In case you have been hibernating, the best show in town isn’t Dallas or Dynasty, it’s Australian politics. An extramarital affair and its fallout have put the ruling Liberal-National coalition under massive pressure. The nation is completely hooked -I shamefully admit that I am too. Today there was no headlines about the whole saga, and I almost found it boring. The difference between American soap operas and the Australian government is that one features a scorned soon-to-be first wife, a pregnant younger lover and doubts over paternity, and the others are 1980s TV shows that I grew up watching. What can I say? Reality is sometimes even messier than fiction. And I, for one, can’t wait for the next episode (Reconciliation with wife? Twins? Another potential father? Who knows?). I am joking of course. Well, sort of.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the most difficult part of living abroad is to understand how the healthcare system works in your new country. And if, like me, you happen to have a husband who is virtually never home, no family nearby and a sick kid during the night, things can escalate pretty quickly. Knowing how to navigate the system becomes even more critical. Easier said than done. It sometimes feels like banging your head on a wall. Been there, done it.
Believe me, it is very stressful, and it feels pretty lonely. To make matters even worse, as I grew up in France, I am used to the fantastic French healthcare system, and I took it for granted. In my home country, every time we have needed urgent medical attention (which maybe happened twice), the system was here for us, sending a doctor at my doorstep to deal with a sick baby, and delivering the required medication in the middle of the night. For free of course. I must admit that I thought it was completely normal, and I was expecting the same level of service in London. Silly French me.
Homesickness can strike you at any time. More often than not, it’s the little things that matter. The ones you never really noticed or appreciated at the time. For me, it happened this morning, after my daily commute. Don’t ask me why, but I started craving a good old saucisson. It’s hard to explain. It’s a French thing, I suppose. We grew up on saucisson. We French have it at each and every picnic, and sometimes also before a meal, as an appetiser . Having a saucisson with fresh bread and some red wine isn’t only a French cliche, it’s part of what being French is really about. It’s funny how, when you live abroad, the small things that you used to take for granted start feeling so special…So what is saucisson exactly? And what do I miss most from my home country?
Well, saucisson has been made in France since Roman times, with archaeological finds proving so. Simply put, the cured sausage is a “living historical monument” and a symbol for France since the time of the Great War. Of course there are similar things like salami and the likes. But what can I say? Saucisson remains saucisson, and I miss it.
LEMON FRENCH TART
We French simply call it ‘Tarte au citron’. Let’s face it: there’s nothing that brightens up any day – especially a rainy one – than a classic French lemon tart. Any boulangerie in France will have a Tarte Au Citron on offer. Some are on the sweet side, others a bit more tangy. Today, I saw one in a coffee shop in Sydney, I starred at it for a couple of minutes. People must have thought that I was mad. I could feel the taste and the texture. I considered eating it there and then, but decided against it in the end. Luckily, I know how to bake a good tarte au citron. It takes a bit of time and the worst part is that you have to let it cool before really enjoying its taste (complete and utter nightmare). What can I say? I was reasonable for once. How boring.
It’s all over the press. In case you’ve missed it, here is a quick summary: the Australian Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, has impregnated one of his staff, a much younger woman, while still officially married to his long-suffering wife (with whom he has four children). The affair was an open secret in the Canberra circles, but completely blew out of proportion over the last few days (I am not sure why. Politics, probably). There are now questions about the use of taxpayer money (you are not supposed to employ your partner. But was she his partner?), and also because he presented himself as a ‘family man’ (The irony!). Don’t get me wrong, the whole thing is a sorry mess and I am #teamfirstwife all the way, but, being French, I am struggling to understand the media frenzy. What I am trying to say is this: in France, it wouldn’t be that big a deal. It would be considered, well, a private affair. All French politicians find a way to employ their friends, mistress and family members. When they can’t, they ask a fellow MP to do it for them, and they return the favour. More often than not, knowing who has slept with whom is a guessing game in political social circles. But apparently, not in Australia. What am I talking about? Well, because of the ‘Barnababy’ scandal, Australia has banned sexual relations between government ministers and their staff. This is called the #bonkban, and has been trending on Twitter.
