Juste ce qu’il faut

How much is just enough? Not so long ago, it seemed I was always wanting more: friends, money, success, travel…a new this, an updated that. Now, suddenly, something is different. I still feel this way at times but lately I find myself thinking that happiness is having just what you need. Or needing what you have.

As the dark days before the winter solstice grow colder and ever shorter, it is important to think about the things have brightened our lives over the year. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy keeping an advent calendar. For each of its 24 days this month I have written down a word that sums up something – or someone – that has made my life happier.

I am lucky to have a great deal to be grateful for; it has been a full year, a good year. Not without moments of sadness and regret. Those bittersweet times are there to remind us just how lucky we are when all the rest is good.

Here are a few of the things that I am especially grateful for this Christmas:

This great big, wonderful world. We went to four islands this year, each of them special and unique in different ways. New Year’s was in Curaçao, a curious and beautiful place indeed. And it was amazing to be able to enjoy this exotic destination in the company of my Canadian family, including my Dad and brother, their better-halves and our kids. Our island adventures this year also included a writing retreat for me in Pantelleria, Italy; a first-ever trip out west to Vancouver and a romantic anniversary week on Madeira.

The people who got us there and back. Even in years when we don’t travel as much, there are still a lot of comings and goings with our jobs and family in different countries and continents. I never go anywhere without mentally preparing for disaster on some level (fingers permanently crossed). And yet, despite a tense couple of landings and a few delayed suitcases, we have all made it home in one piece. I am grateful to all of the hard-working pilots and drivers of planes, trains, buses and taxis who got us there and back. And all those who support them. They don’t hear it enough.

The memories we share. I am both old enough to have a lot of memories and young enough to look forward to making new ones. Also fortunate to have family and friends who remember too. This year, my husband unearthed a box of old cassette tapes from when our kids were small and sent them to be digitized; we are looking forward to watching this marathon memory movie over the holidays. To be in this position, to be able to share those memories, strikes me as very rich indeed. And I would like to share a thought for all those who suffer from dementia and other forms of brain disease.

My blogging buddies. This community we have here on WordPress is something I never imagined would bring so much joy to my life. I originally started this blog as a way to connect with people of similar interests with the idea of getting a book published. It hasn’t happened yet, but each week of writing, reading and commenting on my fellow bloggers’ posts brings me immense satisfaction and a sense of connection. It is a privilege to know you guys!

Family and friends. You know who you are. Thank you for putting up with me. I love you all.

And there are so many more. But how about I kick over to you: what are you grateful for?

Allô Maman bobo

Invasion of the electric scooter in Paris

When my kids were young, back in the late 90s, scooters came into vogue. La trottinette, as they’re called in French, was suddenly all the rage. Of course, it wasn’t the first time, as this photo from 1927 shows.

Unlike the pogs, the Tamagotchis and Tuggles of the day, I approved of the trottinette. It got the kids outside, tooling around the neighourhood, and seemed a lot less dangerous than skateboards or bikes. Besides, they seemed like fun.

Until I had to carry one home from the park one day and banged my shin on it a bunch of times. Bugger, those things were heavy. I had the bruises to prove it.

A few years later the trend hit the adult segment. By then the kids had finished with them and their scooters were gathering dust in the garage.

Suddenly, business people in suits, satchels and briefcases slung over their backs, were riding them all over the city streets. They thought they were cool; I couldn’t help but think they looked ridiculous. Absurd even. Yet the trottinette became the very ‘bobo’ (short for Bourgeois bohemian, the French forerunner of today’s hipster) thing to do in Paris and Lyon.

Lo and behold, in the era of new forms of transport like Uber, along comes the electric scooter. Now the streets of Paris have been invaded by the contraptions. Needless to say, it is causing all kinds of havoc. Not to mention a great many ‘bobos’, of a completely different kind.

A bit of vocabulary:

‘Trottinette’ comes from the word ‘trottiner’ which means to scurry or trot along like a child. Presumably this is where we get the name for sidewalk: trottoir.

‘Bobo’ is a French baby talk for what we in North America sometimes call a booboo or the kind of hurt finger that children run to Mum about.

As one of my favourite singer-songwriters, Alain Souchon, captured in this song, sometimes even as grown ups we feel like crying to our mums. It’s a terrible recording, featuring the French penchant of the day for lip-synching on live performances. But watch for a surprise appearance at the end of the clip.

Yes, that’s France Gall. The singer who won the Eurovision song contest in 1965, inspired Serge Gainsbourg and Michel Berger and, sadly, died of breast cancer early this year.

