Droit de passage

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There is a law in France that stipulates that private property owners must guarantee a ‘droit de passage’ – right of way – to the public who wish to access the waterfront bordering their property. ‘La loi littoral’ states that a band of 3.25 meters must be accessible along the shore to allow people to walk along the water’s edge.

The law is not always enforced, but it seems that in our corner of Lake Geneva, there has been a recent movement to ensure access. So it is that we set out on Sunday on one of the sacred rituals of French life – la promenade du dimanche. A walk along the lake to discover if what we had heard was true.

Our village, like most small towns in France, publishes a quarterly newsletter. It always starts with a short editorial from Madame la Maire, usually a lecture on how we all need to be better citizens (less wasteful, more law-abiding). This pontificating annoys me but presumably not the French: it seems they are like school children who expect to be told off by the teacher.

The recent edition contained a short mention that it was now possible to walk along the lake all the way from our village to the scenic town of Nernier. Une belle balade, it said, to be enjoyed by one and all.

As soon as I read this, off I went to look for the path; predictably, I could find no trace of it. This generally happens any time I try to explore new territory in France. Husband is much better at finding his way so this time we went together. We both enjoy the outdoors and had set ourselves the goal of doing more fun things together.

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Down we went to the port des pêcheurs on Sunday morning and still found no trace of where to begin our walk. There is a wall with a few metal steps leading up to a concrete dock area but this is part of (presumably) the fisherman’s yard. There is no sign indicating anything. We peered around but seeing no one, did not dare to enter. So we went around the property to a small path that seemed to lead in our direction. This soon ended in a field which led us up and away from the lake. The only way to get back to the waterfront was to cut through a rather muddy farm field, which we did, taking large pieces of the field with us as souvenirs stuck to our shoes. We ended up back by the lake and began walking along the shore. This was so overgrown as to be barely passable in spots. We ducked to avoid branches and stepped over wet stones, trying not to slip. Eventually a path of sorts emerged, with small signs for hikers.

Along the way we observed many old properties that were either abandoned, windows boarded up and no signs of life, or simply shuttered for the season. Some of these were magnificent old houses fallen to ruin; others more recent with high fences and more money than taste put into creating Disney-like landscaping.

The lake was calm and beautiful in the soft light of early spring. Swans and ducks circled peacefully. There were no boats or signs of human activity on the water, although we did pass several other people out walking.

I wondered how this happened? High waters? Natural erosion?

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All along the waterfront we observed a strange kind of algae, which had dried to a sort of white vermicelli. It was everywhere.

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One couple we spoke to said that the reason you had to start from the fishing port in our village is that the private property around the Château is closed off to the public. Hmm. A rule for the plebs and another for the nobility? I think I’ll suggest that to Madame la Maire as a subject for her next editorial.

Still, it was a beautiful walk and fun to discover so much of the unseen side of the lake.

Do you have a favourite Sunday stroll?

 

Raconter des salades

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Lies, lies, lies. Half truths, tall tales and outright fibs. Every time you turn around these days it seems a new one is revealed, from Russian hijinks to politicians (not) paying their taxes.

The French language is filled with colourful expressions and ‘raconter des salades’ is a delightful example. Why one would tell salad tales to spin a yarn is not immediately obvious. Yet by gathering different ingredients and marinating them in a sauce, seasoning them with half-truths and jokes and then serving them up as fresh and healthy…it begins to make sense.

When you think about the meaning of the word ‘salade’ it becomes even clearer. Whereas in English a salad is a dish, in French it is also a lettuce or any of the various leaves that compose such dishes. What duplicity!

‘Salade’ the leaves are many indeed. Growing up in Canada in the ice age of the 1960s, iceberg was the only lettuce we knew. Along came the 70s and we discovered romaine (Hail, Caesar!) and in the 80s the advent of the spinach salad. (Raw spinach? In a salad!?!)

