dimanche 15 juin 2014

My driving hall of shame

I have a bunch of posts in mind, but today I have this sudden urge to talk about my driving experiences, or rather, my non-driving experiences.

When I was 16 and living in Canada my parents gave me a couple hundred dollars to start driving lessons on my birthday. I remember in the months leading up to that day I told everyone that I was going to start lessons as soon I turned 16. I was so excited.

My birthday came and went. What did I do with the money? I put it in my account and forgot about it. I don't know why I suddenly had a change of heart because I was jealous of my peers, most of whom already knew how to drive as I was one of the youngest in my class. But I guess I never really did follow exactly what other people were doing (university, settling down, career, buying a car, etc.). On hindsight, this is one thing that I wish I had done then.

I didn't learn how to drive until 10 years later when I was living in the UK. Between the ages of 16 and 19 (when I was still in Canada), I told everyone that since I was moving to Europe I should learn how to drive there, that I wanted to drive a manual car and that I had to get used to European roads. Then when I moved here I was travelling and didn't have much money so years went by without me giving much thought about learning.

I reasoned with myself by saying that it would be easier to learn when I was older and had more life experience.

That is actually untrue. Statistics show that the older you are, the longer it takes you to learn how to drive and that it takes women longer to learn how to drive than men. If you think about it, it is precisely because you have more life experience that you take longer - young people are not always aware of the dangers of life, while older people think twice about decisions, sometimes too much. Also, just think about how easy it is to learn how to ride a bike when you are a kid - you are afraid, but you want to try and you are like a sponge. As an adult, you think of anything and everything that could go wrong. You hold back.

I should have learned how to drive when I was 16. Of course I would have had a long adjustment period upon arrival in Europe anyway, but that pales in comparison to having to learn how to drive here. If I already knew how to drive, I would have had a basis on which to build upon arriving here.

Whenever I tell people in France, expats (not Brits) and natives alike, that I learned how to drive in the UK, they often say something like, "Well, that's a lot easier than in France, lucky you."


Yes, the administrative procedures are much easier. A hundred times easier. And the written test is much easier as well. Not to mention the fact that it was in English. But what most people don't know is that the pass rate for the practical test in the UK is actually lower than in France. At least this was true in 2009 when I passed; France's rate was at around 49% if I remember correctly, while the national UK pass rate was 43%. My theory is that France's pass rate is around 50% because they do the test in pairs. So one person usually 'looks' better than the other and that person will pass while the other will fail even though the person who passed actually drives badly too (but compared to the second person they drive well) or both candidates drive well enough to pass, but the examiner fails the one who drove worse because the other candidate drove really well. Does this make any sense?

This is why I'm against the French testing ways. I don't want my score to be somewhat based on the performance of the other person. I wanted to be tested alone. During my last few months in the UK I knew that I would be moving to France and either I would go through the system in the UK or I would have to face the French one (then I would never get the motivation to finally learn how to drive).

It was harder than I ever imagined. I think that had I known how bad I was going to be, that I would have never learned. The average person, if I remember correctly, needs 35 hours of lessons in the UK. I needed double that, plus more. It took me 35 hours of lessons (I reached this on the day I passed my written test) to finally realise that I was not a natural-born driver. One other idea I had in my head was that I thought smarter people had an easier time learning how to drive. Wrong again. I'm not saying that I'm smarter than anybody else, but most university graduates are used to (over) analysing things. Then behind the wheel we start to think of a million different things such as, "If I do this, then will this happen?" or "Maybe I should be...?" The less educated person doesn't second guess himself as much.

I remember reading on the internet about people who cried in the car in front of their instructor. I thought I would never become one of those people. But I did. On more than one occasion. It was so humiliating. Luckily I had a really nice instructor in the UK and he wasn't bothered at all. If anything, he was really nice about it.

Learning how to drive overtook my life. I had a two-hour lesson almost every day for at least two months. I spent thousands of pounds. I constantly read theory books and slept with these books in my bed. I interviewed people about driving. I drew diagrams. I was never late to my 8AM driving lessons. I practiced sitting in the driver's seat of my friends' cars. I even went around with my bike, can you believe this, to study the roads I was driving on, including all the possible exam routes. It was crazy.

It was so crazy that when my husband came over to visit with his French car I drove us around England and Wales to practice driving. That was my first time driving without dual pedals, in a car I didn't know, driving a left hand drive car on the left side of the road. In a manual car. I was that desperate to practice.

The French car I practiced on parked at the end of
a country lane somewhere near Bath. Author of photo: Den Nation.

