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?

Filer à l’anglaise

I’ve posted before about the unfortunate tendency on both sides of the Channel to blame each other for bad behaviour. Thus, the English expression to ‘take French leave’ is known as ‘filer à l’anglaise’ in French.

Such military terms spring to mind especially this week as we are all fresh from the commemorations of the armistice on November 11, marking 100 years since the end of the first World War.

Among the many international leaders who gathered in Paris on Sunday, the only one who truly lived up to the above expression was the ugly American, who went AWOL when it came time to tramp through the rain with the other leaders.

Speaking of which, this post is to also say that I too am taking French leave for a bit of a holiday and will miss my usual post this week.

In the meantime, I suggest you scoot over to the excellent Heide’s blog, where she shares a rare glimpse of the soldier’s view of World War I, along with some fascinating views from her exploration of a quarry in northern France that provided subterranean shelter during the war.

Bises et à bientôt!

La directrice

Tina_fey-1024x728France, like most countries, has its own particular brand of sexism. The title ‘La Directrice’ seems to encapsulate this. When the boss is a woman her attributes of leadership are somehow feared or used as the butt of jokes. Often both.

My first encounter with la directrice was in the person of a certain Madame Guillaume in Lyon. She bore the rather lofty title of ‘Directrice d’école maternelle’ or headmistress of the preschool where I had come to register my son turn my baby over to the wolves. For someone who made a career of educating the under-fives, she had nothing short of a military bearing as she gazed at me through her pince-nez. “What do the children call you?” I asked, as we were leaving. She raised an eyebrow to indicate mild surprise at this question, then replied: “Madame Guillaume, ou Maîtresse.”

I nodded dumbly while thinking that two-and-a-half was awfully young for a boy to have a Madame or a Mistress.

My second run-in with the authority of la directrice was when I entered the working world. Like many non-native speakers, teaching English was my default career choice upon arriving in France with few employment credentials able to ensure my continued professional growth keep the wolf from the door. The head of the Berlitz language school in the business sector of Lyon was a certain Madame Bissuel who looked a bit like the photographer Annie Leibowitz. To be fair, I was foisted upon her through a job transfer from the school in Paris but she made it very clear that she was not particularly happy about having me on board. Her unhappiness turned to outright dislike when I announced my precipitous departure on maternity leave a few months later. I took a weird delight in writing my letter of resignation after my benefits ran out; spellcheck kept changing her name to ‘bisexuelle’.

My most intimate encounter with a female head of state was in the person of my late Belle-mère. For reasons that eluded me, my father-in-law always referred to her affectionately as la directrice. This struck me as especially funny as my mother-in-law never seemed to be centre stage; it was always Beau-père who did everything. But as I later learned, theirs was rather like the authority at the highest level of French office. As Jacques Chirac once explained of his relationship with his then-finance minister, a certain Sarkozy, “Je décide, il exécute.”

Somehow I grew into the role of directrice in our family. This was not by any particular choice on my part, although I have been accused at various times in my life of being a bossy boots, that is, of knowing my mind, having strong opinions and not being afraid to voice them. But someone has to be in charge and as no other candidates stepped up to the plate, it fell upon my shoulders to lead our pack. Unlike my mother-in-law, who ruled from behind the scenes with a velvet hammer, the only way I seem to be able to do this is through a more frontal approach.

“Mom, the recycling is full!”

“Someone’s at the door!”

“Where’s the wrapping paper? Do we have any gift tags?”

“Whose turn is it to walk the dogs?”

Never fear, I say, la directrice is here. “Take it out! Can you get that? It’s all gone, you’ll have to buy some! Yours!”

I rule our roost with snap decisions and clearly iterated instructions backed by foot stamping and a voice that carries. It’s not always pretty but it gets things done. What can I say? Like my hero, Tina Fey, some are born to lead.

Oh, and by the way, you can call me Madame la directrice.

Vague de froid

Snow in Corsica

After two unseasonably mild months, we are having a real cold snap. The north wind that blows across Lake Geneva (‘la bise noire’, explained here in perfect detail by blogger Alpenhorn) blew its evil breath for three days until last night when, lo and behold, the wind dropped and a blanket of the white stuff descended upon us.

Enfin! While it seems a little unfair that winter should make so late an appearance, it is still well within its rights. What seems ironic is that snow has fallen all over France this winter but not in our corner of the Haute Savoie, where it is usually more abundant.

Even Corsica, southernmost Ile de la Beauté, has had snow! Paris, Nice, Normandy, Toulouse…but until now, nary a flake chez nous. At altitude of course, there has been plenty of snow for the ski bunnies and I’m happy for them. This year, for some reason, I’ve been oddly reluctant to leave my hearth.

It seems the wave of cold known in France as ‘Moscou-Paris’ (Russia again) is actually due to global warming. Cold comfort to those who are without heat, or a roof. In the last few days the ‘Plan Grand Froid’ has kicked in, taking over gymnasiums and other unused spaces to ensure there are beds for the homeless. Sadly, such measures are insufficient and limited to times of extreme cold. In most cases the people must leave the premises by eight oclock the following morning, and brave the icy temperatures outdoors until night fall.

A group of elected officials in Paris spent last night sleeping in the streets to raise awareness of the issue. Good initiative, I thought. But this has been criticized as so much ‘coup de théâtre’; people consider their time would be better spent seeking real solutions than drawing attention to themselves in the media.

That’s just how French people see things.

As for me, I am grateful that yesterday’s power cut only lasted for a few hours. It seems that every year just as the temperatures hit rock bottom, the French electrical utility (formerly EDF, now Enedis) either has difficulty matching the demand or decides to perform maintenance on the lines. Last year we were in the dark for almost 24 hours.

