Les cieux

IMG_1773‘Sky’ is one of those French words that sounds completely different in the plural form. Le ciel, les cieux. So it is with the skies above us and the summer season – they are transformed into something other worldly.

The advent of summer often finds me outside staring at the sky. So much is going on above our heads and at this time of year it captivates my attention.

thumb_IMG_3739_1024Our house is on the flight path into Geneva. Lac Léman is like a highway for air traffic in and out of the neighbouring Swiss city. Planes landing make me feel relaxed and somehow happy, as if the homecoming were my own. Planes taking off are noisier and more intrusive, yet they often circle so high above us that the sound is very far away, a distant reminder of people setting off to see the world.

I lie on my reclining chair (oh, the wonders of this reclining chair, as good as the dentist’s only without the pain) and watch the silver bullets above. Sometimes it seems the planes are playing tic tac toe as their white tails criss-cross in the sky.

thumb_IMG_5412_1024The birds in these parts are a treat. We had dinner by the lake the other night and these little ones provided quite the spectacle. Although they were with some ducks, I am convinced these are baby swans. Any ornithological experts care to weigh in?

Above us, the constantly circling hawks are mesmerizing. They coast way up high on currents of air, emitting strange high-pitched sounds. Although I suspect they are hunting for prey, it is relaxing to watch them circle and soar. At ground level, swallows swoop and dip into the pool for a drink. Little green and yellow birds flit and peep in the garden.

The clouds have been especially amazing this year. The turbulent weather pattern this spring and early summer has brought constantly changing skies that are a wonder to behold. Each glorious day must be savoured; in winter we often get dull days of fog and cannot see the mountains just across the lake.

Something magical happens to the light around Lake Geneva at this time of year. It glows as if lit from within. Although I am a morning person, we get amazing sunset views.

thumb_IMG_4303_1024What does the sky look like where you are?

 

 

 

 

Crossing the border

We live in France, just across the border from Switzerland. Geneva is our closest big city and we’re as often on the Swiss side as we are in France. Work is in Switzerland. So is the airport, the bigger department stores and many of our favorite restaurants.

Crossing the border is no big deal. In fact, it has become largely a technicality, since the Schengen accords abolished the need to control the borders between 26 European countries.

La Haute Savoie
La Haute Savoie

In our corner of Lake Geneva, the border weaves a crooked line through hills and along rivers. When you’re driving around, you may change countries without even realizing it.

Recently we had visitors from Canada who wondered: how can you tell which side of the border you’re on?

It’s not all that obvious. Here in the Haute Savoie part of the French Rhône-Alpes region, we have a toe in Switzerland, a heel in Italy, and a long history of belonging to various sides. Like our sister region, the Savoie, our departmental flag is almost identical to the Swiss flag. Geneva was taken over by France during the revolution and at one point in history, the area where we now live was supposed to be part of French-speaking Switzerland.

« Entrée Savoie » par Florian Pépellin
Sign from our sister department, La Savoie « Entrée Savoie » par Florian Pépellin

But Switzerland is another country. Other than the Swiss flag itself, which proudly flies at every border outpost, here’s what to watch – and listen – for when you cross the border into Switzerland:

  1. Prices in Swiss francs
    One of the first things you will notice is the prices in Swiss Francs. Even if you don’t notice it right away, you’ll soon feel the pinch. One Swiss franc (1 CHF) is worth about .80 EUR cents, but the cost of just about everything is much higher than the exchange rate seems to justify.

2. Bus stops and public transit
The Swiss are great believers in public transit. Even small villages on the outskirts of big towns are well served by buses and trains. Ferry boats run by the CGN (Swiss national navigation company) take commuters from France to the Swiss side of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva).

3. Better roads and cleaner streets
Everything is well maintained in Switzerland. Which may be one reason why prices are higher.

4. Recycling bins
Even in public places like train stations and on the street, you often see bins specifically for recyclables like plastic.

5. Accent
The French like to make fun of the Swiss Romand accent, a kind of lilt that makes the phrases go up at the end. But then again, the French make fun of accents from everywhere – even within their own country.

 6. English spoken
After so many years in France, it surprised me at first to hear so much English spoken just across the border. You will notice that many different languages are spoken in Switzerland, but most commonly: French, German, Italian and English.

Caninette  7. Dog poop
Along with cleaner, better maintained streets comes a certain mania for picking up. Stoop-and-scoop bags are available pretty well everywhere in Switzerland. And beware of fines if you don’t pick up after le chien!

8. License plates
The plates on Swiss cars begin with the two-letter abbreviation of the Canton: GE for Geneva, VD for Vaud or ZH for Zurich, for example.

