I spent a couple of days in Ireland last week, visiting my mother. Each time I go back, I feel more and more like a stranger in a strange land (any other sci-fi nerds out there?). This time, I even started to notice the differences while I was waiting for my flight in London. Read on, and see if you can relate to what I’m talking about…
I remember on my first trip to the US, back in ’82, thinking how strange cars look with the steering wheel on the left hand side. Well, cars now look weird to my eyes when the steering wheel is on the right hand side. My brain screams out “Waaagh, where’s the driver? Oh, on the other side.” It happens all the time.
And on the subject of cars… while I (mostly) manage to drive on the correct side of the road for whichever country I’m in, remembering which door to use to get into my mother’s car blows my mind every single time. And that carries over when I get back to France… I have to stop and think “Which side?” for the first week or so. And even then, I frequently get it wrong.
Meeting and Greeting
There are strict protocols to be followed when greeting people down here in deepest, darkest Provence.
When you meet a friend or family member, you kiss in greeting. The number of kisses varies from region to region. Around here, it’s one on each cheek. 15 kilometres away in St Martin, it’s three. How the hell are you supposed to know these things?? Apparently, you’re supposed to be able to follow the lead of the other person and keep on exchanging kisses until they stop, but I’ve never been any good at following a lead when dancing, so why should this be any different for me? I’ve disengaged early far too many times, but thankfully I am forgiven because I’m a foreigner (and apparently, my accent is ‘mignon’). In general, people seem to start on the left, then go right, then go left again as necessary. I stick to this left-right-left system as a rule of thumb, but despite my best efforts, there have been one or two awkward On-The-Lips moments when I meet a practitioner of the right-left-right system.
When you meet an acquaintance or a business associate, you MUST shake hands. The LSH was helping a friend install some equipment in their shop and was fascinated by how much time was taken up with hand-shaking first thing in the morning. Everyone went around the room shaking hands on arrival. The last person in had fifteen hands to shake. I’m not kidding, thirty minutes of the work day went on hand-shaking.
Each time I go back to Ireland, I find it harder and harder to drop these rules.
When I arrive at my mum’s house, I have to remind myself to greet her with our normal Irish family greeting – a big bearhug and a kiss. I must not slip up and bisous her officiously on each cheek. That would not go down well.
If I were to greet my Irish friends with a kiss on each cheek, they would recoil in horror and gossip about “Yer wan and her fancy French ways” afterwards. If I fail to greet my French friends this way (but only the FIRST time I see them each day. This is part of the protocol, too. I wish there was a guide book, it took me ages to figure that one out) they think I’m in a huff. It comes naturally to me, now. So much so, that in Ireland, I have to stop myself from running around kissing everyone.
When my mother’s home help arrives in the morning, I find it strange that she sticks her head in the door and says Hello to me. What’s wrong with that? Well, we should be shaking hands of course! I have to force myself to remain seated, resisting the urge to go over to formally shake her hand. It’s the same with Seán, who’s been doing odd jobs in the garden and around the house for more than twenty years. There’s no doubt that if I was greeting him over here, there would be a handshake at the very least, but most probably we’d kiss each other warmly on each cheek. Over there, it’s a “Howiya! How’s it going?” sort of greeting.
I live in a tiny village here in Provence. And it’s just damn rude if you do not greet everyone you pass in the street with a polite “Bonjour.” My mum lives in a slightly larger village in Co Clare. And, over there, it’s just damn weird if you say “Hello” to everyone you pass. And it’s even weirder if you say “Bonjour.” Yes, it happened. No, I don’t want to talk about it.
Ah, the weather. Where would the art of conversation be without it? While I was away in Ireland, it rained very heavily here in Provence. For a morning. The whole village was talking about it for the next week.
The day before I left Ireland, the sun shone ALL DAY LONG! And it even shone the next day! All of a sudden, people were smiling at strangers and saying things like “Great day, thank God.” If the sun shone all the time in Ireland, we’d be the happiest people on earth. Just imagine, maybe the Fields of Athenry would never have been written – what would we sing at rugby matches instead?
