Archive for the 'French holidays' Category

April… Fish Day?

April 1, 2014

Fish-shaped goodies start popping up in French boulangerie windows as April 1st approaches

rigoler – laugh, have a laugh
pour rigoler 
– for fun
pitreries – clowning around, tomfoolery
Poisson d’avril !
– April Fools’ Day! (literally, “April Fish!”)

un poisson – fish
une boulangerie – bakery
une poissonnerie – fish shop
la bise – the traditional way the French greet each other, with air kisses on each cheek
faire le pitre – to clown around
râler – grumble

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Much like it is in many countries around the world, April 1st in France is a day pour rigoler. However, instead of following up the customary pitreries and practical jokes with cries of “April Fool!”, the French, instead, will shout, “Poisson d’avril!” (“April Fish!”).

In the lead up to “April Fish Day”, poisson-shaped goodies start showing up in boulangerie windows and other unexpected corners outside of their usual place of honour at the local poissonerie… Fish, ahem, out of water, you might say.

It seems that to the French, one of the funniest things you can do on this day is to stick a paper fish onto somebody’s back and mark them as an April fish (fool). French children will spend March 31st carefully cutting out, and even decorating, paper fish, which they will then go to elaborate lengths to stick onto unsuspecting (or perhaps indulgent) adults the next day.

I’m not quite sure where the whole fish thing comes from, or why it’s so funny, although I’ve heard some theories that it’s related to the zodiac sign Pisces, whose dates end a bit before April. But while the humour in paper fish may be destined to remain another mystifying aspect of French culture to me, much like la bise and keeping off the grass, I do find it interesting is that, according to WhyGo France, April Fool’s Day may have actually originated in France:

The theory goes like this: In 1564 King Charles XIV of France reformed the calendar, moving the start of the year from the end of March to January 1. However, in a time without trains, a reliable post system or the internet, news often traveled slow and the uneducated, lower class people in rural France were the last to hear of and accept the new calendar. Those who failed to keep up with the change or who stubbornly clung to the old calendar system and continued to celebrate the New Year during the week that fell between March 25th and April 1st, had jokes played on them. Pranksters would surreptitiously stick paper fish to their backs. The victims of this prank were thus called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish—which, to this day, remains the French term for April Fools—and so the tradition was born.

Historical proof that, despite popular opinion, the French do like to faire le pitre once in a while and not just râler?

Bonnes Vacances !

August 1, 2012

Store Window, Saint Paul, The Marais

Bonnes vacances ! – Have a good vacation!
les vacances
– vacation, holidays

tranquille – quiet, calm, peaceful
une boulangerie – bakery
tant pis
– too bad
le métro – the Paris subway
l’heure de pointe – rush hour
la foule – crowd
le quai – quay
du monde – (many) people
il n’y a pas grand monde – there’s hardly anybody; there aren’t many people
une complicité – understanding, complicity

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“Les gens s’étonnent toujours que vous ne quittiez pas Paris l’été, sans comprendre que c’est précisément parce qu’ils le quittent que vous y restez.”
(“People are always surprised that you don’t leave Paris in the summer. They don’t understand that it’s precisely because they leave it, that you stay.”)
– Henry de Montherlant



It’s August 1st!  For many Parisians, that means one thing – it’s time for les vacances!  As I write this, Paris’ year-round inhabitants are fleeing the city in droves, abandoning it willingly to starry-eyed tourists and the handful of residents who are staying behind. The next 31 days promise to be tranquille, as stores, boulangeries and businesses close up shop, often to the perplexed frustration of August visitors to the city.  My friend Andrew, for example, got here last Sunday and immediately started calling around to make restaurant reservations – only to discover that virtually all the eateries on his list… which he had oh-so-carefully researched and notated for his long-anticipated vacation… are closed.  For the entire month.  (I tactfully refrained from pointing out that if he had been reading my blog, he’d have already known about Paris in August, though I guess, technically, I’m now pointing it out here. Ahem.)

It’s all so very French in attitude. Even Berthillon, the world-famous artisanal ice cream maker—who could easily make a killing during high tourist season—closes its doors during the month. Some things are sacred, after all. Money or not, August is designated for les vacances. Tant pis.  The tourists will just have to get their ice cream elsewhere.

This marks my third August in Paris and I’m looking forward to it. No impossibly jam-packed métro during l’heure de pointe. No fighting the foule at the supermarket. Crowded, narrow sidewalks that are normally overrun with people are free and clear for strolling and il n’y a pas grand monde along the quai de la Seine. As long as you stay away from the main tourist attractions, it feels as if the city is suddenly at your disposal.


Room for quiet contemplation on the quai de la Seine

There’s an unspoken, friendly complicité between all us Parisians who are left behind to wander the city streets – as we go about our daily routines, we cross paths and exchange knowing, sympathetic glances with each other. Yes, for whatever reason, we have not been able to leave the city for les vacances along with the others. But we also share something else in common: a delightful little secret. For the next month at least, the city belongs entirely to us, and to us alone.

