Arts and Culture, Stories, Travel

Collecting words and phrases

While most French today no longer speak in patois (local dialects) like they used to, each region and city have several words, figures of speech or expressions that reflect their unique identities.

Just like their culinary diversity from the North to the South is distinct, their speech is equally flavourful from the East to the West. And these expressions can be picked up in the most bizarre places.

For instance, the Turtle first came across the phrase ça tombe comme à Gravelotte from Grandma Lapin in the Northeast of France. It referred apparently, to the great casualties of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 but today it means heavy rain. Elsewhere the French say c’est la fête des grenouilles (the festival of frogs).

Also while most people may know the polite answer to thank you is de rien, the Turtle recalls in a sports shop in Nice, the salesboy responding with “il n’y a pas de quoi”.

Confused, she asked him what exactly of what was there nothing of? The phrase, translated literally, amounts to something like: there is no what, which frankly, sounded more like a question to a query rather than a response to her merci beaucoup.

Once again she has found a new expression, this time in Nantes. Despite having been placed under quarantine in hospital for the entire duration of this trip (she was hospitalised before she even got to start having fun), she’s already sampled some local delights, if only linguistic and not gastronomic. 

Given her small size she’s already been described as a brindille (twig) by Lapin and a petite bichette (little foal) by her favourite merchant at the farmers market in Lyon, but here in Nantes in the hospital she has been nicknamed petit gabarit  (small template).

A template for what? she enquired. No one seems to have the answer. So she hit up Google which brought up no satisfying explanations either, but when she did a reverse search for a gros gabarit she got this:

Go figure.

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Food, Travel

Eating and Drinking Grenoble

This last weekend, the Ninja Turtle and GodzillaPin headed to the south of France, under the pretext of the Ninja Turtle’s trail race, but really, it was to enjoy the warm weather and the best of Grenoble’s gastronomy. The Ninja Turtle, being an ardent user of TripAdvisor, turned to the trusty old application on her mobile phone and did some last-minute research during their 6-hour road trip from Metz.

Of course, top priority went to the pre-race meal. With carb-loading in mind, the Ninja Turtle scrolled through the listings, keeping an eye out especially for restaurants with pictures of BIG servings (because this Turtle can really eat). Soon enough, she found exactly what she was looking for, an Italian place called Ciao a Te. The reviews really talked up the place, especially with some people claiming to have waited years to get a table, but the duo lucked out – five minutes before they’d rung in wild hopes of making a reservation, someone had cancelled their table, liberating the place for GodzillaPin and the Ninja Turtle. It was fate.

In this family-run enterprise, the atmosphere was exactly what one would imagine eating at an Italian friend’s to be like. The service was friendly – even intimate, and as a sign of their immense pride in their standards, diners have to actually walk through a part of the kitchen to get to the dining room. They have absolutely nothing to hide!

The duo were absolutely starving when they arrived, but the food came out quickly enough, and the portions were enormous. The antipasti plate was to share, and the restaurant makes the most amazing bread rolls fresh daily. After begging the waiter twice for the recipe, the young man got one of the chefs, his equally young sister, to give the Ninja Turtle the recipe. She even insisted on giving the duo a bag of extra bread rolls to take home!

They kept humbly repeating that it was a really simple recipe and there was no real secret to it, but they must be lying or these Italians must have fairies in the kitchen because those bread rolls were really out of this world.

Antipasti platter to share, with the best bread rolls in the world.

Antipasti platter to share, with the best bread rolls in the world.

GodzillaPin holding up the half-bottle of rosé that went with their meal.

GodzillaPin holding up the half-bottle of 2013 Italian rosé that went with their meal.

Giant prawns and fresh tagliatelle in a cream and cognac sauce.

Giant prawns and fresh tagliatelle in a cream and cognac sauce.

Beef and spinach meatballs wrapped in aubergine, smothered in bolognese and cheese. Best savoured with those amazing bread rolls.

Beef and spinach meatballs wrapped in aubergine, smothered in bolognese and cheese. Best savoured with those amazing bread rolls.

