20 Books That Have Changed French Lives

France is one of the most literate and literary countries in the world – the average French person reads 15 books a year and French authors have won more Nobel Prizes than those of any other country.

But what if it’s all an act? What if, instead of reading Proust and Zola, the French are really binge-reading romance novels while eating pain au chocolat?

I decided to investigate.

You can read the rest of the article at Frenchly.

Secrets of St.-Rémy: Parking

The Wednesday morning market in St.-Rémy is one of the best in Provence. And it is very popular, which makes parking a challenge. There are a few spots available in the pay lots and on the street, but they tend to fill up early. So most people have to park far from the market.

This is fine on the way in, but trudging back to your car with everything you bought at the market can be a pain. Isn’t there a better way?

Happily, the answer is yes, and most people don’t know about it.  And it’s free!  It’s a series of parking lots that you wend your way through and you can find parking even on busy market days.

The series of lots is called Parking de la Libération. It’s on Avenue de la Libération, just off Boulevard Mirabeau. But it is not well marked and can be hard to find, even with a GPS.  Here’s how to find it.

If you are coming from out of town, you will probably find yourself on the D99 at some point. This is the East-West road between Cavaillon and Tarascon. Get off the D99 onto the D99A on the East side of town (there are two such intersections.) Go 1.5km, until just BEFORE you dead end onto Boulevard Mirabeau. On your left will be something that looks kind of like extra space between buildings but is actually a driveway. Here’s what it looks like.

Alternatively, if you are coming from St.-Rémy itself, you will probably be on the ring road that circles the downtown. It changes names several times and at one point becomes Boulevard Mirabeau. When you get there, stay in the right lane and take the exit towards Cavaillon.

After 70 meters, at the crosswalk, the parking lot entry will be on your right. Go slowly or you will miss it! Here’s what it looks like.

Turn right and go slowly. You’ll end up in a small parking lot that is always full. Don’t worry, go to the far end of the lot and follow the “Sortie” sign.

Now you will be in a larger parking lot that is also probably full. Drive out the exit on the far side (that is, to the right as you first enter the parking lot.) As you drive through the parking lot, keep your eye out for this sign on your right – it’s the walking path into town.

As you exit this second parking lot, going up a little ramp, you will enter a third parking lot that looks like the second one. On market days it is usually full. Never fear! Keep going, out the far side of this lot and up another ramp.

Now you’ve hit the big lot, with lots of dirt and grass and plenty of parking. I’ve seen it get crowded but never full. You will almost certainly be able to park here.

Now go back to the walking path into town and enjoy the market. But be sure to note the end of the walking path so you can find it on the way back. The path is on Rue Marius Jouveau and here’s what it looks like from town.

When you go back to your car, don’t try to exit the way you entered, as this is a “one way” parking lot. Instead, continue on the dirt road in the parking lot to the far side and go out that way.

When you exit, you can go right (towards Maussane), left (back to town) or straight (other directions). If you go left, be aware that this is a narrow road with two-way traffic and periodically one car will need to stop in a wide spot to let another pass.

Enjoy St.-Rémy!

Going to the Butcher in France

A French town without a baker – can you imagine such a thing? Everyone would move away!

A butcher is almost as important to French village life. The butcher will sell the usual roasts and chops and chickens, as well as a variety of prepared foods. These really help when you are hosting a dinner party or are too busy to cook.

My wife Val and I live part of the year in St.-Rémy-de-Provence, a charming town between Arles and Avignon. We love going to our favorite butcher shop, a place that has been serving the good people of St.-Rémy for decades.

It is run by a husband and wife who take great care in the quality of their products and service. When you order a piece of meat, the butcher will ask you how you plan to prepare it. Then he will slice off any extra fat, trim around the bone and cut it into the size you want.

If you want hamburger, he will take a piece of beef, run it through his grinder and form it for you. Burger by burger.

Our butcher offers many things fait maison (home made) like patés, ratatouille, stuffed vegetables, salamis, and at least four kinds of sausage. The butcher’s wife dishes out the prepared items and runs the register while the butcher handles all the cutting.

