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I Warned Him about the Steak Tartare

“It’s cooked enough.”

“No it’s not!”

Franck pokes at my piece of beef with a spatula. “I can’t stand seeing you do this to a perfectly good piece of beef”

I take a poke at it with a fork – there are still some reddish juices flowing. “Do you want me to show you my monthly lab results?” I demand.

Non. It just takes common sense to know that when they say cook your meat well they do not mean turn it into a piece of charcoal.”

I go find my “Pregnancy” folder anyway and dig out my latest lab results. I return to the kitchen and read out triumphantly. “Patient non-immunized against toxoplasmosis. Avoid all contact with cats. Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly. Cook all meat well, especially lamb, pork, and beef.

Hah. So there.

Franck shakes his head in disgust. “You’re taking it too far. Tu n’es pas raisonnable.

Of course he doesn’t think I’m being reasonable. I’m married to a man who prefers his beef still chewing its cud. Over the past few months he has discovered that one of our favorite restaurants, La Ruelle in Dijon, serves up the most delectable steak tartare (raw beef, mixed with a raw egg and herbs) he has ever tasted. That’s all he orders there now.

But just as North Americans have a thing about taking Folic Acid during pregnancy (which like a good Canadian lass I did on my own accord until last month, at which time my bemused Obstetrician informed me there was absolutely no benefit in taking it after the first trimester) the french are all about monitoring for toxoplasmosis while pregnant.

Because I’ve never had it – probably because I have never been able to warm up to the idea of either a cat or steak tartares – I have to be tested for it every month during the glow-worm’s gestation.

I’m not entirely sure what happens if I was to get infected, but I get the general gist it is Not Good, which is why I insist on burnt steaks.

So imagine my surprise and delight when I receive a sheepish call from the doctor’s office yesterday morning.

“Laura, it’s Franck.”

“Where are you?”

Chez le medecin. Remember those blood tests I had because of that gland that wouldn’t go down on my neck?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well…turns out I have toxoplasmosis.”

“What!?!”

Franck senses I’m not happy, and there is a rustle of movement over the phone line. “Here, I’m going to pass you to Docteur D.”

Docteur D. comes on the line to confirm that my husband has been infected with toxoplasmosis, and tells me what I already know – while harmless for a healthy adult, this is not something I want to catch during my pregnancy.

“Do you have any contact with cats?” he asks.

“None.”

“Have you been eating much undercooked meat lately?”

Hah! “I haven’t, but Franck’s found a new resturant in Dijon and has been on a bit of a steak tartare kick lately.”

Docteur D., an overweight, chain smoking country doctor with an innate sense of human faiblesse laughs in understanding. “Ah well, they are good…that’s probably it, but to be on the safe side I’d like you to go and get a blood test right away.”

“Like this morning?”

“Like this morning. I’m sending a prescription along with your husband, who says he will bring it to you right away.”

Franck arrives shortly after, and on the way to the lab I force him to admit that the toxoplasmosis / undercooked meat link perhaps isn’t just a figment of my overactive imagination, as he has argued during many meat-cooking episodes in the past.

Turns out I haven’t, thank goodness, been infected, probably because I had the good sense to avoid the tartares and the moo-ing steaks.

“So are you going to cut out the raw meat now?” I ask Franck, after being drained of several vials of blood.

He looks shocked. “Of course not! Docteur. D. says that now I’ve been infected I’ll develop an immunity and can’t catch it again, so to go ahead and enjoy.”

Of course he did. This is France, after all.

Les Scenes de Menage, Ghandi, et Moi

“Scene de menage”: def – A domestic conflict, colloquial equivalent of a “dust up”.

Hoping for Salvation

I have always found this common french expression for a household fight very a propos. Particularly as the word “menage” means “housework” i.e. “Je deteste faire le menage” equals “I hate doing housework”. And in our household the “scenes de menage” are almost always just that. Franck and I don’t fight about money, we don’t fight about how we raise our kids, but man-oh-man is housework every a trigger for us (well, OK, more for me if truth be told).

