Things about France that surprised me: ability of the French to complain about anything

If I’m asked to reel off a few (more) clichés about the French, I’ll have to come clean about their ability to complain about anything and anyone. But why?

It’s an inside joke among the French that the national sport isn’t football, cycling, or tennis – it’s complaining. Indeed, grumbling about anything from politics to delays in public transport seems to be one of the features that peppers French daily life.

So much so that various French presidents have over the years issued appeals to their fellow countrymen to stop complaining so much (although given that the president is usually towards the top of the list of things to complain about, that may not have been an entirely disinterested move).

Initially, I found this habit annoyaing until I realised it was the French way of making small talk. The British talk about the weather, the French complain. It doesn’t mean that they’re deeply unhappy, it’s more of a necessary social lubricant and an outlet for shared frustrations – a way of directing everyone’s anger towards a common cause.

Surveys regularly show the French as being the most dissatisfied with a range of topics and French presidents often get terrible approval ratings, but French people are likely to live long, healthy and happy lives – maybe it’s because they enjoy all the complaining? The other side to complaining is to do with expectations. The French have high expectations of their society and their government and why not?

As for what French people complain about, any topic seems to be fair game but it’s generally daily annoyances, such as taxes, politics, work, public transport.

Of course, there could be a deeper, more historical factor behind it – namely the French Revolution. The overthrow of monarchy is an example of an attitude which is rooted in the French mentality. Most French believe that:

If we don’t complain, things don’t change.

They definitely see complaining as a vital tool for social change. Indeed, organised complaining, or protesting, is both an inviolable principle and a feature of French society. For example, France has more strikes than any other developed European country and the numbers have only risen in recent years.

From the 1968 demonstrations to the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movements, shouting grievances in the street is part of the French strategy for defending their rights and liberties.


When complaining moves up a gear. Photo: AFP

France is a wealthy country with lots of advantages so it’s reasonable to expect that its people will have a decent standard of living. French people expect this to happen and complain when it does not. Government moves that are seen as lowering the standard of living (such as the recent pension reforms) are greeted with complaints or the more formalised process of complaining – strikes.

While long-lasting strikes can certainly be annoying they a) give you something to complain about to your  neighbours and b) contribute to the generous social protections around employment, healthcare and pensions that many of us enjoy in France and why we continue to reside here..

Pandemic in France – latest

Although I live in one of the so-called “red-zones” in France, life goes on as before. Everywhere I go, I wear a mask. I try to restrict the number of outings I make by shopping once a week though we do try to have a day, or afternoon “out” each week. The Domaine where I live has (thankfully) remained Covid-free which is fortunate as it does have a largely elderly population – you do know that doesn’t include us – and we’ve had a significant number of visitors/holiday makers during July and August.

But, if we look at France as a whole, with nearly 10,000 new coronavirus cases in one day, the country has broken a grim record of infections. So how bad are things really?

The virus continues to accelerate its spread, stated Santé Publique France’s most recent weekly report, published on last week on 10 September.

Here is a look at the latest key numbers.

  • 9,843 – new Covid-19 cases recorded in the last 24 hours on Thursday, 10 September, the highest number recorded since France began its mass-testing of the population.
  • 47,294 – the number of people who tested positive in France this week, up from 36,785 last week.
  • 20% – the increase in positive cases since last week. The growth rate seems to have slowed down since last week, when the total number of cases grew by 32 % on the previous week.
  • 902,815 – the total number of tests last week, slightly down from 1,059,303 the previous week.
  • 14.4 – the number of days it takes for the total number of cases to double (up from 13.8 days, which could indicate that the virus is spreading at a slightly slower rate).
  • 5.4% – the percentage of total tests that brought back a positive result, referred to as “positivity rate.” The rate grew from 4.9% the previous week. In early August it was 1.8%.
  • 52.7% – roughly half the people who test positive have either no symptoms or very mild ones.
  • 75 and above – the age group seeing the fastest increase in the number of new infections the past week.
  • 4,960 – the total number of Covid-19 hospital patients. While hospitals have seen patient flow increase, the total number of hospitalised patients remains low compared to the height of the pandemic in mid-April when over 32,000 people were hospitalised for Covid-19.
  • 574 – the total number of patients receiving intensive care treatment, up from 480 last week. This is the number that that authorities nervously watch as it is the best indicator of future death rates. The next few weeks will be a important as public health authorities fear that the high number of younger people infected will in turn infect older people who are more likely to become seriously ill.
  • 47% – nearly half of the total intensive care patients were either in the greater Paris Île-de-France region (35 percent) or the southern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region (17 percent).
  • 19 – the latest recorded number of Covid-19 fatalities, up from 3 last week.
  • 42 – there are now 42 (up from 28) départements defined as ‘red zones’ by the health ministry, including two overseas départements. These are defined as areas where the virus circulation is active and more than 50 new cases per 100,000 people have been reported in the last seven days. Local authorities in red zones are given extra powers to impose restrictive measures if necessary.
  • 692 – the number of clusters currently being investigated by health authorities, up from 528 last week.