Arriving in France I was amazed by the number and varieties of lettuce and other leaves that people ate raw or dressed with different types of vinaigrette. From mesclun to watercress, frisée to lola rossa…the sheer variety was extraordinary. This image gives you an idea. (How did I never realize that dandelions are literally dents-de-lion, lion’s teeth?)raconter-une-salade

Perhaps most amazingly, there were salads served in restaurants that contained few or no leaves at all: salade de crudités with a variety of raw veg; salade Niçoise, with green beans, potatoes and tuna; salade Grecque with its chunks of feta, tomato and olives. When we moved to Lyon I discovered the salade Lyonnaise with its lovely runny egg and smoky lardons. The frisée lettuce served with this one can make it challenging to consume politely, without splattering vinaigrette or wending one’s knife.

I love salads, and not just because they are good for you. There are lemony carottes rapées (that’s grated, not raped because, let’s face it, if anyone is going to do the raping it is the carrot) and betterave (Better ‘ave ‘em? Beets me!) with lovely mâche and walnuts. As I shared in a previous post, the secret is in la sauce vinaigrette.

Pardon my use of so many silly puns, but is that not in keeping with the telling of salads?

What’s your favourite kind of salad?

Sa langue dans sa poche

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I’ve never been known for being tongue tied.

When I was a little kid, I talked a blue streak. Family lore has it that my younger brother was assumed to be very quiet because I did all the talking for him: “That’s my brother. His name is David. He doesn’t talk very much.”

The first toy I remember getting for Christmas was a doll called Chatty Cathy. My parents probably hoped for a little relief. You pulled a string in her back and she would say things. After a little while the string broke but I kept chatting.

Things changed when I grew up. Shyness came upon me with the awareness of how I sounded to others, of how little I really knew about so many subjects, and how unpleasant it was to be around a loud mouth know-it-all. Either that or I had already used up all my words. Or at least the nice ones. Cursing became my new friend and I learned to do it with flair. Bloody fucking hell. Holy fuckoly. Fuck a duck.

When I first learned French, I was shy about speaking the language. Afraid of looking foolish, of not being understood or of saying something funny or frankly stupid. But once I came to France, there was no room for being timid. It was speak up or be ignored. So I spoke French and was misunderstood, corrected and laughed at. But I learned.

I learned that French is a language of subtlety and suggestion, that there are many indirect ways around things that we English speakers (or at least, we Chatty Cathy’s) would probably barge right into, feet first. I learned that it is not just what you say, but how you say it.

I also learned to swear with the best of them: merde, putain, fait chier.

I still feel shy at times. Whether with family, friends or professional associates I’m rarely the most talkative person in the room. Sometimes I don’t even answer the phone. But I love a good conversation and cannot resist an argument. And when I have something to say, I cannot remain silent.

The French expression ‘ne pas avoir sa langue dans sa poche’ means to be outspoken, to say what you think.

That’s me in the photo, at a team event a few years ago. With my tongue where I usually keep it.

How about you? Do you speak up or hold your peace – and in which language?

Penelope gate

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She is someone I can relate to. An English speaker, about my age, married to a Frenchman. Which makes the uproar currently sweeping our nation, the so-called ‘Penelope gate’, all the more disturbing.

I know almost nothing about Penelope Fillon, née Clarke, except that she is said to be from Wales and has been married to François Fillon, former Prime Minister (under Sarkozy) and the Republican candidate for the upcoming French presidential election in May.

When I learned that Fillon’s wife was Welsh, he immediately went up in my esteem. That she was shy and stayed out of the limelight made her seem rather sympathetic; her role as a stay-at-home mother of five perhaps less so. Often referred to by the media as Catholic and ‘deeply conservative’, Fillon has been accused of wanting to revoke abortion rights (something he has publicly refuted, stating that his personal convictions and the rights of women in this country are two separate matters).

It came to light last week that Penelope had received large sums of money as her husband’s ‘parliamentary assistant’ and later as a contributor to a political review. The left-leaning Canard Enchainé newspaper revealed the amounts, up to 900 K euros, over a 10-year period and suggested that it was in the guise of an ‘emploi fictif’, i.e. that she was paid to do nothing.

If there is one thing that French voters are sensitive to, it is the suggestion that someone has been paid for nothing. In an age of high unemployment, where so many people scrape to get by, the idea of our leaders taking advantage of the system to funnel money into their own households is unpalatable to say the least.

