Posts filed under ‘About France’

“Couvre Feu” Means Curfew

And this is what “Haussmanian” means. Photo by Janet Hulstrand

I was in Paris again last week, mainly to see my eye doctor, and get my glasses adjusted to my new post-cataract-surgery vision, but I also had the chance to do a few fun things while I was there: to celebrate a friend’s birthday, to have a couple of meals with my son, to take a turn around the lovely Square du Temple during a break from my work, to attend my friend Adrian Leeds Après-Midi meetup, and see the documentary Meeting Jim, about Jim Haynes.

Life in Paris has changed a bit since I was last there. As the number of COVID cases has started to rise, too quickly for anyone’s comfort, new restrictions, and stronger and more frequent reminders of all the ways we are supposed to be keeping ourselves and everyone else safer are ubiquitous. Every restaurant and cafe that I went to had a bottle of sanitizer on every table, as well as at the entrance to the establishment. Stores and Metro stations also have bottles available as you enter: the ones in the Metro have foot pedals so no one has to touch anything. There are also sign-in sheets in restaurants for anyone coming in a group, which is to make it easy for the establishment to help with contact tracing should the need arise. No group can be larger than six people, and physical distancing rules between tables must be adhered to. And everyone, well, pretty much everyone, is now wearing masks throughout the city, inside and out. If you get caught not wearing one, there’s a hefty 135 euro fee. That helps with compliance!

There was a fair amount of suspense during the few days I was there, since it was announced that President Macron would be addressing the nation again, on Wednesday evening, but not what he would say. So of course everyone was dreading a return to a national general confinement, and the necessity of filling out permission slips if we strayed more than a kilometer from our homes. As it turns out, the most concerning areas, not surprisingly, are nine big cities in France (Paris, Lille, Toulouse, Marseille, Lyon, Montpelier, Grenoble, Rouen, and St. Etienne ), and as of Saturday they were put under a curfew, which means that everyone, with very few exceptions, has to be in their homes, and stay there, from 9 pm until 6 am. The curfew will last at least four weeks, more likely six. (It took me a while to realize that the “couvre feu” I kept hearing about on the radio was the same thing as “curfew.” Voila: another new term learned.)

This of course is very hard on restaurateurs and also anyone in the broad category of culture (theater, music, dance, cinema). I’m not going to try to say whether or not I think this measure will meet the government’s objective. I hope it will, because the idea is to try to keep the hospitals from getting overcrowded, health care workers overwhelmed, and everyone in less danger of the virus spreading. One can only hope…

Anyway, I left Paris one day before the curfew began, so I didn’t get to see the unusual sight of the “City of Light” suddenly quiet and dark at 9 pm.

On Sunday I had the chance to talk about my book, Demystifying the French with the wonderful Jennifer Fulton of Bonjour Books DC, in Kensington, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C. Jennifer had gathered a great group via Zoom, and we had lots of fun discussing with them the finer points of how to appreciate the French, and how to learn and understand the rules that guide their behavior.

You can buy my book, and a host of other wonderful books (mostly in French, but also some books about France in English) from Jennifer online, and I urge you to do so. She is, as an indie bookseller, one of the champions in the world of publishing. And we readers (and writers) need to support our champions!

And so I am back to my quiet life in a little village in Champagne. The trucks going up the hill alongside our road are mostly hauling wood now, and my wood for the winter has been delivered: so I have my work cut out for me, to get it properly stacked.

Wednesday was a national day of homage and mourning in France, after a horrific act of terrorism took place last week in a town not far from Paris. A middle school history teacher was brutally murdered in the street as he was walking home from school. I won’t go into the awful details of what happened; there’s a pretty good account here. I will say that this tragedy is one more symptom of a terribly difficult, complex social and cultural problem in France, and a subject that is very difficult to discuss with the calm perspective that will surely be needed in order to begin to solve it, though people are certainly trying. It was, among other things, an attack on one of the most beautiful aspects of French culture–that is, respect for the life of the mind, and the ability to debate controversial topics in a way that is intellectually challenging, reasonable, respectful, rational, and sound.

It was also the tragic loss of a husband, father, and much beloved teacher who was devoted to his work, teaching French youth about those values. It is hard to know what to say. It is very, very sad. The teacher was, as President Macron said in his homage to him, “un hero tranquille” (a quiet, peaceful hero). He will be sorely missed, but it is clear from the testimony of his students that Samuel Paty, and his deep belief in tolerance, understanding, respect for others, and the importance of the continuing pursuit of knowledge will not be forgotten. And the lessons he taught, and the values he inspired in hundreds of students over the years will live on.

Autumn. Photo by Janet Hulstrand


Janet Hulstrand
 is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “
A Long Way from Iowa.”

