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When is a chestnut not a chestnut?
When it's French
I hope you’ve had a good week. If this is your first letter, welcome! I’m Hannah, a British journalist living in Paris.
I have been back in London this weekend visiting family and have been struck by some things, some HI-TECH things. Essentially, it seems to me that London is set about ten years in the future from Paris. For example:
In Paris, there are still plenty of cafés that have a minimum spend if you want to pay on card. When I arrived at King’s Cross on Friday, I got out a crumpled fiver to pay for a coffee and the barista said “oh no, we don’t accept cash here.” This was my first futuristic experience.
Then there was the Uber driver and his state-of-the-art Tesla. He had made the switch a few months before and said he was now convinced that in a few years the whole of London would be full of driverless cars.
Amazon Fresh. Loads of these Amazon supermarkets have popped up in the last year, where you just share your Amazon account payment details at a scanner at the entrance, pick up what you want and walk out, and Amazon just charges your card. Sensors are placed in neat lines along and across the ceiling, tracking where you are going, what you pick up and how long you stay. To my knowledge, this hasn’t come to France yet. I wonder how it would/will go down if/when it does.
The sheer choice at supermarkets: London supermarkets just have SO MUCH MERCHANDISE! So many products! So many options! From pet clothing to a huge selection of vegan meat substitutes. In Paris, there is still no vegetarian section in supermarkets, instead meat substitutes are displayed next to, and at times actually mixed in among, the real meat options. Things like plant milks are usually found in the health food/organic sections.
I wrote in my letter last week that Paris is more relational than transactional: something won’t be adopted simply because it makes more money, or even makes more sense! Individuality, tradition, personal preference, all these elements play a bigger part. For example, could Amazon Fresh ever really replace all food shops in France? I don’t think so. Customers would miss too much their long conversations with their boulanger about which loaf to choose, or recommendations for wine pairings from their cavisite etc etc.
The other main thing I noticed in London was the omnipresence of CHRISTMAS! Every shop is playing Christmas music and pushing Christmas goods, from chocolate to handwash to socks. I am writing an article about Paris at Christmas at the moment and doing that has also made me think about how the Christmas season is quite a different beast in France. It’s a more pared-down affair. We have begun to see the first signs in Paris, but they’re quite different to the blaring music and bright lights of London.
Last week I was walking past the town hall of the 18th arrondissement (each arrondissement or district of Paris has its own mayor and town hall) and I saw a dozen or so bare spruce trees, varying in size from household to three-storey. The next day I walked past and three men in high-vis gilets were carefully affixing shiny gold and pearly white baubles to the trees, two of the men were working on the ground and one was in a little box at the top of a mechanical crane, carefully hanging the ornaments on the higher parts of the tallest trees. I always get a kick out of these kinds of moments, where we get to see how the sausage of Paris’s beauty is made.
In my imagination, the delicate, tasteful Christmas displays in Paris look like they should be done by some kind of slender middle-aged woman in a tastefully festive three-piece skirt-suit. She’s wearing elegant gloves as she gently but firmly affixes each bauble to a bough. How did I imagine the baubles got fixed to the top parts of the tall trees? I don’t know, really. Some kind of balcony? Anyway, no, they just use a big old industrial crane vehicle. Disappointing!
The other early harbingers of Christmas in Paris are signs saying it is now oyster season! Because the Christmas food here is totally different, too.
UK: Chocolate, mince pies, small cocktail sausages
France: prawns, foie gras, oysters, champagne, chestnuts (marrons)
Earlier this week I went for dinner with a French friend, and she chuckled about how undiscriminating the Brits are about food. For example, we’re more likely to just say ‘it’s a mushroom risotto’, instead of specifying the TYPE of mushroom (cèpe, pleurote, girolle etc etc.)–apparently it’s hardly the same thing AT ALL! But on my side, though I am used to the French tendency towards taxonomy, I could not believe that they have different words for chestnuts depending on how they grow in their casing. So, if there is just one single nut, a round one that you’d use to play conkers, that’s a marron; if you’ve got a few nuts in one casing, a bit more flat and triangular in shape, they are châtaignies. And then there’s also another type called marrons d’inde (or ‘Indian chestnuts’), which are inedible (maybe these are the ones we use as conkers actually? Unsure).
