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.
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.
EMILY:As an American living in France, I’ve been introduced to the thriving expat community that resides here in Provence. I am lucky to have developed friendships with people from all over the world, including several lovely and wonderful folks from the UK.
Recently, a friend from Scotland came over. It was a crisp day and I had just put the kettle on for a cup of tea. I asked if she would also like a cup. Alas, as a green tea drinker, all I had stocked in my cupboard was an array of green teas and an errant bag or two of chamomile.
When I revealed this fact, Sal’s face immediately fell. “Oh yes,” she sighed, “I forgot I’m in an American house. Next time I see you, I’ll give you some tea I brought back from the UK.”
After disappointing my Scottish friend with my lack of proper tea, I surveyed my other British friends as to the best tea to have on hand and how to serve “a proper cup.”
To save anyone else from suffering the embarrassment of my faux pas when hosting a British friend for an afternoon, I’ve asked fellow expat and UK native Pippa to guide us non-Brits on how to serve a proper cup of tea.
PIPPA: When I moved to France from England, I discovered that the British cuppa occupies only one corner of a massive tea field, and an invitation for a cup of tea did not guarantee a drink with which I had any familiarity.
So, for the sake and well-being of all the Brits craving their cuppa abroad, I have assembled a list of the fundamentals for serving a British friend a proper cup of tea:
In the UK, the offer of a cup of tea usually means only one thing: a hot, brown, milky drink. No need to identify it, but sometimes you might be asked, “India or China?” or “Is PG okay?” The former refers to Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, or Lapsang Souchong; the latter to a blend (PG Tips in this case). Everyone has their favourite blend: Yorkshire Tea, PG Tips, Typhoo, etc. As long as you have one of these in the cupboard, you’re safe.
The water should be freshly boiled and poured over the bag or an infuser with loose tea. Do not dunk your bag in the water—dunking is for biscuits. Science says about 96°C is perfect, so there!
If making a pot (God bless you!), you should warm it first with boiling water. You don’t want to mess with the temperature!
Seriously, tea tastes different whether it is in a china, glass, metal, plastic, or cardboard cup. Of course, needs must, but I’m sure it’s obvious which works best with the British cuppa.
Leave for a minimum of 30 seconds. I’ve found three minutes is quite nice. I’ve just finished a cuppa that stewed for eight minutes, but I have a weakness for “builders tea” (strong and sweet enough to stand the spoon up in it and put hairs on your chest—pardon the imagery).
Important Note: Do not squeeze the bag to speed up the process! It makes the tea more bitter. You can swirl it if you want. Carefully.
I was always taught that best practice is milk first. A member of my family once had tea with Prince Charles (oo, get us) and confirms that even he’s a “Miffy.” This avoids staining or scalding the cup and it means you do not have to stir if you don’t take sugar.
However, this has to go by the wayside if making tea from one bag in a cup. You can’t put milk on a bag! So, it is only relevant to tea made in a pot. And no, I’m not going to bother asking whether you should add milk or not! We are talking about the British cuppa here—you only omit milk if you have an upset tummy or are a student.
If you take sugar, like me, and ignore the dentist, boring old white sugar is the best. Sorry, but brown sugar, caster sugar (sucre en poudre), fake carcinogenic sweeteners, etc. do not taste the same as white granulated sugar (sucre crystal).
Biscuits are a necessity for the full experience. There are so many to choose from and every Brit has their favourite (Hobnobs, Bourbons, Custard Creams, Jammy dodgers, Digestives, etc). My favourite: Rich Teas, to dunk. Some consider dunking bad manners, but why else do such bland biscuits exist? Normally you don’t want anything too fancy disintegrating in your cup, but each to their own, I say. Just remember to provide a teaspoon.
So, there you have it. I’m sure opinions on such a fundamental topic will vary and, of course, adapt your tea-making for your own needs and those of your guest. And please don’t stop initiating us in the wonderful, alternative global pantheon of hot beverages—new experiences are all part of living abroad after all. But I don’t think you can underestimate the magical effect of a good British cuppa on a Brit abroad: the instant relaxation and warm mushy feelings of gratitude and friendship.
Hmm, after all that, I think it’s time to put the kettle on.
“For heating, there’s a proper English stove,” our new landlord proclaimed proudly. “We had to order it special from the UK.”
This ought to be interesting.
“It takes a little bit of planning, but if you figure things out right you can close the flue when you go bed and still have hot coals in the morning,” he continued.
“I’m sure we’ll manage,” my husband, Mike, observed. “I’ve done a lot of camping.”
With those words of confidence, we were on our own.
