Ten Ways You Know You’re in the South of France

Philippe, Lolo and I are driving into nearby Cannes one afternoon, chatting away about something or other, when the insistent voice of Waze breaks in.

“Wait!” I say. “What did she just say?” We pipe down inside the car, a bubble of calm amid the raging Côte d’Azur traffic surrounding us. We wait in silence for the female voice of our navigation app to repeat her command as the upcoming roundabout draws closer.

“Take the first exit on Boulevard de la One-E-Division Frances Libra,” she directs from my husband’s cell.

Philippe steers into the rondpoint’s first exit as I roar, “Boulevard One-E what?” At last I share a vehicle in this land with someone whose French is worse than mine!

As we cruise along the One-E, I drill down on the car’s navigation screen. The thoroughfare’s name comes into focus: Boulevard de la 1ère Division Française Libre.

“Oh, I get it! One-E is Première! And Frances Libra is Française Libre!”

“Thankfully we have someone to translate,” Lolo says from the back seat of the car. A bilingual tweenager will never appreciate my hard-won Franglais.

Waze has become more hilarious than helpful in France. Sometimes, I guess, the same could be said of my tween.

But Waze isn’t the only way I’m reminded that we’ve crossed the Atlantic to rejoin our summertime tribe in the South of France. That’s the beauty of living part-time in one place, part-time in another. The Rivera’s beloved (and often entertaining) quirks reemerge as I settle in. Here are ten more ways I know we’ve arrived:

  1. Fluffed and fancy, Yoko has become a first-class citizen in France.

    I’ve been told off by the dog groomer. Brigitte, our take-charge toiletteuse, happily welcomed Yoko back for her summer cut by lambasting her owners: Your dog is two kilos trop grosse! Never mind that our miniature poodle was fully checked out in Toronto before getting her oh-so-important travel papers. The Canadian vet called it “a little winter weight.” Brigitte preferred a different phrase. “Elle a le cœur qui baigne dans la graisse!” she declared. The visual of my Yoko’s heart bathing in a vat of fat, a horrifying steak of Waygu beef, is enough for me to follow Brigitte’s command. We’ve begun feeding our mini poodle steamed zucchini or green beans in place of half her croquettes. Croquettes. Even the dog food sounds more appetizing in France.

  2. Yoko has become a first-class citizen. All fancy and coiffed, she expects to go wherever we go. She’s welcome in stores. Waiters at restaurants bring Yoko bowls of chilled water at the same time as they bring her humans their drinks. At Lucky Break Coffee, a newish café in Antibes, they allow her inside and give her free dog treats. Don’t tell Brigitte.
  3. Nantes’ bus drivers found a way to beat the heat – and the rules. Photo: lenouvelhommeinvisible

    The morning news has become more colourful. In neighbouring Saint-Laurent-du-Var, a man’s $40,000 watch was ripped from his wrist while he drove a Ferrari. On the other side of the country in Nantes, where residents suffered an unusual heat wave, male bus drivers demanded the right to wear shorts on the job by donning skirts.

  4. The adverts get a little shocking, too. Riviera Radio, the Anglophone station out of Monaco that reaches listeners “from San Remo to Saint-Tropez, and all the way out to sea,” recently carried an ad for Starbucks. Have you ever heard an ad for Starbucks? For anyone new to the superpower, it sells a wide range of food, too.
  5. Still, miles of rosé greet you on entering a typical grocery store.

    In the name of former resident Scott Fitzgerald and les Années folles (the Roaring Twenties – or literally, “the Crazy Years”), the Côte d’Azur apéritif again pushes the envelope. The area’s hallmark drink may be the rosé piscine – and I have enjoyed a fair few glasses of rosé with ice cubes bobbing around since landing this summer – but the new thing is apparently a champagne piscine. I’ve never felt too badly diluting my rosé; even a top-notch bottle won’t break the bank. But champagne? Piscin-ing it feels like sacrilege.

