La bise

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Winds on Lac Léman by Calimo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Whoever decided to name the north wind ‘la bise’ had a good sense of humour. Certainly it puts colour in your cheeks and is perhaps a poetic metaphor for the double-cheek kisses – les bises – the French are known for.

But the wind that is blowing down Lake Geneva from the Swiss Alps to the Jura at the moment is not a kiss but a face slapping, chill-your-bones blast that has me swaddled in a huge wool scarf and cap pulled firmly down to my Canadian nose as I bravely step forth. And still my head aches as I make my way into its cold embrace.

La bise is just one of several winds that blow around le pays du Léman. For someone who grew up by the Great Lakes, this lake is not that big – although a quick Google tells me it is one of the largest in Western Europe. How many winds could one lake have? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the 12 different winds that regularly soufflent upon us, from the Joran to the Rebat. Surely this is why Lake Geneva is so popular for sailing.

I have always loved the wind. It stirs my romantic soul and makes me feel a bit more alive than when the air is too still and warm. But a lively breeze is one thing. The bise, and its evil cousin, la bise noire (the black kiss), are something else all together.

When we lived in Lyon, it was in horror of the wind. We also felt the bise there – although most people called it the Mistral. The worst was le vent du sud – the south wind – reputed to bring on terrible headaches. I thought this was a meteorological effect until I learned that it brought the foul smell of gases from the refineries to the south of the city. And then there was the hot, dry Sirocco, blowing all the way from the Moroccan desert to leave a layer of red dust on our car.

When the north wind blows as it has this week, rattling the roof and causing our wood-frame house to shiver its timbers, I remind myself how much I love living by this lake, sandwiched between two rows of mountains, riding on ferry boats and seeing the little kids out learning to sail in summer. They call their tiny sailboats ‘les optimists’.

I am inspired by their optimism to note that the bise often brings bright blue skies along with the cold. That the days are already getting longer. Soon winter’s icy kiss will be nothing more than a bit of colour in our cheeks.

How do you feel about the wind?

Un froid de canard

froid-de-canard

Suddenly, it’s winter here in France. Which means it’s cold enough for ducks.

One of the eternal mysteries of life is why winter always feels colder here than in Canada. Is it the damp, perhaps, or the fact that we are less prepared for the subzero chill? Could it be because the houses are not as well insulated or our coats not as warm?

All I know is that il fait un froid de canard and – pardon my French – we are freezing our tits off. My own personal theory is that we need some snow. All that bright white will soon have us feeling warmer. Take it from a Canuck.

The arrival of snow in France is an annual event that is almost as talked-about as the great migration to parts south and coastal in the summer. Not of ducks but of French holiday-makers.

I’ve posted before about how snowstorms will trump (pardon my French again!) just about all other breaking news. So far we’ve avoided that disaster but the mere suggestion that a few flakes might be falling this week has required live updates and lengthy analyses by meteorologists. When something happens in France, no matter what the cause, an explanation must be found, and if possible a guilty party. The weatherman shook his head and pointed with consternation to the cold front coming in over the Balkans from Russia. Aha!

To the other burning question: why do the French associate the sudden onset of cold weather with ducks? I am happy to be able to clear up that mystery: it seems that our quacking friends come out of hiding when the temperature drops, leaving the open waters for the hinterland and giving hunters a clear shot.

Poor ducks. Well, at least if they’re out flying they haven’t been confined and force fed to fatten up their livers for foie gras.

You have to look on the bright side.

la neigeAs I write this, snow has finally fallen and, conversely, my mood has lightened. Nothing like a bit of white stuff to keep the cold at bay. And the ducks.

What’s the temperature chez vous?

How do you feel about la neige?

Dans la joie et la bonne humeur

Foie gras - don't tell my daughter!
Foie gras – don’t tell my daughter!

