A Cultural Geography of Life in France

Episode 1: The Beginnings

As you know I’m from West Cork and have lived in France for over a decade during the 1990s. I return to France whenever I can – once or twice a year at least… I have decided to share with you my experiences of French life and my passion for my adopted country. While I am not living there at the moment, I have familial and friendship ties there nevertheless. And of course, my husband being French, I remain immersed in its language and culture despite our living back in Ireland.

Comme vous le saviez je suis d’origine de West Cork (Ireland) et j’ai vécue en France pendant une dizaine d’années durant les années 90. Je retourne en France à chaque occasion présentée – une à deux fois par an au moins… J’ai décidé de partager avec vous mes expériences de la vie “à la françaiseet ma passion pour mon pays adoptif. Bien que je n’y habite plus pour le moment, je continue d’y garder des liens familiaux et amicaux. Et bien entendu, mon mari étant français, je continue d’être immerger dans la langue et la culture française malgré notre retour en Irlande.

My passion for France came about at the age of twelve when a delegation from the Breton town in Morbihan arrived in West Cork seeking a twin town. Simultaneously, a group from that same town on a walking holiday in South Kerry / West Cork paid a visit to my native town and as we say ‘the rest is history’. Spontaneously my parents became involved; and my mother became a committee member. And so for the next twenty years exchanges took place every year – one year we host and the following year we are guests. My parents, my siblings and I welcomed families and/or individuals into our home. These cultural holidays ignited a keen interest in Breton culture but also in the French language and wider French way of life. Friendships were established, some of whom remain today. As a result of these friendships I gained my ‘ticket’ to Paris. I raised anchor and set sail to encounter new horizons in the early 1990s. It was in Paris where I immersed myself into the French language and culture as a jeune fille aupair. A suivre…

Episode 2: First Impressions

I arrived in Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport – Roissy for those acquainted – in January 1992; my life packed into two suitcases. I was about to begin the best life experience. Being a jeune fille au pair was the perfect stepping stone to gaining my independence – I would encourage anyone to embrace such an experience – yet, I was encadré – supported – by a familial network. Of course I was fortunate enough to have earned my ‘pathway to Paris’ through the twinning contingent. Thanks to this personal link to the host family, my experience was all the more unique and meaningful. Memories of this extraordinary time always bring a smile to my face. Especially that I remain in contact – albeit seldom – with family members.

Basically, they took me under their wing; I was part of the family, a family friend rather than a jeune fille au pair so to speak. Sometimes I accompanied the children to their grand-parents in Brittany. I was already acquainted with the children’s paternal grand-parents through the twinning. I have nothing but gratitude towards them as they were so welcoming at all times (and still are); having a full house during school holidays, I usually stayed with the maternal grand-parents. Their maternal grand-mother’s welcome and wonderful cooking made me feel at ease. I recall her being a lovely, gentle person. Also, friends whom I met though the twinning would take me out some weekends.

Only three weeks into my au pair ‘adventure’, I met a young Parisian, my spouse, who sat beside me and engaged in casual talk – in other words chatted me up! He still reminds me of my Irish accent and how he found it ‘pleasing to the ear’! While I employed every opportunity to rid myself of my accent to fully integrate, I was told that it was a pity as they found it ‘adorable’! Yet, I remained awfully proud of my Irish identity; we can be such complex beings! So, leaving my accent behind after a couple of years meant that I was now ‘part and parcel’ of this delightfully complicated and deliciously arrogant place. I immediately knew that I was going to relish every moment in my adopted country.

