Tag Archives: French Diplomatic Corps


Posted: April 3, 2019

When I sat down to write this post the focus was going to be about the Tortierre recipe that my Odie always made and the Tortierre recipe that Jims Nana did and I was going to compare the two. Well that may appear at some point in the future and it is a nice comparison of those two meat pies but in starting to write it, what became clear is that I really wanted to get down some thoughts on the life my Odie had. It was tough and colourful and spaned a time in history and a part of the world that saw a lot of change.

For those of you who have read all my posts, you will know that I was only marginally better as a grandson as I was as a son. But with that said my Odie did mean a lot to me and I did spend more time with her before she passed a few years ago.

Before I even get into this story I should comment on the title of this piece. For those who do not read French, Poissons de Terre Doux means Sweet Land Fish in English, and for those who do read French, yes that says poisons de terre doux, which is a pretty strange combination of words but stick with me here and it will all be explained in this piece.

So where do I start – well much of how my fathers family evolved flowed from the first world war and was then exaggerated by the second world war.

My Odie was born in 1899 and had two boys, and one daughter, my dad being born in 1919. She was from a little village in Brittany as was the man (my grandfather) she would eventually marry was also from there.

So at the beginning of the first world war my grandad went off to war, survived and came back. But having seen more of the world than just his village decided to not be a fisherman like his father, as he had seen how difficult and at times dangerous a life it could be.  He chose instead to be a chocolatier.  After trying to get an apprenticeship in Rennes and then Brussels he ended up in Paris working for a master chocolatier who was a bit of an old-world version of that trade. Among the other components of the trade he learned the art of making chocolate molds and distinguished himself from the other apprentices in this aspect. When he returned to his little port town to set up shop, it was a fortuitous time as his father who was retiring from fishing was able to let him use the front of his building which his parents  had used as a fish store. It was a very rough space and of course, smelled of fish.

When he (my great grandfather) would come home with the days catch, it was my great grandmother who would then sell the fish that day in the store while he cleaned up the boat and geared up for the following day. By selling in the store they always got a better price than selling at the dock and he was able to retire, unlike most fisherman who would essentially fish till they died.

So the way my Odie tells it, she and my grandad cleaned up the old fish store and geared up to open the chocolate shop. But there was a problem. The village was very controlled by the few merchants in the town and there was a law that this space could only be used as a fish store. The town had very few stores and had laws that protected the boulangerie from having competition, the patisserie, the fresh grocer, etc. So while the only chocolate that was being sold was a very small selection in a small store that was a dry goods and hardware store that also sold sweaters and boots, this store (my great grandparents store) could only be used to sell fish.

Now when Odie tells the story she gets very worked up at this point talking about her husband, buckling down and working for over a month on doing new chocolate molds – all  in the shape of various local fish. Some were very small at less than 10 cm (4 inches) but many more like 30 to 40 cm (16-20 inches) and a few that were over a meter in length (40 inches). I wont go into the details that Odie would tell about his exact designs with fish scales and other details but she was very proud of what he produced.

While he was working on this Odie and some friends were working away on cleaning up the store and trying to get rid of the fishy smell. My grandmother was  pregnant with her third child at the time. She would get quite graphic in her details of the fish smell often overwhelming her and the sickness that would ensue. I will spare you those details. During this time my great grandfather the retired fisherman was talking to locals to get them onside with the idea of the chocolate shop. During this time he was also making the new sign for the business.

When they opened as Poissons de Terre Doux, there was very little opposition, but lots of snickers regarding the name.

The business did well and my father, his brother, and sister had a very good life growing up there. This happy story might end there but World War II intervened.

When we look back at history it is easy to identify the Third Reich as being “bad” and all other countries they took over as being “good”.  The reality is that in several countries – Holland, France, and others – there were a number of people who, tired of war from less than a generation before, wanted peace – at almost all costs, and while not welcoming the German occupation, looked at it as the lesser evil.  Apparently my uncle who was a few years older than my dad was in that group and was part of the French administration controlled by the Germans and as he was an early supporter became quite senior in that puppet regime.  My grandparents and my aunt and my dad never spoke to him again. This was because they were so ashamed of his decision but also because after a few years and the liberation of France he died. Its not clear if he died at the hands of the Germans or the Allies or the French Resistance.  If he had come back to the village in Brittany he had grown up in he might have died at the hands of his relatives!

My father was too young to be involved in the war but wanting to help, worked most of the time with his mom at the chocolate shop while his dad and sister did some work in the shop but both also spent their time in minor roles in the French Resistance. It was a classic tragedy of siblings or children and parents on different sides of political conflict.

At the end of the war, my father was recommended by several respected local people in his town for a position in the government and almost instantly was swept up in the French Diplomatic Service in a very junior administrative role. The succession of governments, ideas and the various swings in perspective meant that many senior people were dismissed based on their history and very junior people like my father rose through the ranks not by merit but by not being affiliated with any group or party.  And that is how my father found himself in his 30’s in a middle ranking position with the French Embassy in Ottawa, Canada in the early 1950’s and eventually met a nice French Canadian girl – my mom.