Luckily I passed the practical test on the second try. I know that this is thanks to the fact that I had a really friendly examiner that I got along with so well. My husband doesn't think so, but I'm convinced of the fact. I came so close to failing during the test a few times. I messed up the reverse around the corner manoeuvre and was too close to the curb as I was manoeuvring. I just turned the steering wheel fully to the right and prayed that I wouldn't hit the curb as I was going around the corner. The examiner held his breath, I could hear that really clearly. I was close to that curb, so very close, but luckily he told me that I could stop before I could hit it.

People tell me all the time that I just need to practice, but I don't think that this is the case. I passed the test in 2009. In the first few years after, I was enthusiastic about driving and pushed myself to practice. Then, as the years went on and I saw that I wasn't getting any better, I gradually drove less and less. I have never driven alone in France and the only time I managed to drive alone ever was to go around my parents' neighbourhood in Canada in an automatic rental car. I honestly feel that I was never meant to be a driver no matter how much I practice (and please don't leave a comment telling me that 'all I need to do is practice').

The first dream I ever remember having was a driving nightmare. Even my 5-year-old self knew I was never meant to be a driver. I have regularly been having driving nightmares ever since.

We had a car (well, it was my father-in-law's car) for a few years here in Bordeaux. I never once took it to drive anywhere alone. Once I drove with my neighbour guiding me to visit a friend living across the city. I slept badly the night before, tossing and turning.

I would leave the car in the parking lot, taking double the time to go to appointments far away by public transport or by bike.

The worst thing is driving my husband to the airport, or rather, my non-driving my husband to the airport. Yesterday my husband flew to Ottawa (yes, I know, he's with my family in Ottawa while I'm sitting in my den alone). He had a lot of bags and couldn't take public transport. So what happened? My neighbour drove him, thank goodness. I offered to take the bus to the airport with my husband at an ungodly hour to help him with the bags. Those of you who know me know that I am a night owl. If I had just driven him there, there would have been no need to wake up so early to take the public bus. Of course I offered a nice bottle of wine to my neighbour.

The absolute worst story, and I'm pretty sure that nobody can top this, is the story about how I moved the car from the street into our parking lot. One night we came home late and there were no more spots in our parking lot. So we parked in the street, a dead-end street just 20 metres from our parking lot. I promised my husband I would move the car the 20 metres into the parking lot the next day.

The next day I paced the apartment at least half an hour before getting the courage to go downstairs into the parking lot. I walked around our residence, once, twice, a couple more times, walked around the car, walked a few times around the parking lot and went and sat in the car a few times before finally giving up and going back upstairs into our apartment. I paced in the apartment for another half hour and went back down repeating what I wrote above. My neighbours came home and saw me in the parking lot and asked me what I was up to. I was so embarrassed that I lied and told them that I was just coming back from the library. I went upstairs with them. I paced around the apartment 10 minutes before deciding that enough was enough and that I needed to move that car. I went downstairs again, marched up to the car, sat down in it, performed a three-point turn and drove into the parking lot. Of course just as I drove in, I encountered another car and nearly had a heart attack. I was driving in 1st gear at 5 km an hour - how could I have an accident? This is so pathetic. I got that car into a spot, went upstairs and needed the afternoon to stop shaking.

So that, my friends, is my driving hall of shame. My mother-in-law suggested I take driving lessons again. My husband just thinks that it's all in my head and we avoid talking about it because it just makes me mad. I probably need some kind of 'driving therapy'. I wonder if some sort of group therapy for nervous drivers exists somewhere?

I guess what I want to say is this: For anybody reading this post and who is having a hard time learning how to drive in Europe, you are not alone. And if I can do it, you can too, believe me. Please don't give up. (I should listen to my own advice...).

Anybody wish to commiserate with me? Is there anybody who hates driving as much as do? I'd love to hear your driving horror stories.

dimanche 1 juin 2014

T minus 30 days

Can you guess what this post is going to be about?

Yes, I am moving.

Can you guess where? I'll give you a hint.

Author of photo: Den Nation.

Do you remember these guys?

That's right, I'm moving to none other than...

Author of photo: Den Nation.

That's right, we're going back. In exactly one month. Well, actually now it's less than a month since it's already the early hours of June 2nd and we're leaving on the 30th.


Yes, there is a but.

