Posts filed under ‘About France’

Demystifying the French, Saturday via Zoom!

April 15, 2021 at 7:19 pm 2 comments

Locked Down AGAIN…

Reminders about “les gestes barrieres” in a train station

I had to look up the word “lassitude” this week. It is a word (in French) that is being spoken a lot recently. We have the same word in English, but it is one of those words we don’t use very often, so I had to look it up even in English. It means weariness.

Weariness is of course not quite the same thing as being tired. Being tired is something that can be cured by a nap, or perhaps a good night’s sleep. Weariness, on the other hand, suggests a fatigue born of an extended period of being tired of, or because of, something, something that wears down not only one’s level of energy, but also motivation, spirit, enthusiasm, and certainly joie de vivre.

And that is what we have here in France right now. Lassitude as we go into Year 2 of the Covid 19 pandemic.

There has been a lot of complaining this week, especially since, given concerning increases in the number of infections, especially in certain parts of France, and even more because, given frankly almost alarming reports of the increasing pressures on the hospitals in those regions, the government–some would say finally, others would say ridiculously–has imposed another set of restrictions.

This time only 16 departments of France (including Paris and the surrounding region, and also Lille, Nice, and their surrounding regions) are included. The theme of the lockdown this time is freiner sans fermer, which means “put the brakes on without closing down.” This has meant a rather complicated (and controversial) set of rules about what kinds of enterprises can stay open (bookstores, florists, hairdressers, bakeries OF COURSE) and which kind cannot (large-surface stores, museums, theaters, restaurants and cafes).

It’s been a terribly long time for some sectors of the economy, most notably restaurants and cafes, museums, theaters, and so on. It’s heartbreaking to hear restaurateurs in particular talk about their anxiety, about how they can possibly manage not to go out of business altogether, these people who in normal times provide all of us with such a wonderful service. (The word “restaurant” after all, comes from the French word restaurer (to restore). Think about that!) Managing a restaurant, it has always seemed to me, must be one of the hardest ways to make a living. How will they get through this?

The answers to these questions are not clear to me. In the beginning of the crisis, a year ago, one of the things that was most impressive and comforting to me about Macron’s address to the nation was the stress he placed on how the government intended to do everything it could to not only deal with the crise sanitaire (the health crisis) but also the economic consequences of having to shut so much of the economy down. Has this government kept those promises? I’m not too sure about that, but much of what I hear on French TV and radio suggests that whatever is being done is too little too late, or maybe in some cases not at all.

Some businesses have been spared the shutdown this time–bookshops, hairdressers, florists and of course bakeries and other food shops. The despised attestations that everyone was required to carry in the previous two lockdowns every time they left their homes is not required this time for people going out during the day and staying within the 10 kilometer limits of the restriction. And there is no time limit on how long you can be outside this time, for which everyone is grateful.

As I mentioned in my last post, I think it’s important for everyone to keep in mind for whom this year-long crisis is the most difficult, and calibrate our personal annoyance and lassitude with the situation accordingly. Of course everyone has had it with this crisis. (In French, the phrase is “on en a marre.”) But really, we do not all have an equal right to “having had it”: the health care workers who were being cheered in the streets as they made their weary way home after difficult days of saving lives a year ago are not being cheered anymore. Instead they are having to work just as hard (or harder) than they did a year ago with what must be an overwhelming sense of fatigue and pessimism about whether this extended trial will ever end. They are the ones who have the greatest right to being sick of it all. We have to just hope that they don’t throw in the towel, and be extremely grateful that most of them are not doing so. We need them!

I also would like to say something that I am pretty sure is going to be somewhat controversial, perhaps even downright unpopular. But I think it needs to be said. And that is that the amount of intense criticism that the government here in France is subject to is, I believe, somewhat unfair.

This is not to say that I do not agree with the thousands (millions?) of people who feel that the Macron government has bungled the managing of this crisis. What seemed to be a strong start in the beginning of the crisis is not as admirable by now, a year in. There are many reasons for this, some the fault of the government, and of Macron himself; but many of them are no one’s fault, really.