Photo by Jusben at Morguefile.com

We love shopping there because the butcher takes the time to chat with every customer – waiting in line is kind of a free French lesson. How is the family? Are your bunions bothering you? How will you prepare the stew? For how many people? Do you salt your food? Here’s what my doctor says about salting food. Let me tell you, your husband puts too much salt on his food (then the butcher’s wife adds in that all husbands salt their food too much.)

It’s like watching a French sitcom.

Sometimes the phone rings and the butcher answers it – it’s usually an order for a big meal. This leads to a long discussion between the person on the phone and the butcher and his wife. How many people do they need to feed? What spices will they use? Should they pick it up at 11:00? No, maybe 12:00. No, 11:00 would be better. Okay, they’ll come at 12:00.

Once we went to the butcher to get a gigot d’agneau (leg of lamb.) We were having some friends over and figured a gigot would be easy to make in advance and would feed a large group.

We explained what we wanted. For how many people, the butcher asked. Ah, the gigot in my case is not large enough for your dinner for ten, he said.

So off he went to the back to get a larger one. He appeared two minutes later, not with a larger leg but carrying the entire back half of a lamb. Oh, my. But at least the wool had been removed.

This doesn’t happen where we live in California.

The butcher turned on his electric saw and in a couple of minutes the lamb was cut in half, feet removed, trimmed of excess fat, deboned, and tied with string.

Then came the cooking discussion. How were we preparing it? Our marinade and roasting met with his approval, but under no circumstances were we to use a temperature higher than 180 degrees Celsius. The butcher looked at us gravely to make sure we understood this important point.

And did we want the bones he had just removed? We should place them next to the lamb, cover them with some olive oil and butter, and add a full head of garlic, herbes de Provence, and salt. It would make a nice jus for the meat. This kind of advice is common in France.

If you are in a hurry, don’t go to a French butcher because you’ll be there for at least a half an hour. But if you do, the food will be delicious and the floorshow can’t be beat.

Secrets of St.-Rémy: Best Fruits and Vegetables

One of the glories of Provence is the fresh produce. And in St.-Rémy, the best place to get it is at the Wednesday market. Every week, dozens of vendors set up shop throughout the charming town center, selling fruits, vegetables, olives, cheeses, lavender – you name it. It is one of the best markets in Provence and a lot of fun.

But what about the other six days of the week? Where do the St.-Rémois shop?

Here’s their secret – Le Jardin des Alpilles at 8 Avenue Frédéric Mistral. It’s an unassuming place but the produce can’t be beat, with much of it coming from local farmers. And it’s open seven days a week!

We went there today and here’s some of what we found.

If you are staying in a place where you can cook, or if you just want some succulent fruit to enjoy during the day, it’s a great place to stock up.

And what’s better than a picnic in Provence? You can get everything you need here – breads, cheeses, olives, snacks and a nice selection of local wines.

For those of you on the other side of the Alpillles, there is a sister store in Maussane-les-Alpilles with an equally great selection.

Bon appetit!

For more information: http://tinyurl.com/m6bdech

Hold on to Your Hat!

There’s a mistral raging here right now, that powerful wind that blows from the north. How strong is it? Let’s put it this way – if Julius Caesar had invaded France during a mistral, a lot of centurions would have ended up in the Mediterranean Sea.

A mistral usually blows for several days, getting stronger and stronger. Today is the third day and it’s fierce. We weren’t sure we wanted to go outside, but there were chores to be done so off we went.

We went to the phone store in Cavaillon and decided to have lunch in town. A favorite restaurant of ours looked like it was closed because the heavy outdoor furniture was all pushed together. But when we got closer we saw people eating inside and went in. We were lucky to get a table by the window.

As we ate, I watched a big plastic garbage can across the street. First the wind blew the lid off, then a few minutes later it knocked the can over. Then a big gust blew it into the middle of the street, where it disrupted traffic for a while. Finally another gust blew it back across the street and into an alley.

