I know it’s nearly spring when….

….daffodils and blossoms start to appear, when the days grow just a little longer and the clothes a little thinner, and  when I see dandelion leaves being sold at the market. The plant is known as ‘pissenlit’ in French which means ‘urinate/piss in bed’ ….due to its diuretic properties!

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Dandelion leaves topped with fried lardon – and it’s rendered oil with a dash of added vinegar- and a poached egg.

I got excited when I saw dandelion being sold here in Challans (on the west coast of France) because it is more common to see it at the market on the northern or eastern borders and it’s generally only available for a few weeks of the year. The resulting dandelion salad that I made took me back in time and place to the town of Moiron – near Grenoble – where a lovely French girl named Annelise first made it for me about 17-18 years ago. I remember that she added walnut oil to her dressing (the walnuts from that region are famous across the country) but I didn’t have any left…….it was still very yummy.

I probably could and should just eat my ‘lawn’ (which indeed has more weeds than grass) but there are a few types of dandelion and those growing in my yard do not seem as fine as those being sold. If you do plan on trying to collect your own, apparently it is best to pick  the plants before they flower and to find those that are growing in shade – because they are whiter, more tender and have a better flavor than tough old green leaves.

Bon appetit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

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.

 

 

Parenting over here.

ob_ff8aed_image-rencontre-parents-profsBack in February 2015 I reflected on the American ‘Good job!’ versus the Chinese ‘You’re garbarge’ parenting.

Recently two children that had been invited to our daughter’s party were only permitted -by their parents – to attend half of the celebrations …as a form of punishment. That made me think that perhaps it is time for me to reflect on French parenting – especially now that I’ve been living here as a parent for a little while. (I’ve already written a little on the French education system in a previous post entitled ‘What we’ve been up to’ in October 2015).

Actually, French parenting style was very much in the news following Pamela Druckerman’s book release in 2012: Bringing up bebe – One American Woman Discovers The Wisdom of French Parenting. It recounts her experiences raising a child in Paris, where she found French kids to be way more well behaved, polite, autonomous, and willing to eat ‘adult’ food than their American counterparts.

The children grow up in families in which the rules are well-understood, and a clear family hierarchy is firmly in place. In French families, as Druckerman describes them, parents are firmly in charge of their kids.

How that translates into daily French life is …..well….the parents often seem kind of …..strict and bossy. Kids are instructed on what to wear (so that everything matches of course) and to not get their clothes dirty, are expected to sit at the dinner table for interminable meals, their toys are rarely seen in the living room (they are confined to the bedroom), questioning adults is not encouraged and I’ve heard public comments such as these on more than one occasion towards children: ‘tu me fatigues'(you’re wearing me out), ‘arretes de pleurer’ (stop crying for goodness sake), ‘qu’est-que tu me fais?’ (what are you doing to me?) ‘tu es nul’ (you’re usesless) ‘tu es chiant’ (you’re a pain in the arse) and punishments are handed out …such as my earlier example of not permitting a child to attend a birthday party ….which I incidentally find particularly harsh as it punishes the other children involved who were not implicated in the ‘crime’.

Like other European states, France criminalizes violence against children, but it also allows parents the right to discipline their children at a low level. France is the only country in Europe where spanking is still legal, and, according to surveys in France, it is still commonplace (ahaparenting.com)

And very unlike the Americans who praise everything a child does (whether it’s truly warranted or not) with a loud ‘good job’ and ‘aawwwesome’ the French (generally speaking) are not often heard saying ‘that was really good’ but rather expressions such as ‘pas mal’ (‘not bad’) or ‘tu peux faire mieux’ (‘you could do better’)

To sum it up in a nutshell – and grossly generalizing –  I get the feeling that the goal of parenting here is to bring-up a well-behaved child who listens to their teacher and does their homework, who is polite, patient and obedient.

But after reading this article: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/the-truth-about-french-parenting-and-i-would-know/254521/  I would have to agree that I don’t think I actually want obedient children, because those are the kind of kids that are more vulnerable to peer pressure. I hope to aim to put an emphasis on kids who are able to think for themselves, who question everything (or almost everything!), and who follow their interests/hearts.

It is interesting to note that there does appear to be a bit of a backlash to the traditional style of parenting with more information appearing around topics such as ‘positive parenting’.

To finish, it is comforting to read what Steve Petersen had to say about children and their upbringing: “development really wants to happen. It takes very impoverished environments to interfere with development … [just] don’t raise your child in a closet, starve them, or hit them on the head with a frying pan“….. so there is nothing to worry about. Carry on!

And speaking of parents…I’ll be visiting mine in Australia in a couple of weeks…I’m looking forward to it mum’n’dad.

 

Back to France.

In 2002 Sarah Turnbull (an Australian reporter/author) wrote a book called ‘Almost French’ about her ‘new life in Paris’ with her French boyfriend. When I read the book back then I found many of her observations rang true for me (such as learning to appreciate interminable meals). I rediscovered this book when opening cartons of our belongings (that had been in storage for 2.5years).  I was curious to see how Sarah was coping with her life in Paris these days…..but as it turns out, she and her (now) husband Fred are now living in Australia!

After the 32-hour trip back to France from Australia I was excited to see the sun shining on the first day and then whilst walking to the center of town to stumble upon the local ‘Foire a l’Ancienne d’Autrefois Challans’ (Old fashioned Festival of Challans of another era) . This event takes place 4 times during July and August involves a large number of locals dressing up and re-enacting the way of life in the early1900’s.