In order to perfect my French, I read, read and read; watched TV, and more TV. I became a member of France Loisirs; you’ll find these shops dotted around street corners in France, probably more so online now! Becoming a member obliges you or I prefer to say ‘encourages’ you to buy a book every trimestre. As long as I can remember I have had a passion for reading and the good ole smell and the touch of the pages. While I remained a member of France Loisirs, I befriended the Fnac! a place where I felt very comfortable indeed. How I relished browsing through the French Classics – Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Molière and many more; sometimes I found myself ‘surfing’ the English-language shelves – advice from my parents as I was slowly becoming a ‘Frenchy’; I was even dreaming in French! À suivre…

An Encounter with Brittany

There are many things that remind me of France – of course la Tour Eiffel, le Champs de Mars, le Champs Elysees – for me it is without doubt the food. It’s always a culinary experience to eat in France. I suppose my first ‘taste’ of France was around the breakfast table of our host family in Morbihan, Brittany. Baskets overflowing with croissants, pain au chocolat – literally translates as ‘chocolate bread’ – and the incontournable – indispensible – baguette! Bien entendu – of course – no French table is without its beurre salé – salted butter – un délice – a delight – my mouth is watering!

In today’s post I’m going to be more specific; I want to tell you about the myriad of specialities that you can experience in Brittany. I suppose you have all heard of the infamous crêpe –pancake – but much thinner (I’m actually making crêpes for lunch mmm!). In Brittany one makes the distinction between crêpes, used for sweet fillings, and galettes, used for savoury ones. Crêpes, just like our pancakes are made with plain, white flour. However, galettes are made with blé noir (or sarrasin), buckwheat in English. Galettes are like dentelle – lace – they are so thin and slightly crispy.

Galettes and crêpes are a meal in themselves. The ritual is to have a ‘taste’ by having a galette au beurre – butter – this is the ‘opening scene’ to what is to come. It is important to get the earthy taste of the sarrasin; this awakens the taste buds. Afterwards, there is usually the choice of combinations, à composer soi-même, with cheese, ham, mushrooms, egg, saumon fumé – smoked salmon and so forth. A popular choice is la complète, consisting of ham, cheese, usually gruyère or emmental, and an œuf miroir – egg sunny-side up cooked on the galette and not separately. For dessert, it’s over to the crêpes! Again, some have the ritual of having a plain one or with a little sugar; sets the taste buds in motion. Then you can be more adventurous by tasting caramel au beurre salé – salted butter caramel. And the Bretons know how to make their caramel au beurre salé! Of course, there are the usual suspects with chocolate, sometimes with Chantilly (sweetened whipped cream) or orange segments. Our family favourite is a crêpe flambé au Grand Marnier. This orange-flavoured liqueur was created in 1880 by Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle. Its best-known product is Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge; a delicate blend of fine cognacs and distilled essence of tropical oranges. Slow ageing in French oak casks gives it incomparable roundness and finesse. Accompanied with a bolée of cider, brut or sweet, the list of galettes and crêpes combinations is endless, well almost! I tend to remain a traditionalist!

The blé noir or sarrasin dates back to the twelfth century when the Crusades brought the plant to Europe. It is quickly acknowledged that this type of wheat, which isn’t wheat but a seed, is not easily cultivated. It wasn’t until it was planted in Brittany, where the soil is favourable and the climate id humid and mild, that the crop yielded results.  Voilà, un peu d’histoire – a little bit of history!

The Bretons usually make their biscuits and pastries with salted butter. One such pastry is thekouign amann – gâteau au beurre – butter cake – which is made from a rather unusual bread dough recipe and large quantities of butter and sugar. History tells us that the kouign amann was made for the first time in 1860 by the baker Yves-René Scordia. That particular year there was a shortage of flour but an abundance of butter and while his bread dough was a complete failure, he baked it all the same to satisfy his customers. This crispy cake with such a delicious taste of butter and caramel turned out to be a huge success. I must admit that it is rather heavy and very buttery but on a damp afternoon with a strong coffee it’s scrumptious; a great way of immersing myself into Breton daily life.

Food reflects our identity; it shapes who we are and is an important part of our everyday lives. When you consider the story of the kouign amann with its taste of salted butter, or the blé noir that is inherently linked to a damp and mild climate so typical of Brittany, you can begin to understand the distinctiveness of this authentic region and its people. I think that’s why I feel so at home there; the people have similar character traits and its climate is very much like that of Ireland’s. Both places are worth the visit.

