Le soleil

I have a love-hate relationship with the sun.

Here in France, le soleil is associated with all things bright and beautiful. Sunny days. Warm weather. Long vacations. Joy.

Sunshine is all that is expansive, generous, extroverted.

And I have every reason to love it. The sun rules my birth sign, Leo. Being born under this most powerful of stars, on the first day of the hottest month, my heart is said to be ruled by the sun. Perhaps it is part of my contrary nature but instead of worshiping the sun I fear its power and flee its effects.

In the throes of too much sun I am closed, ungiving, introverted. When at last it sets and darkness falls, I marvel at the moon. Am liberated by its soft cool light.

My aversion to the sun begins in my head but it doesn’t stop there. My eyes feel it first: they water and squint. I must wear dark glasses and shade my face to avoid migraine. My skin suffers most: quick to burn, slow to tan, it comes up in itchy red patches if over-exposed. And as the temperature creeps up, my inner thermostat goes haywire, turning me into a red-faced demon, permanently sticky and evil tempered.

My cupboard is filled with potions and sprays to protect me and my unfairly fair skin. SPF 50 abounds. Most of it renders me even whiter, makes me even more miserable as I sweat beneath the layer of supposedly grease-free protection. Despite all my efforts, hat and glasses, I am outdoors often enough that by midsummer I sport a light tan.

Like any good French citizen, I watch the weather forecast with an eager eye. What can we expect? Will it be a good day, an even better weekend? The stick-like character on my TV screen points and gestures and explains, as I’ve posted about here, the fickle nature of the weather, the inexplicable arrival of clouds and rain. Or the hoped for row of bright yellow circles that means happy days ahead.

For most of us, that is. I for one am thrilled to see the summer heatwave reach an end. We are back to cooler mornings and, even on the hottest days, the sun seems to have lost an edge. It sets a little earlier, giving us a chance to cool the house before going to bed.

My husband experiences the sun like most of his countrymen: with unfettered joy. Its absence depresses him. Not because he likes to be hot or to get a tan but rather because of the light.

Our house is designed to take advantage of the sun, with large windows providing a maximum of exposures on all sides. It seemed like a reasonable idea when we had it built: the Haute Savoie is a mountainous region with cold winters, and we do have a rather nice view. But the reality for me is different. Now we have covered all of the south-facing windows with solar screens and sunshades. When husband is away, I keep them drawn and live as much as possible in the dark. As soon as he returns all is exploded open. The sun floods in, along with the flies. I sweat and I swat and we do battle over the windows.

For all those who worship the sun, this summer has been exceptional. Even the UK, with its near-permanent rain, has had its share of hot and sunny days.

But I worry. Because it seems pretty obvious that this is not a one-off but a disturbing trend. The hottest summer on record. Wild fires in Greece and California. Dry periods with not enough rain then flooding when it comes all at once. Climate change is happening and the sun is leading the attack.

So it’s decided: next year we get air conditioning. I don’t want to add to the planet’s problems by burning more energy but in order to survive the summer I will need at least one portable unit to make work and sleep possible during the onslaught months from June to August.

This attitude is decidedly un-French. As I’ve shared before, most people here hate and fear ‘la clim’ far more than the sun or the heat.

How do you feel about the sun?

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?

 

Les pieds dans l’eau

Le zouave is not happy. Not only are his feet getting wet, he’s up to his culotte in the Seine, whose levels have risen to dangerously high levels this week after torrential rains causing flooding in Paris and nearby communities.

‘Le zouave’ is the statue of a North African soldier, erected by Napoleon in 1856 in commemoration of the victory at the battle of the Alma in Crimea. It seems the zouave holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Parisians. Located at base of the Pont de l’Alma, this brave fellow acts as a warning: when water levels rise high enough that his feet get wet, it does not bode well.

The Alma bridge gets a lot of attention. It is near the famous tunnel where Princess Diana died in 1997. Here it is, along with some other famous Paris bridges, in drone images of the flooding.

And here’s a graphic that shows various dates and water levels of the zouave for the history buffs and technical types. (Of which I am neither. I like the story part. The rest flows in and out of my brain like the Seine.)

