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’



‘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?)

Disaster in France….No butter!



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.


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!


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










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 🙂





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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Self and Other. Who are you?



…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.’

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. ( .   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.