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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

May Day in France

What May Day really means to the French

For the French, May 1 is a special day where everyone gets a day off. Stores, banks, and government offices are all closed. People spend this day of leisure with their families or friends. 

Fête du Muguet (the Feast of the Lily of the Valley) all started with King Charles IX of France in 1561. He was given the flower as a lucky charm. He liked it so much that he decided to give it every year to the ladies of the court. Today, the flowers are sold in bouquets on the street, at churches, and in stores around France. People offer the flowers to friends or family members for good luck.

Of course, for the Catholic Church, May Day is St. Joseph the Worker Day. The Notre Dame Cathedral in Le Puy held a Mass in honor of St. Joseph this morning. 

Happy St. Joseph the Worker Day, especially to the Sisters of St. Joseph!!

Eluiza and I celebrated the day by going to Mass at the Cathedral, making homemade pizza, and taking a day off.

May Day is also Fête du Travail (Labor Day). Trade unions and other workers' organizations use this day for marches in the streets in favor of workers' rights. Called "International Workers Day," the tradition began in 1889 after following the lead of a Chicago workers' strike in 1886 when 35,000 workers walked off their jobs to demonstrate for the 8-hour work day. In 1941, French workers finally won the 8-hour work day, which included getting a paid day off.

This year is especially important one for transportation workers. They are in the midst of a national strike (la gréve) that began in April and is scheduled to continue until June. Fortunately, it takes place only 2-3 days a week, but it requires a lot of maneuvering for travelers.

If you are traveling in France this spring/summer, here is a schedule of rail and air strike days: 

Thursday, May 3 - Rail and Air France strike (Tuesday, May 1, is the Fête du Travail public holiday. Public transport will be very limited)
Friday, May 4 - Rail and Air France strike
Monday, May 7 - Air France strike
Tuesday, May 8 - Rail and Air France strike (also a public holiday)
Wednesday, May 9 - Rail strike (Thursday, May 10, is a public holiday)
No air strikes are yet scheduled beyond May 8, but could be called if negotiations fail. Meanwhile, further rail strikes are planned on the following days:
May 13-14
May 18-19 (May 21 is the Pentecôte public holiday)
May 23-24
May 28-29
June 2-3
June 7-8
June 12-13
June 17-18
June 22-23
June 27-28

A list of trains running will be displayed in each station. Any mainline ticket for a cancelled train will be valid on all trains running on that day along the same route. Customers who prefer to cancel their trip has the right to a full refund at the ticket office, regardless of purchase price.
Rail passengers heading towards the platforms at Gare Montparnasse, Paris

The Independent, an online UK site explains why the French railway workers are on strike in its April 13, 2018, edition.
"The country's railway workers are engaged in industrial action over proposed reforms to the SNCF, the national railway, which will be opened up to competition in 2020 in line with EU requirements. 
SNCF employees currently receive automatic annual pay rises, receive 28 days of paid annual leave, are allowed to retire at 50 and are entitled to free tickets for family members. 
These perks will be lost under the contractual reforms proposed, which will mean an end to jobs-for-life for new hires. 
The SNCF is presently £40 bn in debt and operating at a loss of £5,000 a minute. 
France's rail lines are looking at 36 days of strikes in total, two days out of every five from the period beginning on 3 April and scheduled to run until 28 June. 
All four of France's main rail unions are involved. In total, 77 per cent of drivers and 34 per cent of staff are downing tools. 
Air France pilots, cabin crew and ground staff are also on strike - demanding a 6 per cent pay rise given that their wages have been frozen since 2011. The company is currently only offering a one per cent increase with added benefits and have been duly snubbed."

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Annual Pot-au-Feu Celebration in Le Puy

Pot au feu2.jpg

 The annual "Pot-au-Feu" celebration was held on Saturday, March 24. Citizens from the Le Puy area were all invited by the Super U grocery store to attend.

