My French Kitchen

The French are world-renowned for their culinary skills. So, it’s no wonder that most French families eat the majority of their meals at home.

Considering all that delicious home-cooking, one would think that French kitchens would be optimized for both efficiency and organization. However, I have not found that to be true. I have been in many a Provençal kitchen, but French kitchen design remains baffling to me. 

Here are a few idiosyncrasies I have found in my own kitchen:

No planning for electrical outlets.

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We have only two in our kitchen. They are directly next to each other. There is only room on the counter for one electrical appliance. My husband makes toast and popcorn in the living room. The coffee maker takes priority.

Limited counter space.

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We have an entire wall that is empty. No counters AND no electrical outlets. There is room for a counter, but the owners chose not to install a permanent one. I can see holes in the wall where at some point in time, something resembling a counter existed in this space.

No appliances.

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When you rent or buy a home in France, the previous tenant or owner takes their appliances and light fixtures with them. No refrigerator, no dishwasher, not even a washing machine. Nothing but some cabinets and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. Sometimes they even take the counters (see above).

No lighting.

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I cook by the equivalent of candlelight. I could bring in a lamp, but again no counters. Maybe I’ll invest in a floor lamp. Oh wait–I don’t have enough outlets to plug one in!

Self defrosting refrigerators are not the norm.

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I didn’t realize this when I bought mine. It took me a year to figure out why my freezer had so much ice built up. I can remember my mom defrosting the fridge in the 1970s but never pictured myself doing the same. Not the mention my freezer is the size of a large shoe box. Our American visitors quickly realize there will be no ice in their beverages and our kids have gotten used to drinking room temperature water and even juice or soda if they’re at a party.

These inconveniences are minor when I consider all the wonderful things about living in Provence.  The culture and experiences we are exposed to, the wonderful friends we have made and the laid back lifestyle make it all worth while. I wouldn’t have these views back in Florida:

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Gone with the Wind

Provence is known for its strong winds, which have been dubbed by the locals or perhaps meteorologists as le mistral.” For this Florida girl, gale force winds = hurricanes. The first night in our new home in France, I was jolted from a restless slumber by powerful gusts of winds rattling the shutters. In my foggy, jet lagged state of mind, I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into by moving to such an inhospitable far-off land. Was it like this every night? There had been no severe weather warnings issued. What was going on?  I soon understood why all the houses in the south of France have wooden or metal shutters. Why didn’t we Floridians think of that?

As time wore on, I became accustomed to the crazy mistral winds and learned to ignore them or just go with the flow if I had to be outside during an occurrence. Until today….

It had been a particularly gusty day. Fortunately, it was a Wednesday so the kids were home from school and we didn’t have to venture out. Hubby happened to be home sick from work as well. He had gone upstairs to open the shutters to let the Provençal sun shine in. My normally even-tempered husband began hollering loudly for me to come look at something. I knew immediately that something was amiss.

The large metal shed in our backyard had blown completely off its foundation. All of the contents housed in the shed were left behind, exposed to the elements—our bicycles, moving boxes, sleds, and even a dresser the landlord left behind.

The shed had been picked up by the wind, blown up and over the house and smashed to the ground landing upside down. It looked like a scene from The Wizard of Oz. I was expecting to see the munchkins peek around the corner asking if it was safe to come out. I had spent my early childhood in Kansas, if fact, but had never seen anything the likes of what I was witnessing currently in my own backyard. I wanted to click my heels three times and return to a time where our shed was perfectly intact and right side up.

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Our elderly French neighbors dashed outside in a panic. The wife had the phone up to her ear and was yelling that she was calling the pompier (French firemen). I stayed safely inside with the kids until the winds calmed enough for me to secure our garden furniture, which I had been watching  travel across the yard in the direction the mistral was blowing.

Hubby was able to convince the neighbor that we didn’t require the pompier and that we had the situation under control. We unearthed some heavy scaffolding that had been abandoned after the construction of our house and were able to hoist it on top of the shed to keep it from traveling further afield. I was concerned that our errant shed would continue blowing into the olive grove adjacent to our property and land on some poor farmer’s crop down the road.

I am convinced we provide our lovely neighbors with hours of entertaining stories for their weekly geriatric apéro (French happy hour). From the time we accidentally flooded the cistern under the house, causing a small river to stream down our gravel road, to the time an industrial sized spool landed on our car. (Read about it here) We seem to find ways to shock and awe the prim and proper locals without even trying.

Check Please

Having lived in the U.S. my entire life before relocating to France, I am often struck by how much Americans prize efficiency and how quick we are to embrace new technologies to speed up and smooth out everyday activities. Uber, Apple Pay, Grubhub, Task Rabbit…the list goes on.

In France–especially in the more rural areas–change often comes at a slower pace. Stores and government buildings here still shut down for two hours at lunchtime. And you can forget last-minute grocery runs on a Sunday afternoon–everything is closed.

Paperwork tends to be an onerous process here as well. Even the French roll their eyes at the mountain of paperwork that accompanies any activity. For instance, registering my kids for school requires filling out 20 sheets of handwritten paperwork each and every year (for each kid). I haven’t experienced hand cramp this bad since my days at university!

