Tag Archives: France

Of Hot Cross Buns and Croissants

An email arrived recently in my mailbox screaming “JAKIM bans hot cross buns in its bakeries”. In case you hadn’t guessed, JAKIM stands for JAbatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia – the Department of Ismalic Development in Malaysia. The headline I saw was therefore entirely plausible.

Digging a little, I found out that the article was old news. The story had done the rounds a few years previously, when it was said that in JAKIM bakeries, the crosses on hot cross buns had been turned into mere ropes. In other words, one of the lines on the cross (see photograph) had been removed, purportedly to avoid “offending” Muslims.

A Hot Cross Bun on a Plate

There was just a small problem: a hot cross bun with no cross is no longer a hot cross bun. This observation prompted an imaginative local blogger to christen the new bun with the name “tali-bun”, “tali” being the word for rope in Malay. Talibun is also deliciously close to Taliban, and we all know what that connotes.

If JAKIM has indeed banned hot cross buns, it will not have been the first time that this innocuous pastry has sailed into controversy. Which is mind-boggling if you think about it – how could a sweet, spiced ball of dough possibly cause such fuss? Yes a cross sits astride its top and yes, the bun is traditionally eaten at Easter, but the bread holds barely any religious connotation today.

And yet, the sign of the cross still has the power to terrify.

As early as 2003, Britain’s Daily Telegraph ran a story saying that a handful of local councils in Britain had banned the traditional hot cross buns at schools to avoid causing “offence” to “non-Christians”. When it emerged that the councils named by the Telegraph did not in fact have policies on hot cross buns, the paper had to apologise.

However, the debate over hot cross buns just wouldn’t go away. A few years later, it was the turn of a British hospital to cause a furore by not serving hot cross buns at Easter. This decision upset so many people that the hot cross buns were soon reinstated.

The Brits who spent time worrying about how the sight of crosses could “upset”, “offend” or otherwise imperil Muslims had obviously not heard the story of the croissant. The croissant is today associated with France but it did not originate there: the bread actually came from Austria, from Vienna to be precise. Anyone familiar with the extraordinary variety and quality of Austrian pastries will not find this revelation surprising.

Among the most memorable characteristics of the croissant is its shape: the bread looks like a crescent. Croissants in a WindowIndeed, the croissant may well have first been baked after the siege of Vienna in 1683, when bakers working in their cellars throughout the night heard burrowing underground – the sound of Ottoman soldiers invading – and alerted the authorities, thus saving Austria. As a reward, legend has it that the Viennese bakers were given the right to make a pastry in the shape of the Ottoman crescent.

I first read the above account in Stephen Clarke’s wonderfully entertaining book 1000 Years of Annoying the French. The author makes plain that there are other theories regarding the origin of the croissant, one of which is that it derives from an Austrian pastry known as the kipfel. There are records of the kipfel going back to the middle ages. In contrast, croissants do not appear in French literature until 1853, when a chemist named Anselme Payen wrote a book called Des Substances Alimentaires (Dietary Substances) – a title almost designed to put you off your food. In his book, Monsieur Payen discusses croissants under the section “fantasy or luxury bread”.

Regardless of who is right about the origins of the croissant, what is clear is that it was introduced from Austria into France. In its adopted country, the croissant soon became a breakfast favourite. Since then, millions of people – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and otherwise – have been gulping down crescents – the sign of Islam (and of the moon) – without even being aware of the fact. Ingesting a crescent every morning, with and without butter and almonds and chocolate, has not upset anyone, irrespective of religion, nor has it dented faith itself.

The benign nature of the croissant did not stop a group of rebels in Syria from issuing a fatwa, a Muslim religious edict, against the bread because its “crescent shape celebrates European victory over Muslims”. Evidently, there are Muslims who need protection from both the cross and the crescent. That is the absurd situation we could end up living in, if ideologically-driven political correctness is allowed to become the norm.

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. It was the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who came up with this perceptive saying. The people who are so busy pronouncing fatwas and other rules obviously cannot just allow a cigar to remain a cigar; otherwise, they would be out of work. Our only hope is for common sense to eventually triumph over ideology.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia

I’m Back, with Two More Books in the Making

I’ve taken a break from this blog for several months, not because I’ve had nothing to say, but because the journey of getting a first novel published has been more complex and frustrating than I expected. I wasn’t naïve about the process either; having talked to many people beforehand, I understood what it involved.

Alas, one has to grow a thick skin. I thought I had one (in comparison to many artists). Coming from business and finance, I was already used to knocks and bumps, critical feedback and tough conversations. This was different. When you’ve put your heart and soul into an endeavour, rejection feels totally different.