The problem is that this is so far, a very difficult crisis to manage. It may even be, to some extent, more or less impossible. One doesn’t have to look very far, all around in Europe in fact, to see that it is certainly not just Emmanuel Macron who is having a hard time figuring out what to do to keep his people safe, and prevent the economy from completely crashing.

This is a new disease, and new problems keep cropping up: shortages of the vaccines that almost miraculously have been able to be developed on such a short timeline; new variants of the disease cropping up all over the place in a most dismaying way. Europe is also struggling with trying to figure out how to function as a “union” rather than just a set of separate political entities that exist geographically adjacent to each other. It’s not easy (take a look at the United States to see how just how not-easy “forming a perfect union” can be, and how long it takes…)

So, while I do believe there’s been a lot of bungling in France since the fall. And while I personally believe that that is mainly because the government did not continue to listen to doctors as carefully as they should have, and did, in the beginning of the crisis. Where we are now was fairly predictable and probably could have been avoided by earlier, more aggressive governmental action. And by listening to the doctors, many of whom said “partial measures do not work.”

But I cannot help but think about what it must be like to be Emmanuel Macron, or Jean Castex, or Olivier Véran, the French minister of health, these days. I think we should all remember that these too are human beings, flawed like all human beings. They have probably made some big mistakes. But who among us would want to have the heavy burden of the responsibility that is on their shoulders? Who would want to have to keep guessing, or betting, or hoping rather than being able to plan in a way that was predictably fail-proof? Who would want to be any one of them trying to figure out what to do, trying to go to sleep at night, looking in the mirror and asking oneself if what they are doing is the right and best thing?

When I hear these people being criticized so strongly, I can’t help but think about their humanity, and how tired (and frightened) they must be as they struggle to keep up with this monstrous, protean virus.

The thing I think should be remembered is this: these are people who care and care deeply. We all saw the dreadful reality of a powerful leader of a nation who really did not care about the fact that hundreds of thousands of his citizens were dying, and who made things much worse, not better. (And his comment? “I take no responsibility,” and “It is what it is…”)

France is not in the hands of such people. I think they’re doing their best, or at least they’ve been trying to.

If we are going to blame anyone for this crisis, I suggest we look to the billionaires of the world, who apparently have been becoming even more obscenely wealthy, as the poorest of the poor bear the brunt of this crisis. It seems to me that the one thing that should be being done, and is not, is those very billionaires stepping up, and emptying their over-full pockets. Why couldn’t they do so? Why couldn’t they help the government by dumping some of their wealth in those places that need help the most? I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t.

Do you?

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.”

March 23, 2021 at 10:29 am 2 comments

Everyone is tired of this virus…

No hugging each other. (But you can hug yourself.) Keep a safe distance. Wear masks.

…and that is perfectly understandable.

However, it’s still here. And we still have to fight it, every way we can.

Many people are getting tired of Emmanuel Macron as well, and many (myself included) are disappointed about his shifting from the center ever more toward the right end of the political spectrum.

Still. This story made me smile this morning, and I am choosing to feel good about the fact that two young (and apparently extremely popular) YouTubers who I had never heard of before (because, let’s face it, I am neither that young, nor that cool…) accepted a challenge from le President de la République (Macron) to make a video reminding everyone of all the ways we need to continue working together to fight the virus that is, after all, continuing to wreak plenty of havoc among us–not only those who are suffering from the virus itself, but also those who are caring for them. (And they, more than anyone, have a right to be very very tired of it.)

The President challenged the YouTubers (McFly et Carlito) to make a video reminding everyone of what les gestes barrieres are (masks, physical distancing, airing out rooms, working from home, avoiding large gatherings, and so on). And has promised them that if they can gather 10 million views he’ll invite them to do a video of their choice from the presidential palace (Elysée).

They in turn have expressed completely appropriate skepticism and characteristic youthful irreverence about the challenge (among other things, they refer to him as “Manu” which is a not quite correct way to refer to le President de la République* but hey, what did he expect from these two?)

