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.

Bises.

Se faire la malle

You know that feeling you get when you’re preparing to leave a place? It’s rather strange and unsettling. Everything seems so impermanent and when it’s time do the things you would normally do, you wonder, why bother? Yet it can be sort of liberating. You can stop caring about certain things because, well, tomorrow you’ll be somewhere else.

Just this week I learned a new expression in French that perfectly describes (at least to me) the feeling I have at the moment: ‘On va se faire la malle.’

Meaning: we’re packing our bags. Taking off. Literally, doing ourselves a trunk. Or a bunk. I got the full sense of it here on my favourite website for contextual translations of French expressions in English.

It made sense. I knew that ‘une malle’ is a trunk. Remember those? My grandparents had one in their basement. Something you packed on a steamer when you travelled overseas. It seems the origin of the French locution can be traced to 1935 and is associated with prisoners planning their escape from jail.

It always amazes me when I come across an expression I’ve never heard before. After so many years in France, you’d think I’d have heard them all. But no. The French language is rich with such turns of phrase and there are many yet to learn.

‘Se faire la malle’ is my mindset at the moment. Not just because we’re gearing up for a major move in just over a month’s time, but because we’re going on a holiday. Just for a week, and nowhere too far away. In fact, because it’s nearby and the risk of infection is fairly low, we’re going on holiday in Switzerland.

How original, right? The same country we’re moving to. Although we may be forgiven, I think, given how lovely it is and how much there is to do and see. There will be time for travel in other years. For now, we’re heading to the Bernese Alps near Interlaken, and a little town called Lauterbrunnen.  

Many, many years ago, shortly after graduating, I took my maiden trip to Europe. I was a young woman on my own, and nervous about travelling in foreign lands. So I signed up for a Contiki tour out of London. We were a group of mostly single tourists from North America, the UK  and Australia. For several weeks we went through France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. We stayed overnight at a campsite near a town that I remember thinking had to be the most beautiful place on earth: Lauterbrunnen. I only hope it lives up to the memory.

And while I am planning my own escape from France, I think it will not be long before I am dreaming of returning to it. There is nothing more attractive than something that is both familiar and unknown, something loved yet just out of reach. I’m fairly certain that as soon as I’m living in Switzerland, holidays in France will have a new appeal. And I’ll be attentive to keeping up my language and continually exploring new linguistic turf en français.

What’s your favourite French expression?

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

L’argent du beurre

I hated butter when I was kid. Not so much the taste but the greasy, slimy nature of it. It seems this was an acquired dislike. One of my first memories, which is probably only a memory of a story I was later told, was of reaching my hand into the butter dish and having it slapped away. So began my aversion.

Later in life the sentiment dissipated as I discovered the flavour and richness that butter brings. At first I could only enjoy it as a topping on popcorn, when cooked into something or as a scant scraping on toast. Unfortunately for my cholesterol count, I now like a bit of butter on warm bread (very un-French, other than at breakfast) and add liberal doses of le beurre to everything from sauces to omelettes to veg.

I must admit we’re rather spoiled for butter around here. French butter is heralded by many for its superior quality. The only other butter which might possibly be better is Swiss. Just think of all those alpine pastures with the cows grazing on grass.

There are three kinds of beurre: doux (sweet), demi-sel (semi-salted) and salé (salted). There is even the kind with little salt crystals for those who enjoy the taste of salt explosions. The best butters are churned (‘barrate’) to separate out the buttermilk (‘babeurre’).

There is a French expression which seems particularly apt to me these days: “On ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre.” Literally this means that you cannot have both the butter and the money you make from selling it. Which essentially translates to the English expression, “You can’t have your cake and it eat it too.” Or have it both ways.

Looking for a new place to live means confronting this reality head on. You can downsize and have the same space. You can’t live in or near a town without having some noise. You can’t enjoy a mountain view without having to climb some hills. You can’t enjoy the advantages of good transit connections without have a train line or highway nearby.

When we decided to sell our house and move to something smaller on the Swiss side, we knew we wouldn’t have everything we wanted. So we set a few guidelines for our search. I was prepared to compromise on many things but not on a certain quantity and quality of space.