Episode 3: Le Café Parisian – The Ultimate Café Culture

Every time I return to Paris I get great amusement from sipping coffee at a café terrace watching the world go by. It brings me right back to those first years when I was a jeune fille au pair. There is a natural elegance about the French; perhaps particularly the Parisians. That French Flair! How they appear to ‘throw’ an outfit together that looks chic, yet, effortless – c’est instinctif

Getting back to the Parisian café… my first experience of sipping tea, à la bergamote, – rather than coffee back then – at a Parisian café is the garçon de café – waiter – with his bonnes manièresnot! My gosh, anyone who has visited Paris is well aware of these ‘can-be’ ill-mannered garçons de café. But, to be honest, that is part of the Parisian scene. I quickly grew to understand it and be amused by it. I was, no doubt, so immersed in Parisian way of life that very soon it didn’t bother me. Even now, during my multiple return trips to Paris, I continue to be amused, it’s what makes these cafés so Parisian. Having said that, I would like to highlight that there are friendly waiters; a little respect between both parties – customer and waiter – goes a long way. So next time you sit at a Parisian café, or any café at that matter, please give a smile to the waiter! By the way, your coffee will usually be accompanied by a glass of water which I tend to appreciate, merci.  

There are countless cafés to choose from. You’ll never be short of options no matter what your mood. Obviously, there are many trendy and renowned cafés dotted around the city but you needn’t stray too far as there are great local ones too. If you’re staying in Paris for a substantial length of time then get to know your local café – there will be a few to choose from; the advantage being, over time, you will build-up a rapport with the patrons and staff alike. You’ll soon be a Parisian…

On a warm sunny day, with a great book in hand, I settle myself comfortably into a seat. The odd time I’m distracted by the on-street activity. I get a great entertainment from the ‘conveyor belt’ of people going by; inventing life stories… The café begins to fill. Tourists having a glass of wine; groups of locals having an aperitif; some going solo, like myself, having an espresso and the best of the latest summer read to hand. The experience is one of fascination. I feel immersed in this Parisian scene, I feel at home. These places are packed with local vibes and culture; there is a pleasant community feel to them where worldly philosophical debates materialise. The café is, in a sense, an extension of who we are. À suivre… Please feel free to share your experiences of the Parisian café scene.

Episode 4: The French Food Market and Food ‘tout court !’ – just simply!

Cheese and wine are reason enough to visit France; oh, and a good-tasting baguette or pain de compagne – country loaf. French stalls are so carefully laid out; they take such care with their produce. They recognise the importance of their cultural heritage – leur patrimoine culturel – and food is an integral part of that culture. They are aware of the value of what is old; they take pride in repairing and refurbishing anything from a falling-down wall or a crumbling village fountain where, once upon a time, the local women used it to wash their laundry. It’s about meaning and memories; all this material culture shapes who they are.

Haricots verts of natural and varied sizes; not those uniformly-cut! Even aesthetics has crept into our food. Here, peas-in-the-pod, mmm, the idea of shelling them and creating delightful combinations for this evening’s meal… umm with what? Let’s ramble some more…

I’m after getting side-tracked! A boulangerie – bakery – you will find all sorts of bread. Scrumptious smells wafting from the kitchen – behind the scenes. Les brioches, my favourite – full of salted butter – mouth-watering! You have, no doubt, happened upon the many chocolatiers – craft chocolate makers – or discovered one or two pâtisseries – French pastry shops – on your travels to Paris. I am always enthralled; my eyes are entranced by exquisite gâteaux of all shapes and sizes, mouth-watering, these pastries look as good as they taste!

As I step back in time to when, as a jeune fille au pair, I first set eyes on the mosaic of pastries I was mesmerised, wow, such choice, perhaps too much! Non, there is never too much! I appreciate good, bitter chocolate, and strong, but not-bitter, coffee, and so my choice of gâteau was, for quite some time, an opéra – mmm – just to think about it I can taste the delightful marriage of chocolate and coffee; all those layers… the onctueux – smooth chocolate, the rich coffee, what a mélange – a match made in heaven. So back to recalling this first time… the young shop assistant asking me to repeat, opéra, no less than three times! Of course I was not accentuating the ‘é’ of opéra, and she failed to understand my accent. It’s like the ‘fada’ in Irish; it indicates that the vowel is to be pronounced ‘long’. So in the end I just pointed to it – ce gâteau là ! – getting rather impatient, I suppose that is why I wanted to speak French without my Irish accent! Don’t worry I wasn’t traumatised or anything!