9. Vignette
You can’t drive on the Swiss motorways without paying an annual highway tax. I love the efficiency of it – a small price to pay instead of all those annoying tolls in France. La vignette (which you must display on your windshield) costs 40 CHF (33 EUR) and the borders on the main roads (ie, Bardonnex in Geneva) are often patrolled to catch visitors who haven’t paid up.

10. Frontaliers
You will also notice a lot of French license plates on the Swiss side. That’s because jobs are more plentiful and better paid. Les frontaliers, those who live in one country and work in another, are an unpopular bunch: Disliked by the French, who assume there’s something illegal or immoral about earning more money or paying less tax; and tolerated but not really liked or trusted by the Swiss.

I should know. I’m one of them.

What about you? Ever been confused about which side of the border you were on?

 

Chez soi: There’s no place like home

I love how the French word ‘chez’ describes home. It even sounds welcoming: Viens chez nous. Come over to our place. And you don’t go to the butcher’s shop, you go ‘chez le boucher,’ ‘chez le boulanger,’ etc. You learn this one early in French as it’s a classic mistake to say ‘au’ instead of ‘chez’ when referring to shops with a person behind the name.

The concept of house and home is very dear to the French. And to me: I’ve always been a homebody. They call this being ‘casanier’ in French. I like having a place to hang my hat. This means I’m not a huge fan of travel and indeed, cannot travel light. My husband always laughs when I carefully unpack my clothes in hotel rooms; he’s perfectly happy living out of a suitcase. But for anything longer than a weekend, I pack a pillow and have been known to bring the toaster.

Ever since I arrived in France I’ve been like Dorothy, tapping her heels and saying ‘there’s no place like home.’

My first chez moi was in the seventh arrondissement of Paris, a one-bedroom sublet with a partial view of the Eiffel tower (you had to crane your head out of the kitchen window to see a bit of it sticking up over a neighboring rooftop). It was furnished in someone else’s taste (there was a lot of pink). We lived there for less than a year and it never really felt like home.

Fast forward to Lyon, 3ème arrondissement. Our family’s first home in France was a roomy 3-bedroom apartment on the rive gauche of the Rhône, not far from the business centre of Lyon. Long on old-world charm, it had dizzyingly high ceilings with crown moldings, antique fixtures and floor tiles, herring-bone hardwood floors….but was rather short on modern conveniences (the ‘central heating’ was a single gas heater, centrally located in the front hall).

Although we were only renting, we (read: my husband) scraped off several layers of flocked and flowered wall paper from every surface (including the ceiling) and repainted before moving in. We had no balcony but our bedroom window overlooked a treed inner courtyard. It was only a few blocks to the nearest park for airing kids and dogs. We stayed for five years – long enough to feel almost at home.

Next stop: home ownership. After so much time in the city, we were ready for some fresh air. For several months we searched for something we liked and could actually afford. In the end, we bought a piece of land in a small town half an hour outside Lyon, found a builder and chose a plan for our new house. Building was cheaper than buying an existing house as you got a break on taxes.

Our first house was a typical new French single-family home. It was a brick construction set in a small housing development (lotissement) where several other families had each built a different house. It looked out over les Monts du Lyonnais on one side and a small farmer’s field on the other. It did not have finished closets, kitchen or bathroom fittings. Those little extras are considered as part of the décor; most new houses here are delivered as empty shells.  But we had a roof over our heads and could really see the skies for the first time in years. I felt like I’d arrived in Kansas.

Small wonder I never wanted to leave. But the day came a few years ago when we decided to uproot (for absolutely, positively the LAST time) and move on. More precisely, 160 kilometers northeast.

Our new house is on the French side of the border with Switzerland (after so much time and effort integrating here, I wasn’t ready to abandon la belle France). It’s located in another small town in the countryside, overlooking Lake Geneva on one side and the Alps on the other. We also built this house, buoyed by our first experience, equal amounts of optimism and, perhaps, foolhardiness. It’s similar in many ways to our first house – but on steroids.

It’s an A-frame wood structure with a lot of glass – based on what some call a ‘flat-pack’ or prefab home but customized and built by a professional builder (neither of us being handy with tools or implements other than those used for cooking.) It was a much bigger project – this time we were able to get a built-in kitchen and finish the closets. Even after a year and a half, we’re still working out some of the bugs.

As lovely as our new home is, it took me awhile to get over our old house. The one where our kids grew up, where we struggled through the lean years and put down roots. But I’m finally beginning to feel chez moi. Now that I’ve unpacked the toaster.