It has been a bit of a journey. Along the way I learned a few things, or re-learned them:

1. Shit happens. COVID-19 happened. The best-laid plans are nothing in the face of a pandemic.

2. You must stay true to what you want but keep your mind open to unexpected opportunities, go off the path and explore a little.

3. Pictures and online visits are all very well for a first impression but you have to actually see a space to get a feel of whether it’s right for you.

4. Things will eventually fall into place.

And so they have. Against all odds, only one month after lockdown was lifted in France, it seems we have found buyers for our house, and a new place to live in Switzerland. Neither of which quite fit the initial ideas of what we thought. But both feel right. More on our new place soon. I’m too superstitious to share details before we have signed on the dotted line.

In the meantime, there will be butter. I will definitely not be selling but enjoying it.

How do you like your butter — sweet, demi-sel or not at all?

La polémique

It is something of a national sport in France. Controversy: it leads to discussion, debate, disagreement. Which is mostly fine with me. I am a bit of a contrarian myself.

I grew up with a healthy sense of controversy. Discord was the essence of our family dynamic. My parents disagreed about everything from religion to politics and my father loudly aired his opinions at the dinner table each night. As the eldest of four children it was up to me to lead on behalf of the youth front. So I can hold my own in an argument.

But the French love of ‘la polémique’ goes too far. It is bad enough when things are normal. Last year it was les gilets jaunes, the yellow vests, an entire movement founded upon nothing more than perceived social and economic injustice. Now that we have an actual crisis, imagine the debate. First it was confinement. The government was insane to want to lock us up in our homes, require papers for every outing. Now it is deconfinement. The government is insane to expect us to go back to work, to put our children in school. They are lying, covering up, incompetent. Likely all three.

Controversy happens at every level of life in France. Not even language is exempt. Case in point: a recent item featured on the 8-oclock news about the correct usage of the word ‘reopen’. Is it, in fact, rouvrir or réouvrir?

“Réouvir,” said my husband, as we watched TV together during lockdown. Ha! I knew the correct answer, having learned it recently enough to remember. Especially as it goes against what I would naturally translate from English.

“No, it’s rourvir,” I said.

“What do you know, you’re not even French!” Clearly, the gloves were off.

Controversy, as I said, is a national sport and it’s also one that flourishes in our marriage. Besides, after several weeks of imposed togetherness, any filter of politeness was lost.

“You’ll see,” I said.

“Rouvir,” said the expert on the nightly news, putting an end to at least one debate in our household. Husband was consoled by the fact that the anglicized ‘réouvrir’ has sufficiently infiltrated his mother tongue that most people get it wrong. Also by the fact that the verb and the noun don’t align. It’s ‘rouvrir’ to reopen, but ‘réouverture’ for reopening.

France began the gradual reopening of the country this week. The lockdown may be over, for now, but the controversy still flourishes. They’re even talking about a second wave, not of the dreaded virus, but something almost as dangerous. Les gilets jaunes are preparing for round two.

I admit I’m somewhat divided about the need for so much debate. On one hand, I admire my fellow countrymen for fighting back. Here in France we all watched aghast as Brexit approached and marvelled at the lack of outrage outre-manche. Clearly our friends in the UK had been sold a bunch of lies and made an ill-informed decision to leave the EU. Yet no one was in the streets. The Brits’ ability to keep calm and carry on, while serving them well in a crisis, borders on apathy when it comes to politics.  

Yet the French are so absorbed in arguing that we have difficulty moving on. The latest polémique is now about whether individual members of the government should be held responsible for mistakes in leading us through the COVID-19 crisis. Did the lack of PPE at the outset of the pandemic lead to healthcare workers losing lives? Clearly. Should our leaders be made to pay? I’m not convinced. Several lawsuits are pending. Time will tell whether they will be found guilty. But given the French need to finger point and the ‘off-with-their-heads’ drive for justice, we will surely be arguing about who is responsible for a long time to come.

All of which makes me long for a dose of peace and harmony.

How do you feel about controversy?

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?