Category: France

The News, French Style

Patrick Poivre d'Arvor on French TV

I propose that it might help to understand what makes a country tick by watching, without even necessarily fully understanding, the primetime news bulletin at around 8 or 9pm. The best known news bulletin in France is at 8pm, on the most popular terrestrial TV channel TF1. On of the presenters – and certainly the most famous – is Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, also known affectionately as “PPDA”. He’s the author of about 20 books, known as something of a womaniser, is a marathon runner and does a lot of work for charity. A lot of this work is centered around teenage psychological care — his daughter Solenn died as a result of anorexia at the age of 19, and he won a lot of public sympathy (though he angered some) when he went on air to present the news the very next day. He’s a very well known figure in France, and his silicone puppet presents a daily news parody on a competing channel (Canal+) too!

In France the local news is often of regional interest : agrictulture issues, strikes in ports or on the Parisian public transport network, local festivals and events. France has roughly the same population as England but three times the geographical area, so the news often covers regions quite far apart (by European standards). It always displays maps of the region involved, the main town in that region, and the town being talked about. People outside Paris want to hear about their region, and the diversity in style of each region means there are many events around France that are grouped around the differing agriculture, history or politics of a given place. For example Marseille is known for its football team and ferry port principally serving Corsica – a strike just ended there; the Beaujolais region known for the new wine (Beaujolais nouveau) festival; the suburbs of Paris notorious for their problems with unemployment and the related social tensions.

What I find particularly striking about the news content however is that there are often interviews with people who are invited to the studio to talk about not only the news (politicians, commentators, scientists and the like) but cultural events. Authors, musicians, actors and dancers for example will often be seen appearing on the evening news. Bruce Willis was recently interviewed by PPDA while promoting his new film. Authors are given a good amount of airtime, as are musicians. Concerts, exhibitions and book launches of a reasonably small scale are promoted and their cultural value highlighted.

Aside from local content it is important to note that a minimum of 30-40% of all news bulletins are dedicated to international issues, currently Iraq, Pakistan, and the socio-political situation in the US get a lot of coverage. Often there are special reports which try to understand current affairs from a local point of view, and given the high proportion of French muslims of Arabic descent, the country is well placed to understand – perhaps better than many others in Europe – just how important it is to watch radical fundamentalists closely whilst still trying to present their point of view accurately.

You can probably learn a lot from watching a news bulletin from another country. Compare Fox News to Sky News, the BBC to CBS, and you already have a good take on the UK as compared to the US. Here in France, it’s a good mix of culture, international news, and regional specifics (and a well respected and quite famous presenter) which the news bulletin uses to monitor the country’s pulse.

Neat, like a shot of Tequila

Real Espresso Coffee

One of the things about living away from England so long is that most people miss that which is quintessentially English, or was an integral part of their experience growing up; like HP sauce, proper tea, marmite (yuk!), and decent beer – IPA, bitter or generally “real ale” as we call it. I’m not going to focus on those things just now, but rather on what I gain from being in France. The first is proper coffee.

When I was growing up, I didn’t like coffee and I took milk and sugar in my tea. The ritual of accompanying any event – like getting home from doing the shopping or from school, greeting anyone who dropped in, before sitting down to watch a TV programme – was making a cup of tea. “Put the kettle on” was one of the most common phrases heard in the house. I stopped taking sugar in my tea quite early though, realising that getting the right dose of milk in the tea had a lot more to do with achieving the right taste than sweetening the beverage.

I think I must have been about 14 before I actually drank coffee. Perhaps for two reasons; one being that my tastebuds probably evolved, somewhat due to smoking as well I think, the second being drinking proper coffee. All too often in my younger days, coffee was a teaspoonful of Nescafé in a big tea mug, filled with boiling water, and topped off with milk. I still can’t drink coffee like that. A friend of mine introduced me to filter coffee taken in small doses and drunk without milk. In English, we call that “black coffee” – a word which has to be added to coffee and yet you don’t add “black” to coffee. You take away the milk, which should never be added automatically in the first place. In French (and in France), coffee is black unless you add a word or two to make it milky: “café au lait” (coffee with milk) or “café crème” (coffee with cream) and “café noisette” (coffee with enough milk to make it hazelnut coloured, hence the noisette).