In March, when I was signed up by Thomas Colchie (see By Serendipity, I Have an Agent!), a literary agent who specialises in representing international writers, I had high hopes. Thomas approached a dozen publishers on my behalf, but unlike theoretical physics, everyone has a view, and this view is subjective. Publishers turned us down. The funny thing is, their feedback – to the extent that they gave any – was not consistent. For some, the book was not literary enough, for others, not commercial enough; a couple of publishers complained about the Malaysian-language dialogue, others about the pace being too meandering. My partner, bless her, was outraged by this last comment, because its meandering nature, like a winding river, was precisely what she loved most.

There is a Russian fable about an elephant who painted a landscape. Before sending it off to an exhibition, the elephant invited friends over to inspect his painting. The elephant was very excited: would his friends praise him or criticise him? What would they suggest as improvements? Each animal friend came, inspected, and pronounced. Their criticism was all valid, but by the time the elephant had incorporated their suggestions, his painting had turned into a fantasy savannah featuring snow, ice and the River Nile side-by-side – a far cry from what he had wanted to depict.

Should I re-write my novel, or should I stand firm? That was the decision I had to make.

My agent didn’t think I should re-write my work. He believed that the pace and richness suited the story and its setting – South-East Asia at the turn of the twentieth century. Instead, Thomas advised me to start writing the second book in my trilogy. This may sound strange – if you can’t find a publisher for one book, why write another? But Thomas, who is a highly experienced agent, believes that the second part of the story, being less complex, would be easier to sell. For the moment, I’m taking this advice. I will commence research in Malaysia next month.

Meanwhile, I’ve completed the non-fiction book I had already started – a short work about my experiences in France. Anyone who has read the blog-post about my battles with a skip (yes that’s right, a skip) will have gleaned that there is little love lost between France and me. France may be a superb holiday destination, but once I began spending more time there, I found the place a huge disappointment.

I did not want to write a French-bashing book though, as there are already plenty of those, nor did I want my manuscript to sound like a litany of complaints. Instead, I’ve tried to achieve a style of loving, albeit sceptical, humour – along the lines of the vastly popular A Year in Provence or the more recent 1,000 Years of Annoying the French. The latter may sound like a piece of French-bashing but isn’t. Really. Having said that, any French person reading it would need a sense of humour.

My own book will centre on some of the things my partner and I had to confront when she bought a house near Paris and I set about managing its renovation. This is not an account of builders and DIY but is about things you would not imagine finding in Western Europe in the twenty first century. Phenomena such as cash desks (I can already hear it, what?), gardeners whose quotes depend on what they think you can afford (not on the size of your job), a taxi driver who barks at three passengers to squeeze into the back because he’s charging his iPod and can’t be bothered to move the device. If you think we were just unfortunate, we weren’t – others have recounted similar experiences. In his book 1,000 Years of Annoying the French, Stephen Clarke even describes Parisian taxi drivers as being “allergic” to having passengers on the front seat. And I thought I knew France. Non, pas du tout!

To be clear, I’m not trying to change anyone: the French have every right to be as they are. In fact, it would be great for us all if the country stayed more or less as it is (and even better if it regressed by 50 years, as some politicians are unwittingly proposing). I could never live there though. But I hope that my account of how to deal with certain French peculiarities, or not (as the case may be), would be entertaining to anyone with an interest in France. It might even be thought-provoking for those planning to move to the land of foie-gras.

Now nearing the end of its third edit, my non-fiction manuscript is almost ready. I’ll be sending it soon to my agent for initial feedback and he’s already expecting it. Fingers crossed.


Filed under Writing

The Garage, the Maestro and the Wardrobes

I took a holiday from this blog during August. Post the near-completion of our French house project (see blog-post Oh Interfering Life!), I was exhausted. The time was perfect to bask in the sun. I then planned, after a short break, to continue searching for an agent before commencing work on another book – the second in my intended trilogy.

But when you spend time in country that is not your own, even the simplest interaction can contain the unexpected. My brain became full of impressions of France which begged to be recorded. Once I began writing them down, I found I couldn’t stop; other forces took over and stories leapt onto paper. France seemed truly able to surprise. Here I present: a simple story about wardrobes.

(Copyright: Selina Siak Chin Yoke).

These were no ordinary wardrobes, having been designed and made-to-measure by Jean-Paul, a Frenchman who has been supplying customised wardrobes for twenty five years. He visited my partner’s house not once but twice to take detailed measurements. Everything about Jean-Paul was elegant; even his moustache seemed to grey elegantly. ‘I want to be complètement sûr,’ Jean-Paul said while stroking the manicured tuft over his lips, ‘that I have the exact measurements.’ With such precision, my hopes were high for his wonder wardrobes.


Their components rumbled towards the house one Friday afternoon. The neighbours, already accustomed to trucks and vans and strange workers outside my partner’s house, peered out of their windows. What more could these foreigners be doing?