October 23, 2020 at 6:28 am Leave a comment

The Other Bonjour Effect…

Many people, including yours truly, have written about the importance of starting any social (or commercial, or casual) interaction in France with the word “Bonjour,” ideally followed by “monsieur” or “madame.” (The great Polly Platt, author of French or Foe? told her readers that “the form is rigid.”) In the first chapter of Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau’s excellent book, The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed, the authors explain thoroughly, and very interestingly, the reasons for why this is so important. (The chapter title gives an intriguing clue to one of the reasons: “I Greet, Therefore I Am.” )

I often explain to my students that in France, this obligatory and very pro forma greeting also carries the implication that “I am greeting you, therefore you exist too!” And in my book, Demystifying the French, I sum up the importance of saying bonjour to everyone you encounter as being “just part of treating someone like a human being in France.”

Unfortunately, failing to do so can also be seen as a way of dismissing, ignoring, or insulting your fellow human beings.

So. Not knowing this rule often causes unsuspecting and unaware-of-this- rule Americans (and I suppose other foreigners) in France a lot of trouble. It is a trap constantly waiting for us to step into; and time and time again, we do. I continue to do so now, even though I know very well how important it is. (In Demystifying the French, I give some advice about what to do when you inevitably forget, and how to repair the damage.)

And while many of us foreigners therefore view this very strict rule of French etiquette—as well as others–as something of a nuisance, these niceties do have their benefits.

About a year ago, my son and I had been invited to a post-grape-harvest celebration by our friends who own the pressoir in our village. As we approached the pressoir I explained to my son that it is expected on arriving that you greet everyone who is there with either a bise (the famous French air-kiss, cheek to cheek), or a handshake. (And yes, it is not always easy to know which of these two forms of greeting should be used: but for now, it doesn’t matter because of COVID. Because we are not supposed to be doing either of these things for the time being…the President of France has said so!)

In any case, my son said, “Really?! Every person there?” “Yes,” I said, as I ignored his incredulous look, and steeled my reserved, Scandinavian Midwestern self for the ordeal.

On arriving I took a deep breath and held out my hand, or offered my cheek to each person I encountered on the way inside, following the cues they offered. My son followed me inside, gamely playing along.

Later in the evening, a perfect stranger came over to us and shook our hands, and offered us a friendly Bonsoir as he made his rounds of the room. After he had (quickly) moved on, my son looked at me and said, “Well. I can’t do it myself. But it is kinda nice…”

Indeed it is “kinda nice,” to be acknowledged as a living, breathing human being, by other living, breathing human beings, once you get used to it.

Last week I had another surprisingly moving experience with the bonjour effect. I had to have surgery for cataracts. It’s kind of a scary thing to have surgery on your eyes, really, no matter how much you trust the surgeon. I did trust my surgeon, and the anesthesiologist, with whom I had an online consultation the day before the surgery, during which he let me know what to expect, step by step, throughout the procedure. But I was still a bit nervous, especially since I knew I would not be rendered completely unconscious for the operation. (I prefer to not be at all conscious for these kinds of things…)

On arriving at the hospital early in the morning, and after making my way past the front desk and up the elevator to the opthamological unit, I was directed to “me patienter” in a waiting room. The first thing I noticed was that the window was slightly open, letting a warm, gentle breeze into the room; and that out the window was a lovely view of Parisian rooftops. The second thing I noticed was that there was a handwritten note on a whiteboard: it said “Nous prenons soin de vous…” (“We (will) take care of you…”)

This made me feel better, a bit more relaxed. Not too much later, I was clothed in sterile scrubs and on my way to the staging area for the operating room, and then climbing onto an operating table. The anesthesiologist stopped by to say a quick, warm bonjour (of course!) And then I was being wheeled rapidly toward the operating room.

That is when the unexpectedly rich meaning of bonjour in this new context came alive for me. For as I was being wheeled down that hallway, which seemed to me a blur of gray and metal surfaces moving past me quickly, with cold, bright lights above me, a procession of warm, friendly faces above bodies in blue scrub suits moved past me heading quickly in the same direction. I don’t know if these warm, friendly faces belonged to the people that would be part of the team attending to me during the surgery, or if they were just passing by on their way to somewhere else. What I do know is that as each of them passed by me they turned their faces in my direction, and said, in that lovely, lilting French way a warm, friendly, encouraging “Bonjour!” And in the context of that little scene, it seemed to me that each of their faces was full of color: the colors of human life–a variety of skin tones, eye colors, eyebrows, lips, teeth. set in friendly faces!–standing out against the grays, the metal, the harsh bright lights above. And every one of them was wishing me well, giving me courage, letting me know that they (or someone) would take good care of me…

I felt so very blessed, and cared for in that moment. Soon after I was given the drugs that would (apparently) render me not fully unconscious, but relaxed enough that it didn’t matter. The anesthesiologist, who by now felt like a close friend, was there: so was the nurse I had met upstairs, the one who put drops in my eye. The doctor appeared; he applied his surgical expertise to my eye; and now, a week later, I am able to see so much better than I had been able to do for months before.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget that powerful bonjour experience. It was very memorable.

