Que de chemin parcouru

The trail seemed easy enough. The hotel offered a free shuttle ride up to the start of the three-hour walk along ‘Levada Nova’.

Levadas are the irrigation channels that carry water down to the seaside towns from the top of the mountains on Madeira. We were visiting the Portuguese island for an extended anniversary weekend, a mini holiday that we take every year around this time. The weather was perfect: spring-like temperatures with a few clouds and a bit of fine rain. Walking along the levadas is a popular activity for visitors to the island.

I was wary of getting in over my head, though. The Frenchman I married all those years ago is far more at ease than I am at altitude; he skis and climbs and can keep going forever. I figured we should start small and see how we went. So we chose the easiest trail.

It started out well. The paths were fairly narrow but flanked by lush vegetation of all kinds on both sides. Madeira was once the world sugar cane capital but these days bananas are the more lucrative crop.

But it quickly got a lot scarier. The narrow path edged along the mountain side with a fairly sheer drop just centimetres away in many places. Where it was steepest, there were barriers — stakes with ropes attached – which provided at least psychological support.

I had to fight my fear of heights to keep going. Coupled with my challenged sense of balance ever since I had inner ear surgery several years ago, the fear of taking a wrong step had me seriously considering walking in the irrigation ditch, lower and away from the edge. But it would have meant slowing down and soaking my feet, so I slogged it out. I was too afraid to stop and take photos of the steepest parts. You’ll have to take my word for it: it was impressive.

We didn’t have a map but had been told the path was clearly marked. No one said anything about a tunnel. Did I mention I also have a fear of the dark, of both open and closed spaces? Basically I am a mess. I thought the man I married thirty-odd years ago would have known this by now.

Reaching the tunnel, I balked. Then ensued a scene not dissimilar to many others we have navigated over the years together.

“No way am I doing this. Are they out of their freaking minds? It’s pitch black in there. Why didn’t they give us torches?”

“Don’t worry, your eyes will adjust.”

“Mine won’t. Wait, I’m going to use my phone flashlight.”

“But you can see light at the end.”

“No I can’t, you’re blocking it.”

“All right, then, just let me step aside…” There was a splash and my scream echoed through the tunnel as I turned my phone light and saw him struggling to right himself from where he had fallen into the ditch.

“Oh, god, are you okay? You could have broken your ankle!”

“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me, just get moving.”

I walked as quickly as possible without running in the dark, as the speck of light at the end of the tunnel grew bigger.

We emerged on the other side to a gorgeous waterfall with another sheer drop. I collapsed on a rock. He looked at me and shook his head.

“You’re not your daughter’s father!”

I cracked up. “No, that would be biologically impossible.”

But he was right: I’m my mother’s daughter, not my father’s. My dad is the adventurous one, the guy who goes kite surfing at the age of 86. My late mother’s idea of sport went no further than the dance floor.

I inherited her fear of heights, of enclosed spaces, of flying, of fear itself. I also got her eyes, some of her kindness and a lot of her sensitive soul. Sadly I did not get her ability to cut a rug. From my dad I got a love of the outdoors and some of the exercise gene. Just not at altitude.

We continued on, through gorgeous vistas. Fifteen minutes past the tunnel, he couldn’t find his sunglasses.

“Where did you have them last?”

“On my head.”

“Right. They probably fell off in the tunnel.”

“I’m going back for them. You wait here.”

I put my foot down. I may have even stamped it.

“No way! There is no guarantee you’ll even find them. And I’m not going to wait here for half an hour worrying while you go and look. We’ll buy new ones.”

He was not happy. I reminded him that if we had made it this far together it was because we both knew when to pick our battles and when to cut our losses. We moved on.

A short while later, the path disappeared. We stopped at a fence where it had been washed away. Some other hikers confirmed that the steps we had passed some ways back led down to a different levada, one that would lead us back to the hotel.

On reflection I suppose that marriage is like that trail. Sometimes it is dizzying, and sometimes there are dark passages where you can’t see the light. But you just keep walking, a step at a time, putting one foot in front of the other. You keep the faith. And suddenly you realize how far you have come. Que de chemin parcouru.

Happy anniversary, mon amour!

One of the last sightings of the sunglasses…

 

Gilets jaunes et coups de gueules

The subversive messages started going around on Facebook in October. It was all very hush-hush, in the spirit of the resistance that characterizes such movements in France. The gist was this: Stop! Enough already. The French people are already taxed to death. It is time to stand up and say no more. Ça suffit!

In protest against the latest round of price hikes at the gas pumps, 60% of which is tax, we were urged to get out our high-visibility vests on November 17 and join the protests and blockades to bring the country to a halt.

