La bise


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?


  1. francetaste · January 19, 2017

    I never heard the name of la bise for the wind. Wonderful. And the name of the sailboats is lovely, too.
    It’s very windy in Aude, as well. ´Eolians bristle along the crest of the Black Mountains. Older houses are oriented to be protected from the marin (the southeastly wind from the sea–that brings sickness and can drive you crazy). The northerly wind is called the tramontane here (like the mistral).
    The temperatures are crazy cold for here–in the 30s Fahrenheit. Everybody is bundled up, even pulling up their scarves (always generously wrapped around, even when it isn’t cold) to cover their mouths. Having lived in the Midwest U.S. and NYC, I know that this is what passes for balmy in January, but we just aren’t used to it.

    • MELewis · January 20, 2017

      Cold is indeed relative. I lived in Minneapolis as a young teen, and I remember that cold was like no other. Still, with the vigour of youth, I would run down the snow-bank lined street to catch the school bus wearing only a bomber jacket and bare feet in clogs (it was the 70s)…. In Lyon they also talk about the Tramontane so I perhaps it is the ‘official’ name of the north wind.

  2. Osyth · January 19, 2017

    When I was a small child I loathed wind with a passion. My father had several vintage Lagonda cars and we used to be wrapped up and plonked on the delicious smelling leather bench back seat and taken for drives at the weekend. I felt like Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang except for that blasted wind making my ears ache. ‘Stop Daddy – its winding too much’ was my incessant and I’m sure irritating wail. But he never did … perhaps he couldn’t hear me over the roar of the engine and the blasted wind! These days I’m better disposed to wind though les bises is definitely biting me downstream of you in Grenoble …. thank the lord for Canada Goose!! 🇨🇦 xx

    • MELewis · January 20, 2017

      It is an ill wind that blows…. 😉 Your memories of those top-down rides with your dad sound like a blast in more ways than one – perhaps all fathers learn to tune out their children in a way mothers never do? I always dreamed as a child of riding in a convertible, then when it happened as a young woman I discovered what it does to your hair – or why all those elegant stars of the 50s rode around with kerchiefs on their heads. Bises (the good kind!) xx

      • Osyth · January 20, 2017

        Having just had my face scraped by the other kind of bises I’ll take yours kindly! X

  3. coteetcampagne · January 19, 2017

    Francetaste’s reply is interesting. We are also in the Aude, but the wind that often flattens us when we alight from the plane in Carcassonne is always gone before we reach Campagne.
    Its a big thing further south though, at Argeles the winds can literally blow you over some days. Across the road s a restaurant named after La Tremontane.

    • MELewis · January 20, 2017

      Indeed it is fascinating that one country (and even one small area of it!) can have so many contrasting weather phenomena. Are you two far from each other? I just looked up your department and realized it borders the sea on one side, so I can imagine that if one of you is further inland and other by the coast it would be quite different. Also very close to the Pyrénées so presumably the mountains play their part.

      • coteetcampagne · January 20, 2017

        The house is south of FT by about 45km and no nearer the Aude coast but yes, we have several different climates within the region.
        Nearer the coast the winds get crazier also. I rejected buying in one seaside town when it nearly blew my car door off! Argeles sur Mer where the apartment is located can be windy, but a breeze in August when it’s sillyhot is v pleasant.

  4. phildangephildange · January 19, 2017

    It’s a pleasure to read your style, lady, like a sweet “brise” (une douce brise, the opposite of the nasty “bise”, funny similartiy sounding for 2 opposites, isn’it?). But I have to tell that the wind called bise comes from a Germanic root while “la bise” on the cheeks come from Latin and from “baiser/baisé”.
    So this coincidence is not meaningful as you seem to suggest : “la bise noire is not “the black kiss”.
    My favourite wind is the local wind of my favourite city, Toulouse, called “le vent d’Autan”, because its reputation is it makes people mad . And this madness is precisely what I discovered with wonder in my first days (and more, nights) of my Toulouse life .
    A plus is this extraordinary unwanted word game : “Gone with the Wind” in French is “Autant en emporte le vent”, le vent d’Autan of course .

  5. phildange · January 19, 2017

    Your style is a pleasure, like “une douce brise” (la brise is like the opposite of “la bise”, funny hey ?) . But the similarity of the nasty wind and the French custom is only a coincidence . La bise on the cheeks comes from baiser/baisé while the cold wind has a Germanic barbarian root .
    My favourite wind is the wind of my favourite city, Toulouse, named le vent d’Autan . This wind is supposed to make people mad, and it’s precisely that madness I discovered with wonder in my first days (and nights !) in Toulouse .
    And the splendid word game is a plus : in French the famous “Gone with the Wind” is called “Autant en emporte le vent” . Le vent d’Autan, of course .

    • coteetcampagne · January 19, 2017

      What are these winds that make people crazy? I am fascinated.

      • phildange · January 20, 2017

        Yes some strong and non-stop winds can damage our nerves, in the Shetlands the perennial violent wind became a nightmare for me . But this Toulouse wind is special, it only appears from time to time, it is not especially cold nor hot, and it drives people mad in many fanciful and creative ways . I guess the legendary Toulousain spirit owes much to the vent d’Autan .

    • MELewis · January 20, 2017

      Nice wordplay there Phil….perhaps the translator was a Toulousain? Sadly, I see that my notion of the ‘bises’ being related is dashed by your (always interesting) lesson in etymology. How very cheeky of you! 😉

      • phildange · January 20, 2017

        I humbly apologize for dashing your pleasure . It is always a pain to break a child’s dream … I remember how I felt when a nasty older girl taught me that Father Christmas was in fact our parents .

