Friday, December 7, 2007


As we head into the second week of December, and the rain is strongly falling outside, I find it hard to imagine that Christmas is just around the corner. This holiday is certainly celebrated in a very different manner here than in North America. The stores have set up their Christmas wares, which take up a mere aisle, and a small aisle at that. There are numerous chocolate and wine packages, designed especially for Christmas. And children’s toys and books overflow into the aisles. I have not heard a single Christmas carol on the store’s PA system, and I have not seen a flake of snow. I am not holding my breath for the latter!

Christmas trees are now for sale in the parking lots of the various grocery stores. They sell sapins, or fir trees only. I will miss the big beautiful pine tree that we have decorated the past couple of years. The trees for sale here are very short, about 5 feet tall at the most. It will seem tiny compared to the 10 plus foot trees that we put up in Calgary.

The city centre is illuminated with thousands of lights that are strung across the streets in various patterns. Pau must be a shining beacon seen from space at night. The excessive use of lights is contradictory for such an energy conscious population. It is quite beautiful, though. I heard that the lights illuminating the Champs Elysees in Paris this year are LED, giving the street a blue glow.

So far the French Christmas appears much less commercial than the North American holiday, certainly an improvement. And we are told that the week between Christmas and the New Year is all about family. And the centre of attention for the family this week is food. Not surprising for the French! We are starting to see the Christmas treats fill the markets and grocery stores. The list of cherished items is much longer than I will pretend to know, but here are some of the highlights: the famed Buche de Noel. This delectable cake, shaped like a log comes in various flavours. They are pre-ordered at one’s favourite patisserie, and picked up on Christmas morning along with the day’s supply of bread. I will order our Buche next week. Next are the rich treats that preclude Christmas supper. These include foie gras, ris de veau (sweetbreads), and oysters. This is oyster season, and they are for sale everywhere. And goes best with oysters? Champagne, of course. The French do not require a special occasion to drink Champagne. They believe that this wine should be enjoyed frequently, a belief that I also support. But consumption certainly increases during the holiday season. Chestnuts are in season, and outdoor roasting stalls are set up around town. The smell is soothing, and I can’t help but hum the carol, “chestnuts roasting by an open fire” as I walk by. Chestnuts are also used to prepare to French version of stuffing for Christmas supper. However they do not accompany a turkey, which the French consider flavourless and dry, but a chapon. These male chickens (roosters) are castrated at a young age, and apparently offer very tender and tasty meat when roasted. It will be interesting to try.

Fortunately, we will be spending this holiday season with family. We will have a mixed nation experience, as we listen to our Christmas CDs, watch North American Christmas television classics, and incorporate some French traditions.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Gastronomic Adventures

Part of our excitement in moving to France was the opportunity to experience food and drink in (arguably) the most gastronomic country in the world. The French take food, wine, and other drink very seriously. Gilles once started a lengthy debate over the lunch table when he asked his colleagues their opinion on Nouveau Beaujolais. The French have a long list of delicacies that are banned or frowned upon in many other countries either because of health or cruelty-to-animals concerns. This list includes many delicious items such as foie gras, unpasteurized cheeses, capon, and veal, all of which the French would never consider giving up. Even if they do not prepare food, the average French person is incredibly knowledgeable about what they put into their mouths. This education begins at a very early age with children planting herb gardens at school, and tasting wine at supper. It is a vastly different mentality than we are accustomed to, but one we are enjoying.

Gilles and I have jumped into the French food scene headfirst. When the opportunity to try something new comes up, we generally greet it with open arms. We have enjoyed most things, including yesterday when I tried something that I unexpectedly enjoyed. That is until I found out what it truly was. The old adage, ‘ignorance is bliss’ applies here. Before I get into the details, I’ll list some of our other culinary firsts. As for some of the above listed banned/unethical items, we are firm supporters. We have enjoyed foie gras, unpasteurized cheeses, and veal prior to living in France. Gilles says he is happy to finally find people who enjoy baby cow as much as he does. If that statement makes you wince, perhaps you should stop reading now. Our firsts have been frogs’ legs (they do not taste like chicken), pigeon (surprisingly, a yummy, mild red meat), and duck heart. No problems there. Now to yesterday….

I went to one of our favourite restaurants, Le Berry, with a friend for lunch. She is Canadian, and returning to Calgary in July after having lived in Pau for two years. She said that she could not leave France without having tried steak tartare. Le Berry is reputed to make very good quality tartare, so she new it would be the best place to try it. You may recall from a previous posting what this dish is: ground meat mixed with various spices and served raw. At the time I likened it to a package of hamburger meat overturned onto a plate. Upon closer inspection, it does not look quite so unappetizing. She was enjoying it, so I gave it a try. I was shocked at how tasty it was. It had a light, almost fluffy texture. It certainly did not feel as though I was eating raw hamburger meat. It was seasoned nicely with chives, salt, pepper, capers, and worcestershire sauce. I was quite proud of myself so trying, and liking it. I decided I would order it again so that Gilles could try it. Ahappy ending, right?

