Bastille Day/ La Fête Nationale

Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day

Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day

July 14, Le Quatorze Julliet, marks the French holiday we know as Bastille Day. Not surprisingly, the origins of this holiday are un peu compliqué. Two key events in the French Revolution share this date.

The first: In 1789, the people of Paris, fearful that their representatives would be attacked by the royal military of Louis XVI and desiring ammunition and gunpowder for a possible battle, stormed the Bastille, a prison in Paris that held citizens under not so just cause and without rights to appeal. Often, prisoners were held there because of anti-royal writings.

One year later, on July 14, 1790, there was a huge feast to celebrate the conclusion, or so they thought at the time, of the French Revolution. Apparently the feast lasted 4 days and concluded with fireworks, fine wine, and running naked through the streets.

Pétanque in Provence

Pétanque in Provence

While we didn’t run naked anywhere, we did celebrate the holiday. We kicked it off with a pétanque tournament; I was partnered with a lovely Englishwoman named June and while we held our own, we were eliminated early in the tournament. It’s quite possible that my problem was I didn’t have a cool straw hat like most of the experienced players. No big deal, I was hungry and I forgot how long those games last! The French-American Chamber of Commerce sponsored a barbeque, concert, and pick-up soccer and volleyball games, so we had plenty of time to eat and play with San Diego’s French and Francophile community. It was a perfect southern California day: sunny, a cool ocean breeze, bright blue skies.

Here are some photos from the Bastille Day Military Parade a few years ago. It proceeds down the Champs Elysees and lasts for hours. The year we were there, Sarkozy was president. As he rode through, the crowd around us started whistling and my first thought was: they really like their president. Then I realized my mother-in-law was shaking her head and shocked, astonished, that people would dare whistle like that. Turns out whistling in France is quite rude; basically the equivalent of booing. So probably best not to whistle at a French girl.

If you ever go to the parade, get there early, bring lots of water, a snack, definitely a camera, and don’t bother to try and claim any territory like you would in a parade here – you’ll be scrunched and pushed out of the way.

Here’s my Bastille Day workout, designed to help you stand your ground in the crowd of parade revelers:

1. Medicine Ball Squats: Take a wide stance and squat down, maintaining even weight on each foot, while thrusting the medicine ball straight out in front of you, arms parallel to the ground. This will help you keep your position and should you need to, shove back.

2. Lateral Deltoid Raises While Balancing on One Foot: To help you ward off those pushers that come at you from the side while maintaining your balance. You can’t risk falling at the parade, they’ll never let you stand back up.

3. Lunges with Biceps Curls: It’s hot. Really freaking hot in Paris in July. If you are American, and as such a Water Bottle Addict, you’ll be lifting that water bottle to your mouth for at least three hours straight. The lunges are to help propel yourself forward with force after you’ve been shoved and maneuvered to the back of the pack.

Me, waiting for the parade to start

Me, tired from getting up early, waiting for the parade. We started out in front then got shoved to the back before the parade even began.

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Best seats on the Champs

Best seats on the Champs. They were drinking champagne.

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The firemen, the most popular group in the parade

The firemen, the most popular group in the parade

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Kermesse

School’s out for summer!

kermesseSummer feels more real with kids. In San Diego, where the seasons blend and where we have two, maybe three weeks of vacation a year, summer never really meant much. Just a little warmer and crowds of tourists everywhere we want to go. But now, my daughter has finished her first year of preschool, and we kicked off summer in style: with an end of year show and Kermesse.

The preschool section of the school put on an hour-long show. Somehow, the teachers got those two, three, four, and five-year-olds to perform choreographed dances, sing, recite memorized lines, and even put on a play. Seriously – three and four year olds doing the tango, kindergartners performing Snow White, and two-year-olds dancing to a beat, each group waiting patiently while the others performed, and not one of them on stage crying for Maman? Amazing. These people are miracle workers.