The bill was very reasonable, especially considering the quality and quantity of the food, and the overall experience. The Ninja Turtle personally thinks that this was by far the best meal of the trip, possibly even this year. At any rate, it was hands down the best Italian restaurant she’s even dined in, here in France.

The next meal they enjoyed was a post-race and birthday celebration meal at the restaurant Zakhang, a place that describes its food as French-Indian fusion, and rated #2 in Grenoble by travellers on TripAdvisor. This was a very posh type of dining place, and also required a reservation. Indeed, just as the duo were walking in (half an hour late), two other sets of diners were being turned away for showing up without a booking.

Amuse-bouche of spiced focaccia and hummus.

Amuse-bouche of spiced focaccia and hummus.

GodzillaPin savouring the rosé proposed by the waitress to match their meal.

GodzillaPin savouring the rosé proposed by the waitress to match their meal.

Another restaurant that baked their own bread in-house. They made 3 types: sourdough, maize with sunflower seeds, and wholemeal multigrain.

Another restaurant that baked their own bread in-house. They made 3 types: sourdough, maize with sunflower seeds, and wholemeal multigrain.

Mille feuille of crab and wasabi pea purée for the Ninja Turtle.

An entrée of mille feuille of crab and wasabi pea purée for the Ninja Turtle.

While GodzillaPin chose a cucumber raita with pomegrenate and carrot sorbet.

While GodzillaPin chose a cucumber raita with pomegrenate and carrot sorbet.

Duck breast with herbed rice for the Turtle's main course.

Duck breast with herbed rice for the Turtle’s main course.

While GodzillaPin went with the lighter fish and mashed root vegetables.

While GodzillaPin went with the lighter fish and mashed root vegetables.

GodzillaPin's dessert of the day (we forget the name but it was a flavoured creme with grilled apricot served with meringue.

GodzillaPin’s dessert of the day (we forget the name but it was a flavoured creme with grilled apricot served with meringue.

And the Turtle wrapped her meal up with a pistachio panna cotta served with lychee honey, rose petals and sorbet.

And the Turtle wrapped her meal up with a pistachio panna cotta served with lychee honey, rose petals and sorbet.

Unfortunately, the air-conditioning had broken down on that particularly hot day, and poor GodzillaPin was perspiring through the whole meal. The experience was somewhat compromised as a result. The service was efficient though, and the food was good – definitely somewhere for a special occasion (as reflected in the price tag), and as always, book in advance. This restaurant also has a little window outside, where one can look through into the kitchen. After the meal, the duo walked by and chanced upon the two chefs, so they stopped to say thank you for a wonderful meal. Naturally, the chefs appreciated the feedback.

GodzillaPin and the Ninja Turtle really enjoyed the trip, not least because of the food, which is just as well since the duo will be heading back down south in two weeks’ time!

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Travel

Photo essay of Singapore

Here are some photos to summarise some of the Ninja Turtle’s activities in Singapore this week.

Malay cookies for Hari Raya Puasa.

Malay cookies for Hari Raya Puasa.

Also known as Eid al-Fitr, Hari Raya Puasa is the local name for the Feast of Breaking the Fast, and marks the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for the Muslims. This year, it falls on 17 July, and the local supermarkets are already stocked up with all the delicacies associated with the Sugar Feast. As a multi-cultural society, Singapore offers its people the chance to partake in a variety of traditions, even if it’s something as banal as sampling the cuisine of another culture. The Ninja Turtle does have fond childhood memories of being invited to her Muslim friends’ places for festivities and celebrations, cementing her belief that world peace can be attained through a shared meal.

A napping cat at a local market.

A napping cat at a local market.

Proof that the unbearable heat we’ve all been complaining about is not a figment of our imagination, nor a reflection of us being a bunch of pampered sissies. Even the animals need a midday siesta and this cat was found sleeping at a local market. Passers-by would occasionally touch it, but it was too hot/tired/comatose to care.

Durians are in season.

Durians are in season.

