Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

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French Eating and Drinking Establishments: le Café

Apart from the restaurant which performs a similar function throughout the world (though the French gastronomic version enjoys a unique and deserved international reputation for excellence), France has a plethora of eating and drinking establishments whose various names could create confusion in the mind of the foreign tourist or recently arrived expat as to the purpose they serve and the differences between them – even though distinctions of this kind are becoming increasingly blurred and in many cases the names now used mean more or less the same thing. Let’s start with  le café.

The café is, of course, the best-known of French drinking (and eating) establishments. Its size is extremely variable and can range from the large Parisian café-restaurant, employing several kitchen, service and bar staff, to the small village café, usually owned and run by a local who is head cook, bottle-washer and waiter (or waitress) all rolled into one. But they all provide a place where shoppers, strollers and tourists can have a bite to eat and slake their thirst, and where regulars can meet to share gossip and a joke over an apéro or two. What’s more, a small-town or village café is an ideal place for the expat to meet and make friends with the locals. There may be a certain amount of suspicion at first, but they’ll gradually acknowledge your presence and begin to warm to you. You’ll have to be patient, however, as this can take time. And in many cases – especially in the provinces – cafés are frequently the headquarters for a local association or sporting club. And it’s rare to come across a French café which doesn’t have some kind of terrace where you can relax and simply watch the world go by. The larger ones are capable of accommodating scores, while in small villages they are often limited to just a couple of tables with chairs on the pavement outside.
Most French cafés are licensed to open without interruption from early morning until late at night and serve a wide range of alcoholic, non-alcoholic and hot drinks. And you can always get something to eat at any time of the day. They will serve you with at least a café au lait and croissants for breakfast, and at any other time you can get a snack (at minimum a choice of sandwiches). And even in small towns and villages this can be a more elaborate hot or cold dish and, when there’s a demand, some even serve a full plat du jour (usually at lunchtime), eaten inside the café, on the terrace in summer, or in the small restaurant which is sometimes attached.

Sometimes the café is a bar tabac presse : the premises include a small tobacconist’s and newsagent’s shop which, like the café, is open all day long, and where you can buy, apart from newspapers and magazines, sweets, chocolate, postcards, stamps and nick-nacks of all kinds – and sometimes even bread. Many are licensed to sell scratch cards and National Lottery tickets. And the larger ones are usually licensed by the PMU (le Pari Mutuel Urbain), a state-controlled betting organization mainly centred on horse-racing.

Thierry Roland – The Ideal French Soccer Commentator?

In the sporting field it’s hardly surprising that absolute loyalty is required of the French soccer commentator whose role is to provide constant proof that he fully shares the 150% commitment of the average viewer to his favourites. A supreme example of this ideal type of commentator was provided by the late Thierry Roland whose partisan devotion to the French soccer cause not only endeared him to his sporting public but has made of him a legendary figure of football commentary. Just one example of his sectarian allegiance was supplied by an international match I watched on T.V. some time ago.
   It is, of course, normal that the elevated position of a T.V. soccer commentator should sometimes give him a far better vision of the game than its arbitrator who can, in all fairness, on occasions be unsighted. At one point in an international soccer match (which had a high level of what is commonly termed ‘physical commitment’), a defender from the foreign team committed a disgraceful foul on a French forward, which the referee failed to notice. ‘Foul, monsieur l’arbitre, foul!’ Monsieur Roland howled into his microphone. A few minutes later a French defender was guilty of what could possibly have been an even worse foul on a foreign attacker, which the referee (he must have been English) once again seemed not to notice. ‘Oh, the referee is nearer than me!’ Monsieur Roland calmly declared.
   On another occasion during a France-Bulgaria soccer match, so great was this same commentator’s passionate commitment to the French cause, and so vigorous his hostility to the referee (who had just proved he was doing his best to deny the French a just victory by awarding a penalty to the opposing team), that in a moment of uncontrollable fury he announced to millions of viewers: ‘Monsieur Foot, vous êtes un salaud!’ (Monsieur Foot you’re a bastard) . This considerably increased his popularity with the French sporting public: for in view of the hundreds of supportive letters received, the T.V. channel which employed him announced that previously-envisaged sanctions would not be taken. And surprisingly, the referee in question was Scottish, not English.
   Indeed, a whole book could be devoted to the sporting comments of Thierry Roland, and the following constitute just a short selection of his more memorable pronouncements:

‘Don’t you think we could have found something better than a Tunisian to referee a match of this importance?’
Surprisingly, this remark was prompted by the famous goal scored by Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ – which the referee failed to see – during a World Cup soccer match between England and Argentina (Thierry Roland was a great Anglophile). So much did it pose a threat to Franco-Tunisian relations that the French ambassador was obliged to offer his apologies to the then Tunisian Prime Minister, Ben Ali.

