Saturday, December 22, 2007

Noël, Noël...

Christmas customs were brought here by the Romans and the first celebration of the day was in 496 when King Clovis was baptised in Rheims along with his entire army of three thousand warriors, presumably in an Olympic-sized font. Charlemagne was crowned emperor on Christmas day in the year 800 and on the same day in 1066 that other Frenchman, William the Conqueror, was crowned in Westminster Abbey.

The first Christmas tree appeared in 1837: it was brought over by a German princess on her marriage to the Duke of Orleans (Germans obviously considered a tree to be a suitable romantic gift because Prince Albert brought one over too, when he married Queen Victoria). Father Christmas evolved from Saint Nicolas, a thinner and more discerning person who distributed presents on the 6th December, accompanied by the Père Fouettard – a rather politically incorrect Father 'Spanker' who punished naughty children by whipping them. Saint Nicolas's day is still celebrated in the north- east of France and so children there get twice as many presents in December as everybody else, which seems a tad unfair.

You can buy Christmas crackers and stockings here now, even though traditionally, French children put their shoes beneath the tree on Christmas Eve. Mind you, as my own children pointed out, that’s only fun if you have big feet. They prefer Christmas stockings because they can tie them to the bedposts and stretch them big enough for Father Christmas to stick a stereo in there and maybe a laptop while he’s at it. The idea for Christmas crackers, on the other hand, came from the French bon bon – a sweet wrapped in tissue paper. Tom Smith, a 19th century London baker, brought these back from Paris, added mottos and gifts and eventually got rid of the sweet altogether to add the ‘snap’. Crackers are still a novelty in France, though – the French get their ‘snap’ from papillottes: foiled-wrapped chocolates which also contain a silly joke but no gift (unless you count the chocolate).

Leaving aside the premature fake-snow-and-holly-wreath window displays, the real run-up to the festivities begins – at least for those who live in Provence, as I used to - on the 4th of December, which is St. Barbara’s day. You plant grains of wheat in a saucer (rather like planting cress), and watch it grow tall and strong by Christmas. We still do this in our house even though my wheat nearly always dies, which apparently means I will not be prosperous during the coming year. Curiously enough, this has so far proved to be true.

The French have not entirely forgotten that Christmas is a religious festival and the focal point is not the tree or the fairy lights or even the bowl of mixed nuts. It is the crèche - the Nativity crib. In Provence, the figurines are clay representations of the Holy Family and also of villagers and local craftsmen. These are called santons - little saints - and the people who make them are santonniers. One santonnier I heard about has made a santon of every single person in his village and at Christmas, each villager brings his clay 'double' to the church and places it in the crèche. The crèche is often the first thing people want you to see when you visit their home although I’ve noticed that no one is ever impressed by my own cotton wool and papier mâché representation. Too conceptual, perhaps.

Children are kept busy here on Christmas Eve, either with cartoons on the television or attendance at Midnight Mass. Père Noël comes by at midnight and the presents are opened then. Rather than falling exhausted into bed, clutching their new Barbies/Playstations, with bits of Sellotape stuck to their pyjamas, the children then have to eat a gargantuan meal with friends and family, called le Réveillon. There is usually a turkey, stuffed with sausage meat and chestnuts, quite often oysters, foie gras, smoked salmon, plenty of champagne and a bûche de Noël -Yule log - for pudding. In Provence, they also serve les treize desserts - symbolic sweetmeats representing the twelve apostles and Christ, which include dried figs, nougat and calissons, a confectionary made from almonds and preserved melon. If you manage to get through that lot, you are allowed to go to bed, unless you are a guest in someone’s home, in which case it would be polite to offer to help with the washing up.

Chez nous, however, Christmas is resolutely English. When they were younger, my children would go to bed early on Christmas Eve after a few carols, mince pies and mild threats involving boughs of holly. They would wake up five minutes after I’d gone to bed and open their presents very noisily and would not want their Christmas dinner because they’d have eaten all the chocolate tree decorations. This year, the only difference will be that they’ll probably go to bed early on Christmas morning.

Joyeux Noël everybody!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Wined up

In an attempt to civilise the uncouth barbarians of Ancient Gaul, the Romans brought with them the art of wine making. The Gauls had been growing vines and making crude wine for thousands of years before the Roman occupation but it was the Romans who showed them how to do it properly. The first wine using Roman methods was produced here in the Dauphiné, by the Allobroges tribe and soon other Celtic tribes were planting their own vineyards all over the country.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, France had become a Christian country. Wine was in great demand because it was a potent symbol in the Church and so it was the clergy who oversaw the planting of vineyards around the major cities. Later, the monks took over and became skilful wine growers, establishing most of the great vineyards we know today.

By the fifteenth century, vines were cultivated everywhere in France. The middle-classes vied with the aristocracy in producing the finest vineyards which they planted outside the city walls. Wine was still a drink for the elite and it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that it became available to ordinary people. It was healthier than water which was usually germ ridden and the average man would drink a litre a day. No wonder they had a Revolution…

In 1875, the vines became infested with an insect called phylloxera and the crops were destroyed. Wine growers had to start again from scratch by grafting the ancient French vines on to American ones. Over a million hectares of vineyards disappeared from Brittany, Normandy and Picardy but wine production actually increased – so much so that the government had to bring in measures to stop wine growers planting inferior vines and producing cheap plonk and encourage them to produce better quality wines. The reputation of French wine persists today…and to be honest, even the plonk is good.

But let’s not give the French all the credit. If it weren’t for us, they’d have no wine bottles or corks – or even corkscrews. Wine used to be kept in casks – invented by the Ancient Gauls – but they were not airtight, so conservation was difficult. With the invention of coke ovens in seventeenth century England came a new method of making bottles from thick, reinforced glass. These travelled well and moreover, a cork stopper could be banged into the neck with a mallet without breaking it. Wine could now age gracefully without turning to vinegar (from vin and aigre, meaning ‘sour wine’).

Poster by Favre&Assoc

Getting the wine out of these new bottles proved difficult however. More often than not, the glass neck had to be broken, which could put a bit of a damper on a romantic candlelit dinner for two. It was an Englishman who first patented the corkscrew in 1795 – the inventor took his inspiration from a tool called the bulletscrew or gun worm, a device that extracted stuck bullets from rifles. Not terribly romantic either but very efficient.