Four year olds doing a choreographed dance on boogie boards to Surfin' USA

Four year olds doing a choreographed dance on boogie boards to Surfin’ USA

Two-year-old cowboys and cowgirls

Two-year-old cowboys and cowgirls

 

Then there was Kermesse, a carnival of sorts that in France is mainly put on my parochial schools. When my husband heard there would be a Kermesse at the French American School, he immediately decided to take a half-day off, citing fond memories of going to Kermesse with friends as a child. The school did not disappoint: lots of fantastic food, a few rides, good music, and all sorts of fun activities.

Yes, please!

Yes, please!

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Homemade games with prizes

Homemade games with prizes

Dunk Tank

Dunk Tank

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Happy summer, everyone!

Great Conversations or Arguments?

586 Bastille Day The French love to argue. Often, I come away from a conversation with my husband feeling like we’ve had a fight, while he comes away from the same conversation thinking it was a really good discussion.

Honestly, it drives me crazy.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy good banter, or analyzing things, or getting in depth on politics, history, world events, etc. It’s just that I don’t enjoy it All. The. Time. Sometimes I want to kick back, have a drink, and laugh until my abs hurt. Americans, especially females, look to connect and find common ground through conversation. With my husband, I often feel like he takes the opposing stance just because it’s fun for him. As Olivier Magny points out in Stuff Parisians Like, the French don’t have conversations, they win them.

Often, our conversations will end with this:

Me: “Wait, that’s exactly the point I was making.”

Stéphane: “Yes. We’re violently agreeing.” Big smile, laugh.

Me: “Then why were you arguing with me?”

Stéphane: “Oh, that wasn’t arguing, was it?”

Me: “AAARRGGGGHHHHH!”

I’ll never forget the first time we hung out with P (name withheld to protect the innocent … or to protect me from the wrath of a Frenchman) and his wife. The topic came around to – surprise – politics. P had been eyeing me but not really including me in the conversation. I felt like I was being sized up; like he was calculating whether or not I would become a friend, accepted into this circle of Frenchies. He turned to me. “J’ai une question pour toi.”

 “Okay.”

His question had to do with Arizona politics. Being from Arizona and socializing in French circles has been a challenge considering the political climate of my home state. I don’t live there and hate much of what has been done there, yet I still feel embarrassed and defensive when people ask me: what is Arizona’s problem?

After he posed his question, I asked, in French, “Are you asking for my opinion on the new law, or are you asking me what it is about Arizona and the politics there that has allowed these things to come to pass?”

He eyed me very seriously and nodded his head. “Bon retour.”

Excellent return. Like we were in some sort of sporting match. I realize now that to him, we were. I held my own, and we became friends.

Every once in a while, during a dinner with French friends where politics and philosophy are being volleyed around, people are talking over each other, voices are rising, I have the urge to blurt out: “ ‘I see Blue. He looks glorious!’ …. Will Ferrell? …. Old School? …. Anyone?” Or perhaps more to the point: “I’d like to have an argument, please,” à la John Cleese.

I always joke that the French make things way more complicated than they need to be. Even our simple saying for plucking petals from a flower: “He loves me, he loves me not,” becomes complicated in French: “Il m’aime un peu, Il m’aime beaucoup, Il m’aime passionément, Il m’aime à la folie, Il m’aime pas du tout.” He loves me a little, he loves me a lot, he loves me passionately, he’s crazy for me, he doesn’t love me at all.

The fact that my husband is an engineer from France makes it even harder. Let’s. Analyze. Everything.

“Hey, Stef, could you dry the high chair tray with a towel after you wash it? If you prop it over the sink it’s never dry when I need it at lunch time.”

“It doesn’t get dry? Hmmm. I could look into devising a ventilation system where we could have it propped away from the wall and direct more air flow onto it so the droplets evaporate properly. It would involve using the window and working to control ambient temperatures. I might need to do some internet research to see how others have addressed this problem.”

“Or, you could just dry it with a towel.”

Okay, maybe that conversation didn’t quite happen that way.

However, I’m proud to say that on that “great discussion” I came out the winner.

 

The Rose Colored Glasses Wiped Clean

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I wrote this five years ago after spending most of the summer in Antibes, France. That was the summer France lost some of its magic for me, but that isn’t a bad thing. It became a real place – one with flaws as well as astounding beauty – rather than the idealized fantasyland of my European dreams (which wasn’t such a bad thing either). France still holds magic for me, and when I gaze upon her lavender fields, explore her old castles, or walk her cobblestone streets, I live some of my happiest moments.