Last night I was recalling my experience to Gilles on the telephone (he is in Gabon, West Africa). Earlier in the week he discussed steak tartare with a colleague who often enjoys the dish at Le Berry. He discovered an interesting piece of information that he decided to withhold from me until after I had tried the dish. That is that the dish is traditionally not made with ground beef, as I had assumed. It is made with horsemeat. Yes, horsemeat. His colleague claims that that is how it is still made at Le Berry. Huh….

Until recently I did not know that people actually eat horsemeat. Then I read in my France travel book that ‘chevaliers’ still exist. That is, a butcher that sells horsemeat. I have seen this meat at the local market, but still did not really believe that people buy it. But now, I have unknowingly eaten it! It does not change the fact that the dish was tasty. Would I order it again? I don’t know. I am still trying to work out what I think about yesterday’s experience. I do know that it will not stop me from being adventurous with my culinary choices in the future.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Worst Cookies Ever

Today I got up the courage to bake cookies. I will admit that I was quite nervous; the ingredients I purchased are not what I am used to, and my oven contains only a top burner, not exactly a baker’s dream. But despite these challenges, I thought I was ready. I scoured the grocery stores and finally found brown sugar that looks and feels like brown sugar, icing sugar (albeit vanilla flavoured and in a small container for dusting on confectionaries), and baking soda. I started off with a recipe for chocolate chip cookies: nothing gets easier and it does not require too many substitutions for things that I cannot find here. I needed to vary only the fats. They do not have baking margarine here, so I used all butter instead of half butter and half margarine. No big deal, right? Except I have my doubts about the butter here. While it tastes wonderful, it is not creamy, hence is hard to work into a batter.

Nerveless, I was ready to give it a try. I whipped the sugars into the butter with all my might. The large, moist eggs went in well. So did the dry ingredients. Next, stir in the chocolate pieces (no chocolate chips in France). The batter tasted yummy…so far so good. I chilled the batter and had my baking stone up to oven temperature. These two key steps ‘always’ ensure nice, plump cookies. But as soon as I spooned the first bit of batter onto the pan, I knew things were not looking good. The butter seemed to melt and run immediately out of the batter. I threw the cookies into the oven before they melted too much. They did not do much better in the oven. Each piece of batter melted into the others, forming flat rounds. The edges started to brown significantly, so I removed the pan from the oven. The outsides were certainly cooked, but the tops were raw. And not the chewy, good cookie raw: a melted butter raw. But looks are only one thing. Taste is most important. Unfortunately, they do not taste much better than they look. Overly buttery, and my number one pet peeve of bad cookies: I could taste the baking soda. Yuck!

So what do I try next? Muffins, a cake, pizza dough. Something has to work, right?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Strange Medicine

This weekend we made our first official pharmacy visit. I have been understandably intrigued by French pharmacies. The storefront always has a neon sign in the shape of a green cross making them impossible to miss. When I peer inside it looks nothing like a North American drugstore. They are very small. The only things on display in front of the counter are expensive beauty products, specialty toothpastes, homeopathic products, and a selection of infant supplies. There is no sign of vitamins, antacids, pain relievers, cough and cold products, or all the other things we associate with a pharmacy. And despite a closer look inside, including an interaction with a pharmacist, I now have more questions than answers.

The reason we needed drugs is an upcoming visit to Gabon for Gilles. He had an appointment with the Total physician who gave him numerous vaccinations and prescribed several anti-malaria products. Malaria, spread by a type of mosquito found in most African countries, is a dangerous disease that can be prevented with medications and obviously avoidance of being bitten. For the latter, he was prescribed two products containing a high concentration of DEET, one for skin and one for clothes.

Off we went to the closest pharmacy with two prescriptions in hand. One contained orders for the two DEET products and Malarone, an oral anti-malarial medication. The other contained an order for the Hepatitis B vaccination that Gilles will bring to the Total medical office for injection. We approached the pharmacist, provided her with the prescriptions, and off she went to the back to gather the products. This gave me time to peruse the shelves and admire the beauty products. When the pharmacist returned, she handed the products over and totaled the cost. Now I apologize if this next part bores my non-pharmacist friend, but what I am about to say should seem odd to anyone who has ever had a medication dispensed to them. The pharmacist did NOT ask Gilles any questions. She did not need to know his name, address, telephone number or if he has any allergies. Nothing was entered into a computer. She handed him two boxes of Malarone without putting a label on it. There were no instructions for use given. And she handed the prescriptions back to us when she was done! I was shocked! It is not as though she dispensed something most people know how to take, like Tylenol or Advil. And documentation is such a vital part of safety in the medical field. If she later realized she made a mistake, she would have no way of contacting us. It’s a good thing Gilles has his own private pharmacist!

