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:
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- These little treasures have appeared in our garden. It has been an absolutely bumper year for the figuier – and summer hasn’t even started.
- 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.
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.
- 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.