For an hour, the neighbours were entertained by the sight of Jean-Paul, slim and standing six-foot tall, side-by-side with a squat truck driver whose obligatory pot-belly must have got in the way. Little and Large battled with sixty pieces of doors and shelving. They panted and yelled and heaved until eventually, our not-inconsequential garage was three-quarters full.

‘But,’ I asked Jean-Paul, ‘will all the pieces stay there over the weekend?’

Mais oui,’ he replied, giving me a strange look.

‘Won’t you start putting up wardrobes today?’

Bah non!’ Jean-Paul exclaimed, steely blue eyes flashing. ‘The parts are heavy, vous voyez. Besides, there is a lot of work to do.’

Quite, I thought; why not start now? But no, Jean-Paul shook his head adamantly. His sole task that day, he insisted, was to receive the goods and make sure he had everything his fitters would need; assembly would wait till the next week.

The following Monday, Jean-Paul duly turned up with a man and a boy. The boy, who looked all of sixteen and was called Robert, turned out to be Jean-Paul’s son. Thankfully, the man was a seasoned worker; I could tell this from the lines on his face and the muscles etched into his arms. Jean-Paul introduced him as Georges. Georges, Jean-Paul announced, was un vrai artisan, the best in the business. Georges would put our wardrobes together, aided by the young Robert.  ‘I give you my best worker,’ Jean-Paul crowed before leaving. ‘Georges loves cupboards!’

Georges did indeed love cupboards, as I discovered two days later. After an enormous amount of drilling and knocking from the principal bedroom, spiced by the odd shout of merde!, Georges finally invited me to view his handiwork. His normally serious face broke into a grin. ‘It was very hard,’ he said. ‘Your floors are not level. I had to make many adjustments. But we succeed!’

Georges slid the wardrobe doors open with a flourish. ‘Regardez! Rollers on both the top and bottom,’ he told me proudly. Georges pulled what he called the ‘beautiful’ drawers in and out. He pointed eagerly to the hanging spaces he had made, all the while caressing the smoothly lacquered doors like a man in love.

By lunchtime the following day, a more sombre mood had settled. Georges shuffled into the study to see me. ‘You have to come,’ he said, ushering me towards the guest room. ‘We have a serious problem.’

I followed Georges. Shelves were up in the guest room, wardrobe doors already in place. What on earth could the matter be? Georges slowly pulled one of the doors all the way to one side, so that the cupboard it fronted was ostensibly closed. ‘Look what happens now.’ Georges released his hand. We watched as the burnished white door slid – and continued sliding until the cupboard was half-open. ‘Your floors are too uneven,’ Georges muttered. ‘I managed a trick in the main bedroom, but here, non! The doors won’t stay shut. I’ve tried everything. Incroyable!’

‘But…how can this be?’ I wondered aloud. ‘Jean-Paul himself came twice to take measurements. And now we have cupboards…THAT CANNOT STAY CLOSED??’ I looked at Georges, who merely gave an almighty Gallic shrug of both shoulders. But I saw that his brown eyes were troubled.

I stared at the wonder doors. When I pushed one for myself, it felt as if we had doors on skates. I knew where the problem lay: the rollers Georges had installed were simply too good. ‘Georges, you must give us shittier rollers,’ I said, and his eyes nearly popped out from behind metallic glasses.

Non non Madame,’ he shouted, ‘I have a solution! Des amortisseurs!’

The decibel level in the room rose as Georges described the shock absorbers which could be fitted to the end of every door. Each would apparently have its own magnet, and it was obvious Georges could hardly wait. ‘You just give a gentle push,’ he explained, tenderly pushing a door shut to demonstrate, ‘et voilà! This solution is le top!’

Georges was so pre-occupied by the phenomenon of doors gliding on their own that he overlooked an even larger problem: four of the doors that had been delivered were of the wrong type. He didn’t spot the mistake, and neither did I. It took my partner’s fresh eyes to point out the error. ‘How are they going to stick the glass onto the fronts?’ she asked innocently.

I looked down at Jean-Paul’s plan, up at the glassless doors in front of us, and back down at my paper again. Yup, there was no doubt: we had the wrong bloody doors. So much for Jean-Paul’s process of stock-checking; shouldn’t he have picked that up?

There was nothing else to do but to call in yet another Frenchman: the door maker himself. France remains a country of artisans, which by and large is a good thing, so Jean-Paul knew Pierre – the man who had made our doors – personally. Pierre rolled up, coiffed and perfumed and dressed in hip black. He was a short man adorned with the paunch of the well-fed. In one hand he carried a note-pad. ‘Enchanté Madame,’ he said, offering me his free hand.

