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Sharing France with you

Every week you'll find new stories, local and national events, comments, recipes and advice on this page. Click on the Archive button to see previous posts full of interesting information and links.

Voulez-vous!

Anthony Lee // Friday, 20 February 2015

English is easy. Friend or foe, the person you are addressing is called 'you'. In French there is a choice, and this can cause Anglophones some anxiety.
The basic rules of grammar are easy enough (save for an awkward nicety involving reflexive verbs which need not bother us) and the most fumbling of French speakers will know that tu is a single 'you' and vous is more than one. The complication comes with the discovery that you can use the plural form to address a single person! Even then, those who have reached page two know that vous in this case is used in more formal situations and tu is for people you know well.
So at the two extremes one is on safe ground: a stranger is vous and your best friend is tu. It is the in-betweens that cause the problem: the neighbour whom you greet once a week over the garden fence; the waiter at the café who serves you cheerfully every morning; the person in the
same café with whom you have animated chats about the weather. You want to be friendly, which would imply the use of tu, but you don't want to commit a social blunder by being over-familiar.
If the problem is becoming troubling then you can ask. When you feel you are getting on pretty warmly with someone and would like to confirm your growing friendship by becoming a tu, then there is a verb which allows you to apply for chumminess. Tutoyer means, ' to call someone by the second person singular', so, "On se tutoie?" will get you the answer. The only worry with this is that it is rather un-British to ask what amounts to, 'Will you be my friend?", and is almost as uncomfortable as kissing someone who would rather have their hand shaken! (The verb vouvoyer exists, too).
Even those two extremes with which we felt safe are not always so obvious. Children are always tu; they're easy. Strangers and ancients are always vous. Things have become easier with the turn of the century, but within living memory children called their parents vous (my wife still does) and loving couples would sometimes retain vous in their intimacy as a romantic mark of mutual respect. Family and spouses are tu today. It is safest to retain vous in commercial relationships. I have known my bank manager for ten years but would not dream of addressing her with tu. But surely, shouldn't 'Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?' – Lady Marmalade, 1974- be 'Veux-tu ....?' given the implied closeness of the relationship?
Tricky stuff!
As a student with O level French (yes, that long ago) I found myself seated opposite the elderly aunt of a Breton friend at dinner. Fortified by the wine I eventually tried to break the ice with a much-mentally-rehearsed, "Où habites-tu, Madame?" She replied, pleasantly but firmly, "C'est 'vous', Monsieur". I spent the rest of the meal studying my plate. When an enthusiastic acolyte of
General de Gaulle proposed that they might tutoyer each other, the great man replied, "Si vous voulez". On the other hand, Napoleon was furious when he received a first letter from his new bride, Josephine, whilst campaigning in Italy. "You call me vous! Vous yourself! ..... Vous! Vous! What will it be in a fortnight!" he fumed in reply. In the aftermath of the French Revolution calling a single person vous was briefly banned on the grounds that it encouraged social distinction. You called everyone Citoyen instead.
If in doubt, stick with vous until someone tells you otherwise or until you know for sure that you are being unnecessarily stuffy.

Christmas in France

Anthony Lee // Wednesday, 10 December 2014

One of the many joys about moving to France (for those over the age of about ten) is the discovery that Christmas does not attract the wearisome and seemingly endless razzle-dazzle that it does in Britain.

That is not to say that the Christmas period is not a time for enjoyable celebration and altered waistlines, and, as with other aspects of British and American 'culture', the festive period seems to assume greater and earlier importance with each passing year. More and more flashing lights and climbing Santas (or rather les Pères-Noël) appear on even the most isolated farmhouses. (Twelfth Night, however, is not closely observed and decorations can stay in place for weeks into the New Year; some villages just unplug them and keep them in place for the following December.)

As with les Anglo-Saxons, Yuletide has lost much of its religious significance and become more of a time for family reunion in a setting of commercial extravagance and gastronomic excess.

There are those who still consider a midnight service (la Messe de Minuit) to be part of the tradition, but for many French families Christmas Eve (le Réveillon de Noël) is busier and more important than Christmas Day (le jour de Noël) itself. The 24th is the evening for the big blow-out which might be based around turkey (la dinde) but is just as likely – certainly here in the south-west - to be fruits-de-mer or a good cut of beef. The traditional dessert is la bûche de Noël – the Christmas log; no place here for mince pies, plum pudding or fruit cake. Many families will also distribute presents on the 24th, though Christmas morning is traditionally when children find that Père Noël has filled their fireside slippers (not stockings) with goodies.

Homes will often feature a crib (une crèche) or a Christmas tree (un sapin de Noël) decorated with sweets and fruit, but other interior decorations tend to be few. Mistletoe (le gui) is often put over doors, though it is New Year's Eve (la saint Sylvestre) before people kiss beneath it. The front door may well sport a wreath (une couronne). Christmas cards are not a French custom (much to the chagrin of La Poste, one imagines) but wishes for the New Year are often sent during January.

