Three Things You Need to Know About the French

Yesterday (14 July) was Bastille Day in France, a proud day for a people with a proud history. The French may not wield the same clout as they once did on the world stage, but for many of us, their culture is still the by-word for sophistication. If advertisers want to associate their products with elegance and culture, they’ll use French-sounding voices and music.

I myself am a Francophile. I love French wine, French cheese and French bread. We’ll glide gently past their pop music and their comedy. And I admire French people: their independence of spirit, their intellectual rigour, the fact that they mean what they say. The French are sometimes thought to be arrogant. I think they’re misunderstood, so to celebrate them this Bastille Day weekend, I’ve come up with some observations which I hope will make it easier to understand their funny little ways. They’re not exactly scientific, but they’re true to my experience of French people.

They Will Correct Your French

The French are proud of their language – and rightly so. It’s a sensual feast of a language, with those silky sounds, the elegant words, the rich meaning behind some of their everyday phrases. And they’re very particular about how it’s spoken. When you make a faux pas (sorry, couldn’t resist), they’ll rush in to correct you. They don’t consider it rude – after all, the purity of their language is at stake. Try not to bristle when they do it – they genuinely believe they’re helping you. In a way, it’s a compliment. They think you speak the language well enough to be worth correcting.

They Kiss, But It’s Not Affectionate

People tend to think of the French as an affectionate, touchy-feely people, because of all the kissing they do – between two and four kisses per person depending on the region. But the French just use the kiss as a form of greeting, much the same as a handshake for the rest of us. It’s an impersonal gesture, with the lips barely touching the cheek. The French kiss regardless of the level of relationship, whereas other nations save their kisses and hugs for those they’re closest to.

They Drink One Glass of Wine

Glass of Wine
The French derive pleasure from just one glass of wine.

This is aimed at Irish readers of this post. We may aspire to drink like the French, who appear to live long and prosper on a diet of red wine. But it’s never going to happen. We are all-or-nothing drinkers, while the French drink one glass of wine at a sitting, no more and no less. They immerse themselves fully in the pleasure of that glass and they drink it without guilt. If we want to drink like French people, we will need to learn to see it not as an enemy, nor as a route to oblivion, but as a source of sensual pleasure.

Are you a Francophile or a Francophobe? Do my observations about the French chime with you? What have you yourself noticed about them?

 

My Year in Photography

 

St Audoen's Church
St Audoen’s Church in Dublin. Its beauty inspired me to take out my phone camera.

I took this picture at a church in Dublin at a choral concert I was attending. I took it a year ago this weekend. It’s not the first picture I’ve ever taken, but it is the first time I took a picture in response to something I had seen and the first time I felt a desire to capture a moment.

I was halfway through a weekend photography course at the National Council for the Blind (NCBI) training centre in Dublin in photography aimed at visually impaired people. When the course began that morning, we sat in a circle and told the facilitator, a German photographer called Karsten Hein who works with blind photographers, why we were there.

Reasons for Taking Part

Many of the participants said they had been keen photographers before they lost their sight and wanted to rekindle their passion. Or they wanted to use photography to document the challenges they faced as visually impaired people. I cheerfully admitted I wanted more social media likes.

I wasn’t being entirely flippant. I did hope the course would help me negotiate a more visual world of communication. My world is a 1980s pixelated TV screen, so I never felt enticed to record what I saw. Yet pictures carry much more weight than words in the world of social media, and in the world in general, and I needed to stop fighting that fact. I hoped that on the course I would learn to take pictures that would enhance my words. On a visually impaired photography course, the organisers would understand my needs – and my reluctance.

What I wasn’t expecting was that I would enjoy it.

Worlds Open Up

We began by taking pictures of the NCBI garden. ‘Flowers. Boring,’ said my inner gremlin. Until I looked back at one of the pictures I had taken and saw a bee perched on a flower petal. I had not known the bee was there when I was taking the picture. I realised that photographs could reveal the hidden layers of detail that are missing in my everyday life.

Then we all discovered that there was a graveyard behind the garden. We were all highly tickled by this. None of us had known it was there, even though we had all visited the NCBI premises many times. The graves were a little far away for good pictures, but I went all poser-ish and took a picture of the bush next to the gates, to show how easily life and death rest beside each other.