So I have been off on this bit of historical drama but need to bring you back to the story of the chocolate shop. In the 1950s my grandfather, grandmother and my aunt ran the shop until my aunt died of cancer and then a few years later my grandfather passed away as well. My Odie moved back into the flat above the store and rented the storefront to a company selling local handicrafts and antiques to tourists.

For years I have been trying to track down a photograph of the store, but a few years ago, a good friend saw some chocolate molds and photographed them for me. They had been purchased for props for the film “Chocolate” set a long distance away from Brittany but the molds bore the stamp of my grandfather. I have been able to get a few photos of those molds, but these are all the medium-sized ones up to about 30 cm (12 inches) – I have never seen any of the really large ones. I can’t imagine what a one-meter (over a yard)  chocolate fish would be like!


19cm chocolate fish mold 1





Posted: December 3, 2015

The last post was all about Risotto and it was also a story about how much I had been enjoying my life with Marc and Lotte and their kids in the summer of 1993. But as August progressed a plan was hatched for the family to go on a one week or ten-day trip with the boat. They had never gone cruising for more than a night or two but both Marc and Lotte and the two older ones had become pretty competent at both navigation and at maneuvering this large boat. There is little question that the introduction of bow thrusters on recreational boats meant that the art of docking something of that size moved more into the science or learned skill category. With that said, it still takes experience and some conviction to handle it well and that was the stage all four of them but Lotte and Marc especially had made it to.

So in mid-August, they were heading off for ten days cruising up the Dutch coast, German coast and over to the English coast before coming back to Harlingen.  I was to make up a lot of prepared food and they agreed to pay me half my usual wage and I would go somewhere on holiday too!

I had not seen my grandmother in Rennes France for some years and had not even kept up with her by correspondence but decided that now that I had some dollars ahead I would take the train and go to see her.

It was a shocking ten days for me. When I arrived I found her in good health but quite upset for many reasons. She had not heard from me nor had my parents heard from me for several months and assumed that I was still working for the cruise line that had fired me. Several calls and faxes to the ship and to the cruise line had gone unanswered until it was learned that I was no longer employed there.

My grandmother was the one to tell me that my parents had both died in a car accident at about the same time I was sacked – almost nine months earlier. They had been on a slippery road with the first big snowfall north of Ottawa where they had rented a ski cabin for the winter and were setting it up.  It highlighted that I had not checked in at any point during that time – not at Christmas or my parents or grandmothers birthday or even to let them know where I was.

My father’s coworkers and some of my parent’s friends and their lawyer had dealt with everything including the sale of the house, the cremation … everything.

As a woman in her eighties, my grandmother or Odie, as I called her, (her real name was Odile), had lived as a child through the first war, then as a young mother through the depression and into the second war. She had buried her husband and daughter from illness in the 1950’s and now one of her two sons. Her other son she refused to see as he had made some bad decisions during the second war. Like me, she felt like an orphan. Unlike me, however, she had always been disciplined and hardworking and supportive.

For the first time Odie told me how bad a child I had been and the sacrifices my parents had made for me. As part of the French Diplomatic corps, my father had many opportunities to move to a higher position by moving to other postings but stayed in Ottawa to try to have a nice life for me to grow up. He became a senior, but not very senior, part of the French Embassy in Ottawa, and would train incoming roles junior to his to be his senior but he like his life with my mother and me in Ottawa. By the time high school was over for me most of his opportunities were behind him and it must have been frustrating for him and my mom to watch me not focus on my future. My cavalier attitude and irresponsible lifestyle after quitting university were tolerated at first but then became tiresome for my parents and eventually an open disappointment.  With no siblings, I was their focus, pride and joy and then disappointment. Their two urns sat on a shelf in Odie’s living room.

I won’t share how bad my visit with my Odie was, but after the second day, I left on a train from Rennes to Paris and a flight to Canada. As the child of a foreign diplomat from France, with a mother from Canada and being born in Canada I carried both a French (EU) passport as well as a Canadian passport, but my Canadian one had expired so I traveled on the French one.

In Ottawa, I went to see my fathers office both to speak to them about any outstanding issues and to have them re-apply for my Canadian passport for me and to send it to my grandmother. My fathers assistant was pretty upset to see me. Apparently, my parents fought all the time about what to do about me. She had a few mementos from his office, one of which was a postcard he prized,  I had once sent them from Turkey. The look on her face when looking at me was so disturbing. This was the second person in a week who needed to make sure I knew that I had not deserved the love and support they had for me.

