Posts Tagged ‘French traditions’

Ardèche garages

September 6, 2017

In our very hilly area, roads are not straight. They used to be straighter before the invention of the internal combustion engine, but early cars could not cope with the steep gradients which had been negotiated for centuries on foot or with animals. It has struck us that, along with the requirement to re-engineer the roads, when the first cars arrived here they presented an additional challenge – where to keep the motor?

There was often no way to park the car just outside the farm, for lack of a flat surface. The stable floors too were  on a slope (easier to clean out the muck) and were in any case inhabited by the farm animals. So a special garage was needed.

People who had the money, built their garage out of stone, and – as at Les Sarziers – they added an upper floor (in our case for the hens) and made it spacious enough to house other items (in our case, the wine vat). Our garage was built in 1936 and is conveniently located just 20 yards below the main house. The lower level once housed the previous owner’s 2CV (which unfortunately was not included in the sale). Our Walksweeks guests have probably noticed that while they are staying in our house, we decamp to what the locals still call le Garage. We actually live upstairs, which we refer to as the Doghouse (“we’re in the doghouse”: it seemed amusing at the time, and the name has stuck). It was our first restoration project 30 years ago and is a cosy place to stay, especially in the winter, when it is difficult to keep the big house warm and snug.

Over the years, we have noticed that nearly all garages in the Ardèche are separate buildings, erected close to the access road or often just in a little siding off the main road.  Somewhere where the terrain was more or less flat (can’t trust those handbrakes!”) and where it was easy to manoeuvre to join the road. As with the train stations in this area, one did not expect transport to take you to the front of your house. Arlebosc station is nearly two miles from the village, and in other remote areas you might have had to face a three hour uphill walk from La Gare to the Eglise. The novelty of the speed with which a car or a train could transport you over long distances amply made up for these minor inconveniences.

Driving around the hilly roads of the Ardèche you can’t help noticing these shacks, as most of them seem to be in strange places. They are now neglected and what was once a right angle has taken its liberty to lean where the force of gravity is the strongest. Too isolated, they are often abandoned or filled with fire wood or rusty agricultural machinery.

Understandably people are no longer prepared to add 50 yards of unnecessary walking if the car can get them to the front door and therefore in close proximity to the fridge, where most of the shopping will end up.

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In contrast, and in terms of ultimate convenience, I remember when visiting Kate’s aunt in Florida, admiring her garage, which had an interior door leading straight into her carpeted dining room. The garage felt just like another room of the house with a floor that was cleaner than a Swiss kitchen.

And there is of course the English model, where the garage is adjacent, or very close to the house, although I have noticed that in most cases they seem to be a refuge for unwanted furniture and cardboard boxes whilst the car is parked outside fending for itself.

So whether you have a garage full of junk, one that is sliding down the hill or none at all, the visual effect is the same: cars are parked as close as possible to the entrance to one’s dwelling – and why not? In the 21st century all cars seem to be pretty weatherproof and our eyes have got used to shiny colourful objects littering the countryside.

But nothing beats a construction like this ….





La Récup.

December 30, 2015

It’s that time again when the detritus of Christmas needs to be dealt with: carcasses boiled for soup, wrapping paper saved for re-use, and the alarming quantity of accumulated empty bottles recycled.

We are fortunate to enjoy excellent recycling facilities here.  Glass, packaging, cartons, paper and cans can be deposited in bins at the end of the road and there is a splendid, brand new centre between us and St Félicien where you can dump anything from a barn door to a refrigerator.  The site is completed by a small hut, charmingly stocked with items of bric à brac, furniture and household goods which are free for anyone to take away.

That is not to say that the farmers have entirely abandoned the traditional habit of having a private dump of unmentionables somewhere on their land.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

We inherited our very own: a sort of natural cave half overgrown by a fig tree and containing an unlovely assortment of old pots and pans, bicycles, jam jars, bits of agricultural machinery and so on.  We have gradually filled it up over the years with broken tiles and the fig tree flourishes.

However, although recycling may not be the first priority of the canny ardéchois peasant, they are masters at reusing and adapting items to new and sometimes surprising uses.  It’s a thrifty practice which is known as la récup, short for récuperation.
Here’s a sample:


The owner of this garden shed must once have been in charge of renewing the local road signs.  With true esprit de récup he has found a novel way to give them a useful afterlife.