I don’t want to be too hard on French pharmacists. Obviously the medical system is vastly different here than in Canada, and I have yet to see what their true role is. It is likely a very important role, as their University programme is longer than the Canadian programme. Or maybe it just takes that long to be able to properly recommend beauty products and toothpastes…just kidding, of course!

Friday, November 16, 2007

An Emotional Journey

Gilles and I just completed a two-day session designed to give expats the tools necessary to live and work successfully in France. We learned many valuable things, including what to expect along the emotional journey of living in a foreign country. It is not an uphill learning curve; there will be several ups and downs along the way. Apparantly, my banking frustrations were a result of "convenience shock". This low typically occurs within a couple of months of arriving in the new country. It's when one loses patience with things, or conveniences that are easy in one's own country, yet seem so complex in the new home. Funny thing is, after my venting-of-frustrations post, I received three letters providing my confidential code! Needless to say, I now know my number!

After the convenience shock is the adaptation stage. I suspect we are here now. We are feeling more settled in our house, enjoy shopping at the market on weekends, are experimenting with French food at home, and are generally enjoying life. Life will not always be so rosy, as the low of "cultural fatigue" comes next. Trying so hard to adapt and fit-in will ultimately lead to fatigue. This is when one begins to feel homesick. When will this time come for us? Time will tell. Then comes the long stage of involvement, followed by thriving. However, before one can thrive there is another low called "culture shock". The facilitator did not go into much detail about this low-point, but it was accompanied by a scary symbol on the graph. Thus, I am not looking forward to the culture shock stage.

One other important lesson that we learned was how to properly do the bise. This is the name given to the common practice of "kissing" someone on both cheeks when greeting them. I had many questions about how to do this, and turns out I have made many faux-pas in the past. Firstly, there is no touching with the hands unless one is doing the bise with a close friend. I usually touch the arm or shoulder of the other person, kind of as a way to anchor myself. Wrong! This is getting too much into their private space. Secondly, do touch cheek to cheek. I assumed I was supposed to kiss the air beside the cheek. Wrong again! Lips do not touch the cheek. Thankfully, I am not guilty of making this mistake. People usually kiss twice, starting with the right side. But, for no seemingly good reason, some people kiss three or four times, and may start from the left. Our facilitator assured us we will never, ever get it right, so just follow the lead of the French person. Unfortunately, this is usually easier said than done!

Friday, November 9, 2007

St Emilion

Last weekend, we spent a lovely few days in the quaint town of St Emilion. It is perhaps one of the nicest little towns we have visited. St Emilion is one of the renowned regions within the Bordeaux winemaking region. The ground around the town is composed largely of limestone. This makes excellent caves for making and storing their wines.

St Emilion is about a two and a half hour drive from Pau. As soon as we entered the Bordeaux region, the vines began and seemed to stretch on forever. The vines here are so immaculately groomed that they are all the same height. It is quite an incredible sight when you look down a vineyard.

The tiny town is very well equipped to entertain the tourist in search of wine. The tourist office arranges wine classes and has updated information of which Chateaux’ are giving tours. A Chateaux is essentially what the vineyard is called. They may or may not actually have a chateau on the property. It is said there are over 7000 Chateaux in the Bordeaux region! We were fortunate to visit three Chateaux while there.

While in Calgary we took a French wine class. While we enjoyed the tastings, I am not sure we understood the complex nomenclature used to classify French wines any better than before the class. There are regions within regions, each of which has their own classifications. But last weekend, we started to understand. At least we have a good grasp on the wines from St Emilion, which helps understand Bordeaux wines in general.

We learned many things from each Chateau we visited. It is always a pleasure to see how passionate the vintners are toward their profession and their wines. The last gentleman we visited was at least 70 years old. He spent over two hours with us explaining each step in the winemaking process in incredible depth. He walked us through an extensive tasting process, that included lighting a candle and spitting the first mouthful. One would pay a lot of money to attend a tasting class in a big city. We simply bought two bottles of wine.

We left St Emilion with over a dozen bottles of wine and bad colds. I guess the latter is to be expected after spending a day in damp caves!