This is a move that I am not entirely on board with. I have discussed this with my husband and he understands my feelings. That is not to say that I don't want to go because I definitely do want to go. There is so much that I have yet to explore up north like Latvia, Norway and Russia, places which are difficult to get to from Bordeaux, and I actually like learning Danish and living in Copenhagen. However, I don't really want to leave Bordeaux. The more I think about it, the more I feel that living in Bordeaux suits me. The thing is, though, I have already talked about this and you all know that I have just been floating along in Bordeaux (as a lot of you living in France are doing as well, so I'm not special in this regard) and in Copenhagen I felt alive it that explains anything. But... I really do love living here: the wine, the countryside, the city, the food, the weather, my friends here, my apartment, cycling everywhere, etc, etc. I don't feel some external force pulling me to leave Bordeaux.

Luckily, my husband is keeping his job here. That's the good thing about being a fonctionnaire in France - you can put your job 'on hold'. So we are going off to Denmark for 2 years, but we have the option of coming back after one year and we can even stay in Denmark for up to 5 years. After 5 years we must come back here if my husband wishes to keep his job. Honestly, though, things could go either way - we could really miss it here and want to come back at all costs or we could like Denmark so much that we wouldn't want to come back here. The thing is, working in France at the university involves dealing with a lot of paperwork and unproductive meetings. My husband is a scientist and wants to mainly focus on his work and he thinks that Denmark can offer him that. It is true, the position in Denmark is a promotion for him - he'll be at a higher grade, be paid more (even with the higher cost of living in Denmark, he'll still be earning more than in France) and have almost half of the teaching hours that he has in Bordeaux.

Yes, I said that I like learning Danish and living in Copenhagen. But do I really want to focus my attention on learning Danish? Maybe I just want to continue improving my French instead of continuing with Danish. After all, I know that it would take me years to get my Danish up to the same level as my French or Italian. Do I really want to put in all that effort?

And sure, Copenhagen is a nice city and things are easy there and relaxed. But I do like living in France, as unorganized and stressful as it may be at times. 

Anyway... there's more...

A few days after we went to Denmark and my husband signed his work contract back in March, I received a call that I have been waiting years for. For the past few years I have been applying for a job (the same job) and have been rejected twice. This year I almost didn't apply (you can only apply once a year) since I was going to Denmark, but decided to apply anyway just in case. Well, of course the just in case happened this year. I still don't have the job and won't know until September if I have the job or not, but in March I went through the police check which involved going down to the police station for an interview. The other years I was never called for the interview. Of course this doesn't mean anything as they could be conducting police checks on a bunch of applicants and then pick from the lot, but something tells me that come September it is going to be a yes. Just because I am supposed to leave.

The job would involve me being physically here some of the time. I wouldn't be an employee - I would be an on-call freelancer. What I need to do is to get in touch with other people who already have this job and ask them how often they get called and at what notice. I think that commuting from Denmark would be crazy, but if it were only every now and again I could handle it. However, working under this status would make me more attractive as a freelancer in France and I could more easily find more freelancing jobs with other companies or organizations. But not if I'm in Denmark - I would physically need to be present in France for this kind of work even if I am working from home. This would be a huge opportunity for me here - if I was hired I'm pretty sure that I could finally have the career that I've always wanted.

So what should I do? Nothing for the moment of course as they have not said yes. I am relying on the slowness of everything here to work in my favour. If I do get a yes, let's just hope that I can stretch out the process as long as possible and buy myself some time.

I don't want to become a weekend couple. With this kind of distance, though, I couldn't even be a weekend couple actually. My husband has a lot of flexibility with his work and I could be flexible as well with this job, but I really don't see myself going back and forth. I would hate that, I am sure of it. I am happiest with my husband at my side. But I have felt like a failure in France professionally for far too long to let this opportunity pass.

I am going to Canada this summer. I'm going to enjoy my summer with my family and friends and try not to think about the job. For now I am moving to Denmark and if I get a positive response, I'll have to re-examine my options at that time. This is not the explanation for the doubts that I raised above, however, as I had doubts about moving back to Denmark even before the possibility of this job came up.

So, will it be Bordeaux?

La Grosse Cloche gate in Bordeaux. Author of photo: Den Nation.

Or Copenhagen?

Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen. Author of photo: Den Nation.

Only time will tell...

mardi 27 mai 2014

The truth about France

Recently Eyelean at A Landscape Selected at Random wrote a post about Americans glorifying France. I guess it really struck a cord with me because here I am writing my own thoughts about this phenomenon.

I am going to share with you a little bit about where I live in France. So here we go...