Pot-au-feu is a French country tradition that literally means "pot to the fire." The dish has been around at least since the 11th century where it was cooked in a big pot over a fire

According to Chef Raymond Blanc, pot-au-feu is "the quintessence of French family cuisine; it is the most celebrated dish in France. It honours the tables of the rich and poor alike." 

The main ingredients of pot-au-feu are some kind of cartilaginous meat (oxtail or marrowbone), carrots, turnips, leeks, celery, and onions. The spices used are bouquet Garni, salt, black pepper and cloves. 

The pot-au-feu in Le Puy took place in some nippy weather with overcast skies, but the hundreds of people who attended the annual event were not dissuaded. The wait in line wasn't very long either.  

Servers from the Super U staff as well as members of the Le Puy community joyfully and efficiently dished out this fine repast. 

The pot-au-feu followed a regular French déjeuner format, which also included an entree of saucisson, a generous wedge of cheese, baguette, eclair, wine, water, and coffee. 

The pot-au-feu celebration was held courtesy of the Super U, which prepared and offered the meal for free (gratuit) as a community service project. It seemed that all of the people of Le Puy were there and Eluiza and I joined in on the fun!

Le Puy is basically rural mountain country, so local farmers brought their animals to proudly display them. The Super U contracts with these farmers to stock their meat counters. It also seemed that through the presence of these animals, farmers were trying to help people recognize the farm-to-table connection.

French cows are usually white or white with brown spots.

The butcher who processes beef is called a boucher and his shop is the boucherie

These huge cows (about 5 feet high) were lined up. There was a contest going on for people to guess the weight of 25 cows and win a prize. Below is their front side.

Pork is an important and widely-used meat in France. Regular cuts are popular as well as various prepared foods like bacon, ham, sausage, terrines, galatines, ballotins  pâtes, and confit. 

The butcher who processes pork meat is called a charcutereur and his shop is the charcuterie. 

These porkers seemed cozy with one another, but one didn't hesitate to  strut his stuff or let the others know who was tops in the pecking order.

Sheep producers brought their black sheep, which are unique to the Haut-Loire area. The males are used for meat while the females are used for wool and for milk that will be turned into a delicious cheese called fromage de brebis

The animals were pretty mellow, but one seemed willing to communicate with onlookers.

Farmers are greatly revered in France. News outlets frequently feature stories about them and French agriculture throughout the year to tout the quality of French food. A couple weeks ago there was a huge agriculture exhibition in Paris. President Macron was there to observe and support farmers. It is also important to note that the French local food movement is alive and well, although it continually struggles with industrial agriculture. 

Also on hand at the pot-au-feu event were dancers who demonstrated some pretty good line dancing accompanied by American country music. Although they seemed a bit out of place in France, it was yet another example of  how American culture is imitated around the world. After all, who wouldn't want to be a cow poke? Just hearing the music transported me back to the USA for a while.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Spring Has Sprung in Le Puy


It's only March and already the flowers are peeking up from the ground as buds on the trees and rose bushes are emerging. The grass is also getting greener at the International Centre. The days are getting longer, and it's getting a little warmer (except for this week). Soon we will plant our garden!

Neighborhood gardeners are readying themselves for spring by tilling the soil and planting cold crops.

The Borne River is gradually waking up from its slumber as the riverside trail prepares itself for the walkers, runners, hikers, pilgrims, and cyclists. 

Yes, indeed, spring in Le Puy has sprung at the International Centre!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Salon du Vin

One Sunday afternoon in mid-March I went to St. Paulien where the local Kiwanis Club was holding a weekend “Salon du Vin.” The Salon is a wine tasting event where several regional wine producers gather to show off their wares and try to gain loyalty for their products. In addition to the wine producers are also cheesemakers, saucisson makers, and those who can snails or foie gras or some other delectable delight that goes well with wine.