I’m back in San Diego after our summer stint in the south of France. I’ve spent a lot of time in France and have devoted much time and effort to mastering the unmasterable French language. This recent trip was a test for us.  Exam question: Do we want to move to France? Answer: The jury is still out.

France, for me, particularly the south, has long been an idyllic escape, a locale I long for when I’m away. After all the time I’ve spent there, I still idealize the place, even if it means subconsciously denying its imperfections.

There is such joy, and magic, in being in a foreign country – new sights, smells, sounds. But part of that comes from not knowing what exists in its dirty underbelly. In seeing only the glamorous parts meant for the tourist’s amazed eyes, and not having to deal with the day to day aspects of living there. Part of that magic also comes from not knowing what is being said around you.

One afternoon, after hitting the beach, I was absolutely overheated. On my walk home past the chic private beaches and touristy shops that spilled their postcards, film (people still buy film?), beach towels, and bikinis onto the sidewalk, I didn’t pass one of the many ice cream shops. Instead, I stopped for some of that devine delicacy, a gob of gastronomic goodness, a jolt of gelato, yes – bliss on a baked waffle cone.

As I walked away with my temporary treasure, it of course began to melt, so I stopped in front of a shop window to eat some of it and ensure that I didn’t arrive home covered in telling chocolate drips. An older man, short and stocky with a genial smile, walked by and said something to me. It took a minute to process what he had said, so enraptured was I in waffle cone wonderland. So, for a brief moment, I existed in that blissfully unaware state that always occurs when I’m traveling in a country where I don’t speak the language. I saw a sweet little old local, probably flirting with me judging by the way he was smiling, or perhaps recommending a pair of shoes from the window I was absently eyeing. He stopped to watch me, and then my brain finally processed what he’d said:

“You’ll get fat if you keep eating like that.”

Jackass. I liked you better when I had no clue what you were saying.

Snappy comebacks aren’t my forté – though they come to me later in numbers. When offended, I revert to a wordless, helpless little girl.

But perhaps my actions in that moment spoke louder than words. I shrugged and took another big lick. Did that translate, monsieur?

Villa Rothschild on  St. Jean Cap Ferrat, magic and beauty in the south of France

Villa Rothschild, St. Jean Cap Ferrat, magic and beauty in the south of France

French Nationality, and More Bretagne

 

My husband and I are working on getting my French citizenship. Surprise: there are many complicated steps to the process and the instructions are difficult to decipher. At times, the steps seem convoluted simply for the sake of being difficult. So we emailed the man in charge at the local embassy. He will only communicate via email; he will not accept phone calls or appointments. In our email, we tried to clarify a few points we were confused on after our research on their website. He sent us a form letter back, politely inviting us to refer to their website for answers to our questions.

 

Oh, the French.

 

Today, I go to the Alliance Française to take an exam that will determine if my French is at a level adequate enough to become a citizen. Will I be worthy?

 

The hope is that if I am a citizen, our family can easily go to France for extended periods during which I can work there, and that all of us will have the right to move freely, or stay, in France and Western Europe. Plus, I think it would be really cool to have dual citizenship.

 

So, I’ll post some more photos of my beloved Bretagne, and then get back to the stack of paperwork that is French bureaucracy at its finest!

One of the great things about traveling in Bretagne, especially when you get away from the bigger cities like Nantes or Rennes, is that much of Bretagne is visited mainly by French tourists, if at all. It’s off the beaten path enough that it remains more authentic, untouched.