As we were finishing our meal I saw one of the heavy chairs from our restaurant’s terrace go skittering down the street. The two waitresses dropped what they were doing and ran out the door. After all, it just wouldn’t do to have the restaurant’s furniture injure one of the good citizens of Cavaillon. That would be a tragedy. And bad for business.

After a long chase, the waitresses captured the wayward chair and wrestled it back onto the terrace. As they came back into the restaurant, I happened to catch the eye of one. I raised my eyebrows as if to say, “Wow, that was something!”

She replied with one of those classic Gallic shrugs. “C’est le mistral, monsieur,” she said. “C’est normal.”

Silicon Valley vs France: Corporate Culture

Photo by davidpwhelan at morguefile.com

“Don’t be evil” or “Wine with lunch”?

My wife Val and I were living in France and got a call from our friend Viviane, a teacher at a local high school. She sounded desperate.

Viviane explained that she and a group of fellow business teachers would be working in England during the summer. This would allow them to learn how companies there operate. But first they wanted to have some idea of what they were getting into.

Viviane had arranged to have one of her neighbors, a Brit working in France, come and talk to the teachers about what it was like to work for an English company. But he had dropped out at the last minute. The meeting was in three days and Viviane needed us to substitute.

We gently explained that while we shared a common language, we had never worked in England. No matter, she said, you know about Anglo-Saxon companies and that’s what’s important.

Anglo-Saxon?

It turns out that the French use this term to describe American-style business practices. It is shorthand for what we might call free-market capitalism. In France, this is definitely not a compliment.

It is true that Val and I understand American capitalism. Coming from the wild west of the Silicon Valley, we understand it in one of its more extreme forms.

So we agreed to make a presentation, explaining some of the differences between working for a French company and an American one. Luckily, all of the teachers taught at International Baccalaureate schools so we would be able to do it in English.

Then we did what anyone does to become an expert on short notice – we used Google. And we called some French friends in California who gave us a quick tutorial. Then we boiled our research down to a few key points.

Most were not surprising. For example, French companies are more formal than American ones, especially in terms of dress code and hierarchy. Business suits may be fading away on our side of the Atlantic (I can’t remember the last time I wore one) but they are still common in France. And while you might greet the president of an American company with a casual, “Hi, Bob,” that would be shocking in France. No, in France it is always, “Bonjour, Monsieur le President.”

We learned that Americans are generally more risk-taking. We change jobs more often and it is not a scary thing to join a startup company (well, not too scary). By contrast, it would be a major risk to join one in France. If it failed, as startups often do, it would be a black mark that could follow you for the rest of your career.

Similarly, American companies are more risk-taking. If a company sees an attractive business opportunity, it is more likely to invest and hire and go for it. If things work out, the company grows and new jobs are created. And if things don’t work out, the company can cut its losses by downsizing, as painful as that is.

In France, by contrast, it is extremely difficult and expensive to downsize. So companies are less likely to hire in the first place.

The most surprising thing we learned was that there is much more mixing of professional and personal lives in France. In the US, we might have lunch with our colleagues or the occasional drink after work, but that would be about it. Mostly we keep our home and work lives separate.

By contrast, when you arrive at work in France you shake hands and say hello to each person in the office. You spend a half hour chatting at the coffee machine before starting your workday. You see your colleagues socially on the weekends and even go on vacation together!

When I think about some of the people I’ve worked with, then imagine us vacationing together, my head hurts.

The big day arrived and we met Viviane in a conference room at her school. She introduced us to her colleagues, who seemed nervous at the prospect of taking a trip all the way across the English Channel.

We began by giving some background on ourselves and our careers. We talked about having worked in different companies, in a variety of industries. We described our jobs in areas like finance, marketing, and human resources.

This turned out to be a showstopper. Apparently, it is uncommon in France to move around as much as we have. This led to a long discussion of why and how we had done this and whether it would even be possible in France.

Then we gave our presentation and the teachers asked questions. The discussion got heated on the subject of companies pursuing growth but taking the risk of having to downsize. No one likes layoffs and the French have a history of violent action opposing them.