‘Crues’ means floods; ‘pics’ are peaks. Note that the bridge was reconstructed in 1974, placing the zouave 80 cm higher.

If all goes well, water levels should go start going down in a few days. Unless we get more rain, that is. And it’s pouring this morning.

Those who live in Villeneuve St. Georges and other suburbs near Paris have entire neighbourhoods underwater. Many have been evacuated and those who are sticking it out are braving it with no electricity.

It’s also a problem for les péniches, the iconic houseboats and restaurants along the Seine. I would have thought that during a flood a boat was the safest place to be but it seems that when the river is too high, they can break their moorings and end up crashing into a bridge. Like the Alma.

Attention, Monsieur le zouave!

Dans le noir

We had a storm the other day and suddenly, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the power went out. This happens fairly often around here, but the outages only last a short time. Sometimes we get ‘micro-coupures’, just long enough for me to lose whatever document I’m working on, and to have to battle to recover it while rebooting the box that connects us to the whole wide world. All the while cursing and swearing at EDF – Electricité de France – that public utility company par excellence.

What was not typical this time was that our coupure de courant lasted a good long while. For almost 24 hours we were in the cold and dark. Not just me but our whole village – that’s about 1,000 people in the dark. Like many French households, ours is 100% electric, so we quickly ran out of heat and hot water, not to mention light and any means of cooking. We do have a fireplace, though, so as the evening grew dark, I scrambled for firewood, and lit as many candles as I could find.

It would have been romantic, even a real adventure if I’d had anyone to share it with. As it was, husband was away skiing (and probably warmer than I was, the bum), kids were off blithely pursuing higher education in the neighbouring Switzerland and the UK. I was left holding down the fort with cats and dogs. Wondering, how on earth did we ever survive without modern means of communication? My phone and laptop soon ran out of juice. Even the land line was disconnected as all our phones require electrical power.

There were no streetlights to provide the ambient yellow light that usually filters in to our house even at night. No blue light from screens lighting up with notifications, no flashing red message lights, no blinking of batteries recharging.

We were dans le noir — literally and figuratively.

Of course, nobody knew anything about what had happened or how long it would take to fix it. I drove into town but everything was closed, and on the radio there were reports of what had happened far away in Brittany, dans le Finistère, where the storm had hit hardest. Nothing about our little corner of Lac Léman.

It was spooky, even eerie. And I wasn’t just cold. I was bored.

For entertainment, I grabbed a LED flashlight I use when walking the pups on moonless nights and began making shadows on the walls. The light bounced off in interesting ways and made a pattern on the walls and ceiling. When that got old, I dug out my trusty Itty Bitty Book Light, a wonder of technology that has saved my bookworm soul in more than one hotel with no decent reading light. Snuggled under the covers, I read until bedtime. Which came even earlier than usual.

And then it was morning. Any residual heat was long gone. I looked longingly at the coffeemaker, and grew resentful at our induction cooktop. For a moment I considered hooking up the gas bottle to the barbecue to heat some water, but the high wind and pounding rain made that unappealing. It would be quicker to get dressed and go into the city, I decided. I had a job to finish for a client by noon, and hopefully the power would be back by then.

As I was leaving, my neighbour beckoned from her yard. She was also home alone but unlike me, was stuck in the drive behind her electrically powered gate. I offered to help her climb over the fence but she decided to sit it out.

We live in a gated community, but fortunately someone had been able to figure out how to open the main gate. I stopped at the nearest gas station and got a lovely, hot, steaming cup of coffee, then went to work at the business centre in Geneva.

Just after lunch, I got a text message from the security company informing me that my alarm was once again functional. Hopefully the burglars hadn’t noticed our momentary lapse.

All was back to normal by that evening. In the end, we were lucky. We had no flooding, no medical emergencies or small children to worry about feeding. But how vulnerable we are to wild weather, and how ill-equipped to survive even one day without modern conveniences.

How’s your weather been? Have you been in the dark lately?

La bise

640px-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?