Call of France

A Trilogy of Adventure

Month: March 2018

Baguette Versus Loaf?

The deep Anglo-French discord as to the propriety of using bread to clean dinner plate in much the same way as a mop is applied to kitchen floor may also be explained by the contrasting nature of, and the differing roles assigned to this mutually staple food. For the baguette is totally fatless with a light, crispy crust surrounding a soft, airy crumb, and just a soupçon of floury taste, while the presence of milk and eggs in the traditional tin-baked English loaf produces a thicker, more flaccid crust, a heavier, more densely-structured crumb; and the use of stronger Canadian flour imparts a more pronounced flavour. But, above all, depending on which side of the Channel you’re on, bread has a totally different part to play. In England, eating it with a meal is – like inviting a plain-looking girl to dance – considered to be more of a filler-in when nothing more tempting is at hand. Admittedly, its relative absence at English mealtimes can also be explained by the fact that, traditionally, the main dish is copiously provided with vegetables (usually three or even more); and it is perhaps significant that the only occasions when bread is called upon to play a more than minor mealtime role is when served pre-buttered (in England bread and butter are as inseparable as tea and milk), in compensatory accompaniment to a meal of reduced vegetable content such as the national dish of fish and chips. In France, on the other hand, so essential a part of eating is ordinary, unbuttered bread that the lack of anything less than a full basket of sliced baguette on the restaurant table (as well as its systematic replenishment during the meal) would be as shamefully incomplete as going on a tour of Paris and being deprived of the Tour Eiffel.

What’s more, French and English attitudes towards the crust could not be more diametrically opposed. While the former are convinced that both crumb and crust play an inseparable part in producing a deliciously complementary soft and crunchy whole, the wilting, unappetizing crust of tin-baked English bread makes it not much more tempting to eat than bacon rind. I still remember the dubious incitements (‘It’ll make your hair curl!’ was her favourite) resorted to by my Grandma to persuade the young English boy I then was to eat the ‘heel’ of her otherwise delicious home-baked bread. And the cucumber and potted-meat sandwiches traditionally served with four o’clock tea in English cafés and restaurants are only considered refined enough for human consumption when the bread has been relieved of its vulgar crust.

Is it the same coarse, flabbily-uninviting nature of the crust, along with the intrusive floury taste of the crumb, which causes bread to be conspicuous by its absence at the cheese course in England? For the only real occasion when the two come anywhere near to harmonious union is when brought together in a Ploughman’s Lunch. As a substitute for bread, the English systematically resort to a wide variety of crisp, lightly-flavoured (frequently with cheese itself) cracker-type biscuits to bring out the taste of their after-meal cheese. And what is more normal in a country where plain, unadorned bread is only deemed fit to be thrown out for the sparrows that these receive a liberal coating of butter? In France, on the contrary, the only possible accompaniment to cheese is plain, unbuttered bread. How could it be otherwise when marriage between the two provides such an ideally complementary match? For the delicately–flavoured, crispy charm of the baguette remains discreet enough to bring out all that is best in the cheese, while retaining enough of its own character as never to be submerged by even the most commanding cheesy presence. Hélas, the subtle delights of French bread are of an all too fleeting nature, and freeze into ice-like hardness in half the time it takes for mortar to set.

To Bise or Not to Bise?

An article in my local newspaper informs us that the mayoress of a village in the Isère département recently sent an email to all her staff informing them that she wished to put a stop to that traditional French practice of greeting one another with a cheek-kiss (‘la bise’) each morning on arriving at work. The reasons given?  Firstly the obvious one that it exposes you to the risk of receiving a good dose of somebody else’s germs; but more surprisingly because it reflects male-female inequality. It’s certainly true that ‘faire la bise’ is more a female thing as a man is more likely to shake another male’s hand when he arrives at work – even though things do tend to be changing. For while in the past cheek-kissing between males was confined to close members of the same family (i.e. father and son or brothers) it is now being more and more resorted to by men who are simply colleagues or friends. Though many people found our lady mayor’s decision trifling, even stupid, it does have the merit of opening a discussion on a practice which in France is systematically used as a greeting both outside and inside the place of work.

One reason our mayoress doesn’t seem to have mentioned is the fact that, depending on the number of employees and the number of kisses (usually limited to one on each chop but for cultural, regional or social reasons this can range from one to five) cheek-kissing your work colleagues can take up a significant amount of working time. On arriving at work each morning one of my copains has confessed to spending the first ten minutes going round office and workshop cheek-kissing all the women. But though important to many it can be a tiresome, even unpleasant obligation for some. Is this all that surprising with an act which forces you into such close proximity with others that you can smell their make-up, after-shave and sometimes even their breath? What’s more, wearers of spectacles or sunglasses should be especially careful as their frames have been known to inflict a nasty poke in the eye. And isn’t it a show of familiarity which in many cases doesn’t really exist ? After all a wave of the hand, a smile or a warm handshake could be nearer the mark.