November is the month for Beaujolais Nouveau which is always released on the third Thursday of the month, regardless of when the harvest began. Drinking and celebrating the arrival of new wine is an old custom. In the middle ages, it was in the best interests of the vineyard owners to get their wine on the market first, as this would ensure them a good price. Also, wine did not keep well at that time, so the younger the wine the better. A great celebration was held on the 11th November in its honour, the fête de la Saint Martin - in fact, one of the politer synonyms for a hangover is ‘the Saint Martin blues’, although I have never heard anyone say it.

Beaujolais isn’t the only new wine – I have drunk a very nice new Côtes du Rhone – but the media hype ensures that Beaujolais is the best known and most popular. The grape it is made from – the gamay – is particularly suited to new wines as it is sweet and fruity. Most Beaujolais Nouveau is drunk by the New Year and you’re unlikely to find any in the shops after that. I have no idea what happens to all those unsold bottles – perhaps they really do end up as vinegar.

When drinking wine in France, the custom is to chink your glasses with your fellow drinkers and say “Tchin, tchin”. This onomatopoeic toast has its origins in the middle ages when it was common to poison one another’s food and drink. The idea was to knock your goblet against your neighbour’s goblet so that some of your wine splashed into his (tchin) – and he did the same to you (tchin) – that way you could both be sure no-one had slipped arsenic into the claret.

These days, however, fewer people are chinking their glasses. French wine consumption has dropped by half since the 1960s and people prefer to drink water with their meals rather than the traditional vin de table. This doesn’t concern me, of course, as I’m English so I have been waiting eagerly for the Beaujolais Nouveau to arrive on the 15th of November, a glass in each hand. Tchin tchin…

Friday, October 26, 2007

Grave circumstances

November is a bit of a morbid month here with three days, including Armistice Day, devoted to remembering the dead. The first, All Saints’ Day – or Toussaint - is a public holiday and, although it sounds nice and holy, it has its roots in pagan mythology. Like Hallowe’en, All Saints’ Day was created to supplant the Celtic celebration of samonios (samhain) which marked the end of summer. In the eighth century, Christian monks who had come as missionaries to Gaul found themselves witness to strange rituals and dark goings on at around the beginning of November. People would lay places at the table for deceased relatives and light candles and lanterns to guide the dead souls whom they believed mingled with the living during this time. These practices were so deeply anchored in the rural population that they endured in one form or another even after conversion to Christianity. In fact, in certain parts of France today, people still light lanterns for the dead and in Brittany, they pour milk on the tombs as an offering. I bet it curdles...

In the ninth century, Louis the Pious instituted a feast day for all the saints with the aim of replacing the pagan feast of the dead with a joyous Christian celebration. As usual, the French didn’t take a blind bit of notice and carried on inviting their ancestors to dinner. To cater for this, the Roman Catholic church had to invent a ‘Feast of the Dead’ on the second of November but to this day, most French people choose to remember their ‘disappeared ones’ on the first – probably because it is a holiday.

The day begins for many with mass followed by a family lunch - to which only living relatives are invited - and in the afternoon, everyone goes to the cemetery to put flowers on relatives’ tombs and tidy them up a bit. The traditional flowers are chrysanthemums because – like everything else in the cemetery – they need very little looking after and do not mind the cold. It is the ultimate faux-pas, of course, to offer chrysanthemums to anyone on any other occasion, unless you are trying to drop some sort of grotesque hint.

Cemeteries in France are beautifully kept and many are listed as historical monuments. The idea of cutting through one en route to the shops or nipping in for a sneaky fag on your way home from school would be shocking and incomprehensible to the French. It is important to keep grave plots neat and tidy and woe betide the slatterns who let their epitaphs get dusty – they’ll get a stern dressing down from the town council and more than a few cold stares. Like prisons, cemeteries are surrounded by high walls, the gates are locked at night and there are strict rules to be obeyed: singing or playing music is prohibited except for liturgical chants and military music; you are not allowed to enter if you are drunk or under fourteen and unaccompanied; animals are forbidden except for guide dogs and you are not allowed to take photographs without permission. A quarter of an hour before closing time a siren sounds, loud enough to wake the…well, never mind…and a uniformed keeper walks round to check in case anyone was thinking of spending the night there.

In the village of Mens, 55 kilometres south of Grenoble, you can find private Protestant cemeteries. They were established during the Reformation when Protestants were forbidden by Catholics to bury their dead in 'true Christian' ground. There is also a cemetery divided in two by a low wall: on one side are the Catholic graves - neat and tidy and decorated with photographs and flowers and dinky little statues; on the other side are the Protestant graves - plain, austere and overrun with vegetation...

The most famous French cemetery is Père Lachaise in Paris, established by Napoleon in 1804. This is the place to be buried for body who is anybody. Chopin is buried here as is the painter Pissarro; Jim Morrison’s grave is regularly besieged by fans and it is traditional for admirers to kiss Oscar Wilde’s tombstone while wearing lipstick. Today there are more than 300,000 people here ‘eating dandelions by the root’ (French for ‘pushing up the daisies’), making Père Lachaise the biggest cemetery in the city of Paris.

Perhaps the most unusual burial place in Paris is les catacombes. These are a network of tunnels and rooms beneath the city in what was once the site of Roman quarries. In 1786, bones from the cemeteries in the centre of the city were moved here as they were presenting a health hazard. There are about 186 miles of tunnels beneath Paris and only a small section is open to the public but of course, that doesn’t stop the cataphiles – catacomb lovers or urban explorers, as they prefer to call themselves - from using the many secret entrances to gain access and hold wild parties amongst the artfully arranged skulls and bones of about six million people. Well…they’re not disturbing anyone, are they?

