The great holiday pledge

I’m still here, although I feel that I’ve been living in the real world far more than on the Internet lately. It’s neither a bad nor a good thing, although I do miss writing more regularly. I miss a lot of things, in fact, but I suppose that this will keep happening forever, so there’s no point telling myself it will get better next year and I’ll have more time for myself. Things are good already, if exhausting. Let’s keep them that way.

I hope you all have a fantastic new year. Strange weather aside (it’s been very warm and cloudy since the beginning of December, and it’s starting to feel like we live inside a rather stuffy box), everything has begun well here. We threw a raucous non-alcoholic party with plenty of silly games involved, got up at eleven this morning feeling refreshed and glad, and we’re enjoying a quiet day at home before school starts again. One day at a time.

I’m not big on New Year resolutions, but I had one this year I wanted to share in case it might resonate in any way. As a non-religious person, Christmas has a somewhat blurry meaning for me, yet it does have meaning. We make Christmas trees and traditional Nativity scenes each year, we plant wheat and let it grow through December, we have traditional Christmas food. I enjoy it, I look forward to it, and I’d love to love Christmas, yet it’s hard to feel entirely comfortable when you go out in the city centre towards the end of December. People walk briskly, bumping into each other, looking for last-minute presents, some of them argue on the phone, stress is palpable everywhere. I could be wrong, but I hardly ever get a sense of happiness outside. What I do get is a sense of obligation, a sense that people run after time they don’t have to organise a celebration that will exhaust them before it brings them joy, and it’s a bit saddening. What people miss most during the year is a little time for themselves, a little peace and quiet, a good night’s sleep. And instead of indulging in all these things, it seems we forgo them even more forcefully around Christmas, for some reason nobody seems to truly remember.

I could feel sorry for ourselves as a society. I don’t. We’re choosing this, even if social pressures sometimes make us forget the meaning of choice. What really bothers me is the cost of this buying frenzy. Food will be bought, cooked and thrown away. Beasts will be tortured and slaughtered at an infernal rhythm, because few people imagine a vegetarian Christmas. Cheap presents will be bought because you need to make everybody happy, and never mind if they come from sweatshops or if they were made by people working in conditions we would never accept for ourselves. Trees are felled by the thousands just so there can be a Christmas symbol in every home, and thrown away a couple of weeks later. Even if all of this was enough to make everyone happy, it wouldn’t be right. We can’t buy a time of happiness by making other people miserable, we can’t buy joy with slaughter.

So my one good resolution is this: from now on, there will be no unethical purchases for Christmas anymore. I will only buy gifts if I can get some reassurance that they were made in ethical conditions (I know this is usually tricky to ascertain, but I will do my best at least), and make them myself if I can’t. Reusable Christmas trees have proven easy to make, so there will be no miserable felled fir tree for me from now on, and I won’t use any ornaments made in poor conditions on the other side of the world. I’ll cut back on meat even if I don’t go fully vegetarian, and I’ll encourage people around me to do the same instead of including one measly vegetarian option for the one non-meat-eater at the table, because there’s no reason a dozen animals should die every time a family wants a celebration (tasty vegetarian dishes abound, just use your imagination!). And I’ll remember that if end-of-the-year celebrations are to have any meaning at all, then I shouldn’t value my personal temporary comfort over the lives and safety of people making my Christmas purchases, or over the animal lives suffering so we can gorge ourselves.

Ideally, of course, this is what we should do all year long. But let’s face it, switching to an ethical lifestyle in a Western country is arduous work, as it is the exact opposite of the ideal consumer lifestyle that is being pushed on us on a daily basis. But since we have to start somewhere, here is my suggestion: between whenever the holiday season starts for you and whenever it ends, let’s make it an actual time of peace and joy, not by making perfunctory donations or by writing gift cards, but by truly thinking about our littlest choices and making them count for the best, not for the worst.

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Goodbye, soon

Things I will miss from Québec:

Strangers smiling more often than not.

People using ‘tu’ even when they have never met you; the formal ‘vous’ would be the rule in France, but it’s so… well, formal.

Cranberries, blueberries and maple butter.

Dramatic season changes. Even with the feeling of helplessness in November (when the weather is at its most rotten) and March (when it should be spring already and everything is still covered in snow), it’s still amazing to see leaves turn red and flowers explode in summer.

Large summer campfires, where flames and embers get spit on the grass all around the fire pit and nobody even worry about starting a catastrophic fire, that’s how wet the grass is.