Something strange happened when I hit the supermarché last week. The store was busy with shoppers but they seemed oddly unhurried. By the entrance the homeless fellow selling his ‘Sans Abri’ newspaper seemed rather upbeat. I may have glimpsed smiles on people’s lips as they flitted about the aisles, loading bottles and nibbles into their baskets. Une animatrice talked a joyful patter while selling off seafood at half-price as shoppers milled about. I believe I even heard Bing Crosby crooning out a seasonal melody over the sound system.

Qu’est-ce qui se passe? I wondered, filling up my cart as usual (after all these years I’ve never lost my North American habit of stocking up). Christmas is past and the sales haven’t started so what is everyone so happy about?

Then the cashier wished me a ‘bon réveillon’, leaving me scrambling to reply in kind. That was it! New Year’s Eve, the one day of the year you can be sure the French will be smiling.

As I posted way back when I first started this blog, I’ve never quite understood why the French are quite so enamoured with New Year’s. Beyond the big blowout on the 31st, there is real sentiment in France around the fresh start in January, and a feeling that our good wishes must be shared with all those we love.

Having neither party nor family to attend to that evening, we booked a table at a restaurant in town – our go-to solution for le réveillon. The few restaurants that are open on New Year’s Eve near us all offer un menu spécial – a fixed price, multiple-course affair with a glass of bubbly to start. After all the cooking and fussing over Christmas, I was happy to ring out the old year with someone else doing the service.

Death becomes her
Ghost of New Year’s past
New year's dinner 2016
Who can resist such artful presentation?

Out of respect for our feathered friends, and our daughter, who is studying to become a vet and has become rather militant about cruelty to animals, we had decided to henceforth abstain from eating foie gras. But when the restaurant had already gone to so much trouble to prepare such a lovely plate (shown in feature photo above), graced with truffle and onion compote, it seemed too cruel not to do it justice.

There followed a dish of white fish floating in a lovely sauce, then medallions of beef filet with a few veg for good measure and two desserts. By the time we got to the end I was feeling silly and playing with the table decorations.

Baubles from the table

How’s that for a bit of bling?

It was a fitting conclusion to a month of over-indulgence. The smiles are still on the faces of the people I pass on the street, probably at least until the end of this week. After a few more wishes of good health, and a slice of galette des rois, quite possibly accompanied by a few more glasses of champagne, it will be time enough to get back to normal.

‘Dans la joie et la bonne humeur’ is an expression that means, quite literally, ‘with joy and good humour’. I’ve often heard it used with a degree of sarcasm, however, referring to the need to pick up the plough and carry on with a smile. New year’s oblige.

Bonne année à tous!

Boules de Noël

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It’s almost Christmas and around here that means a bit of sparkle. Here in France, our sapin takes pride of place by the window, hung with lights and garlands and boules de Noël.

One of the mysteries of the French language is why decorations are always called ‘boules’. Christmas balls is a decidedly unfortunate English translation of what we would simply call decorations, rather like the little lamb’s balls from this post of blog years past.

Not having much of a mind for history, I was nonetheless consumed by seasonal curiosity to wonder about the origins of ‘boules de Noël’. Wikipedia reveals that the tradition goes back to the 16th century when the first Christmas trees were decked out in natural bounty like fruit and nuts. One day an inventive glass-blower from Germany had the idea to create balls of glass to hang on the tree. When drought brought a shortage of apples one year, the tradition of ‘les boules’ came to France via the northeast region of Les Vosges.

Our balls are duly (and not dully, as a French colleague of mine used to write), dusted off and hanging in all their shiny splendour from the tree. They are not just pretty but provide a reminder of how fragile are such celebrations. They hang upon a thread of close-knit families, traditions and good health. They depend upon good will towards one’s fellow man and a bit of bounty to share with one another.

I love Christmas but struggle with what we put around it. The gifts, the decorations, the feasting. The squandering of time and money, the stress to get the right things and over-indulge.

