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Every time I visit France I learn something new. After my arrival this month, I was here for 4 hours when I came across a ‘galette des rois’. It’s a rather flat cake or thin pie filled with frangipani or almond paste. One can eat it for breakfast or as a snack. It’s a little dry so I tried it with tea. But there’s a reason for this tasty gateau. Saturday January 6th was the feast of the epiphany. Some call it little Christmas. Here they call it the feast of kings or ‘fete des rois’, but there is much consternation among purists. The cake is supposed to be eaten on this day only, but purists point out that some stores start featuring it back in October. The newspaper carried long articles about the custom and how it’s being broken.
Now you may well ask why a non-catholic North American got caught up in the event. The answer is pure superstition. Apparently the bakers of these large flat cakes place a small ceramic santon statue somewhere within. When it’s served, everyone hopes that he or she will get the tiny statue of a French worker. If it happens to be in your slice, you are declared ‘king for the day’. Some bakers put in two of them and the girl who gets the santon is ‘queen for the day’. In homes where santons are not available the chef puts in one or two hard beans or peas that are hard and uncooked. One represented the king and the other became the queen.
In the galette we bought yesterday there was only one santon and I got it. I would be grateful if people recognized me as someone who was King for a Day. I saved my santon. Someday I may have a whole collection of these tiny figures.
In a department store cafeteria, I saw the lady next to me react after biting into an enamel santon. She was obviously not French nor was she particularly amused. I went over and explained the custom. She hadn’t broken a tooth and was pleased to be Queen for the Day.
I wonder what they’ll come up with next…
Another difference: Our apartment here is three floors up. They count the main floor as floor ‘zero’. Above it is one, then two and so on. But in North America those on the main floor are on the first. There are no stairs to climb.
Where Americans press ‘one’ to go to the lobby, here they press ‘zero’. So I go up three flights of stairs in Paris and while I should be on the
third floor, I’m on the fourth. Are you confused? Good. Then I’m not alone. Do you know how many times I have tried my key in the apartment door below mine? My neighbors think I’m weird. C’est la vie.
In Canada we go out one day a week and make a food order for the week. Here in Paris, people shop daily for their needs. A woman or man comes home from work having gone to the store on the way home and purchased a chicken, bread, pastry and so on. It’s a custom. At home we stock freezers with all sorts of things we don’t need and have to wait hours while a roast purchased two weeks before is thawed. There’s nothing wrong with either way. It’s just another way we’re different.
Another eye-opener is the tolerance the French have for their dogs in
Paris. Women carry little dogs around under their arms in even the most fashionable shops and bring them along for their lunch in restaurants. Often they lie under the table quietly and obediently waiting but in one restaurant a lady brought along an embroidered pillow and the dog dutifully sat on a pillowed chair and watched. The dog never begged for food or looked annoyed at other people eating. It just sat and after a while became quite bored and went to sleep.
I must admit that I once saw a tiny poodle growl at a huge boxer. The larger dog ignored the growler and the poodle’s owner waved a finger of annoyance at her naughty dog.
Finally (for now) I discovered that the French are incredibly polite. My wife and I went into a yarn shop in the Marais, and as I waited near the door she looked around. As people came in and left under nobody’s special watchful eye, the shop owner said, “monsieurs-dames” as people entered and left. It seemed he was talking to no one in particular. It was his way of saying hello and goodbye. I was the only one who smiled back…
So much for the expression “vive la difference”.