Water everywhere, in the air, in rivers, lakes, everything.

My friends.

Things I won’t miss:

Cars everywhere, and being unable to do something as simple as choose my own doctor without driving.

Mayonnaise everywhere; there’s no accounting for taste, but having to read every label to check if it will be soaked in mayo is not fun (MAJOR problem, I know, I know).

Working all the time, though it’s not Québec’s fault at all.

That’s about it. I hope I’ll come back one day. When and how… we’ll see. But one thing is certain, I won’t be working then.

Drying mulberries: an experiment

Wow, two months. It’s a bit sad how things you don’t really want to fall through the cracks all the time. Blogging is one of those things. Going through my last entries makes me think that nothing worth writing about happened this year at all. Things did happen in the last two months: coming back to France, travelling a little, going to job interviews and the like. And fun things too, which I don’t get around to writing about because then it just makes me think of all the other fun things I wanted to blog about and I just get stalled. So I’m just goingt to write about the latest things that happened in no particular order, before this all becomes too much of a mess and I jsut stop blogging altogether.

So, two days ago, I went out to pick mulberries. It’s a very peculiar thing about France: we have mulberry trees all over the place, but mulberries are not commonly eaten. In fact they don’t even sell them on the marketplace, only some people like to eat them when they happen to be under a mulberry tree and have nothing better to do. Right in front of the place I live, there are enormous, luscious mulberry trees, and nobody picks the fruit and they just fall and make a mess. So I decided to add mulberries to the list of random growing things I like to harvest.

First observation: my mulberry-harvesting skills definitely need refining. The problem is that mulberries are very delicate, so you can’t exactly gab them and pull them off; shaking the branch lightly is a better method. Only thing is, when you shake the branch, they fall off and you end up getting as many mulberries on the ground as into your basket. Since the trees are in a car park, I’m a little squeamish about picking them once they’ve fallen. Regardless, I did manage to get about one kilo of them, not counting those I ate in the process. I ended up sharing my stool with a guy who was passing time by eating mulberries while waiting for his girlfriend, and couldn’t find any on the lower branches since I’d already picked them all. We talked about the weather and other unmemorable things, but it just felt good to share the moment with someone else who could appreciate what nature gave us.

When I go out to pick fruit, I usually make preserves, but then I end up with dozens of jars that accumulate year in, year out (I wish I could eat as many preserves as I can make, but let’s face it, my lifestyle is far too sedentary for that much sugar). So I got a better idea. It just so happens that recently, my boyfriend came into possession of a solar dryer over. You know, the kind of thing that can generate a decent amount of heat, enough to bake cookies and dry fruit but not enough to roast meat, for instance. The best thing about it is that it works using only solar power for drying things; it does have a motor for other emergency uses, but it can dry fruit with only the sun and a bit of dark cloth for protection. In fact, it’s an extremely convenient tool. It has a slanted glass pane to gather as much sunlight as possible, a black flat surface right underneath to maximise the heat, and it’s even equipped with seats in case you want to be comfortable when you arrange your food for drying. Also, for some bizarre reason, it has some extra functionalities that mean you can drive it around. I don’t exactly know why because you don’t usually drive your oven around, but I suppose the goal is to park it in the sunniest spot for optimal drying? I have no idea, but it’s quite convenient.

In fact, from what I see, many people use mostly the driving function, and don’t use the solar oven function at all. It’s very strange, but there you go.

Actually, when I first thought about drying fruit, I made all kinds of complicated plans to build a solar dryer from bamboo and recycled cooking implements. And then I realised I needed none of that. I just had to buy a strip of black cotton, arrange the mulberries in a single layer on a baking tray, and leave the whole for two days in my boyfriend’s car (that’s the special name for this type of solar dryer, I hear). It worked like a dream. A little too well, perhaps: when I got them back today, my mulberries were baked crisp. Next time I definitely need to grease the tray as well: some of them stuck to the hot metal. But they taste really nice. Perhaps a little bit too dry, but they will do wonder in morning cereals with a little milk.

If I manage to find enough time, patience and possibly a ladder, mulberry drying is going to be part of my official summer rituals from now on. Speaking of which, any input on efficient mulberry picking is very welcome.

