La soif: thirst for life

J’ai soif. I’m thirsty.

To ‘have’ thirst (or hunger, or cold, or sleep) is how we express basic needs in French.

I am often thirsty. Which means I drink a lot. Water. Coffee. Tea. Beer. Wine. Not always in that order. But in general, I am someone who needs a lot of liquids. Unlike others who forget to hydrate unless they make a point of it, I actually enjoy drinking water. When I’m truly thirsty, I prefer tap water to anything else. I always have a glass of water on my desk as I work. A bottle of water when I travel.

Pretty sure I’m not diabetic, so what does this mean? Other than the fact I never stray too far from the loo. Maybe it runs deeper than a physical need.

J’ai soif de la vie. I’m thirsty for life, for information, for always trying to do better than I did yesterday. I don’t always succeed – far from it. But I keep trying.

It’s a good thing I’m not a tree. Around here it is drier this fall than I’ve ever seen it in France. We’ve had maybe one rain since August, and the entire summer was basically a drought. The leaves on the trees are crispy, their branches stiff with dryness. The exposed earth has big cracks in it. It would take days, weeks of rain for nature to get to back to normal.

It’s scary. I’m not even sure ‘normal’ as we once knew it will ever return. There is a drought warning from mild to severe in almost every region of France. There are water restrictions for farmers and the water tables everywhere are dangerously low.

Here is a map of where the worst drought conditions are:

We are in an ‘orange’ zone next to Switzerland in the 74 department of Haute Savoie, which means fairly severe restrictions on water use. Yet my next-door neighbour waters her personal garden of Eden every night. All summer long I’ve been tempted to carry out a stealth operation and go shut it down but in the interests of peace I have refrained. But it breaks my heart to see the fields so dry and the human energy pigs with their green oases

I’m not really one to judge. We have a swimming pool. Still, I try to fill it as little as possible and stay sensitive to what’s going on around me.

The EU voted to ban single-use plastics yesterday. It’s a step in the right direction. And it’s not like the impact on our lives will be so huge. I mean, who really needs plastic straws? Seriously? Or disposable cups for that matter. We can always buy or bring a refillable bottle when we go out.

I have an unquenchable thirst. I hope to satisfy it a little each day by trying to think differently, to rearrange my life a little.

J’ai soif. Et toi?

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.

Salzburg.jpg

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?

 

Uncorked in Portugal

Cork oakIt is surely the world’s most reassuring sound. Whether eased from its niche with a gentle sigh or resoundingly and explosively popped, there is no other sound so associated with happiness than the uncorking of a wine bottle.

I speak from a certain, ahem, experience. No neophyte with the corkscrew, I am rather familiar with le bouchon as it’s called in French. It wasn’t always so. It’s taken years of nightly uncorking with my trusty tire-bouchon to master this skill. Now, I pop like a pro: 30 seconds max, zero to glass.

Imagine my surprise and delight in discovering that I was holidaying in the world capital of cork. Portugal. Who knew?

Let me explain that neither husband nor I are history buffs. Sure, he knows his world politics and has a much more precise mental geography of what happened when than I. But when we travel, we do not visit historical sites with anything more than a passing interest. I enjoy some of the stories but retain none of the details. Dates, names….I can always google it. More than once we’ve been shamed to admit that we visited a place without seeing (nay, noticing!) its world famous castle with the UNESCO heritage moat.

Instead, we like to wander around like free spirits and get a sense of a place, a feeling. This time in Sintra, near Lisbon, we decided to explore the area with the aid of e-bikes, and a guide to make sure we didn’t get lost. I’d never felt the need for such aids before, but heck, there were a lot of hills. And for once, I thought we could enjoy a holiday without arguing over which way to go. It was a brilliant plan.

Our guide showed us around the park and surroundings, stopping at key points to give us snippets of information about its various castles but without forcing us to take into too much detail. When he saw how interested we were in the subject, he told us all about the cork tree.

Cork treeThe cork oak is a wonderful thing. In Portugal, the bark is harvested every nine years. It is literally peeled away from the tree trunk, upon which the cork farmer paints the last number of the year in which it was harvested. Then, it regenerates before being harvested again. It is native to Portugal and a few other places but not that many. Oh well, if you want more detail you can always Wiki it.

Cork is used for many things. I love how light and airy it is, yet so strong. It makes a great coaster and is also used for flooring. I even bought a pair of cork sandals. Extremely comfortable and only a little nerdy looking. Mostly, though, it is used as a stopper for wine.

Wine producers have been using synthetic corks increasingly of late, so I had thought cork was an endangered species. But apparently it is a matter of cost. Now I make it a policy to prefer wines with the real thing and although it is hard to know before you open it, those that are ‘mise en bouteille à la propriété’ or bottled by the wine grower are more likely to use real cork.

For years, I have been troubled by one question: what to do with all the leftover corks? It seemed a shame to throw them away but there is no recycling program for cork. Last year, however, I discovered they make a wonderful natural fire starter, Soak them in rubbing alcohol* for a day or two then put a couple in with your kindling and voilà! Une belle flambée!