Welcome to the 1800s.
We moved in at the end of November, Thanksgiving Day to be precise. We were just grateful to have a house. As it was warm on moving day, we didn’t really think much about heating until the sun went down.
However, by that time, it would have taken too much effort to clear a path to the fireplace, so we bundled up in scarves and coats, ate a Thanksgiving Dinner of breakfast cereal and headed to bed.
The next morning was brisk, but we were hard at work so it wasn’t until that evening that we decided to try our hand at making fire. Cavemen did it. How hard could it be?
In addition to the logs in the woodpile, we had procured kindling, fire-starter cubes and a lighter with a long neck–all the tools needed to start a hearth-warming blaze. Unfortunately, instead of a blazing inferno, we started with a house full of smoke. Once the fire got going, it still took an hour to heat the house.
I had always associated a fireplace with leisure. The crackling of a fire creating an ambiance of comfort and coziness. It was the sound of the holidays, snow days, and romantic getaways. Now all I wanted was a source of continuous heat that didn’t make my hair smell like a campfire or the smoke alarm go off.
We didn’t get the hang of things until the spring. When the next fall arrived, we started regularly smoking-out the house again…until Mike discovered the right combination of flue levers and firestarter. (For those interested, he found that he had to start a small fire first to warm the chimney so the smoke would rise up instead of into the house.) Now we had a warmer house and fewer smokey evenings. During the day, I just always wore a coat.
You may wonder why we didn’t install some kind of electric-heating system. The fact of the matter is, we had two wall-mounted electric radiators near the fireplace. However, the cost of electricity is so high, we had been warned not to use them unless we wanted to pay through the nose.
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.
When we first arrived in France, my kids embraced French cuisine with gusto. I was delighted at all they were willing to try. They tasted escargot, coq-au-vin, mousse de canard. Some they even liked! (Massive amounts of butter and garlic can make almost anything palatable.)
But, after a few months, they were craving a bit of Americana—a literal taste of home. So, we settled on baking a family favorite: chocolate chip cookies. It seemed easy enough, after all, in the U.S., we had baked chocolate chip cookies dozens of times. A lovely hour of family baking time followed by deliciously warm, gooey, chocolately cookies.
My first indication that this was not going to be the easy, fun family activity I was imagining came at the grocery store. A quick sweep of the store rendered my basket half empty. Eggs, salt, butter, sugar – check, check, check, and check. But I stood immobilized in the flour section, pondering the several different types. Which one was all-purpose flour? And what is this numbering system…45, 55? And where on earth are the chocolate chips? The brown sugar? What do they call baking soda here?
After two more fruitless tours of the grocery store, I purchased the items in my cart and decided to return later. Back at home, I spent 30 minutes conducting online baking research. I needed number 55 flour, the French equivalent for brown sugar is called Vergeoise, and while chocolate chips did exist, they tended to come in small bags and were crazy expensive. The recommendation was to chop up chocolate bars to create your own artisanal “chocolate chunks.”
Back to the baking bowl and we were a whir of activity. Alas, I had no electric mixer, so we had to cream the butter into the sugar using a fork. My children thought this was super fun for roughly 30 seconds before this tiring exercise became solely my responsibility. Chopping up the chocolate bars was also solely my responsibility. Adding to the “fun” was trying to avoid chopping up the little fingers that kept reaching to steal the bits of chocolate.
Ah! Now to baking. Eagerly anticipating the wonderful smell of baking cookies filling my home, I tried to put my cookie sheet in the oven. I say “try” because the darn thing wouldn’t fit. All of my American-sized cookie sheets were too wide for my French-sized oven. “[CENSORED],” I whisper-yelled to myself. Back to the store…
Furnished with a new, smaller cookie sheet, I was ready to go. While this new cookie sheet fit my oven perfectly, it could only fit six cookies at a time. And I only had one. So, I had to bake three dozen cookies, six at a time. It was going to be a long night.
I finally wrapped up the whole process at about midnight, hours after my children had gone to bed. Alone, exhausted, in a completely dark and silent house, I tasted my first France-made American-style chocolate chip cookie.
It was delicious.
American Chocolate Chip Cookies Designed for the French Kitchen
I used the Martha Stewart recipe. You can find the original here.