Mostly I am grateful that I don’t have to drive anywhere today. As long as there’s an internet connection I can work from home. But I’ll be sure to get out for a walk with the Frenchies and finally have my day in the snow.

P.S. Rumour has it that next week spring will arrive in all its glory. What the weather like chez vous?


French or faux?

shutterstock_112763614Popular misconceptions about France and the French

When you think about France, what is the first image that comes to mind? A fellow in a beret clutching a baguette, a perfume-drenched femme fatale or a pretentious chef in a white hat? North Americans can be forgiven for believing such stereotypes as that is how the French are portrayed in popular culture. Every movie that is set in Paris shows picturesque cobblestone streets lined with charming cafés. Every scene breathes romance against a backdrop of accordion music. Every joke invokes smelly cheese, frogs legs or French fries.

Contrast these idées reçues about France with the reality:

1. Paris is the world’s most romantic city. Not unless your idea of romance is crowds, congestion and snooty waiters. Paris in the spring is most often cold and rainy (as I learned to my dismay upon arriving from Canada with a suitcase full of summer clothes). The average Parisian is a rather drab commuter whose life is spent getting to and from work, a killing routine known in France as métro-boulot-dodo. The French accept visitors to their capital city with a mélange of wonderment (why would anyone choose to come here?) and hauteur (tourists bring business but have the annoying habit of demanding service).

2. The French are fashionable. Outside haute couture circles in Paris, the French tend to dress conservatively. They do care deeply about appearances but focus on keeping up a certain standard rather than sporting the latest trends. No French woman worthy of the name will wear sweats or Crocs or even UGGS; she will sacrifice comfort for what is perceived as essential female infrastructure: push-up bras and thongs, skinny jeans and heels. The men still tend to wear suits for business and a uniform apparel of jeans and open-necked shirts on the weekend. Both sexes make frequent trips to the hairdresser, as attested by the number of salons de coiffure.

3. French men carry purses. Not unless they were born before the 1950s. The small leather saccoche or man purse that my father-in-law still carries has been replaced by the thoroughly modern satchel or backpack.

4. The French are sex-obsessed. Why do the English historically associate the French with a liberal attitude towards sex? A French kiss is only known as such in English. The French refer to this type of baiser as an action rather than a thing: rouler une pelle (literal translation: to turn a shovel) or simply mettre la langue. What we historically call a French letter, or condom, the French call a capote anglaise. Clearly this is one invention that nobody wants to take credit for.

The licentious reputation of the French may be partially explained by the Folies Bergères and the French can-can, along with topless sunbathing and a more liberal attitude towards nudity. French voters are more accepting of their leaders’ extra-marital affairs – that is, they turn a blind eye to such behaviour out of respect for la vie privée, which is sacrosanct in French culture.

5. The French are devoutly religious. While French Canadians are a pious lot, in France the Catholic church is more of an institutional backdrop than an active part of people’s lives. Other than weddings, baptisms and funerals, most people rarely set foot in a church. And the presence of so many beautiful old churches can be misleading – many don’t have resident clergy or hold regular masses.

6. The French are unfriendly. It is true that the French feel no particular need to smile. There are a couple of reasons for this. Bad dental work is one. Another is socialization. But this should not be confused with unfriendliness. The general rule is that as soon as you get outside of Paris and the larger bourgeois cities (Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse), people are much more welcoming. People from le nord are reputedly unfriendly to outsiders until you get to know them – but then will be your friends for life. People from the south (in particular Marseille) are thought to be superficial and untrustworthy.

7. French people always kiss in greeting. La bise, a salutary kiss on the cheek, is an essential part of French social life. The number of kisses varies: two is the standard, three in parts south and a head-spinning four in Paris and Normandy. However, most people do not embrace in business situations, although some form of contact such as a handshake between colleagues is quite common. And men do not kiss each other, unless they are family or very close friends.

8. The French eat a rich diet of foie gras, snails and frogs’ legs. Only on occasion. Most days the French diet is based on simply prepared but well-balanced meals of meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, cheese and yogurt. And of course, fresh bread, most often in the form of a daily baguette. Breakfast, le petit-déjeuner, is that most humble of meals, traditionally consisting of little more than bread and café au lait. Croissants and other viennoiseries are reserved for weekends and special occasions. Forget bacon and eggs unless you are in a big hotel. I once tried to order French toast for breakfast in a café and was met with incomprehension. Known here as pain perdu (lost bread), it may have origins in France, but served for breakfast with maple syrup it is purely North American. The French are known to eat pain perdu for dessert.

9. French fries are French. French fries were not invented in France but in Belgium. Belgians are to the French what Newfies are to Canadians (just as “Polacks” are to Americans or the Irish to the English), although I have never understood what it is about people from such places that makes them the butt of so many jokes. Les Belges are portrayed by their French cousins as massive consumers of pommes frites, as they are called in French. But (hold on to your cholesterol count), the Belgian version of this specialty is consumed with mayonnaise, not ketchup.

10. The French enjoy wine with every meal. This may have been true in the past but is much less so today. Wine is a big part of the culture but the French will often drink water with their food. The main meal is consumed at lunchtime, with a simple soup for supper (hence the word ‘souper’). People will have a glass or two of wine with the evening meal but this is far from the norm. Red wine is preferred over white and often consumed with fish as well as meat. Many French women drink little if at all, other than a glass of champagne as an apéritif. And beer is mostly a workman’s drink.

These are, of course, just general rules to which there are many exceptions. As an adopted French woman I am doing my utmost to make the latter a myth. Some French women do indeed drink — wine, beer, you name it!