Monthly Archives: April 2009

Authentic France Travel Tip #31: Mondays

I found myself in Beaune with my bevy yesterday morning. It was of course a Monday, or lundi as it is better known here in France.

Franck had some tradesmen over working so I figured it was wise to get the girls out from underfoot and enjoy a nice morning in town. We started off with pain au chocolat and chocolat chaud all round in the Café Carnot, then a browse at the Atheneaum on the Place Carnot, and lastly a visit with the ducks and swans at Beaune’s lovely Parc de la Bouzaise.

While we were sitting on the café terrace I noticed several tourists wandering forlornly around with their cameras poised but a bewildered look on their faces. No wonder – the normally bustling Beaune looked like a ghost town, with closed shops and hardly anyone besides my bevy and I out in the streets.

The answer to this is that it was Monday morning, or lundi matin.

Sunday and Monday has always been the traditional “weekend off” for store keepers all over France. As a consequence, for years no French person ever expected to go out and buy anything on those two days of the week.

This phenomenon is currently in a state of flux over here in France. Although for the time being the Sunday closure has remained sacrosanct, you’ll find that most big grocery stores are now open all day on Mondays.

However, the smaller boutiques that you will find in most French towns such as Beaune are still by and large closed on Monday mornings. They used to be closed on Monday afternoons as well, but now the huge majority open around 2:00-2:30pm.

Luckily, the cafés are still open, so in my opinion Monday mornings in France are a great opportunity to have a good lie-in and / or session on a café terrace practicing that venerable French tradition of fainéanter (lazing around doing nothing).

Authentic France Travel Tip #29: Accept An Invitation to a Maison de Famille

Many French people have a strong emotional connection to a Maison de Famille or a “family house” that is usually in the countryside and almost always been handed down from generation to generation.

These maisons de famille almost always bear the mark of a family’s history. They often have a soul of their own.

So if you ever have the luck of having a French person invite you to share in their maison de famille, acceptez!

I’ve taken my own advice, as I am staying this week at my friend Charlotte’s maison de famille in Normandy. I’ve been hearing about it for years, and I can’t wait to see it for myself.

A Bientôt!

Frenchitude Lesson #31: Downsize Your Definition of Success

Could success be as simple as making a delicious apple tart?

Ambition is a double-edged sword. It can drive us to achieve amazing things but it can also, when not fulfilled, lead to no end of self-flagellation.

The bigger the ambition, the bigger the stick we beat ourselves with when we fail to achieve it.

I have to say that living in France has profoundly altered my own personal relationship with ambition.

In North America, I feel constantly bombarded by the success stories of famous people such as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates who have achieved the holy grail of worldly riches.

Consequently, I don’t have to be back in North America for long before I start feeling rather badly about myself and my life. I should be earning more. I should be published more. I should be more successful, like Buffet and Gates. If they can do it, why can’t I? Something in me is clearly defective.

I recently had a lot of chats about the success conundrum with my friend Emmy, whom I met when we were both doing degrees at Oxford.

One of my Oxford tutors described us students as “hot house flowers”; bred to strive for success, but ultimately rendered more fragile because of such grooming.

Our subject matters couldnt have been more different; Emmy was studying third world development and I was studying law, nevertheless the term applied to both of us. We went to school with other high achievers where we were told time and time again that we were going to set the world on fire.

Years passed, and Emmy and I both got married and had children. Nobody was more shocked or disenchanted than ourselves when confronted by the fact that grasping at brilliant career success conflicted with the family life that everybody had forgot to mention.

At some point along the line both Emmy and I had to make a choice between the version of “success” that had been peddled to us during our formative years, and our families.

Emmy summed it up nicely.

“I used to think I was going to change the face of Third World Development in South America,” she said. “Now I figure I’ll be satisfied if I can have a good relationship with my husband and be a good mom to my kids.”

After five years in France, that was pretty much the same conclusion I had come to as well. It’s easier here, because most French people I know simply haven’t internalized grandiose goals.

I think part of this stems from the school system. School for French children is almost exclusively academic after Grade 1. There are no sports teams, no debating clubs, and definitely no high school musicals. This means that if it a student is to shine, it has to be solely through their academic achievement.

My high school, in contrast, was feverish in its pursuit of excellence in all aspects of life. The students who were star rugby players, played the lead in the school musical, and won the latest math competition were held up for the rest of us to admire. The accolades were numerous and glorious.

In the French school system there just aren’t a lot of accolades, period.

French teachers are notoriously stingy about giving out positive feedback or praise to middle and high school students. The result of this is that besides a minuscule handful of academic superstars who get really high marks, every other French teenager’s definition of academic success is simply to avoir la moyenne, or to pass.