Rumanians are all chicken thieves!’
An aside made to the other commentary-team member, his ex-football-star chum, Jean-Michel Larqué, during a France-Rumania match.

‘Koreans are all alike … they all measure 5’8” and they’ve all got brown hair.’
A comment made during a France-South Korea World Cup preparation match. During the match, in reply to Larqué’s astute observation that a lot of South Korean players were called ‘Lee,’ he retorted: ‘Since there are several ‘Lees’ (lit = bed), we can put them all together in the same bedroom.’
   Other legendary remarks include, ‘Those two won’t spend their holidays together!’ ‘The flies have changed donkeys,’ And, when France won the 2002 World Cup, ‘Now we can all die in peace … but as late as possible!’ Unfortunately, his wish hardly came true as he departed our planet at the relatively premature age of 74.

 

Typically English Sports?

Even though a case could possibly be made out in defense of the foreign beginnings of a limited number of minor sports, little doubt can be entertained as to the English origins of the major ones and, above all, the source of the sporting spirit in which they are played.
     Readers will have already realized it was my Englishman who won the toss and kicked off this article on sports with the above lines. Initially he set the ball rolling by: ‘Even though absolutely no doubt whatsoever may possibly be entertained as to the English origins of all popular sports …,’ but was crunchingly tackled on this by his left-wing French team mate. My Gallic vehemently protested that, contrary to general belief on the English side of the Channel, popular sports such as football, rugby, and tennis are, in fact, of French origin. He went on to insist that if his English alter ego were to remain true to the principle of fair play he claimed for himself and his compatriots, the very least he could do was to admit the existence of doubt on this score.
    

My French left winger then proceeded to declare that, though English history maintains that the game of rugby was inspired by a certain William Webb Ellis, a pupil at the Public School of the same sporting name who, in November 1823, during a game of soccer, hit on the brilliant idea of picking up the ball and running with it towards the opposing goal, this sport can actually be traced much further back in time to the ancient French game of la soule. This contest, apparently originating in Brittany, took the form of what was little more than a mass punch-up between two gangs of young men from rival villages, with few, if any rules – the goal being to carry a bran-filled pig’s bladder over a predetermined line.  “If no rules existed,” my Englishman commented, “then it must have come from France.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Similarly, again according to my Frenchman, tennis has its origins in the French jeu de paume. For him, indisputable proof of this is provided by the word ‘love’, signifying ‘nought’ in this sport only, and which is, in fact, a corruption of the French word ‘oeuf’, meaning ‘egg’– an egg having much the same shape as the figure nought. Imagine my Englishman’s stupefied indignation, however, when his French alter tried to bowl him over by declaring that even that quintessential English game of cricket was of Gallic inspiration. So silly was this point that my Englishman was stumped for a reply. After a few seconds, however, he creased himself with laughter but, realizing they were playing on a sticky wicket* here, he made an appeal to call off play.
      My Frenchman then served for the match by announcing that even the concept of ‘fair play’ was of French inspiration. The Englishman in me managed to get the ball back into the other half of the court by arguing that proof of its English origins would seem to be provided by the fact that no linguistic equivalent exists in the French language (the Gallics readily use the English expression), and even less in the French mentality. To this, my Gallic was unable to hit back a winner, and after a protracted rally my Englishman finally managed to win his point.
     In all justice it has to be admitted that, though my rosbif remains unshakeably convinced that the spirit of fair play left the shores of Albion in unadulterated form, only to arrive on the Continent considerably diluted (perhaps it got dropped in the water on the way), he is fair-minded enough to concede that the actual level of playing ability of sports, reputedly English in origin, is often considerably improved upon when exported abroad.  