The French government was expected to announce new measures last Friday to stem the spread but there were none, just an acknowledgement that Covid-19 was putting ever greater pressure on hospitals and intensive care units. PM Castex did ask authorities in the hotspots of Bordeaux and Marseille to present suggestions to him to tackle the flaring rates in their areas, but did not announce any major moves to intervene to curb the spread.

After having been criticised in the spring for being “too centralised and monolithic in their response, it seems they now intend to leave each region or large city – the local prefect or government representative, not mayors or local politicians – take locally appropriate measures.

Despite condemnation from many quarters, an epidemiologist at the Pasteur Institute in Lille, said the government was right to remain prudent and refrain from going back to sweeping, general decisions. He further added:

I think it’s good that they have chosen a solution where they don’t take the same decisions everywhere. It shows that they have listened to the public opinion.

You can’t really argue with that, can you?

One from the vaults: Design dilemmas

This might be from a few years ago but it’s one of those evergreen posts: as true today as it was a couple of years back.

I’m constantly changing things around in the bedroom. That’s probably given you the wrong impression but, don’t worry, this is a post about soft furnishings. not hanky-panky! When I refurbished the apartment, I never really finished off the bedroom. I was hoping to create a restful space, splitting it into two separate areas one for sleeping and one for reading, with a small library. A gal can never have too many book shelves.

I had visions of a chase longue positioned so I could enjoy our magnificent view next to floor to ceiling book shelves along the one wall. Sadly, my husband’s two large wardrobes, which are in addition to his walk-in dressing room and built-in cupboard, are preventing me putting my master plan in place.

Consequently, I keep changing around the soft furnishings, bed linen, bed cover and cushions without achieving the harmony I desire. When my laundry became the bike room, I had to find somewhere else for the ironing board. Initially that was the underused guest bedroom but, as that has become a second storeroom pending the long-awaited reorganisation of our storage caves, it got moved into our bedroom.

Lest you think I’m a fiend with the iron, I should fess up that I try to iron as little as possible. Thanks to my brilliant washing machine and dryer, most items can be neatly folded and put away. About the only things I iron are my beloved’s shirts. However, I keep the ironing board out and ready for action as he has an unfortunate habit of demanding I press his suit/jacket just before he’s due to leave on a business trip.

Let him do it himself I hear you call out. Trouble is, as far as I’m aware, he’s never ironed anything other than the wax on our cross-country skis. Consequently, I’m mindful that letting him loose with a hot implement could prove costly. Of course, he knows this and plays on my fears. Plus, my always immaculately turned out father trained me how to iron shirts and press garments. Sadly, I never got him to train my beloved.

My dilemma is how to work around the omnipresent wardrobes. We had the most massive clear out of my beloved’s extensive collection of clothing ahead of last year’s trip to Australia. He’s a bit of a hoarder. The local charity shop and the recycling bins greatly benefitted. However, that still wasn’t enough to get rid of even one of the wardrobes. It appears I’m stuck with them so will have to think again.

So far, Plan B involves inserting a bookcase between said wardrobes and getting a pouf to match the existing armchair on which to rest my feet while reading. Meanwhile, I’m thinking of all the nooks, particularly above doors, that could be press-ganged into becoming places to store books.

 

Consequently, I’m adding a library to my ideal house. That’s  the one with the massive basement and outside wood-fired oven that I suspect will forever remain a figment of my imagination. Largely, I should add, because it’s well-nigh impossible to replicate our view which trumps the afore-mentioned library, basement and wood- fired oven. Ah well, a girl can dream can’t she?

Trip to Fréjus: Part II

On a recent trip to Fréjus, we visited its Roman ruins. In the gardens in front of the remains of the arena is a monument to the collapse of the Malpasset Dam, considered France’s greatest civil disaster. Malpasset was an arch dam on the Reyran River, about 7 km (under 5 miles) north of Fréjus which collapsed on 2 December, 1959 and, in the resulting flood, 423 people lost their lives. It was very moving reading the names of the deceased on the memorial, particularly those where entire families had been wiped out, including many children.