As I entered the Salon and approached the reception table, two Kiwanis volunteers in suits leaped up awkwardly to greet me. Their movement reminded me of some movie I had seen, and I had to hold my giggles. I spoke French to them, quite simple stuff like “I’d like to buy a ticket for the Salon.” They (as all the French people I’ve encountered these past eight months) were quite welcoming and pleased that I, the étranger, would speak to them in French. I payed my 3-euro entrance fee and they gave me a ticket and a wine glass for the tasting.

my friend, Pascal who has taught me much about French culture
I felt I was in familiar territory because five months earlier I went to my first Salon with Pascal, a Frenchman friend I met in Kalamazoo who now lives with his family in the Savoie area (near Geneva, Switzerland). A former salesman of wine and champagne, he knew his way around Salons. He even bought me a bottle of red wine, a wedge of delicious cheese, a saucisson (salami), and a small jar of snails. For himself, he bought several bottles of wine and cheese. The Salon was a fun visit and apparently, a very French thing to do. Voilá, I was going to try it again only on my own. I knew what to do, and it was a community event that I wanted to support.

Since I’d been through St. Paulien before (and even attended a “Salon du Chocolat” in November where they had a chocolate tasting event), I knew where I was going. However, wine is not my forte since I know little more than it is red, white, and rosé, and that it is either dry or sweet. There are many other distinctions, however, and plenty of wine producers who want to help rookies learn about wine like the website: Wine Tasting for Beginners. The purpose in wine tasting classes is tohelp you describe it better, taste it smarter, pair it with the right food, and choose better bottles from the supermarket in future,” according to a British website on le bon heure entitled Experience Days.

Monk Testing Wine by Antonio Casanova y Estorach (c.1886)
Monk Testing Wine by Antonio Casanova y Estorach (c.1886)

I knew the mechanics of wine tasting like smelling it, noting its color, swishing it around the glass to check out its legs (i.e., its adherence to the glass), taking a sip and letting it settle in my mouth. However, the more I did these things at the various wine stalls, the more conspicuous I felt that I was a fake who did know what I was doing.

Nevertheless, one young producer was very kind to me. She explained in French (until I got that blank look and she switched to English) that her vineyard was located just north of Marseille and that her rosé was the family’s specialty. It surely tasted good and I knew I liked it. She said it was “rond et sec” that is: round and dry. I could taste the dry, but I had to ask her what “rond” meant. She patiently told me that there was no sugar in the wine and that the taste was derived only from the fruit. I nodded, but just couldn’t experience how it differed from wine with sugar. I appreciated her willingness to talk with me, though, and decided that I’d buy the rosé because she spent so much time with me and because she was located near Marseille, a city I want to visit sometime this year.

I moved on to another stall but was hard-pressed to make a choice. Most of the producers were shy and didn’t look up, so it was easy to pass by them. There were a couple producers, however, who invited me to taste their wine. One let me try wine from several different bottles. They were all good, but when I asked what kind of wine it was, he said it was Cote du Rhône. We buy this wine for the Centre, so I wasn’t going to spend money on it because I wanted something different. I thanked the producer and sheepishly slipped away.

My third and last stop was with another young woman producer. This time I tried the red, the white and the rosé. Before tasting her wine, she rinsed out my glass so that I’d have a fresh taste of her wine and not a mix of someone else’s. Then she offered me a spitting pot where she expected me to take a sip, slosh it around in my mouth, and then spit it out. I could also dump the rest of the contents of my glass.

“Oh no,” I said. “I’ll drink the whole sample that you gave me,” thinking I didn’t want to waste good wine. After three or four samples, however, I was getting whoosy and remembered that I had to drive home. (I had been warned before I went to the Salon that the police like to hang out near these events in an attempt to catch those who have had a few too many samples.) So I stopped my wine tasting and asked the woman for a bottle of white wine mostly out of guilt that she had taken so much time with me even though I knew that that was why she was there. 

layout of the Salon du Vin
I toured the small exhibit hall to look for the cheeses. Unfortunately, there was only one stall, and the producers weren’t there. I would have gladly bought some cheese because I’ve fallen in love with French cheese of which there are 365 varieties! I tend to like bries, blues, and hard cheeses. I also know that I prefer cow cheese although I’m slowly getting to like goat and sheep cheeses. Sadly, I left the cheese stall but turned to an interesting-looking man who was dark, swarthy and wore a red neckerchief.