I quite liked black coffee like that. I was 14 in the very late eighties so home espresso (note preferred spelling) machines weren’t the rage. I was yet to discover coffee in its purest form: hot steam forced at pressure through finely ground coffee beans. A small cup holding little more than a mouthful, the foamy creamy top on a dark liquid which seems much more viscous than water, the strong caffeine hit.

I have a ritual in the morning with filter coffee because it’s easier. I drink “carte noire” strongly dosed in a small cup. Usually our cat Suzie comes to ask for her morning brushing at the same time – she’s got longish fur and needs brushing every day. So I drink strong coffee after my main breakfast and brush the cat. I had an espresso machine but cleaning it was too much trouble so I went back to a filter machine which cost me less than 10€, so it’s practically disposable. That doesn’t mean I don’t clean it ;-).

The best coffee of the day is after lunch. Having eaten a proper French lunch – salad or cold meat as a starter, then a meat and vegetable dish “à la française” like Guinea Fowl with steamed vegetables – dessert is replaced by an espresso, usually served with a piece of strong dark chocolate. I eat the chocolate, sip my coffee and roll and light my cigarette (I prefer handrolled tobacco, and it’s cheaper). A good end to a meal.

I was in the US recently and there in Starbucks I was pleased to see you can order proper coffee. In France when you ask for a coffee anywhere, they’ll serve you a single espresso automatically — unless of course they’re snobby Parisian waiters who think you’re American in which case they’ll probably ask you in broken English if you really want a single espresso. In Texas it was a different story. It took a moment for the girl at the counter to understand that I really wanted a double shot of espresso straight up in a cup. I got my proper coffee though, and I was satisfied. I overheard in the queue behind me “jeez he’s taking his coffee neat – like a shot of Tequila!”. I smiled.

Cappucino, Latté, Iced Coffee, and all that Starbucks language that goes with it like “skinny double latté” – that shit just doesn’t hold with me. These are all aberrations or variations on what coffee should really be, and as is served in France*. Neat, like a shot of Tequila.

* Admittedly proper coffee is even more Italian than French. They founded the word “espresso” and go to even greater extremes with “ristretta” where the coffee dose is the same, but the amount of water halved.

England win the Ashes

England win the Ashes - Pietersen makes 158

Who would have thought, 18 years ago when I last witnessed the England cricket team win the Ashes, that I would wait so long to see it happen again. I’d not have believed it if I had known at the time that I would be following the next winning series living in France, listening over streaming radio online, and following the scores on a website. I just managed to see the final presentations on Sky News; images coming to me via my phone line over ADSL. Packet switched transmission technology, computer based algorithms for encoding and decoding all the content : not an analogue transmission in sight.

Fantastic result in analogue or digital. Congratulations England!

Image © copyright Associated Press.

Sunday Moment

Driving at Dusk

Driving around Paris. Initially, a very scary experience because if you’ve driven in England you’re not prepared. Traffic lights are not opposite the junction, but right next to it. Road signs point out places that are close by : rarely road names or places further away that you actually want to get to. Inside Paris itself, it’s tough to find places if you’re not used to it. Lots of motorbikes and scooters around, lots of one-way systems.

Once you get the hang of it, it’s quite nice. A wonderful city. I took a trip through the 19th and the 10th arrondissements (districts) around the Gare du Nord. Stopped to have a cup of tea with friends, came back past the Canal St Martin and the Canal St Denis. At some points along the canals there’s no barrier. You could close your eyes and veer to the right straight into the water. Close to the Porte de la Villette, I took a little dogleg route along the Canal St Denis to avoid a one way system before joining the periphérique. At a traffic light, a couple laughing jumped on a Vespa and drove in front of me. The light went green, they swayed a bit – they were still giggling – and then headed off with that familiar exhaust sound. A picture of happiness on a Vespa, I thought of my wife and smiled. I was on my way home.

Gran’s 5 Questions via a Knee

I believe this game was invented by Gran’s on Bran. I found it on Knee. Usually a blog about having complex knee surgery, it’s also part of the Blog Explosioncommunity” and as such gets drawn into these blog trends as do I. But why not, it’s fun!