Mind you, the word ‘kiss’ is often a misnomer: for rather than planting your lips on the cheek of the other, the technique usually consists in briefly rubbing your chops together, and at the same time making a kissing movement with your lips. The result is that most of the lip contact is with the surrounding air. However, I do have another copain who believes in firmly planting his lips on the cheeks of women he feels real affection for. The problem is that in France cheek-kissing is such a longstanding tradition that it’s almost become a ritual.  And in the more trendy circles it’s even strongly advised not only to cheek-kiss colleagues but to systematically use the familiar ‘tu’ as well as the first name of the person you greet. And this includes the boss. Mind you, it hasn’t always been so. In the past the upper crust considered it to be not at all chic, very provincial, and only for the plebs.  Nowadays, however, psychologists will tell you that faire la bise is a way of informing others that you recognize him or her both as an individual and a member of your same group.  So, on the whole, refusing to cheek-kiss your workmates would stand a very good chance of being seen as an act of unfriendliness and/or a wish to set yourself apart.

As to the question of male-female inequality it’s true that cheek-kissing tends to belong more to the female domain; and we can always argue that what is female has more negative connotations than what is male. But can we really say that the act in itself is a reflection of inequality? When men don’t cheek-kiss other men or are reluctant to cheek-kiss a woman doesn’t this rather echo a need to delimit what is male from the female ? Isn’t this a distinction which in the non-Muslim world at least is becoming more and more blurred ?


The French Tourist Abroad

When the annual summer holidays cause France to close down for a month, the holiday reservation site Travelzoo carried out a survey on how their European subscribers viewed French tourists. The 2,398 people who took part were almost unanimous in their condemnation of the behaviour of French tourists who seem well on their way to being considered the worst in Europe. Criticisms only go to endorse the clichés we frequently hear applied to the French.

So, what exactly is it they find so hard to stomach? For one thing all seemed to agree that French tourists are extremely hard to please, and never stop belly-aching. The French have a high expectation level with regard to their holidays, so everything must be just right – to the most minute detail. Apparently, one of the favourite occupations of French tourists who’ve just taken possession of their hotel room is to go round looking for the slightest speck of dust. They’ll even look behind that picture frame above the bed!  And if their room doesn’t have a magnificent sea view they won’t hesitate to bounce down to reception and demand that it be changed immediately. What’s more, the present economic crisis has made things even worse. The British tourist, on the other hand, will only complain in the most extreme cases, and as long as there’s plenty of sun and cheap booze available, is perfectly happy.

The French are also considered to be an arrogant lot – mainly because they make absolutely no effort to speak a foreign language when abroad. The Gallics are proud of their country, its culture and language, and are inclined to consider themselves slightly superior to others. Not only do they act as if they were still in France, but they expect to be able to find what they’re in the habit of eating at home. Mind you, to be perfectly fair, we don’t think this is a particularly French trait. At the age of 14 the English boy I then was went on a school trip to the South of France. For him it was a paradise on earth, and the food, though certainly different, was an absolute delight. But many of his fellow pupils didn’t seem to agree: their main gripes were that it didn’t measure up to Scarborough and that there were no fish and chip shops around!

And  French tourists expect to have both quality food and cooking at the lowest possible price together with the high level of service that goes with it. The British tourist on the other hand, as long as he gets a cooked breakfast, is quite happy with a ham sandwich or a mediocre buffet-type meal. But though the French consider holidays to be extremely important, and will only deprive themselves when they have no other choice, they don’t want their holidays to cost them the earth. This explains the growing popularity in France of the all-inclusive type of vacation where you know down to the last euro exactly how much it’s all going to set you back and where you’re certain that, if you don’t want to, you needn’t fork out a cent more.

But what contributes most to this ‘stingy’ image is when it comes to leaving a tip. French tourists will only tip when they’re fully satisfied with the service (which is extremely rare), and even then (as, to be quite honest, I’ve personally often been in a position to note), this is far from being a general rule. One of the main justifications for this is that they’ve never received a tip during their working life, so why give one to others ? On the contrary, Anglo-Saxons are culturally more inclined to leave a tip – even when the quality of the service leaves a lot to be desired.

It’s also understandable that in this country of haute couture and designer fashion clothes the holidaying French tend to pay more attention to what they wear.  And even though they tend to dress more casually than before, there are still certain standards which they rarely abandon. The British and Germans, on the other hand, will stroll nonchalantly round holiday resort shops clad in nothing more elaborate than flip-flops and shorts.