Every time my husband and I take a trip to Paris – or to France in general – the predominant theme that informs our vacances is food. We are constantly in pursuit of that original pâtisserie, bread, café, restaurant that heightens our senses.

Laurent Duchène, 238 Rue de la Convention, Paris XV, is a pâtissier with the edge. His work is colouful, creative, and bien entendu, tasty. The Club pistache griotte is a favourite of ours; L’exodus is a personal choice, go try it out, it’s worth the detour. And there’s so much more; the colourful shop front will entice you. We never leave Paris without having our box of macarons – not to be confused with macaroons. Made with almond flour (ground almond), Pierre Hermé, 72, rue Bonaparte, Paris VI is a renowned name in this speciality. But don’t forget to support small, local food businesses that produce their bread and pastry from scratch in the early hours of the morning, they are just as inviting so check them out. À suivre

Episode 5: How to travel in Paris: Métro, Bus, RER, and Tramway

Ever since I set foot in Paris as a jeune fille au pair I found that circuler dans Paris — moving around Paris — has been a straightforward task. Travelling around France’s capital city is a rather simple affair. The public transport system is relatively quick and inexpensive. There are four different modes to choose from: métro, bus, tramway or RER (Réseau Express Régional — the Regional Express Network).

Le métro is the heartbeat of Parisian life; it’s the city’s identity. Almost everyone living there uses it. It avoids the mauvaise circulation — traffic congestion — that ‘snails’ from place to place over-ground. Of course as a visitor you might be tempted to walk or catch a bus; tourists usually have more time on their hands! Walking is a great way to see the splendours of Paris – look up and admire the architecture that is so reminiscent of the Ville Lumière — City of Lights.

So back to the métro! For me, it’s the best way to experience and ‘feel’ Parisian life as lived by locals as they dash here-and-there, in-and-out of underground stations. What’s more the métro system is so straightforward. There is none of this ‘northbound’/‘southbound’ exasperating nonsense that have tourists trying to assess which is which. The signposts in the métro provide you with the number of the specific line and its destination, in addition to the list of stations and the connections. Some stations, such as Cluny – La Sorbonne (line 10), are a must see; delightfully decorated with mosaics. It is located in the 5th arrondissement, in the heart of the Latin Quarter. The main fresco, created by artist Jean Bazaine is titled Les Oiseaux — ‘The Birds’. The remainder of the ceiling features the signatures of writers, poets, philosophers, artists, as well as scientists, kings and French statesmen associated with the Latin Quarter for eight centuries. Names such as Molière, Rabelais, Robespierre, and Richelieu can be discerned.

Jean Bazaine Les Oiseaux
Cluny-La Sorbonne train station in Paris

The other methods of transport such as the bus and tramway allow you to sightsee and explore the French capital while going from A to B. Or perhaps if you feel like having a lazy day! You can buy a single ticket that can be used on the different modes of transport within the city and costs €1.90 or you can buy a carnet de dix — booklet of ten. There is something for everyone — daily pass — Mobilis — for €5.80 which is ideal for visitors. For regular passengers there are weekly and/or monthly Navigo pass at €63/month which in my time in Paris was called the carte orange due to its colour! There are weekend passes for youth at €4 and Imagine R student pass for those under the age of 26. The RER is a commuter train connecting outlying suburbs and other destinations such as CDG Airport (RER B), Disneyland Paris (RER A) and Versailles (RER C) to the heart of Paris. Ticket prices vary depending on the zones you are connecting with.

Whether you use the métro, bus, tramway or RER, travel in Paris and Ile-de-France region is relatively quick and simple. I must say if I’m not walking I usually opt for the métro!

Feel free to tell me about your experiences of Parisian public transport and your preferred mode… Thanks for sharing.