Are French spelling changes a sign of the apocalypse?

Boromir on French Spelling reform

In case you were wondering, a heavy dose of sarcasm was used when deciding on the title for this post… We may have some time to go yet before the apocalypse is upon us, but I think it’s fair to say that almost nobody likes change and that people love to overreact on social media. When a French spelling reform was announced in early February, the reaction to the news that appeared on my social media feeds and elsewhere online kept me entertained for a good few days. No one gets more irate than a French person faced with the suggestion that the French language is less than eternal, timeless and a beacon of light in a world full of savage languages that dare evolve because what is at stake here is the survival of France as we know it, the very foundations of the world. Will no one think of the children?????

The Independent and the Guardian were two among many to publish a nice little report on the scope of the reform and included some of the reactions, which were indeed enlightening, and by enlightening, I mean I rolled my eyes so much I feared I was going to lose my contact lenses inside my brain. It led to an interesting discussion with friends on Facebook, as English people were understandably befuddled by all the fuss (as English is one of those wild languages whose evolution is left at the mercy of the masses) and my attempts at enlightenment less than stellar.

I have always been very good at grammar, spelling and the French language in general, I always did well at dictations, and I can appreciate a nicely put French sentence. I’ve always found a great deal of satisfaction in being able to write properly. So I understand the value of having and following set rules for how language should formerly be written, and I understand the dismay of suddenly being told that your efforts to learn how to put the flipping ‘accent circonflexe’ in the right place was for nowt. I bet there hasn’t been a change in the French spelling curriculum in decades. The Académie Française, that illustrious gathering of old-fashioned French minds that dictates what is and is not acceptably French, is not exactly known for being responsive to change, and yet it is them that pushed these changes forward. It is not like the English language is without rules either. Some are quite convinced that English is very difficult to learn because of the sheer number of irregularities; I mean, do try to pronounce cough, plough and tough without getting a headache.

What I mean to say, is that there is most certainly beauty to be found in complexity, but it is simply wrong to imply that there can be beauty only in complexity, that simplicity cannot be beautiful, or that simplicity is a sign of paucity or ‘dumbing down’. That, is most definitely an overreaction.

French people keep saying that French is a ‘langue vivante’, a language that is alive, whilst all the time looking at every suggestion of its evolution as a sign of, well, the apocalypse. It’s not even as if it hasn’t changed before. The poor accent circonflexe that is being removed from so many words, this little hat sign ˆ that has been put at the forefront of the discussion, wasn’t always in use. It used to be that hôpital was spelled hospital, and château was spelled chasteau, and the sign was added to remove the silent ‘s’. Yet it is possible that some French nationalists would like us to revert to speaking like the playwright Molière did – can you imagine having to go back to speaking Shakespeare’s English? Yeah, me neither.

This said, I know that I am going to struggle mightily with many of the spelling changes when they come into effect in September, not least that of the humble onion. It is going to go from ‘oignon’ to ‘ognon’, and I won’t lie, it looks weird to me, and I doubt that it will ever look anything but weird and misspelled. It may take a generation for the change to embed itself but to say that it dumbs down language? Ridiculous.

Napoleon Bonaparte: friend or foe? {day twenty-eight}

{day twenty-eight} Napoleon Bonaparte- friend or foe-400px

When you’re an expat, people always want to ask you questions about things that you have literally never thought about before. That is, unless they just say things like ‘your accent is so cute!’, which may be well-intentioned and meant as a compliment but actually sounds SO patronising. Today’s just a fun post about this one thing that people will ask you when they find out that you are French.

How do French people feel about Napoleon – was he reviled or revered or both? What about Louis XIV?

I tell you what, I have, on the whole, no feelings whatsoever about either Napoleon or Louis XIV. Now, ask me how I feel about the current French president (or the previous one), and I may have a couple of things to say. I am, of course, polite enough to consider the question I have been asked (see, I have learnt something from living in England all this time!) and answer something.

French people don’t have deep emotions in relation to Napoleon I. Everyone knows his Russian campaign was a disaster of his own doing and yes, he lost the war against the British but honestly, no one cares. It is quite remote history, and unlike the Brits who love to remind me how Napoleon lost at Waterloo (yes, really, it’s a thing), honestly, I don’t care; I had no idea that Britain lost against him at Austerlitz either (that’s despite the fact that Napoleon commissioned the Arc de Triomphe following this victory). It’s not remotely relevant to anything and we NEVER think about it.

On the other hand, Napoleon left a positive legacy that lives on today, so it’s difficult to feel hard done by him. Despite his overblown imperial dreams, of which no-one disputes the catastrophic impact, he was an inspired innovator who did a great amount of good for France and Europe. He reformed the education system, which at the time was under the monopoly of the clergy, and pretty much founded modern education by creating a standardized system across the country that was both secular and public and not just open to the aristocracy and the super rich. We also owe him Le Code Civil, which is basically modern French law and was so revolutionary at the time that it was adopted by many other European countries.