This much I know: such a sex ban couldn’t happen in my home country. People would laugh at it out loud. You have to understand that things haven’t changed in my home country. Sexual harassment is still rife in France, and more often than not it is considered acceptable. Recently, there has been a scandal about a senior minister having an affair with a young intern twenty years ago. She accused him of rape a bit more than ten years later, but the limitation period had expired. Somehow the story resurfaced recently. Nothing will happen to him, and there won’t be any #bonkban in France -nobody has even considered, let alone mention it. Let me make something clear: if the intern had been my daughter, I would be fuming. I would have considered beating the guy up (I am 25% Sardinian -don’t mess with me). Nobody has defended her, nobody has even mentioned that, when you go to work, you expect to be safe from your boss’ advances. At least, the Australians are doing something, and trying to address the problem. Obviously the ban will be difficult to enforce, and I am sure that there will be lots of difficulties, but hey, kudos to Australia. In the meantime, it looks like the elites in old Europe will never change. Why am I not surprised?
Wherever I go, I seem to take my Frenchness with me (whatever that is, really). Like most civilized countries, France has a particular set of rules, and don’t you dare ignore them. When visiting my home country, you’d be wise to keep some of these social norms and expectations in mind. We are not as tolerant as we look. Now you are warned. Truth be told, we will actually be aghast at your breaches and blunders. But of course it goes both ways: you will find us odd from time to time. Or rude, bizarre, even arrogant maybe. We are just French, warts and all. Don’t hold it (too much) against us, we were born that way. Cultural awareness and respect goes a long way, so here are 7 things NOT to do in France or with a French friend. Oh, and the list is far from exhaustive, feel free to add to it…
We Don’t Hug, Unless We Are REALLY Close
To kiss or not to kiss, that is the question when meeting people in France. Some even call it the conundrum of the bise. It’s a cross-cultural minefield of greeting gaffes, especially if you are too familiar with someone. I once almost slapped a British colleague who kissed me a bit too close of the corner of my mouth- in my opinion. I am sure that he meant no harm, but I haven’t forgotten it (and it was, like, 10 years ago). In other countries, you might welcome someone with a hug, a peck on the cheek, a high five, a firm handshake or even a kiss on the lips (the Russian way!). Simply put: in France, don’t do it. The customary greeting between friends is to kiss both cheeks once or twice, depending on the region – PLEASE no sloppy wet ones, it’s disgusting, just light kisses. Even casual acquaintances and colleagues might greet each other this way. Just follow suit. Oh, and a hug is mostly reserved for lovers and close family.
As some of you may know, I eventually set up a small business in France when I was working in London. To cut a long story short, everything had to be done from London (which wasn’t always easy), and there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. I know that it looks completely counter-intuitive. Truth be told, I could have set the business up when I was living in France. Except that I didn’t. Why?
When you can’t see what’s right in front of you…
Well, it’s quite simple really: I didn’t see it as a business opportunity when I was living in my home country. It just hadn’t crossed my mind. I had been taught quantum physics and all sorts of complex scientific theories, and as a result, to me, a business had to be complicated. Something to do with sending rockets into space, for instance. Anything less would be, well, a waste. Meaningless. Not even worth considering, in fact.
To make matters even worse, our schools, from the infant classes through to university, penalise failure. Generating innovation and making changes challenge our usual ways of thinking, but we French have never rewarded being different and taking risks, which are two fundamental aspects of innovation. In our education system today there is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ culture where individual’s ambitions are crimped. It’s actually even worse: everyone must fit a certain mould. Everyone must be on the same median, on a pre-defined bell-curve. In France, everybody has to learn the same things and imbibe the same knowledge. However, at the end of the day each student has to find a way to differentiate him/herself. No wonder France is one of the most depressed nations!
I ‘came out’ a while ago, and most of my readers know it: I like running very long distances (See here if you don’t remember: http://frenchyummymummy.com/going-the-ultra-mile/). Come to think of it, the work ‘like’ can be misleading. Ultra marathon runners will understand. What I really mean is that running ultra marathons make me feel alive, even if after a while everything hurts. Maybe, as a friend suggested yesterday, I need a good psychiatrist. So much for thinking that running was keeping me sane. We all have our own issues, right? But I digress.