The five monumental stainless steel columns and row of desks bearing the names of the 423 identified victims were designed by local artist Michel Mourier and inaugurated 50 years after the Malpasset dam burst.

I’d never heard of this disaster, and knowing how often the Var experiences flooding, I was keen to learn more about how it happened, and what lessons had been learned to prevent it occurring again. Apologies that some of this is a bit technical but it’s something which I found interesting.

I learned that the Andre Coyne designed dam was completed in 1954 and heralded as being the thinnest arch dam for its height.  It was equipped with one gated, notched spillway at the centre of its long crest wall. Because the planned valley-side left abutement of the dam (from an upstream perspective) was higher than site topography, a large dihedral thrust block was placed below the dam to raise it to the necessary height, and spread the pressure.

Construction of the dam began in 1952 with filling of the reservoir starting in April, 1954. Approximately five years later, when the debut filling was almost complete, Malpasset Dam failed after the area experienced several days of heavy rain and high winds. The sudden failure of the dam resulted in the death of many people when emergency rescue attempts were thwarted due to the inaccessibility of the town’s flooded roadways and access routes.

Post-disaster studies revealed that a series of foundation deficiencies and human oversight led to the instability issues at the Malpasset Dam. Prior to construction, insufficient effort had been devoted to analysing the geology of the foundation on which the dam was to be located. Geological investigations that took place after the dam’s failure revealed that it had been built on a gneiss formation (banded rock) with a foliation structure (repetitive layering) exhibiting a slope of thirty to fifty degrees in the downstream direction of the dam. In addition, a fault oriented perpendicular to the river was discovered just downstream of the dam.

The foliation pattern of the foundation in combination with the presence of the fault and the forces associated with the water accumulating behind the dam caused the gneiss along the left abutment to enter a compressive state in which the permeability of the formation decreased with the increasing pressure behind the dam. Uplift pressure at the abutment caused by this phenomenon increased with the filling of the reservoir until it was great enough to dislodge the thrust block. Failure of the left abutment led to the ultimate failure of Malpasset Dam as cracks resulting from the uplift pressures that moved the thrust block propagated quickly across the dam face.

Today only bits of the Malpasset Dam remain but the memorial ensures that the devastating tragedy will never be forgotten and, importantly a lot has been learned. Specifically:-

  • Three-dimensional computer analyses were developed to study the cause of failure; these types of analyses are now used to design new arches under new standards.
  • Greater testing of foundations tested for different qualities.
  • Further development of the study of rock mechanics.
  • Recognition of the need for safety monitoring of arch dams.

If the Malpasset dam were designed today, almost no changes in the shape of the arch would have to be made: in other words, the design of the dam itself was not to blame.

Things about France that surprised me: the fuss about “La rentrée”

In France you start hearing about la rentrée from mid-August onwards and while it’s often translated as merely the start of a new school year in fact its cultural significance goes much deeper. La rentrée simply means the re-entry or the return but its arrival heralds a shift in the winds in France every September, here’s why.

French cities in August are pretty much empty – even this year. Many of the smaller independent shops will be closed and if you’re emailing anyone about a work-related or official matter don’t be surprised to get an auto-reply informing you that they are out of the office until September.

The French parliament is not sitting and there isn’t much in the way of official business being done. This year has been slightly different because of the health crisis, but in his press conference on last Thursday, Prime Minister Jean Castex thought it worth mentioning that: ”

……like the virus, the French government has not been on holiday.

He might not have been on holiday, but president Emmanuel Macron did spend several weeks at Brégançon, the Riviera property that the French state provides so that presidents can take their summer holidays beside the sea.

It’s because the long August holiday is such an embedded tradition in French life, that the return in September is a big deal.

Here are some of the things that la rentrée means and why it defies an easy translation into English;

Schools restart 

La rentrée scolaire is when schools start their new academic year. This only happens in September, so this year as 1st September on a Tuesday, the schools will restart today, rather than the Monday, which might seem more logical but it’s still in August.

La rentrée

Today some 12 million school pupils will return to classrooms across France though reopening schools will be different this year, especially seeing as teachers and pupils over 11 years old (in secondary and high school) will be masked. There are however other important changes.