Even the most optimistic motorist might consider that this Renault 4 has had its day.

Renault 4
Not a bit of it! Simply slice off the front section and engine, weld on a sturdy towing bar, close off with hardboard, not forgetting to cut out a couple of small windows et voilà, you have created a practical trailer with which to transport your hunting dogs in comfort and safety.


. . . . ça c’est de la récup!

Christmas pudding anyone?

December 18, 2014

13 desserts 4 Although we have no pretentions to being in Provence as the term is now understood, the Haut Vivarais where we are was well within the historic region of Languedoc.  It took its name from the southern language, of which provençal was one dialect, which finally lost out to the Langue d’oil of northern France when the area came under the control of the Frankish kings, who decreed that theirs was to be the single official language.  Along with speech, now mostly differentiated solely by the charming southern twang, there are specific traditions belonging to the south one of which is the Treize desserts de Noël.

At the time of Louis XIV the people of Marseille used round off their big Christmas meal le gros souper du reveillon, held on December 24th, with all kinds of fruits and sweetmeats, together with twelve small bread rolls and a large one, to represent Christ and the apostles.  This was perhaps just a marseillais tradition but all over Provence you would find the four “mendiants”, or pachichois in occitan, which have been eaten since Medieval times at Advent, Lent and Easter, representing the four mendicant religious orders, with walnuts for the Augustinians, almonds for the Carmelites, dried figs for the Fransiscans and dried raisins for the Dominicans.  Another provençal speciality is the “pompe à l’huile”, a kind of brioche made with olive oil, flour and orange or anis water which must be broken as at the Last Supper, and not cut, for fear of bankruptcy in the year to come, together with fougasse, a flatbread made with olive oil and usually shaped into a rough rectangle and slashed to resemble an ear of wheat. These different elements were formalised by Frédéric Mistral, father of the renaissance of the provençal dialect and gradually became known as the “traditional 13 desserts”.  There is considerable argument about which thirteen items should be included but it is generally agreed that the essential ones are: apples, green (or winter) melon, pears, grapes, white and black nougat (symbolising good and evil), the four mendiants and the pompe à l’huile.

Some variations are permitted, for example candied fruit, such as cedrat, chestnuts, quince cheese and grape or fig jam and oreillettes – wafer thin morsels of fried dough flavoured with orange water.  The only non native fruits allowed are dates and oranges which evoke the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and certain local delicacies may be granted a place at the table, such as the little lozenge shaped almond sweets from Aix, called calissons. The thirteen desserts are served either before or after midnight mass on 24th December, on a table decorated with three candlesticks representing the Trinity.  They stay on the table until the 27th.  All thirteen must be presented at the same time and guests must sample each item.  Frequently children are not allowed to start until they have named all thirteen.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

La Fête de la Reboule

September 7, 2014

For the sixth year running, Arlebosc has held its most ambitious event of the year and once again, despite the awful weather we have had this summer, the sun shone all day.   The choice of date is a clever move, the last Sunday in August, just before la Rentrée when everyone is back at home, ready for school to start and looking for a family outing to round off the summer holidays.  The event has become the biggest local draw for fanciers of vintage agricultural machinery and Sunday’s procession of more than 20  tractors through the village – eloquently described as une pétarade – preceded by the combined brass bands of two neighbouring villages, was definitely a highlight.

Markus had been designated official photographer and was on hand and snapping away all day, from the open air Mass which kicked off the festivities to the piglet race at the end of the afternoon.

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The Reboule is a traditional celebration to mark the end of the harvest and its revival in Arlebosc has proved tremendously successful, drawing an impressive crowd. There was a really good brocante plus handcrafts of all kinds for sale, including Fernand’s handmade Ardéchois baskets.  IMG_6073 (800x599)There was an excellent photo exhibition at the Mairie, a tethered hot air balloon, candy floss, a roundabout, pony rides and a wonderful selection of wooden board games of the shove ha’penny variety for the children.  As the afternoon wore on the two-handed sawing contest became increasingly animated and impressive.IMG_6485 (800x538)

The barbecue had been going since early morning and we heard later that over 800 lunches were served.  Very good they were too with jambonnette to start with, tomato salad, grilled pork, frites, local cheese and a home grown peach for dessert.

