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Brush up on French culture while social distancing

Enforced time at home can offer a fabulous opportunity to catch up with all those things you have always wanted to do but never quite managed to make time for.

Particularly when living in France, getting to grips with the culture and the language can often drop off the radar when the priorities are making a living, getting a carte vitale and going to a fête at the village hall.

So, in a time of coronavirus, catching up on some feelgood French movies (as opposed to anything deep and meaningful) is an ideal way to relax while absorbing a bit more vocab – and if your French could use polishing, the best way to watch them is in the original French with French
subtitles. Here are three personal feel-good favourites:

Intouchables (2011) by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano is about a rich quadriplegic who hires a funky black guy
(Omar Sy, right) from the wrong side of the tracks as his personal assistant.

Based on a true story, it is in turn hysterical and heartwarmingly weepy. Watch out for the commonly-used “pas de bras, pas de chocolat” phrase, which comes from a joke about absurd parental rules.

“Maman, je peux avoir du chocolat?”

“Il y en a dans le placard, va donc te servir.”

“Mais maman, je peux pas, tu sais bien que je n’ai pas de bras...”

“Pas de bras, pas de chocolat!”

Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis (2008) by Dany Boon is France’s highest-grossing film at the box office ever, and if you haven’t already seen it, you are lucky, as you have a treat in store.

Philippe manages a post office in the south of France, but is nagged by his wife into asking for a promotion to a larger branch. This fails in spectacular fashion, and as a result Philippe is sent to manage a post office in the far north.

My favourite bit is when he is stopped by traffic police for going too slowly on the motorway to his new posting. Having heard his explanation, the police are completely sympathetic, and advise him to drive even more slowly. You’ll find teens watching it on a loop.

Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001) is writer-director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s love letter to a Paris that doesn’t exist, and never has. But wouldn’t we love Paris to look like this? Wouldn’t we love it to be peopled with these loveable, whimsical characters?

The plot has amusing parallels with Cold Comfort Farm: a lonely, shy waitress decides to help the people around her find happiness, and of course ends up finding love herself. One to enjoy with all the family.

When it comes to books, French literature can be daunting, and among today’s Parisian literati, wit is not as highly rated as intellect. Many classic novels are not only lengthy but full of such long sentences that you’re out of breath before the full stop.

But there are some good reads which are not too difficult for intermediate French speakers, and authors such as Colette and Marcel Pagnol open doors to gentler, more beautiful times. Both wrote semi-autobiographical novels about their countryside childhoods, conjuring up hazy images of summer days and the scent of wild herbs in the air.

Pagnol’s Le Château de ma Mère (1957) evokes a France many people still yearn for, even if it never really existed. The companion book, La Gloire de mon Père, is equally atmospheric.

My favourite works by Colette are Chéri and La Fin de Chéri but if you’re after something sweet and dreamy, her Claudine novels hit the spot.

When it comes to amusing children, cooking often does the trick and even toddlers can make apéro snacks from ready-made flaky pastry (pâte feuilletée) you can buy in supermarkets, rolled up like British pancakes.

Unroll the pastry on the greaseproof paper, and let your youthful kitchen assistant use biscuit cutters to cut it into shapes. Lift out the left-over
pastry and let your assistant brush the snacks with beaten egg, sprinkle them with grated cheese such as parmesan. Bake at 250C for 10 minutes.

To ring the changes, flavour the egg with garlic, pesto, chilli sauce, or whatever else takes your fancy.

Also, don’t forget apéro kebabs, which can be as healthy or as sinful as you choose, depending on the ingredients – after a day of home-schooling your beloved offspring, you will definitely need apéro snacks.

Prepare cherry tomatoes, olives, pickled onions, gherkins, cubes of cucumber, raw mushroom, peppers and various types of cheese, and let the kids thread them on to cocktail sticks or wooden kebab skewers.

Older children will love making oreillettes, which literally means little pillows (see recipe, below). These are a French classic from Provence, traditionally prepared for Mardi Gras, which you’ll often find being sold by PTA groups to raise funds. They are cheap and great fun to make.

For six people

500g plain flour
Half a packet of baking powder
2 soup spoons of sugar
4 medium eggs
The zest and juice of a lemon
125g of melted butter
Pinch of salt
To flavour, either a soup spoon of orange flower water or of pastis

1: In a bowl, mix the plain flour, baking powder, sugar, eggs, zest and juice of a lemon, melted butter, salt, and either orange flower water or pastis.
2: Once this has been worked into a ball, leave to rest for 10 minutes an then roll out into a thin sheet.
3: Cut into rectangles or diamond shapes, which an adult should then deep fry. Oreillettes only take a few minutes on either side to be cooked.
4: Drain them on kitchen paper, sprinkle with icing sugar and eat immediately.

They can also be eaten cold – but I think they’re best fresh out of the fryer.

After all that – oreillettes are not diet food – you might feel the need to work off a few calories and what better than a French exercise DVD?

Amazon is bursting with French language DVDs, to exercise mind and body simultaneously, so it is easy to find something that might suit a person wanting to burn off three films, four novels, a plate of cheesy pastries, and a dozen deep-fried pillows.

Canadian fitness trainer Karine Larose is very popular in France and her website offers every kind of fitness DVD you can imagine.

From having a concrete stomach to a youthful butt, Karine claims she can do it all. For families, she even has a special DVD for parents and children to do together, Allez Hop On Bouge. Send your suggestions of additions to this list to

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