Life Amidst Death
Poser-y photography moment

The Inner Eye

Later, we struck out and took our cameras to the canal bank. Volunteers from local camera clubs, who had also been with us in the garden, gave us guidance on what might make good subjects for pictures. Along the way, I took a picture of water flowing over a lock on the canal. The sighted volunteer was a bit shruggy about it, but as I gazed at the gleaming columns of water on the camera screen, I felt a quiet glow of satisfaction. And i wasn’t deluded. When I was showing the photographs from the course to my keen photographer husband, he said, without prompting, that it was a beautiful photograph.

 

Gleaming Water Columns
Photograph that demonstrates my inner eye.

 

When we came back from the canal, we discussed the photos we had taken. Most of the participants had less sight than me, but had a clear idea of how they wanted their photographs to look, and their photographs came out very strong. Their sight loss has not affected their skill with their camera, and their inner eye is still intact. The eye of their memory fills in the blanks. All they needed was someone to tell them where to point the camera, and to describe the picture for them afterwards.

Karsten asked me which photograph I wanted to discuss. I had so little faith in my own inner eye that I just asked him to pick. He stopped at a statue of the writer Brendan Behan sitting on a bench. It wasn’t a picture I had thought about much. I just liked the look of the statue and snapped it quickly. But now I saw how I had captured the expression on Behan’s face, made it seem as if he was looking back at me. I saw that I too had an inner eye, and there was no excuse for me not to use it.

 

Brendan Behan
Brendan Behan, and the way he might look at you.

A Year On

Here’s a pic I took last weekend, almost a full year after I took the course. I’m still snapping away. Have I gained more social media likes? Some, but it doesn’t matter as much as I thought. I enjoy capturing moments, the way photographs give shape to those moments. The photographs give me the chance to absorb detail, as I zoom in on them and spot the little touches that make the images rich. My confidence in my ability to capture images has grown, and I have power over all I see.

Kite Photo - Blind Photography
Still a confident photographer, a year on.

 

Why Did She Say That?

I was sitting in a local café, the natural habitat of a writer, enjoying a cappuccino. The tables were close together, a pretty common feature in cafes these days. This afforded me the opportunity to hear every word that the two young women at the table next to me were saying.

One of the women, a golden, glowing creature, was wearing a top with lines of blue polka dots on a white background. And her friend took it upon herself to give Polka-Dot, as I’ll call her for handy reference, some fashion advice.

‘Don’t take this the wrong way now,’ she said, lowering her voice and leaning forward, ‘but that top looks a bit childish on you.’

Polka Dot
Why did she say the polka dots looked childish?

Why did she say that?

Did she really intend to steer Polka-Dot onto the path of fashion righteousness?

Was she feeling a certain smugness inside, at the thought that her fashion sense might be superior to Polka-Dot’s?

Or did she want to dim Polka-Dot’s lightbulb?

I believe there are certain people who prefer to keep their lightbulbs dim. In other words, they prefer to attract as little attention as possible. Which is fine, until they try to dim other people’s lightbulbs.

When they are in the company of a person who glows, as Polka-Dot did, they try to take away that lustre, so that they can then feel more comfortable. And they will often do it in kind, well-intentioned tones. It’s a force so deep inside them that they may not be aware of it, a dancing devil that wants to keep them and everyone else in the dark.

What Did Polka-Dot Think?

Polka-Dot seemed willing to consider that her friend’s intentions were good.

‘Yeah, I suppose,’ she said, smiling ruefully. ‘Think I got dressed with my eyes closed this morning.’

The conversational current moved the two friends past the danger zone, words tumbling out of their mouths, interspersed with frequent ripples of laughter. But every now and then, Polka-Dot looked dubiously at her top. And I felt sure that whatever her friend’s intentions, Poka-Dot had not left the house that morning thinking her top looked childish. Her friend had succeeded in dimming Polka-Dot’s lightbulb

 

The Unloved Journal

I stumbled upon the journal in a charity shop. Its green cover drew me in. I ran my fingers over it. Its surface was smooth and firm, and it fit neatly into the curve of my hand. In My Humble Opinion, it was called.