  6. Also reminding me that I’m here: A sales clerk was rude to me. A young man actually rolled his eyes and expelled a deep breath into our shared air space, a narrow patch over a tall counter, when I asked a simple question about his presentation on the various cartes SIM available this summer. I was mulling the options for both Lolo and my cellphones: local SIM cards versus international ones, Lolo’s tween needs versus my own. At the same time, I was digesting the 20- versus 30-Euro packages while silently wondering where in the world last year’s multi-month deal went. All in my non-native French. Then I dared ask this client-facing employee to remind me what, exactly, was illimité in the 20-Euro deal. Needless to say, he hardly told me to “Have a Nice Day” on the way out.

    The fig tree is flourishing.
  7. These little treasures have appeared in our garden. It has been an absolutely bumper year for the figuier – and summer hasn’t even started.
  8. People still complain about the government. The international press may discuss Emmanuel Macron’s elevation as France’s new Président in broadly optimistic terms, but the locals still aren’t happy. Macron, they insist, is the bébé of François Hollande, the highly unpopular former-Président. The selection of candidates this time was too limité. Which is unlike the SMS allowance on Lolo’s 20-Euro carte SIM.
  9. Tout est possible. Everything is possible. But truth be told, I found this French graffiti a few weeks ago – in Toronto.

    In stores where the attendants are a lot nicer, the summer pre-sales are on. They sneak into high street shops in advance of the real sales, which will roll out uniformly in one big hurrah, like a long-awaited Christmas Day. The real sales will start on a governmentally prescribed Wednesday, and then smack, the regular prices will return to stores’ tags on Wednesday, six weeks later. I’m truly not a shopper, but there’s something too alluring about a bright sea of right-footed shoes, grouped by size and marked bewitchingly with little round, colour-coded stickers that correspond with the markdown’s generosity. 20% off? 50%? 70%? Flip the right shoe and win.

  10. It’s two bises, and only two bises. There is resolutely no hugging involved when you gently exchange two cheek-kisses in a traditional French greeting. Seeing Lolo’s long-time, tween-aged friend for the first time this summer, I stooped to donner les bises – and suddenly recognized my faux pas. Petite Clo stood soldier-like, the compliant recipient of my two bises, while I discovered my left arm wrapped around her pretty little shoulders like a boa constrictor. But ever-conscious of protocol (unlike my own North American-bred tween), Clo knew it would’ve been impolie to resist.

For better or worse, these attributes and idiosyncrasies make me stop and admire that the world has not gone global. Dorothy is, so to speak, no longer in Kansas, and she knows it. I cherish our countries’ differences and adapt to fit in – much of the time, anyway.

That said, there’s a bit of teaching we must do in the opposite direction, too. I recently heard these words on Riviera Radio in the run-up to Canada’s 150th celebrations: “We like Canada. It’s like America but with the Queen on their bank note.”

And with that last gem, French Lessons braces itself for a flood of polite, Canadian outrage.

20 thoughts on “Ten Ways You Know You’re in the South of France

  1. Can Canadian outrage be anything other than polite? The only time I’ve experienced impolite outrage from Canada was in a bar in a mining town in Quebec. And I probably deserved it 😉

  2. I have been listening to Riviera Radio since reading your post this morning. I had forgotten how much I love British people talking about French place names. Awesome music mix as well! I feel lifted out of Toronto already.

    1. That’s fab, Alex! So this morning – you’ll never believe – Rivera reported a recent survey of countries having the most positive influence in the world today. Number 1? Canada. Maybe they felt remorse for the banknote comment.

  3. Enjoy the fabulous fresh figs with honey and cheese and the champagne straight up. No Piscine-ing please!

    I told Sam about Philippe’s golfing upon arrival in the south of France, which he found very normal. He was green with envy!

    Have a fabulous summer time in one of my favourite places on Earth.

  4. Oh Yoko! I love your “winter weight”! Tell the toiletteuse she OBVIOUSLY just needed to take a little more fur off the back end. No need for green beans and zucchini!