  1. The move to cut class sizes for primary school children aged six to seven in disadvantaged parts of French cities and towns will continue in September. Instead of a maximum 24 pupils, there should be 12 or less per teacher. The aim is to correct one of the biggest failings of the French public education system: the gap in achievement between children from poor and wealthier backgrounds.
  2. Before the summer French MPs reached an agreement to ban mobile phones for all three tiers of French education (primary, middle and high school) from September onwards, except if they are used for educational purposes.
  3. September will see the primary school timetable at many schools across the country returning to a four day week.
  4. Pupils in secondary schoolsandhigh schools have to wear masks, both inside the premises and outdoors on the playground, except when “eating,” “exercising,” or engaging in other activities that are “incompatible” with wearing a mask. While it is up to parents to provide their children with masks, the government will provide all schools with stocks to give out to pupils lacking one.
  5. Teachers in all schools will have to wear a mask at all times, even when lecturing.

A side-effect of la rentrée scolaire is the appearance in shops of huge collections of stationery as stressed-out parents head out to buy the dozens of items on the official lists that schools send out, all of which are deemed essential to educational life.

Return to work

Of course key workers continued to work throughout the summer but many offices closed completely for some or all of August. As mentioned above, it’s not at all uncommon to receive out-of-office replies simply telling you that the person will be back in September and will deal with your query then.

Many smaller independent businesses including boulangeries, florists, pharmacies, clothes shops and bars also close for some or all of August as their staff and owners enjoy a break. In the south of France this is typically the last two weeks of August.

Of course, many are still working from home so will be denied the usual pleasure of easing oneself back into the habit of work. Often the first few days after la rentrée is a time for chatting to colleagues, hearing other people’s holiday stories.

However anyone returning to work in a shared indoor workspace will be required to wear a mask at all times in anywhere that is not an individual office. Employees who have their own individual offices will not have to wear a mask when at their desk, but they will have to put one on whenever they leave their office or if someone else enters.

Employees don’t have to pay for their own masks, the cost must be covered by the employer, who is also responsible for ensuring that their employees have access to masks.

Return to parliament 

The French parliament takes a break over the summer and resumes sessions in September and ministers too generally take a few weeks off.

This summer has been slightly different because of the ongoing health crisis, and there have been two meetings of the Defence Committee – one chaired remotely by Macron from his holiday home.

Generally September sees the government preparing to present new legislation or reforms, and the French press generally run lists of what the goverment will be focusing on in la rentrée (this year it’s a fairly short list – they will be mostly concentrating on Covid and the upcoming economic crash, which in fairness is enough to keep anyone busy).

New books are published

There is also a phenomenon known as la rentrée litteraire, which is when hundreds of new books are published in the busiest part of the literary year

This is partly related to people coming back to work, but is also linked to the fact that many of France’s major literary prizes – including the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Renaudot, and the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française – are held in October and November. Publishers therefore release books that they believe have a chance at a prize in late August or September in the hope that they will be fresh in the judges’ minds.

Summer activities end

As people head back to work and temperatures begin to cool, many of the summer activities and facilities  – such as they were this summer – close down too, from small town festivals and open-air cinemas to the Paris plages urban beaches that are dismantled in the last weekend of August.

Traffic chaos

With most of France heading home from its holidays at the same time, the final weekend in August is usually the subject of dire warnings about traffic jams.

.. and hunting season

This is the month the French hunting season kicks off, so in rural areas watch out for people with guns!

One from the vaults: Maddening men

This week I’m heading back to August 2014 where I had a bit of a whinge about my beloved hubby. Of course, we’ve not had any smilar problems in recent months for the obvious reasons. I am always thankful for small mercies.

My beloved has always spent at least three nights a week away from home. Hence the longevity of our marriage. Just recently that time has been spent in the UK and he typically flies in and out of Gatwick with BA. During the summer months he tends to catch the last flight back on either a Thursday or Friday evening. A flight which is frequently always delayed. He can arrive at any time up to two hours after the due arrival time and well past my usual bedtime.

For the next two weeks, he’s catching an earlier flight back. But as he departed on Tuesday there was some confusion on his part about what time he was due to land back in Nice. I asked him to send me an email to confirm the time. A not unreasonable request as my beloved likes me to be waiting for him as he strides out of Arrivals. That way he wastes no time at all. Bollards have rendered the airport much less car friendly but the advantage of a Smart is that I can hover in places other cars can’t, though less so mid-afternoon.

It’s Friday, my beloved is due back shortly, and he’s failed to convey the required information. So I sent him a chaser asking confirmation of his arrival time. He sent back an email telling me the plane was delayed by 30 minutes. Yes, but which plane? I have an arrival time of 17:25 in my diary but there’s no flight from Gatwick arriving at that time, instead it gets in at 16:25. I’ll have to extrapolate and see if that sheds any light on his probable arrival time.