More importantly, they accepted his challenge and have made a very witty video doing exactly what he asked them to do. And they in turn have promised that any money they raise in connection with this video will go to help feed students in need. (Last year they raised more than 400,000 euros to help healthcare workers.)

So why not take a look at it, and help them meet their goal? It will be a good test of your French, and my hope is that even if you don’t understand all of it, it will make you smile. Here it is!

It certainly cheered me up this morning 🙂

*Always something new to learn: here’s a bit more context about the term “Manu.” Who knew? (Not I. 🙂 But I agree, he shouldn’t have humiliated the young man…)

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.”

February 22, 2021 at 9:31 am 1 comment

Snow across la belle France…

These birds were my faithful friends, and my home entertainment during a very wintry week across northern France…

It is easier (and also more fun) to write about snow, and birds, than about the pandemic. So that is what I have decided to do today.

I grew up in Minnesota, where we “know from” snow. (Though we do not say that we “know from” anything; that is New Yorkers who do that. But I digress…)

People often wrongly assume many things about people who grew up in a wintry climate. They assume that the person is probably glad not to be living in a wintry climate anymore. (Wrong!) They assume that winter is a terrible thing (Wrong again!) They assume that winter driving presents no challenge for these people. (Really wrong! Trust me on this: winter driving is challenging for anyone who is trying to stay on the road. If you’re driving on snowy, icy roads and you think you’ve got it all under control, you’re probably not being careful enough. So be more careful!!! Tip: The way to be the most careful of all is not to drive in snow and ice if you don’t have to…)

Anyway. This week was a very wintry week across most of northern France. There was real snow, and real cold (though not as much of either as there often can be in, you know: Minnesota 🙂 ) And since I didn’t have to drive anywhere, I quite enjoyed it.

I particularly enjoyed watching the birds gather around my bird feeder. They were more interested than usual in the seeds and other treats I had put out for them this week. And it was fun to watch them hopping around, enjoying a little bit of this, a little bit of that…then flying away. I had to sneak up on them to get any pictures at all (like the one above). So it became a kind of game, a nice little break from whatever else I was doing, many times a day…

I didn’t take the time to photograph their “happy tracks” until today, four days after the snow first fell. So the trail of their joyful hopping around is not as clear as it was the first day. But you can see that they had a lot of fun, can’t you?

I’ll be back sometime soon to report on other things. In the meantime, stay safe, stay well, wherever you are. Prenez soin de vous…et a la prochaine!

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.”

February 14, 2021 at 5:12 pm Leave a comment

January in Essoyes…2021

As I write this post, another snow is drifting down from the sky, softly falling over trees, fields, and houses. It is a lovely sight.

In France confusion over what to do about the pandemic reigns. In my opinion, the government is trying as hard as it can to figure out what to do as the plateau of new cases that was holding steadily for a while (but not declining) begins to creep up, and worries about the new strains of COVID that are appearing here and in other European countries are added to the list of concerns. So far they have not been able to take the kind of decisive action that would make everyone feel if not better, at least less uncertain about what comes next.

But can you blame them? In addition to a rather sluggish pace of the vaccine becoming available, they are dealing with on the one hand approximately 60 percent of the French population that is very suspicious of vaccines, and on the other hand (I suppose about 40 percent of the population) complaining that the government is not moving fast enough to get the vaccine distributed. The other day President Macron did a bit of complaining himself, by protesting that it’s impossible to deal satisfactorily with a nation of “66 million prosecutors.” 🙂 Though he was obviously overstating the case, I can kind of see his point. I think he’s trying. I think the Minister of Health, Olivier Véran is trying also. I think pretty much everyone involved in trying to do something about the pandemic is doing the best they can…

What can I say? The French themselves know that they are a nation of complainers (and yes, sometimes they kind of complain about it 🙂 ). So…plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose….

Apparently the next decision will be announced on Wednesday, so then we will all know more exactly what to complain about, and what the next weeks hold in store. A reconfinement is widely anticipated, but we’ll just have to wait a few more days to know if indeed there will be a reconfinement, and if so what the terms of it will be.