On Backpacking (or “Wallowing In My Own Filth”)

July 30, 2011
Oasis in the Bolivian Altiplano desert?

The following post was originally published on June 1, 2007, during a six-week backpacking trip through South America. With les vacances approaching, most of Paris fleeing the city, and travel on everybody’s brain, I thought it was a good time dig it up from the archives.

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I don’t know about you, but there’s something about travelling that makes the unthinkable in everyday life become perfectly palatable when you’re on the road. Take, for example, hygiene.

This very thought occurred to me as I sat on the chicken bus to Uyuni, Bolivia this morning, munching on a stale piece of bread that I had stuffed in my pocket after breakfast, a scattering of breadcrumbs embedded in the fringed “100% Alpaca” (read: very possibly acrylic) sweater that I had picked up from a tourist shop a few towns back.  I was dressed in the same socks and long underwear that I had been wearing for the last two days.  Still hungry, I rummaged around in my backpack and triumphantly unearthed half a granola bar with a few pieces of lint stuck to the sugary outside coating.  Unfazed, I picked them off handily and proceeded to devour the bar with the enthusiasm of a dog who has unexpectedly come across filet mignon table scraps.

The thought occurred to me again as I sat squatting by the side of the road later that afternoon, behind a poor excuse for a bush, during a much-needed pee break.

Continue reading »

Happy Fête Nationale!

July 14, 2011


la fête nationale – the national celebration, France’s “Independence Day”; known in the English-speaking world as “Bastille Day”
le 14 juillet
 – the 14th of July (the French national holiday)
les soldes – the sales
je pars en week-end – I’m going away for the weekend

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Happy 14 juillet everybody!  I’m currently working on a new post about the summer soldes that I’ll be publishing soon, but for those of you who are new to The Vanishing Point and interested in learning more about this French national holiday, be sure to check out last year’s posts, Le Bal des pompiers and La Fête nationale.

I’ll be catching the fireworks display tonight at the Eiffel Tower, one of my favourite summer events in this beautiful city, then je pars en week-end to the seaside town of Deauville. I can’t wait to hit the beach!

Hope you all have a great weekend!

31 Days Later

August 19, 2010


Store Window, Montmartre, Paris

les vacances – vacation
une fermeture – closure
la Mairie de Paris – Paris City Hall
un embouteillage –  traffic jam
le supermarché
– supermarket, grocery store
une fermeture exceptionnelle – unexpected or extended closure; an “exceptional” closure, outside of the regular operating schedule
l’Hôtel de Ville
– City Hall
la plage – beach
les quais de la Seine – the quays of the Seine

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Do you remember the creepy opening scenes of the film 28 Days Later?  They caused a stir among critics and sent a chill down the spines of audience members everywhere because they depicted, in very realistic fashion, the always-bustling London landmarks, Westminster Bridge, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street, utterly devoid of human life.  The simple, surreal absence of people in such famously and characteristically overcrowded spots was eerier than anything Jerry Bruckheimer could have pulled out of his bag of over-the-top tricks.

Well, those famous scenes are kind of what Paris feels like in August.  Public spaces that are normally bursting to overflowing with people now appear vast and empty.  While passing through the central métro station Châtelet the other day, I could have sworn I heard the opening theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly playing as a piece of tumbleweed drifted by.

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La Fête nationale

July 22, 2010
“My “14 juillet” souvenirs


la fête nationale – national celebration
le 14 juillet – the 14th of July
le bal des pompiers – fireman’s ball
un pompier – fireman
un defilé – parade
le parfum
– flavour
une gueule de bois
– hangover (familiar)
un bonnet – bonnet, cap, head covering
une bavette – flank (steak)
papoter – to chatter
le feu d’artifice
– fireworks


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A mere four hours after getting home from the July 13 pre-fête nationale Bal des pompiers, just as I was finally drifting off to sleep, my phone rang. It was my friend Floriane, with the wake-up call I had requested. She had received a V.I.P. invitation to watch the big defilé along the Champs-Elysées at a very special reception being held in one of the offices above the grand boulevard, and she had invited me to be her guest. “Coucou Darlene, tu viens de te reveiller ? ” (“Hi Darlene, did you just wake up?”) she asked me sweetly, obviously bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, having had the good sense to skip the bal the night before. “Euh… non…” I fibbed. “J’arrive…” (“I’m coming.”)

I dragged myself, slowly, painfully, out of bed, cursing military parades and their early start times. Why? Why start a parade at 9:00 a.m.? What was wrong with a 1:00 p.m. parade? Or even better, a 4:00 p.m. parade?

Thirty minutes and two large cups of caffeine later, I left to meet Floriane. Having consulted Google Maps the night before, I knew that the address was a fifteen-minute walk or a mere five-minute Métro ride away. I had also checked the RATP (the Paris métro) site the night before and knew that my nearest subway station wasn’t closed, so I was all good. Or so I thought.

