Der wind

It’s not often a new language throws a gift at you: wind is one of them. It’s the same word in German as in English, and one which is easily pronounced: vint.

I’ve been struggling with pronunciation in my on-again, off-again efforts to learn German. For some reason I assumed it would be fairly easy (famous last words, aka story of my life). Seriously, I never understood what people meant when they said German was ‘guttural’. I always found the language nice and easy on the ear. What I didn’t realize was just how hard it would be to get the ‘ch’ sounds out of the back of my throat. At least without sounding like I’m choking. Ich probiere (I’m trying) but it’s a work in progress.

So along comes ‘wind’. Which, like weather (‘wetter’) is easy enough for an English native. And how der wind does blow around here!

I’ve posted before about the winds when we lived on the French side of Lake Geneva. They can be nasty but also nice.

It seems we’ve done it again — moved to a place that’s just as windy. It’s complicated around here by the looming mountains, and the corridors of lakes in between, around and through which various winds whistle their merry way.

Last week we had a sudden rise in temperatures, from 12 to 25 Celsius in the space of the weekend. Unfortunately this came courtesy of the Foehn, which means ‘hairdryer’ in German. Now this wind is known all over the Alpine region as a hot blast of air that dries everything in its path. Do not be misled: there’s nothing ‘fun’ about it.

Except that around here the wind whips up the lake into such a frenzy that it is quite something to watch. From our apartment we could see the dramatic whitecaps and on Sunday afternoon I found myself going out for a walk to see it up close. And quite a spectacle it was.

There were crashing waves, screeching seabirds and a few brave souls looking ready for lift off. There were little clouds of mist blowing across the water that my phone camera couldn’t capture. The whole thing made me feel like a kid again, when I used to believe that if I ran and jumped high enough, I might just take off.

Sadly I remained grounded.

And the next day, as is its wont, the nasty Foehn brought clouds and rain that lasted all week. Now we need a good cold ‘bise’ to sweep them away.

I suppose I like the wind as it keeps things from getting too dull. Here in conflict-free Switzerland, the wind is refreshing as it stirs things up. In France, it always felt like yet another drama.

How about you: wind or calm?

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.


Téléphone maison

For me Christmas is about being with family. Like ET, I want to phone home. But when half (in our case, the bigger half) of your family is on the other side of the Atlantic, you have to make choices. I’ve posted before about feeling pulled in different directions when it comes to the year-end celebrations.

“What if we just forgot about Christmas and instead went somewhere warm by the sea?”

The idea came up when visiting Toronto last year. For once, how about we just forget the turkey and the tinsel and pack a suitcase instead? We have to pack anyway, and spend several hours on a plane, so why not indeed?

This year we are heading to Curaçao, along with several members of my Canadian family. It is a bit of a one-off. Never before have I been so close to South America. Never before have I spent Christmas in a sunny destination. I am curious as to whether I’ll miss the snow (but I rather think not…) but I am sure of one thing: it will be memorable. And the older I get, the more I realize that life is all about making memories.

I am saddened that we could not get everyone in my family to come but heartened that my Dad, who recently celebrated his 85th, will be joining us. House and home in France along with our ménagerie of bulldogs and cats will be cared for by our reliable service of travelling seniors who come to stay while we’re away (a wonderful concept for anyone here who needs a pet-sitter by the way — if you’re interested, ask me for details).

Wishing you all a wonderful end to 2017, wherever you are, filled with love and joy, and a bright start to the new year. Looking forward to catching up again in 2018!

Holiday hugs and grosses bises à tous mes blogging buddies!


Faux pas

Mind the faux pas!I used to think that a ‘faux pas’ (literally, a false step; figuratively, a blunder) was the same as ‘faut pas’ (as in ‘must not’ from the verb ‘falloir’). In the end I realized they are two sides of the same coin: in France, il ne faut pas faire des faux pas. Which hasn’t stopped me from making a considerable number of my own.

Il faut and il ne faut pas are among the most overused words in the French language, deserving of a dedicated post. As for the faux pas, I’ve decided to translate a few of my red-faced moments into a what-not-to-do list.

  1. Do not tell people you live on a ‘cul-de-sac’.
    In English this may describe a highly desirable address; in French, the words have a different connotation, one that is closer to the dead end. (And by the way, in polite company it’s safer to avoid all phrases with the word ‘cul’).
  2. Do not ask for the maître d’
    (or may-truh dee as we anglos pronounce it). You can try ‘maître d’hôtel’ but beware – this is rather posh in French and you may get laughed out of lower-end places.
  3. Do not order dry red wine
    As a rule all French reds are dry. Note that the French generally refer to wine by regions, not cépages (the grape). If you’re in a wine bar you may be able to get away with ordering a glass of Merlot or Chardonnay – but this will blow your chances of passing for a local.
  4. Do not ask for ketchup
    Unless you really want to prove the truth in the French preconceptions about les anglais (and especially les américains) Or possibly unless you order french fries. But if you want to go local, avoid the condiments completely. If you must, stick with Dijon.
  5. Don’t eat (or drink) at your desk
    Meals are social occasions in France, at work as well as in personal life. Coffee is best enjoyed with your colleagues while catching up on the latest news – or ragots (gossip). Sure, you can take the occasional drink to your desk – even eat a sandwich there if there’s a work crunch – but don’t miss out on the many opportunities in French working life to show how well you’ve ‘integrated’ the team.
  6. Do not kiss strangers
    I have nothing against romance, but the customary cheek kissing in France is dangerous ground for foreigners. As a rule, follow the lead of the French with les bises, and don’t kiss anyone unless they kiss you first.
  7. Don’t point when you want to cross
    Nope. Not done in France, even at cross-walks. The cars will not stop anyway unless you’re already crossing. They will laugh, even honk, at how ridiculous you look while standing there pointing.
  8. Don’t ask, don’t tell
    Avoid giving away too much information or asking too many questions. People here don’t want to hear your life story, and they don’t want to tell you theirs. The French reveal little about themselves to anyone who’s not close friends and family.
  9. Don’t swear or use slang
    Remember when your parents said ‘Do as I say, not as I do’? This is kind of a double standard, especially coming from an admitted gutter mouth. But you have to be very fluent indeed to get away with curse words and use the local jargon in French. If you must use an expletive, the safest is probably merde.
  10. Don’t leave without saying goodbye
    This presumes you should also say hello but it ain’t necessarily so. Somehow, while the French rarely introduce themselves and often neglect to say hello, to leave any shared space (whether an elevator or a shop) without saying a vague ‘au revoir’ is universally accepted as rude.

So there you have it, my tried-and-true list of easily avoidable French faux pas. Feel free to ignore and stumble on…or even better, please share any of your own!