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Last Wednesday we moved into our new home. Things went smoothly, with a couple of exceptions. We were promised a separate washer and dryer because we have the space in our garage. Despite this, we received a combination washer and dryer. These were designed for small spaces: one small machine does both the washing and drying. The problem is it takes over four hours for a cycle, and the drying capability is questionable. Our relocation coordinator promised to get us a separate washer, which we are still waiting for. In the meantime, I visit the laundromat when the laundry basket overflows. The second mix-up was with our bed. The mattress sizes are classified by size. We were told we would be given a 160 cm bed, which is slightly larger than a North American queen mattress. When we stepped into oour room, it was clear that the bed was much smaller than a queen. Thankfully, I had already bought sheets for a 160 cm bed. This guilted our coordinator into getting a new bed rushed over. Of course during the discussion she sighed heavily and used a few "oh la las!".

It was like Christmas morning going through the boxes that were shipped with the moving company. I think we packed quite appropriately, but there are a few things that we would have done differently. Gilles would have shipped our hangers, since the ones here don't quite meet his standards. I would have brought baking powder, since it is not available here. Also, I did not bring my measuring cups. Everything is measured by weight here, which is fine if using a European cookbook. All my recipes are North American, so require things to be measured in cups and teaspoons and tablespoons. Actually, I don't think many people bake at home here. The baking section in the hypermarche (ie grocery store) is tiny. No chocolate chips. I haven't seen brown sugar or icing sugar. Oh la la! And why would the typical French person bake? There is a bakery on every street corner with warm, straight from the oven bread and any dessert one could ever want. I don't even think my oven is big enough to bake a large loaf of bread. Speaking of oven size: Mom and Dad...if you are expecting a turkey for Christmas supper you had better stay home. There is no way a bird that large will fit in my oven!

We are settling in well. Saturday we are taking a trip to the IKEA in Toulouse. Why does every move require a trip to IKEA? Stay tuned for photos of our Baby Benz bogged down by IKEA boxes. I just know we will be coming home with something strapped to the roof!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Serenity Now

Gilles and I were fully aware that we would be confronted with many frustrating situations while here in France. We expected most to be in the beginning, while setting up services and learning how things work in a different country. Life can be challenging at the best of times in one’s own country, but throw in the additional hurdle of not having full command of the language and it becomes especially difficult. Until now, we have been incredibly patient. We are here to experience life in a new country, challenges included. Today, however, my month-long battle with the bank has put me at my wit’s end. So because I could not yell at the bank manager (not because I didn’t want to, but I truly don’t know how to argue in French; it is something left out of the French Immersion curriculum), I am venting my frustrations in this blog entry.

The bank functions very differently in France than in Canada. For example, there are no tellers at our bank, only a welcome/information desk, bank machines and several offices where my friend the bank manager and other employees have meetings with clients. Our first such meeting was when we visited Pau in June. We thought we had set up our accounts at that time, and that everything would be functioning properly when we moved here. Turns out, we were wrong.

Another difference is with Visa cards. To use the ‘carte bancaire’ or ‘carte bleue’ here, one requires a four-digit code that is provided by the bank instead of a signature. I will give them credit here, as the code is certainly more secure than a signature. If a card is stolen, it cannot be used unless the thief knows the secret code. The money that one puts on the ‘carte bancaire’ MUST be paid monthly. Certainly not how a credit card works in Canada. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it limits people from living beyond their means.

Now that you have a general idea of the system, here are my issues. In June, we set up our accounts to be joint; that is, we would each have equal privileges to the accounts. When we arrived in September, we were each given a code to access our checking account online. So far, so good. However, only Gilles received a carte bancaire (Visa) with a confidential code. Because I am unemployed and have plenty of time to run errands, I am the one who does all the shopping, thus I require my own carte bancaire. We figured this must have been an oversight on the bank’s part, so we returned and ordered a card for myself. A week later the card arrived without a confidential code. I assumed that my code must be the same as Gilles’ because why would the bank issue a card without the code that is required to use it? Turns out, our codes are not the same. I discovered this while trying to use the card at a store and got rejected. Back to the bank I go to order a confidential code. Even now, my blood is starting to boil as I think of how absurd this is. Anyway, I return to the bank several days later, and they have no code for me. In fact, my last request magically disappeared! So I make yet another request for a code, which they assure me will be ready Friday, or Saturday at the latest (they are open Saturdays but not Mondays). I stop by Friday: no code. The smiling lady at the welcome desk informs me they have a quota for how many codes can processed in a day, and it is particularly busy right now. She says it will be ready Saturday. I want to punch her.

I decide to wait and return to the bank on Tuesday. By then it has to be ready, right? I am sure you know the answer: it is not ready! This time, it was the smiling bank manager who does not speak a word of English who broke the bad news. The worst part is I don’t even think that they consider this to be absolutely ridiculous. They don’t apologize, just smile and wish me a good afternoon as I storm out. Banks are thieves, so one would think that getting an active bank card full of hidden fees into my hands would be a priority. Clearly, it is not. So, I think I am done with banks. Maybe I will just start stashing money under my mattress.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Spicy Espelette

Sunday we spent the day in the quaint town of Espelette. It is in the heart of French Basque country, about one hour from Pau. We went with another Canadian family living in Pau to take part in the annual Pepper festival. Espelette is an agricultural town with peppers, or piments, being their most famed product. They were introduced to the area about 500 years ago from South America. The Espelette peppers have AOC (appellation d’origine controlee) status, ensuring their autonomy and protection.