Seasonal music is less pervasive (though alarmingly I heard Slade's 'Merry Christmas Everybody' booming out at more than one Christmas market last year) and a number of carols are versions of foreign imports: 'Adeste Fidelis' ('O Come All Ye Faithful'), 'Mon Beau Sapin' (from 'O Tannenbaum') and 'Vive Le Vent' to the tune of 'Jingle Bells' can all be heard, with perhaps 'Petit Papa Noël' being the home-grown children's favourite.

As with most celebrations in France there are regional differences, though these are being steadily eroded. Boxing day (Saint Etienne) is simply le lendemain de Noël and is not even a public holiday, except in Alsace, so there is no nursing of hangovers in front of The Railway Children or The Great Escape. In fact, television does not seem to exercise the same pull as it does the other side of the Channel and life rapidly returns to normality. New Year's celebrations after only a brief recovery period will often be more gastronomically than purely alcoholically orientated. The count-down to midnight and the subsequent kissing of all and sundry bring the festivities staggering into the New Year and it is virtually a whole week (January 6) before Epiphany and the galette des rois with its hidden fève, usually a little china figure with tooth-breaking properties for some lucky muncher, offers a new excuse to assault the hard-pressed stomach and liver.

Meilleurs voeux!

Grand designs on Angoulème

Jo Stretch // Thursday, 04 December 2014

You can't fail to be charmed by the town of Angouleme, in fact over 20 painted walls in the city bring their touch of color and creativity to the place. You can take the opportunity to admire these painted walls during the 42nd International Comic Strip Festival in Angoulême, the largest comics festival in Europe, which opens its doors from Thursday 29th January to Sunday 1st February 2015.

Every year since 1974, for four days, 200,000 visitors meet at Angoulême, to attend conferences, concerts, meet authors and publishers or admire exhibitions. Each year, between 6,000 and 7,000 professionals and 800 journalists from around the world meet here to share their passion with you.

But you will not only be visitors, during this festival; a jury will award several prizes such as the Grand Prix of Angoulème that will reward a French or foreign author for its comic book. This winner becomes the president of the jury for the following year.

The 2014 winner, Bill Watterson, an American author and
therefore president of the jury in 2015, was happy to create the poster for this year.

If Angoulême is so famous for its art it is because there are many events such as "The 24 hours of comics" where French and foreign authors are welcome to try to make a story of 24 pages, cover included within 24-hours.

It's also famous for its museum of comics "The international city of comics and picture" and the top European School of Visual Arts with its degree in Comic Strip creation.

Prices for the Comic Book Festival, if you buy in advance:

Childrens' 10-years to 17-years Festival Pass
1 day: 11€, 4 days: 24€
Adult Festival Pass
1 day: 15€, 4 days: 31€

Tickets on the gate are at a flat rate of €16 for the day and €35 for the 4 days

day pass.

Keeping things moving!

Jo Stretch // Friday, 31 October 2014

There's a first time for everything and, while we like to think we go a bit further when it comes to service, we had never done a signing for a property in a supermarket carpark. So, when we got the call to say that clients had broken down in LeClerc's carpark on their way to the notaire's office our Sales Consultant, Jacqui, drove to the rescue.  Half an hour later the contract was signed, the Harley Davidson was jump-started and everyone was on their way.  And....relax.

Sealed with a bisou

Anthony Lee // Friday, 24 October 2014

One of the greatest worries to beset the average Brit who settles in France concerns the gentle art of kissing. Stiff upper-lipped and emotionally impermeable as we are supposed to be, the sudden arrival of the extended family belonging to a neighbour whom you have crossed in the street and with whom you attempting some jovial Franglais can cause a frightening outbreak of nerves, often unfelt since you had to recite a poem in front of the whole school all those years ago. Do you proffer a hand, grasp everyone to your bosom and give'em a smacker or suddenly suspect that your house is on fire and rush off with a "Pardonnez-moi: must voler!"?

The unfortunate truth is that there are no hard-and-fast rules. In Britain, life is simple. Generally a friendly 'Alright then?' will suffice as a token of greeting. More formal but still on safe ground is the firm handshake or even, these days, a jovial knuckle tap. Kissing is generally reserved for close blood relatives or those with whom you are – or would very much like to be- on intimate terms.

In France, however, when to 'embrasser' can be as troublesome as when to employ 'vous' as opposed to 'tu'. (This latter is slightly easier than snogging and will be covered in another blog.) Of course, if you happen to be French then it will be obvious because it has been part of your life from your earliest days (your earliest days, in fact, involve being suffocatingly 'bised' by all and sundry, but you grow up with an inbred understanding of the ritual.)

