Guet-apens

There is something particularly horrifying in the idea of setting a trap or organizing an ambush against those whose job it is to protect us. Yet that is what is happening in our second month of lockdown here in France.

I was horrified to learn in the news yesterday that police are being targeted by groups bored by confinement in the Paris suburbs. The media call such acts ‘guets-apens’ (pronounced the same in plural or singular: get app-on), which means n ambush or trap.

Years ago French urban planning in all its wisdom created many ‘banlieues’ (suburbs) or ‘cités’ (projects or housing estates) around major cities like Paris and Lyon. In what was once thought of as modern, these high-density living areas of apartment towers were built, some not so long ago, around roads and hypermarkets rather than parks and communities. The model was presumably American but it doesn’t translate well. In France these low-income areas are a socio-economic disaster. Chronic unemployment, immigration, gangs: basically it’s the whole gamut of urban decay.

Now, with people stuck indoors, and many out of work, these areas are like a powder keg. And it seems a match has been struck.

I get it. I do. It’s starting to feel like forever since we were allowed to go about our business freely in France. For those crammed in apartments, with little or no access to the outdoors, May 11th is just too far away. There’s some relief in sight: kids will go back to school in waves next month, starting with the youngest classes and finally the lycéens. But it’s not enough to defuse the time bomb of pent-up frustration.

This video pulled from YouTube tells a story of what the police are facing. Here they are the target of mortar fireworks. It follows an earlier incident in which a driver refused to stop for a police check and sped away before abandoning the vehicle and running off, leaving four children alone in the car; thankfully they were not injured but it set off a series of riots.

And it’s not the only incident. In the cités especially north of Paris, bored kids go out on scooters and race around in ‘rodeos’ that drive the neighbours to distraction. This escalates to setting bins and cars on fire. The police are called and voilà…un guet-apens. They are shot at, or get bricks or Molotov cocktails thrown at them. Reinforcements are called in, rubber bullets and tear gas are used. It’s a potentially explosive set of circumstances that could easily escalate into full blown riots at a time when police and hospitals are already stretched to breaking point.

The above incident happened in Grigny last week, a suburb south of Paris. Many years ago when we first moved to France I worked in nearby Evry, a local hub for business, teaching English at Berlitz. It is a pretty area, with a lovely forest (Forêt de Sénart) and convenient access to Paris. We briefly considered settling there before deciding to move south to Lyon, which aside from its obvious charms has its own problems but on a smaller scale.

As we enter our final weeks of this confinement (and who knows if there will be others?), and as the weather gets warmer and temperatures soar, I hope that these incidents will remain unfortunate exceptions and not the beginning of deeper discontent.

It feels like we are all trapped in a guet-apens by this coronavirus. Now more than ever, we need solidarity for those who are suffering from this terrible disease, and especially all those in the police and medical professions who are working so hard to keep us healthy and safe.

How are you feeling?

Coup de cœur

A ‘coup de coeur’ is the French expression for falling in love with something. I suppose you could say that your heart is struck by it. Oddly, the expression is rarely used to talk about romance between people but rather for the feeling you get when strongly attracted to things: clothing, pets, music, property.

‘Un coup de coeur’ certainly describes how we felt when we first came to this area. As soon as I realized we could have a house with even a partial view of the lake and within walking distance to its shores, I was in love. There is something special about the light over Lac Léman, often called Lake Geneva.

We also fell in love with the type of light-filled wood-frame house we ended up building. We were inspired by a cottage we’d stayed in a few years earlier when vacationing in Ontario cottage country near Haliburton. And it turns out that a builder in our area here in France, near Annecy, specializes in such ‘maisons à ossature bois’. They are well-built and designed to be adapted to individual needs as you can easily configure the rooms.

When we began looking for a place to buy in this area ten years ago, we quickly discovered that anything already built was overpriced and rarely met our criteria. But if you found a lot, you could build a house to your own specs and it would actually cost you less.

Our builder directed us to this lot and as soon as we saw it, we knew it was for us.

Of course, the cost of building didn’t include all of the myriad extras you need to make it a home: kitchen, window treatments, closets, fireplace. Even paint is extra in France. I suppose they do it this way so that entreprising folk with a bent for DIY can save some money. Unfortunately we are not those people. Still, since we moved in back in 2012, we’ve managed to add all those things. Even landscaped the garden, with a built of help. Back then I started my very first blog to document our journey building a house. Here’s the link, if you’re interested: http://maison-chens.blogspot.com/

Anyone who puts a house up for sale in France hopes that they will luck into a buyer who experiences a real ‘coup de coeur’ for the property. Because if they fall in love with the place, they’ll overlook certain things that less emotional buyers will try to use as negotiating points. Like: All those windows must cost a fortune to keep clean. Or: For that kind of budget, I’d expect to have fewer immediate neighbours. Or even:  It’s a slow market, can you shave 25% off the price?