I live in a huge residence consisting of three long buildings. If you were French and living in Bordeaux and saw where I lived, you would probably be put off. It looks like I live in an HLM, or low-cost social housing, but actually I don't. My residence was built at the end of the 1960s/early 1970s to house the growing number of teachers being recruited into the region to teach the babyboomers' children. Today there are quite a number of civil servants, including teachers, living my in residence, along with a large number of students since I live near the university, retired people and divorced women. As the physical appearance of my residence scares a lot of French people, they hesitate to buy here and the prices are low. My residence is made up of 3 buildings of 15-16 floors each. I live on one of the higher floors so the view from our apartment is great. Since we live on the end of one of the buildings, we have east, west and south views (the apartments are all 'transversal' as they call it in French, meaning that the apartment crosses right through). I may live in an HLM-style building, but we live well here and most of our neighbours are in agreement with this statement.

View from our apartment of our park plus building
number one on the left side. Author of photo: Den Nation.

I live in the suburbs of Bordeaux. There are no cobblestone streets and I live in a quiet residential area surrounded by houses. What people don't know is that in front of our residence is a small pool of HLM houses. People think that we are the HLM housing when it is the houses right in front of us that are. I don't live in a "quartier chaud" as they call it, or a "bad suburb". Actually, my suburb is one of the most expensive suburbs to buy in outside of Bordeaux. Except for one poor area where my town has concentrated most of the HLM housing (not where I live), my town is well-off.

Unfortuantely, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, the street leading to our residence, that goes by the HLM houses, has been blocked by a set of concrete pylons. This was done because cars would come speeding down that street and into our residence where there were some children playing around outside in front of the buildings. We live in the building that directly faces the HLM houses and the concrete pylons.

What has happened since the pylons were installed? Drug dealers have set up shop there. Since the road is blocked nobody but the residents of the HLM houses comes down there anymore so they are free to sell their drugs inconspicuously. You know when they are there because there are numerous cars parked there and sometimes there is loud music.

When the drug dealers are not there, youths from the HLM housing or elsewhere hang out there. They do make some noise, especially when they play their music, but I don't really care about the music. It's the fact that they come and hang around our buildings that bothers me and other residents. They come and eat their McDonald's on our property and leave their garbage everywhere. They hang around drinking in our garbage room (why would you ever want to do that?). They come in and spray paint our walls, even inside the buildings. They steal bikes, among other things, that are locked outside at night.

A few months ago we decided to start the process of building a fence around our residence to close off access. This was done in part because we want these people to stay off our property (which they have no right to be on as it is private property) and because we want a secure residence. It is not uncommon in France to have a completely closed-off residence.

We closed off our side facing the HLM houses first. We thought that there would be a period of adjustment, but never did I think that things would get so bad.

The people living in the HLM houses hated the gate, especially the drug dealers. They had their buyers coming in on motorbikes, so they couldn't make a quick getaway anymore in case the police decided to come. They rattled the gate so violently that it started to come apart. They made holes in the gate as well. They threatened us, saying that our behaviour was "anti-social". One of the residents of the HLM housing, a 50-year-old man with a family, was the ringleader of all this, encouraging the teenage children living in the HLM housing and their friends (and I'm guessing the drug dealers) to do what they could to destroy the gate. He would openly harass us as we walked by and he harasses our caretaker.

This went on for weeks until one day I woke up and the entire box controlling the lock on the gate was gone. All that was left was a bunch of electrical wires sticking out of the area where the box was fixed. You no longer needed a badge to open the gate and anybody could just walk in and out. A few days later the entire door disappeared.

I was so angry at the ringleader and these people. I mean, how would he like it if I went and destroyed the fence around his house during the night? My husband said that it wasn't worth losing sleep over, but I couldn't help being very hurt. I also couldn't help but think about what the ringleader's neighbours must think or feel about him. If I dislike him this much what does his next door neighbour think about him? And what about the other residents of the HLM housing, the ones that just want to lead quiet lives and are trying to do the best for their families despite their low incomes? I try to remind myself that not everyone living there is like him, that there are families there who are just as bothered by the situation as I am, if not more.

Of course our residence could do nothing to fight back. We don't have the money to rebuild the locking mechanism and even if we did, they would just take it off again. But by not fighting back, we have sent the message that we are a joke and that they can just walk onto our property and do whatever they want.

Which is what they do. Ever since they took the box away, sometimes they come onto our property and fiddle with the box that controls the gate for the cars. I know when they have been there when I see the door to the box open and the car gate open. Then at night I hear them arriving on their bikes and motorbikes, screeching victory as they go through the open car gate.

