Tomber des nues

I should have known better. All that talk about love in my last post. Counting my chickens. That bottle of Veuve Cliquot chilling in the fridge.

We packed up, sold or gave away the furniture and appliances we didn’t want and the new owners wouldn’t have use for. Even dismantled a solid oak built-in shelf unit in the upstairs room we used as a family room which the buyers wanted to turn into an extra bedroom.

I was about to start writing a bittersweet post about turning the page as we returned to France this week for our appointment with the notary to finalize our house sale.

Then an email popped into my inbox. “We must regretfully inform you that we will not be able to follow through on our offer,” our new buyer wrote. “For personal reasons due to our separation.” She went on to say they were gutted, had so dreamed of living there.

My jaw dropped. You might say I was flabbergasted. Or in French, “Je suis tombée des nues.” Meaning not that I fell from the nudes (‘nue’ being the female form of naked) but from the sky. ‘Nues’ in this expression comes from an old French noun for clouds. So, down to earth I fell, along with all of the time and work in selling our house over the past six months. Kerplunk.

Our appointment was supposed to be today. It was set by the notary, according to the French legal requirement of a two-month waiting period, when the buyers signed the compromis de vente‘.  Today we were supposed to be signing over the deed, handing over the keys, drinking a celebratory glass of champagne before going on to spend the weekend in the area with family.

We’re still going, once we get our breath back. It will give us time to air out the house and meet with some real estate agents. Because now that we live a 3-and-a-half hour drive away, we won’t be selling it ourselves.

All is not completely lost. This time French law should work in our favour, at least financially. Our now former-future buyers had to leave a substantial deposit and that should default to us as compensation.

As well as that bottle of champagne. Because life is short and, anyway, it’s jinxed now.

Cheers to that!

P.S. What do you think of the new blog theme? Feedback please! Hope it’s not too hard to find the comment box.

Tomber amoureux

To fall in love translates perfectly in French: tomber amoureux. Perhaps it is the same the world over.

The expression is apt. ‘Falling’ implies giving up control, abandoning oneself to love. You have to let go, give up a bit of yourself, to love another. Whether it is a person, a place, or a way of life.

My adventure in this country began many years ago, in my hometown Toronto, with a chance encounter in a bar. It led to a long-distance relationship, then my first stumbling steps in French, a wedding in Paris, then, a few years and a young family later, a transatlantic move.

I can’t say that falling in love was what drove my choices beyond that first encounter. Over the years my relationship with France, with the language and its people, has been as often fraught as loving. There has been frustration, connection and (mis)understanding in varying degrees, laughter and learning. But isn’t all love like that? A tapestry of emotions, each thread woven together with passion and patience to ultimately render something that is rich and nuanced, neither perfect nor uniform, but a beautiful whole nonetheless.

I don’t remember exactly when it was but some time early in my life here we visited the region we’ve called home for the past ten years. The lake that stretches between France and Switzerland was on our way to and from the mountains that my Frenchman always managed to convince me to visit on holiday, even though I wasn’t a great skier and at best a reluctant mountaineer. Lake Geneva, Lac Léman to locals, has a wide plain on the French side, an area called le Bas Chablais. I know nothing of geography but I think it was carved out by the Rhône glacier. What it means is that you have a backdrop of mountains on either side and the lake in the middle, which makes for a stunning combination.

“This is more like it,” I said to my husband when we first stopped here. We stayed for a few nights in Thonon-les-Bains, visiting nearby Evian and venturing into Geneva on the Swiss side. There was swimming in the lake, pleasure boats and restaurants on the waterfront. We came back again some years later and stayed in a small medieval town called Yvoire, with cobblestone streets and an artsy feel. I fell in love with the area.

Later, when work offered up a job in Geneva, I snapped at the opportunity. My husband was already ahead of me, having relocated his business and working with clients on the Swiss side. For four years I commuted back to our family home outside of Lyon each week. Then, with both kids moving on to university, we decided to move closer to work. We looked for places to live on either side of the border, flirting with the idea of living in Switzerland. But I wasn’t ready to leave France. And when we found a lot with a lake view in the Bas Chablais, it was a no-brainer. We would build our house here. We were head over heels.

I remember the year we spent waiting for our house to come out of the ground. We’d rented an apartment in a development just behind so that we could walk over and check the construction daily. I felt like a kid in a candy store. Could this magical place really be our home?

After a few years though, the thrill began to dim. I’m not sure exactly when I fell out of love with our house, or the area we live in. But something shifted.