*For the benefit of my non-English readers ‘to play on a sticky wicket’ means to find oneself in a difficult or delicate situation. Derived from the game of cricket, a better understanding of this commonly-used expression pre-supposes an elementary knowledge of this sport – if, indeed, the word ‘sport’ may be used to qualify an activity which my  Frenchman describes as ‘more akin to ritualized loafing’. The ‘wicket’ is the name given to the narrow strip of grass where, again according to my Frenchman, ‘most of the little action which characterizes the game’ takes place. On it, a bowler pitches a ball at a hitter who will attempt to strike it with his bat. Unlike baseball, the cricket ball is usually pitched in such a way that it bounces in front of the batter, and when the wicket is ‘sticky’ (i.e. drying out after a fall of rain) the ball can rebound in an unpredictable way, thereby placing the batter in a perilous situation.

 

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      


     
    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Frogs and Frogs


The Frenchie in us has never quite been able to comprehend why
the thought of eating the legs of such inoffensive little creatures as frogs should inspire such unmitigated horror in the majority of you English; nor, given the fact that the legs of this same amphibian are enjoyed by other nations of our planet, why only Gallics are considered so intimately associated with it that the name should have come to be so cruelly synonymous (the French attempt at vengeance with ‘les rosbifs’ is mild by comparison) with them. Our Anglo, on the other hand, has always been at a loss to understand how the rear members of so viscous, unsightly a creature as a frog could have come to be considered such a refined delicacy of French cuisine.
Though the consumption of frogs’ legs is a well-established, organized and widespread enough tradition to justify it being termed an institution, the French are not daily consumers (in spite of what some English people might think), and eating them is considered a special treat, usually taking place in a restaurant and limited to the early days of Spring. And it is not, in fact, the legs, but their fleshy upper part, les cuisses, the thighs, which are consumed, though it’s not unknown for some to extract additional pleasure by sucking and munching the bones. In the past, frogs were collected in millions – in daytime by means of a red rag (for some inexplicable reason frogs are fatally drawn to red), and at night they were mesmerized by the light of a torch. In view of the rapidly declining numbers, however, it has now been made illegal to harvest them commercially, and frogs may only be taken for personal consumption. So, most frogs’ legs eaten in the Hexagon today were attached to the bodies of foreign-spawned aquatics flown in live.
It goes without saying, however, that a certain amount of poaching still goes on. An indication of how seriously this is taken was provided by an article which appeared recently in our local newspaper. Two men, a father and his son, it related, had been caught red-handed collecting a total of 417 frogs encaged in 11 lobster-type pots, surreptitiously deposited in a neighbour’s mere. Not only did these considerable numbers suggest that their antics had a commercial outlet (the wholesale price of a kilo is around 30 euros), but the offences took place during the reproduction period at the beginning of March when frogs are especially easy to capture. Apparently, this was not their first attempt, and it was estimated they had poached at least 1,000 batrachians annually over a number of years. Though the accused pleaded that the frogs were solely for personal consumption, the magistrate thought otherwise: for the father was fined 2,000 euros (he didn’t bother to turn up in court), while the son was made to fork out 1,000.
Restaurant owners usually obtain their provisions at the airport, take the frogs back home, where they are kept alive in special tanks before enduring, on, of course, a far greater scale (as many as 4,000 tons are consumed each year), a fate very similar to the one we have described above. As far as the eating is concerned, it’s difficult to understand what all the fuss is about: the taste is a relatively bland cross between chicken and fish, and one of the native russet species (rana temporaria) is said to have a noticeable hazelnut flavour. Though sophisticated gourmet variations do exist, normal cooking is extremely straightforward, and when fried in butter with a sprinkling of parsley, together with a few crushed cloves of garlic, they go down a treat. Not only does French table etiquette permit the use of fingers when eating, but they are expected to be licked in audible appreciation. Usually frogs’ legs are consumed in dozens and, incredible as it may sound to some, many restaurants now follow the Anglo-Saxon all-you-can-eat fashion by offering, for an all-inclusive price, as many as can be got down.

This blog is based on an article from the author’s latest book, Barry’s Frenglish Folies – ‘A potpourri of humorous, serious, and humorously serious reflections on the French and English seen through the eyes of a split-identity and occasionally demented Frenglishman’.

Barry’s Frenglish Folies is available as a free Ebook download at :

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/691726

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Living with the French

IdiosyncrasyThe following are tips on how to deal with what I’ve personally found to be some of the more common things which may surprise or even shock the  Anglo-Saxon expat when he first starts living with the French. The list is by no means exhaustive.