There was music and line dancing and the buvette did a roaring trade all day.

But undoubtedly the main attractions were of the strictly agricultural kind.  Along with the tractors were exhibited a huge variety of inscrutable items of machinery for winnowing, cutting hay, twisting rope, sawing or apparently for simply puffing away importantly.  Several vitage cars were on show including a couple of beautiful black Traction Avants.

After lunch the tractors were hitched up to an assortment of ancient ploughs whilst enthusiastic teams  guided the plough shares, an event to which the photos hardly do justice, since it is very athletic and requires a good sense of balance and a certain amount of daring.

And all through the afternoon, Roger’s wheat, which we had seen cut and bound in the field above our courtyard, was being threshed using this hundred year old belt driven threshing machine called Albertine.

The following morning the sacks of grain and bales of straw were brought up to be stored in Roger’s barn, bringing the cycle to a close.  Poor Roger is in desperate need of a hip replacement operation, but is stubbornly soldiering on using crutches.  He cannot drive his tractor at the moment  and who knows what the outcome will be, but for this season at least a solution has been found for his wheat harvest combining a popular event, a celebration and the traditional rural solidarity which still operates in an unobtrusive but satisfyingly effective way.

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Le Pibole

August 25, 2014

Over the past few months it seems that every village has been planting a pibole to honour the election of a new mayor and municipal council.

St Basile

St Basile

According to government sources, mainland France has a population of around 66 million and comprises 36 552 communes, of which 30% have fewer than 200 inhabitants.  De Gaulle famously observed that it was “impossible to govern a nation which has 246 varieties of cheese” and more recently governmental voices have been heard to mutter that this administrative proliferation is unworkable and ill adapted to modern life.  Change is on the way.

In comparison with other EU countries, the same sources report that Germany, the most densely populated with 81 million inhabitants, has 11,563 administrative divisions, Italy, with 60 million, has 8,222 and the UK, having a population of over 62 million only 433.  The contrast is interesting, although one could no doubt take issue with these figures, since there are no direct parallels in the powers which are devolved to the administrative subdivisions of the different countries.

For example in France the mayor of every commune directly represents the State in judicial and police affairs.  He or she publishes laws, issues birth and death certificates, decides on planning applications and, together with the deputy mayor, is the only official authorised to perform civil marriages and partnerships, the sole forms of union recognised by the State (religious marriages have no validity in law).  If you need to have your signature witnessed on an official document you go to the Mairie, rather than looking for the vicar, doctor or some other respectable worthy as you might do in England.

Mairie de Gilhoc

In his or her role as head of the commune the mayor, in concertation with the municipal council, is responsible for the school in terms of authorising the creation of a new class, organising school meals and so on, together with scheduling road maintenance and the upkeep and use of public buildings, including the church, the fabric of which belongs to the commune.  He or she administers the budget, deals with emergency situations such as flooding, fires or snow clearance and is responsible for maintaining public order and “salubriousness” in the commune.  (It is common to see notices posted up about an out of control cat population or the requirement for citizens’ dogs to behave in a civilized manner).

Mairie de St Basile

The French, as you would expect, have a fierce devotion to the ideals of liberty and civic independence and there is a certain amount of ceremony attaching to the people’s elected representatives which would seem incongruous in a tiny English village with its Parish Council and PCC.  An example of this is the charming tradition, which seems to be local to the Ardèche, of planting a pibol our pibou to celebrate the election of a new mayor or councillor.  The word refers to the Poplar tree, whose Latin name populus, gave the French peuplier, from which it is a short step to peuple (the people) or, in the Southern dialects pibol.  (For years I have been amused and charmed by Markus referring to these trees as Popular trees – now I know he has a point!)

Nowadays any type of tree is considered appropriate to celebrate the election of new councillors.  Sometimes they are planted together on the village square or other public space and sometimes individually on the property of the person concerned.  In the old days apparently a bottle was tied to the top and the recipient was required to shin up the trunk to get it down.  Considering the size of the saplings which are used these days that seems a bit improbable but once the tree has been planted and the French flag attached  the little ceremony still ends with a glass of something, known here as le verre de l’amitié – the glass of friendship.

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La Chandeleur

February 2, 2014

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Today, February 2,  is Groundhog day in America and la fête de la chandeleur in France.  Any connection?  Well, apparently there is.