  5. Loved this! Especially the confusion over the bises … these things seem to be permanently in flux everywhere

  6. Love your French Lessons!! I am imagining you with a snappy pair of red loafers on, and every now and then you just clicking your heels together, just because you can. Netflix has a great little french piece out called “Haute Cuisine” – If you haven’t had a chance to view, I think you would find it delightful and so in sync with your experience.

  7. 11. “Au bout”….the inevitable two words uttered in response to any directional inquiry…I remember it seemed as if anything and everything could be found ‘au bout’…And usually accompanied by a diffident chin twitch in the vague direction of this particular ‘au bout’…..

    Your figs look ah-mazing, and loved hearing about the political clime. Thanks for making us feel like we are there experiencing it all too!

  8. I agree with Jen. Zucchini and green beans just don’t seem like appropriate foods for a dog!!!!

  9. Read this weeks installment while sipping on my own rosé piscine. While not overlooking the Mediterranean I was still feeling very French.

  10. Just a quick update for your readers on the commemoration in Antibes which took place in April to mark the 75th anniversary of the submarine landing by HMS Unbroken in 1942 of Peter Churchill of SOE and several members of the French Resistance. Many thanks again to all concerned, including the Mairie, the Anciens Combattants, the Royal British Legion, and the Royal Navy Submarine Service for all their help and support.

    We will remember them.

    “The Tribute of the Antibois to the submarine​ ​Unbroken”


    “A covert operation had been carried out in the bay of Antibes on 21 April 1942 by British agents and resistance fighters. Seventy-five years after the memory remains intact …
    Flashback. April 21, 1942, pointe de l’Îlette: the British submarine Unbroken of Captain Peter Churchill disembarks to make contact with the French resistance. On board, officers Isidore Newman, Edward Zeff​, also Paul Thirsk, navigator of the ship. Fifty years later – May 23, 1992 – Pierre Merli, Mayor of Antibes, inaugurates a stone in memory of all those men who participated in the landing and resistance.


    1. Merci again, Christopher, for keeping us in the loop on this story (originally posted to this blog on August 23, 2012, as Antibes and World War II: Two Tales of a City). I plan to write more about it toward the end of August to coincide with Libération celebrations. In the meantime, know that it has grown legs and reached a much wider audience of Anglophone Francophiles by appearing in the Summer 2017 edition of The Good Life France Magazine. Many thanks again.

  11. We laugh all of the time at our GPS. It used to be a woman but I changed it to a man’s voice and a bad English interpretation of French words sounds even funnier. If you look closely when driving around, you will see there are billboards advertising champagne that is made to be on ice. This summer is the first that I have heard of it. I can’t stomach the thought. Do you want to try it first and let us know? As for little miss “winter weight”, green beans are fantastic and my two love them. I am glad Brigitte has gotten Yoko ready for her summer photos. 🙂 Can’t wait for the next installment!

    1. Jenna,
      Make sure that David Letterman does not send you a claim of rights for using his trademark Top Ten List. lol
      Cute, funny and interesting.

  12. I laughed knowingly at your Waze story, because yesterday during our road trip through Quebec I corrected her pronounciation of a few street names! Great fun reading your posts. But please, do keep ice cubes away from the champagne. 🙂

  13. Glad to hear you are settling in, Jemma. After a week back in Toronto, I’m still in denial that I’ve left France. Enjoy every minute and thanks for taking us along with you. (By the way, that rude shop clerk … nothing to do with France and everything to do with the product! His rude cousin works over here!)

  14. I know it is truly summer – my Frenchlessons blog has arrive in my inbox – hurray! (And, I must agree, Champagne and ice cubes?!

  15. So glad your French Lessons are back — I always enjoy them! A big adventure awaits our family this summer. I am taking nine of us to Sweden (Jon and Christina and families) for our bi-annual cousin reunion plus other travel. Have wanted to do this for a long time — hope I’ll still be on my feet when it’s over. Wish the south of France were on the way. Greetings, and have a wonderful season in the sun!

Leave a Reply