1. Don’t be surprised at the number of strikes and/or street demonstrations going on every single day of the year. The latter are perceived by the French as being a legitimate manifestation of direct democracy. When it’s safe to do so they’ll even take the kids along. French Street Demonstration

2. Living with the French also involves being led to believe that they invented the game of tennis, rugby, golf (I once even read an article in my local newspaper claiming they’d invented cricket). Use all your inborn phlegm and reply something like: ‘This might possibly be the case but don’t you think …?’

3. Think twice before admitting you’ve made a mistake. I know that in Anglo-Saxon countries it’s usually considered to be a sign of honesty but in France it’s an admission of incompetence. You can blame anyone or anything.

4. Be patient at your local tennis club’s Annual General Meeting (or any other meeting for that matter). Expect them to waste a considerable amount of time chatting about what you consider to be irrelevancies. And don’t be surprised if the only result is that they agree to disagree. Oh yes, and you’re not expected to turn up dead on time.

5. If you see someone letting his dog do it on the road or pavement in front of you, turn a blind eye. After all, it’s none of your business. Aren’t people in uniforms paid to stop this sort of thing? Dog Pooping

6. Bear with them when they keep reminding you that France is the cradle of human rights. This is drilled into them at school. It all goes back to their main claim to glory (apart from Napoléon) – the Révolution and the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (1789).

7. Don’t be too hard on them if they seem to spend most of their time moaning. They’re the first to admit they’re a nation of criticizers, complainers and protestors.

8. Don’t be surprised that in a country like France which has a plethora of rules, regulations and laws you find people doing their best to get round them.  Be aware that applying them officially is often considered to be the ultimate sanction.

9. Just as the English show a deep distrust of the weather but love talking about it, the French have no faith in their politicians but adore discussing politics. So gen up on Mr Cameroun (or whoever’s replaced him by the time this blog is published) and his policies. You’ll be expected to know all about them. And they still love to hate Mrs Thatcher.

10. Despite the fact that Marxist-inspired, egalitarian ideology still influences Gallic thinking, living with the French will soon reveal that they’re a bunch of conservatives at heart with little desire for change. As an Anglo-Saxon (especially the U.S. version) be prepared to be treated as an ultra-liberal capitalist with a strong tendency to exploit the downtrodden poor. The media remind them of this every single day. American Capitalist

11. Be suspicious when he tells you he agrees that motorway speed limits should be lowered, there should be more speed cameras, tax evasion should be punished more severely, etc., etc. What he really means is that all this is fine as long as it applies to everybody but him.

12. When an Englishman walks past a pretty woman in the street he’ll usually fix his gaze on an imaginary spot two yards ahead. Any Frenchman worthy of his salt will actually look at her with desire. I quite understand that the newly-landed Englishwoman might find this a little disquieting at first, but try to be positive and consider it to be a form of flattery. Though they’ll never admit it, most Frenchwomen expect this. And if a Frenchman doesn’t eye you up and down, it could simply be that you’re getting on a bit. Or you’re just letting yourself go. Take a cold, hard look at yourself in the mirror to see what needs to be done.

13. Living with the French also means you’ll have to deal with that infuriating habit they have of serving tea with a jug of warm milk. Be sure to point out to the waiter when ordering that you want it ‘avec du lait froid’.

14. If you’re English and are confronted with authority in France, try and get out of that silly habit of doing what you’re told without asking questions.

15. Unlike the English who’ll go to extraordinary lengths to reply, ‘Well you certainly might have a point but on the other hand don’t you think that …? when they’re intimately convinced you’re speaking total rubbish, the French don’t normally consider direct rectification, disagreement or contradiction as being tantamount to a declaration of war. So don’t be offended if you’re told, ‘Non, je ne suis pas d’accord!’

Boucherie Chevaline16. Living with the French also involves not throwing up your arms in horror when he says he’s looking forward to eating a nice horse-meat steak for lunch. Though the number of boucheries chevalines is now fast declining you can still buy horse meat in some specialized shops or market stalls.

And finally be aware of and make all necessary compensations for the fact that with many French people the sight of a uniform can have very much the same effect as that produced by a red rag when dangled close to the nose of a bull.

 

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