 

Flowers growing on an old stone wall

Flowers growing on an old stone wall

Sunset at low tide

Sunset at low tide

Locmariaquer

Locmariaquer

St. Cado, one of the most photographed homes, because the tide isolates it

One of the most photographed homes in St Cado because the tide isolates it

Quimper

Quimper

Quimper

Quimper

Benodet

Benodet

Concarneau

Concarneau

German bunker from WWII

German bunker from WWII

Hay! Hey! (That's for my brother)

Hay! Hey! (That’s for my brother)

Fresh caught oysters

Fresh caught oysters

Locmariaquer

Locmariaquer

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Mmmm

Mmmm

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Catch of the day at the outdoor market

Catch of the day at the outdoor market in Locmariaquer

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Bretagne, Je t’aime

I love Bretagne (Brittany, for the anglophones). Where Paris is measured, even severe, Bretagne is untamed, free, running wild. It’s a land of legends and history: Megaliths, Fairies, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Bretagne first gave us crepes, galettes (savory crepes, made with buckwheat), and French apple cider. What’s not to love?

My husband’s family has a summer home in a small Breton village at the opening of the Golfe du Morbihan. When we visit them during the summer, we tend to escape to their home here rather than swelter in Paris. The last several trips we’ve enjoyed mostly sunny days, which last from 5 in the morning until 10 at night. We spend our days riding bikes through overgrown pastures and past flower covered rock walls that are hundreds of years old, dipping our toes into the Atlantic, and eating fresh oysters that the neighbor harvests. And, of course, crepes, galettes, and cider. Every time I suggest staying there and never returning to our “real” lives, my husband warns me that I’m not experiencing the “real” Brittany.

“There’s a reason everything here is so green and overgrown, Carol,” he tells me.

I tell him he can’t burst my bubble.

Here are a few photos:

Ile Aux Moines

My favorite spot on Ile Aux Moines, in the Golfe du Morbihan

Golfe du Morbihan

Golfe du Morbihan

Traditional home, looks straight out of a fairy tale to me

Traditional home, straight out of a fairy tale

Winner! Best French Mullet

Winner! Best French Mullet

Port de St. Goustan

Port de St. Goustan

My hubby and me, making crepes

My hubby and me, making crepes

Carnac

Carnac

Breton humor

Breton humor

On our bike ride

On our bike ride

A dolmen and a menhir (megaliths)

A dolmen and a menhir (megaliths)

Hey, France, Why So Glum?

Yet another article, this one from The Guardian, is highlighting the French tendency toward melancholy. In this study, people living in Iran and Afghanistan felt more optimistic about the upcoming year than the French. Stop and think about that for a moment.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about French tristesse. What gives, mes amis? You have a beautiful country, a rich history, great food, tons of vacation, free healthcare, free higher education….

Of course, many of my countrymen, particularly those of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-and-get-over-it variety, might say that all these entitlements, read socialism, inevitably lead to misery. I don’t buy it. Look at other European nations, some even more left leaning than France, and many of them report much higher levels of happiness. Besides, we in the “Land of the Free” fare none to well on happiness scales – often we are right up there (or down there, I suppose) with France in terms of feelings of well-being.

The article doesn’t delve into why the French are so gloomy. So I showed it to my husband and asked for his thoughts. His snarky response: “Because we know better. Life sucks and no one is fooling us.”

That’s in keeping with Olivier Magny’s Stuff Parisians Like. He writes in the chapter titled Complaining:

“In Paris, enthusiasm is considered a mild form of retardation. If you are happy, you must be stupid. On the other hand, if you complain, you must be smart.” (pg. 135)

Well, they do say ignorance is bliss. Still, I would argue that the most enlightened among us are the ones who recognize how tough life is but still manage to be happy despite it all.

I’ve observed the French and their tendency toward melancholy and negativity for years now, and I enjoy playing amateur sociologist trying to decipher the causes. My own conclusions are biased, unscientific, and based on a small sample size, but I think there is something here, in this quote from the article:

“Senik claims that the “French paradox” – the fact that the country’s general prosperity does not appear to translate into the happiness of its citizens – can be explained by ‘mental attitudes that are acquired in school or other socialisation instances, especially during youth.’”

Happinesss, quality of life, perceptions of well-being – so many factors play in, and it is so much more complicated than it should be. Especially for the French, with their uncanny ability to turn even the most uncomplicated thing into something convoluted and impossible to decipher.

Thoughts? Why are the French (and why are we, here, in the U.S.) so glum?