Autumn shot of our park. Photo by: Den Nation. 

So why don't we call the police, you may ask? We have, but they don't want to do anything. Yes, that's right, they want these people, especially the drug dealers, to stay exactly where they are. That way they can keep tabs on them. They would rather know where they are then have them constantly being on the move.

Yes, it's bad, but luckily, and very luckily I might say, my neighbours are great. The neighbours in my entrance are so wonderful that we invite each other for dinner and go out to restaurants together. Some of them have become real friends. For every thing that is bad about this place, there is a lot of good as well. Very few people in France can say that they have a great relationship with their neighbours.

What is the moral of this story, you may ask? Sure, you can say that every country has problems like this. However, I wrote this post for those people who read articles like the one that Eyelean referred to, ones that describe France as being this wonderful fairytale land. Anyone living long-term in France knows that this is not true. I have written this post for these people that don't know the truth about France. Most people living long-term in France have everyday problems and have to deal with awful people all the time. I do believe that my life is representative of many immigrants here in France. Just because we live in France doesn't mean that everything is perfect. This is not the stuff of dreams.

That said, I still have it pretty good, like I said. My husband lives close enough to his work to walk or cycle in less than 15 minutes. The neighbourhood is quiet and we live very close to Bordeaux's centre. We have quite a few friends that live close by as well. The view from our apartment is great and I love eating dinner with a view of the sun setting. Our neighbours are the best I have ever had. So all in all, things are great.

mercredi 30 avril 2014

In the beginning...

Today marks the day that I left Canada 12 years ago. I can't believe I've been gone this long - where did all these years go? At times it feels as if that day was yesterday, but sometimes I am well aware of how much time has gone by. If I think back to the first few years after I left certain moments are foggy - I try to reach out to grasp certain memories and they just slip out of my fingers. Sometimes I feel that I remember the part of my life before I left Canada more vividly than my life just after moving abroad. There are some things, however, that I'll never forget.

I don't really celebrate my France anniversary. My transition to France was easier than what I experienced during my first two years abroad. At the time I moved to France permanently in September 2009, my French was pretty decent, I was moving to be with my now-husband, I knew the city (Bordeaux) that I was moving to having already lived here during my studies and I had the experience of living and moving to a few European countries under my belt.

My parents raised me to live in our Italian-Canadian community in Ottawa. I was supposed to marry an Italian-Canadian electrician, have a bunch of children, work in an government office as a secretary and live within a 10km radius of them. They taught me a lot about manners, generosity and hard work, but they did not teach me about the world. 

The Den Nation that left Canada in 2002 was a very different person to the one that arrived in France in 2009. I was young and naive, I wasn't in a stable relationship, I didn't have a degree and I didn't have any world and life experience. It was my first time on my own, working a full-time job, living completely independent of my parents.

I can now say that I learned more in my first two years abroad than in any other year afterwards. I basically spent the first few years of my life abroad just floating along. I wouldn't change anything, though, even though there were some moments that have marked my life forever.

It was my first day at work at a new job in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I worked as an audio typist way back then. I remember having a difficult time trying to understand everyone's accent. I would listen to those tapes over and over again, trying to grasp the words that I was hearing. It was around 2 PM on that day and I was typing away. All of a sudden, an alarm went off over the loudspeaker. Everyone got up without saying anything and shuffled into the hallway. "No, you are not allowed to take the lift, you must take the stairs," said my colleagues. "What's going on?" I asked. "Bomb scare," they said, without even a hint of fear in their voices. 

An anonymous caller had called into the police station to report a bomb that had been left in the open car park of the building next to ours. This was what normally happened, at least back then this was what happened. An anonymous caller would call in to report a bomb and the police would go in and blow up the bomb with their robots. At this point, 4 years after the peace agreement was concluded, terrorists usually planted their bombs with the intention of not killing anyone; they just wanted everyone to know that they were still there and that the fight was not over. Most of the calls coming in to report a bomb, however, were prank calls. In these cases, the police still had to respond and evacuate everyone from the neighbouring areas.

Only this time there actually was a bomb outside. The police blew it up as I was going down the stairs. I make it sound like it was a catastrophe, but thankfully the bomb was very small and the police knew what they were doing - the Northern Ireland police force is one of the most experienced police forces in the world when it comes to terrorism. They knew exactly what they were doing. 