Can it help me remember to always say bonjour to the people I encounter in my everyday life in the future?

Well, maybe…I’ll keep trying!


Janet Hulstrand
 is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “
A Long Way from Iowa.”

September 26, 2020 at 9:11 am 2 comments

The lovely ringing of the bells in France…

L’Eglise St. Remy d’Essoyes

I have in the past mentioned how much I love the ringing of the church bells in France generally, and in particular the ringing of the church bells in “my” little village in Champagne.

I have also promised to expand upon this topic someday, and I have chosen today as the day to do that.

Before beginning I should probably say that there quite a few questions about this topic that I don’t yet know the answers to. And so I would invite anyone who can provide additional perspective or knowledge on the subject to please feel free to do so by commenting below.

Some of the things I wonder about are 1) Why recently the church bells in our town are ringing much more frequently than they used to–for example, every Sunday morning, not just the Sunday mornings when a mass is being celebrated here. It seems to me this started sometime into the period of confinement, or it might have even been during the beginning stages of déconfinement. In any case, lately, every Sunday morning, usually around 10:30 the bells begin to peal and they peal for a lovely 10 minutes or so. And then they peal again, maybe about 45 minutes later. 2) I would like to know how to learn more about the various patterns and meaning of the ringing. I have learned to recognize the tolling of the bells calling mourners to the church before a funeral, and I have been told that the ringing of the bells at 7 am and 7 pm each day is called “Angelus,” and that it is an ancient pattern of bell-ringing that is a call to prayer for Catholics, to pray a particular prayer commemorating the incarnation of Jesus, which includes a Hail Mary.

L’Angélus by Jean-Francois Millet. (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Before starting to write this post I looked to see who else had written on this topic to learn what I could from them. I did so a year or so ago and found this really interesting post written a few years ago by an Australian woman. I find this post interesting for the perspective and information she received from locals in the village where she was vacationing, when she asked the about the patterns of the ringing of the church bells there.

This time I found another post, this one by an American woman, also written a couple of years ago. I found this post interesting for the change of opinion this woman experienced when she first encountered the very frequent (and quite loud) ringing of the church bells in the French town she was vacationing in.

Like many people, at first she found the ringing (which continued through the night) annoying. But eventually she came to appreciate it to the extent that she actually missed the ringing of the bells when she had returned home to Huntington Beach, California.

I have never been bothered by the ringing of the bells; au contraire. I should probably add that like the husband of the woman from California, sleeping through innocent ambient background sounds is not a problem for me: therefore, the sound of bells ringing through the night does not interfere with my peaceful slumber.

But, as the Californian woman herself eventually came to feel, I find the regular ringing of the bells–not just on the hour, but on each quarter-hour also–to be comforting/grounding/orienting in a deep and fundamentally human way.

I think perhaps what bothers many people about this bell-ringing is that it is a regular and–some might feel unwelcome–imposition of the outside world into each of our individual private worlds–the one that exists in our minds. And I will readily admit that it indeed does do that.

However, far from resenting this imposition, I find it a very healthy and pleasant reminder that my own internal world, much as I value, respect, and protect it from all manner of unwelcome outside intrusions on a pretty much constant basis, does exist within a much larger world–a world formed by a local, national, international human community. In that regard, I find the ringing of the church bells, though an imposition, unlike many of the sounds that surround me daily in the 21st century, a very welcome one.

I am not a Catholic, but I feel lucky to be included in the daily reminders that Catholic churches around the world offer all within hearing that there is a power greater than and outside ourselves that we can benefit from remembering and calling upon, if we so desire; that we are surrounded by people, not only in our own local communities, but around the world who have a need for and appreciation of such reminders; and that whether we choose to listen to them or not, to appreciate them or not, these church bells, with their lovely musical sounds, will go on ringing through all manner of the chaos, worry, and strife that also surround us constantly.

I was going to say that they ring on “no matter what.” But in fact, I learned through my recent research, that the bells of France did stop ringing during World War II, from the time of the Occupation of the country until the moment of its liberation nearly five years later. That silence surely must have been a sad absence of sound for the French people: and the return of the ringing of the bells when they finally sounded again, incredibly joyful.