February traditions

February 2nd is a special day in France, as it marks the official end of the Christmas festivities, in other words, the day when you’re not supposed to gorge yourself full of Epiphany cakes. I was actually not completely aware of the connection until recently, although I’ve celebrated February 2nd on most years since I was a child. It’s also known as one of the two days in late winter when you make a big meal of crepes, the other being Mardi Gras (which is really mostly ‘crepe day’ now, as I haven’t ever met anyone who fasted in March). We call it ‘Chandleur’, from its Latin name ‘Candelaria’, or Candle Days (I’m not sure what the Romans did on Candelaria, although I suppose they lighted candles to ward off winter, wish for prosperity or fertility or something like that). As far as I know, it’s about the only Roman holiday that has retained its name, although of course the others are still there, under a new, Christian pretext. I think there’s a Christian explanation for Chandleur as well, I’m just not certain what exactly it is.

As it happens, Chandleur is not a thing in Québec. Neither are Epiphany cakes, actually (those are delicious cakes in which you hide a broad bean and a porcelain figurine, and whoever finds the bean is king or queen, with the discoverer of the porcelain figurine being their happy consort or heir or whatever strikes your fancy). So after making my own cakes–which turned out quite well aside from the colossal mess the almond cream made in the oven–I decided to have a big crepe night. And it’s moment like that that teach you not to take your own traditions for granted. As it turned out, even the notion of a ‘crepe night’ was something quite new. A crepe dinner, in France, is an evening where you put all sorts of savoury and sweet fillings and sauces on the table, and you fill up on savoury or sweet crepes until your belly explodes. As I was discussing the organisation with my roommate, she suddenly said:

‘I have a great idea! Why not make a kind a buffet with all the fillings and everyone can make their own crepes with what they like inside?’

‘Er… Of course? Yes? I mean, isn’t that what you normally do?’

‘Uh. No we don’t. We just put maple syrup on the table and eat the crepes for dessert.’

Turned out explaining the notion to the guests apparently confused everyone for a while. One of them was worried everybody would bring the same thing he did (we reassured him that we would call everyone and tell them not to bring more fruit and custard, which was a good idea in the end, as he had brought enough fruit and custard for a small village), another was embarrassed at the thought of having to choose something unusual to bring. In the end, as those things happen, the table was overloaded with food, I made far too many crepes and we got a generous breakfast off them the next morning, we played games, people argued over how the name of that day was supposed to be spelled, and everything was perfect.

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Carnival started about at the same time. My friends took me to see the parade, feet slowly freezing in the snow (that’s what happens when you’ve brought all the right clothes for once, and then left them at home because of a glitch in your organisation). It was dark already, and the cariages were decorated with lights and not always recognisable glowing things. That’s where I met Bonhomme Carnaval, a personnage I had not been acquainted with before, who looks like a giant snowman with a huge smile and a red hat and sash, parading around in a carriage made of ice shards. He was greeted with shouts and applause when he arrived. Strange to think that such an illustrious character was a complete stranger to me until I came here.

Coming back to work yesterday, we saw that our colleague had left us some heart-shaped Valentine sweets on the table. Apparently, celebrating Velentine’s day with friends here must be a thing? Funnily enough, I had no idea, and I was actually afraid that I would embarrass my friends when I offered them to go have a Valentine evening out together (it’s a purely romantic celebration in France). They weren’t embarrassed at all, especially since, in their own words, ‘it’s much better than watching a rom-com by yourself with a box of chocolate and a handkerchief’.

And on that we definitely agree: anything is better than watching rom-coms.

Autumn leaves, winter comes in

Canadian French and how it’s regarded is still fascinating to me. It must take a particular amount of entitlement and colonising mindset to pronounce a whole dialect ‘incorrect’ or ‘not proper French’, even when an extremely vast number of the turns of phrase in that dialect would in fact be considered downright literary in France. ‘L’hiver s’en vient‘ (winter is coming) is one of my favourite, for purely random reasons. In France you would find it in poetry, not in everyday speech.

The leaves are almost all gone. One funny thing you discover when living in a continental climate is how strong its influence was on the conception of time, weather and seasons. The picture books I had as a child showed four long seasons, with the landscape dramatically changing between them (there was an audio book based on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which was particularly nice, and which depicted them as the four suitors wooing Planet Earth, all as different from each other as you could imagine): pastel colours in spring, strong vibrant colours in summer, oranges and browns in autumn, bluish-white in winter. It was all very lovely, but it had so little to do with what actually happened outside my home. In Provence, spring and autumn exist, but they’re somewhat perfunctory. The flowers on the trees last for a few weeks, and there is much that doesn’t change at all in the hills (there is not nearly enough water for plants to afford new leaves every year). In autumn, the leaves on the deciduous trees wither, dry and fall off without much ceremony; it’s all over in a few weeks as well, and then it’s time to get out the winter coats (the sort of coats that made my friends in Québec laugh uncontrollably when I told them that was what I intended to wear all winter). Summers are green and dry and hot, winters are green and dry and… well, what we define as cold anyway. There is no bluish-white, and autumn just adds a touch of brown in some places. Since it’s still a temperate place, I could draw parallels with what I read. But it never was quite exactly the same. I just assumed that life never looks as neat and colourful as it does in books and left it at that.

