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.
I had to go to the hospital the other day. Rest assured that I am well (she says, knocking on brain).
It was a routine check-up with my ENT. That’s
ORL in French, for the barely pronounceable ‘oto-rhino-laryngologue’. Imagine
the mental gymnastics I have to go through every time I have anything to do
with this particular medical specialist. E=ear which translates to O=oto; N=nose
translates to R=rhino (think: rhinoceros); T=throat translates to L=laryngo. Just
as we add ‘ologist’ to any specialty in English, in French you just add ‘logue’.
It’s a mouthful in any language.
Our closest hospital is a 30-minute drive
in theory, but I have to allow an hour for traffic and for the fact that I inevitably
get lost. It’s not that hard to find the actual hospital but it takes at least ten
minutes to navigate the parking lot and figure out where the entrance is. The
parking lot is built into a hill (well, we do live near the Alps after all)
with four tiers of open-air parking spaces. There are many steps and winding
paths leading down to a central drive with tiny signs showing how to access
different departments. How practical for patients, I always think, many of whom
are about to give birth, presumably not 100% mobile or not quite feeling up to a
I almost always go in the wrong door. This usually leads to the Emergency entrance where I panic and run in fear of seeing someone in death throes or alternatively catching some fatal virus. This time I remembered my last visit two years ago and knew that the main entrance was up and down a series of valleys across which I cut like Heidi.
Arriving at this thriving hub of French culture, where the usual welcoming committee of huddled smokers by the door greeted me while holding on to their IV units, I noticed the new innovation of a welcome and orientation desk. There was no one there and anyway I remembered from my last time that I had to check in at the area called ‘Consultations externes’ just to the left of the main lobby. I was delighted to see only two people ahead of me and took a number. Two minutes later my number came up and I approached the person seated at one of the cubicles. “Ce n’est pas ici,” she said, shaking her head with a rather pleased air and directing me to the other side of the building. A different waiting area for a different set of consultants and services.
Off I went, still on time as for once I’d
arrived a few minutes early. I successfully avoid the ER for the second time
and arrived at the correct reception area. Here there was no number system but
a longer lineup of people waiting to be triaged towards an admin cubicle for check
Having determined that I was in the right galaxy, the woman directed me to a zombie whose charm began with a ‘Je vous écoute’ (‘I’m listening’, not the nicest greeting but not as rude as it sounds to English ears). Eyes trained on her screen as she typed in my details, she continued a conversation with her colleague at the next workstation, complaining about some ongoing IT issue. I was invisible until she handed me a paper and told me to proceed to waiting room number 4. “And the waiting room is…?” I asked, having no idea where to go next. “Just behind the divider,” she said, as if the question was absurd. “We have several waiting rooms…”
Seeing the number 6 on the wall, I almost turned around and went on a dangerous tour back to the ER when I realized that the large room had several smaller areas, confusingly labelled ‘salle d’attente’ (waiting room), each with its own number. I found mine and squeezed into a seat. The place was packed. 45 minutes later, eyeing the ladies’ room with increasing envy but afraid to leave in case my name was called, a tiny white-coated nurse came and called out the name of the fellow sitting opposite me. Up he jumped, clearly ready to dance in joy and followed her to the door.
As she left, I heard her mumble something vaguely resembling my husband’s name. Not wanting to risk missing my turn, I grabbed my stuff and ran after them. At the door I asked her if she had in fact called my name. Yes, she confirmed, although admitted she hadn’t said it very loudly. I nodded and joked that thankfully I have good hearing for a deaf person.
She laughed. The ice was broken. Away we went.
The ENT, whom I saw after another 15 minutes in yet another waiting area, confirmed who I was and why I was there. Agreed it was good to get my hearing checked again and asked me to sit in his examination chair.
Before I could ask him what was next he had
shoved a metal object up my nose. “It’s ORL,” he reminded me when I acted surprised.
I couldn’t help but be grateful he was not my gynecologist.
A quick spin around my upper orifices and off I went back to my seat to wait for the soft-spoken nurse to come and perform the hearing test in a sound-proof booth across the hall. I passed with flying colours. While my left ear is completely deaf due to a surgery for an acoustic neuroma several years ago, my right ear is still going gangbusters.
How I hate hospitals. I say that with all the
humility and gratitude of someone who has had the opportunity to take advantage
of their services and to come out alive and well. All without having to mortgage
my life away to pay for it.
I left with a spring in my step, along with
a prescription for an MRI to check that all is well (more on that nightmare
later), having paid a grand total of 40 euros. Which princely sum will be entirely
reimbursed once I send in the paperwork.
Still. French hospitals. The less I have to
do with them, the happier I am.
Once you’ve more or less mastered the basics of French conjugation and picked up enough vocabulary to find your way around a conversation, you may think you’ve got it all figured out. That’s when you discover one of the mysteries of spoken French: acronyms and abbreviations for all kinds of words and phrases.