The pages on the left hand side featured gloriously scornful quotes about the idiocy of the human race, set against colourful backgrounds. Perfect for a crank like me. The pages on the right-hand side were lined with wide, well-defined lines, which gave an impression of space despite the journal’s small size.

A Loving Inscription

How did such a beautiful object come to be washed up in a charity shop? That was certainly not its intended destination, going by the inscription on the inside cover. It was made out to someone called Enright, and the giver said she couldn’t resist buying the journal for Enright, because it was made for her. Going by the appearance of the journal, I’m not sure that Enright agreed with her. The cover was pristine, and there were no cracks in the binding. Overall, the journal appeared untouched by human hand.

The Unloved Journal
Now a loved journal: someone else’s trash became my treasure

I wrote my own note underneath the inscription. ‘Why didn’t you write in this? Why didn’t you make the time to fill its pages?’ Reproachful, I know, but I couldn’t stand the thought of this beautiful object being doomed to a life of neglect.

I like to think though, that the love and in the inscription have passed on to me. I was not the intended recipient, but I have cracked it open. I chortle at the quotes and fill its pages with nonsense. And I am quite grateful to this Enright. Her trash became my treasure.

 

Stepping Up To The Plate

This week was an anxious week in many Irish households, as State exams got underway for thousands of young people. Some might say the parents were even more anxious than they were. Many parents put their own lives on hold while the exams are happening, rescheduling work and cancelling social engagements. They pour all their efforts into creating an atmosphere conducive to study, filling the house with the young person’s favourite treats and removing all distractions.

 

teenager studying
Exam time is an anxious time for teenagers – and their parents.

Matters of State

A few years ago, one mother took her daughter’s wellbeing so seriously that she was willing to set matters of state aside. She was a senator in Ireland’s upper house and she was part of a committee responsible for selecting candidates who would oversee an enquiry into corruption. But she missed the meeting to decide who the candidates would be, so she could be there for her daughter, who was sitting her final State exams.

As a result, the government didn’t have a majority when it came to selecting the candidates, which lessened its chances of picking its desired candidate. The incident caused a storm in a teacup at the time. The senator claimed that she was not given enough notice about the meeting, so she couldn’t arrange backup for herself

But what struck me was that this woman had a husband. Why couldn’t he have stepped up to the plate? A couple of weeks later, he was asked that very question on a national radio show. I still remember how indignant he was. He repeated the host’s question in a tone that conveyed that he couldn’t believe he was being even asked the question. Given that the senator’s decision had had an impact on matters of state, the question was perfectly justified. But the only answer the husband gave was that the girl needed her mother.

My Attentive Parents

When state exams are happening, it’s natural to find yourself travelling back to your own experience. Both my parents were very attentive to me. I still remember the satisfying crunch of the turkey and coleslaw roll my mother got me at a local deli – a real novelty at the time.

But I also remember my father, on the morning of my first exam, handing me a neatly folded piece of paper with written instructions to guide me through the exams, which I carried into the exam hall. I don’t get worked up about exams, but if I had, my father would have been there with a reassuring arm and wise words. He was a husband who stepped up to the plate.

 

Nuggets of Knowledge

This week, I went to a table quiz in a pub. It was a raucous quiz. Drinks were ordered, there was laughter and chat, and there was a good vibe from knowing that money was being raised for a great cause, a local Special Olympics Bowling Club. But at our table the atmosphere was more serious. This was a fight to the death. Answers were thrashed out, passionately argued over. When we got a correct answer, we felt a quiet glow of triumph. When we got one wrong, we groaned.

 

Quizzes satisfy the same competitive urge in me as matches do in other people. I play to win.  When I watch quizzes on television, I shout at the answers at the screen, howl in outrage when a contestant gets a question wrong, yell in triumph when they win. And I enjoy pitting myself against the contestants.

 

I also relish the opportunity quizzes give me to scoop up nuggets of knowledge. I hoard these pieces of knowledge the way other people hoard old clothes or newspapers. For example, at this week’s quiz, I found out that an aye-aye is a large primate living in Madagascar and that the person who sang Starship Trooper was Sarah Brightman, ex-wife of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

 

A History of Quizzing

 

bright ideas
I love to tease out a question and scoop up nuggets of knowledge.