Not only do French tourists want their holidays to bring relaxation and enjoyment, but they also like to come away with the impression that they’ve added something to their personal culture and knowledge. The guided-tour type of holiday, where you visit different places of cultural or historical interest each day is, therefore, far more popular than with holidaymakers from other countries. So frequently can this be observed that in Seville it’s a  standing joke that at four o’clock on a sweltering summer afternoon only dogs and French tourists are to be seen in the streets. The English and Germans on the other hand are more inclined to spend their days soaking up the sun on a lounger round the swimming pool, or just lazing on the beach with the occasional dip in the sea.



French Male Sexism

International Women’s Day (8th March) not only commemorates the historical struggle of women throughout the world to obtain the same rights and opportunities as men but, by providing an opportunity to reflect on the present state of female equality, to identity the more important areas of discrimination still remaining to be combated in the years to come. Though in France the day was made official in 1982, it is perhaps a measure of the strong sexist attitudes still firmly anchored in the French male mentality that some public figures (especially in the masculine-dominated world of politics) still feel free enough to make pronouncements guaranteed to turn all self-respecting feminists purple in the face. Here are some real examples of French male sexism. The comments that follow are from my Englishman:


‘But who’ll look after the children?’

That was the question a former Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, asked (perhaps he’s changed his tune since) on being informed that Ségolène Royal, the former  socialist President’s ex-live-in partner, (they had four children together) was a candidate in the Presidential Election of 2008. How dare she postulate for the position of Head of State? We all know politics is a man’s world, and that a woman’s real place is at home with the kids. Strangely enough, it was the Socialist party, of which Monsieur Fabius is a prominent member, which over the last decade or two has made great efforts to promote female parityand combat sexism in politics. Or was his question simply motivated by sour grapes at not having himself been chosen as the Socialist presidential candidate?


‘I’ve tried to promote women as much as I can, even though our briefs can be very technical.’

Stéphane Le Foll, Agriculture Minister in the same government repeating the widely-held French male view that anything technical is sure to get a woman’s knickers in a twist. Yes, yes, we’ve heard it all before. Women drivers never know whether the engine’s at the front or back.


‘I’m said to be a misogynist. But aren’t all men? I’m talking about those who aren’t gay.’

David Douillet, former Olympic Heavyweight Judo champion, and former right-wing Minister of Sport saying that real he-men like himself prefer other he-men. And where do women fit into all this? Is he implying that these creatures are just there simply to satisfy men’s physical needs, and it’s only queers who think otherwise?


‘To our women, our horses … and all those who mount them!’

Apparently, this was the favourite toast of Jacques Chirac (former Président de la République and renowned woman-chaser) at, admittedly, non-official dinners. Even though this coupling of horses and women in the same breath could raise a few male guffaws, it does nothing to enhance the image of the gallant French male.


 ‘Perhaps she wore that dress so we wouldn’t listen to what she had to say.’

Patrick Balkany, a right-wing député talking about Cécile Duflot, Socialist Ministre de l’Egalité des Territoires et du Logement in the National Assembly. Monsieur Balkany seems to be expressing the view that a woman’s seductive self-presentation is intentionally aimed at luring male attention away from the vacuity of her brain, and that it’s against the nature of things for seductiveness and intelligence to come wrapped up together in the same feminine package. After all, isn’t a woman’s energy better spent making herself a worthy decorative complement to men?


‘I pay my players more than my mistresses. At least my mistresses give my cock a good time!’

The President of Montpellier football club, Louis Nicollin, informing us in his own inimitable way that his team of lady friends give him far more value for money than his football squad.


She’s become f…able again’.

Yes, he actually said this, believe it or not … and in public at that! Jean-Marie Bigard, a French humorist, actor and film director getting straight to the point about Christine Bravo, writer and T.V. personality, whose physical seductiveness seems to have considerably increased in his eyes as a result of a strict diet. He does, however, have the merit of stating out loud what a lot of French males probably thought, and he did add later that it was just his way of being nice. All right, even if he’s no diplomat, he’s got a good heart. But we can’t help thinking that, once again, this sort of unabashed rawness tarnishes that legendary image of the refined, respectfully attentive French lover.


‘Nobody got killed.’

Jack Lang, former Socialist Minister of Culture, informing us he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about on learning that his Socialist mate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Head of the International Monetary Fund, and probable future presidential candidate had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a New York hotel room. After all, she was only a chambermaid, not even American, and black into the bargain. Who said that the droit de cuissage (the lord’s first night sexual rights) was dead?


‘What colour panties are you wearing this morning?’

The question an elderly French député asked his young lady assistant when she arrived at work. We’re not informed what her reaction was.


‘If I’d been twenty years younger I’d soon have had you pregnant.’

One of the more printable declarations from another (ageing) député. We don’t know whether he got the slap he deserved.






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