Tempête de neige

Snow covers a Metro sign and tree branchesHow five centimeters of snow turn the fearless French into a bunch of sissies

My belle-mère (mother-in-law) called early one morning in January with the breaking news: “’Have you seen what’s happened in Paris?” she demanded. “No,” I replied, imagining a terrorist bomb or worse, a train strike.

“They’re completely snowed in. At least ten centimeters.” In France, snow in Paris is major national news. Next thing you know the army will be called in to rescue stranded commuters.

“Imagine,” I said. “Snow, in January.” This prompted a diatribe about how it was all very well for Nordic countries, but in France they’re not equipped for snow, at least not in the city.

Full disclosure: I grew up in Canada. As a citizen of the great white north, it takes more than a few flakes to keep me down. But after a few years in my adopted country I have begun to understand that snow in France is different.

The French love the snow. In its place, on the ski slopes in the Alps or the Pyrénées. Everywhere else it is that most detested of meteorological phenomena, the one that knocks this country firmly on its derrière.

Every winter all eyes turn to Météo France with the announcement of the dreaded tempête de neige. A state of ‘vigilance orange’ is declared, sparking off a series of measures designed to protect the French from the evil frost. Snowy weather bumps all other news stories. Schools are closed, people are urged to leave their cars in the garage and if possible, to stay home.

It may be for the best. For all their machismo behind the wheel in most weather, the French have little clue how to drive in the snow. A couple of centimeters of white stuff on the ground is enough to cow most drivers. They reduce their speed to a crawl, brake constantly or stop by the side of the road to put on chains.

I have never seen anyone in Canada do this, at least not in the city. Chains and studs are illegal in many areas as they quickly destroy the road surface.

Much as I hate to admit it, my mother-in-law is right: France is not prepared for snow. They don’t salt the roads enough for one thing. And for another all those country roads with the signs that say ‘verglas fréquent’ do ice up surprisingly quick when the temperatures fall below zero.

I cannot help but chuckle when I see my proud compatriots taken down a peg or two in wintry weather. Most days driving in this country is not for the faint of heart. A simple lane change can feel like a game of chicken – it goes against the very fiber of the French to let you in. Driving at the speed limit is grounds for obscene hand gestures and appels de phare as other drivers recklessly pass. Heaven help you if you dare to drive in the left lane on the motorway.

So forgive me for enjoying my day in the snow. Bonne route!

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