So was born the popular movement of ‘les gilets jaunes’ – the yellow vests – in France. The name is a natural as every French vehicle is required to have one of these on board.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, this video went viral.

Its author, Jacline Mouraud, has become the unlikely, sweet-faced spokesperson for the movement. Or perhaps not so unlikely. Because she speaks a certain amount of truths, simply but with heart. And there is no denying that the Macron government seems to be tone deaf to the outrage of the working poor, those who earn the minimum wage of around 1200 euros net per month (9 EUR per hour).

As she asks the government: What are you doing with all that extra money from our higher gas prices, the radar traps, the ‘contrôles techniques’ on older vehicles? Other than buying new dishes for the Elysée Palace or updating your swimming pools!

She also spews quite a bit of misleading information – fake news, in popular parlance. There is no ‘carte grise’ or license for bicycles, nor a government plot to get us all riding around on trottinettes.

But it has got a lot of angry French people out to protest since Saturday.

Sadly, two people were killed and over 600 injured, among both protesters and the police. And it ain’t over yet.

The higher prices for gas, especially for drivers of diesel vehicles of which the poor represent the majority, is just the tip of the iceberg. The ‘ras le bol’ (sense of being fed up) among the French goes beyond the government’s carbon tax to compensate for new, more ecologically friendly, modes of transport. Even the poorest taxpayers understand the need to cut pollution. It is the fact that people here feel their purchasing power diminishing, that seniors can no longer count on their pensions to cover the cost of living, that working people cannot make ends meet.

It is a context that is popular and political and fired by a sense of social injustice. I hear rumblings of student protests and if that happens, well…who knows?

What do you think about the ‘yellow vests’?

Allô Maman bobo

Invasion of the electric scooter in Paris

When my kids were young, back in the late 90s, scooters came into vogue. La trottinette, as they’re called in French, was suddenly all the rage. Of course, it wasn’t the first time, as this photo from 1927 shows.

Unlike the pogs, the Tamagotchis and Tuggles of the day, I approved of the trottinette. It got the kids outside, tooling around the neighourhood, and seemed a lot less dangerous than skateboards or bikes. Besides, they seemed like fun.

Until I had to carry one home from the park one day and banged my shin on it a bunch of times. Bugger, those things were heavy. I had the bruises to prove it.

A few years later the trend hit the adult segment. By then the kids had finished with them and their scooters were gathering dust in the garage.

Suddenly, business people in suits, satchels and briefcases slung over their backs, were riding them all over the city streets. They thought they were cool; I couldn’t help but think they looked ridiculous. Absurd even. Yet the trottinette became the very ‘bobo’ (short for Bourgeois bohemian, the French forerunner of today’s hipster) thing to do in Paris and Lyon.

Lo and behold, in the era of new forms of transport like Uber, along comes the electric scooter. Now the streets of Paris have been invaded by the contraptions. Needless to say, it is causing all kinds of havoc. Not to mention a great many ‘bobos’, of a completely different kind.

A bit of vocabulary:

‘Trottinette’ comes from the word ‘trottiner’ which means to scurry or trot along like a child. Presumably this is where we get the name for sidewalk: trottoir.

‘Bobo’ is a French baby talk for what we in North America sometimes call a booboo or the kind of hurt finger that children run to Mum about.

As one of my favourite singer-songwriters, Alain Souchon, captured in this song, sometimes even as grown ups we feel like crying to our mums. It’s a terrible recording, featuring the French penchant of the day for lip-synching on live performances. But watch for a surprise appearance at the end of the clip.

Yes, that’s France Gall. The singer who won the Eurovision song contest in 1965, inspired Serge Gainsbourg and Michel Berger and, sadly, died of breast cancer early this year.

Back to the trottinette. With the advent of companies like Lime and Bird, who offer electric scooter rentals that you can pick up, ride and leave anywhere, she age of ‘free floating’ has arrived in Paris. And it’s a mess. French sidewalks are busy places, the streets filled with wobbly cobblestones and other dangers; there are not enough bicycle lanes and the roads are not places for anyone without a helmet.

The French authorities are currently reworking the law for motorized scooters and hover boards, to decide whether they belong on the street or elsewhere, and what rules should be set for their use. Theoretically, such devices have a maximum speed limit of 25 km, but I hear there are those that go much faster.

In my opinion, anyone on wheels should not share space on a sidewalk with pedestrians (except for tykes in strollers). Clearly defined rules of the road for everyone – pedestrians, cyclists, scooters, skateboarders and cars – need to be rethought, and each of us from the age of adulthood should be made to demonstrate that we understand and respect them. That is the way of the future for all of our cities, as we become more aware of the need for exercise and non-polluting modes of transport. In old-world cities like Paris, it is becoming urgent.