During the weeks leading up to the festival, the peppers are hung out to dry on the village houses. It is quite a nice sight, as the red peppers and red shutters contrast the stark white houses typical of those in Basque villages.

During the festival, visitors from all the surrounding towns bombard the tiny streets of Espelette. We had to park 1.5 Km from the town itself and walk in. We strolled the streets for several hours and took in all the sites: music, sheep’s cheese vendors, roasting chestnuts, various food vendors, jeu de paume (a Basque sport), and many, many peppers. The peppers are not particularly hot, and have a sweet aspect to them, which makes them compatible with certain desserts. For example, we purchased a cerise noir (black cherry) and piment alcoholic drink to be enjoyed as an aperitif. It is sweet, yet has a lingering warm sensation once the liquid has been swallowed. We sampled chocolate containing piment, and purchased piment jelly to be served with the famous sheep's cheese from the region. All very yummy treats!

Monday, October 22, 2007

No, I am not from Quebec...

The mystery of our nationality often leads to an intriguing conversation. We are frequently asked where we are from, because we are clearly not French. Most people are smart enough to recognize that we are not from the United States or the UK. On several occasions, Gilles has been asked if he is from Argentina. But no one has ever guessed that we are Canadian. I suppose that just goes to show how small Canada is on a global scale (I obviously don’t mean land mass here). But as soon as we say we are Canadian, it all makes sense to the inquirer. “Yes, of course you are Canadian!” Then, we are inevitably asked “from Quebec?”. This question is usually asked with a hopeful tone. Why, I am not sure, because I think they expect the answer to be yes. Certainly not because our French is that good, but I actually don’t think they really know of any other place in Canada. Toronto maybe, but the mention of Calgary, Alberta, New Brunswick, or Nova Scotia is always followed by a glassy-eyed look.

While I am on the topic of Quebec, I’ll mention a few other interesting observations we have made. The French in Canada have fought unfailingly, and perhaps unmercilessly at times, to protect their language. Being from a bilingual province, I am accustomed to seeing stop signs depicting both: stop and arret. Here, the sign says STOP only. When you get a ticket for the highway or for parking, it’s known as a ticket, not billet. And email is called email or mail, not the Quebec-invented word of couriel. Yes, very interesting…

Sunday, October 21, 2007

New Wheels

We finally bought a car. After weeks of shopping and much deliberation, we bought a Mercedes Benz Class A. This Mercedes model is not available in Canada, so to get an idea of what it looks like, think small…very small. I had recently noted several Mercedes Benz Class B cars in Calgary, a larger model than the class A. There, the Class B looks quite minuscule, swimming in a sea of SUVs and large pick-up trucks. Well, the Class A is even smaller than that. Reference frames change fast, though. Now the SUV looks like the odd vehicle on the road. And how do they squeeze it down the tiny streets??
We love our new little car. It was our first choice, yet more expensive than some of our other options. We had to decide whether we were willing to pay more money than Total provides for a vehicle allowance. After scouring the dealerships for used Mercedes, we found our perfect match and decided to throw in the extra money. The runner-ups were a Volkswagen Golf Plus and a Peugeot 307.
The salesman pointed out one feature of our car that would never have been mentioned in Canada. When opening the sunroof, one can first lift the front to expose a small width to the outside, allowing just a little air to circulate. Apparently, this is perfect while smoking a cigarette in the car as it draws the smoke quickly outside. Lucky us! You know you’re in France when….

Friday, October 19, 2007

French Immigration

We flew to Paris Thursday for government medicals, a requirement for our cartes de sejour, which is essentially a Visa allowing us to live and work in France. Apparently, we’re not the only ones wanting to live here. They processed about 15 people during the hour we were there, and the waiting room was full when we left.

I had expectations for what tests were to be performed. I suspected we would have blood work and a chest x-ray done, and possibly have to answer a few questions. I figured the only medical circumstance that would keep someone from entering the country would be a contagious and uncommon-to-France disease, or perhaps a pending and expensive medical situation. Turns out, I was wrong.

The whole process was quite interesting. We were lead from station to station like herded cattle. The first three stations were with a nurse, the last with a physician.

First up: height and weight. The French are proud of being a country with low obesity rates, and obviously wish to keep it that way. I wonder if an overweight person would really have been rejected? Unfortunately, everyone in our group had a healthy BMI, so I did not get the chance to see anyone get rejected right from the start. Even Gilles and I, with a couple of extra cheese and Nutella pounds, progressed to the next station.