Another unusual burial site lies beneath the deconsecrated church of Saint Laurent in Grenoble. More than 1,500 tombs have been uncovered that include fifth century mausoleums, seventh century sarcophagi and other tombs dating from the fourth century right through to the eighteenth. The church is now a museum, and you can walk around the crypt on gangways suspended above it and peer into the open stone coffins. Fortunately, they are empty now but I am nevertheless reminded of the words carved on one Frenchman’s headstone: Just leave me to sleep. That's why I'm here…

Saturday, October 13, 2007


The nights are drawing in and it’s time to gather around the fire and tell spooky tales of ghosts and sprites and other fearsome apparitions. Did you know, for example, that during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, France was overrun with werewolves? In the space of a hundred years, there were thirty thousand trials concerning loups-garous and many of these cases are well-documented. In 1573, in the village of Dole in the Jura region, a certain Gilles Garnier confessed to having murdered and eaten scores of young children and a few years later, a father and son admitted killing and eating several adolescents. In 1603, a thirteen-year old boy called Jean Grenier from Aquitaine was found crouching in the bushes chewing on what turned out to be human flesh. Another werewolf caught red-handed - or pawed in this case - was a creature called Jacques Rollet, who not only admitted to eating human beings but commented on the fact that lawyers had particularly thick skins. Well, we all knew that, didn’t we?

These wolf men all had something in common: they were excessively hairy, their nails were long, sharp and black, their teeth pointed and they scampered around on all fours – at least when there was a full moon. As recently as 1930, a werewolf was thought to prowl the streets of Paris and even today, desperate parents use the threat of a loup-garou under the bed to chasten naughty children.

As far as I know, there have been no cases of loups-garous in this region – although there are plenty of excessively hairy men. There is, however, a history of fairies. Near the thermal resort of Allevard are two caves said to be occupied by fairies and at the height of the resort’s popularity at the end of the nineteenth century, they were a major tourist attraction. However, unmarried women were not allowed to enter as legend had it that a young girl was warned by one of the malevolent fairies that if she did not marry her lover – who had gone to war – in exactly a year’s time to the day...he would die. On the allotted day, the lover preferred to go hunting rather than get hitched and met his death as predicted. The fairy got the blame, of course, rather than the disgruntled bride-to-be…

Closer to Grenoble, the village of Sassenage claims to have been home to the fairy Mélusine. Legend relates how a certain King Elinas met a beautiful young woman, Présine, while out hunting. She agreed to marry him on condition that he never see her give birth. He broke his promise, however, and his wife promptly disappeared with her three daughters. Years later, on learning of their father’s broken promise, the girls took their revenge and imprisoned him. Présine therefore punished her eldest daughter, Mélusine, condemning her to turn into a snake every Saturday and if she married, her husband must never see her as a snake otherwise she would disappear forever. One day, Mélusine met the handsome Raymondin in the forest and agreed to marry him as long as he didn’t try to see her on a Saturday. Strangely enough, he accepted – I suppose he thought she was the sort of woman who like a girls’ night out. Unfortunately, one Saturday, suddenly suspicious and mad with jealousy, Raymondin burst into the bathroom where poor Mélusine was trying to deal as best she could with her scaly skin problem - and discovered her secret. She fled to the caves in Sassenage and was never seen again. The small, spherical stones still found in the mountains around Sassenage were believed to be the fairy Mélusine’s petrified tears.

Other strange stones include those observed by two young girls in 1842 in the village of Clavaux. Stones started falling around them in slow motion so they ran to tell their parents who returned to the place with them. Suddenly, a sort of whirlwind began to suck the two children skywards and their parents had to grab hold of their feet to prevent them from disappearing into the stratosphere like helium balloons.

On a more ghostly note, this region has its White Lady too. On the outskirts of the village of Château-Bernard, some say a hitch-hiker can be seen thumbing a lift at night. All in white, she tends to dissolve like mist into the darkness as you approach her but thirty years ago, a man actually stopped and gave her a lift. Taking a fancy to her, he put his hand on her knee and then groped her breasts at which point he realised that she was – literally – frigid. She suddenly disappeared and feeling guilty, no doubt, the dirty old man stopped at the next police station to report what had happened and discovered that he’d just tried to make out with a ghost. I hope he had nightmares for the rest of his life.

There are countless other mysteries but to be honest, I’m still grappling with the everyday ones, never mind the supernatural. My house does seem to be haunted though…by three young girls who only appear at mealtimes and then mysteriously disappear…mmmm

Friday, September 28, 2007

Minding your onions

In 1828, the story goes, Henri Ollivier, a young farmer from Roscoff in Brittany, set sail for Britain in a fishing boat filled with pink-skinned onions and ruddy-cheeked companions. For some reason, he thought that the British might like to try the delicately flavoured local onions - and he was right. From then on, there was no stopping the petitjeans or Onion Johnnies, as the British called the onion sellers.

They formed themselves into "companies" led by a master (they used the English word) and in the beginning, each company numbered up to sixty onion sellers, onion stringers and apprentices. The master was responsible for drawing up contracts, establishing wages, sorting out accommodation and attributing the beer and tobacco allowances. He also planned the itinerary: the onions were sold throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, from Scotland to Cornwall and from door to door. At first, the onion seller was on foot, carrying up to twenty kilos of onions strung around his neck. From 1921, however, when bicycles became more common, he was able to carry up to one hundred and fifty kilos with hardly a wobble. This gave rise to the enduring stereotype of the onion-bearing, bicycle-riding, beret-wearing French peasant in his stripy t-shirt that persists today.

photo courtesy of Vincent

Before they were sold, the onions had to be strung together and this was the job of the botteleur. It was an awful task because he had to stand hunched over all day and make at least one hundred and fifty strings. As if that wasn't enough, he also had to cook for everybody else, presumably from a cookbook named "A Thousand and One things to do with an Onion". Fortunately, his contract included two pints of beer a day, which gave him something to cry into at the end of an evening.

The apprentices were recruited as young as eight. They were taught a few useful English phrases and sent out with an onion seller to learn the trade. It was a hard life: they weren't allowed 'home' until the all onions had been sold and 'home' was often nothing more than a leaky barn on the outskirts of some English village. Moreover, their mothers had stayed behind on the family farm and only a few came over to visit their husbands for short periods. Those women who did decide to stay weren't allowed to go out selling: they had to cook, clean and be generally domestic, so that most of them jumped in the first boat back to Brittany when the opportunity arose.

The Onion Johnnies had their ups and downs. In 1898 and in 1905, ships carrying the Johnnies sank and nearly ninety lives were lost. Also in 1905, the Aliens Act limited the number of onion sellers coming over to a mere twenty (although, in typical French fashion, the Johnnies found a loophole). Then came the First World War, which got everybody in a pickle and after the Second World War, the British government simply forbade the retail of imported fresh vegetables because of its own economic crisis. The ban was only lifted in 1954 and the following year, 852 Johnnies were back at work.