So it took me moving to Québec to understand what they really meant by the four seasons. Autumn has been red, and yellow, and orange, all bright light and fluttering leaves that took all the time they needed to change colour, then fall off. It’s not just a question of species either: even trees that are rather common in Aix changed much more softly and quietly here. This summer, the plants burst all over the place, taking all the space they could in the few months they had to thrive. Spring was slow as well, with flowers peeking under the snow and buds swelling little by little on the branches. It feels a bit strange to realise that I did not understand what the deal was about the seasons until my late twenties.

Now autumn is moving on, with rain and fog and all-around depressing weather. The cats upstairs kick up a party with the Halloween decorations every night at around 5 am, but since they’ve both been through a lot of stressful vet stuff recently, it’s only fair to let them play. I’ve bought earplugs instead, which don’t do much, because I hate sleeping with stuff in my ears and so instead of waking up before dawn, now I just plainly don’t go to sleep. Never mind that though, Halloween will be gone in a couple of days, and I still have to do my First Ever Halloween party and general distribution of sweets to the children of the neighbourhood, which is more important than cats partying at indecent hours.

Also, I’m hungry. All the time. I’ve decided to lose a dozen pounds, because I was tired of looking at myself in the mirror and being reminded every time of how my PhD was so stressful I tried to eat the pressure off and only ended up putting on weight and feeling worse. Since my eating habits are fairly healthy already and anyway I’m not big on complicated diets (to me, they sound more like a good way to add a load of unnecessary control and pressure to your daily life), I’ve just decided to take about one third off my normal portions, and keep exercising regularly so my body won’t assume that it can tuck into my muscles to make up for the lack of calories. It works, obviously. It also means I’m constantly hungry and thinking about food, even when I go to bed or finish eating. But the strangest thing about it is that it actually feels good. Hunger is uncomfortable, but I feel more motivated and enthusiastic than I have in weeks. I don’t even get cravings. I don’t get tired of it. I can’t wait to go back to a normal eating schedule, but at the same time, I just feel good, even with the lack of sleep and of daylight and the rain. Maybe I’ll keep doing that in the future: not permanently of course, but I might give myself a week of half-fasting every now and then, just to get my mood up.

Maybe it will even get me through the winter.

Life in Québec, part X

Well, there are still many things to love in Canada. In fact, if my boyfriend was here and I could get where I wanted without needing to magick up a driver’s licence and a car, it would be quite close to a perfect country.

Last Saturday, I went to the city centre for the summer music festival, and decided to grab myself a burger from an expensive, but particularly good restaurant. Most of the tables were already full by the time I arrived, and I was patiently queuing and waiting for someone to leave, where a guy approached me. Apparently, he and his friend had one extra seat at their table, and since they had spotted me on my own, they said I was welcome to sit with them.

It turned out that they were doing intensive military training near Québec, and were taking advantage of their one free week-end to have a walk around the city and relax with beers and good food. We talked for a while about Canada, life as an expat, virtual spaces, and life in general, while sharing a bowl of homemade crisps. After a while, they left to see some friends, and we parted after an hour of good conversation and excellent food. As we shook hands, one of them said that it had been a great pleasure to meet me, and it was too bad I had a boyfriend already because they would have asked me to come with us, then we laughed and they left.

See, this is one more amazing thing abouth this country. When two guys offer you a seat at their table, you can assume that the reason why they do it is that they saw you standing on your own in the queue and since they had one extra seat, they thought they’d share it with you. You don’t have to look for every possible emergency way out before you accept. If this had happened in France, I would probably have accepted all the same (and maybe regretted it afterwards, toss a coin), but my state of mind would have been something more like, ‘Right, I’ve spoken three sentences and I still haven’t dropped a reference to my boyfriend, I need to let them know I have a boyfriend–BOYFRIEND REFERENCE NOW! Phew. Am I smiling too much? Shit, I’m smiling too much, they’re going to assume I’m interested, stop smiling! Am I sitting too close? Okay, sit back just in case. Legs close together. Other boyfriend reference? Can I relax now?’