Nicknamed the king of fruits, the durian is a cousin of the jackfruit, and if used correctly, can double as a weapon of sorts (just use your imagination). The last time the Ninja Turtle came back, it wasn’t the right time for this pungent terror, but in June, it’s time to roll out the mangosteens, durians, jackfruits (and the Turtle has spied lychees, longans, persimmons, cherimoyas, dragonfruits and a whole slew of other exotic delights). What is your favourite exotic fruit?

Peking roast duck dinner at a Chinese restaurant.

Peking roast duck dinner at a Chinese restaurant with relatives.

Duck is an interesting dish; like pig’s trotters or frog’s legs, the French and the Chinese do it equally well, but the style is so completely different. While GodzillaPin’s grandma does a wicked magret de canard aux prunes, there is no substitute for the signature crispy duck skin with sweet dark soy and spring onion wrapped in a thin pastry like a beautiful little tortilla, followed by tender slices of duck meat.

Making a meal with the leftovers.

Making a meal with the leftovers.

Some countries don’t generally let diners take home their leftovers (looking at you, Australia), but in Singapore, it seems to be standard practise. In fact, restaurants probably would prefer to offer takeaway, in hopes of encouraging you to order more than you can finish, rather than order conservatively to reduce waste. Here, the Ninja Turtle whipped up a leftover duck, mushroom and apple salad with a homemade dijonnaise dressing, paired with a glass of wine…

International wine selection.

International wine selection.

OK, so this may offend the Ninja Turtle’s French readers, but all she can say is… tant pis pour vous. In France, they may not feel the need to import wines from elsewhere, given how many different wine-producing regions exist locally, but in Singapore, it’s all got to be imported. Which means one can easily find a wide variety of wines from all around the world. The Ninja Turtle picked out three bottles from three different countries – Chile, South Africa and Australia.

Yum seng!

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Arts and Culture

The Wisdom of Grandparents

Finally, a little bit of sunshine in the north-east of France! This weekend, GodzillaPin and the Ninja Turtle returned to the countryside for a family visit, and had the pleasure of spending the afternoon drinking tea at Grandpa and Grandma Lapin’s. It is very easy for youth to forget that once upon a time, grandparents were young too (probably cooler and better-looking than us too). They had exactly the same hopes and fears, aspirations and challenges as we did. If we only take a little bit of time to listen to what they have to say, we’d be surprised by how much perspective they’d be able to offer.

In fact, the Turtle feels (with no disrespect whatsoever to our parents’ generation, i.e. the Baby Boomers and the Gen X) that grandparents are often better able to relate to the worries of the youth today. GodzillaPin for instance, like the true blue Frenchie that he is, has an aversion to Big Corporations. While the Turtle is slightly more comfortable with globalization and all its evils, it is true she enjoys living in a country where organic foods are easily accessible, even when dining out, and easier on the pocket than in some other countries. Our parents came from les années disco-rock-pop, where eating out at McDonald’s was a status symbol (because you know, it comes from America) and Coca Cola summed up what life should really be (red and effervescent, with a big spike in blood sugar), so it is to our grandparents that we turn, for guidance on which months are the best to plant certain vegetables, and how to gut a fish.

So over steaming hot cups of peppermint tea and gateaux au miel, we listened to stories about how they experienced the economic uncertainties that proceeded the war, how they raised four children, and looked at photos from a family album. Grandpa and Grandma Lapin also have some radical ideas that mark them out as possibly dangerous countryside rabbits to take note of, if only they weren’t 82 and 88 years old respectively.

On politics
Grandma Lapin: Useless, the lot of them (politicians). Our taxes go into supporting them, and two-thirds of them aren’t worth what they earn. We should take to the streets and protest.

Grandpa Lapin: War! War! (He didn’t really elaborate on whom.)

On wartime experience
The Ninja Turtle: Weren’t you afraid during the war?
Grandma Lapin: Oh no, we left in a car and carriage. Every time we stopped to make an enquiry, the Germans were always 30km behind us. They never caught up.
Grandpa Lapin: It was a holiday for her. She had never left the village before in her life at that stage, so it was a grand adventure.

On languages
Grandma Lapin: When we arrived in Auvergne, no one spoke bloody French. They spoke their patois and we couldn’t understand a word, even though we were all French.