Back to the trottinette. With the advent of companies like Lime and Bird, who offer electric scooter rentals that you can pick up, ride and leave anywhere, she age of ‘free floating’ has arrived in Paris. And it’s a mess. French sidewalks are busy places, the streets filled with wobbly cobblestones and other dangers; there are not enough bicycle lanes and the roads are not places for anyone without a helmet.

The French authorities are currently reworking the law for motorized scooters and hover boards, to decide whether they belong on the street or elsewhere, and what rules should be set for their use. Theoretically, such devices have a maximum speed limit of 25 km, but I hear there are those that go much faster.

In my opinion, anyone on wheels should not share space on a sidewalk with pedestrians (except for tykes in strollers). Clearly defined rules of the road for everyone – pedestrians, cyclists, scooters, skateboarders and cars – need to be rethought, and each of us from the age of adulthood should be made to demonstrate that we understand and respect them. That is the way of the future for all of our cities, as we become more aware of the need for exercise and non-polluting modes of transport. In old-world cities like Paris, it is becoming urgent.

In the meantime, beware of bobos on trottinettes!

What’s your favourite mode of transport?

Poser ses valises

Set down your suitcase

How I love the French expression, ‘to set down one’s suitcases’. Although it hints of travel, ‘poses ses valises’ means just the opposite: to stop moving around and settle down somewhere.

Ah, travel. The romance, intrigue, the sheer chic of wheeling that expensive Samsonite trolley bag around. Of taking off in one language and landing in another, of leaning back in your seat and being served while selecting from various entertainment options.

Readers of this blog will see where this is going. I love going places. I just hate getting there.

Why do I dislike travel so much? I’ve mentioned before how much I hate packing. I used to enjoy the idea of a few empty hours in which to read, catch up on work or just let my thoughts go idle. And I still do: on a train or a boat. But when it comes to air travel, it’s another story.

Travel for me is a great many small details and a few sweeping generalities. Most of them are aggravating. It seems that effort required to move from point A to point B across borders and seas with suitcase intact is inversely proportionate to the increasing democratization of international air travel.

First there is the airport security check. The removal of personal items, the stacking of your stuff in plastic boxes, the impatience of the staff and fellow travelers. The shoes that ring alarm bells and must be removed. The full bottle of water that goes down the drain, only to be replaced by one that costs twice as much on the other side.

Rinse and repeat. Hurry up and wait.

If purgatory exists, it must surely be in an airport departure lounge. Where, despite the unpleasant state of being on hold, the upside is the chance to people watch. And the endless parade of humanity, with all of its foibles, is by turn entertaining and repugnant.

The fact is that I do not wait well. I am unable to settle comfortably into one of those molded plastic chairs with the immovable arm rests that prevent people from lying down. My eye wanders continually to the departures board, to check if there are any changes in flight status. I look for signs of life at the gate, in case we may be called to board. I watch the people for signs of lunacy, check for the nearest exit, ever vigilant in case a disaster should be about to occur.

In another scenario, I race to the gate for fear of missing the ever-earlier boarding call, where I learn that my flight is delayed. Then look around hoping to get a good coffee or a nice strong drink to dull the pain only to discover that this particular terminal or departure area is devoid of anything as civilised as a proper coffee shop or bar. Vending machines only with their astronomically priced distractions.

Finally we board (bored) and I learn that the only thing on offer are soft drinks and hot beverages, served at boiling temperature in carcinogenic plastic cups and so late in the short haul flight there is barely time to gulp them down before we land.

If we land, says my ever-paranoid self. Despite the fact that time and again seems to prove that we will indeed deplane in one piece. But that little voice has been drummed into my psyche and nearly always makes itself heard somewhere midair.

If the flight is long enough to have food and drink service, I order the Frenchman to get wine even though he no longer drinks, just so I can have a second tiny bottle. He is highly amenable to my inflight alcohol dependency.

Possibly he hopes it will take the edge off my nerves enough to hunker down and read or watch a film for a few hours. He, of course, has downloaded a slew of his latest series, something involving drugs, violence and bloodshed. His iPad is primed for hours of entertainment, which is he able to absorb under almost any circumstances. Turbulence, delayed food service, even amidst the crowds in the departure lounge. I do envy his ability to focus on pleasurable pursuits while I self-inflict mental anxiety and count the minutes. Either that or he is asleep. He often nods off before we even achieve altitude.