In the meantime, beware of bobos on trottinettes!

What’s your favourite mode of transport?

La soif: thirst for life

J’ai soif. I’m thirsty.

To ‘have’ thirst (or hunger, or cold, or sleep) is how we express basic needs in French.

I am often thirsty. Which means I drink a lot. Water. Coffee. Tea. Beer. Wine. Not always in that order. But in general, I am someone who needs a lot of liquids. Unlike others who forget to hydrate unless they make a point of it, I actually enjoy drinking water. When I’m truly thirsty, I prefer tap water to anything else. I always have a glass of water on my desk as I work. A bottle of water when I travel.

Pretty sure I’m not diabetic, so what does this mean? Other than the fact I never stray too far from the loo. Maybe it runs deeper than a physical need.

J’ai soif de la vie. I’m thirsty for life, for information, for always trying to do better than I did yesterday. I don’t always succeed – far from it. But I keep trying.

It’s a good thing I’m not a tree. Around here it is drier this fall than I’ve ever seen it in France. We’ve had maybe one rain since August, and the entire summer was basically a drought. The leaves on the trees are crispy, their branches stiff with dryness. The exposed earth has big cracks in it. It would take days, weeks of rain for nature to get to back to normal.

It’s scary. I’m not even sure ‘normal’ as we once knew it will ever return. There is a drought warning from mild to severe in almost every region of France. There are water restrictions for farmers and the water tables everywhere are dangerously low.

Here is a map of where the worst drought conditions are:

We are in an ‘orange’ zone next to Switzerland in the 74 department of Haute Savoie, which means fairly severe restrictions on water use. Yet my next-door neighbour waters her personal garden of Eden every night. All summer long I’ve been tempted to carry out a stealth operation and go shut it down but in the interests of peace I have refrained. But it breaks my heart to see the fields so dry and the human energy pigs with their green oases

I’m not really one to judge. We have a swimming pool. Still, I try to fill it as little as possible and stay sensitive to what’s going on around me.

The EU voted to ban single-use plastics yesterday. It’s a step in the right direction. And it’s not like the impact on our lives will be so huge. I mean, who really needs plastic straws? Seriously? Or disposable cups for that matter. We can always buy or bring a refillable bottle when we go out.

I have an unquenchable thirst. I hope to satisfy it a little each day by trying to think differently, to rearrange my life a little.

J’ai soif. Et toi?

Chasse à la chasse

Hunting season has been open in France since September. On Sunday, a cyclist was killed not far from where we live in the Haute Savoie town of Montriond, near Morzine. It’s an area we know well enough. My husband’s cousin runs a hotel there and we often go skiing or to stroll around the lake.

The cyclist was a British man in his 30s, and in a stranger-than-fiction turn of fate, may not be mourned by all who knew him. But that doesn’t change the fact that each year, lives are lost to la chasse in France. And not just those of the prey.

It seems the hunter, a young fellow just starting out, mistook the cyclist for the target. They were hunting wild boar and so the bullets are big enough to kill instantly. Often, when it’s small game or birds, the rifles use buckshot. The fellow who fired the fatal shot has been hospitalized in a state of shock but an investigation is ongoing.

Sadly, it happens more often than you might think. One of my husband’s uncles was killed by a member of his own hunting party years ago in Normandy. Recently, though, the number of deaths from hunting accidents has been dropping each year. So does the popularity of the sport, which, along with fishing, remains one of the most popular in France.

Hunters are generally thought to be good citizens, who are careful and follow the rules. They must have a license to hunt. They are respectful of nature and only hunt the species and numbers allowed. Still, as I’ve posted before, running across men with guns while out for a walk on a Sunday is far from reassuring.

It’s not always very obvious that you are near a ‘réserve de chasse’ (hunting ground). There will be the odd sign but they are not necessarily visible if you come through a forest path. Sometimes main paths and small roads will be blocked off with a sign that says ‘Attention, tir à balles’, indicating that a big game shoot is happening.

I am not a fan of blood sport, but I do support the right of those who practice la chasse to pursue their hobby within the framework of the law. Should that law allow hunting to go on just steps from where people hike, ride bikes, walk their dogs? On a Sunday? Not in this blogger’s opinion. One very simple change that could save lives would be to set one day of the weekend for hunting and leave the other for the rest of us. Even better, allow hunting only during the week when most people are at work.

In the meantime, you are strongly advised to wear brightly coloured clothing, make a lot of noise and strap a bell on your dog when out walking during hunting season in France.

I’m game for that. And you?