Also, note how the Irish always throw in a divine thanks when something good happens. Even the non-believers. To be sure, to be sure. I’m sure there are some French people who say “Grace à Dieu” from time to time, but I haven’t met any of those ones. Yet.
Food is a topic of conversation that comes up regularly in both cultures. It’s the same. But different.
Because only the Irish could have an in-depth conversation about all the ways they love to eat potatoes. Yes, I was there. Yes, I was even an active participant in the conversation. And no, I wasn’t faking it. I do love to eat potatoes. In many different way. But they must be proper, floury spuds, not those greasy, soapy things they serve over here.
Conversely, only in France will you overhear a group of young men having an in-depth discussion about the best wines to serve with foie gras. Yes, I was there, too. No, it was not a group of well-to-do young toffs, it was a bunch of normal lads, some of whom work in agriculture, some in construction. They sure as hell know their wines from a young age over here…
I knew I was with Irish people when I was waiting for my Ryanair flight to Shannon and I spotted three bright orange young ladies, sporting Amy Winehouse-type updoes, three-inch long eyelashes and shocking-pink velour track suits. I’m sure they thought they looked fabulous, and the young men with them seemed to find them attractive, but. Ehhhhh. No. ‘Nuff said.
On the other side of the coin, a long long time ago, I was queuing for a flight to Nantes when I realised that I was the only person in the queue who was not wearing a black coat. Boy oh boy, but the French sure are conservative about outerwear. ‘Nuff said. Again.
Light switches. How can anything as commonplace as a light switch cause trouble? Very easily…
In France, when the switch is down, the light is off. In Ireland, it’s the opposite. WHY? Isn’t that something that the EU could have standardised, instead of bananas and carrots? This generally doesn’t cause a problem until you’re faced with a multi-switch panel and you turn every single light on and off until you finally find the one you want. I’m sure my neighbours sometimes think I’m trying to send out an SOS some evenings…
And then there’s switch for the bathroom light. In Ireland, it’s NEVER EVER inside the bathroom, it’s outside, on the wall beside the door. For safety reasons, I believe, because electricity and water don’t mix. For the same reason, you will never find an ordinary electrical socket in a bathroom. In France? The light switch is inside the bathroom. Usually (but not always) beside the door. And our bathroom has two ordinary electrical sockets positioned just above the twin sinks. And, strangely, I have yet to be electrocuted in my bathroom. But watch this space. It could happen.
Speaking of bathrooms brings up something which holds a special place at the heart of every Irish household.
This is great big copper tank, used to heat water, which can be found in the hot press, swathed in lagging jackets and blankets. The hot press has been an Irish institution for generation. It’s where you keep your spare bedclothes, clothes and towels, so that they can benefit from any micro-therms of heat which slip out through the immersion’s insulation. The Immersion has a setting which allows it to heat just a ‘sink’ full of water or you can go mad altogether and flick it to ‘bath’ (but just once a week, right?). Normally, it also has a timer connected to it, so that the household has hot water at the appropriate times of day. Despite this, every single Irish Mammy that ever existed has been known to cry out in pain “Oh no! I forgot to turn the immersion off!”
Compare and contrast to the French equivalent of an Immersion. Great big tank, yes. Presumably copper, but you can’t be sure because it has a sort of built-in insulation wrapped around it. No big puffy lagging jackets; no extra blankets draped over it. And (gasp of horror) it doesn’t live in a hot press, it lives wherever is handy. Like in a corner of the garage. Or in a little annex at the back of the house, cold and uninsulated, as in our rented house in Cereste.
To be fair, the built in insulation seems to work quite well, because that little annex was bloody freezing in the winter, so it was no good at all for airing clothes.
But much more seriously… there was no sink or bath option. The only option was to have a gigantic tank of hot water. And, in fact, that’s all we ever had. A gigantic tank of hot water. All.The.Time. Because not only was there no sink/bath switch, there wasn’t even an on/off switch.
It’s enough to give any self-respecting Irish Mammy heart failure.