We have made the decision to sell our house on our own, without going through a real estate agency. Here in France, there is no obligation to do so. For any sale of property, a notary (notaire) handles all of the legal and financial part of the transaction, so it’s not as if we’re sticking our necks out. The agents are experts on marketing, selling, pricing and negotiating. But generally there is only one agent, who handles the transaction on behalf of both buyer and seller, so how can they possibly negotiate in both parties’ interests? Also, the last time we sold our house, the agent didn’t bring a lot to the party; the buyers ended up approaching us directly and making an offer minus the 5% of the agent’s fees.

So far we’ve had a few people visit and seem quite excited about the house. But no offers yet. We’re hoping the spring will help. The garden is coming to life and soon we’ll be opening the pool.

And in the meantime, we’re starting to look at places on the Swiss side. Hoping for another coup de coeur.

Have you ever fallen in love with a place?

A vendre

Would you like to buy a house in France? Ours is for sale. It’s a new build, bright and modern, overlooking a lovely view of the lake and mountains.

It’s what we call in French ‘une maison à ossature bois’. A timber structure or a wood frame house. It’s designed to let in the light, and the views, which perfectly suits our location near Lake Geneva. We fell in love with the idea after spending a summer holiday at a cottage in Canada. It had a similar structure, and when it came time to look for a new home, we discovered a builder in our area who specializes in this type of structure. And then we lucked into our lot. Just the right size for us, big enough to have a pool and a garden but not a massive amount of land to look after. And those views!

What did I learn after building this house? You can have too many windows. As beautiful as the views are, sometimes it feels like a fish bowl. And we’ve spent a fortune in window coverings. Also, with the rising temperatures, there is a definite greenhouse effect. Last year we had air conditioning put in upstairs.

And then there is the location. I truly love living by a lake, and in the country. That is not up for grabs. But as I work from home and we are at least half an hour from the city, it does feel isolated at times. It would be nice to be nearer a bigger town with a few shops and services.

Also, I realize that I could happily live in about half the space. And that if I have access to greenery nearby, I don’t need my own garden. In fact, there is little point in having a garden if you don’t want to spend your time caring for it. Which neither of us really does.

I never imagined we’d leave this house. It was just ten years ago that we decided to sell our first home near Lyon and move to the Haute Savoie. Back then we were both working in the Geneva area and commuting back and forth each week. But things change. I got laid off from my former full-time position in pharma communications just as we were breaking ground. Husband now works on the other side of Switzerland in Zug, a 3-4 hour drive. He’s away most of the week while I work freelance from my home office. As much as I enjoy having space around me, this house is too big for one person.

So, we’ve decided to sell our house and downsize. The breaking news is that, after almost 30 years in this country, I will be moving away from France. We won’t be far. Just across the lake, a few hundred kilometres east. Where they speak a different language, and a funny dialect to boot.

But first we have to sell our house.

A suivre.

N’importe quoi

“N’importe quoi!” The phrase slipped off my tongue so naturally, it was as if I’d been born saying it. Nonsense! Anything at all!

It was one of the first colloquial expressions I picked up in my early days of learning French. Like most such things, it came out of real-life conversation. I’d heard it said around the table, after someone made a silly remark or pushed a joke to the extreme.

“N’importe quoi,” I smiled, shaking my head. It passed without a raised eyebrow so I knew it was good. I’d always liked ‘quoi’ (what); it was easy to pronounce and could even be used by itself in a pinch as a question: “Quoi?” And the ‘n’importe’, which translates roughly to any, either or no matter which, made perfect sense.

But that was just the beginning. As with most expressions, there are layers of meaning that only become clear over time. Beyond a throw-away phrase, I learned that the words are often used for something much darker. ‘Faire du n’importe quoi’ means to do something any old which way, far from the way in which ‘il faut’ — how things should be done. Aside from a few exceptions, situations in which the French excel at pulling rabbits out of hats, they are rather uncomfortable with things that are improvised and undefined. ‘Du n’importe quoi’ borders the dangerous.

We hear a lot of “C’est n’importe quoi!” these days. In fact, it could almost be a catch phrase for the times we live in. Surely Boris Johnson’s answer to a journalist’s question about his party’s twitter feed is a telling example:

On another, slightly less fraught front, I have recently seen some pretty lively examples of n’importe quoi in my daily life. The postman, who not only never rings twice but generally never rings at all, contenting himself to slip a notice saying you were absent into the mailbox, tried a new approach with my neighbour’s parcel. I watched as he drove up to the gate, rang, saw no one was at home and then threw the parcel towards the door, as if trying to sink a basket. The box bounced once and landed with a thud on the driveway. This takes it up a notch to what we call ‘Tout et n’importe quoi’. Anything and everything.