Voulez-vous une goûter?” he asked, trying to engage me to approach his table. He had small bits of bread and a number of jars full of something. He spread the stuff on the piece of bread and offered it to me.

Bien sûr,” I responded to him, quickly getting the message that I was about to taste foie gras (duck’s liver). I abhor liver of any kind, and I don’t like the fact that they force feed the animals so that their liver enlarges and then they are killed for it. But, I had to admit that this foie gras tasted good. I wondered if I had transformed my taste for liver just being in France where everything tastes good.

“Here, try another,” he said. By this time, he knew I was an English speaker and once again, my quest to speak French to natives was foiled by their ability to speak my language. It’s intriguing that it usually only takes a word or two before the French know I am an English speaker.

“Are you from England?” he asked. This is a typical question indicating that maybe there are more British travelers to France than Americans.

Non, je suis Américaine,” I answered trying to remain in French language, proudly putting up my hand in the form of the Michigan mitten and pointing out Detroit where I was born, and Kalamazoo, where I live. “Il est à mi-chemin entre Detroit and Chicago.”

“I am from Basque country,” he said in near-perfect English while I was thinking how unfair it is that so many people all over the world have learned English while I’m still trying to learn French!

He offered me four samples, but I determined that I liked the second one best. So I bought it even though he tried to offer me a couple more samples. I didn’t want to press my luck with foie gras.

“You are the first Basque I’ve ever met,” I blurted out to him. He seemed unimpressed or maybe he was just concentrating on working the charge card machine.

“You will like that foie gras,” he said in his all-business-like way.

Actually, I hadn’t intended to buy anything at the Salon, but ended up buying two bottles of wine for 15 euros and a jar of foie gras for 16 euros. But the feeling of being a fake combined with my fear of drinking too wine told me it was time to go home. I could have spent more time at the Salon and tried to learn more about wine, but I couldn’t sustain buying another bottle of wine in order to allay my guilty feelings.

Then I had to approach my next challenge: the parking lot. This is always a particular trial in France and today would be no different. I followed the same narrow road I had taken when I entered the Salon, but was puzzled that I couldn’t find the way out since there was an interdit sign (a red circle crossed out, which means no entry) on the road that connected to the complex of buildings where the Salon took place. In fact, there were two other events going on: a soccer match and an indoor-outdoor flee market.

I drove on an adjoining road and discovered I’d encountered the soccer field where the match was about to begin. So I re-traced my path back to the road that led to the Salon du Vin. Maybe there was a way out of the complex in that direction that I had missed. Wrong move! While I was able to get into the parking lot through this narrow road that led to it, there was not enough space for two cars going in opposite directions. Then a number of cars lined up wanting to go out. At one point, I encountered a man who drove a battered, dull-green car. I signaled with my hands that I didn’t know where to go since there were cars behind me. He signaled back the same hand motion and then edged up nose to nose to me as if to say that I had to yield to him. In what seemed like a forever stalemate, the cars behind me suddenly started backing up. I followed them as the man in the battered, dull-green car kept creeping closer and closer to me as though he were afraid someone would cut in front of him. Finally, I reached the end of the road that gave him enough room to slip past me, but not without scraping my right fender a bit. This poor man was obviously in a hurry! I, in turn, breathed a sigh of relief that the ordeal was over and that I could finally leave.

The day had been a bit edgy in that I felt I was out in French society left to my own devices, but I made it through just fine. After all, I had had another French cultural experience—as well as the opportunity to drive in the beautiful French countryside. I doubt it gets any better than this!