Louis XIV, le Roi Soleil – the ‘Sun King’ – admired for his lavish lifestyle, and of course to whom we owe Versailles, is another kettle of fish altogether. He was a despot who despised the poor and ruined the country. He also persecuted the French Huguenots (protestant Christians) by revoking the Edict of Nantes that ensured religious tolerance, leading to massacres and daily persecution to such a degree that they emigrated en masse (up to 400,000 or even 500,000) to England, Northern and Eastern Europe and the US, taking with them their trade expertise. The loss of talent had a significant economic impact on the country. The interesting thing about French history lessons on Louis XIV is that most of the focus is on his personal life and achievements, notably the building work, his grandiosity and his court, his ‘L’Etat, c’est Moi’ (I am the State) but not so much on the impact on his subjects and the country of the drastic hemorrhage of money and talent caused by his hatred of non-Catholics. Sure, the massacres are mentioned but they are largely overshadowed by his ‘great’ successes, which are taught with rose-tinted glasses, or with the kind of objectivity that seems to simply brush over the salient points.

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French-style food education for children {day twenty-six}


{day twenty-six} French-style Food Education for Children

The French haven’t earned their reputation as food lovers and great cooks without doing something right somewhere. But as I have explained before, there is a cultural aspect that transcends simply ‘doing as the natives do’. Food education starts in infancy.

The school canteen as an extension of Health Education

I’m sure that most children, as part of their school health education, learn about food groups and how to have a healthy lifestyle. In France, the theory about what constitutes a balanced and varied meal is directly applied to the school canteen menus, it’s the practical application of the curriculum. Often school menus are approved by the council for an entire town. Some schools display their school menus on their website; sometimes the food may be cooked on site, or it will just be warmed up there, but this doesn’t mean the food will be tasteless.

Children who attend the canteen will be exposed to many foods they may never eat at home. Menus include a starter (often raw vegetables in a seasoned salad, or a pâté served with bread) and a main dish of meat and a side of rice/pasta/potatoes. There may be cooked vegetables served as well, but it is not always the case if the starter is veggie. This will be followed by cheese (a different kind every day), fruit, yoghurt or more elaborate desserts. Here are a couple of menus from two different towns. Let me just say that the menus are as good as you get older; I have great memories of secondary school dinners apart from the dreaded Wednesdays when there was always some awful beef tongue or such horror and the smell permeated the canteen.

This menu is standard across all primary schools in Limoges:

Some weeks, menus will be created around a theme, like the last week of October in the menu displayed above, which is themed around Autumn. On one of the days, children will eat a slice of dry sausage and gherkin (typical French starter), roast chicken breast with poëllée forestière (a potato and mushroom fry-up), plain yoghurt and a walnut tart (both walnuts and mushrooms being autumnal). On another, they had melon, lamb tajine with couscous, garlic and herbs cheese and seasonal fruit. I don’t know about you, but I want to eat this!

This is the menu for kids in maternelle (pre-school ages 3-6) in Toulouse:

On a typical day, they are having a vegetable soup, turkey macaroni gratin, cheese and a chocolate mousse.

How many hot meals?

A number of people in England complain about the fact that hot meals are being served to their children at school for lunch. I can’t get my head around it. They argue that a sandwich lunch would be just as good, if not even healthier. As a sandwich, a bag of crisps and a piece of fruit is standard lunch fare across England for all ages, I’m not surprised by the argument, even if I think it is misguided. English children older than 6 years old bring their own packed lunch as there is no canteen food available for them unless they fall in the ‘in need’ bracket.

In France, you get two hot meals a day, at lunch and at dinner time, although adults are more and more tempted by the ‘quick lunch’ option that sandwiches offer.

For children, the benefits of having a hot meal served at school are manifold:

  • it is an introduction to a variety of foods
  • it is about developing taste buds and the palate
  • it is about learning table manners and how to eat in public
  • it is about not being at home; a child might behave differently and be more likely to try something if there is some peer pressure
  • it is also about having energy for a long day at school, which you won’t convince me a sandwich and piece of fruit really provides.
  • It is, at the end of the day, about value: the value the French place on food, not just as a means to live and mere subsistence but an event, about enjoyment and community, how to talk and eat and do life together.

Note: most French schools have a 2-hour lunch break and many children get picked up by their parents or carers and eat food at home rather than in the canteen.

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French people don’t jump queues {day twenty-four}

{day twenty-four} French people don't jump queues

French people don’t jump queues. They don’t tend to, and if they do, it is not well received and will likely result in the queue-jumper being passive-aggressively or directly rebuffed and sent to the back of the queue.

What happens however, if that apart from clear instances where queueing is inevitable, like at the post office or anywhere with a guichet (counter), the French do not see the need for queues in the first place. We don’t! Queues are all well and good and, you know, so civilised, but we just don’t care that much for such a level of required order. We know we’re all going to get there in the end, that there is nothing so urgent that queueing is going to resolve. What British people (and other, also very ordered, nations) see as chaos really does not seem that way to us. We like to be able to stand wherever we choose without risking being tutted at by some precious old biddy. And that is exactly how it looks to us: petty and a bit precious, just looking to make a big deal out of a non-event. Life’s too short to care about this sort of thing.

Take the bus queue: I have never been so bemused in my life than when I saw my first bus queue in my early days in England. Here’s my (very French) thought process when I see a bus queue: ‘What’s the point? There’s rarely so many people waiting for the bus, we know we’re all going to get in. Is having a choice of seats really such a big deal? What’s the worst that could happen?’ It’s even more ridiculous when there is a strike in London, and you see queues for the bus going round street corners, instead of people huddling closer to the bus stop. Is it because people are so selfish, they think everyone else are bound to elbow in at any cost and mitigate it with a nice orderly queue? Is it that people really care about who arrived first and who gets to take the window seat? As I said, French people don’t really see the need, or they don’t care that much.

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