It seems that in pagan Germanic and Scandinavian cultures, at this time of year, when bears emerged from hibernation and had a look around to see if the weather was warming up (although history does not relate whether the bears were concerned about seeing their shadows), there were wild celebrations.  The festivities involved dressing up as bears and a certain amount of ravishing of maidens and general debauchery.   There are many other ancient references to the return of light and fruitfulness on this date in February (from februarius, the month of purification in Antiquity) whether it be the Roman festum candelabrum, when candles were lit at midnight in purification, or the return to earth of Persephone after her annual stint in Hades.

As so often was the case, the early Catholic church felt it had some work to do reining in these excesses and, from the 4th century, instituted the dual Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin, fixing the date on February 2.  However for another hundred years northern Europe clung stubbornly to its rituals of processing around the fields with torches and celebrating the return of light and fertility with such gusto that eventually Pope Gelasius came up with a compromise festivity called Chandelours, combining candles with bears, and had  pancakes distributed to pilgrims arriving in Rome for the feast day.  (The Celtic festival of Imbolg, marking the beginning of Spring on Feb 1 was lumped in with the mix and later became the feast of St Brighid).

Growing up in England, I recall this date as Candlemas, but with no specific events attaching to it.   We made pancakes on Shrove Tuesday at the start of Lent, but in France pancakes, or more properly crêpes, are made at chandeleur in a mish-mash event to mark the turning of the seasons, the end of the Christmas festivities and auguries for a prosperous year to come.  This is the date on which to light all your candles and put away the nativity scene, marking the end of the Christmas period.  By tradition you should toss your crêpes with a coin in the other hand in hopes of a good financial year to come and a Breton friend of ours insists that the first pancake should land up on top of the kitchen dresser, where it is left inviolate for the whole year to ensure a good harvest.

It seems a bit early to talk about the return of Spring, but the days are getting longer, we are already half way between the solstice and the equinox and any excuse is a good one to toss crêpes, so here we go!

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Hello 2014!

January 1, 2014

When the post lady took over from M Mer she announced that she would no longer be coming round with the calendrier des PTT. There was a certain amount of consternation. This inappropriately named item (the PTT no longer exists – we are supposed to call it La Poste – and we are talking here about much more than a calendar) is an essential staple of every rural home. In old photographs you will see one on the mantelpiece of even the most basic farm kitchen, displaying nothing else in the line of comfort or decoration except perhaps a few holy pictures and a palm cross which has seen better days, stuck behind the clock.

The distribution of these calendars follows a time honoured tradition. From mid November onwards you are likely to hear a knock on the door and open up to find two blokes you have never set eyes on before, who are collecting for the éboueurs, the firemen, the Catholic parish or La Poste. All but the first, (beware of scams says the Refuse Collectors’ Union and always demand to see the photo ID and number of the lorry – as if one would), offer a calendrier or almanach and expect a small donation, which they use to buy gifts for needy firefighters, postmen or whatever and their families. The reason the post lady announced that she would be discontinuing the practice has to do with the fact that, here in the country, it is customary to invite the callers into the kitchen and offer them a canon or two. As a woman she felt that this was a bit inappropriate. Pace the feminists she might be right since, somewhat like carol singing in English villages, a round of the whole commune tests both the head and the liver and needs to be spread over at least a month.

These compact publications, adorned with affecting pictures of puppies or fearless pompiers tackling a blaze, contain a wealth of indispensable information and are still useful in the age of Google. The calendar itself lists the phases of the moon, seasons, solstices and equinoxes, saints’ days, national holidays and school vacations in the various administrative zones of the country. The inner pages have maps of the local towns, emergency numbers, the location of hospitals, swimming pools, schools and so on plus a round up of all the local communes with their post codes and population.

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For absent-minded husbands there is reminder of wedding anniversaries – cotton, leather, wood and so on, right up to gold and platinum, by way no doubt of expanded polystyrene. There are country remedies such as nettle soup and St Johnswort tea, and infallible ways to rid your house of flies.  Information about the precise date on which to pick your beans and medicinal plants is interspersed with conundrums such as “how many teeth does a pike have?”