Believe it or not, there are about twenty Johnnies still working in Britain today. Some of them even continue to ride their bicycles but this is mostly for the benefit of the tourists. Oddly enough, if you mention Roscoff or Onion Johnnies to the French and they won't know what you're talking about. Even the stripy-t-shirt-beret-bicycle thing is a mystery to them because their idea of a typical Frenchman is a cross between General de Gaulle and Christian Lacroix, with a bit of Sacha Distel thrown in.

Still, they certainly know their onions. Their onion soup is world famous and one explanation of its origins (to be taken with a pinch of salt, perhaps) is that King Louis XV returned late one night after a hard day's monarching, with the munchies. All he could find in the kitchen was onions, butter and champagne. He mixed everything together, cooked it and - voilà! - French Onion Soup. I have serious doubts about this story, as I'm sure King Louis wouldn't have even known where the kitchen was, never mind the butter - but I could be wrong.

I prefer to believe that the soup originated in Lyon. They say that their Gratinée Lyonnaise is the original French Onion Soup, so as I am biased, here is the recipe:

800gr/2lbs of onions
120gr/4oz of Comté cheese
(you could substitute cheddar)
4 thick slices of wholemeal bread
40gr/2oz of butter
one rounded teaspoonful of sugar
1,25 litres/ 2 1/2 pints of beef stock
freshly ground black pepper

Peel and thinly slice the onions. Grate the cheese. Put the slices of bread in a low oven to dry out. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the onions. Season and cook on a low heat for about 15 minutes, with the lid on. Take off the lid and continue to cook for 30 minutes. Sprinkle on the sugar and let the onions caramelise before pouring in the stock. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 15 minutes. Pour into individual ovenproof soup bowls and place a slice of bread on the top of each one, making sure it soaks up some of the liquid. Top with the grated cheese and put the soup bowls under the grill for 5 minutes, until the cheese is toasted. Serve at once and let it warm you to the very tips of your toes…

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Who would have thought the French invented rugby? Well, the French for one…they claim that a game called la soule was brought to Britain by William the Conqueror but in fact la soule was just one of many rugby or football-like games played all over Europe in the Middle Ages. The game usually involved two rival villages. The villagers stood on neutral ground and the soule – often an inflated pig’s bladder or a piece of stitched leather filled with sawdust, bran or even dried dung – was thrown into the air. The aim was to get the soule to one’s own village by running or kicking it across country while fighting off the burly opponents. There were few rules and a soule match was a dangerous, violent and rowdy affair. No change there, then…

The French did invent tennis, though, that’s for sure. Real tennis – from royal tennis-began as the jeu de paume (palm game). It truly was ‘the game of kings and the king of games’ – Louis X died after a game (he drank water that was too cold) and Henri II was a champion among monarchs. King Charles V built the first known indoor court at the Louvre in 1368 and the French Revolution was hatched in the tennis court at Versailles, although this was because the would-be revolutionaries had been locked out of the assembly rooms.

It was invented by bored monks who started throw a ball made from a piece of cloth around the cloisters, hitting it with the palm of the hand when it fell back. Well, it beat Gregorian chants, I suppose. They began using harder balls which meant the players had to wear a glove to avoid injury (as in cricket and basketball today). Then a wooden bat was used and eventually a racquet, which had the form of a forearm and a palm. The racquet with strings of sheep gut, laced across the frame, was developed in the sixteenth century.

A rope was introduced and the ball had to be hit over this (later, of course, it became a net). Special bouncier balls were made by paumiers and when rubber was discovered, Parisian balls became a coveted booty for pirates. Please note that I have not made a single, unsavoury joke so far…

The word ‘tennis’ is a deformation of the phrase 'Tenez Messires’…roughly translated as ‘Take that, sirs’ which was uttered at the moment of service. One of the explanations for the strange scoring system of 15, 30, 40 is that it was based on the presence of a clock face at the end of the tennis court; another that in medieval French numerology, 60 was the equivalent of our 100. Doesn’t explain the 40, but still. The term 'deuce' is derived from the French deux meaning two and ‘love’ is possibly derived from the French l’oeuf meaning egg and symbolizing zero although there are more likely explanations.

When the finer days arrive, in dusty village squares all over France, in the shade of plane trees, elderly men in string vests and berets drink pastis and play boules. In Provence, the game is known as pétanque, a word derived from the provençal ped tanca or ‘feet together’. In 1910, a player called Ernest Pitiot suffering from rheumatism, was unable to do the little run before throwing his boule so he was allowed to throw it standing with his feet together. The tradition stuck – as did poor Ernest, no doubt. The image is very vivid…

In the game of boules Lyonnaises, the metal balls weigh nearly a kilo, bigger than those used in pétanque, and the player must run before ‘shooting’. In both games, the object is to throw one’s boule so that it lands as close as possible to the small wooden jack, called a cochonnet.

Billiards, it seems, is another French invention. Some say it originated as an indoor version of croquet – itself derived from a French game called la crosse. Some say it was the other way round. At least we know that the name comes from the French billart, the stick that was used, and this probably comes from the word bille, meaning ‘ball’. The game was played on a table covered with a green cloth and the object was to push a ball through a wicket to hit a peg. The narrow end of the stick came into play when using the club end would have made a shot difficult to control. This was called the queue from which we get ‘cue’. For a long time, women weren’t allowed to use this end of the biliart as it was feared they would rip the cloth…that was the official reason, at any rate. I bet the real reason was that the men were simply terrified of losing to the ‘weaker sex’…

I have never learnt to play tennis and I’m no great fan of football but I did play pétanque once. It is a more skilful game than it looks and gets even more difficult after a few glasses of pastis…still, at least I didn’t have to wear a string vest. That would have put everybody off their shot…

Friday, August 24, 2007


Colin Randall has invited me to post in his Salut! Forum, so I have. Thanks, Colin!