Learning to wash your hair is the greatest love of all
When I was 27, I went to my local coiffeuse and I asked her to teach me how to wash my hair. I just sort of knew in the back of my mind that I wasn’t doing it right. I have thick hair and at the time I had grown it very long, sort of mermaid length. I knew how to dry and style it so it looked glossy on the outside, but it was often matted on the inside, around the scalp.
The hairdresser was so kind. She looked surprised for a second, but then slowly talked me through it as she massaged the apple-scented shampoo onto my head. She explained how important it was to massage the shampoo into the scalp, and how the shampoo would foam on the second rinse cycle, once the hair was clean. I am sure I was taught all this at some point growing up, but then nobody ever gave a refresher, and I was too embarrassed to check. Thanks to that nice woman, I now wash my hair properly.
More recently, my friend Kate, who has many creative talents, of which hair styling is just one, taught me to use a barrel drying brush. I had just been sort of placing the round brush somewhere near my hairdryer and hair, and hoping for the best. She showed me instead that it should be used as a kind of portable roller, a barrel around which you place the hair and then tug as you apply heat. It worked! Magical.
This week I moved into a new apartment that is more clean and shiny than anywhere I have lived before and I realised I really wanted to keep it that way, but I didn’t entirely know how. I typed into Youtube: ‘how to clean properly’ and came across a channel called Clean My Space, hosted by a charming American woman called Melissa Maker. She has glossy, shiny hair (I’m sure she always knew how to wash it properly) and a can-do attitude, and her Youtube channel has hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Reader, I couldn’t believe what I learned, e.g. you aren’t meant to just spray and wipe cleaning product, you’re meant to spray, then let it sit there and do its magic, THEN wipe! Wild! I could go on telling you what I learned, but it may become embarrassing so I’ll stop there.
This is not to say that I didn’t know how to clean at all. I just didn’t know how to do it very well. I grew up in, a three-bed terraced house in the suburbs of London and our home could never be sparklingly clean because we always had animals. A lot of them. At any one time we had about fifteen animals. If I take a random year, say 1998, we probably had a dog, three cats, three toads, two chinchillas, a gerbil, a mouse, a rat, five guinea pigs, two rabbits, two mice, and also some crickets to feed the toads. One time we even looked into getting goats in the back garden. We got some goat-keeping books out the local library (I think we had to order them from a more rural branch), but our plans were quashed when we read that not only would our wished farmyard companions most likely destroy our garden, but they would also easily be able to escape by jumping over the five-foot fences either side. (These days, we’re much more reasonable: I have just one dog and my mum has only one cat and four guinea pigs. A modest collection.)
Anyway, I never really enjoyed cleaning because I’ve always been just sort of guessing at the best methods, and not really sure if I’m doing it correctly. A bit like the hair washing. Especially as women, I think sometimes we are expected to just know innately how to do these things– how to maintain our homes and ourselves beautifully. And while I don’t think any woman should feel obliged to do either, I also quite enjoy the sense of self-sufficiency that comes with improving these quite basic skills. One day soon, I might even get my driving licence (a long and painful story for another day).
All this is not to say, ‘oo I’m so useless and dysfunctional and kooky!’. I’m pretty functional. It’s just I wonder how many other people go forth into life without knowing basic things we’re meant to know and feeling low-level shame about it all the time. Am I the only one? If you can relate in any way, please do let me know in the comments or by email.
Thirty-second book club
This week I’ve been dipping into a book that I’ve had for a few years and often come back to. It’s called How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, and it’s by Sudhir Hazareesingh, a British-Mauritian historian who is a fellow in Politics at Oxford University. It’s a historically informed and clear-eyed analysis of French culture and society, offering context as to why the country is how it is.
I re-read the section about the French model of integration and secularism (laïcité), an ideology which encourages the flattening of pluralistic and minority identities into one pre-prescribed French identity, vs. the more ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model of ‘multiculturalism’. The author is scathing about the French approach, seeing it more as thinly veiled xenophobia than some lofty ideal.
I also find it to be a puzzling and at times rather transparently hypocritical attitude. For example, how can so many proud politicians be so het up about Muslim women wearing a headscarf, yet not take issue with the Catholic nuns we often see wandering around? Or how can the country claim to be resolutely secular, while offering public holidays for all the Christian festivals? Even employing men in high-vis vests to install three-storey-high Christmas trees outside the city halls.
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Have a great week. I will write to you next Sunday.