I don’t mind doing the dishes, I don’t mind ironing, I don’t mind folding clothes, but as far as vacuuming, spraying, and getting on my hands and knees to scrub out the bathtub and the toilet, I REALLY have Issues (and yes, that capital “I” is 100% intentional).

But at the same time I hate living in a dirty house. As the house gets dirtier and dirtier my mood deteriorates. I realize that I will need to do something about it, and soon. I procrastinate like crazy…oh, maybe I should just check my emails quickly…oh jeez, I forgot to read that article in the newspaper…a nice cup of coffee would taste really good right now but first I need to make some…

Tragically, however, the housework does not go away while I am engaged in all these industrious activities. Instead, the task gets bigger, and more horrendous, and my resentment at having to do it grows accordingly.

Here is one of the aspects of myself that I am not very proud of – inevitably by the time I finally capitulate and drag out the vacuum, Windex, and toilet brush I am in a black mood and hate the entire world and everybody in it, especially my loved ones who helped make the mess. I holler, I bellow, I yell at anyone who dares get in my path. I become a total shrew for the entire time the housecleaning lasts, and sometimes for a good couple of hours afterwards.

Obviously, we have very competent cleaning crews for the gites. When people ask me if I do the cleaning myself between guests, I answer very seriously, “No, and if I had to I would find another job.”

I have often pondered the reasons why housecleaning is such a trigger for me. Not too long ago, after a memorable tantrum that culminated in Franck scurrying out of the house with the girls for their safety, I wrote a stream-of-consciousness list of possibilities in my diary (before starting the housework, of course). Here are some excerpts;

1. Dirty house seems like such an overwhelming task. Feel tired, hopeless, and discouraged (not to mention mad) before I even begin.

2. Know from past experience that hard work will be undone in anywhere from a few hours to two days, tops, and this stirs up unspeakable resentment.

3. Feel like I work my proverbial rear end off during the week at my job, caring for the kids, etc. and strongly resent having this other and very much unwanted job of housework. It’s like unpaid overtime.

4. Dirty, unrenovated home makes me feel like a failure. Why is it we are still camping in our mid to late 30’s? In the book “Simple Abundance” the author says there is a direct correlation between self esteem and the comfort of one’s home. This terrifying thought catapults me back to the couch of that German psychoanalyst whom I frankly don’t want to be spending my precious time with.

OK, yes, it has occurred to me that I am perhaps just a spoiled brat, or that maybe the problem is that I just can’t get over myself. It’s true that I was brought up in a social and educational environment where us girls were being groomed for stellar careers and Great Things – cleaning the toilet was definitely not alluded to in any way, shape, or form. This cold, hard reality came as quite a shock to me, and I would bet I wasn’t the only one.

And yet the toilet must be cleaned…why not just get a house cleaner? many of my friends have asked when I describe the scale of my housecleaning angst. I could, and I think I will, but cleaning this half-renovated house seems like a bit of rotten job for any house cleaner. Besides if we ever receive the permission to cut out the hole for our new french doors (no, still hasn’t arrived yet,and we’re going on four months now) we’ll be starting our Reno’s in September. It really doesn’t seem fair to subject any other person to cleaning out piles of drywall dust, Reno refuse, etc.. However, when my house is done, then, yes, I very well might hire someone.

In the meantime however, I have new hope. My dear friend Heather who lives in Germany (see her blog here http://www.unlikelynomad.blogspot.com/ ) told me that what I needed to do was read Gandhi’s biography, as this changed her view on housework and showed her how important, meditative, and restorative house work could be if you just looked at it the right way. She said she would send me the book. Franck overheard this, and could barely conceal his joy.

Two weeks later a book arrived in the mail and Franck exclaimed with glee “That must be your Gandhi book about housecleaning!”. I opened it up to find, much to my delight and Franck’s despair, Anne Lamott’s fabulous book about writing “Bird by Bird” instead. Franck was gutted, I was overjoyed, and I wrote Heather to tell her she had made a fine choice. Two weeks later, however, I received another book in the mail and this time it was my Gandhi / housecleaning salvation book from Heather.