Thankfully there was nothing breakable inside. Still, when I told her what I’d seen, my neighbour went to the post office to complain about this unorthodox delivery method. “It’s so hard to find people in this area,” she was told, with a sad shake of the head. “All the better ones go and work in Switzerland.”

I’ve been doing quite a bit of online shopping lately. But since we saw the excellent film from Ken Loach, ‘Sorry we missed you’, I’ve had second thoughts about home deliveries.

So whenever possible, I’ve been trying to group my orders and have them sent to a ‘relais colis’, a delivery point at a local supermarket. I go there to shop anyway, so it seems to make sense and be a more environmentally friendly approach.

Unfortunately the system still has a few kinks. The first parcel I picked up at one relay point was somewhat battered looking but it didn’t occur to me to check the contents until I got home. On opening it, I found broken glass and a gooey mess inside: my ‘lot de 3’ jars of peanut butter had been put loose inside the box and broken in transit. I got my money back but gained nothing in my carbon footprint.

N’importe quoi!

My second attempt at having merchandise sent to a different delivery point was no more successful. Although I’d ordered several items at one time, Amazon decided to send them at different intervals. (It seems you can no longer request a ‘grouped’ delivery). The second shipment containing the stuff I wanted most (ie the peanut butter) was supposed to arrive at my local Intermarché last week, where I planned to go and get groceries. But instead I got a message saying that in order to deliver it on time, the company had sent my package to a different delivery point, at least 15 km away and not on my route to anywhere. Needless to say, I refused to go and pick it up. After a couple of weeks, it will be returned to sender and I’ll get my money back.

Du grand n’importe quoi.

In the meantime I went to a local health food store and found some peanut butter (organic, crunchy, just peanuts!) for a price only slightly higher than the online shop.

I suspect that such things are not just happening here in France. Have you recently experienced any examples of ‘n’importe quoi’?

Urgences

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to the ER this week. More than half of the hospital emergency services in this country are on strike, a movement that’s been building since March. They want more staff, more hospital beds and better conditions. Not so much for themselves as for their patients.

Of which I was one, however reluctantly. My belly-ache hardly seemed worthy of a trip to the ER. But the first available doctor’s appointment was over a month away. It was probably nothing but what if it wasn’t? So off I went.

Here in France profonde as we call it, ‘les Urgences’ are the first and last resort for both the seriously injured and the walking well. We live in an area with few doctors. Hardly surprising, given the proximity of Switzerland where medical professionals earn twice what they do here. We’re too far from the big hubs of Lyon and Paris, where medical care par excellence is readily available. Our local GPs are few and far between; they are over-worked and under-paid. There are no walk-in clinics and basically no options other than the hospital.

Being of a squeamish nature, I avoid such places like the plague (and for fear of the latter). So when I arrived at the hospital, I went first to the general reception desk, hoping that the medical appointment side of the ER might be removed from the one with the helicopter pad. No such luck. Off I went.

I arrived before the set of solid double doors that said ‘Emergency – Push Hard’ and paused. Then I took a breath and pushed. Instead of bloody accident victims and George Clooney running alongside a gurney, I saw a waiting room with people that looked like they might possibly have a pulse. Eyes glazed over with either pain or boredom, possibly both, it was hard to tell. No one spoke. Waiting rooms are silent places in France.

Behind another set of doors was where it was all happening. I took a number and was heartened – 256 and they were currently serving 253! After several minutes I realized that this was the line for paperwork. Another ten minutes went by before I was registered and the real wait began. One of the many signs on the wall informed me that the order in which patients would be helped would not necessarily be in the order of arrival, depending on the nature of their affliction. Fair enough.

I had plenty of time to observe what was going on. The ER was on strike, but that didn’t mean they weren’t taking care of patients. It is more of a symbolic strike, a gesture aimed at raising awareness of the untenable conditions in our hospitals. A bunch of hand-made posters included one that said: “It’s not because we’re on strike that you have to wait so long, it’s because you have to wait so long that we’re on strike!”

After a two-hour wait, I was better informed about the issues surrounding the strike. It’s not just a matter of throwing money at the problem. The system is broken. The health minister Agnès Buzyn wants to fix it with a plan that will take pressure off the emergency services, developing other medical services rather than increasing ER resources. The striking ‘blouses blanches’ (doctors and nurses) aren’t happy with this solution. Clearly it is not the shot in the arm they were hoping for. I feel their pain. But I also believe that a bigger healthcare reform is needed and that the current plan is a step in the right direction.

When I finally saw a doctor, he prescribed two weeks of meds and advised me to follow up with my regular GP when my scheduled appointment finally comes up. I am grateful that this option was there and for the hard-working people who provide urgent care. But I had no business taking up space in an ER whose resources would be better spent helping urgently ill patients.

What’s your experience with the ER?