See you over there, then...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Back to school

Ahhh. The holidays are coming to an end and September looms. Going back to school conjures up cosy images of freshly sharpened crayons, shiny conkers and Readybrek – or at least, it used to. These days, la rentrée (a handy word to describe going back to school) is more likely to mean financial ruin, a nervous breakdown and a fair idea of where one would love to stick all those sharpened crayons…

Charlemagne (742-814) is held responsible by French children for having invented school. He realised that being unable to read or write was going to be a bit of a handicap for a King of the Franks, especially when it came to filling in all those forms and writing decrees and stuff like that, so he founded the Palace School in his home town of Aix-la-Chapelle and attended it himself. He learnt to read Latin and Greek but he never quite got the hang of writing, which is ironic for someone who claimed to love administration more than war - if he were alive today he’d never be able to get a council house or join a tennis club or apply for a credit card. Actually, I can’t do any of those things either despite being an absolutely brilliant speller…

As if that wasn’t enough, in the 19th century, Jules Ferry made school compulsory for 6 to 13 year olds – including girls, which was something of a novelty. He secularised the state schools and abolished religious education - barring members of Roman Catholic orders as state school teachers. This is why there are so many problems today when young Muslim girls turn up at school wearing the veil – by law, pupils are forbidden to display any sign of religious allegiance and this includes wearing veils, turbans or orange robes, shaving their heads or indulging in transcendental meditation in the playground. As for Jules Ferry, he was assassinated in 1893 by a religious fanatic – probably an irate Jesuit with a grudge who saw his pension fly out of the window with not even the chance of a Welcome Back bonus as consolation...

Jules Ferry also ensured the education in France was free and it is, bien sûr – give or take a few hundred euros. Course books are on loan from the school but workbooks have to be bought, as well as books studied in literature classes, file paper, exercise books and hugely expensive programmable calculators. To be fair, financial help is available if you have a limited budget - although I do have to explain to my children that the money is meant for books and not hair extensions.

And so I head off to town clutching my limp cheque book, in search of the elusive pink exercise book cover that is always on the list and never in the economy pack-of-five on sale and the very expensive oil pastels that will be used just once for a work of art entitled The Inner Eye and will end up in the bin on the last day of term. Then there are all the felt pens, rubbers, pencils and biros that have mysteriously disappeared during the summer holidays. And then there is the paper...

It is not surprising that a nation known for its obsession with paperwork should have as many different words to describe paper as the Eskimos have words to describe snow. I have had to buy: A4 file paper with small squares, A4 file paper with large squares (single sheets and double sheets of both), A5 file paper with small squares etc. etc., tracing paper, squared tracing paper, drawing paper, coloured drawing paper, small, medium and large exercise books with and without spiral bindings…all this in the knowledge that on the first day of school all the teachers are going to vehemently deny ever having asked for large, small-squared spiral-bound exercise books in the first place. I don’t see why the French can’t write on straight lines like everybody else.

Oh, I hear you say, but you don’t have to buy school uniform, do you? I only wish I did. I wouldn’t even begrudge buying those voluminous bottle-green school knickers and fawn knee socks my mum had to buy and sewing in all the name-tags - at least my girls would know what to wear every day. Instead, they throw clothes around the room in a panic as if it were Saturday night and their first date, rather than Wednesday morning and double chemistry. It’s no good asking them to wear the same outfit two days running, either – they’d sooner flunk the baccalaureat, believe me.

During the first week back at school, the children will stagger home with piles of textbooks for me to cover in clear plastic film. This has to be done, even if the book has already been covered by the last owner – you can’t just leave the old plastic film on and pretend it’s new because they can tell and I know because I tried. Finally, just when you think you can relax and get some time to yourself, you are sent various forms to fill in, in triplicate, with information that the school already has because you fill in the same forms every year. This is fine if your child has changed sex, place of birth or parents but otherwise it feels like you’ve been set lines as a punishment for having immutable children. In fact, it feels exactly like being back at school…

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What a bastide...

Coo-eee…I’m back.

However, I’m afraid I have nothing very exciting to report (sorry, Alex!) – it was just…nice. We went to Mirepoix, a medieval fortified town (a bastide) in Ariège. Our hotel room was overlooked by the cathedral and so I was woken every morning by a deafening cacophony of bells (why do they have to strike the hour twice??). The bed was rubbish

We walked a lot – between eight and twelve kilometres a day - in the surrounding hills. The weather was beautiful. We talked a bit and only argued twice and…we ate too much cheese.

But at least my husband was his old self, if a little sadder. And although my feelings for him haven’t changed - I have. Like Mirepoix, I was completely destroyed - then rebuilt from scratch in a safer place, with bloomin’ great thick walls around me…

And with that excruciatingly pretentious simile (or is it a metaphor?), I leave you…because my feet are still killing me from all that walking and they need a good long soak…

Friday, August 10, 2007

Down that road...

Tomorrow, I'm off to meet my husband-from-whom-I-am-legally-separated in Narbonne. From there, we are going to Mirepoix, where we will spend a week discovering Cathar country. And perhaps a lot of other things too...who knows?

Wish me luck...

Thursday, August 02, 2007


The question I have to ask myself is: Am I a juillettiste or an aoûtienne? Hmmnn. I think I’m probably a bit of both …and no, I’m not talking politics or being rude. I’m talking about holidays.

You’d think that with all the days off they have the French wouldn’t need five weeks paid holidays a year, but it seems they do. By law, they are not allowed to take less than a fortnight at a time or more than a month and in any case, they must take their summer holidays between the 1st May (itself a day off) and the 31st October. Most of the time, it’s the boss who decides and many choose to close down their businesses for a month, either in July or August - hence the name juillettistes for those who holiday during the month of July and aoûtiens for those who choose August. The result can be a little disconcerting as you can wake up one morning to discover that not only is your familiar home town crawling with foreigners pestering you for directions but also you can’t find a single newsagent’s that’s open.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, tourism was reserved for the wealthy upper classes. The first hotels appeared in France in the 1760s and Stendhal wrote his Mémoires d'un touriste in 1838. Although Grenoble was Stendhal's home town, he hated it and spent a great deal of his time travelling in Italy before eventually settling there and having lots of love affairs with Italian women - in fact, he probably set the fashion for holiday romances. Stendhal would have been dumbfounded to discover that the first syndicat d'initiative - or tourist information office - was established right here in Grenoble, but he would never know because this happened in 1889, almost fifty years after his death. In 1900, the first Michelin Guide was published, aimed at helping wealthy, gastronomically orientated individuals to choose restaurants while travelling - as opposed to taking their own sandwiches and a thermos flask.

