Trombes d’eau

Torrential downpours

I should have known better. It was risky of me to turn off the heat. Positively foolhardy to pack away all my sweaters. I further stacked the deck by going away on a tropical vacation, assuming that when I came back it would be full-on summer. In my defence, last year at this time we were already sweltering in the endless summer that began in May.

The kiss of death this year: I had air conditioning installed.

You know where I’m going here: the rotten weather. We had three days of solid rain on our return from Mauritius. Not just rain but torrential downpours. ‘Trombes d’eau’ as we say in French, referring to the trumpets of water that are released in such a cloudburst.

And it was cold. Freezing in fact. So I turned the heat back on. The solar panels stopped working so I put the water heater back on too. Even broke out a few winter woollies.

Lo and behold, the sun has come out. You can thank me in the comments.

As for ‘les trombes d’eau’, I can thank the rain for inspiring me to post about this expression and finally learning how to spell it. For years, hearing it spoken, I had confused it in mind with ‘trompes’ — elephant trunks.

Easy enough, right? They both spray large quantities of water at you. Ironically, I was further confused by the verb, ‘tromper’ meaning to deceive or fool, so similar to ‘tremper’ which means to soak.

The great thing about word play in a second language is that it keeps you endlessly amused while your mistakes provide entertainment for others.

In actual fact, I learned that ‘trombe’ refers to a sort of whirlwind effect when siphons of rain fall at sea. ‘Trombes d’eau’ is when the skies open up and release a sudden downpour.

But all of that is water under the bridge, as it were. We have had plenty of rain. Now it is time for the sun to shine in all its glory.

Fair warning, however: next week I will turn on the A/C.

Expect snow.

Les saints de glace

We had snow the other day. Not precisely in our village but just a few hundred metres above on the foothills.

This seemingly surprising meteorological phenomenon is not as unusual as it seems. The French hold great store in old proverbs and folklore when it comes to the weather. Les anciens, the old timers who have been around long enough to know better, will not take sayings like ‘En Mai, fais ce qu’il te plâit‘ too much to heart. They will rather think of ‘Les saints de glace’ and be wary of planting or ‘uncovering by a thread‘ until after they have safely passed.

Les saints de glace, or the ice saints in English aka St. Mamertus, St. Pancras (or Boniface) and St. Servatius, are the saints whose birthdays fall from May 11 to 13, dates which are thought to correspond to a time when the weather often gets colder. This is why popular wisdom has it that you should never plant your tomatoes before mid-May.

We are certainly experiencing the proverbial early May cold snap this year. After an early, hot start to spring back in April, when I foolishly put away all my winter sweaters and dusted off the garden furniture, we are freezing again. It is hard to imagine that in a few weeks we will be back in sandals and bathing suits, complaining about the heat.

This year’s late cold weather can also be explained by a phenomenon known in France as ‘la lune rousse’. This is the lunar cycle that follows Easter, which came late this year. In agricultural terms, it does not bode well. “La lune rousse sur la semence aura toujours mauvaise influence,” goes one proverb, meaning: “Red moon on seed will bad influence bring.” Another says, “En lune rousse, rien ne pousse” or “Moon of rose, nothing grows.” (I am using poetic license here but I did read that the translation of this moon can be red, pink or rose).

We will survive but it could be touch and go for wine growers. I heard on Sunday that some were taking drastic measures like spraying, heating and smoking to save the crops in wine-growing regions at greatest risk of frost. Here’s an interesting article that explains some of the techniques.

For now, the weather can only be described as ‘maussade’, meaning damp and miserable. Cold and rainy with low cloud cover. Only the birds relentlessly chirping outside my window remind us that summer is just around the corner.

What’s your weather like?

Giboulées de mars

The sky grows dark. The wind picks up. The temperature drops. A few fat drops blow down at an odd angle, turning to freezing rain. Just as quickly, the sun pokes through the clouds. A few minutes later, the patches of wet are drying on the ground.

And then the cycle starts again. Sometimes several times a day.

March is famous for its ‘giboulées’, less thrillingly known as showers in English. They can happen anytime as we transition from winter to spring. I’ve even seen this unstable weather last almost until summer.

I don’t mind it so much. It reminds us that better days are coming. It brings needed water for the gardens. It seems, in a world gone mad, an entirely normal rite of passage in the change of seasons.

If, as the saying goes, April showers bring May flowers, it all happens a lot earlier in France. Some of the flowers are already out in the lower altitudes of the Haute Savoie, and things are much further along in the south.

According to Météo France, our venerated weather experts, the giboulée phenomenon is due to a contrast of colder air above and warmer air below, and the instability of the atmosphere in between. Here you go with the whole story explained in detail (in French):

As you can see we take our weather seriously around here.

This situation of instability strikes me as somehow fitting. As the Brits waffle over whether to stay or go, on what terms and when, as improbable skirmishes and political polarizations seemingly become more extreme around the world each day, I watch the skies above at their most turbulent and enjoy this meteorological drama. It seems safer and far more predictable than the human kind.

Just a few more days until it’s officially spring, mes amis.

What does the change of seasons mean to you?

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?