Les Fêtes de l’eté

There’s a general perception that the French have more leisure time than Americans. This is true. Having more practice with it, they also perform it better, in my opinion. Holidays are not so scarce that citizens go hysterical (read: wasted) when they finally get them. Many are designed to be community, family-friendly events.

This season is a time of traditional outdoor festivities, often referred to as “animations,” starting with the June 21st Fête de la Musique. Every city and village in France celebrates the arrival of summer with music-making of some kind (“faites musique” means “make music” but it sounds like “Fête”, get it?).

Although the Fête was launched in 1982 nationwide as a way to recognize amateur musicians (of which there are very many across France), in large cities like Paris the programming largely involves professional bands and symphonies.

Here in western Finistère, in the days preceding the Fête, we drove past many handmade signs outside villages announcing their own music fest. You could have Fête-hopped the solstice all night long within a very confined geographical area. No one would have judged you, though, because at that time of year the sun doesn’t set until almost midnight and bonfires bring the dusk to a blaze as the musicians play their last. Why go inside?

“Les Bretons sont chauvins,” a local told me. Proud of their heritage, they are indeed. The Bretons use the fine seasonal weather to trot out their local sonneurs (players of cornemuses, binioux and bombards) at Celtic-themed musical fests called “Fest Noz.” I go mad for this folk life stuff, and finding fests nearby is one of my constant preoccupations.

Pig Roasts (cochon grillé) are also popular. They serve the same purpose as a Lions Club pancake breakfast, raising funds for a community. These don’t appeal to me personally, but they are traditionally Breton. In fact, let’s just say that vegans should really stay away from fish, cow, sheep, goat and bee product-based rural Brittany.

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Milos Forman’s “The Fireman’s Ball” is one of my favorite films of all time. Until coming to Brittany this summer, I had no idea such events still took place anywhere. You can find quite a few “Bal des Pompiers” during the week prior to Bastille Day, where bands play and people sit along river quais or in public parks dancing and eating the local staple, Moules et Frites.

If folk life isn’t your thing, then maybe you’d go for the classical music concerts several times a week, in one medieval church or another. Or, Celtic rock concerts closer to the cities (no thank you).

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The Inter-Celtic extravaganza takes place every August in Lorient, too far for us to reach this time. But maybe next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Bretagne, Brittany, culture, expat, Finistère, France | 9 Comments

Les Langoustines, le Blé Noir, le Brebis et le Cidre

It’s Langoustine season in Finistère Sud, the southwestern part of Brittany. Known in English as the “Norway Lobster,” they are available in abundance at all the markets. We’re indulging several times a week. And why not? At an affordable $7 a pound at the Poissonnerie (fishmonger’s), they are irresistible. Some fishmongers even boil them up for you in a special machine in a quick four minutes.

They remind me of Vancouver, B.C.’s famous spot prawns, a delicate crustacean I have known,  loved and missed.

Local restaurants serve huge plates of boiled langoustines with mayonnaise, but I prefer them at home with just a little olive oil, lemon and garlic, with those lovely small Breton potatoes on the side. There is nothing better!

The rest of Breton cooking is not much to my liking. The region is famous for its salted butter, and it tends to find its way into everything in copious amounts. Old style French cuisine is the norm, which means rich sauces. I will admit, they are tasty in small measure (a teaspoon), but inevitably the steamed fish with vegetables restaurant order arrives sitting in a bath of cream. Give me a good boiled Icelandic fish dinner!

The weekly markets in this part of Brittany, which is sparsely populated and lacks big cities, are small affairs of a dozen or so vendors. They are the only places I have found a few decent vegetables, as the supermarket fare isn’t impressive at all. Lots of buttery Breton galettes and sablés (sugar cookies) are available, though.

So beyond the frequent langoustine meals, I console myself daily with two other widely available Breton products, such as crackers and crepes made with Blé Noir (buckwheat) and fresh Brebis, sheep’s milk cheese.

And of course, there’s the cider. I have never seen a vineyard in Brittany, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say there aren’t any. However, great apple cider is available everywhere and you can buy bottles direct from the producers by taking the turn at the sign for the “Ciderie” off the road. I like the extra dry, with fine bubbles, low alcohol and a slightly tangy aftertaste. You have to drink it right away, or it becomes too bitter, but that’s not a problem.