The 19th century also saw the first colonies de vacances or holiday camps. These were initially set up for poor, malnourished city children who never got the chance to go on holiday and benefit from the country air. Today, nearly one and a half million perfectly adequately nourished children go on these camps every summer. They do all sorts of interesting activities like windsurfing, horse riding or rock climbing that their mothers haven't got the energy to take them to at home and they stay at the camp for up to three weeks. I send my children every year and look forward to it immensely...

From 1936 onwards, there was a veritable explosion of mass tourism due to the increase in leisure time and the institution of paid holidays for workers. Today, sixty-two percent of the French go away on holiday every year. Increasingly, these are activity holidays – they go hand gliding, canyoning, hiking… not my idea of a relaxing break but then I need to summon all my energy just to turn over on my beach towel. Eleven million French tourists go abroad every year – presumably to escape the hordes of incoming foreigners complaining about the food, the water and the loos. Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Austria, Tunisia, Morocco and the United Kingdom seem to be their favourite destinations and they are more likely than the British to be able (and willing) to speak a foreign language. This is normal because not everybody speaks French whereas most people speak English – at least, they ought to…

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Summer is supposed to be here and despite the rain, thoughts of lazy days by the pool are on my mind. By pool, of course, I mean lake - because my local “swimming baths” is just that. Set in an area of woodland called Le Bois Français, the shore of this lake has been turned into a sandy beach and when I finally get the chance to stretch out in the baking sun, I could almost be in St Tropez - if it weren’t for the surrounding snow-capped mountains and low-flying buzzards, that is.

There are thousands of lakes in France, both man-made and natural ones. Lake Geneva – called Lac Léman in French – is the second largest freshwater lake in central Europe. Sixty per cent of the lake is in Switzerland and the rest is in France, in the department of Haute-Savoie. Like many Alpine lakes, Lake Geneva was formed by a retreating glacier thousands of years ago. It was so polluted in the 1980s that swimming was forbidden, but pollution levels have dropped considerably since then and swimming is one of the main leisure activities along with sailing, wind surfing, boating and scuba diving. There are many anecdotes attached to Lake Geneva: Empress Elizabeth of Austria, known as Sissi, was fatally stabbed in the heart by an Italian anarchist while she waited to board a steamship on the lake; Mary and Percy Shelley and Lord Byron took their holidays there and wrote ghost stories; it is also said that the song Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple was written about a casino burning down on the shore of the lake just before one of their concerts.

Not counting Lake Geneva, the largest and the deepest Alpine lake in France is the Lac du Bourget in the Savoie department. The western shore of the Lac du Bourget, lying at the foothills of the Jura mountain range, is inaccessible by road and remains a haven for wildlife, including beavers and turtles. The eastern shore, on the other hand, is built up (the main town is the thermal resort of Aix-les-Bains) and is lined with restaurants and night clubs. Legend has it that the lake was formed by the tears of an angel whom God ordered to leave the Northern Alps although personally I can’t see why he had to make such a fuss…

A little further up the road is the lake of Annecy. This is the next largest lake after Bourget and is reputed to be the cleanest in the world. The same angel is supposed to have cried this lake too so he was obviously quite upset about leaving. Paul Cézanne, however, sneered at the picturesque views, calling it the type of landscape young lady travellers like to sketch in their albums. It didn’t stop him from painting Le Lac Bleu, though, during his stay in 1896.

The third largest Alpine lake in France is the lac d’Aiguebelette, also in the Savoie region. The tearful angel had probably cried himself dry by this time and instead, another legend explains its origins. There was once a village, the story goes, whose inhabitants were wealthy and pleasure-loving. One day, a poor beggar arrived looking for food and shelter. None of the villagers would help him except for an old mother and her daughter, who were themselves ostracized and poor. The beggar turned out to be Christ in disguise. In His wrath, He flooded the valley, drowning the selfish inhabitants of the village except for the two women, whose houses remained intact on two small islands in the middle of the lake. Hmm. I wonder how they got to the shops, though?

Further south, in the Mercantour National Park, lies the lac d’Allos. Situated at 7,316 feet, it is the largest natural lake in Europe at this altitude and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful. The air is clear and crisp and the surrounding scenery is majestic, with mountains rising to ten thousand feet towards a brilliant blue sky…

Near Chamonix, there is a lake known as the lac à l’anglais – the Englishman’s lake. This artificial lake was built in the early twentieth century by an eccentric Scotsman called Lord Sinclair (English, Scottish - we’re all the same to the French) and includes a “cave” built from reinforced concrete and a false “ruined” chapel. Today, it is used as an aquatic sports centre which is much more sensible.

Lacs artificiels, or reservoirs, were created to produce electricity. The first hydro-electric dam was built in 1868 by Aristide Bergès, a French engineer who settled in Grenoble and today, there are four hundred and fifty dams in France that belong to the electricity board (EDF). Most of the reservoirs were created at the expense of village communities and people have not forgotten. The Sautet dam, about forty miles from Grenoble, was one of the first hydro-electric dams to be built. In 1934, the dam was completed and the villagers stood on the top and watched as their village, with its twelfth century church, disappeared beneath the water. Ten years later, when the dam was emptied for maintenance, they came back out of curiosity and were shocked to see that their village was intact (if a little damp). EDF decided that in the future, it would be prudent to destroy the houses before flooding. The village of Les Salles-sur-Verdon, for example, was razed to the ground to make way for the lac Sainte Croix in 1974. A new village was built nearby and some monuments from the old one were incorporated, including the fountain and the bell from the church tower. But for many, the heart and soul of the village still lies beneath those deep waters.

I’m a little frightened of lakes myself – I don’t like to swim out of my depth and I don’t like the idea of swimming with fish. I can’t windsurf either – or water ski. No. I much prefer to lie down in the sun, close my eyes and think of St Tropez…

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Revolting French

Louis XVI was in for a run of bad luck when he ascended the throne in 1774. For a start, the country was heavily in debt after being involved in various wars, including the American War of Independence. Secondly, he married Marie-Antoinette, but didn’t get around to consummating the marriage for seven years as neither of them knew what they were supposed to do. Thirdly, of course, he got his head chopped off.