Not the place itself. It is still beyond beautiful. But living on the border means that you are never entirely there. You live daily in the awareness of the contrast between two places — and one begins to feel a lot more attractive than the other. And our house, while I’m proud of having built something so beautiful, needs a lot of love.

Fortunately, I did not have to cheat in deciding to leave it. My first love agrees with me. In fact, I think he fell out of love with his home country way before I did.

What is it about France? When did the dysfunctional side of things begin to weigh more heavily in the balance? Just watching the news the other day and seeing the riots and looting (yet again!) on the Champs Elysée after a win by the football team PSG. I feel beyond disgusted and discouraged.

Like you do when you fall out of love with someone, and their every fault, every flaw becomes unbearable.

Funny there is no expression for that, at least that I know of. In French it is just, ‘on ne s’aime plus.’

Forgive me, chère France.

Perhaps when I leave you, I will be able to love you again.

Bises.

Le bon coin

If you have anything to buy or sell in France, there is only one place to do it: Le Bon Coin, popularly known as Leboncoin.

I stumbled on this essential piece of information when we were exploring ways to sell our house. A real estate agent assured me, in the knowing way that French people do, that Leboncoin was ‘l’incontournable’ site for selling properties.

“Le Bon Coin?” I asked, surprised and somewhat appalled. It seemed a little, well, ringard. Tacky. Why would I list my nice home for sale alongside a bunch of old furniture and used car deals of the week?

“Et oui,” he shrugged in that very French way that says, Hey, life is crazy, but who are we to question it? It’s the place where the most buyers go to look for real estate as well as everything else. “Ça marche.”

It turns out Le Bon Coin is indeed a ‘good spot’ for literally anything. From jobs to houses to farm equipment. Along with the odd mammoth tooth and stuffed pony. So you can rent a holiday flat while booking language lessons and car-sharing on the way.

After hearing the same thing from two other real estate advisors and finally deciding to sell our property on our own, we dutifully placed the first ad for our house on Leboncoin. And while we also put the ad in a few other places, they were all pretty useless. Leboncoin was indeed l’incontournable.

The site owes its success to a ‘free’ ad formula with paid options for ‘les petites annonces’ (classified ads). The French love anything free, so that strategy was a good start. However, when you really want to sell something it’s easy to fall into the temptation to pay, either to add more photos or boost the visibility of your ad. And that’s where they make their money.

I dug into the story behind Le Bon Coin and it’s rather interesting. Owned by a Norwegian conglomerate with similar sites across Europe, it started up in 2006. It seems the early success of the concept is being further fuelled by COVID-19 and the growing trend to doing everything online. The company recently bought out eBay in France.

“We sold our house on Le Bon Coin,” my husband confided to the nice gentleman who came over last week to buy our leather sofa. Which we’ve also listed on the site, along with a bunch of other stuff we aren’t moving to our new place. We were amazed when the buyer showed up after driving for two hours and paid the requested 200 euros in cash. Another young couple had come the day before and left with our dining table.

I was also amazed that my ad for our washing machine, which works perfectly well but was purchased in 2008 so is selling dirt cheap, attracted so many potential buyers. Unfortunately they all wanted to come and get it right away and I still have plenty of dirty laundry to keep it busy for another few weeks. So that’s pending. There’s been almost no interest in the tumble dryer though. The French still mostly line dry their washing.

It is humbling to part with your property, whether it’s a home or furniture. There you are with your stuff, the items you live with each day, and suddenly it’s splayed all over a public website. One minute you’re sitting on your sofa enjoying a cup of tea and your favourite show and the next, you have nowhere to sit. And don’t tell this to any potential buyers but I am terrible at negotiating prices. This is true whether buying or selling. Either I demand too much or pay full price without negotiating, or I cave too quickly and take a low-ball offer. The whole thing makes me uncomfortable. I have no problem with money per se, but haggling over it makes me feel slimy and cheap.

The fact is that moving to a new place is an opportunity to streamline: out with the old, in with the new. And we are downsizing so we have no need, or room, for so much stuff. Plus, we’ll have no garden, so we have a whole load of garden tools and equipment going spare. I haven’t tackled that ad yet.

Anyone want to buy a lawn mower? 

Se faire la malle

You know that feeling you get when you’re preparing to leave a place? It’s rather strange and unsettling. Everything seems so impermanent and when it’s time do the things you would normally do, you wonder, why bother? Yet it can be sort of liberating. You can stop caring about certain things because, well, tomorrow you’ll be somewhere else.

Just this week I learned a new expression in French that perfectly describes (at least to me) the feeling I have at the moment: ‘On va se faire la malle.’