My next stop was at a lawyers office who was a personal friend of my parents and who had handled my parents will. Apparently, between my mother’s parents who were now passed and my fathers’ mother (Odie), they had fed some of their income each year to help their parents and after the sale of their house in a real estate downturn, there was very little left. My mothers work had been for a not for profit that paid very little as well. Given what a disappointment I now knew I had been to them I was embarrassed even having the conversation with the lawyer about getting an inheritance.

The life insurance company documents the lawyer had me sign and would submit but I would have to set up an account with a Canadian bank with operations in Europe to have the insurance annuity they had set up for me paid into each month. It would be $763.54 Canadian each month until the earlier of the age of 90 or my death.

I was at day five of my ten-day “holiday” from my work with Marc and Lotte and decided to look up some old friends to try to reconnect with someone. I really had not been back to Canada much since quitting university about eighteen years before. Most were on summer holiday or had left Ottawa, so I headed off to Toronto where many had ended up. An old girlfriend hung up on me and my call to Jim’s place and the response of his eight-year-old daughter was fairly typical of a busy family who didn’t know who I was. She told me her mom was outside packing to go to the cottage, her dad was at work and asked if I was “the crazy Django my dad went to high school with”.  I assured her I was that very Django and told her to just wish her mom and dad well.

So I had been a bad son, an absent friend and everyone I knew in Canada had moved on. I had felt pretty good about how my life had been going with Marc, Lotte, and their family but knew that even that little achievement would soon end as the summer was coming to a close.

As I sat on the plane back to Europe I  did not really know what I would do but just felt that whatever it would be I would have to create as I had burned out any real links to my past. The guilt I was feeling about my parents was overwhelming but my grandmother and my fathers assistant had only seen it from one perspective.

My parents were pretty absent in my life. As an only child, you would think they were an ever-present part but my father was very focused on his work and because my mother worked for an NGO  that was often at odds with the French Government they never talked about his work or hers so there was a big gap in their relationship. I was treated very much just as a third adult in the house and on the rare occasions we would eat together my mom couldn’t tell me what she was up to, nor could my dad and they would rarely ask me about school or my interests as it would highlight how strange their own relationship was. The only things they seemed to share were skiing, occasional cooking, and house stuff, a few trips,  and a lot of sex. This pair were like rabbits. They couldn’t talk together about work but boy they made up for it sexually. Not my favourite memories, especially when I would have friends over for a sleepover in high school.

Even my name had been a result of their strained work conflict. My father, seen to be an up and coming diplomate did not want me to have his surname as the protocol at the time for diplomats (who were much more senior than he was, but that he aspired to be) was to name their children their wife’s surname to protect them somewhat from kidnapping. So that is how I came to have the last name Bisous, my moms’ last name. Now Bisous is a pretty “out-there” name and was one that my mother was also happy for me to have because I was the last in the line and she liked the idea of keeping the name alive. It was a name that originated with her grandfather, Henri Bissonette, who on the ship from France to New France decided somewhere on that crossing that his nickname should be his formal name. So he stepped onto the ship in France as Henri Bissonette and off the ship in what would later become Canada as Henri Bisous. The snickers that it would attract all the way through my school life my mother assured me were nothing compared to the experience she and her three sisters endured and that it was a fine name. For any of you who do not speak French,  Bisous means “little kisses” and the act of greeting a friend with alternating little kisses on the cheek also falls under this term.

My parents also were unanimous apparently on my other names. Django was my middle name, as they were both fans of the duo Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, but Django in particular. Giving that as a second name was also a safe, personal element to my identity as they gave me what they felt was a fine first name – Pascal. Oh My God – Pascal! I know that my buddy Jim was named after James Dean and jokes that he could have as easily been named Fabian or Elvis. I think those would be in the same category as Pascal. My parents and Odie still called me Pascal but from about grade four on I was Django to everyone else. Well, my parents wouldn’t be calling me Pascal anymore. It was a sad thing.

Maybe it was partially having a unique, almost cartoon name that made me a class clown or so self-focused- I don’t know. Other kids had multiples of their name in every class and were usually called by their last name. In one year there were seven Jims in a class of less than thirty. Maybe that’s how my great-grandfather ended up being called Bisous – too many Bissonnette’s?

As the flight back to Europe drew on I kept wondering how much of my strange childhood had been my fault and how much was my parents doing. When I looked at the warmth of Marc and Lotte with their four kids it was nothing like my life growing up.  But when I reflected on most of my friend’s relationships with their parents when we were growing up it wasn’t all that close either. But to put it in perspective none of my school friends experienced two parents forgetting to get a tree for Christmas and going out on Christmas day to find one. The next year my mother bought an artificial one and it sat decorated in the basement for every year thereafter.

I was hopeful  Odie I could still have a relationship with if I worked at it. It was a  long overnight flight and I had the opportunity to write her a letter telling her about what I had done in Canada and that I would stay in touch once I had a more permanent place to live.

So for those of you who thought these posts were going to be all happy thoughts … sorry, I let you down too. But as I am writing this many years later I can tell you it does get better. Don’t give up on me.