Louis was undeservedly considered weak and stupid (although his diary entry for July 14th 1789 did read Rien– that is, ‘Nothing happened’) yet he tried his best to sort out the country’s dire financial state. In the years leading up to the Revolution, the Royal coffers were filled from the taxes of the poor: they paid taxes to the king, to the church and to the lord of the manor, as well as taxes on wine, salt and bread. The nobility and the clergy were exempt and when Louis attempted to tax them, they refused. Understandably, the peasants were upset.

As if that wasn’t enough, the crops failed and there was a shortage of bread – the staple food. The inevitable revolt began - not in Paris but in Grenoble. When the king sent a garrison to deal with the disgruntled Grenoblois, the inhabitants climbed on to the roofs in the rue Voltaire and hurled tiles at the soldiers. The day was known uninspiringly as ‘The Day of the Tiles’ and immortalized by the painter Alexandre Debelle.

It was followed by an assembly of representatives of all but the poorest segment of French society, in a nearby castle at Vizille. They demanded that the king convene the Estates-General (representatives from the nobility, the clergy and the bourgeoisie) in order to vote on the matter of taxes. The bourgeoisie – who did pay taxes – felt they were being unfairly treated and when they realized the king had no intention of implementing fiscal reform, they broke away and formed their own National Assembly. Finding themselves locked out of the assembly rooms, they held their first meeting in an indoor tennis court in the Palace of Versailles. Here they swore an oath to remain together until a constitution for France had been drawn up. It became known as Le Serment du jeu de Paume or The Tennis Court Oath and it was truly a revolutionary act. The king no longer had absolute power.

The spirit of revolution spread through France. In the countryside, peasants and farmers revolted by attacking the manors and estates of their landlords. They became known as the sans-culottes. This did not mean that they walked around without any trousers on but rather that they wore long trousers and not knee-breeches, like the upper-classes. In Paris, on July the 14th 1789, citizens stormed the city’s largest prison, the Bastille, looking for munitions. Much has been made of this event - in fact, July the 14th is known, at least in Britain, as Bastille Day even though it commemorates la Fête de la Fédération which took place a year later. But the Bastille was a cushy prison and held principally aristocratic prisoners (Voltaire was sent there twice). They had comfortable cells and lacked for nothing. The dramatic-sounding Storming of the Bastille freed just seven inmates – two of whom were insane. It was purely a symbolic gesture albeit a bit of an anti-climax …

The nobles fled. In 1791, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette tried to escape but were caught. Some say it was because Louis tried to buy something in a shop and was recognised by the shopkeeper from his portrait on the coins; others say that Marie-Antoinette’s expensive scent gave them away. Whatever the reason, they were arrested and sent back, where Louis was forced to pledge his allegiance to the French Constitution. A year later, he was sent to the guillotine for treason.

Ironically, the guillotine was named after a humanitarian doctor, Joseph Guillotin. A member of the new national assembly, he recommended in a speech that executions be performed by a beheading device which he argued was quicker and less painful than the traditional methods of hanging or beheading by sword. Even though he did not invent the device, his name became linked with it. After his death in 1814, his children tried unsuccessfully to have the device's name changed. When their efforts failed, they were allowed to change their name instead.
The guillotine became the must-have accessory. Children were given toy guillotines with which to behead their revolutionary Barbies and women wore guillotine earrings. As a fashion victim, Marie-Antoinette would probably have worn them herself had she not had her own head sliced off. Her last poignant words were to her executioner: “Monsieur, I beg your pardon,” she said, having stepped on his foot, “I did not do it on purpose.”

In 1793, the Revolutionary Calendar was established, briefly replacing the Gregorian one. The year was divided into months consisting of three weeks of ten days which were named after various crops and flowers. Now, instead of getting one day off every seven to go to church, the people had to make do with one day in ten to attend a 'temple of reason', which is what the churches were rechristened, after the new ‘Cult of Reason’ which had replaced Christianity. Predictably, the English considered the new calendar highly amusing and gave their own names - reminiscent of Snow White’s vertically challenged companions - to the calendar months . They called them: Wheezy, Sneezy, Freezy, Slippy, Drippy, Nippy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety. Thankfully, the calendar was abandoned in 1805…

As for Grenoble – an attempt was made to change its name to Grelibre , thus replacing the ‘noble’ with ‘free’, rather like the American attempt to rechristen French Fries as ‘Freedom Fries’. This did not catch on, of course, because it just sounds silly.

As Sellars and Yeatman would say, the French Revolution was a Good Thing because without it, the French would not have wooden pencils, divorce, liberty, equality, fraternity or liquid bleach. Or fireworks. I rest my case.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Sound of Musique

The 21st June is the summer solstice and people all over France will be dancing in the streets, singing and playing instruments until late into the evening. It may seem like an unbridled pagan celebration but it is just la fête de la musique – the annual music festival.

It was launched in 1982 by the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, after it had been pointed out to him that over five million people – half of whom were young people - played an instrument but did not have the opportunity to show off their skills. He chose the longest day of the year and encouraged everybody to go out into the street from 8:30 to 9pm and play a tune. It was a great success – and as half an hour is barely enough time to tune your fiddle, never mind play a whole jig, the music went on all night. These days, the accordions, the harmonicas and the combs and tissue paper still come out but there are also free concerts in every musical genre imaginable: classical, hip-hop, rock n’ roll, jazz… Unfortunately, I live in the centre of town and although a little Chopin drifting through my windows would not go amiss, I’ll invariably end up with Mad Momo and his Electro-house-techno right outside my door.

French music had its hey-day in the Middle Ages and the earliest form of polyphony originated here as did the first motets. Secular music became popular with the poet-musicians – called troubadours in the south of France and trouvères in the north – who wandered from castle to castle playing their ballades or their lais to the court. Far from being a sort of mediaeval busker, they were usually of noble blood themselves – Guillaume IX, the grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the most well-known example. He was a colourful character and was excommunicated more than once, not for bad poetry – his was excellent if sometimes ribald - but for rampant womanising. A typical rock star, in other words.