My beloved is fond of saying we live 10 minutes from Nice airport – as the crow flies. Even early in the morning and late at night, a round trip takes me at least 40  minutes. Mid-morning or afternoon, you can double that thanks to the traffic. In the absence of clear instructions, I shall have to wait until my beloved sends me a message telling me he’s landed before going to fetch him. This does mean that he’s going to have a  bit of a wait. He’ll grumble, of course, even though it’s his own fault because once home he’ll either want to go for a ride or a swim while I prepare his dinner. You may well wonder what his last slave died of!

Lockdown loosening latest

For the first time in probably 10 years my beloved and I are experiencing a quiet summer close to home. We’re enjoying the odd trip out but have maintained many of our lockdown habits, such as shopping just once a week.

A couple of things have made a big difference, aside from being able to ride outside, namely the return of some sport to the big screen (ffotball, MotoGP and cycling) and the opening of the Domaine’s 50 metre Olympic size swimming pool. My beloved might tell you we bought the flat because of its wonderful sea view but he’s not being strictly truthful, it was because of that pool.

While we’ve happily eaten out at our favourite restaurants, we’ve also enjoyed lots of new recipes at home. My beloved has mastered his hair clippers removing the need for a trip to the barbers every three weeks. Meanwhile, I’m looking to challenge Rapunzel.

About a year ago, my beloved was invited to join a local business group that of late had been scheduling Zoom meetings to replace its regular get-togethers. Fortunately, they’re back enjoying discussions over the lunch or dinner table. This combined with his L’Etape  – now postponed until 2021 – training and his daily hour or so of swimming gives me a few blissful hours on my own each week to do whatever my heart desires. I’ll be honest, sometimes it’s not very much but it’s so lovely not being at his beck and call every five minutes.

I have been busy ministering to my small terrace garden which has definitely paid dividends. I don’t think I can claim green fingers but maybe I don’t after all have digits of doom. The self-watering pots have been a boon though I have been totally amazed at how much water the plants drink. I’m going to have to train them to take in much less otherwise I’ll never, ever be able to go away again.

Aside from watching sport on the television, we’ve been enjoying a number of documentaries that we missed first time around. But no binging, two episodes an evening is more than enough. We’re continuing with our Friday musical evenings where I’ve encouraged my beloved to download and listen to more of the music I enjoy. We’ve also persisted with our apéros on the terrace at the weekends though my beloved has not invented any more cocktails. Instead, aside from the Aperol Spritzs, we’ve been enjoying our recent purchases from the Var.

I’m sitting here in the office, typing away and listening to the gardeners make one heek of a racket. No noisy work can be carried out on properties in the Domaine during the months of July and August but it’s okay for the gardeners to chop down trees and then reduce said trees to wood pulp in the hopper! It’s like a re-run of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre but, I assume, without the blood and gore.

I  could, of course, close the windows but opening them all allows the air to flow through the apartment, our only form of air conditionning. The past few days have been really hot and sultry, with cold showers a must to keep cool. I’m actually looking forward to temperatures dipping towards the end of August, returning to the very acceptable mid to low 20s in early September.

Thankfully the Domaine has remained COVID-free despite an influx of holiday makers, many of whom own second homes here. There are some renters but the majority are visiting family. Don’t get me started on how many people the French can cram into a two-bedroomed flat! But, I can tell by the number of cars, we’re nowhere near as busy as is usual in the summer months.

A lot of the habits we’ve all become accustomed to in the last few months are now mandatory. In general, it’s masks indoors in all public spaces. In addition, in some of the busier areas in larger towns, such as Nice, mask wearing outdoors is also mandated though fortunately not on the beach. Wouldn’t that play havoc with your tan?

Also, in certain areas, to maintain social distancing and hygiene rules after hours, there are 22:00 beach curfews. I would say from observation that people are observing the rules and we’re keeping the monster at bay for the time being.

In the past few weeks we’ve enjoyed a a number of day trips out which I’ll cover in forthcoming posts. But aside from those, and a few picnics with friends, we’ve been keeping very much to ourselves. And, you know what, it’s not been too bad at all just so long as I can have those brief moments of respite.

One from the vaults: I’ve started, so I’ll finish

Bouyed with the success of my Livestrong Ride last year, I made London-Paris 2010 my next cycling challenge. This is how I fared…….