Long, long ago, I drove to a local shopping centre to pick up a prescription for one of the kids, and I came back with two tiny, scruffy abandoned puppies in the boot of the car. We rehomed one, and the other was our little rogue Scamp, who made me smile every single day of the eighteen years she spent with us.
In keeping with family tradition, the LSH went shopping in Manosque a couple of weeks ago and came back with a puppy in the boot of the Fiat 500.
No tiny, cute puppy this time, but a big, nine-month old (approx) lummox of a dog.
We did the usual – got him scanned for a chip; reported to the Gendarmes; posted him on the local lost pets page on Facebook. As the days passed and we feared we were Getting Attached, we were hoping more and more that no owner would turn up. Apparently the legal amount of time before one can assume ownership here is one week. We waited two, just to be certain.
Rosie and Cookie were not sure that they wanted a gigantic baby brother – their furry little noses were quite out of joint for the first few days. Then he and Cookie started to play, cautiously at first, with Madame putting him sharply in his place if he became too rough. Soon all three dogs were spending hours hooning around our little garden like lunatics. The LSH and I weren’t the only ones in danger of Getting Attached.
We were afraid to name him, because it would only increase any potential Attachment that might or might not be happening. But after ten days, we began to try out names. We came up with a few that work equally well in French and English. Luke. Mati. Beau. None of them seemed right. We’re Munster supporters – how about Zebo? We tried it for a day, but neither of us felt natural saying it.
During the course of a sleepless night, I began to run themes for names through my head. Other rugby players. Famous horses. Animals. Birds. Place names. Eventually I hit on fast food joints in Cork. Jumbo? No. Just… No. Lennox the lummox had a certain ring to it… Dino wasn’t bad… but how about KC’s, our favourite chipper in Douglas? KC – Casey? Yes, I liked that one…
In the morning, the LSH agreed. Casey it is.
He’s now chipped and registered in our name. Lummox or not, this dude is going nowhere.
A friend remarked last week that I haven’t been blogging for ages. I guess the main reason is that I hate to come across as a moany ould so-n-so.
In a nutshell, my back is still giving me trouble, despite two massages a week from a physio and an hour of yoga almost every day. Don’t get me wrong – it’s much much better than it was. The acute lumbar pain is all but gone and there’s no sciatic pain any more but I’m still not doing ‘normal’ things, like riding for more than thirty minutes, or gardening, or paring my horses’ feet. Every time I do something a little out of the ordinary, I have pain the following day. I fear that once I resume living my normal life, it’s just going to flare up, leaving me crippled for weeks again. I’m due to start a new treatment with a physio in April and I’m holding onto the hope that that course of treatment will finally fix me.
Then there’s the horses.
Aero is coughing – it’s pollen time and he’s now allergic to every speck of dust floating on the breeze. We’re trying a homeopathic treatment prescribed by a vet/osteopath who is into homeopathy. Her prescription included the advice that we should soak his hay… no shit, Sherlock!!! But they have a new field companion, so there are three horses in ‘our’ field now. We’d have to soak hay for all three, because Prince Aero doesn’t like soaked hay and he’d eat everyone else’s feed. And there’s no water at their field so water would have to be brought down. And we live in an area of drought so it’s sometimes difficult to get water at all in the summer. The alternative to soaking hay for all three would be to keep him on his own, which he would hate. I’m holding that as the ultimate last resort 😦
Both horses had the dentist (a new one) in January and when I started trying to ride Flurry (very carefully, to protect my back) I realised that he’d been badly affected by the treatment. He pretty much told me everything that was wrong – he was shaking his head constantly (atlas/axial joint was out), didn’t want me to touch his head (two frontal plates were out), particularly didn’t want me to touch the left hand side of his face (something else out there). So he was also seen by the vet/osteopath who treated all of the above plus a long standing blockage at his withers. But I notice him still shaking his head from time to time, so either he needs another visit or (oh please god, no) he’s also become allergic to pollen and that’s why he’s started head shaking.
So that’s all my moaniness off my chest.
I’ve got a more cheerful post on the way, I promise.
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