Second: an elementary eye exam. This one made me laugh. We had to stand across the room from an eye chart, and call out two or three letters for each eye to a nurse. All that that would have ruled out is the blind, which apparently are not welcome in France.

Third: a chest x-ray. I suspected this; no country wants to deal with TB.

Fourth and last: a meeting with a physician. He took my blood pressure, looked at my tonsils (and for once did not comment on how freakishly large they are), asked what I did for exercise, and if I smoke. Oh, and all this required me to enter the room without a shirt on. Lovely. I was concerned that the smoking question was a trick. In a country where it appears as though >50% of the population smoke, what was the right answer? Did he want to see how well I would fit in, in which case I should say yes? I figured it was best not to lie and I said no. Fortunately, this did not give me a failing grade. He also asked about my vaccinations. I now think this question was futile, as Gilles does not have a single up-to-date vaccination, and the physician who interviewed him did not care.

So, if you are considering a move to France, you will have no problems as long as you are not obese, blind, or have TB. Smoking and updated vaccinations are merely suggestions. Good luck!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Food: Post #2

Warning: this post is not for the faint of heart. If you get queasy watching contestants eat bugs on Survivor, maybe you should not read further.

Gilles and I ate supper at Le Berry, a restaurant favoured by locals, on Friday night. It’s certainly not fine dining, but an equally worthwhile dining experience. The staff pumps out local specialties at a fast pace; the tables turn over about ten times a night, and that’s saying a lot when the first seating is at 8 PM! The clients are packed into the restaurant, which means we get a good view of our neighbours’ dishes. We enjoy the place so much that this was our second visit. The food is delicious, and it gives us a chance to observe the locals in a social setting. But this Friday night, the most interesting observations were of a couple of dishes.

The first was cervelle, or brain, that the young lady sitting beside us ordered. I am not quite sure what type of brain it was…lamb, perhaps, because of its size. She received two cerveaux. I later asked Gilles if he thought it was prepared, as say a pate is. He assured me that they were two perfectly assembled brains. He described what it looked like when she cut pieces off to support this conclusion.

I can only assume that this dish was very yummy: why else would this lady have ordered it, and eaten it so enthusiastically? And what is wrong with eating brain anyway? It’s simply one’s reference frame. Most North Americans are used to eating pre-cut, pre-cleaned cuts of meat such as chicken breast, beef tenderloin and pork chops. In this case, a brain may seem unusual. But why is it different? An animal part is an animal part, right? I enjoy sweetbreads and the green stuff in lobster, yet these would disgust many people I know. So, I would likely try cervelle if given the opportunity. However, neither Gilles nor I are brave enough to try the next dish that we observed.

Steak hachees. The thought of it amazes me. Freshly ground beef mixed with salt, pepper, and wine, then served. Yes—ground beef, eaten raw.

This dish is loved all around France. On Friday, I saw it being mixed in a huge bowl by the bar. Within minutes, five plates were served to various tables. The first time I saw steak hachees was at a different restaurant while in Pau in June. That time, it looked fairly innocuous. It was shaped into a nice, small disk, and served with a raw egg on top. Not that I would have eaten this dish, but I did appreciate its creative presentation. Friday, however, I saw something different. Our neighbour, this time a man, had a plate of steak hachees placed in front of him. It was piled high on the plate. At least one pound of ground beef. It looked as though he should be forming hamburger patties. He would have gotten three or four large patties out of the meat. But no, this was his dish. He tucked in, bread in hand. Gilles and I stared rudely, unable to look away.

Now, I am sure this guy survived the night, as did the many other people who ate steak hachees that night. But ingrained in my mind is the fear of undercooked ground beef. If undercooked is bad, then raw must be really wrong, right? As much as I want to experience everything that our living-in-France opportunity has to offer, I am not sure I can bring myself to try this delicacy. Would you?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Food: Post #1

I am calling this post #1, since I am sure there will be many food posts. I have not been able to cook yet, as the kitchen in our temorary accommodation barely qualifies as a kitchen. We've been enjoying cold foods for supper, and even these have been delicious. Here's some of our favourite new discoveries:

Nutella...where have you been all my life? This chocolate/hazelnut spread that most European children grow up on is so incredibly delicious! We have tried Nutella in Canada, but it does not even compare to the formulation that is sold here. We were told that we would miss peanut butter, but who needs peanut butter when there is Nutella? Gilles is officially addicted. He eats it on bread for breakfast, and right out of the container with a spoon the rest of the day. First, I bought the smallest container just to try this infamous product. It lasted less than two days. Then I bought the medium sized bottle. It lasted about five days. Yesterday, I bought the largest bottle. The only thing that made me feel less guilty about buying more of this sweet spread was that the lady ahead of me in line had three large bottles in her cart!