Honestly, it wasn't the bomb that shocked me the most, it was the recording in the stairwell and everyone's reaction. People were laughing and joking like it was nothing, even after the bomb had been exploded by the police force. And then there was that recording. The entire time I was going down those stairs, I kept hearing a recording of a voice telling everyone that there was a bomb scare and that they had to evacuate the building using the stairwell. This is what really shocked me - there was actually a recording for bomb scares instead of a live voice! And that voice, it sounded like the man was smiling as he was making the recording, and I fully expected him to exclaim, "Have a nice day!" at any moment. 

I realised at that moment how blasé the local population had become about bomb warnings. I felt very sad for them. And I realised that things must have been very, very bad for them to react like this. It was at that moment that I started to lose some of my naivety and realised how messed up the world was sometimes. 

I was 19 years old.

A few weeks later I was shopping with my ex-boyfriend's mother. I saw some toy water guns on the supermarket shelves. I instantly thought back to my childhood in Canada: running in the park on hot summer days squirting each other with those plastic water guns. Hiding behind some bushes and then jumping out when your friend was close and squirting them in the face. "Gotcha!" Those were the days before internet...

This is the conversation I had with the mother: 

Me: Did your boys play with toy guns? (thinking that I would get an affirmative reply)
Mother: Oh, no, never. I never let my children play with any toy guns. Never. It was strictly forbidden. 
Me, dumbfounded: Why not? 
Mother: A soldier could have easily mistaken them for an aggressor and shot them. Sometimes when we ate dinner I would see the soldiers standing outside our kitchen window staring at us eating and pointing guns at us. There's no way I would let my children play with any toy guns.

What are you supposed to say in response to that?

At just past the two year mark I almost went back to Canada. I was living in London at that point and had just went though a breakup. That was the only time I ever seriously considered going back, for good. It was May and I was half-heartedly looking for a job, having just arrived in London. I spent a few weeks going over it, back and forth, again and again - Should I stay or should I go? I even looked at flights and one day I found a one way ticket direct to Ottawa for around 250 pounds. My hand hovered over the mouse, ready to hit the Purchase button. I pulled my hand away. I put it back on the mouse. My hand quivered. I thought:  

Just stay the summer and then see. Have some fun, this is London, for goodness sake! Find a temp job, meet some people and have some picnics. Come on, just pull your hand away. Enjoy summer in London and then reevaluate the situation.

I pulled my hand away and walked out of that internet café to greet a glorious London summer. I didn't leave at the end of that summer and here I am 12 years later, married to a great man, travelling and living the life that I dreamed of having when I was a teenager. Yes, I really am lucky - I am (almost) living the dream that I had for myself back when I arrived in 2002.

I am so thankful that I never hit Purchase and pulled my hand away.

Here's to the next couple of years!

lundi 21 avril 2014

When just speaking Italian is not enough

I originally wanted to talk about Easter in Italy, but this story has been on my mind for the past few hours.

I spent the summer of 2006 in my father's town in Sicily. It was a great summer: the beach was great, I hung out with Italians practicing my Italian all day, Italy won the World Cup, I ate some great food, etc., etc. One thing from that summer, more sinister than I could even imagine, will always live on in my mind.

The thing you should understand about this town is that there are some people that don't know how to speak Italian. No, that wasn't a typo, there are people here that really don't know how to speak Italian. This is one of those places in Italy where the local dialect is alive and well. Of course all of the young people can speak Italian, but there are a lot of older people that never learned to speak Italian. Back when they were young Italian children weren't required to finish primary school and they spoke in dialect at home. One of my mother's aunts never even finished the 2nd grade. They understand Italian, though, from watching TV, but they just can't speak it because everyone else around them speaks dialect so there was never any reason to learn how to speak Italian. Speaking in dialect, however, is not only limited to elderly people. My cousins are both university graduates, under 40 years old and they speak in dialect all the time.

So if you are a foreigner learning Italian and you go to one of these places it is a bit disappointing when you realise that you still have difficulties communicating even though your Italian is pretty good. I accept this difficulty as a challenge and usually just let everyone go on in Sicilian even though I can only understand half of what is being said. You feel proud when you realise that you have understood them and can respond. I just try to tell myself that the local dialect is part of their heritage and it would be awful if I made them speak in Italian (and besides, like I said, some of them don't know how to speak Italian).

One evening at the dinner table my cousin and her husband, who are both teachers, were talking about a student. This student's father came from Sicily, but the mother was from Bergamo up north near Milan (I didn't know this then, all I knew was that she was from the north). Even though all the conversation was in dialect, I understood that something terrible had happened to them. One day the student's brother was playing outside with another little boy (they were around 4 years old). They wandered off onto the neighbour's property where there was a well. The brother climbed onto the well and fell in. When the mother realised what was happening she jumped into the well to save her son. Unfortunately, she was too late to save him and she almost drowned herself. The paramedics had to resuscitate her when they arrived on the scene of the accident.