I watched the inauguration of our new President from here, and chose to watch French television coverage of it rather than American. I always find it interesting to follow important developments and events in the U.S. through a French lens. One of the small details noted over here was that there was an awkward delay in the opening of the doors to the White House when the Bidens arrived there. According to the New York Times in an article written the day after the inauguration, the doors are usually opened for the new president by Marine guards. It’s not clear who finally opened the doors this time, but the French journalists watching the event live certainly noticed the awkwardness of the moment, and one of them guessed that in the end Biden opened the doors himself. This would fit into the general view of Americans as perfectly capable of blowing protocol aside when the moment calls for it. 🙂

I would say that overall the reaction over here to the new administration is at the very least great relief. The President of the EU was quoted as saying that she was looking forward to having “a friend” in the White House who could work with Europe on fighting climate change, quashing the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuilding multilateralism. No need to think too hard about what really was being implied there…

And so, it was with great joy (and relief) that I and millions of other Americans, along with citizens of many other countries, watched the peaceful (though hardly gracious) transfer of power take place in the end after all. President Biden has his work cut out for him…here’s wishing him the strength, courage, and commitment to get it done, and done well.

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.”

January 24, 2021 at 5:42 pm 2 comments

France: The Vaccine Arrives

Keep your distance til you get that vaccine, everyone!

Well, here we are. The coronavirus vaccine has arrived in France, and it is being slowly (quite slowly!) distributed. In fact, according to doctors, nurses, and other health care workers, as well as many mayors of French cities and villages, it is being distributed way too slowly. 😦

Having been so impressed at the way the French government handled things back in March when the pandemic first hit here, it has been both disappointing and surprising to see that the response, starting last fall, has not been all that impressive. I was in a Parisian hospital one day last September and I overheard two doctors talking as they walked by. One of them was saying “Macron fait un peu Trump…” (Macron is acting a bit like Trump), and added something about how halfway measures don’t really work, the response to a pandemic has to be clear, decisive, and aggressive. (Kind of the way it was back in March, in other words…)

The reason for this conversation is probably that since sometime in September the number of cases was mounting in France, and many experts felt that it was time for another lockdown. However, the lockdown, when it finally came at the end of October, was both later than it should have been, and also a pretty confusing one. It was billed as “confinement lite” (not officially, but informally people were calling it that); and the main result seems to have been not all that much confinement, and (not surprisingly) not all that much success in keeping the numbers down either.

I won’t go into the boring details, but suffice it to say that I think most people in France would have preferred something both clearer and more effective. I do understand that the government is reluctant to add to the already really serious economic consequences of lockdown, however. It’s a difficult problem, to say the least.

As for the slow start on vaccination, as with most things in France, the reasons behind this matter are of course “compliqué.” (There is a whole chapter in my book, titled “A Passion for Complication.” There’s a reason for that! 🙂

My son, who is most of the time a fairly enthusiastic francophile, has nonetheless been both frustrated and bewildered by the slowness of the distribution of the vaccine. He asked his best friend here why it was taking France so long to get the vaccines going. (The comparison with other countries is really kind of embarrassing.) She said there were primarily two reasons: 1) logistique (which I gather has to do not only with distribution of the vaccine, but also the need to keep the vaccines at a very low temperature while transporting and storing it, as well as many important details of how to safely and effectively administer it); and 2) the government’s desire to not have people think they are moving too quickly with a new vaccine. This is probably related to the fact that apparently 60 percent of the French public is somewhat resistant to the idea of taking vaccines in general and this one in particular.

