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 souvenirs

Les souvenirs

Mini Toothbrush DispenserWhen you think of souvenirs, you probably think of kitschy items like snow globes, seashell picture frames or Eiffel Tower key chains. I remember how important such mementos were to the kids when they were small. That coveted item, shark’s tooth or baseball cap, took pride of place on their dresser before being relegated to the memory boxes that still gather dust in our basement.

Now, our souvenirs tend to be digital. These bits of digital flotsam and jetsam that help us to remember where we were and when, what we did and chose to record. A photo shared on Facebook or emailed to family members, an update or a post about something we saw.

Thinking back on our holiday in Corsica two years ago, this unlikely image came to mind. On a scale of importance, how would you rate a mini-toothbrush dispenser in a restaurant bathroom? It seemed incongruous to say the least, given the French propensity for strong flavours in food and cigarettes (although perhaps those things offer an explanation for the market niche). But given the low priority dental hygiene is generally afforded in France, it was unexpected.

It went against all reasonable expectations of things you would find aux toilettes: Condoms, feminine hygiene supplies, even cigarettes all struck me as more plausible items compared to the (relative) superfluity of a mini-toothbrush dispenser. Presumably it was designed for date nights, as nothing kills the mood more than garlic breath or a bit of spinach in the teeth!

Even odder was the attempt to turn the experience of brushing one’s teeth into a mood memory, with choices ranging from ‘sexy’ to ‘pensive’. I did not try the machine, so cannot say whether the prepared brush with its dollop of toothpaste provided a satisfying experience. I tried to find out more about these dispensers through the usual search methods, by Google only rendered a link to a patent describing the invention, and one other in Le Parisien, mentioning the introduction of the machines to certain restaurants.

As souvenirs go, this photo was hardly emblematic of our stay on the beautiful island, which is why it was relegated to a folder of B-roll pictures. But the image stayed with me as a souvenir in the French sense: a memory, something you take away from an experience that lingers in your mind like a perfume.

Et toi? What is your most unusual souvenir of a summer holiday?

Beauty and the beast

IMG_1267They call it ‘l’île de beauté’. But beauty is only half of the story. Here’s why Corsica is the preferred vacation spot of the French…and why it took me twenty years to get there.

When the rest of the world descends upon the south of France, the French flee to their most cherished summer vacation spot: la Corse. Situated just above Sardinia, the rugged Mediterranean island is actually closer to Italy than France, and the Corsican language resonates like Italian.

For years friends have been urging me to visit Corsica. “C’est magnifique…You won’t regret it….Small, private beaches….Perfect weather….Wild and uninhabited…Food that combines the best of French and Italian.” Hmm…sounds like my kind of vacation place. In fact, with so much going for it, I’m not sure what was holding us back.

Actually, I do. My husband. He had a very negative preconception about les Corses. Macho types who refuse to speak French and want their independence. And I’d heard so much in the news about mafia-style murders and bombs going off in Corsica, I wasn’t keen to go anywhere near the place.

But then someone explained that Corsica lives almost entirely off tourism and none of the violence actually targets holiday-makers. The acts of terrorism that make the headlines are règlements de compte (settling of scores) between the locals and outsiders who try to encroach upon their territory. So this summer we decided to find out for ourselves.

Here’s what we discovered about l’île de beauté:

  •  Island of beauty: Corsica really does live up to the claim. The mountains and coastline are breathtakingly beautiful, and everywhere you go offers postcard views. It’s rare in France to see so much flora and fauna with so few people. And the weather was indeed perfect: hot and sunny with the right amount of sea breeze to keep cool.
  • Steeped in history: The birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte is Ajaccio, the regional capital of Corsica; there’s a museum in his ancestral home, Casa Buonaparte, and places all over the island named after him. Over the centuries the island has changed ownership several times and even enjoyed a brief period of independence…so it has a lot of stories to tell.
  • Geography is destiny? Corsica is shaped a bit like a fist sticking its finger in the air. This may have something to do with the strong sense of identity and revolutionary bent of its inhabitants.carte-corse
  • One region divided in two: Corsica is a full-fledged region of France with two administrative departments: Haute-Corse, the more mountainous and uninhabited north, and Corse-du-Sud, the southern half that draws the most tourists to its beaches.
  • Two official symbols: a moor’s head, which is shown on the official Corsican flag (along with license plates, beer labels, etc), and the wild boar (le sanglier) which is also one of its denizens — also frequently on the menu. We saw this little guy by the roadside near the route des îles Sanguinaires.IMG_1310
  • Charcuterie and cheese: Two of the island’s gourmet specialities, along with superb seafood and some very nice wines.
  • Polyphonic choral music: No, these guys don’t have an earache, they’re just blocking each other’s voices out in order to focus on their own. The result is hauntingly beautiful, if you like that sort of music. I am a fan, at least for the first five minutes.
  • Famous people: Many well-known French personalities have summer homes in Corsica. Other than Napoleon, and, some claim, Christopher Columbus, famous Corsicans include Laetitia Casta, an iconic French model and actress.
  • An amazing hiking trail. The GR (Grande Randonnée) 20 is a challenging trek across the island from north to south. I dream of returning one day and doing at least a segment of it. Assuming I can put aside some of these local attractions long enough…IMG_1315