This is not the end of their horror. The family tried to prosecute the neighbour as not covering your well or filling it up is illegal. They were unable to do so, however. Why? The neighbour was one the leaders of the mafia. There was nothing they could do - he was completely protected and the family, unfortunately, was not.

This is the deepest, darkest side of Italy. (No, I am not saying that the mafia is in every nook and cranny of Sicily - there is so much more to Sicily than the mafia and I hate that everyone automatically thinks of the mafia when they think of Sicily because of all the American mafia movies.)

Lemon, olive and cactus trees framing such a beautiful setting. Author of photo: Den Nation.

A few days later my cousin and her husband talk about going to meet up with a student and her mother for ice cream after dinner. As usual, the conversation was in dialect and I completely missed that we would be meeting up with the same family that had lost their son in the well accident.

So there I am sitting in front of the mother, this person who had suffered so much in her lifetime, and I started to ask her questions about where she came from. It isn't too often that you come across someone from the north living in the south. I felt that she was almost as much a foreigner down there as I was. So I went on and on, asking her about her experiences in the south. I had no idea that this was the mother that had lost her son in the accident. I felt my cousin pressing hard on my foot and couldn't understand what the problem was. I went on, "So why do you say that you wish you had never moved down here?" My cousin started to hit me under the table. Ok, maybe I was getting a bit too personal, but the mother seemed so willing to talk to me that I thought that my questions weren't that invasive. I quickly rephrased my question, "I mean you must miss your family up there so much, that must be what you mean." I stopped asking her questions and encouraged her to ask me about Canada, which she was more than happy to do.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" my cousin said when we got in the car. "What, what did I say?" I responded. "You know that she lost her son in the well accident, why were you asking her all those insensitive questions?" Oh, no. I know it wasn't my fault and it wasn't my cousin's fault, but I still felt guilty. My cousin had forgotten that I did not completely understand everything when they spoke in dialect (she doesn't even realise she is speaking in dialect when she does) as I was usually able to put two and two together and I didn't want to bother my family at the dinner table by asking them to interpret what they had said into Italian.

This really reminded me that speaking Italian well is not always enough. In some communities, the local dialect is engrained into the local culture. You cannot really live and be integrated into these communities unless you can understand the local dialect. I met some foreigners down south who could speak the local dialect better than they could speak Italian.

I'll never forget the woman who lost her son in the well accident. Things have slowly been changing in Sicily, but I wonder if they have changed enough? The accident happened around 20 years ago. Does the neighbour have as much authority today as he had back then? I like to think that this is not the case, but things can't change that quickly. I hope the well can be closed one day.

jeudi 3 avril 2014

The French brunch, or rather, the provincial brunch

Over the past few years I've noticed that France has been embracing the idea of having brunch at the weekends. Well, they think they are.

One thing I should make clear from the get-go is that province is not Paris. In Paris brunch is everywhere and French people there seem to at least have some idea of what brunch is about (hint, this is what this post is about). One thing that bothers me about Paris, though, is that brunch can be really expensive there. It bothers me that brunch is something trendy there and the prices match this idea. I know that the quality of the brunches is probably better here, but I feel that it's almost as if Paris were trying to recreate a 'perfect' brunch. The brunches I know (Canada, UK, Denmark, Germany, etc.) don't care about appearance and are not trying to live up to an image. From my memory, the most expensive brunch platter at my favourite brunch restaurant in Ottawa costs 12 or 13 dollars plus tax. I've seen some brunches in Paris for 30 euros!

To give you an idea of what I consider brunch and what I eat when I have brunch in my home:
-crispy bacon
-baked beans (since living in the UK I am hooked on baked beans)
-I would love to have British-style sausages as well, but the only place in France that seems to have these sausages is Marks and Spencer in Paris so no sausages for me here in Bordeaux - any ideas, anybody?
-a fresh baguette
-viennoiseries (croissant, pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins, brioche)
-a plate of freshly-cut fruit (if it's not cut people won't eat it - my platter of fruit always disappears if it is cut)
-pancakes served with my stash of Canadian maple syrup
-tea of coffee (no red wine)

Here is my experience with what French people (well, my experiences are based on what I have seen in Bordeaux) call "the brunch".