  • If you want to participate, leave a comment below saying “Interview me.â€Â? (â€Â?Tickle meâ€Â? or “Caress meâ€Â? are not acceptable substitutes.) You must leave your blog address so I can think of good questions for you!
  • I will respond by asking you five questions – each person’s will be different. I’ll post the questions in the comments section of this post.
  • You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
  • You will include this explanation and an offer to interview others in the same post.
  • When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

Bentley92 asks, having prefaced his questions “Thankfully you gave me a lot to work with. I hope you enjoy the questions and it makes you think a bit (but not too much).” :

1. Why do you love cats or what made you a cat person (I’m personally a dog guy)?
I like dogs too, I just couldn’t keep a dog because my wife and I both work and it’s unfair to keep a mutt in an apartment all day. I grew up with cats and dogs, always loved having animal company.

2. What brought you to France and how long do you plan on staying there?
I didn’t speak any French until I got to senior school (high school). I did well in French and went on to do a French degree at university. Part of the degree course was a year in France, and I lived there for 8 months. Then I went back to England, but ended up in Morocco (long story for another post). In Morocco I got married and my wife and I decided that we wanted to be in Europe, and France was a better for our employment chances. It’s also cheaper to live in France compared to the UK and house prices are much more reasonable, so we bought a flat here and intend staying pretty much indefinitely. I hope to expand on things about France (especially the idiosyncratic differences in daily life) from time to time on this blog.

3. Was it a hard decision to find out the sex of your child before the birth? I have twin boys, didn’t find out what they were till they were born.
At the scan where we were able to find out the sex, we both agreed that we wanted to know. It was a natural decision, I think that waiting for the surprise would have been difficult for us both, we are too curious.

4. As an Englishman, do the English follow the Tour de France as much as the French and who did you pull for?
I don’t think the English follow the tour like the French do, but it does get reasonable coverage on English TV. I am a fan of Vinokourov, but I like seeing Armstrong in the mountains and generally the battles between the top riders. Being in France allows me to follow the tour every day, and I take part in a fantasy cycling game with some friends which you can read in the Tour de France category. It keeps the interest going every day and encourages some friendly rivalry.

5. Where do you get your interest in science?
I’m interested in most things. Computers, sport, cars, movies, science, technology, music (I play keyboards and guitar) and I read a lot online and offline. I read a lot of history, philosophy and fiction in general. I’ve been keen on science fiction recently, see the post “reading for free”. I’ll probably review Accelerando in an upcoming post, I finished it a few days ago. Science is such a wide subject and with so many fascinating discoveries and advancements made all the time, I feel compelled to follow the science and IT news to keep up to date with it all.

Thanks for the interesting questions Bentley, I’m keen to see how the surgery goes so I’ll check in from time to time. Good luck!

Staying Late at the Office?

“Staying late at the office” is one of those context sensitive phrases. First of all, it depends what the accepted hour for late is. Do you base lateness on the official working hours – which incidentally you should be able to find as they ought to be displayed somewhere in the office? Do you base lateness on the median hour of departure of your colleagues? Or are you on flexi-time, where such calculations take into account the number of hours you have spent in the office since you arrived?

According to Executive Planet, the American eye view of culture in France is that managers often stay late, until 7pm or later. I can confirm this is the case. Where I get burned is that I’m often the first manager in the office, and hence staying until 6pm is already late according to some of the calculation possibilities cited above. As the arrival of the baby approaches, I am being more and more reasonable about the time I spend after official hours (9am-6pm) at the office because I know I put the hours in. At least I’m not in a position where I’m staying in the office 24 hours a day. It does happen, and there are even people offering tips for you if you have no home to go to, or if you decide this is the only way that you’re going to get all that work done!

The rather more interesting point about “staying late at the office” is that it evokes, as I imagine was the case for you, a darker side of passion and cheating. Let that phrase play out in your subconscious. Might you need to confess such treacherous adventures? Even if they were only in your mind, and never physically consummated?