With that in mind I have asked various French people to explain the procedure, but the answers are always less than wholly satisfactory. As an elderly ex-pat my advice, not to be banked on, would be as follows. Arrange your hand in a sort of half-cocked position from which it can be smoothly extended either into a handshake or to grasp the victim by the upper arm whilst imparting the kiss, as required. In this position, approach the other person with all options open and wait for them to commit to one or other action. Do not thrust your puckered lips at someone just because they happen to be of the opposite sex. If the subject is what you could broadly categorise as a child, then kiss it anyway whether it likes it or not.

In summary, with adults meeting for the first time be relaxed and let the others make the running. Subsequent meetings, depending on how you have got on the first time, will be easier.

Not all French people are terribly happy about the amount of kissing that has to be endured during the average day. During winter many will back off, clutching their throat in a way that suggests that they are highly contagious or 'air-kiss' from afar to indicate that they would love to be more intimate if their fragile health did not forbid it. The kissing of all children is a comparatively modern rule but most youngsters will approach a meeting with a casually turned cheek in obvious expectation. The kiss itself, whoever the recipient, should be a light brush of the cheek rather than a full-lipped leeching, and on no account, however jovial you are feeling, should you go for the other person's mouth. Let the other person turn the cheek which requires the first peck so as to avoid an embarrassing clash of faces. If you are both wearing spectacles it is a thoughtful gesture to remove yours before engaging.

Here in the south-west two kisses suffice. Bretons might do three and in other regions they seem to go on until someone becomes bored, but we are spared that in the Aquitaine.

A word here about the male-to-male kiss. This is perfectly acceptable if shared by two consenting adults who are probably close relatives or sworn buddies, but as an Englishman in France I would council extreme care before you start indiscriminately snogging strange men.

And lastly, beware of the vocabulary. A kiss is 'un bisou', 'une bise' or 'un baiser'. The verb for this delightful, if confusing, French custom is, 's'embrasser', 'faire la bise' or 'donner un baiser'. It is certainly in order to end a letter or email with 'bisous' or 'je t'embrasse', just as in Britain we would say 'lots of love'. However, to put another trip-wire across an already crowded minefield, do not use 'baiser' as a verb. A wrongly-worded suggestion using this could well earn you a slap round the kisser.

Les Vendanges

Anthony Lee // Friday, 10 October 2014

September and October are crucial months in the wine-makers' calendar. In the South-West, from mid-September,
one should not be in a hurry on the country lanes where slow-moving mechanical harvesters and yellow 'Gimbre' containers (what happens to them for the rest of the year?) crawl from vineyard to chai, leaving purple smears on the road where they have scattered a few bunches to appease the traffic gods. Radio announcements exhort motorists to be patient.

In years gone by, the starting date for the grape harvest was strictly controlled. Each canton would set the day shortly in advance so that no one would have an unfair advantage. Any breach of the rule would result in the culprit's wine being confiscated. Nowadays there is less protectionism (though you will be hard pressed to find a bottle of Chilean red in a Bordelais supermarket) and the start of the vendanges is dictated by weather and maturation of the grape. An eloquent proof of global warming is the fact that the average starting date for the harvest over the last fifty years has moved forward by up to a month. Another indication is that during the same period the average alcohol content of a bottle has risen by one percent. The skill of the vigneron is to judge when the balance of sugars and acids in his grapes is just right while keeping an eye on the sky. Grapes harvested in the wet can lead to a drop in the quality of the wine.

Back in the days of fixed dates, of course, everything was done by hand (or foot) and everyone would be involved in the process. Today the vast majority of vineyards are picked mechanically. Huge machines straddle the rows of vines and metal fingers strip the grapes, pushing them into the machine from which they are disgorged into tractor-hauled containers. Careful pruning of the vines in the previous months is necessary to ensure that the bunches are concentrated at the right height for the machines to take them. Only the very best (and most expensive) wines are made with grapes still picked by hand. This attracts students and, increasingly, migrant workers from central Europe.

It is hard work and pays no more than 10€ per hour, and the days of enjoying board and lodging at the château have long gone. The best dessert wines also have to be picked by hand because with them the grapes are picked individually over several weeks as they reach the optimum moment of 'the noble rot'. That is why your bottle of Yquem will cost you a mortgage.

The Bordeaux wine region is the largest in France. 120,000 hectares of vines owned by 8,500 'chateaux' organised into 54 different appellation produce some 700 million bottles each year, of which ninety percent is red, or 'claret'.

With all those grapes heading to the chai for the maceration, fermentation and blending processes which will give

us the next vintage, it is hardly surprising that we are obliged to slow down on our way to work, shop, school or restaurant!

Your turn...

Let your inner author loose!  If you have an experience to share about moving to, living in or simply visiting France then we'd like to hear about it.  Write a maximum of 300 words, attach a photo and we'll publish the best here.

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