As Pierre toured the rooms, Georges and Robert tagged behind. An animated discussion ensued which sounded as if the men were coming to blows. It was like one of the many French radio talk-shows which seem to work on the principle that whoever shouts the loudest gets heard. Listening to them, you would have thought you were at l’Assemblée Nationale (the French parliament) during a contentious debate on a matter of national importance. I tiptoed carefully into the guest room, and entered just in time to see Georges pointing a triumphant finger, ‘There! Vous voyez! She won’t stay closed!’

Pierre frowned. You could almost see the numbers carved all over his smooth forehead. He was going to have to replace the wrong doors and give us the vaunted shock absorbers – le top, as Georges had described – for free. This project would be costly. But the door maker rose to the occasion.

Madame, I will make them for you as soon as possible, in any event before the holiday season.’ Pierre was referring to August, the month when France shuts down. It was then the third week of July. We were running out of time.


September 8, 2013 Our glass-fronted doors were finally delivered on August 30 and were stored in the garage. Georges was meant to fit them on September 2, but he was felled by a trapped nerve in his back. Meanwhile the correct doors lie on their sides in our garage, but the wrong doors remain where they were at the end of July and still don’t shut.

With so much real-life drama, how could I possibly write about anything else?

(NOTE: the above story is based on true facts but all names have been changed).


Filed under Cultural Identity, Writing

Oh Interfering Life!

William Golding, the renowned British novelist, poet, Booker Prize winner and Nobel laureate, once wrote:

“Novelists do not write as birds sing, by the push of nature. It is part of the job that there should be much routine and some daily stuff on the level of carpentry.”

I’m learning this the hard way, having come through a period when routine all but vanished in my life. Instead of sitting at a desk as soon as I woke, I found myself fielding calls, traipsing to shops, and generally dealing with crises.

The reason? My partner bought a house in France a few months ago and I set about managing its renovation remotely, little appreciating what a mammoth task this would be in the land of foie gras and insane bureaucracy. (The wonderful picture below is taken from another blog, that of an American who has lived in France for many years, Anne Stark Ditmeyer.) pretavoyager-francebureaucracy

Let us take as an example the hiring of skips. Only in France could the humble skip, that unadorned metal crate into which junk is placed, tell a story. In practical countries like the UK, you don’t need permission to have a skip unless you wish to place it on a public road, or in a spot which obstructs someone else’s path.

Which makes sense, right? Not in France.

This straight-forward Anglo-Saxon approach would be too simple for a people who revel in creating complexity where none should exist. To have a skip parked on your private driveway – where it inconveniences no one but you – you need the local mayor’s permission. Not only that, but you have to notify him or her in writing via a letter which you must sign. In that same missive, you are expected to give precise details of why you need a skip, which company will provide it, as well as the dates and hours it will remain on your driveway. Such detail obviously satisfies the Gallic obsession with minutiae. Moreover, before permission for a skip can be granted, the local policeman must question you – ostensibly so that he can verbally clarify what you have already told him in your long letter of explanation. I can only assume that the policeman is undertaking due diligence at the same time, assessing whether or not you are a person who could be trusted with a skip. After the policeman talks to you, he issues an arrêté, a decree which announces to the world exactly when you will be blocking your own garage! This worthy paper is autographed by no less a personage than the local mayor.

Thus, what should be a simple commercial transaction between two parties, namely you and the skip operator, turns into a convoluted chain involving five and more people: skip operator, local policeman, every worker in the mayor’s office, the mayor himself and you, the poor person looking for a skip. Yet, such administrative zeal brings no benefit to anyone. Decrees flutter in the French wind, desperately trying to attract the attention of the passers-by who willfully ignore them.

Now imagine the same complications extending to every aspect of a house renovation and you will understand why my routine was decimated, despite having an excellent project manager on-site. The unexpected invariably happened, which led to new problems, which resulted in yet more decisions…and so the loop went. During the days, I was interrupted whenever I tried to work, and during the nights, I couldn’t dream – except about tiles and wood and the bloody-minded French. The result was that I no longer rose with fully-formed sentences of fiction, but began waking up having conversations in my head with the many people I wanted to shout at.

Not that I wrote nothing. In the brief moments I could snatch, I completed a short story that had been on the back burner, wrote the first draft of a second, and finished two entirely new pieces of flash fiction. One of these was actually long-listed in The National Flash Fiction Day 2013 Micro Fiction competition, the first flash fiction competition I ever entered. But I couldn’t write anything very long.

Thankfully, my period of turbulence is about to end. I will soon have a regulated life back, a life in which I know when I will rise, when I will eat, when I will trade and when I will write. At that point I shall finally breathe. I can then collate the many tales I’ve picked up, a whole new genre I had never planned. The stories are sure to feature decreed skips and broken bathtubs and men called Jean-Marie. I can hardly wait.


Filed under Writing