From the fifteenth century onwards, French music faded into the background and would never again have the influence it had enjoyed in the Age of Chivalry. And while the French gave us Bizet, Debussy and Ravel, they could not compete with the likes of Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. However, music has always been important to the French and musical accomplishment is encouraged. Every major city has a Conservatoire National de Région where children can study musical theory and learn an instrument with excellent teachers. Children can either go to school there, having normal lessons in the morning and studying music in the afternoon, or they can have music lessons once or twice a week in their spare time. The fee is very reasonable (it is related to your income) and they will provide the instrument, as long as it’s not a grand piano. For families like ours, it is a wonderful opportunity - although try telling that to my youngest daughter, who hadn’t realised that Vanessa Mae actually had to practise to get that good and didn’t just scrape her way through “Twinkle, twinkle little star” a couple of times before becoming mega-famous overnight…

French popular music does not export well. Most British people have heard of Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Aznavour but they rarely make Top of the Pops these days. Singer-songwriters like Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel (who was Belgian) are unknown in Britain because, like the troubadours of old, they were poets above all else. Serge Gainsbourg, a brilliant and irreverent poet-musician, did have a hit with Jane Birkin in 1969, but DJs weren’t allowed to play it on the radio because it was too rude. Even though these singers are now dead, their work is still much-loved and has influenced contemporary musicians like Jean-Jacques Goldman and Renaud. Another French icon is the ageing Johnny Hallyday, who is actually half-Belgian and definitely not a poet. Johnny, as he is known to young and old alike, brought rock n’ roll to France and is, in his own words, ‘a survivor’. In his early sixties, he still wears tight leather trousers, rides a Harley Davidson and dyes his hair. Johnny sings mainly cover versions of American songs or French songs that sound like cover versions and is such a national treasure that he has been awarded the Légion d'Honour by the President. Despite having an American name (not his real name) hardly anyone outside of France knows who he is.

Now and again, a French song will cross the channel but it will be sung in English. Two of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits were French: My Way (originally sung by Claude François) and Autumn Leaves (Yves Montand), but generally speaking, the French are chauvinistic and keep their music for themselves, as they believe it is too good to be wasted on the uncivilised bunch that make up the rest of the world. Unless, of course, they are just insecure. I find it rather odd that by law, forty percent of a radio station’s output should be by French artists and sung in French…on the other hand, as most young people these days find it easier to listen to moronic monosyllabic rap than songs where they need to have at least a basic grasp of their mother tongue, perhaps the government is right.

Now, where’s my guitar? I know it’s around here somewhere and I want to brush up my ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in time for tomorrow…

Saturday, June 09, 2007


Last April, Europe’s fastest train – the French TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) – beat a world record in speed. I would have loved to have been riding in it or even standing on one of the bridges as it streaked beneath, like a silver bullet - but I had to be content with watching the video. As the train reached 356 mph it was just a blur on the landscape…the French have a right to be proud.

It wasn’t always so. The French railway system developed slowly and chugged behind the rest of Europe. The first railway in France was opened in 1828 - three years after the English one - between St Etienne and Andrézieux. There was just 21 kilometres of track and the line had been built to transport coal in wagons pulled by horses. In 1832, it began to take passengers who sat in opened-topped wagons, like the coal. It wasn’t an immediate hit….

Nothing much happened for the next decade. France was still rebuilding the country in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and this hindered the building of railways. They were not as industrialised as Britain either and their iron production was limited so they had to import many of their rails, which was expensive. But probably the greatest problem lay in the fact that France possessed an efficient network of waterways and the railway system was seen as competition.

In 1842, the government finally agreed to invest in the building of a national rail network. The first lines connected the major cities to Paris but unfortunately, the major cities weren’t connected to each other. This meant, for example, that a train travelling from Lyon to Clermont-Ferrand (a mere hundred and twenty kilometres apart) had to go via Paris, turning the journey into a seven-hundred-kilometre marathon. More lines were built at the end of the nineteenth century and by 1914, the French railway system had become one of the most highly-developed in the world, with thirty-five thousand miles of rails, a third of which comprised narrow gauge lines. One of the first films made by the Frères Lumière was of a steam train coming into the station at La Ciotat in the south of France.

Of course, there were accidents – just as there are today. The first accident in France was in 1842, on the Paris-Versailles line when the train came off the rails and caught fire. Fifty-five people died. A French bishop declared that God was pouring out his wrath on the railway and the arrogance of Man that it represented. Unfortunately, that same month, Pope Gregory XVI commissioned a special train for the Vatican, which must have rattled the bishop’s mitre a tad. In 1920, the French President, Paul Deschanel, fell out of the window of a train and, wandering about in his pyjamas and a bit worse for wear, he came across a railway worker. “I am the President of France and I’ve just fallen out of a train window” he explained. The man thought he was a drunk but nevertheless took him to the level-crossing keeper’s house where his wounds were treated. After his identity was established, the keeper’s wife told journalists “I could tell he was a gentleman because he had clean feet”. Quite.

In 1938, the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF) was created and in 1967, research began into constructing faster, sleeker trains. In 1981, the first TGV made its maiden run on the Paris-Lyon line and today TGVs run all over France, although they can only travel at very high speeds on special tracks (LGV) which account for about thirty percent of the network. The TGV is safe and there have never been any fatalities in France due to high speeds, at least, not human ones. Animals sometimes pose problems. Recently, a goat wandered on to the track at Aix-en-Provence and was hit by a TGV – bringing traffic to a halt for over two hours.

Travelling in a TGV is a relaxing experience. The seats are deep and comfortable and you hardly notice the movement of the train. If you sit on the upper deck of a double-decker TGV, it feels like you’re flying. It is my favourite way to travel. There is something romantic and exciting about railway stations and the trains themselves as they gather up the milling crowds of voyagers and thunder off to distant destinations. Even the smaller trains are thrilling in their own way. Le Train des Alpes, for example, runs from Grenoble to Gap. Along the route it passes through twenty-seven tunnels, over fifteen viaducts and under five bridges amid breathtaking Alpine scenery. Or there is Le Chemin de Fer de la Mure, which once brought coal down from the Matheysin Plateau to Grenoble. Echoing the train in 1832 that transported passengers in coal wagons, this one also ferries people. But they are tourists and they travel in relative comfort, trundling upwards through lush landscapes on a small and shiny bright red train…