6 (800x600)A world map is included, together with a list of all the French departments with their numbers, including the DOM TOM – those overseas dominions and territories of which France still has a surprising number. The language of flowers is explained (lilac for friendship, jonquils for melancholy, tulips for a declaration) and les fêtes à souhaiter are arranged alphabetically, so that you don’t forget to wish Bonne Fête to Tante Bernadette on February 18th. Then there are household hints: how to take out stains, remove lime scale, how to keep cut flowers longer in their vase and so on.

These calendriers must be the descendants the Almanachs of the 19th century which were full of the same kind of lore, but which also included dubious political sentiments and theory together with distressingly non p. c. cartoons featuring gentlemen in hats and ladies in difficulty.

Even so, a great deal of this information is still of regular use to French people, and not solely to the country dwellers. It is considered absolutely normal, at the end of the nightly TV news and weather forecast, that we are told whose which saint’s day is coming up tomorrow along with the exact time of sunrise and sunset, and many people still regulate their daily activities by the phases of the moon. Such wisdom decrees that your hair will grow better if you have it cut when the moon is waxing, you should plant root vegetables during the waning moon and those which grow above ground when it is waxing. The calendar is anxiously checked to note if the year is one of thirteen moons, generally considered a bad omen for crops and gardeners (the next will be in 2015).

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In spite of our post lady’s dereliction, for 2014 we have one from our Parisian postman and another from the Parish of Arlebosc, so we are all set for the what the year will bring.

Happy New Year to you all – and by the way, a pike has 700 teeth!

Le Lavoir

October 31, 2013

Some years ago,  Markus inherited his godfather’s photo archive.  Adrian Stückelberger worked as a professional photographer for the Basel chemical industry.  From the late 1950’s to the early 2000’s he also travelled widely and enjoyed taking what he called holiday snaps.  These pictures of  women doing their laundry  – which they have brought down in wheelbarrows – were taken in Brittany in 1958.  It seems like a distant world, but it is one that I remember very well from travelling through France in the 50’s and 60’s.  In fact the use of the lavoir faded away so gradually that it was only in the late 70’s that I realised that the tradition had gone for ever.

In most French villages you will find a lavoir, either carefully restored or left empty of water and in ruins. They generally consist of two or three basins surrounded by a wide rim sloping towards the centre, to facilitate scrubbing.  Running spring water enters and leaves the basins separately so that one can be used for washing and the other for rinsing the laundry.

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We wondered why there was apparently no lavoir in Arlebosc, until we learned that the construction was about 500 yards below the village.  We found the place, in a fairly precipitous valley, below a road bridge that crosses a small stream.  There is not much left of it – vegetation having taken over.  But there was a road, and there was water, even in a dry summer.

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Our neighbour remembers how all the washing would be loaded up on a cart and taken down to the lavoir.  Previously the family linen had been covered  with ash and left out on the grass overnight so that the dew could do the pre-wash by next morning.  (The idea of using wood ash on white linen seems surprising until you recall that phosphates are still used as a water softening agent in many modern laundry detergents).

Laundering was hard work in those days.  The linen was bashed and scrubbed with a hard brush and a hefty cake of savon de Marseille, then wrung out, rinsed and wrung again several times in the fresh water.  A fairly pleasant task on a hot summer’s day, but in the winter months it must have been tough, kneeling on the cold stones and plunging up to the elbows in freezing water.  However wash day was a convivial occasion when the women, ordinarily confined to their busy lives at home overseeing the farmhouse, kitchen and barnyard together with looking after numerous children, could get together to gossip, laugh and exchange news.

Since the Ardèche hamlets are so widely scattered, many farms had their own mini-lavoir.  One of the most impressive is at les Blaches, a neighbouring abandoned farm in the woods just below us.  As the years passed we were sad to see the structure crumble and eventually collapse, so we were delighted when the house was sold last year and saved from total ruin.  We recently met the new owners, who are planning to restore the lavoir, as the spring nearby is still running.


This is how it looks now.  Watch this space for news of the restoration of a crucial part of our rural heritage.

Franglais – le français étranglé or French for the unwary

September 16, 2013

Driving into  a village one day we saw a road sign depicting a cartoon-style, slightly crazy looking, shock headed young man with the words: vazy molo.  This got us thinking about the language pitfalls and totally incomprehensible references which await the English speaking visitor.