*Do be careful, though, that stuff is highly inflammable.

Have you ever been to Portugal? Any thoughts on the wonders of cork?

 

 

 

Trouver le courage

SUP‘Je ne suis pas très courageuse,’ as they say in French. I am no brave heart. I’ve shared before my challenges in coping with fear – in life and on the ski slopes. Rather than trying new things and going outside my comfort zone, holidays most often find me navigating between the bar and my beach chair, where I happily get lost in a good book between dips in and out of the water.

I do love the sea though, and was determined to try something new on this beach holiday. The resort program said ‘Introduction to Stand Up Paddle’. How hard could that be?

So I wandered down to the beach the other morning and joined a small group of people curious to find out what all this SUP fuss was about. It was a perfect day: blue sky, sunny and warm but not too hot, a light breeze.

Our bronzed surf instructor, a laid-back type of the beach-bum variety, coolly rhymed off a few instructions while showing us how to position ourselves in the middle of board, first on our knees, then in standing position. The paddling itself was old hat – any self-respecting Canadian knows their way around a canoe. Paddle left to go right; paddle right to go left. Back paddle to turn.

Then it was time to get into the water. We fastened our life jackets and secured the ankle straps to make sure we stayed with our boards. I stood at the water’s edge and looked out at the vast expanse of ocean, stretching to the horizon.

For a moment I pondered the unknown depths and breadth of that expanse. And then I felt it: a nudge of fear. Barely a ripple. Just the familiar fear of trying something new, a touch of agoraphobia at the unknown waters with vague shadows of fishes moving about near the bottom.

And I thought for an instant of what it must take for someone to take that giant leap into the unknown. To risk life and loved ones for a chance to make the great escape. Someone who may not be able to swim, who doesn’t even have a life jacket. Someone who risks it all on a rickety boat ride to foreign shores.

That is courage. Courage born of desperation. The kind of courage I will likely never know. There I was, on my stand-up paddle board, a privileged tourist just steps from safety, comfort – even luxury. And I dared to feel afraid?

Propelled by irony, in a sort of guilt-edged dream, I pushed out from the shore and took my first shaky steps on the stand up paddle. It wasn’t very hard. In fact, I barely even got wet.

Guilt is a fairly useless emotion, unless it spurs us on to do something good, to be better people. The refugee crisis is all around us in Europe, yet we blithely go on holiday and, when confronted with the all-too-human drama taking place on our shores, feel powerless to do anything about it. Increasingly, there is a disconnect between the way we as citizens feel about the refugees and our government’s response. I don’t have the answer, but I am thinking about the question. That’s a step forward. How about you?

Le plombier Polonais

Polish Plumber Tour EiffelHave you seen the Polish plumber lately? Let me reassure you: he is alive and well and living in France. The Polish plumber came to life in a cartoon published in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo back in 2004. He came to represent everything the French fear most about Europe: unfair competition from cheap East European labour. Le plombier Polonais emerged from the rhetoric as a terrifying idea:

Imagine, a Polish plumber decides to come to work in France. What will become of French plumbers?

The Polish plumber and his cohorts are back in the news again – with the Greeks on the verge of exiting the EU and the Brits about to vote on their future in it. In France, the latest demon is the ‘Uberization’ of French taxis, which will also bring about the certain demise of its trains and buses. Clearly, we need to stop all forms of progress in order to protect the over-taxed and under-worked French system.

Anyone who has ever tried to find a workman in France can attest to the fact that a little competition can only be a good thing. Case in point: I’ve been trying to get some blinds installed on the south-facing side of my house to protect us from the summer sun. I began in March, signed the quote and left a hefty deposit in April. Last week, after begging and cajoling, I reverted to a threat: if the blinds were not installed this month, I would cancel the order. They called back with a date for end of next week.

We also needed some painting done in our basement. Of course we could do it ourselves, but neither husband nor self are particularly handy. I contacted a company that has done various small jobs for us in the past. They provided a quote the next day, then informed me of a date in mid-June, apologizing for being too busy to start immediately. They came when promised with no reminders on my part.

Plombier Polonais
The Polish plumber became a cheeky tourism campaign for that country. Clever Poles!

The man who runs this business in Polish. He is a charming fellow, although unfortunately he looks nothing like the poster from the tourism office. Monsieur V. hires his labour from the home country and supervises the workers in his native tongue. So I have Polish painters, if not plumbers. They were here first thing yesterday and stayed until 8:00 last night to finish the first part of the job. He has built his business up to a point where his easily identifiable if atrociously decorated vehicles can be seen at job sites all over our area. This leads me to think he must play by the rules and pay the Polish workers a fair wage and benefits in keeping with French law.

This kind of competition should be a wake-up call for the French. Unfortunately it is simply another reason to curse the EU and go out on strike.

Et vous? What’s your experience with the Polish plumber – or his equivalent?