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Le Bal des pompiers

July 22, 2010

Photo courtesy Mélina.

la fête nationale – national celebration
le 14 juillet – the 14th of July
le bal des pompiers – fireman’s ball
un pompier –  fireman
une caserne (de sapeurs-pompiers) – fire station
un don – donation
une voyageuse – female traveler
“C’est gentil, merci.” – “That’s kind of you, thank you.”


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Marshall:
Wow, you’re creating a holiday.
Barney: Why not? Everybody gets one – mothers, fathers, Bastilles…
“How I Met Your Mother”


Most people I know back home have heard of “Bastille Day”, although my guess is that many would be hard-pressed to define exactly when and what it was.  In fact, July 14 is la fête nationale de France – their version of Canada Day, if you will.  Somewhat oddly, it’s known internationally in English-speaking countries as Bastille Day, even though in France, it is either referred to as le 14 juillet (much like Americans refer to Independence Day as “the 4th of July”) or simply, la fête nationale.  It commemorates the 1790 Fête de la Fédération, a huge feast that was held on July 14, 1790 to celebrate the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, considered to be a major turning point in the French Revolution.

Now, talk of a national holiday generally tends to conjure up images of the kind of pomp and circumstance befitting a dignified patriotic celebration.  And while it’s true that le 14 juillet is observed over here with much fanfare, parades, concerts and fireworks—the stuff you’d typically see in other countries during similar sorts of celebrations—the French also have another somewhat lesser-known tradition linked to la fête nationale that is quite unlike any of the customs associated with our own national holidays in North America.  In typical French fashion, it flirts with the hedonistic; a backyard barbecue, it’s definitely not.  I’m referring of course to le bal des pompiers, which really deserves to be touted in travel brochures as a genuine tourist attraction right along with the Eiffel Tower, at least for us voyageuses out there.

Every July 13, the night before the official patriotic celebrations begin, France’s finest open up casernes all over the country and throw les bals des pompiers for the general populace.  The parties usually run both July 13 and 14 from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. and entry is traditionally free, although dons of any amount are gratefully accepted at the door, with all proceeds going towards improving the conditions of workers.  Oh yes, my lady friends back home, you heard me right – on July 13 and 14 all over France there are parties hosted, staffed and filled with firemen.  Dancing.  All with cute French accents.  Don’t you wish you were here?

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A Month of Sundays

June 7, 2010
In France, the first of May goes by a few names: the Fête du Travail (Labour Day), the Fête du Muguet (Lily of the Valley Day) and even the Fête du premier mai (First of May/May Day).  On this day, it is traditional to offer friends and family a sprig of lily of the valley, symbol of spring and good luck, especially if the sprig has 13 bellflowers.  As an extra bonus, on May 1st florists are allowed to sell their bouquets of muguet tax-free.

 

un jour férié – statutory holiday; bank holiday

faire le pont – literally “to make a bridge” (bridge a gap); an idiomatic expression used to describe the common French practice of taking a vacation day in between a statutory holiday and the weekend, thereby creating an extra-long weekend

les ponts de mai – “the May bridges” (essentially, the May long weekends)

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Like most Canadians, by the time winter is drawing to a close, I have had it up to here with short days and long nights, face-numbing winds that make it difficult to breathe, cumbersome winter layers and sub-zero temperatures.  Nothing lifts my spirits quite like the early signs of spring and summer.  Those first few days when the temperature creeps above ten degrees, I love watching as my fellow citizens emerge from their various hiding places like so many human moles, blinking, into the sun, pasty faces turned up eagerly towards the sky, even pastier legs liberated (in our eagerness to believe that the worst is over, sometimes prematurely) from their winter-long incarceration in tights. There are always those few enthusiastic crazies who go so far as to bust out the shorts and flip flops, covered in goose bumps and shivering determinedly in defiance of what the thermometer actually reads.  It’s April dammit, and if you build it, spring will come. The advent of spring means that our precious two months of summer aren’t far off.  And nothing marks the beginning of summer in Canada like the revered “May 2-4”, otherwise known as Queen Victoria Day.

As long as I can remember, the sacred May 24 long weekend (dubbed “May two-four” in honour of the many flats of “two-fours” [24 beers] that are sure to be consumed on decks, patios and cottages across the country) has kicked off the beginning of one of the best seasons of the year. Best, of course, because the weather gets warmer, the sun comes out, all my favourite fruits are in season, and the days are long, languid and lazy. But also best because May 24 marks the beginning of long weekend season – a long weekend a month for several months to come, with the exception of June.  It’s an abundance of plenty!

Or so I used to think.

In Canada, we get really excited about the fact that we have that long weekend in May.  We’re so excited, in fact, that we’re more than happy to celebrate the birthday of a dead monarch who ruled a country that isn’t actually ours – and doesn’t even celebrate her birthday themselves – because doing so means that we get that magical day off.

However, I have recently discovered that, at least as far as public holidays go, May in France kind of, well, kicks May in Canada’s ass. Continue reading »

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