These relatively low standards can lead to a sort of apathy in France that reaches out and slaps you in the face whenever you have to deal with an organization such as France Telecom. On a more individual level, however, the French aren’t burdened with an unrealistic (for most of us, anyway) conception of success.

Success for one of my French friends is hosting a convivial meal where everybody experiences a few hours of laughter and good food.

Success for another French friend is creating a wine that honestly reflects the terroir of her family’s vineyards.

For yet another, a successful day is not one where you have changed the world, but one that is dotted with les petits plaisirs de la vie, or the small pleasures of life; an unexpected postcard in the mail, a square of black chocolate with a perfectly brewed coffee, or the way the sun slants down on the pot of red geraniums.

I am starting to adopt the French idea that happiness and a successful life springs more from les petits plaisirs than from the North American ideal of fame and fortune.

Who knows? Soon I might be able to put away that cat o’ nine tails for good.

***Frenchitude Fridays (French + Attitude = Frenchitude) give ideas for injecting a bit of frenchness into your life, whether you live in Nuits-Saint-Georges or Nepal.

Close-Up Of Our Dragon (I Think) Tap

This is for Arne, who wanted to see a close-up of our dragon faucet mounted on the ancient stone sink in the Beaune wine cellar. Now I look at the photo a bit more closely though, I am starting to wonder if it is not in fact a duck…or maybe a platypus. Opinions, anyone?

Progress is still going full steam ahead and the most recent task has been replacing the trapdoor which leads from the sidewalk down into the cellar. Beaune’s sidewalks are dotted with such trapdoors every few feet, and many new visitors to the town don’t realize that each and every one of these trapdoors leads down to a wine cellar (known as a cave in French).

As I always say, Beaune is in fact two towns; the one above ground, and the honeycomb of wine cellars and precious bottles below the streets.

We have also installed our ergonomic hand rail. We ended up installing it on the right hand side, as per the majority of reader votes, heading up to the street so that guests to the cellar won’t topple off into the gravel after a tasting.

We may also install another rail on the left later on, but we’re going to wait and see if we lose anyone off that side first!

In Vino Veritas!

Authentic France Travel Tips#29: Don’t Hesitate To Go Chez Le Medecin

I have doctors on the brain these days. Clem, Charlotte & I went to see the doctor again this morning which means we are averaging about a visit per day for our family during the past week.

Many visitors to France don’t experience any health problems at all during their trip – lulled by fine wine, delicious food, and the relaxing pace of la campagne they actually enjoy an almost obscene sense of well-being.

Nevertheless, long car and plane trips are often a breeding ground for things like back trouble and airborne viruses.

Yet I have seen it again and again with visitors here – most people prefer to suffer niggling health conditions that compromise enjoyment of their trip rather than venture to the doctor’s office in a foreign country such as France.

Franck and I volunteered in Nepal for several months after I finished my BA, and the Lonely Planet’s advice for visitors to Nepal who suffered health problems was contained in one line: GET ON THE VERY FIRST PLANE OUT OF THE COUNTRY!!!

Luckily for us, France is not only a fine country for feeling well, but it is also one of the best countries in the world in which to get sick. I have been amazed by the promptness, professionalism, and low cost of the health care over here compared to Canada.

If you get sick in France, rest assured that a visit to a local doctor will only set you back 20 Euros (doctors visits are sometimes, but not always, reimbursed by your travel medical insurance). Specialists cost around 40 Euros. We leave recommendations for local doctors in our information binders at our vacation rentals as I know many other vacation rentals managers do as well, and Franck has even been known to accompany visitors down to the doctor to translate for them.

The French doctor (le medecin) will probably give you a prescription which you take to any of the many local pharmacies in France (recognized by their green signs – they are literally everywhere). French Pharmacies are a clean, modern, and much-beloved institution. Medication here in France is very, very inexpensive compared to Canada and the US.

So if you have any health problems at all during your stay in France, don’t hesitate to make a quick visit chez le medecin. You’ll be glad you did, and it may be remembered as a rather pleasant part of your overall Authentic French experience.

Bonne santé a tous!

No Chocolate Easter Bells For Us Germains

We seem to be fulfilling some Easter curse, because everyone in our family has been felled by a nasty flu bug with the exception of Franck, who was the only one smart enough to get a flu shot this year.

The girls and I are so sick that we don’t even feel like eating any of the chocolates that the church Bells coming back from Rome have brought with them (this is what the little French children believe, rather than the Easter Bunny – and no, even after four years here I still don’t get it). This means we are REALLY sick.

Hopefully I’ll resurface sometime early this week, but in the meantime I need to hunker down and get myself and my ailing family back on our feet again.

I hope you enjoy your Easter chocolates. Joyeuses Paques!