The French may be forgiven for being so enamoured of the short form. Let’s face it, between killer traffic jams, snail-like administrative procedures and the endless verbiage needed to say even the simplest things, you need to save time where you can.
As usual, I stumbled my way through various bloopers and blunders before fully understanding how to use these short forms.
My late Belle-mère was impressed when early on I took a liberal approach to mastering such terms. The baccalaureate exam is called le bac, la climatisation becomes la clim’ and the expression ‘à tout à l’heure’ (see you later), becomes simply ‘à tout!’. I decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
“Ce n’est pas oblig!” I declared one day, when she suggested I should do something or other.
“Quoi?” asked that lady in astonishment, before cracking up. I learned that for all the French love short forms, it is obligatory (and not ‘oblig’) to wait for someone else to invent them first.
So it is that you must simply learn, case
by case, what things are called in spoken French.
That fine institution of French life, la Sécurité
Sociale, is called la Sécu, but the organization that you must deal with for
financial reasons is called la CPAM (letters spelled out, for Caisse Primaire d’Assurance
Maladie). That the special address form CEDEX (pronounced ‘say-dex’) stands for
‘Courrier d’entreprise à distribution exceptionnelle’. That the cute-sounding ‘DOM-TOM’
is code for all those overseas French territories like Guadeloupe.
Needless to say, there is no obvious logic
to explain why some acronyms are spelled out letter by letter and others spoken
like a word.
Every area of French life has its own set
of acronyms and abbreviations. I believe that the high-minded public servants
who graduate from the French National School of Administration or l’ENA (pronounced:
Lay-na) take entire courses on how to make up complicated names that will create
unpronounceable acronyms. Case in point: La loi Hadopi (Haute Autorité pour la
diffusion des œuvres et la protection des droits sur internet), an entire administration
created to protect the rights of works and people online. What a mouthful! Much
easier to talk about les GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon), pronounced ‘gaffa’.
Déjà? After running around on Saturday and enjoying a well-earned day of rest on Sunday, getting back to work on Monday can come as a bit of a shock.
In France, as in countries all over the world, the beginning of each new week means we’re up with the birds and back to work.
It’s been a few years since I had to badge in and out of the workplace. In France, official time management systems are a legal obligation. To ensure that the employer gets a fair share of working time or to count up all the extra hours le salarié puts in? It works both ways.
When I worked full time for a French pharmaceutical company, the ritual of badging in and out each day ensured that any extra time was added to the ‘compte epargne temps’, a sort of savings account that employees could use to add extra time for special circumstances like maternity leave, a sabbatical or even early retirement. Anyone who put in more than a 35-hour week on a regular basis had to watch out though — HR was on the case and cracked down on the workaholics who simply could not leave the office.
I knew a few. It should come as no surprise that I was not one of them.
Now that I work freelance, mostly from home, my commute to the office takes only seconds (although I can easily get sidetracked by other, more pressing tasks…). I no longer have to ‘pointer’ or badge in and out. But the numbers on the invoices at the end of the month will show me up if I slack off.
I figure it’s all about pacing. Slow and steady wins the race, like this 84-year-old florist who was featured on a France TV report last week.
I tend to agree with him. It’s important to keep doing something worthwhile, to have a purpose in life that gets us out of bed each morning. There’s nothing wrong with retirement and leisure pursuits for those who’ve reached the appropriate age and feel they’ve had enough of the grind. But we all need a ‘raison d’être’ to keep going.
In that spirit, happy Monday to all. Now, au boulot!
Here in France we are slaves to the rhythm — the rhythm of the French ‘calendrier scolaire’. The entire country dances to the tune of the school calendar as it determines the official vacation dates.
While the Christmas and summer holidays are the same for everyone, the three shorter vacation periods (two weeks each) in the autumn, winter and spring are organized in waves by ‘zones’: A, B and C. This is to help ensure a couple of things: a) a longer season for the tourism trade and b) slightly less craziness on the roads.
Believe you me, when le tout Paris decides to hit the roads to the ski resorts in the Alps, it is just as well that those from everywhere else in the country (not to mention many parts of Europe) are not also en route.
Where we live in Rhone-Alpes is Zone A. That doesn’t necessarily mean we go first as they alternate dates each year so that everybody gets a shot at the best weather.
This only applies, of course, to people with school-aged children. But everyone is somehow affected as prices for hotels and transport often increase dramatically during vacation periods — and availability is at a premium.
Tourists should keep these dates in mind and if possible avoid travelling to the seasonal holiday spots during school breaks. That’s if you want to avoid the crowds and get a better choice of accommodation. It doesn’t apply so much to Paris, unless perhaps over the long May weekends. More on those later.
We are now starting two weeks of spring break in Zone A. I’m staying home for now but plan on enjoying a quieter period with less traffic on the roads.