So far it’s been very interesting, but I haven’t got to the part about the zen of housecleaning yet. However, when I do I’ll be sure to let you know if there has been our own little french revolution here Chez Germain, and whether there has been any significant reduction of our weekly scenes de menage. My hopes (not to mention Franck’s) are all pinned on Gandhi.

The Great "V" Divide

For men who become overwhelmed or distressed by the subject matter below, here is a photo I took a few days ago of a nice, calming canola field.

Yesterday, Franck and I had a delightful lunch at the Cafe de France on the Faubourg Bretonniere with our newest resident at Le Relais du Vieux Beaune, Ardythe from Nova Scotia who is striking out on her own and staying for 8 weeks.

Our spirited conversation, fueled by the house red and a tasty boeuf bourgignon, covered such diverse topics such as bear attacks, gay marriage, and a most interesting, albeit sensitive, subject that in my mind highlights almost better than anything else the cultural divide between France and Canada. As the three of us were chortling over it I exclaimed, “Oh my God, I have to write a blog about this!” so here it is;

*****

Smoking / Non-Smoking habits used to strike me as one of the main ways to separate out the French from the North Americans. During the years after we first met, way back when Franck still rolled his own cigarettes with Drum tobacco, he was always the only smoker in a crowd of non-smokers in Canada, whereas in France I was always the only non-smoker in a crowd of smokers. It also always made me laugh (and cough) to witness how you could distinguish the French passengers on a trans-Atlantic flight freshly disgorged at Charles de Gaulle. They would, of course, be the ones who lit up within seconds in front of the “Fumer Interdit” signs.

However, times and mentalities have changed. Franck, his sister, and many of our friends have (thankfully) given up the habit.

Luckily, however, I have since stumbled on another subject that proves to me that the cultural divide between France and countries such as Canada is still alive and kicking.

That subject is the big “V”.
No, not “Victory”, the other “V”…Vasectomies.

Amongst our Canadian friends, the huge majority of the men we know who have had all the children they want have very pragmatically gone out and had what I have often been heard referred to as the “snip-snip”. Their wives, who have generally spent years dealing with such joys as labour, episiotomies, C-sections, and various birth control methods, are, rather understandably, quite amenable to this solution.

Mention the widespread practice of vasectomies to a table of French people, however, and you too will see that their reaction is nothing short of astounding to the Anglo-Saxon mind. It goes far beyond the almost instantaneous crossing of male legs that occurs worldwide when the subject is evoked. The French are stunned, horrified, and frankly initially disbelieving when enlightened about the existence of this parallel reality.

Statistically, the number of French men who have had vasectomies is so low that it is noted by the Marie Stopes Foundation as “nil or negligible”. One of the reasons for this may be that vasectomies are still illegal – yes, you read that right – in France under some obscure sub-section of the 19th Century Napoleonic Code which deems the act “self-mutilation”.

But the astonishment of the French in regards to the whole vasectomy issue goes far beyond the question of legality. After all, in my experience laws have never been something that the French feel they need to take too seriously. No, it is as though French men are almost incapable of believing that any man would willingly undergo the procedure short of being restrained with chains and shackles. They are simply aghast that anywhere in the world (and really, it is an accepted practice in many, many countries besides Canada and the US) men could accept what they can see only as, apart from castration, the worst possible affront to their identity as an homme.

A few of our male French friends (I will use no names to protect the cowardly) who had been, up until hearing about the high rate of vasectomies in Canada, eagerly planning a trip there suddenly cool on the idea. Another one has considered constructing a little cardboard sign to wear on a cord around his neck saying “Pas de vasectomie pour moi, s’il vous plait.”

I truly believe that the vasectomy practice seems so far-fetched to French men that they secretly begin to worry that – why not? – a brigade of scalpel wielding urologists huddle in wait at Canadian airports, just waiting to pounce on their latest prey and give them on-the-spot vasectomies before they are even allowed past our Immigration Booths.

And, most surprisingly, it is not just the men who are astounded at the preponderance of vasectomies in North America. French women are even more, if that is actually possible, horrified about the practice than the men. They would never, they swear, never allow anyone to do that to their husband. So it turns out that the whole “masculine identity” thing isn’t just some rather sad illusion that French men harbour about themselves. It really is a culturally wide phenomenon.