Yes, I made it to Paris in one piece. The event was everything I hoped it would be: great weather, well organised, fun and with a great sense of camaraderie among the participants. A few things perhaps didn’t go as planned but these were minor and generally beyond the control of the organisers.

I had a couple of issues. Two in fact: my feet. I suffered dreadfully with a condition known as “hot foot”. I was advised that my shoes were too tight, too loose, my cleats needed to be moved further back, I should wear Scholl gel inserts etc etc. I am seeking professional advice from a podiatrist whom I’m quite sure will come up with a solution for the problem. In addition, and probably to be expected, my nether regions were feeling a bit sore by the end of the three very long days. As you can see from this photo of me above on the Champs Elysees, I’m grimacing as I ride over those cobbles.

The more observant among you may be wondering where are the other 349 participants? Or, am I making my usual bid for Lanterne Rouge status? There’s approximately 340 souls ahead of me and about 9 behind. I deliberately dropped off the back so that my beloved could digitally capture me. I had set off from the lunch break momentarily at the head of the entire peloton until I slid, as is my wont, gently back through the peloton to my rightful place as a tail-end Charlie.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I went over to London a few days ahead of the start to catch up with friends and family. Apart from a quick spin each day, I tried to rest my legs, conserve my energy and eat wisely. My youngest sister lives but a few kilometers from the start so I was able to ride there on the morning of the event. Fortunately, and surprisingly, it was warm enough that I didn’t need either leg or arm warmers.

We were advised to arrive a whole hour before our scheduled departure time during which the numbers in Group 5 swelled alarmingly as riders from  other groups decided that they’d prefer a slower paced start. We rolled out at 07:00 and headed south into commuter traffic. It was fair to say that our reception was less than rapturous as cars honked their horns, shook their fists and, despite the presence of motobike outriders, attempted to drive us off the road. In no time at all there were cars mixed in with riders and the peloton was shattered.

A large portion of our Group took a wrong turn and we lost a considerable amount of time waiting for them. Needless to say they got plenty of good natured ribbing about this. Lunch was an all too brief stop at Lamberhurst and then we were off again to Dover.  Reinforcements were drafted in to try and make up for time lost. Those of us who were flagging were helpfully pushed on the uphill bits. I made the acquaintance of Nigel Mansell and his two sons who were riding the event as a warm up to their cycling challenge for the charity UK Youth. They were aided and abetted by ex-pro Magnus Backstedt who pushed me for 2km on a false flat at 55km/hr. That’s the fastest I’ve ever ridden on the flat and the highest cadence I’ve ever attained. Who needs an engine when you’ve got Magnus!

Sadly, our efforts were in vain, as we just missed our ferry and had to endure a long wait on the tarmac for the next one. Arriving in Calais, we cycled another 5km to the warehouse where we left our bikes overnight. I finally reached my hotel at 22:30 and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Day 2 dawned. More fabulous weather, a good breakfast and I was raring to go – yes, really. What a difference a day makes. Our reception on the other side of the channel was in marked contrast to the day before. People were waving, cheering, clapping, taking our photographs and generally enjoying the spectacle. Drivers waited patiently for us to pass or willingly pulled over to ease our passage. Yes, the French love cycling, and I love France and the French.

To be honest, I felt much happier on home turf and cycling on the right side of the road. Numbers in the group had thinned, the pace was better policed and more consistent. However, I still had to ride all the descents on my brakes because of the lead car thereby foregoing any benefit at the base of each climb. But this was an issue common to all groups, save 1 and 2. Lunch was another hasty affair but I was so hungry I made the mistake of eating all of my delicious ham baguette which lay like a stone all afternoon in my stomach. With hindsight, I should have eaten two apple tarts and skipped the baguette.

The group made regular stops throughout the day to refuel and I made sure that I ate and drank enough. I steered well clear of the gels and modified the strength of the energy drinks but even so by Day 3 I was mainlining Imodium Plus.  We arrived that evening in Amiens with enough time to enjoy a meal with a few of our fellow participants and discuss the day’s highlights.  On account of numbers, we were dispersed across several hotels until we reached Paris.

I awoke on Day 3 feeling my age – not a good sign. I felt nauseous, weak and generally ill at ease for the first 25 kms which was ridden (thankfully) at 3/4 pace. Thereafter, I felt much better and we rode 122kms to lunch which this time was a very quick 10 minutes. I grabbed a chocolate eclair and eschewed the baguette. This was a mistake, I should have had two eclairs. I joined the lengthy queue for the ladies’ toilet. Sadly, one was out of order and the other had been occupied for an unconsciably long time by a man who was nearly lynched as he emerged from the cubicle looking quite sheepish.