Well, this has led to a great many long and interesting conversations on French television and radio. And in listening to these sources of information, I have learned yet another reason for the slow start, which goes back to that same chapter in my book. That is the fact that, as French commentators have been noting, the procedure for getting permission for the elderly living in nursing homes to receive the vaccine, for example, is, yes, extremely complicated, perhaps even too complicated. They have even said that this is “typically French,” with a typically Gallic shrugging of their shoulders. (They have said it, not me! As an American in France who is constantly noting French foibles (though almost always affectionately,) I must say it is rewarding to have French people agree with me. 🙂 )

Here’s a little video clip to illustrate what I mean, for those of you who speak French. (For those of you who don’t, one of the most revealing bits in the clip is that getting consent for giving the vaccine to the elderly was explained in a 45-page document delivered to the nursing homes of France on Christmas Eve, about 3 days before the campaign was to begin (!)

On the other hand, I must say that given the vociferous, and mostly united and very strong criticism of the slow-as-molasses approach initially taken by the government–the words injustifiable and inexcusable are among the adjectives that I have heard frequently in recent days–they have been very quick to respond to the criticism and change course. Yesterday the Minister of Health announced that the government was going to immediately “amplifier, accelerer, and simplifier” the process. The initial result of this will mean, for one thing, that health care workers over 50 will be moved to the front of the line.

It only makes sense, doesn’t it?!?!?!

So anyway. That is the main news from my little perch in France this week. I will say that the concerns about a new surge of COVID cases following the holidays has seemed to inspire more or less universal respect for and practicing of les gestes barrieres. Almost everyone is wearing masks, almost everywhere, including here in Essoyes. And I assume they are also taking the other precautions–washing hands, keeping physical distance, and so on. Nobody wants to see “the Thanksgiving effect” (pronounced here as “l’effet Sanksgeeveeng”) that was seen in the U.S. take hold here.

Fingers crossed. Stay safe, stay well, everyone. Wear those masks, and until the vaccine has a chance to work, stay home as much as you can. The vaccine is here, and eventually things will get better…right????

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.”

January 6, 2021 at 3:53 pm Leave a comment

Allègement de confinement and freedom of the press…

Essoyes: Allègement de Confinement Photo by Janet Hulstrand

The gradual loosening of the restrictions of movement (l’allègement de confinement) that were reintroduced in France at the end of October have begun. Starting Saturday, shops were able to open again, with very strict rules and requirements designed to avoid an increase in COVID infections while slowly, carefully reopening the economy.

Last week President Macron addressed the nation again (I think it was his fifth time?) since the pandemic took hold in France last spring. This time the message was a bit more clear than the last time: this time, unlike in the spring, déconfinement will take place in stages, each one contingent upon reaching the government’s target for reducing the number of cases.

In addition to shops reopening, we are now allowed to travel a whoppin’ 20 kilometers from our homes in search of fresh air and exercise, and to stay out for a maximum of 3 hours (up from the 1 kilometer/1 hour limit) required during the past month. It is hoped that by Christmas people will be able to travel to be with their families in small groups, but it was also made clear that this also will depend on how well the nation does at following the rules that are essential in order to keep the numbers of infection down enough to reach the December 15 goal.

Many restrictions remain: for example, we still have to have attestions every time we venture out; curfews have been reinstated for the whole of France; and bars and restaurants will remain closed until at least January 20.

It’s a funny thing about those attestations: there are just nine very specific reasons that travel or any other activity outside the home is permitted. You have to choose what the reason is for your sortie and check just one box in order to have the attestation considered valid. I just want to say that in its rigidity, this is typically French! I am quite sure if the U.S. had such a system (and clearly they never will), you would at least have the option of checking “other” for those things which probably are permissible but do not easily fit into one of the nine categories. (!)

Anyway. Saturday was a beautiful day here in Essoyes, so people were out rejoicing in their new freedom. (It’s amazing how liberating it feels to be able to go 20 kilometers and stay out for 3 hours when you’ve only been allowed a tiny fraction of that freedom for a whole month!)

Meanwhile, in Paris the atmosphere was not very happy, nor very peaceful. The Macron administration recently proposed a new law (the loi de sécurité globale) that met with massive disapproval by the thousands of people who demonstrated the past two Saturdays in cities across France. The most troubling aspect of the new law was contained in the infamous Article 24, which would forbid the filming of police. (There was a bit more nuance to the language than that, but make no mistake: the intent was to keep members of the press, and regular citizens as well, from filming incidents of police misconduct and even brutality.) Journalists of course were vigorously opposed to such a constraint on freedom of the press, and many regular citizens joined with them in protesting furiously, and in very large numbers.

