of course the Chinese yin and yang also symbolizes the balancing of the universe’s opposing yet complementary forces.

Yes, fortunately, there is always ‘The Other Side’….

Since my return to France and with the beginning of spring I’ve Enjoyed some time spent with new and ‘old’ friends: Christelle and Jerome and kids at an amusement park ‘Futuroscope’, Anthony and Oanh and their kids (friends from Grenoble who now live in Paris), Coraline and Thomas and their son Victor (who was one of our daughter’s good friends in Shanghai……they returned to France from China at the same time we did) and a weekend in Brittany with a local couple and their kids (the son is another close friend of our daughters).