But one could argue that this slower pace of life can have its charms. Who couldn’t benefit from easing off the accelerator every now and again? And once you get used to how things are done here, you’d be surprised at how quickly you adapt.

However, there is one thing that I have never quite gotten used to in my three years in France. For me, one of the most mystifying practices of the French is their penchant for writing checks. Since the mid-90s, I had only written a handful of checks. That is, until I moved to Provence. Here, it is required for nearly all day-to-day business. In fact, many people still use them in the grocery store, which takes forever. (How I wish the French would adopt the American practice of stocking the checkout line with trashy magazines to help pass the time!)

One recent day in particular summed up how prohibitive my life is when I don’t have my checkbook handy.

“Honey,” I called out to my husband as he was getting ready to leave for work. “Please leave the checkbook for me. I may need it for the fuel delivery–their credit card reader doesn’t always work.”

The fuel is what our boiler runs on and without it, we have no heat or hot water. The bank only awarded us one checkbook when we opened our French account and asking for a second one was too arduous (again with the paperwork). A few hours later I realize the checkbook is nowhere to be found. This should be interesting.

A knock at the door. It’s not the fuel delivery. It’s the mail lady. Whew! At least I don’t need my checkbook for the mail, right?

“I have two packages for you,” she explains in French. “This one you need to sign for and this one requires that you pay a customs duty and tax.”

Ok, this is a first. The post office is charging us €74 on a package teeming with Christmas gifts from a well-intentioned relative in the U.S.

I don’t have enough cash in my wallet. “Can I pay by credit card?” I ask hopefully. 

“No, but a check works.”

Of course it does. So, as my checkbook is M.I.A., there will be no package of Christmas joy for my children today.

After an hour (and a few tears) of muddling through French homework with the kids, the fuel man makes his appearance and promptly gets to work. As he wraps up the job, he hands me the paperwork. I present my credit card. He explains that his machine is defunct. Merde. What the heck do I do now? He can’t syphon the fuel out of the tank. Fortunately, he’s lovely about my predicament and tells me I can stop by office to pay the bill the following day. Phew!

I decide that will be hubby’s job. Followed, of course, by a trip to the post office to pick up our hostage Christmas package.

 

The Slippery Clutch

Buying a car can be a stressful experience. Buying a car in a foreign country with a different language brings the stress to a whole new level. For that reason–and many others–our family tried getting by for months in France with only one car.

Living in the French countryside, this was challenging. In order to catch the bus for work, my husband, Matt, had to leave just as the kids and I were getting up in the morning. And then he wouldn’t get home until I was putting the kids to bed. After six months, we decided for our sanity that we would need a second car. Fortunately, Matt knew a guy from work who was getting rid of an old Peugeot. Nothing fancy, just a clunker to get him back and forth during the week.

His coworkers promptly christened the car “the slippery clutch” because, well, it had a slippery clutch. It felt more like riding in a go-kart than a car. The passenger side had no handle on the outside of the door. The sunroof leaked when it rained. Anytime he rounded a corner, his passenger was treated to an unexpected shower. This would prove awkward for any unsuspecting coworkers who would ask for a ride home. Fortunately, he was prepared to offer a towel, which he kept in the back for such occasions.

The Thanksgiving Spool Debacle

It was Thanksgiving 2016. I was preparing for a Thanksgiving potluck we had organized with other American expats, when I spied a man standing in our driveway. Next to him was an industrial-sized spool. Why is there an enormous spool in my yard? Who is this strange man? Where did he come from?

“MATT!” I bellowed. “There’s a man in our driveway–and he has a giant spool!”

“Did you say ‘bonjour’?” he asked.

Did he not hear the part about the massive spool?? “No, I didn’t tell him ‘bonjour’!”

Matt glanced out the window and then walked outside to talk to the mysterious man and his giant spool. After some time of animated conversation, he returned and filled me in on the story.

Apparently, the man owned property above us (we live on a hill) and his children had been using the spool to play a game of “circus.” The spool began spinning out of control, rolled off the embankment above our property, dropped twelve feet, and landed smack on the hood of Matt’s car. It left a perfect imprint of the spool in its wake.

Luckily, none of us were outside when it happened. Matt and Mr. Spool Man traded contact information and his insurance was able to cover the damage to the car.

The Slippery Clutch Finds a New Home

Shortly after the Thanksgiving spool episode, Matt decided it was time for an upgrade from the slippery clutch and bought a Mercedes from a friend. But what to do with the slippery clutch? Surely, no one would want to buy it.

For six months, the slippery clutch sat in our driveway–outcast and leaking rain. Then we miraculously found someone willing to give the car a new home: the owner of the local garage where we get our cars serviced. He planned to use it as his loaner for customers when they drop off their car for maintenance or repair.

And it appears he followed through with his plan. Every now and then, we will catch a glimpse of the slippery clutch zipping around town in all its dilapidated glory.

Hopefully it doesn’t rain.