Not bad for a summer experience.

 

 

Posted in Bretagne, Brittany, expat, expat life, Finistère, food, France, Travel | 11 Comments

Le Retour en Bretagne

Ah, here we are again, nestled into the lushly green landscape and utter calm of rural Brittany. No big hotels, no tourist buses, no high rises. This summer we are exploring the west, in Finistère Sud, of rugged coastline and pristine Atlantic waters, somber granite villages and Celtic legends. Menhirs, dolmens, cairns and sacred Druid places are scattered seemingly helter-skelter (they were actually integrated into a vast ancient system of religious spaces) and our holiday rental is across from the Menez Hom so important to Breton myth.

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Finistère Sud is also known as the wettest part of the region. We’ve had sun, but every day has started with rain, or, like this morning, a tempest.

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Nevertheless, Brittany is suffering from a three-year drought. That explains why last summer was hot and dry. Maybe we’ll have some more of that in the next couple of months.

This part of Brittany encompasses the famously beautiful Crozon Peninsula, which attracts beach going families, wet-suited surfers and hikers taking on the GR 34 (Grande Randonnée or “big hike”) stretching along the coast for 120 kilometers/75 miles. Months of sunny days wouldn’t be enough to adequately explore its countless breathtaking views and wide expanses of sandy beaches.

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Weather permitting, we’ll do the GR 34 justice. The temperature is currently 16C/61F, so bathing is out of the question. However, not for some locals.

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Posted in Bretagne, Brittany, Crozon, expat life, Finistère, France | 8 Comments

L’été

It’s that time of year most Niçois long for, when the beach beckons at all times of day, beachwear becomes common on the Promenade and masses of tourists infuse the local economy. Art exhibitions and jazz festivals incite locals and vacationers alike. For us, however, it’s time to go.

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A friend said she’d heard this summer in Europe would be horrifically hot (it is 87F/30.5C in Helsinki, a record, as I write). A stifling humidity and a strange hot wind have visited Nice the past two days. Perhaps we’re getting out in time.

Tomorrow we jet off to Brittany, the region that so impressed us last year, where despite the occasional daytime heat the nights are cool and the Atlantic too cold to attract partygoers. We’ll explore the western coast, notably the Crozon peninsula, and then settle into Fréhel for the August languor.

This isn’t to say I won’t miss Nice. I’ve gotten accustomed to its pace, and my daily rituals involving the sea, the lively markets and picturesque “quartiers” have enriched my life, especially photographically. So has the gratifying presence of so many fine new friends. I will be glad to return.

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So, for the next few months, I’ll be posting on my extended summer vacation. Where will you be?

Posted in Brittany, expat, expat life, France, Nice, France | 9 Comments

Festival de Cannes

One of the perks of being a full-time resident of Nice is the privilege of attending the Cannes Film Festival for free. Ok, it’s not exactly free because you have to apply for accreditation in the category of “Cinéphile” which requires membership in the Cinématheque. But guess what? I’m already a member. And how happy was I to be certified a “cinéphile” when I’ve been one unofficially my entire life.

 

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The Cinephile badge does not confer an owner access to all the films. The splashy numbers in the main competition for the prestigious Palme D’Or are out of bounds. However, those are the films — this year by Terence Malik, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Pedro Almodovar among others lesser-known — that are likely to make it into theaters. Some already have. The other night, not fully sated by my Cannes experience, I walked a few minutes to my local theater and caught the Almodovar, “Pain and Glory,” which was so much the latter and not the former.

The more offbeat, independent examples of global cinema are widely available, with showings spread across four main theaters at a distance from the star-studded Croisette. So far I’ve seen films from Colombia, Iceland and New Zealand. You wait in line for about 45 minutes, but there’s a café on the spot for refreshment while you wait.

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This is the 72nd Festival. With 800 films being shown starting at 8:30am and ending at midnight on some nights, you are nevertheless lucky to get in to see your favorite selections. Of course, many are disqualified from my selection for being in the weirdly popular genre-bending horror category, or an especially bleak social film or an egregious example of “slow cinema” (the Philippine film that is more than four hours long).