The protests were successful in getting the government to withdraw the hotly contested article. But one thing that became abundantly clear in the widespread discussion of this issue is that France is definitely in need of police reform. It’s hard to imagine what could have more clearly proven this need, and also the need for the right for citizens to document police brutality, than a video that showed three policemen violently beating a music producer they had followed into his studio, and that became public early last week.

The demonstrations on Saturday were intended to be peaceful, and mostly they were: but there were a frightening number of demonstrators, journalists, and police injured in the violence that erupted as the peaceful demonstrators were joined by not-peaceful-at-all casseurs. 😦 And there were indeed some unacceptable acts of violence committed by the police.

Protesting the loi sécurité globale in Paris November 28, 2020. Photo by Phineas Rueckert.

As a left-learning observer of the French political scene, I find it disappointing to watch Macron shift ever more toward the right. One of his strengths (and the reason he won the presidency) is that in 2017, he created a more or less centrist coalition. It is of course hard to remain in the center when you have extreme elements pulling hard from both the right and the left end of the spectrum; and even the temptation to shift a bit to the right is somewhat understandable given the problems with terrorism that France has suffered in recent years, and particularly in recent weeks. But I do hope he will find a way to recapture the spirit of cooperation and mutual respect–and a return to the middle at least!–that is going to be necessary in order to get through what is clearly a difficult time in France.

Back here in Essoyes it is more quiet. It is the time of year when some villagers are heading into the forest to collect wood for their fires. Yes, there is something here called affuage which basically means, in this context, the right to gather wood from certain specific little sections of the national forest. Everyone who lives in Essoyes has this right, plus an assigned piece of the forest in which they are allowed to cut and gather wood. As a homeowner here, I too have this right, though it is not one I am exercising. I am very proud of the fact that I’ve managed to learn to be pretty good at stacking wood (thanks to the helpful guidance I received from Cody at wrangler.com 🙂 ) And I have a very nice exploiteur who brings me the wood I need every winter. I had hoped to advance to splitting wood by now, but I’m not sure I will ever be able to add that to my list of lumberjack skills. One thing at a time…

We’re heading into that time of year when at least several of the world’s religions celebrate the concept of light shining through the darkness, drawing on pagan traditions that did the same thing. It’s a good time of year to do so, and I daresay a good year in which to do it.

Photo by Janet Hulstrand

Wishing you and yours a peaceful, happy, safe, healthy holiday season, however and wherever you celebrate it, and even if you don’t.

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.”

December 1, 2020 at 4:56 pm 2 comments

Reconfinement: Here we go again…

Me and my boys together, observing les gestes barrieres.

The numbers are high, too high. The curfew wasn’t really helping anything. (Honestly, very few people thought that it would.) And so we have been confined to our homes again. We have to carry attestations, explaining why we are leaving our homes if we are leaving them, and there are only a certain number of reasons that are acceptable for doing so. Many stores, and all restaurants and bars are closed. We have to stay within a kilometer of our homes. And so on…

This confinement is supposed to be “different” (i.e. less confining) than the one last spring. I’m not sure it really is less confining, but it certainly is more confusing. Never mind the details: they are, well, confusing…

However, the main idea is clear. Stay home. Be careful. Wear masks. Wash hands, don’t touch face. Etc.

And the purpose is certainly clear: to keep as many people as possible safe, and healthy. And to keep the hospitals from becoming overcrowded, and healthcare workers able to do their jobs without becoming totally exhausted.

So, okay. Deep breath. On y va encore…(or should I say on y reste encore?)

And once again, I must acknowledge this important fact: if one has to be confined somewhere, I have very little to complain about.

In fact, I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

Stay well, everyone. Et prenez soin de vous…

A field of winter wheat, within a kilometer of my home. 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.”

November 1, 2020 at 7:52 pm 2 comments

“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

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