So instead of eating my burger by myself, I got to enjoy the company of two friendly guys who shared their potato crisps with me even though we would probably never meet again. I didn’t even have to worry about the parting compliment, because they acted like normal people and made sure to say it as we parted, so it wouldn’t be awkward afterwards. Then I left to enjoy my show. It was French music day, and there was a loud French rock band playing in celebration for the upcoming 14th of July.

Also, the burger was amazing.

Gastronomy

I’ve been in Québec for a little over one month now, and my schedule means I get a choice between spending all my money eating not-very-healthy meals from cafeterias, or get a very frugal lifestyle. My current systems involves cooking a giant casseroles of vegetables, cereals and bits of eggs or cheese and make it last for the week. It’s a good system. I feel healthy. I’m not putting on weight in spite of having shifted from a semi-mobile job (teachers, after all, have to stand up and walk around a lot) to a completely sedentary one. It also has the unfortunate side effect of giving virtual foods on Second Life the capacity to make me drool on my socks. The problem is not too hard to solve on weekends, when I have a little time to cook. Canadian food is perfectly fine; there’s just one thing I miss–strong tastes.

Now, I can get spices, and a little bit of garlic, and foreign foodstuffs are reasonably easy to find if often toned down compared to what I’m used to. I think I’m just rediscovering something I’d had to adjust to during my year in Wales: a rather different philosophy when it comes to how strong and peculiar food should taste. On traditional South French markets, ‘strong’ equates ‘flavourful’. The best cheese could give the most hygiene-obsessed European politicians a heart attack; it’s mouldy, it’s dubiously coloured, it occasionally can’t keep its shape or grows fungi like hair, it’s crumbly or uneven, and for God’s sake don’t leave it in your bag for too long or you’ll regret it. Pasteurised milk is an heresy (I don’t know about the putative safety benefits; I haven’t heard of anyone getting diseases from unpasteurised cheese, but I do recall quite a few cases of food-poisoning due to unsanitary treatment of industrial foods). One particularly delicious, if somewhat marginal, type is made from old cheese leftovers, crusts and unsold bits, that are seeped in strong wine or spirits until they dissolve and form a paste. It smells obnoxious. It has the colour of gravel. And no, it’s not one of those miracle foods like durian, that supposedly smell like old socks and taste like raspberry custard or something. It tastes just like what you’d expect: old cheese crusts marinated in booze. It’s not recommended before eating anything delicate, but it’s absolutely delicious.

That’s the thing, really. That’s why I start to feel a bit forlorn when I walk into a supermarket, and the general philosophy for food seems to be “milder, softer, sweeter and as consensual as possible”. That’s why I can’t help rolling my eyes a little when people refer to an ‘acquired taste’. Of course strong foods are an acquired taste; everything is, aside from baby food. Even Oreos and peanut butter are an acquired taste, believe me; I know this, because I haven’t got any occasion to acquire it in my childhood, and now they barely taste edible to me. But industrial foods have a problem: they usually taste very much like baby food, with lots of added sugar ad salt, that is to say, the most consensual tastes you can find. Of course, if you grow used to thinking that ‘sweet’ and ‘salty’ equate ‘tasty’, more and more new flavours will fall in the category of foods you call ‘interesting’ and never try again. I never give up on food when it doesn’t taste immediately pleasant. I try again, I try to understand it, to make it fit into my standards of what a pleasant flavour is. It doesn’t always work, but it’s exciting. It’s like reading a new book with an open mind: it makes you discover new things. A diet of industrial food encourages you to behave like that particularly annoying brand of reader, who make a practice of loudly giving up on a book if it doesn’t hook them within the first three pages. It may guarantee some rather pleasant experiences if you stick to what you know, but you’ll miss out on a whole world of discovery, and that’s a huge shame. And that’s why I’m sometimes pissed off at supermarkets: I understand that there are parts of the world where some people don’t really get a choice between eating industrial or market foods (traditional markets are cheaper in France, but it’s not the case everywhere, I’m told). When industrial brands systematically go for the most consensual foods they can imagine, they also rob people of many possibilities of discovery. I know they’re trying to make money, but that has never been an excuse.

That being said, that pizza topped with dried duck meak, smoked chicken, tangerines and green onions I tried in the restaurant near the lab was a great discovery. Québec does have lots of things to offer.