And yet there is a core idea of purity around Noël that I cling to from childhood: a fresh field of snow, a star in the sky. A carol sung with joy, familiar faces at the door. A warm fire with a drink waiting inside. A full heart when a fond wish is granted.

I’m off in search of that holiday magic for a couple of weeks. May your days be merry and bright until we meet again next year!

 

Un petit voyage

Salzburg view

I am not the world’s most adventurous traveler. My regular trips across the Atlantic are mostly due to a chance encounter with a Frenchman in a bar back in the last century. When we decided to make it permanent, I succumbed to the undeniable attractions of France. After all, what more romantic city in the world for a wedding than Paris?

Then came the big question: where to go for our honeymoon? My beaux-parents worked for Air France, and were eager to pull a few strings in order to send us to our dream destination. However, when exotic ideas like tropical islands and far off lands were tossed about, we were both less than enthusiastic. Husband because none of the options contained his preferred snowy mountain peaks; I being no fan of air travel and knowing we would soon be back on a plane to Canada for Christmas.

In my fledgling French, I tried to explain that we would be happy to stay in Europe for our honeymoon. Rather than travel half way around the world, could we not just go on un petit voyage? For some reason I never understood, my in-laws found this hilarious. “Tu veux faire un petit voyage?” Beau-père teased. My ‘petit voyage’ became a standing joke.

In the end they surprised us with the tickets. My heart fell when I saw the destination: Tahiti. A 20-hour flight from Paris via LA. But that is another story, and one I promise to tell soon. For this post, I want to tell you about the petit voyage that we finally took together last week, 30 years later.

Salzburg cathedral

Salzburg is famous for a few things, at least two of which draw masses of tourists each year. I had been there many years before, in another life, when my tour bus made a brief stop. I had fallen in love with the place and felt sure Zfrenchman would agree, given its spectacular alpine setting.

One of the things Salzburg is known for is, of course, salt. On my first visit, our group donned miners’ overalls and rode a train into the bowels of the earth to explore the salt mines and secret underground saline lake.

The other two things have to do with music. Salzburg is the birthplace of Mozart and the setting for The Sound of Music, two very different musical history notes that today compete for tourist dollars. We discovered that the locals venerate Mozart and loathe The Sound of Music. To find out why, we did what tourists do best and took a tour.

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I should note that as a child The Sound of Music was my favourite movie. Julie Andrews was my hero, not only because she sang like a lark but because she always broke the rules. Between solving a problem like Maria and a Mary Poppins’s spoonful of sugar, I knew by heart every last note of her most famous Hollywood roles. Husband, being French, had never heard of either so we sat down and watched The Sound of Music before we left. To my surprise, he quite enjoyed it. Although why that surprised me I’m not sure. Between the music, the mountains and the struggle against the Nazis, what’s not to love?

Apparently the fact that Hollywood distorted the truth of the Trapp family singers is not particularly loved by the Austrian people. There are many examples; most notably, the family didn’t actually traipse across the Alps to Switzerland as they did at the end of the movie but simply boarded a train to Italy. And poor Maria Von Trapp only ever got $9,000 for what became the highest grossing film of that time.

unadjustednonraw_thumb_3883And while some of the songs from Rogers and Hammerstein’s hugely popular soundtrack still move me to tears, let’s be honest: it is not Mozart. The legacy of that particular musical genius is the true pride of Salzburg. Yet it is overshadowed by the Sound of Music tour buses that fill its streets as Americans and Brits, rather than pay homage to Mozart’s first piano in one of several museums, prefer to spend their money to see where Maria and Georg were married (by the way, this is the church).

Which will bring us back, not to do- a deer, but to our wedding. In honour of which, 30 years later, we enjoyed our petit voyage to Salzburg. We even took in a classical music concert in the famed Mirabell Palace. Mozart would have been proud.

And the best thing was, we didn’t have to fly. We took the train.

By the way, if you go, do try the famous chocolate Sacher torte at the hotel of the same name.

Sacher torte

If you could travel anywhere, where would it be?