Mayonnaise. Yes, mayonnaise is a French invention. In Canada, one can buy Miracle Whip (which tastes nothing like a true mayonnaise), and mayonnaise (which I suspect also tastes nothing like a true mayonnaise). In France, the prepared mayonnaises available in the grocery stores are a dijon/mayonnaise mix, and are so tasty that Gilles has resorted to dipping pieces of baguette into it. If you have heard my Parisienne chicken sandwhich story, I now know that this is what was used to make that sandwhich so memorable (I have plans of hunting that sandwhich down for a third time the next time I am in Paris!). I will attempt to make mayonnaise from scratch once we move into our house. I predict this will take some trial and error. Julia Child has seven mayonnaise recipes in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking cookbook!

Baguettes. Nothing gets more French than a baguette. It is one of my pre-visit images of France that has proven to be true. There are boulangeries on every corner. People are seen walking, baguette in hand, throughout the city. When they get hungry, they simply break off a piece a bread and munch away. It is not unusual to see someone buying four or five baguettes at a time. It is said that the French eat bread at all three meals, and I believe it. Every breakfast that I have been to has several baguettes on hand. Gilles said his colleagues use pieces of baguette to mop up left over sauce and dessert at lunch. And it is the first thing to appear on the table at restaurants. It is such an essential piece of French cuisine that the price is regulated by the government. One baguette costs around 0.70 euros. I have been trying several boulangeries to find the best baguette in town. So far, it was the one we bought on Sunday when all the stores were closed. We had it half eaten by supper! Yum!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

All I Wanted was a Bottle of Water...

We had been warned that the French shut things down on Sundays. Sunday is a family day. I am not quire sure where these families are, because the streets are empty, but I am sure they are spending time together somewhere.
In the past, we were used to stores being closed on Sundays. The Maritimes were notorious for this until recently. However as an Albertan, Sunday is an essential shopping day. Getting a parking spot at our downtown Coop was impossible on Sundays. And I am sure one is just asking to get run over by a crazed shopper’s cart at the WalMart or Superstore in Calgary on Sunday. But not in France! You could be going the wrong way in a rond-point (more on driving later) on Sunday without a worry.
Unfortunately, we were unprepared for family day last Sunday, when our bottled water stock ran dry. The tap water in our temporary accommodation tastes horrible, so we have been living on bottled water. In our car and furniture shopping frenzy Saturday, we did not make it to the grocery store to stock up on water. So thirst brought us out of the house on this rainy Sunday. Grocery store one—closed. Grocery store two—closed. We stopped at the closest Patisserie, a store that is open on Sundays. But alas, no water. Wine and champagne, yes, but no water. We left with a baguette, crème brulee, and pain au chocolat (called chocolatine, or choco here), that cost only 3.30 euros, and continued on our hunt.
It soon became clear that nothing was open, except patisseries and gas stations. We stopped at the nearest Total station, and fortunately were able to pick up a couple of bottles of Evian.
Sunday served as a good lesson: stock up during the week!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Bonjour & Au revoir

The French focus heavily on greetings. We have noticed this over and over again both in Paris and in Pau. As soon as one steps into any type of business (restaurant, bar, store,...), the nearest worker says "bonjour monsieur", "bonjour madame". And it is clearly expected that the customer return the greeting. The greeting never seems forced; it is always accompanied by a smile and seems whole-hearted. The same occurs when one departs the store or restaurant; one leaves by exchanging a merci and au revoir.
You may ask how we noticed this greeting formality. It is certainly not a custom in North America, and caught us off guard in the beginning. We would enter or leave a store and appear like rude customers because we did not provide the proper greeting. Imagine exchanging hellos with the Starbucks or Tim Horton's employees as soon as you enter the store, regardless of how big their line-up is. And then "saying goodbye, have a nice evening", when departing, and receiving a reply from often more than one of the employees (often said as "au revoir monsieur", "au revoir madame").
Unfortunately for us, the bonjour greeting gives us away as Canadians as soon as we enter the door. For some reason, we say bonjour and au revoir very differently than the locals. I suspect it is the same as the words that gave us away as Maritimers in Alberta. These words included car, bar, and the infamous tour (apparantly pronounced 'toor' by Maritimers). I've been practising my bonjour and au revoir, to no avail. I suspect we'll sound like foreigners for some time.