285 g (1 ¼ c.) beurre, room temperature (butter)
250 g chocolat noir, chopped (dark chocolate)
250 g chocolat lait, chopped (milk chocolate)
450 g (3 ½ c.) farine de blé type 55 (flour)
6 g (1 ¼ t.) levure chimique (baking powder)
6 g (1 ¼ t.) bicarbonate de soude (baking soda)
12 g (2 t.) sel (salt)
200 g (1 c.) sucre en poudre (granulated sugar)
330 g (1 ½ c.) vergeoise blonde (light brown sugar)
6 g (1 ½ t.) arôme vanille (vanilla extract)
2 œufs (eggs)
1 bottle of Provence rosé (wine)
Set out your butter to reach room temperature.Check your cookie sheet. Does it fit in your oven? Do you have more than one? If you said “yes” to both, congratulations! You’re already ahead of the game! Have a glass of rosé to celebrate while you wait for the butter to soften.
Chop up the chocolate bars.Little bits of chocolate will shoot everywhere and when you accidently touch the bits, they will stick to your hand and melt. Avoid wearing white. Have another glass of rosé as you ask yourself why you didn’t shell out the extra money for those tiny bags of chocolate chips.
In a bowl, combine and whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugars on medium-high until light and fluffy, 6 minutes. If you haven’t had the time to buy an electric mixer because the expat life means having to rebuy everything that has a plug, then you can also do this using a fork. It will take far longer than six minutes, so fortify yourself with another glass of rosé. Your children will not be interested in helping you with this task.
Reduce speed to medium-low and beat in eggs, one at a time. Beat in vanilla. Again, you can do all this using a fork. You will begin to question everything in your life. Your children, sensing your distress, will offer to help. They will make an unholy mess. You may have another glass of rosé.
Mix in flour mixture just until incorporated; fold in your chopped chocolate.
Using a large spoon, form balls and drop dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.Laugh to yourself that Martha Stewart is so naïve to think you would have parchment somewhere in your house. You have no idea where you would even find parchment paper at the store—for goodness sake, it took you 20 minutes to find the fricking baking soda.
Refrigerate dough for 1 hour.Your children will hate this step. They will be livid. You pour yourself some more rosé.
Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit).
Bake until edges are light golden brown, 17 to 18 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Transfer cookies to a wire rack and try not to eat them until they’re cool.Ha, ha, just kidding! Dive into those suckers right now, even if it means burning your fingers and tongue. You’ve earned every delicious bite.
Flash. The brights of an oncoming car briefly shine into my eyes. Something’s coming.
I warily reach the summit of a small hill and can see the reflection of police vests in the roundabout ahead.
Even though I know I haven’t done anything wrong, my heart starts to pounds and my palms start to sweat. Please not me! Please not me!
The weak streetlight in the center of the roundabout doesn’t do much more than attract moths so I can’t see much. Was that a signal? Should I pull over? Where should I go, there’s no shoulder in the middle of a roundabout?!
Naturally, I decide to err on the side of caution and panic. Instead of pulling over, I take the exit and drive away in the direction away from home.
Maybe if I just keep driving, he won’t realize I was supposed to pull over and he’ll let me go.
Half a breath later, I realize turning off is madness as there is only one way home and it’s through that roundabout. I make a u-turn. I really look guilty now.
My mind is frantically buzzing with possible French vocabulary words.
Should I use vous? I should probably use vous. This is useless! I don’t even know the word for headlights or trunk.
French class has not adequately prepared me for this moment.
The two children in my car are silent as I we advance toward the checkpoint.
The officer watches my approach with confusion. He lifts his eyebrows skeptically as I roll down my window and say, “Hello.” English, only speak English if you get pulled over they always said.
He responds with a question I can’t understand, but based on his body language is, “Why did you turn around? I thought you were heading the other way.”
I smile weakly and ask if he needs to see my driver’s license. I begin frantically digging through my purse to find it. He furrows his brow and examines the other occupants of my car. They don’t move.
“Non, non,” he motions for me to put my card back.
I’m confused. If he doesn’t want to see my license, what does he want?
He walks around my car then looks at my windshield and verifies that my insurance and safety inspection stickers are up to date. Satisfied that the car is legal, he heads back to me.
Calm, remain calm. Breathe. Smile.
He takes a loud breath and begins to rummage through his pockets. Soon, he pulls out a clear plastic bag containing a white, plastic straw. He attaches it to a machine and points it at me.
“Souffle,” he orders. He demonstrates by blowing.
I look up at him doubtfully and try not to laugh. He thinks I’ve been drinking?!
Instantly, I feel calm. This is a test I know I can pass. I don’t drink. Ever.
I place my lips over the straw and look at him for instructions.
“Souffle, souffle,” he orders. “Continue, continue. C’est bon.”
He suspiciously eyes the machine and waits for the results.
Ping. He looks at me, shrugs he shoulders and shows me the results–0.0.