  6. memoirsofahusk · January 19, 2017

    Living on the north west coast of England the Zephyr – the west wind – is our fairly constant companion, bringing us much rain and keeping us green when others are dry and dusty. Thanks to the Gulf steam it’s not too chilly, either, for the latitude. But the wind is often far form gentle and it’s not always a good thing – even for the farmers – when it overdoes the rain-bringing thing. Being salt-laden it can be a nuisance if you like clean windows and don’t have plastic windows but ageing paintwork. Still, it’s very odd when it vanishes for weeks on end as it did this autumn.

    • MELewis · January 20, 2017

      Salty wind sounds lovely. There are so many areas of the UK I’d love to explore. Your part of England along with Wales must be so beautiful. My daughter lives further south near Nottingham (attending university) and we haven’t yet been to visit here there so a trip of some kind is on the cards. We also had a very dry fall and only recently a bit of snow. The cold bise blowing dries everything in its path.

      • memoirsofahusk · January 20, 2017

        It is odd but lovely round here and we can see north Wales and its mountains from the beach. North Wales, especially the tip the Llyn peninsula is fab. Do get in touch if you find yourself anywhere near 🙂 What is your daughter studying?

  7. Suzanne et Pierre · January 19, 2017

    Another intertesting post. Wind can be a strange things and I agree with you that a light breeze is god-send in summer but another type of winds can be downright awful. When it screams incessantly in your ears it can become very upsetting. And north wind are the worst… Good luck with the cold snap; hope it ends soon. We are having a mild spell right now and actually I think it was warmer in Montreal yesterday than in Paris…(Suzanne)

    • MELewis · January 20, 2017

      It is true that too high a wind can be hard on the nerves. I remember in our house outside of Lyon the horrible south wind would blow so hard for several days in the summer that it could make you very irritable and short-tempered. As for the unseasonably mild weather in Montreal, it doesn’t seem right somehow but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless!

      • Suzanne et Pierre · January 20, 2017

        Pierre gets very affected by strong wind; it does affect his mental state. I am not as susceptible to it but it can be highly annoying. As for the current warm spell, I must admit that it is somewhat alarming though you may remember from your years in Toronto that the temperatures are a real yo-yo for the whole winter. It is fairly typical of our climate to get ups & downs but we have yet to have a real major cold spell and none are in the forecast for a while. Apart from a few very cold days in December, so far our winter is fairly mild and I must admit that I am truly enjoying it…

  8. Anne Donnelly · January 19, 2017

    I like your view that winds keep things lively! It’s certainly true in Marseille…. people talk a lot about the Mistral but it’s another thing all together to experience it! Even though temperatures here have been far higher than I’m used to in the US, the Mistral really has a way of freezing through your bones!! But it’s a nice variation from otherwise endless days of sunshine 😛 otherwise, how else would we complain about the weather ?!!

    • MELewis · January 20, 2017

      Thanks, Anne! I’m sure we would find a way to complain about the weather. We are in France, n’est-ce pas? 😉

  9. awtytravels · January 19, 2017

    Ah, how funny! “Bisa” is also the dialectal way to call a cold, northerly wind in Piedmontese (North-west Italy), albeit I don’t think it defines a particular wind, just any cold one. “‘Cu faus che bisa” used to say my grandpa (bloody hell what a wind, or words to that extent), and I still remember with particular hate my physics teacher at high school who, during our final exams one boiling June (35C) ordered to close down one of the windows which was attracting a bit of draft. “Sera la finestra ca entra la bisa” she said to my Moroccan classmate who, unfortunately, had lived in Piedmont long enough to understand she was asking him to close the window…

    • MELewis · January 20, 2017

      That is funny – although the Piedmont is quite close to Switzerland, so perhaps that explains it? You remind me once again of how fortunate we are to have so many wonderful regions so close by! Baci x

  10. acflory · January 20, 2017

    Down here, it’s the north wind. It comes from the hot centre and is often associated with bushfires. I hate it. 😦

    • MELewis · January 22, 2017

      Funny that the north wind would be hot but then again, you are down under! 😉 It seems no matter where you are from there is ‘an ill wind that blows.”

      • acflory · January 22, 2017

        Yeah…some things really are universal, aren’t they?

  11. Susanne · January 20, 2017

    Don’t like it. Not one bit. When it whips up at bedtime, it keeps me awake because I think of ghosts and ill winds and such. In Ottawa, there’s no such thing as a warm wind in winter and in the summer it usually means an electrical storm’s a brewin’. Nope. Don’t like wind but I did like this educational post about Lake Geneva’s winds.

    • MELewis · January 22, 2017

      Just the thought of a winter wind in Ottawa makes me cold! There is nothing worse than being woken in the night with the groanings of the wind. Aside from other-worldly connotations, I fear burglars and always have half an ear (my non-deaf one) trained for suspect sounds. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  12. Colin Bisset · January 20, 2017

    I was brought up in a Yorkshire town that had ‘Pneumonia Corner’ – where the wind from two directions/ two streets met and blew little old ladies away (possibly). On bad days, walking to the shops was like trekking to the South Pole. Now I live by the sea in Australia and thank God for the wind that brings instant coolness on a stifling day. I imagine a cool wind off the lake does the same for you in summer.

    • coteetcampagne · January 21, 2017

      I was brought up in an East Lancashire town that also had a mad, windy corner. Maybe it blew over the border?

      • MELewis · January 22, 2017

        It certainly scattered its inhabitants in different directions!

    • MELewis · January 22, 2017

      ‘Pneumonia corner’: Can just see the old dears with their kerchiefs whipping in the wind! You have certainly lived in extremely different climates going from Yorkshire to Australia. We do enjoy a bit of breeze from the lake on hot days but even in summer when it comes from the north it is too cool for comfort.

  13. Pingback: Geneva’s Winds | Living In Geneva

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