Quizzing has been a part of my life since I was young. On Sunday nights, after dinner, my father gave us a quiz, magicking up questions from his own store of knowledge. Name six insects. When did World War Two begin? We enjoyed the challenge and would plead with him to give us a quiz.

As a teenager, I was able to share my passion with a wider audience, as we had teachers in school who enjoyed setting table quizzes and encouraged us to enter quizzing competitions. I became part of a crack quiz team which enjoyed a decent level of success. This competitive streak culminated in two appearance on television quizzes.

It’s true what they say – the questions are a lot harder on television. Everything happens very fast, and the knowledge you gather goes out the door. So I didn’t distinguish myself, though I didn’t disgrace myself either. The experiences were hugely enjoyable, and each one is worthy of a post on its own right. And I got to go on a couple of jaunts, all expenses paid, which wasn’t too shabby.

Re-Ignited Interest

Quizzes faded out of my life for a while, until I met my husband, a dynamite quizzer, and I joined him and his quiz team-mates. We enjoy the competition, and the victories when they come, although success in the raffles eludes us. It’s nice to have the opportunity to share the nuggets of knowledge we’ve gathered and put them to good use.

Sometimes people say to me, ‘Why would you want to know things like that? What’s the point?’ To me, all knowledge is power, even useless knowledge. And as I grow older, and I realise how little I really know about the workings of this world, I take refuge in these nuggets of knowledge. I may not know how to open a bottle with a bottle opener, or why some people consider it  rude to open presents in front of other people. But I can take comfort in knowing that Willie Makes a Phrase is an anagram for William Shakespeare.

 

Artful Queue Dodgers

Recently, I had to go to a doctor’s surgery to collect something. Beside the desk, there was a sign asking people to stand back from the desk, so that people could have privacy while doing their business. As there was a woman at the desk, I obeyed the sign and stood in the doorway.

When she finished, I approached the desk, and an old woman came around me and reached the desk before I did, even though it was clear that I was next in line. She just had a quick question, she said, but the question required the receptionist to get up and look for a colleague who could answer it for her.

My item wasn’t ready, and while I waited for it to be printed, another older woman took the opportunity to ask her question, and the scrape and grind of the printer would have indicated that I was still being dealt with. Let’s just say that in both instances, it was lucky that I wasn’t discussing anything of a delicate nature.

Abusing the Privileges of Age

What is it about passing a certain age that causes some people to feel that signs and queues no longer apply to them? It’s as if a switch flips in their brain, and after a lifetime of caring, they decide they no longer care. In a way, this is commendable. It’s literating not to worry about what other people think. But you can take it too far.

Artful Queue Dodger
Some older people have mastered the art of queue dodging.

By and large, these artful queue dodgers get away with it. People let them go ahead, possibly because they don’t want to be seen to bawl out an old person in public. But also out of respect and out of kindness. And these queue dodgers trample on that kindness. They abuse the privileges that age brings. That’s what burns me about it.

There is a possibility that, if left to my own devices, I might actually let an older person go ahead of me. But don’t guilt or manipulate me into it. Otherwise, my walls will go up. Other people, far nicer than I am, have a more mellow attitude to it. ‘Can’t wait till I can get away with that,’ they quip. They speak as if the queue dodgers are children who don’t quite know what they’re doing. But they know exactly what they are doing.

To Dodge or to Wait

When I left the doctor’s surgery, I had to go to the chemist. As I arrived at the entrance, an old woman appeared. My dander was up by now and I thought, no way is this person going to get round me. So, I took ruthless advantage of my faster leg speed to get round her and reach the counter first.

And there was nobody there.

By the time the old woman arrived at the counter, there were two people there. One was attending to me and the second one attended to her. And she was finished before I was.

I realised that a stark choice lies before me. I can become an artful queue dodger myself, or I can learn to wait. By temperament, I fear I have the makings of a queue dodger. But I also wonder what the point of being alive for such a long time is if you haven’t learnt some of life’s lessons. If you haven’t learnt to be a little wiser, a little more patient, a little more tolerant.

I’m hoping that by the time I’m old enough to be a queue dodger, I’ll have learned that everything will happen in its own good time. And that I will have even gained enough grace to allow other people to go ahead of me.