With a raging thirst brought on by being so unnaturally high in a pressurized atmosphere of the plane, exacerbated by nerves and boredom, I down each and every beverage on offer. Wine, water, coffee, tea, more water…which is why I always take the aisle seat. I’m frequently up and visiting the loo. Husband will go perhaps once in an 8-hour flight, often just before we land.

Another form of limbo for this reluctant traveler is circling in the sky over an airport for endless loop de loops waiting to land. When all of the highly impatient, nervous flyers like moi are thinking to themselves: is everything all right in that cockpit? I imagine the copilot, suicidal, having slipped a mickey to his unsuspecting captain. I can almost see terrorists having cracked the door code and insinuated their way inside. Or worse, having taken remote control of our plane somehow and sending us for a nosedive into the sea.

Welcome to my twisted writer’s mind. There is a great deal of drama. Travel only fans my flames.

I watch in fascination as people go by in wheelchairs, with babies and toddlers, with pets in carriers, folding strollers and various paraphernalia. How is that I, an able-bodied middle-aged adult, find this so hard when others with real baggage seemingly grin and bear it?

On a positive note, I may have missed my calling as a consultant to the airline industry. By the end of our trip, I had completely redesigned overseas air travel to be more comfortable and efficient for the modern-day passenger. More on that later.

For now, vive l’été chez soi!

Just as many in France are packing their bags for a much-anticipated summer vacation, I’m home from holiday and very pleased to be staying put for awhile.

How about you?

 

La différence

It used to be like going home. Still is, in many ways. But now Canada is a place I visit, a trip down memory lane. The décor is oddly familiar, yet increasingly foreign. And I am like someone recovering from amnesia.

“I remember that!” I’ll think. Quickly followed by “That’s new!” and “What will they think of next?”

Arriving in Vancouver for the very first time, we noticed a great many things big and small. A forest of tall buildings, some of them of questionable architectural taste.

Used to Toronto’s intensely diverse ethnic population, we found Van City to be especially Asian. But like everywhere in Canada, an interesting cultural mix.

Food-wise, Sushi abounds, as does Indian. Coffee culture is on every corner. Not just Starbucks but also independent coffee shops where you can get a truly great cup of java. Not to mention mouth-watering Nanaimo bars and sourdough donuts!

The coffee is also mobile. On the street, everyone seems to be carrying a drink of some kind. But when it comes to alcohol, there is a holdover of historic British rules. At one bar, last call came at 10:45 pm!

Vancouver is a city in constant motion. In the air, sea planes take off and land along the sea wall. On the water, boat traffic of every description, including these sweet little water buses.

Everywhere, people run, ride, cycle, skate, walk dogs. We joined them and cycled around Stanley Park, one of the highlights of our week.

At intersections, the cheeping of birds tells visually impaired pedestrians when to cross. It took me a minute to figure out it wasn’t just a loud bird following us around.

Around town, crows have replaced our domestic flying rats, aka pigeons. We awoke each morning to their raucous cawing; in the streets we observed the constant scavenging of these big black birds.

Abiding impressions? People seem happy. They are friendly. They ask us how we are, where we’re from. I don’t really mind this; in fact, I quite like it. But at first, my reaction is entirely French: do I know you? Why are you talking to me?

The service is attentive, if perhaps overly intrusive. Once the introductions are over, I prefer wait staff to keep a low profile. Instead, we are continually asked how things are going, did we enjoy our entrées? (French confusion – they mean main courses), would we like another drink…? Husband becomes irritated with the freezing A/C everywhere and all the ice in drinks.

We begin to feel foreign. At home. Again.

After 30 years in France, I’ve been trained to speak French in public places. In Montreal, it’s natural. In Toronto, slightly weird. In Vancouver, definitely not the norm.

And then there’s the entirely un-French custom of the tip. In Canada, 15% is standard. Anything less is insulting. One place suggested 22% as the norm. The amounts are conveniently added when you pay by card, which virtually everyone does. But it does make the service culture seem a little excessive. Perhaps, compared to the good old French insouciance, a tiny bit fake.

It was time to go home. First, to Toronto, where both the time change (3 hours forward) and the bilingual road signs are a little more familiar. Then, after the Canada Day celebrations, and a good dose of family and friends, we flew back across the ocean to France.

I do love a good holiday. Almost as much as coming home.

How about you?

Chez moi

Chez moi

No sooner do I set foot outside in Toronto than I stumble upon this sweet café and boutique, making me feel almost at home. Chez moi is France now, I remind myself, and I am only a visitor in this impossibly big, booming city I used to call home.

I’ll leave you with this postcard for now. Holidays are made for being fully present. More on my adventures as a foreigner in Canada when I return home next week!

A suivre…