I wish I could share with you with the lovely sound of the ringing of the church bells in Essoyes, but my audio tech skills are just not there yet. So instead I will share with you the ringing of the bells from Sacre Coeur in Paris from a few months ago. Although one of the joys of church bells in France is that they do not all sound exactly the same, not at all; yet, in a general way, the sound is quite similar. And to me at least, deeply comforting.

Stay safe, stay well, everyone. Wear those masks, wash those hands, prenez soin de vous


Janet Hulstrand
 is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “
A Long Way from Iowa.”

August 28, 2020 at 10:11 pm 6 comments

Déconfinement Day 17: France Slowly Reopens

In a small rural village, like where I live now, at this time of year crops become a matter of general interest. Even if you’re not personally involved in agriculture, you can’t help but notice the growing and thriving of things….

Continue Reading May 28, 2020 at 8:15 pm Leave a comment

Déconfinement Day 8

#Champagne11mai Photo by Phineas Rueckert.

Well we are one week into déconfinement. Such a feeling of liberation, now that we don’t have to take an attestation with us every time we venture outside of the boundaries of our home! (Though we are still required to stay within 100 kilometers unless we have a very good, and strictly defined–defined by the French government–reason for going further than that…)

We are still being very careful though, and of course we need to be, because with everyone suddenly coming out of confinement, I am assuming that that automatically raises the general risk of being infected by the virus. (That is my own very simple layperson’s interpretation, I have not heard anyone say exactly that: but it must be true, no?)

So. I am still waiting to do much of anything, outside of walks outside and the occasional trip to our little Casino supermarket here in town, so I can at least start helping my son carry groceries back home. He has been such a huge help to me throughout the lockdown! When restaurants are open again and it is safe for us to travel he is going to enjoy a very fine meal, my treat! Or maybe we will just stay right here in Essoyes and eat at our own very fine hotel restaurant, Les Demoiselles, with its magnificent view of Essoyes and the surrounding vineyards.

Together again, and so grateful for it…

Déconfinement has made it possible for my older son to join us now, too, from the place he was sheltering in place with friends in the south of France: so we are together again, and I am thanking my lucky stars for that.

None of us know one blessed thing about gardening, but today there was talk of us taking the bold step of trying to learn something so we can grow some of our own vegetables in a little “victory garden.” (Please do NOT “stay tuned.” I will let you know if we have any success at all, I promise! )

I continue to watch the news from home with sadness and concern. And I guess that is all I will say about that; except that I am very very sorry that because of the way things have been handled there, many dear friends and family members are not going to be allowed into Europe anytime soon… 😦

Meanwhile here in Essoyes the wheat and colza continue to grow, the bright red poppies are beginning to spring up in the fields, and the vineyards are doing okay too this year (I think).

There is also a field of what I think is cow vetch (in English) vesce de vache in French, near our home. (Now do you see why I wanted to learn French?) 🙂

Vesce de vache. Photo by Janet Hulstrand.

Stay well everyone. Prenez soin de vous…and here’s a helpful reminder from the French government about how to go about doing that.


Janet Hulstrand
 is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “
A Long Way from Iowa.”

May 17, 2020 at 5:31 pm Leave a comment

Déconfinement Day 1

Today is the day that France begins to progressively, and slowly open up again, after eight weeks of quarantine. With an emphasis on the word “slowly”…

Continue Reading May 11, 2020 at 1:44 pm Leave a comment

Lockdown in France: Day 42

…What is interesting of course is how it gets harder to be patient with the lockdown with each passing day: but also one must acknowledge that, having recognized the danger and the threat out there, and the incredibly robust contagiousness of this virus, the thought of returning “to normal” is pretty damn scary…

Continue Reading April 29, 2020 at 6:25 am 3 comments

Lockdown in France, Day 14

Well, we are going to be confined to our homes here in France for at least another two weeks. Nobody likes this idea: but all of us, especially those of us who are lucky enough to still be well (knock wood) also know that it is a shameful thing to complain about it…

Continue Reading March 30, 2020 at 11:20 am 4 comments

Lockdown Day 7: France Fights to Flatten the Curve

As I reported in my post last week, halfway measures were not working to keep people in their homes and at least a meter away from each other in France, and so on Monday night President Macron addressed the French nation again…

Continue Reading March 23, 2020 at 8:41 am 6 comments

Locked Down in Essoyes, Le Grand Est

The most striking thing to me, really, is that if any of us have ever doubted that we are in fact one human race living a somewhat precarious existence on this beautiful planet of ours; and that we all share fundamental desires, needs, and responsibilities as human beings so blessed; and that we are most certainly “in this together”–now is the time when it should be perfectly clear that we are in fact, all of those things…

Continue Reading March 16, 2020 at 2:45 pm 5 comments

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