On fashion
Grandma Lapin: Oh, it was the coldest winter ever, 1940 in Auvergne. Between the war, the winter and all that snow, we thought everything was conspiring against us. And us women, we wore skirts and socks, so it was bitterly cold.
The Ninja Turtle: Didn’t you have time to pack all your clothes? Pants would have been more practical.
Grandpa Lapin: What? You think women were allowed to wear pants back then?
The Ninja Turtle: But surely by the 30s and 40s women were already wearing pants.
Grandpa Lapin: Coco Chanel, perhaps. But not the women in the countryside of France!

The first remark made when looking at their old wedding photos
Grandma Lapin: Oh look! That pear tree was still standing on the corner of the street then!

On kids
Grandma Lapin: Of course kids are a pain in the ass. But later on, you get grandchildren who come to visit you, so it’s worth it.
Grandpa Lapin: Oh yeah. We had four, and we don’t regret it. They become useful at some stage.

On raising kids on a budget
The Ninja Turtle: Kids are expensive.
Grandpa Lapin: No they’re not. We had a garden. We just left them outside to play.
Grandma Lapin: We didn’t use disposable diapers back then. We would wash and re-use.

On travelling with kids
The Ninja Turtle: How did you manage to travel so frequently with four children?
Grandpa Lapin: Who said we took all four with us? Look in the photos, they are usually only two.
Grandma Lapin: They played cards to determine who’d come on holiday with us.

On life in general
Grandpa Lapin: I’d rather die in good health than to suffer a life of misery and dependence.

Grandma Lapin: You don’t get to choose where or when you die. So, you better do everything you want to, because you may run out of time.

Grandpa Lapin: N’aie pas peur! (Don’t be afraid.)

Wise words, Grandpa and Grandma Rabbits. It’s cool to be able to speak so frankly about life and death with persons so old that the former is mostly nostalgia and gratitude, while the latter doesn’t really scare them anymore. As all four grandparents of the Ninja Turtle are no longer hanging around in this dimension, it was with the greatest pleasure that she profited from the company of  GodzillaPin’s.

So… go hang out with your grandparents. They’re often a lot cooler and funnier than we give them credit for.

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Arts and Culture

A Whole Lot of Nonsense

Language Showdown

Languages are difficult, as the couple can attest
And how the duo bicker over which language is the best
Too often one has to faire gaffe, in case one makes a gaffe
Or risk the confused fury of their better half

So here is GodzillaPin’s case, on why English is rot
Even abiding by the rules, one is often caught
In a snare of exceptions, suffusing the written word
And even worse when said aloud, for he’s often been misheard

The nightmare that is –ine, it never fails to thrill
The Ninja Turtle when he reads aloud the following spiel:
The car I drive has a strong engine, in it, I’m feeling fine
Oh how I love that speed machine, of which I do call “mine”

Of plurals so irregular, he never quite understood
Why bother writing up the rules, he’d ignore them if he could
He wore a sock on his left foot, but shoes on both his feet
Yet if it were a left boot, did that mean he wore beet?
In France he taught her to eat geese, how she does love a fat goose
To go along with smelly cheese – or does she just eat choose?
Thank God they have no mice at home, for good cheese loves a mouse
Just as Turtle loves her rice, she eats them rouse by rouse

And now the Ninja Turtle shall expound her view
Why French, for Anglophones like her, is simply pas facile
If I’m rather thirsty, je bois un verre d’eau
But bois is also where a lot of big trees grow
And when I’m late, je rate le train
Yet rate is spleen, you know
And pêche is what she eats, when she pêche un poisson
From an étang which truly étang*, it was her péché mignon

When the Turtle asks Lapin to get a small job done
Understanding what he means is only half the fun
It’s hard to tell if he means no, as when he says, c’est pas fait
Or if he’s done it perfectly, like when he says c’est parfait

So which is really harder, English or Français?
Both make no sense to newbies, so it’s really hard to say
Yet a small consensus, the couple, they have reached
If you think learning’s challenging, wait until you teach!

* OK, to be fair, this one is Breton, but it still counts.

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