Category Archives: France

The base of the French Jura

The parc naturel régional du Haut-Jura is a national park located in the south-west of the Jura mountain range on the border between France and Switzerland. To protect native wildlife, dogs are not admitted on many of the hiking trails. Trails at the base of the mountains do, offer a gorgeous view on the Jura and have some spectacular scenery on their own.


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No books, just bananas?

France once prided itself in having the highest density of bookstores of Europe. For a number of reasons – electronic books and an increase in tax on books being important ones – the future of independent bookstores is gloomy. The bookstore of Ferney-Voltaire, once home to the writer and philosopher, is braving the battle blade.


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The homesick expat

On a mission to find a house in Amsterdam, real estate agents ask me the same questions. Why do I prefer old, dilapidated houses? And why am I moving back to the Netherlands after living abroad for nearly a decade?

I love being abroad. Every day holds an adventure, from a discussion with a neighbor about the proper color of baguette to a mountain trail on snow shoes. French principles and standards of behavior are different from Dutch ones and invite me to reflect on my own morals, from the legalization of prostitution to peanut butter sandwiches. The best thing about living abroad though is meeting extraordinary people who, like me, left their home country, like the passionate labor union organizer from Australia or the Texan nuclear scientist who is partial to wearing pink butterfly wings.

Nevertheless, recent experiences have tipped the scales against living abroad. I have realized, at length, the insignificance of existence while filling out forms, waiting on hold or standing in line for Swiss taxes, French insurances or a municipal manhole cover. But I’m increasingly losing my cool. Administration and bureaucracy are just as tedious in the Netherlands, but at least I know my way around the system.

Worse than any pointless paper hassle is my halting social integration. Foreign cinema, fashion and (up to a certain point) cuisine didn’t pose a problem; my marriage with a woman does. My French GP told me I can have sex with a man by pretending a penis is a very large clitoris. Civil servants, both in Switzerland and France, ensured me that my lesbian relationship does not merit the same rights as a “normal” one and charged us tens of thousands extra in tax. In the Netherlands, the fact that we’re two women together is not an issue. We’re just us.

As for the extraordinary people I find abroad: I will miss them. But I still have fantastic friends in the Netherlands, whom I have missed so much in the past decade. We have some serious catching up to do. It’s about time Spouse and I find the Dutch dilapidated house of our dreams.

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Still taboo? Homosexuality in France

Florence had been talking about her broken relationship for an hour before she mentioned, reluctantly, that her ex was female. She had nothing to fear from her audience, which happened to be all-gay. “I’m not open about my homosexuality,” Florence explained.

On January 13 hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Paris to show their discontent with the government’s plans to give gay couples in France the right to marry and adopt children. A remarkable achievement in a country where sexual escapades by the former IMF director Strauss-Kahn and filmmaker Polanski pass as “gallantry”. Yet homosexuality seems to be a bit of a taboo in France – and not just among the catholics and muslims that marched against gay marriage.

Florence is a well-educated, fifty-something woman from Lyon. She has been in relationships with women for almost three decades. Her family is totally at ease with it. But Florence herself is not: she’s not out at work and prides herself on not having many gay friends. “I’m always afraid of what other people might think,” she explains. She reminds me of Viviane, another fifty-something lesbian who is living a closeted life in Paris. At work Viviane told she is a relationship with a “monsieur” – a lie she sustained with difficulty when her partner for years met a tragic end. Another friend, Alain, often says that he would like the French to be more tolerant towards homosexuality and in favor of marriage equality. Yet during the last elections he, a gay man himself, voted for the UMP, the centre-right party that is vehemently against gay marriage.

A recent issue of a French studies journal argues that the republican universalism of the country has prevented gay citizens from asserting their difference and, eventually, rights. I’ve met many French, gay and straight, who have absolutely no issue with homosexuality – but many seem to belong to the younger generations. If the Florences and Alains of France keep thinking they have a reason to be ashamed about their homosexuality, convincing opponents that gay couples deserve the same rights as straight ones might be a challenge.

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Appreciating popular music (at 36)

At age 33 Zadie Smith had an epiphany about Joni Mitchell, she tells in The New Yorker. Smith went from finding Mitchell’s music “a sort of wailing” to getting from it an emotional overcoming “like joy – if joy is the recognition of an almost intolerable beauty.”

I have almost exclusively listened to classical music for as long as I can remember. Beethoven was the reason I wanted to play the harp at the age of six and as a teenager I dramatically declared Bach’s cantatas as the sole reason of my existence. There were brief episodes of popular music (ranging from Ani Difranco to Bob Marley) when I had a crush and interested to know the favorite music of the object of my desire. When I married someone who grew up during the seventies and eighties and came with a hifi and a pile of vinyl, I mercilessly banned her music to the attic.

Last Christmas, to make amends with Spouse for spending a day with my family, I tuned the radio to the Dutch Top2000, the best songs of all time selected by pop music aficionados. I watched, in amazement, how Spouse became instantaneously delirious, appraising the positions of a song in the list and singing along loudly (and occasionally out of tune). It was contagious. I started tapping my foot and humming along. Occasionally I was struck by a song that I had heard and liked before but had never bothered to look up (often, it seems, by Pink Floyd). Spouse and I continued listening to the Top2000 the next few days. By the time we reached position ten I shared her delirium.

In her article Zadie Smith described how browsing records makes her melancholic: “There goes my other life. Is it too late to get into Talking Heads? Do I have the time? What kind of person would I be if I knew this album at all, or well?” I don’t share her sadness. After reinstalling Spouse’s hifi I bought records to contribute to what is now our mutual vinyl collection. I still love classical music but have little time for it, with all the catching-up-with-pop to do. I foresee one epiphany after the other.

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