A few years ago our friends invited us over for brunch in Bordeaux on a Sunday morning. We were told to come over for 11AM so I thought nothing was amiss. For me, 11AM is a normal time to eat brunch on Sunday.

My husband is French, but before meeting me he had never had a brunch before. His idea of what a brunch was about was developed in Canada, where I showed him what we had for brunch.

We asked our hosts what we should bring and they told us that we didn't need to bring anything. We said we would bring over fresh bread and croissants, thinking that they would take care of the savoury part of the brunch since that part of a brunch needs to be cooked (eggs, bacon, etc.). Our hosts response when we told them that we would bring croissants and bread: long pause and then, "Well, if you want to." I thought that was kind of strange of them to say that, but I was just so excited to be having brunch that I brushed it off.

We arrived at their place and were met by our friend at the door who told us that her boyfriend was in the shower. I thought, "OK, he must be finishing up, he'll come in a minute." We came in and sat down at the table and I thought it was strange that nothing was ready - the table wasn't set at all. We laid the croissants and bread down on the table and chatted for about 20 minutes until her boyfriend finally emerged. We kept on chatting (it was 11.35 at this point) and I started to feel really hungry. I wondered when they were going to pull the eggs and bacon out and start to cook them. Ten minutes later I asked them if I could make some eggs with bacon for everyone. Their response, "Well, sure, I can cook that for you." For me, not for them.

So my husband and I had ham (they didn't have any bacon) and eggs while our hosts watched us eat. I ate a croissant after I had finished my eggs with ham all the while my hosts were watching us eat. I just kept thinking, "What is going on, why aren't they eating?"

By the time I finished, it was just past midday. I had eaten enough. And this is when I heard a bell ringing and our hosts announced...

"OK, yes, the brunch is ready!"

I thought, "What the hell is going on?" I had just eaten the brunch!

That's when I saw our hosts get up and take a dish of roasted duck, potatoes and vegetables out of the oven (a tea towel hanging in front of the oven had masked the light of the oven so I had no idea something was baking in there). My mouth just hung open while they bought the huge steaming dish over and put it on the table. "Here's the brunch!", they announced with excitement. "What the...," was all I was thinking.

"So I was thinking that we would pair this up with this wine from the Languedoc region," said our hosts. The alcohol content in that bottle was nearly 15%!

It was then that I discovered the truth. Our hosts thought that a brunch was a normal lunch meal that people ate a bit earlier than usual on the weekends. In Bordeaux lunch is served at 1PM on Sunday or later (in the north of France people tend to eat earlier). Of course there is not that much difference between eating at 12.15 like what we were doing and 1PM. Our hosts, however, figured that since brunch didn't involve an apéro that 12.15 was a real brunch time (this is true as if we had had an apéro starting at 12.30 we wouldn't have been eating the meal before 1.30).

After that, I swore I had learnt my lesson. But guess what? I fell into the trap again...

A few months after that first brunch I was invited to another one by my neighbour. This brunch was to be held in a hall as it was a club that was holding the event. So there were at least 50 people there.

Just like with the first brunch, we asked our neighbour what we should bring. We offered to bring bread and croissants and our neighbour said, "Oh yes, nobody else has offered to bring that." That was my first warning. At this time, I has this feeling where this was heading, but I still believed that maybe my first experience was a one-off, that only our first hosts didn't really know what a brunch was.

We brought our German friends, who were visiting for a few days, to the brunch with us. When we got to the hall at 11AM, we were in for a shock: they were firing up the grills to cook meat and everyone had brought a dish to share (salads, rice, potatoes, vegetables - all the normal lunch sides). It was a barbeque! We put the viennoiseries on the table and people made remarks like, "Oh, that's interesting, they brought viennoiseries to the brunch!" I had been tricked again. The entire time we were there we kept hearing people say, "What a great brunch this is!" Our German friends were in just as much shock as we were.

Now I know the truth about brunch in Bordeaux and why people kept saying how wonderful they thought my brunches were when I invited them over. It's because they believed that an early lunch was a brunch. They don't understand that brunch involves light cooking and that dishes are not elaborate like the duck I ate with our friends. Do younger French people in Bordeaux have a better grasp of the concept of brunch? Our friends and most of the people at the club brunch have never lived in northern Europe so they haven't been exposed to the 'real brunch'. I still wonder, though, where these Bordelais get their ideas as to what constitutes a brunch? Any ideas?

mardi 4 mars 2014

What this blog is about/not about

I have finally gotten around to writing a little blurb for new readers about what this blog is about/not about. Feel free to read for yourselves in the tab above.