We were riding the last 45kms into Paris together and the ladies were sent to the head of the peloton where most of them stayed. However, all of us in Group 5 gradually slid back to our rightful places. It was a great ride in and a real sense of occasion as we arrived on the outskirts of Paris flanked by our motor cavalcade. As we headed towards our final destination, roads were closed until we had rolled through. As I glimpsed the l’Arc de Triomphe I felt a huge sense of relief tinged with pain as we hit the cobbles. One of the ride captains advised me to ride on the white lines, advice he’d gotten from Stephen Roche, a man who knows a thing or two about riding and winning Grand Tours.

I saw my beloved on the bridge, sucked in my tummy for the photo and tried to look purposeful. I rode round the corner to the hotel, the finish and a bit of an anti-climax. It was all over. Someone kindly handed me a glass of champagne and I went to collect my belongings.

Over dinner that evening we likened the experience to childbirth: we had quickly forgotten the pain among all the other good memories. Indeed, that’s what made the event for me. The support crew were fantastic, we didn’t have to sweat the small stuff. The motor outriders were fun guys who kept us smiling all day long with their humour, gallantry and music. I rode with a great bunch of people who, sadly, I may never meet again.

On Sunday morning, I bumped into a couple of guys who were riding back to the UK via Dieppe (short cut) and honestly a part of me wanted to ride with them. That would have been the part without my feet, so it would have been tricky.

Finally, a word of thanks to my cycling coach. I could not have done this without the training. A number of (male) participants claimed to have gotten on their bikes for the first time just three weeks before the event. I find that really hard to believe.

Things about France that surprised me: To Bise Or Not To Bise … That Is The Question!

When we first moved to France, it took us a while to understand who, when and how to exchange greetings. This has of course all been thrown up in the air by COVID. But first, let’s look at the “normal” rules and then look at how we’re adapting those to meet the curent guidelines.

If you are meeting someone that you don’t know, or meeting somebody in a business setting, you should shake their hand. This remains however quite a detached form of greeting and can additionally be used should you want to keep emotional distance from someone.

With friends or acquaintances, or even with family friends you should faire la bise as they say in French. Translated literally this expression means to give a kiss, however it is used mostly in reference to the French custom of kissing each cheek to say hello or goodbye. For many foreigners it can seem odd to exchange kisses, but to the French it’s such a basic social code that people tend to do it automatically, almost without thinking.

Whether it is President Macron welcoming German Chancellor Frau Merkel to a high-profile state meeting or a regular Frenchwoman greeting her friend at a bar, their gesture is fundamentally the same. They pout their mouths, lean in, smacking their lips in a kissing sound as their cheeks touch gently together

This ritual is different for everyone. Men usually font la bise with women, women do so with other women. Some men who are very close friends or from the south would also font la bise with each other but if they do not know each other that well they may shake hands. For example, my beloved is happy to kiss all our female friends but only kisses his dearest male friends.

I understand the number of kisses can vary. Here on the Cote d’Azur we do the classic two which is borne out by the website combiendebises.com where people rate the number of kisses they think they should give and which side of the face to start on according to the department.

These are the basic rules but if you are unsure… faire ce que font les autres (essentially do what everyone else does) then you can’t go wrong.

Going forward

France has lifted lockdown and things are returning towards (more) normal, but the long-standing French tradition of greeting each other with kisses on the cheek may be gone for good.

A recent article in one of France’s top cultural magazines featured a six-page long article entitled “When la bise disappeared.” Other than pointing to how COVID could mean quitting la bise for good, the magazine asked a poignant question:

Do the French know why they kiss?

Turns out, many don’t, and there are even people who dislike the direct physical contact with people they don’t know at all or not very well.

The Romans first introduced kissing to the French. They had three words for different types of kisses; saevium for a loving kiss, osculum for a friendly or religious kiss and basium, for a polite kiss. It’s the latter kiss which translated into la bise in French.

In the Middle Ages, kissing someone was the “ultimate symbol of a social contract between a lord and his vassal,” according to a long-read on the French news website France Info titled “after the crisis, the end of la bise?” Tracing the roots of the cheek-kiss, the article suggests that la bise has come and gone throughout history – notably taking long breaks after pandemics like the Black Plague.