Forget French office culture, or watching the clock and counting that theoretical overtime that you’ll never get paid for. Maybe we should stop and think about euphemisms a little bit more. For indeed, as the article linked rightly states, we are no longer “fired” but “laid off”; we have “collateral damage” instead of “civilian casualties”. Governments now have “public relations” departments. From the same linked article the conclusion about the state of disbelief between many a public and their government :

…fostering good relations with the public appears to require telling it unpleasant truths in ways that appear to satisfy its need to know. Yes, this is very much like a dysfunctional marriage where nobody wants to admit that “staying late at the office” is actually a euphemism for “getting it on with the secretary”.

Just not Cricket

Living in France, there are a few things I really miss. Market differences mean that certain food is not available in supermarkets or restaurants here : salt and vinegar crisps, baked beans, HP sauce, McVities digestives and my favourite Indian spices (although if you know a good convenience store managed by an Indian you can find these) to name a few. The lack of favourite Indian spices extends to Indian restaurants: there are restaurants especially around Paris, but their menus are a far cry from an average English town Indian restaurant. Even Chinese restaurants, available in abundance here, don’t have the same range of meals. It would seem that here a lot of Asian restaurants are owned by the old French colony nationals : Vietnamese in particular. So when I go back to England a trip to my local Chinese and Indian is always a pleasure. I think that this shows that Asian food has evolved within England for English tastebuds, because I’m convinced that in India and China the food is totally different too.

Then there’s sport : Cricket is almost unknown, and I am yet to meet a Frenchman who knows even the basics of the game. “You can play a game which lasts five days?” is a familiar response to my initial attempts at explaining this very British sport. Snooker fares a little better, mainly due to the popularity of pool. I even got to see some of the Embassy world snooker championship on French Eurosport so it’s tentatively forming a niche here. Finally, Darts. A few cafés have an electronic dartboard with automatic scoring and those crappy plastic darts, but it’s not something that you’d see on TV. It’s usually an excuse for drunken lobbing of pointy things at a board which will flash if you’re lucky enough to score a few points. If I take the oche, I get strange looks for my stance and aiming technique. Sadly I don’t do very well, can’t throw those plastic darts. The worst of all this is that I am having difficulty following England in their current ashes series. I have to settle to listening to “Five Live” when I’m near an Internet connection.

If you’re looking to define what is quinetessentially British, you could do a lot worse than starting with those things that other nations do not have available in commerce due to a lack of demand. Don’t moan about the lack of pet tastes though – what is most interesting when travelling is the challenge to find new things that open your mind and your tastebuds. How boring it would be if everything was the same.

Silly English in France

I occasionally feel inspired enough (or silly enough) to run a psychological experiment at work. Everyone knows I’m pretty much bilingual (English/French) and they are often reluctant to speak to me in my native English. So I’ll speak English with a French accent, and I observe the difference. Once I start speaking in this way, the likelihood that I will be replied to in English is massively increased. Indeed, it is in these circumstances that I have heard colleagues speak English for the first time. It seems to break down a psychological barrier based on their school experience.

Perhaps because at school when they are learning, they are with others who all have appalling accents to begin with, and in my experiment they rediscover that security of being just like their peers and all speaking poorly. Perhaps the situation also subconsciously takes them back a few years, and they can better remember simple vocabulary, that which is the most embarassing to not have at your fingertips and which often blocks phrase formation. So conversation flow improves.

Incidentally, when I started to improve my accent in school at about 14-15 years old, I was often teased by others in the class. Perhaps one thing they didn’t like was the security they had hiding behind the poor accent standard that everyone had set, allowing them to not have to make too much of an effort. Perhaps they just thought I was a bit of a language nerd.

It doesn’t work the other way : speaking French with an English accent can sometimes cause those who have little language learning under their belt to misunderstand what is otherwise a syntactically correct sentence. Such as l’Oiseau found from what sounds to me to be a very snobbish and ignorant waiter. It’s a lot harder to understand someone with a foreign accent, but people should make the effort a bit more often. That’s what language learning is all about, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

My experiment is great fun, but finally when I revert to regular English I lose everyone again. It never helps that they know I understand exactly what they’re saying in French as it makes them incredibly lazy. Then again, maybe they feel too much pressure to speak my language as well as I speak theirs, but that’s just a “bloquage” in their minds even though it’s a thought that’s far from mine. Sadly, I’m not in a position to catalyse their language learning. The people you learn most about a language from are those that leave you in a situation where you have no choice but to communicate on their terms.