Who is this character Vazy Molo?  Is he perhaps related to Bison Futé?  And what is he trying to tell us?

Similarly, on the recycling bins to be found in rural areas, we once came across the usual papier/carton/plastiques/verre – so far so good – and then bricks.  Bricks??  We wondered whether recently arrived anglophones, engaged in renovating their French ruin, might be inspired to post unwanted bricks, one by one, into the container which is in fact designated for juice and milk cartons!

Before we decipher the identity of Vazy Molo, just a word about one of France’s best loved characters, Bison Futé or Cl640px-Logo_Bison_futéever Bison.

On 2nd August 1975 traffic came to a standstill on a total of 600km of the French road network and the N10 linking Paris and the Spanish border was gridlocked for a quarter of its total length.  Something had to be done and before the next August exodus the Ministry of Transport had put together a plan.  Maps were produced showing alternative routes (les itinéraires bis) and diversions round major towns, but how to persuade motorists to use them?

The legendary advertising writer Daniel Robert came up with the notion of Clever Bison, perhaps playing on the words Bis and Bison, who would give you the inside knowledge.  The challenge was to persuade the French, who love to be futé, that this was a clever alternative, whilst relying on the fact that there would be a sufficient proportion who would be encore plus futés and stay on the traditional routes!  It worked spectacularly, reducing congestion by 30% in the first year, and now Bison Futé is a trusted advisor who regularly tells us what to expect on the roads and what to do about it.

Now to bricks and so on.  The French, although famous for their apparent resentment of the inumerable English words which pollute their language,  actually appropriate foreign words and phrases enthusiastically and with appalling insouciance as regards their original meaning.  So they say un box  to indicate a private underground parking space, un slip for underpants, le badge for an electronic key fob, or le dressing to mean a walk-in wardrobe.  They are adamant that le cake only refers to the shape of the beast, it may contain dried fruit or ham and olives, but it must be in a loaf shape.  (That said, the English use of the expression en-suite is similarly incomprehensible to a French person).

Perhaps it is something to do with the AcadémieAcademie Française Française, which debates so ponderously and for so long in order to create acceptable new words to keep up with swiftly evolving global communication.  By the time they decided on mél for email, it was obvious that they were simply shutting the stable door after the proverbial horse, since the country at large was using the word mail (though not, of course email – we shall come to this shortly) and the Académie’s feeble suggestion of courriel simply never cut the mustard.

French people are impatient with words and phrases which they consider cumbersome, and will reduce them to more manageable proportions in defiance of all logic.  For example le or la british (note the small b), can equally well mean British Airways, the British Council or the British Embassy.  If you are invited for l’ apéro you know that this is a shortened form of apéritif, but this passion for shortening words and phrases can be applied to almost anything, such as écolo for ecological, macdo for Mc Donalds, la rando (randonnée meaning a hike).  So to return to our imponderable young motorist and what he means, molo probably comes from mollement, gently or cautiously and Vazy is simply a jazzy way of writing vas-y – so “go carefully!”

In fact the French love “jazzy ways” of writing words or snappy-sounding foreign expressions, sometimes used to alarming effect.  For instance the local mobile disco when we first arrived here rejoiced in the name of “Pinky Night”, and its current replacement is called “Slimer” . A short hike around Arlebosc, designed for families, with quizzes and information on panels contained in plastic tubes is called the Rando Tub’.  The apostrophe means nothing to the French so they scatter them about at random in an effort to look up to the minute, as in 1980’s craze for collecting lapel badges which were known, in the singular, as le pin’s.

There has always been a national obsession with English present participles used as nouns as in le dancing, le camping, le shampooing (pronounced “shompwang”) rather than dance hall, campsite, and shampoo,  or they invent fanciful notions such as le brushing, to mean a blow dry.  In fact, in a combination of linguistic cannibalism, you may well see a hairdresser advertising an all-in price for a coup’, shamp, brush!

Beef Wellington, Photo credit 2 en cuisineWhen I first lived in Paris I had a game with myself to see whether I could find a butcher who could spell roast beef correctly.  I encountered roost beef, rost bif, roast beaf and everything in between but most usually rosbif, so I eventually decided that this was the correct French word.  In fact the French most usually refer to the English as les rosbifs so perhaps they are entitled to their eccentric spelling in this case.  A favourite cartoon, which I can no longer find, depicts a puzzled French diner studying his plate and saying to the hovering waiter: Je vois le boeuf, mais où sont les Wellingtons?”  (I see the beef but where are the wellingtons?)