Next year, I might book a room for a couple of nights to pack in the early and late events, which are not just films but Master Classes from directors and actors. Again, FREE. If you’re an official cinéphile.

 

 

 

Posted in Cannes Film Festival 2019, cinema, culture, expat, expat life, film, Nice, France | 12 Comments

La Poste

La Poste

We are leaving our current rental soon, so I made one of my very infrequent visits to the local branch of the French post office, La Poste, to activate the change of address I had made online. I should add that this service had a price, 30 euro, which I think is a lot.

Nevertheless, I find La Poste a happy place. Branch staff have always been extraordinarily polite and helpful when I’ve failed to understand the French system for getting the right stamps or sending a registered letter, so I don’t have the feeling of dread going there as I do other places of business, say, the bank.  (I have been contemplating a post on French customer service, but I want to avoid a rant.)

They are there to serve! To make your life easier! You can use La Poste as your low-fee bank, and your email box.  Hundreds of branches across France are sites for economically taking your driver’s test (“passer le code de la route”). It provides a digital safe for the many important documents required for one reason or another on a regular basis by the French bureaucracy (identity card, proof of residence, pay slips). For seniors, La Poste offers a simple, app-enabled touch-screen tablet with a SIM card for WiFi everywhere.

And there’s more.

For older seniors, there’s a new amazing service called “keep watch over my parents.” Sign up, and a postal delivery person (“le facteur”) will make an in-person visit to your parent every week. They will have a chat about what’s new, how things are going, what problems the parent might be having, and consequently the facteur will summarize the chat to the adult child subscriber. Combined with the in-person visits is a 24/7 hotline for emergencies. And the parent gets a monthly magazine, Famileo, customized with personal news and photos. You can get all this for as little as 20 euro a month. What a wonderful supplement to the measures adults take to keep their elderly parents safe and healthy, and in their own homes as long as possible.

La Poste is a vital part of a French neighborhood, a community hub of sorts, an administrative service with a human touch. Would this approach work in the US?

Posted in expat, expat life, France, La Poste, Nice, France | 12 Comments

Le Haut Pays et les Gilets Jaunes

Sometimes, I just have to get out of Nice. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a natural environment, so Saturday morning I rode the “Train des Merveilles” to the easily accessible small town of Breil sur Roya. Napoleon slept here on one of his military campaigns against Italy (the border is not far away). Another claim to fame is the historical architecture, including two Baroque churches and the medieval ruins of city walls. Set along the Roya river in a  mountain valley, it is a popular spot with anglers. Breil’s attraction for me, however, is as the base for numerous hikes.

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My favorite is a relatively short one uphill, skirting a babbling stream over beige boulders with views onto country homes. In springtime the yards are bursting with forsythia and various blossoms. Butterflies, bees and hummingbird moths ravenously swirl around the plants and birds chirp away. What a break from traffic, cigarette smoke, apartment noise and those annoying pigeons back home.

At trail’s end you end up at a Romanesque church ruin set amid a large grove of ancient olive trees. Breil rests in the valley down below. It’s a perfect picnic spot.

The backcountry of Nice is known for such locales. Once way stations on trade routes that ran through the mountains, they are well past their heyday and are in serious decline. It is no surprise that in the sparsely populated town square a few Gilets Jaunes protestors were active. Posters on walls throughout town advertise the French communist party and grievances of pensioners and the unemployed.

I made sure to get on an early train back, before the Nice station was closed.

We are going through a weekend of “perturbations.” Chinese President Xi Jinping is meeting with Macron, coinciding with an attempt by the Gilets Jaunes for a massive protest. Large parts of the city center are closed to all vehicle and foot traffic.  No trains are stopping in Nice all weekend, nor in the neighboring Riviera towns. The gendarmerie is out in heavy force. The 7-kilometer Promenade des Anglais is closed from end to end. One protestor has been injured and is in a coma, and the protests have just begun.

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The story of France’s beautiful villages as the source of national angst is akin to that of the rural/urban divide in the US, Britain, Italy and god knows where else populism is brewing. I wonder if there’s enough money in the world to save these towns, and democracy.

Posted in Breil sur Roya, expat, France, Gilets Jaunes, Le Haut Pays, Nice, France, protests | 8 Comments