As for me, straddling both cultures, I can truly see both sides of the issue. For the record, I think both sides have their merits. Most of all, however, I am just happy to have stumbled on a subject that is guaranteed to enliven any dinner table conversation.

Love and La Recree


Yesterday when, after lunch, I accompanied Charlotte, who is now in CP (Grade 1), to her classroom door the girls in her class were in a complete froth.

“Charlotte, Charlotte!” they milled around her. “Augustin isn’t in love with you anymore! He kissed Camille (not my Camille, thank god) during La Recree!” And this wasn’t all; the rest of the salient details were quickly doled out.

“He kissed her on the mouth!” Solene shouted.
“Three times!” added little Margaux.
“In the cabane!” (this is the plastic playhouse in the school playground – apparently a popular spot for romantic rendezvous).

I looked over and spotted Augustin, a gorgeous little heart-breaker with dark fringed chocolate eyes, standing beside his newest “amoureuse“, his hand protectively on her knee.

As for Camille – that little vixen – she was perched on the window ledge, playing with a stringy lock of hair and smiling a decidedly self-satisfied smile which was rendered particularly striking by the fact that she was missing her two front teeth. No doubt about it; she definitely had the look about her of a girl who had been kissed three times in the cabane.

As a rule I try to keep a healthy parental distance from the ebb and tide of the playground politics that plays such a big part in my daughters’ lives. Yet, I still couldn’t help but curse Augustin, that heartless little Lothario. You see, since last year Charlotte and Augustin have been what french school children referred to as “les amoureux.” From what I could tell, this basically consisted of playing together at recess and being teased by the others. My Charlotte had never allowed herself to be kissed on the mouth in the cabane…at least I don’t think…

As soon as Franck and I got wind of this “amoureux” talk last year we laid down the law at the dinner table. Charlotte was far too young to have an “amoureux“, we declared, and would be until she passed her Baccalaureat (this last part was Franck’s contribution). Yet the persistent chants of “amoureux” still surrounded Charlotte and Augustin in the school courtyard.

Sometime near the end of last year, I began to notice that Augustin, even though he kept coming back to Charlotte, was a rather capricious sort. From time to time he would ditch Charlotte, and declare himself “amoureux” of another girl, even (quelle trahison!) Charlotte’s best friend Anne-Louise at one painful juncture.

Out of Franck’s hearing, I tried to impress upon Charlotte that, even though she was far too young to have an amoureux, when the time did come (of course after she had her Bac, as per her father’s instructions) she should think twice before deciding on a boy like Augustin. I tried to explain the meaning of “fickle” and explained why a boy like Augustin was not a good choice for any self-respecting female. I don’t know a single woman that hasn’t had a nasty experience with the type of man who loves her one day, moves on to somebody else the next, and then comes back the day after – reeling you in and out like a fish on a line.

Indeed, during my adolescence I despaired at the idea that perhaps there were just no men out there with two of the traits I valued the most; constancy and loyalty. I was thoroughly fed up with guys who made me feel like I never knew where I stood, but that’s all I could ever seem to find.

And then I met Franck, who made it clear from the first evening we met that he wanted to be with me – no conditionals, no changes of heart, no playing mind games. The irony that I had to come to France – the country of philandering men – to find such a person was not lost on me. Yet, I realized with no small sense of relief that, contrary to my previous assumptions, there were men out there who were as constant as I was, so there was therefore simply no reason to put up with the other kind.

But after imparting this convoluted life lesson to Charlotte I had serious doubts that any of it had sunk in, or even made any sense to her. So yesterday it was with inordinate pride and a definite sense of accomplishment that I watched my daughter respond to the clamouring girls.

“Why should I care?” Charlotte declared stoutly, hands on her hips. “I’m totally not in love with Augustin anymore. Anyway, I’m much too young to have an amoureux.” (note to self – must remember to break open the champagne with Franck in celebration of this last bit).

With this, she promptly joined in the merciless teasing of Augustin and Camille with the rest of her classmates.

Oh, les amoureux…oh, les amoureux…ils sont amoureux…”