Friday, October 5, 2007

House Hunting, French Style

Gilles and I are not strangers to searching for a house. We have owned four houses/condos in the last five years, and we rented many apartments before that. But none of that could prepare us for our house hunting experience here in France. We met with our mobility agent Wednesday morning. She is responsible for finding us a home, setting up utilities, and furnishing the house we select. We have budgets for each of the previously mentioned things. The house rental sector is quite different in France. The person who wishes to rent their house works with a real estate agent, who advertises and shows the house as though it were for sale. So everytime we visited a house, the renter's real estate agent was there to greet us and show us around.
We saw seven houses that day, and we started off with some of the worst. Fortunately, we had anticipated some of what we were to see, so were not as discouraged as one could have been. When people move out of a house in France, they take just about everything with them. This includes the light fixtures, all appliances, and the kitchen counters and cabinets. Imagine walking into a house with lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling and a pillaged kitchen. In addition, most houses have been shut up tight since being vacated. This includes the typical French shutters on all the windows. So the house smells damp and musty and is dark and dreary until the windows and shutters are opened.
The houses seem to age much faster here than in Canada. We saw one very large house that I thought was at least seventy years old. You can imagine my surprise when I was told it was built in the 1970's! Every functional room in this house was situated on the second level. The large garage and an adjacent large room were on the main floor. Both were walled with cement brick, had dirt floors and were damp and cellar-like. The real estate agent said the large room would be perfect for the children to play in. What children? We thought it would be a perfect wine cellar. However, it would take a small fortune to buy enough wine to stock it.
As the trip neared an end, we saw two houses that we are still debating between. One is just being completed. It is a semi-detached (jumelee) house with a large-by-Calgary-standards backyard, an "American-style kitchen", and three bedrooms. They call a kitchen "American-style" when it is large and open to other rooms. This requires further clarification: when they say 'large', they seem to be referring to the size of American kitchens thirty years ago. Housing developers have clearly not visited newly built houses in North America recently. This leads to another observation that always amazes me. French cooking has been revered for hundreds of years. Some would argue they have the best cuisine in the world, and created the basis for many dishes we are familiar with today. Yet they work in the tiniest of kitchens! We observed the same thing while traveling in Italy. Clearly, space is not a necessity for being a good cook. It makes me realize we are often spoiled in North America. That being said, I will have a hard time adapting to a small kitchen...sigh.
The second house was built in the 1980s. It is close to the historic centre of the town Idron. That is, it is walking distance to the old church and chateau of the town. It backs on to a river, or large stream depending on what your reference frame is. It has a huge tree in the backyard with an old swing hanging from it. It does have charm, and a certain draw that is making it hard for us to decide between the two. The typical Canadian, including Gilles and I, would go for the new house. But there is something in our minds that tells us we should experience French life to its fullest, including this house...even if it does contain two bidets and only one toilet.
The one deal breaker may be our two cats. The French chat wanders freely indoors and out. Our spoiled boys are indoor cats, and not about to be introduced to the great outdoors and the large, barking neighbours' dog at the age of eight years old. They would be instant dog food, or be stuck in the tree. So what is the problem? The French do not put screens in their windows or doors. In fact, they may not even know that it exists, because you cannot even buy screen in the hardware store. We were prepared, and brought a roll of screen with us, hoping to put it in all the main floor windows. Unfortunately, the older house has only doors: there are two single and three sets of double doors that lead to the outside on the main floor! And only one window!
We have not given our final decision, but it looks as though it will be the new house. We will join the fate of the other two Canadian families we know in Pau and overlook the charm of the typical French house and opt for the shiny new house. You can take the Canadians out of Canada, but you can't take Canada out of the Candians!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The LeBlancs Arrive in France

We left Calgary after a week-long rush of packing and tying up all the loose ends needed before an international move. All this despite the fact that we have been preparing for this move for months. A big thank you to all our friends who helped move furniture, agreed to store things for us indefinitely, and who are providing us with Canadian television while here in France.
Our trip to Pau was long: we left Calgary early Wednesday morning & arrived late Friday night. However long, we made the most of it. Our flight from Toronto to Frankfurt was on Air Canada's new planes. Each person flying in executive class has their own cubicle with a chair that reclines into a bed. It was the most pleasurable flight, complete with champagne and a four course meal.
Our 36 hours in Geneva was spent strolling the streets and window shopping in their wonderful shops. Geneva is known for their watch manufacturing, and they certainly are proud of that heritage. There are many, many watch shops and the names of the large companies adorn the city's buildings and are lit up at night. Gilles, being a watch lover, thought Geneva was wonderful. It also helped that Geneva is famous for one of Gilles' other favourite things: chocolate.
Since arriving in Pau, things have not really slowed down. We are trying to muttle through the language, and setting up the essentials of moving to a new town: television, internet, telephone, etc.
Yesterday, we picked our cats up at the Toulouse airport. Now our whole family is here. They had a difficult travel, from Calgary to Vancouver (with a week-long stay there) to Amsterdam, then Toulouse. They are brave little boys! They are slowly settling in, but are clearly happy to be with us again.