Of course menu translations can be an endless source of both amusement and puzzlement.  We recently saw jambon cru repeatedly rendered throughout a menu as crude jam, which offers no help to the uninitiated!  But how would you cope if you needed to select a drink from the following on offer: un pérroquet, un monaco, un panach’, un galopin, un caoua, which are respectively a parrot (pastis with mint syrup and water), beer with grenadine (pomegranate) syrup and lemonade, a shandy (written in full as un panaché), a very small wine glass of beer (also contracted to un galop or un galop panach’) and a café (caoua is pronounced “cahwah” and is associated with French North Africa –  but that is quite another story!!)

By the way they do not limit their creativity solely to English.  Le bistro apparently derives from the habit of Russian soldiers, who were occupying Paris in 1814 and forbidden to drink on duty, of entering a café calling out быстро” (quickly), which sounds a bit like bistro, so the word came to mean an establishement where you would be served snappily. Under German occupation, troops searching a property might point to a roof opening and ask “Was ist das?” presumably to determine whether anyone could have escaped through it.  The phrase was subsequently adopted as a single word: le vasistas, to mean a skylight.

More recently, with the arrival of Italian specialities in snack shops and delicatessens, we have been treated to un paninis (from the Italian singular panino, in the plural panini but with an s stuck on for good measure) and mozzarella di buffala rendered as mozz de buff.

So, pace the Académie, and in spite of my frequent roars of frustration, one should probably not take all this massacring of language too seriously.  It does indicate that French is a much more lively language than is often supposed and that there is a lot of fun and playfulness involved in daily speech.  See what you make of this!

franglais-33a39d1Courtesy of

photo credits:

publication des administrations publiques françaises




One for the road

September 3, 2013

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The café is as essential to the French way of life as the pub in England and both are under threat.  In Lamastre there are still seven, but local people tell us that in the days before motor traffic the town boasted something like thirty watering holes.  Of course we are not talking here about the glamorous café terraces of Montparnasse or Aix-en-Provence but simple establishments, which often doubled up as the boulangerie or épicerie.  In fact when we first came to Arlebosc there were four such places in the village, only one of which functioned solely as a café.

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Tougher controls on drink driving together with the ban on smoking in public places have been the death of so many of these little joints.  In Arlebosc, the clocheton used to ring the church bell at mid day and then cross the road to join the farmers and local labourers for a glass of something before heading home for lunch.  Now the bell is an electric contraption which rings itself and the locals are more likely to get together round a tractor in the farmyard to drink a canon after a hard morning’s work.  No doubt we are all healthier and safer on the roads than we once were, but it is also true that a convivial village link has been lost.

The more makeshift cafés in Lamastre were on the roads leading in to the centre of town, often just a front room with a few chairs round a table for the customers but always with space somewhere at the back to stable the animals which had drawn the cart in to market.  After a couple of nips to warm up on a wintry day, the farmers would take their produce to sell, returning at the end of the morning for another glass or two before hitching up the beasts and setting off on the journey back to their farms in the hills.

These trips were often long and hard going for the animals, which might be oxen, mules, horses or sometimes even cows, and refreshment was provided for them too along the way.  Flashing past in a car it is easy to miss the drinking troughs which were placed strategically along the uphill stretches, sometimes adorned with a carved figure, or beautifully covered with a stone arch to keep the water cool and fresh.

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With the arrival of motorised vehicles many roads had to be re routed to avoid gradients which were possible for animals but too steep for the earliest internal combustion engines.  We are always amused by the old road to the village of St Prix.  A little chapel stands on the steep stretch before the village, which was apparently built to discourage, or perhaps defuse, the continuous cursing of the carters as their animals laboured their way up the hill!

Like the wayside crosses which still mark some intersections, these relics of a slower pace of life and transport are mostly ignored today, but in the attractive village of les Nonnières our friend Isabelle has had a lovely idea. She is a mosaicist and recently got the villagers together to create a special mosaic treatment of this trough, which used to be the communal water supply.  The result is a cheerful tribute to these once essential features of country life.


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