It is easy to take running for granted. As a woman runner, one thing that I know I often take as a given is the freedom to run without social persecution. It wasn’t always like that. In 1928, at the Olympic games held in Amsterdam, women were allowed to compete in running events for the very first time. After the 800-meter event, the International Olympic Committee ruled that the collapse of women at the finish meant that the distance was too difficult a strain on the female body, and banned the event until the 1960 games. As for women running marathons, it was a big no no until 1972 or so. And I have recently been told (I kid you not), that running long distances could damage women’s reproductive organs. For real, in this century. I would like to reassure everybody: everything seems to be where it should be. What can I say: as a society, we still have some way to go. Not to mention that I know a few girls who could give most men a run for their money…
What a day! I woke up at the crack of dawn to try Parkrun in Sydney. I am not a morning person, and it was already way too warm for me (after all, I am British too!). That said, I needed to stick to my training plan -more about this in another post. In London, Parkrun (a 5k run) always started at 9 am. I found out that in Sydney, it’s 7 or 8am. Bummer.
I took the Tube to St Peters, and of course I got lost. Long story short: suddenly I was in a parallel universe. It was May Lane and continued on Caroline Lane, and, as far as I could understand it, it was an outdoor gallery featuring an array of work. Some looked legal, but many looked, well, a bit improvised. All were stunning. I felt like I was in a comic strip. I was literally walking in my very own comic strip.
If you follow me on twitter (https://twitter.com/FrenchYumMummy), you know that I have decided to stay in Sydney a little bit longer to enjoy the Aussie way of life. I had come to a point where I couldn’t take one more British winter, and a change was long overdue after close to 15 years in Blighty. Not to mention that I am a nomad at heart. In short, here I am, and loving it. So, what did I learn? Well, so far, so good. The running is amazing and it’s incredibly warm compared to Europe. But let’s not wait, here are my main findings after a few weeks:
- 1. People TALK. I know, it’s amazing, right? Over here, you say ‘Hello!’ to the bus driver, to fellow runners, to the concierge or the cashier. You might even strike a conversation. For the record, I haven’t heard anyone say ‘G’day, mate!’ just yet. It must be urban legend. That said, you might strike a conversation with somebody you don’t know. Come on, it’s shocking! In London, you shut up. It’s considered rude to talk to others, and most of the time nobody will reply if you do. Not to mention that I always took the automatic check-out anyway.
- 2. I am a control freak. I totally need to relax. That’s probably what London does for you. Things are very chilled over here, and slower than in England. Simply put, it freaks me out. When, for instance, the food is slow to come, the light remains red for too long or the shop doesn’t open bang on time, I feel like the world is coming to an end. I. Need. To. Relax.
Things are slowly starting to pick up after the Christmas break. In Australia, nobody has commented on my French accent, and it’s pure bliss. In London, I keep being reminded that I am ‘different’. What I particularly hate is when my interlocutor pretends he (Let’s face it: it’s usually a he) doesn’t understand what I am saying. It hasn’t happened in Sydney, which makes me wonder what is wrong with British men (selective hearing maybe?). Obviously, according to them, we French women are supposed to ‘have it all’. We must look like a trophy wife, but we must also be strong-minded and financially independent. What a load of codswallop!
Come to think of it, this ‘having-it-all’ concept is really getting on my nerves right now. It must have something to do with middle-age. In no particular order, I am supposed to be beautiful, stylish, thin, independent, intelligent and healthy of course. Not to mention a good mother/wife/friend/cook/coach/taxi/business woman, etc. Here is a newsflash for everybody: I only have 24 hours a day. My life is already pretty full-on. And I am far from perfect.
As we were working long hours on a new project the other day, one of the (British) assistants cracked a joke:
‘But Muriel, you are French! With the hours you are working you wouldn’t be able to have a torrid love affair.’
Here we go again, I thought. How very un-French…