Meaning: we’re packing our bags. Taking off. Literally, doing ourselves a trunk. Or a bunk. I got the full sense of it here on my favourite website for contextual translations of French expressions in English.

It made sense. I knew that ‘une malle’ is a trunk. Remember those? My grandparents had one in their basement. Something you packed on a steamer when you travelled overseas. It seems the origin of the French locution can be traced to 1935 and is associated with prisoners planning their escape from jail.

It always amazes me when I come across an expression I’ve never heard before. After so many years in France, you’d think I’d have heard them all. But no. The French language is rich with such turns of phrase and there are many yet to learn.

‘Se faire la malle’ is my mindset at the moment. Not just because we’re gearing up for a major move in just over a month’s time, but because we’re going on a holiday. Just for a week, and nowhere too far away. In fact, because it’s nearby and the risk of infection is fairly low, we’re going on holiday in Switzerland.

How original, right? The same country we’re moving to. Although we may be forgiven, I think, given how lovely it is and how much there is to do and see. There will be time for travel in other years. For now, we’re heading to the Bernese Alps near Interlaken, and a little town called Lauterbrunnen.  

Many, many years ago, shortly after graduating, I took my maiden trip to Europe. I was a young woman on my own, and nervous about travelling in foreign lands. So I signed up for a Contiki tour out of London. We were a group of mostly single tourists from North America, the UK  and Australia. For several weeks we went through France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. We stayed overnight at a campsite near a town that I remember thinking had to be the most beautiful place on earth: Lauterbrunnen. I only hope it lives up to the memory.

And while I am planning my own escape from France, I think it will not be long before I am dreaming of returning to it. There is nothing more attractive than something that is both familiar and unknown, something loved yet just out of reach. I’m fairly certain that as soon as I’m living in Switzerland, holidays in France will have a new appeal. And I’ll be attentive to keeping up my language and continually exploring new linguistic turf en français.

What’s your favourite French expression?

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Distanciation sociale

Something always gets lost in translation when the French adopt an English expression. This is true for ‘social distancing’: ‘la distanciation sociale’.

First, the words: as the illustrious Académie Française points out, the term is evocative not so much of physical distance as that between social classes. Hence, the preferred use of ‘distanciation physique’ (physical distancing), among the ‘gestes barrières’ (hygiene measures) to protect each other from coronavirus.

Second, the distance: here too something is lost. About a metre, actually. Everywhere else in the world it is suggested that people stay 6 feet or 2 metres (approximately) apart; here in France the recommendation is ‘at least’ one metre. Although, to be fair, the WHO only recommends one metre (not that the WHO has been much of a reference throughout this pandemic!)

The problem is that even one metre’s distance is pretty well impossible to maintain in France. Everything from sidewalks to shops is smaller in France.  The average density of people in most public places is also higher. And the French, well, like to touch each other. When greeting someone you know or are meeting for the first time, a handshake or double-cheeked kiss is virtually obligatory. For years I’ve had to fight my innate standoffishness and learn to be more physical with people. Now, I’m happily unlearning it.

Savoyard social distance: 3 wheels of raclette cheese

Even at the best of times, pre-COVID-19, I find the close proximity of my fellow countrymen disturbing. Often when shopping I’ll stand back from a swarm of shoppers and wait until the crowd has cleared before making my selection.

Just the other day I identified myself as a non-native — if not a pariah — by over-reacting to someone who did not respect social distancing rules. All of the very small shops have signs on the doors saying no more than 1-2 customers should enter at one time. When I went to the bakery early one morning, I didn’t bother wearing a mask. I was going to be in and out, the woman serving would be behind a plexiglas barrier. Like the few other customers at that early hour, I waited in front of the door. But when I was inside about to order my bread, two other people came in behind me. One even came right up next to me and asked the clerk if she could pick up her order. I turned on heel and went outside, mumbling about social distancing. Then I waited for the shop to be empty again and went back in, shooting daggers at anyone who dared to join me.

Socially distanced Italians

If only people would wear masks. Some do, myself included, at least most of the time. But while we don’t have the extremes of our American cousins demonstrating against the wearing of masks, many people here just quietly ignore the guidelines. Or wait until they’re forced to wear a mask in order to enter public spaces or use transportation.

Which creates a whole new set of problems. Sadly, ignorance knows no borders.

Philippe, a bus driver was viciously beaten in Bayonne, southwest France, on Sunday by four thugs when he insisted they wear masks or get off the bus. He is in a coma and all over the country, vigils are being held and transit workers are walking out. I am horrified that people would do this and pray that he pulls through.

What’s your experience with social distancing?