The unfortunate affair is now in the hands of the courts. In theory, there was nothing illegal in an elected official hiring members of his own family to do things like research his speeches, organize his schedule and do whatever else an assistant would do – giving birth to some interesting memes.

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It will be hard to prove that Penelope did not earn the salary she received, which was fully declared for tax purposes. But the mere suggestion of such corruption has tarnished Fillon’s image in the eyes of a good part of the voting public – perhaps irrevocably.

François Fillon has taken the moral high ground in his campaign, declaring that if he is under any kind of investigation, he will not run. He has also pointed the finger at his opponents on the left, accusing them of the worst sort of mud-slinging, even a ‘coup d’état’.

It’s a political scandal with a potentially disastrous fall-out. The conservative votes that would normally have gone to Fillon, should he not be a viable candidate, will now be split between the left and the extreme right.

Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party has been left in ruins. It began with the defection of Emmanuel Macron, his former economy minister, who is leading his own presidential run as a free ‘centrist’ candidate. The Socialists’ official candidate, Benoît Hamon, is a ‘frondeur’ – a rebel of sorts – seen by some as a utopian. On the far right, rubbing her hands together like Wile E. Coyote, is Marine Le Pen.

While Fillon waits for the courts to decide whether or not to open an inquiry, the pack of hyenas who call themselves journalists in this country have already torn him apart and declared him an unfit candidate. ‘Presumed innocent’ hangs vaguely in the air while they speculate over campaign tactics and a potential plan B for the right.

In the meantime, I feel for Penelope. It can’t be easy to be a shy person who is suddenly cast into the worst kind of public scrutiny. I’ve never heard her speak on camera, so I don’t know how she handles herself in French. The suspense won’t last long – the investigative news magazine Envoyé Spécial is said to have an ‘incriminating’ interview with her which will air tonight.

Penelope gate, as the French have dubbed the affair, continues. Stay tuned.

Belle lurette

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The French use the expression ‘depuis belle lurette’ or ‘il y a belle lurette’ when it’s been a good long while since the last time you went somewhere or saw someone.

It had certainly been that. ‘Belle lurette’ since we’d set foot in the capital of the Gauls. So we decided it was time to go back and visit our former hometown of Lyon.

In late December, many of the lights were still out for the Fête des Lumières, the festive tribute to the Virgin Mary that sets the city of Lyon alight each year on December 8th – and now draws coachloads of tourists to witness its famous illuminations.

When we first settled in Lyon back in 1992, the event was little more than a tradition of lighting candles in coloured jars – les lumignons – and setting them along your window ledge.

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We only lived in the city proper for five years, but they were busy, productive years. Lyon was where we made our first home in France, where our daughter was born, where both our kids went through the school system from maternelle all the way to the baccalauréat. It was where we found work, started our own businesses, made friends and put down roots. When we moved to the nearby Monts du Lyonnais, we continued to commute into town each day. Lyon felt like home.

It wasn’t an easy nut to crack. Lyon is known to be something of a secret city, whose inhabitants live by the motto, ‘vivons heureux, vivons cachés’. Meaning that a happy life is one hidden from public view. (An expression that eluded me at first but one I’ve come to truly appreciate).

Since we moved to the Haute Savoie we had only gone back to Lyon on flying visits to family and friends. We had not set foot on the Presqu’île formed by its two rivers, the Rhone and the Saône, in years.

So we booked a hotel and stayed in the heart of the city. It was a trip down memory lane for us (“You remember that time when…?”), with much of the city achingly familiar.

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Yet so much has changed. The city has come up in recent years; there’s a livelier, more modern vibe. The streets are lined with trendy shops, bicycles are everywhere, more languages are spoken. There are still the traditional ‘bouchons’ Lyonnais, the simple restaurants that serve classic French bistro dishes with a lot of warmth and clatter, like the façade shown above. But they are not the only option, as they were all those years ago when we dropped a pin on the map and settled in Lyon.

Il y a belle lurette.

And there are still the other kind of ‘bouchons’ that Lyon is equally famous for. The traffic kind.

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Have you been to Lyon? What do you remember?