With the enthusiasm of an excited puppy I approached a group of young girls dressed in period costume and asked them if I could take a photo to which they gave the surly reply that I hadn’t said ‘please’.

I was immediately flung back to a time – 15 years ago during my first year of life in France – one afternoon I’d lost my way whilst walking and had asked a passer-by for directions (in my very broken French). In an indignant tone he said that he did not wish to be spoken to in the informal manner ‘tu’ but with the formal manner ‘vous’ (which involves more complicated verb conjugations). I don’t recall if he gave me directions.

Back to the present situation: I breathed, smiled, took the photo of the girls, thanked them (of course) and went on my way. IMG_6795

Being ‘polite’ – in the formal sense – is very important in France. Now whilst I believe that how one says something is as important as what they say and that being ‘polite’ extends way beyond just words and grammar, this is not a time for arguments…I should (just suck it up Jenni!) have said ‘S’il vous plait’.

My intention is to keep my mind and heart open and not to use the useless concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’…..AND of course…… remember to say please. I might also keep in mind Sarah Turnbull’s observation; “ To be a true insider you need that historical superglue spun from things like French childhood friends and memories of school holidays on the grandparents’ farm and centuries of accumulated culture and complications.”

As my husband grew up in Challans, we have enjoyed time spend with his family and some of his childhood friends (some of whom recognized him as he was jogging down the street). We do however (and this is surely to be expected) feel like we are outsiders.

DSC_0100Also as expected, the food has not disappointed me. We have enjoyed home-cooked meals with melons (cantaloupes), mussels, pipi shells (pignons) freshly collected from the beach at low tide before being lightly cooked in butter and garlic, mouth-cutting baguettes with a huge assortment of cheeses, and fruit tarts with plums and or apricots.

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After an initial adjustment period of a few days staying at my mother-in-law’s (time to recuperate from the voyage, reconnect, be fed and to buy a car) the next 2 weeks were spent 15mins away right on the west-coast of France in the beach-resort town of St Jean de Monts – enjoying the beach and coastal forests (until our permanent home became available).IMG_6852

During this time I felt the strongest pull to be close to the earth –I found myself lying down on the fine sand, the carpet of pine-needles, the prickly lawn…..to feel the breeze move over my body, to watch insects scamper/fly and to listen to the birds/waves crashing. Living in Shanghai over the past 2 years taught me many things, one of which is to be particularly grateful for fresh air, clean water and blue skies.IMG_6804

We are now in our little ‘permanent’ home. When I met the neighbors (a retired couple) the first phrase that they used was ‘c’est calme ici’ (it’s quiet and calm here)….I’m not sure if this was a warning (ha ha ha). We still have no internet nor land-line telephone and we are without most of our belongings (which are still in a container somewhere between China and France) and are reminded yet again that we don’t really need most of them.

I feel like the ‘honeymoon’ period is nearly over and  I’m eager to look into possibilities here (such as employment, associations, yoga etc.) but in France, like much of Europe, nothing really happens over the summer period of July and August.

As Confucius advises (in the book that I just read during our holidays ‘Confucius from the Heart’ by Yu Dan): ‘Do what is in front of you as well as you can; there’s no need to worry about most things, so dont’ worry about them‘.

DSC_0049Ps. Mum is still in hospital but she is now in the rehabilitation ward with a goal to move back home at the end of the week and then to receive palliative cancer/chemotherapy treatment once she is strong enough. She and dad sound positive and strong. Thank you everyone for your well wishes and positive ‘vibes’ which are greatly appreciated.

 

 

 

 

 

Repatriation more difficult than Expatriation…

I’ve appreciated the last 3 weeks in Australia – but my time, thoughts and emotions have been very much pre-0ccupied with my parents’ well-being as my mother is still in hospital – with a diagnosis of cancer. One good out-come of this was that my sister made a surprise visit from The States. In all of the upheaval I’ve still been able to catch-up with some family and friends and some of the other wonderful things that Victoria/Melbourne have to offer (food markets, museums, bush walks, brunch, coffee)……..and I’ve also occasionally thought about our (very) impending move back to France.
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“Reverse culture shock is experienced when returning to a place that one expects to be home but actually is no longer, is far more subtle, and therefore, more difficult to manage than outbound shock precisely because it is unexpected and unanticipated,” says Dean Foster, founder and president of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions, a firm that specialises in intercultural training and coaching worldwide. 

 

…….I am somewhat nervous about moving back to France.

“Living abroad changes one’s views on life, one’s perception of the home country and even one’s life goals” – Shanghai Family magazine Jan 2015

Our dear French friend Claire (from Santa Barbara who returned to France just before we moved to China) gave us this advice: ‘Vois ça comme une nouvelle expatriation plutôt que comme un retour!’ (Consider it like a new expatriation rather than a return) She also said that ‘la patience sera ta compagne de tous les jours’ (Patience will be your constant friend)

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Expats returning home can expect their top re-entry challenges being:

  • Boredom
  • No one wants to listen
  • You can’t explain
  • Reverse homesickness
  • Relationships have changed
  • People see ‘wrong’ changes
  • People misunderstand you
  • Feelings of alienation
  • Inability to apply new knowledge and skills
  • Loss/compartmentalisation of experience

(According to Dr. Bruce La Brack from the School of International Studies at University of the Pacific.)

The thing is, although I did live in France for 8 years, it never did really feel like home. But I have not lived in Australia for over 15 years either and although I always feel a sense of well-being when my feet touch Australian soil – and my school friends and most of my family live in Australia – so much has changed and I do not feeling entirely at home there either. But at the moment I think I’d probably feel more comfortable just staying here……………….