 

Small Wonders of Sneem

Apologies for the lack of bloggage last weekend. I’m sure you all felt the blog’s absence keenly. It’s because I was gallivanting again, though this time within the borders of my own country. Our hillwalking club descended en masse to Sneem in Co. Kerry, in the south-west corner of Ireland.

Kerry is one of the most popular tourist spots in Ireland, and it’s hard to describe its beauty without resorting to cliché. Majestic. Spectacular, Scenic. So as with my Iceland post a couple of weeks ago, I’ve decided to concentrate on Kerry’s little quirks, and the county is full of them.

Here’s a flavour of some of the gloriously random things I encountered on my travels

A sign warning walkers about stray golf balls, describing them as dangerous projectiles

A bridge with a dizzying view of water hurtling beneath a grille

Water Under Bridge
A dizzying view of water under a bridge. Photo taken by moi.

A pub with a fictional menu and lasagne the texture of biscuit

A Dalmatian perched on a street sign

A very concise German charity shop owner – when asked if she had lived in Sneem long, she simply answered, ‘Yes.’

Raspberry sorbet ice cream, eaten on a bench by the river

A red setter stretched out on the steps of the hotel, basking in the sun

A garden filled with pyramids designed to mimic the wattle and daub dwellings of our ancestors

A phantom slice of apple pie

And one man and his goat

Man With Goat
Man brings his goat into the village of Sneem.

Assault on a Café Window

This post is part of an occasional series I’m going to call Retail Ramblings, where I chronicle my encounters, good, bad and ugly, with retail and service personnel.

I sat in the window of a small city-centre café with a friend, having coffee. While we chatted, I kept an eye out for my husband, who planned to join us. A few moments later, I spotted him through the window, his back to me.

cafe window
Sitting in the window of a café

I expected him to turn around and come through the door, but he stayed still.  Why wasn’t he coming in, I thought, puzzled.

I had failed to spot the phone in his hand, and thinking he mustn’t have seen us, I rapped on the window three times. The loudness of the raps startled me. I felt vibrations travel along my arm. ‘I thought the Apocalypse was coming,’ my husband said, when he came through the door.

I turned to the owner of the café, who was at the counter, just a few inches away from our table. ‘Sorry I banged on your window like that,’ I said. ‘You must have thought it was going to break into a million pieces.’ My tone was light and banterful, and I expected an equally banterful response: oh, I thought I was going to have to call the glaziers. Or a verbal shrug: don’t worry about it. It’s made of strong stuff.

What she said, without a trace of humour in her voice, was:

‘If you had broken that window, I would have bust you.’

Needless to say, I haven’t returned to that cafe.

 

Small Wonders of Iceland

This week, I ticked an item on my bucket list and went to Iceland. I could tell you about the cascading waterfalls, the black sand beaches, hot springs bubbling from the earth. It’s what we think of when we think of Iceland. And all of these things are indeed awesome, in the truest sense of the word.

But I can’t say anything about these wonders that hasn’t already been said. When you’re a tourist, you’re funnelled towards the big game: the natural wonders, the ancient buildings, the epic landscapes. So instead, I look for the little moments that make a trip sparkle. The quirky objects you stumble upon at street corners. The random conversations. The strange but delicious food. The characters on the bus.

Here’s a word collage of my top ten small but perfectly formed Icelandic moments.

Two polar bears standing guard outside a shop

Carp flashing golden in a pond

A tour guide with flaming red hair who did a scarily accurate impression of a Viking having his guts ripped out

Drinking water that smelt of eggs, but tasted pure as air

An exhausting, but enjoyable search for puffins

A group of farmers entranced by fields full of fodder, but empty of sheep

A museum that blasted punk music from a cellar

Splashes of wall art filled with swirling patterns, fantastical creatures and electric colour schemes

Slices of morning herring, picked to enhance the delicate flavour

A band with no musical instruments

Quirky Iceland Picture
Iceland is filled with small, quirky marvels. Photo taken by moi.

 

I’m not the most adventurous of travellers. You won’t find me dangling off a cliff or Airbnbing in a yurt. But I don’t think I need you need to go on mad adventures to make your trip unique. I just look out for small details that turn into lasting memories.