The bourgeoisie, however, still felt it a bit common and it took until the mid 20th century for the entire cross-section of French society to kiss each other again.

So if we can’t kiss or shake hands, what can we do?

Luckily, there are a few alternatives, such as:

1. Bump elbows, known as the “Ebola handshake”

2. Le “footshake”, bumping feet

3. Remain “zen” in the face of the virus, with a namasté or a wai

Take inspiration from our Indian or Thai friends and use the salutation used to say hello and goodbye in India, Nepal, Thailand and across Southeast Asia. Join your palms with extended fingers in front of your chest and bend slightly at the waist. Lack of contact guaranteed.

4. Looking one another in the eye

5. A nod and a smile

6. The Vulcan Greeting from Star Trek

6. A military style salute

7. Placing palm of right hand across the heart

8. Invent your own greeting

Which one gets your vote?

One from the vaults: Stay calm, count to five and exhale

We’re heading back to 2016 today where I discuss my beloved’s ability (or lack thereof) to buy great presents.

Just over three years ago, my beloved bought me an iPad mini. I was sceptical at first but it’s become an indispensable part of my life. It goes everywhere with me. It’s the first thing I reach for when waking up and the last thing I look at before going to sleep. Just in case you’re starting to feel sorry for me, please remember my beloved travels a lot so I’m often home alone.

This morning the screen froze while I was reading a newspaper online. I rebooted but it just returned to the frozen screen. Initially panic set in as I thought this might mean a trip to my local Apple Store where I knew I would encounter lots of indifferent Gallic shrugs, little assistance and be advised there were no appointments for the next three weeks. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt! Instead, I googled the problem and found plenty of advice to help me through the few steps needed to resolve the issue – phew! Crisis averted.

It’s amazing how dependent we become on these devices. I can honestly say it’s the best present he’s ever bought me. Regular readers will know he’s not a giver of great presents so, much to his relief, I have banned him from buying me any. Indeed, my blood runs cold when he utters the words “I’ve bought you a little something!” That’s because we’ve been together for over 40 years and I can count on the fingers of one hand all the really great things he’s bought me.

Yes, I know I sound ungrateful, but I hate to waste money. You have to understand that my beloved gives very little thought to the actual purchase and is far more likely to buy something he’d like. Also, purchases tend to take place in airport duty-free while he’s rushing to catch a plane – not necessarily a conducive environment.

Unfortunately, my beloved has a hard act to follow. My late father was a purchaser of great gifts par excellence. He would spend hours trying to find the right coloured scarf to go with an outfit, or handbag or a piece of jewellery to delight or a beautiful handkerchief. Gifts don’t have to be expensive but they do need some careful thought as to what would please the receiver. He’d buy things throughout the year for little surprises, birthdays and Christmas, never once disappointing any of his four girls. My beloved is never going to assail those dizzy heights.

Indeed, my beloved will only go shopping if we’re going to buy him something. I generally don’t allow him to shop on his own, he’s very susceptible to the charm of the shop assistants and I’ve long suspected he’s colour blind. His distressed purchases, when an airline misplaces his baggage, bear witness to this.

But I digress. Usually, if  I entrust him to buy something from the airport, I specify what he should buy. I find it’s much safer that way. He was recently entrusted by a group of businessmen with purchasing gifts for the two Chinese ladies who’d accompanied them on a recent trip to China. Needless to say, I helped him choose the gifts otherwise I dread to think what they would have received! I also keep a stock of gifts suitable to give to clients, particularly those in the Middle and Far East, where an exchange of gifts is typical.

My favourite gifts to give and receive are consumables. French goodies go down very well while I’ve recently, and gratefully, received white tea, imperial rice and a selection of Indian spices. I’m still using up all the liquid and alcoholic gifts my beloved has received over the years, most of which end up in my cooking. I suspect we may never exhaust all of them. Likewise, our local charity shop has been the “lucky” recipient of many of our unwanted gifts. How many daggers mounted in picture frames does a girl need – none!

My last employer had a catalogue of corporate gifts, the Swiss Army knife being a particular and always welcome gift. I recall giving the all-singing, all-dancing version as a birthday present to a senior executive with whom I was negotiating to acquire a plot of land for the company. My birthday was later that month and he reciprocated with a wholly unsuitable gift – Blonde perfume and matching body lotion by Gianni Versace. I opened the gift at a table surrounded by our respective advisors and you could hear a pin drop when I revealed what was inside. I think I murmured “How thoughtful”  while appreciating my beloved wasn’t alone in buying unsuitable gifts!