One teacher asked us, pointedly, how the Anglo-Saxon system could possibly be superior to the French one. We didn’t think it was a good idea to start an international incident so we fell back on our experience of living in Switzerland. In other words, we stayed neutral. We pointed out that each system has its advantages and disadvantages and then quickly moved on to another subject.

In the end, the teachers appreciated our presentation and felt better prepared for their summer abroad. And we felt like we had gained a little insight into the role of work in French people’s lives.

Best of all, after the meeting Viviane rewarded us with lunch at a restaurant that had a nice long wine list.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Many of us have heard of Lascaux, the cave in France with its prehistoric paintings of pot-bellied horses and other strange animals.  But did you know that even older prehistoric paintings were discovered in 1994, in a cave just north of Avignon?

The Grotte Chauvet was made famous by Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and has recently been opened to the public.  Well, not the real one, but an almost perfect re-creation.  Like Lascaux, the real cave is closed to the public to prevent damage to its delicate artwork.

I recently wrote an article about it for the excellent website The Good Life France and you can find it here.

 

Cheesy Lessons

Photo by MaxStraeten at Morguefile.com

The Good Life France is a great blog about all things French. They also do a quarterly magazine – check out the current issue for my article on what I’ve learned about French cheese (page 88.)  You can also enter your name to win a copy of my book (page 86.)

You can check out the magazine here

Book Review – But you are in France, Madame

Catherine Berry has a dream, to live in France with her family. And it is no small endeavor, as this family of 5 start out half way around the world, in Australia.

It is inspiring to share their story as she and her husband put work on hold and organize the family move. We feel part of the adventure and of overcoming many obstacles, such as finding a place to live, getting proper driving permits, and dealing with the French school system for the 3 children. And, somehow, the one-year stay turns into four.

Berry provides a realistic view of the ups and downs of daily life and trying to navigate in a foreign culture. And while sharing these difficulties, she does so with a healthy perspective and an eye for appreciating cultural differences.

Berry and her family exude a joy for life and for trying new things. They hike many trails in mountains of the Haute-Savoie region where they live. They learn to water ski on the lake and become good friends with the instructor. They come to appreciate the joy of cooking and eating local specialties, and they use the school holidays to explore the many, diverse regions of France.

From participating in local festivals and shopping in nearby “garage” sales, the family demonstrates how one can have meaningful experiences without them being expensive.

They come to appreciate their lifestyle in France and are enriched by it. And so are we, by reading this book.

France and the “Right to Disconnect”

The French are at it again

Photo by xpiswv at Morguefile.com

First it was all that vacation time.

Then it was the 35-hour workweek.

Now the French have established the “right to disconnect.”

Yes, a new law requires employers to negotiate with their employees on when they can send them work-related emails. After 7pm? No, that’s too late! I’ve already started my aperitif!

Coming from Silicon Valley as I do, at first this sounded crazy. After all, around here we joke that “flexible working hours” means “you can put in your 18-hour day whenever you’d like.” We’re inventing the future! We don’t have time for vacations!

But then I reflected on the years I spent as an expat working in Switzerland.

Work there was confined to the regular workweek and only rarely spilled over to the weekend. More than that, stores in Switzerland closed at noon on Saturday and didn’t open again until Monday.

This was really annoying at first. My wife and I worked all week, which meant we had to cram our shopping into Saturday morning. What a pain!

But eventually we came to appreciate everything being closed. We couldn’t shop, we couldn’t run errands. We had to take a break.

Over time we settled in and learned to do what everyone else did – enjoyed the weekend as a time for family and friends, a time for hikes in the mountains and lunches in the garden.

Living in Switzerland was wildly different from what we were used to in Silicon Valley. People worked hard just like at home, but life was somehow less hectic.

Work wasn’t the be-all and end-all: my wife was once eating a sandwich at her desk when a colleague came by and lectured her on the importance of taking a proper lunch break. And everyone took all of their vacation days; not to do so was considered unhealthy.

Yet the Swiss economy is the envy of the world. And productivity, a key measure of economic health, is higher in France than in Germany or Japan.

So maybe those lazy French are actually on to something – time away from work can actually be good for you and good for the economy.

You can hear my reading of this commentary on National Public Radio here.