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?

Se sentir bien

thumb_IMG_3421_1024 This is a postcard from my morning run.

Pictures can capture the beauty of this place but not the way it smells. Close your eyes and join me on a virtual tour around our corner of Lake Geneva in the Haute Savoie.

Take a deep breath. The first thing you will notice is the lake smell. Wet, musky, a hint of freshwater fish. Lac Léman is just a few hundred metres away, and on days with a bit of humidity in the air it feels like you are breathing the lake.

There is a large farm field between our house and the lake. As we pass by it the smell of fresh-cut grass rises – heady and pleasant. Then something stronger overrides it. Manure has been spread to fertilize the land and its odour hangs heavy in the air.

The road crosses through the woods and the air changes. Suddenly it is cooler, denser. The smell of wet leaves and spices tickles your nostrils as you are surrounded by myriad shades of green. If you hear a rustle up ahead don’t be surprised. Sometimes a deer will cross – un chevreuil in French. I am always caught in amazement to see them so close but they are gone before I can get my camera out.

The road turns up towards the Château de Beauregard, stately on its perch above the lake. The trees thin out and you can see a few brown and white cows grazing in the neighbouring field as the forest smell mingles with a grassy note of dung.

We continue up the road until we reach the village centre. The bakery emits a warm, yeasty advertisement of bread just out of the oven.

Cutting across the main road, we cross behind the church and up through residential streets. There is a sudden sharp smell of onions cooking in someone’s kitchen, reminding us that it is almost lunchtime.

thumb_IMG_3432_1024A leafy green hedge with tiny white flowers gives off intense bursts of crisp musk. Then the houses give way and we are in a field of yellow. Colza, rapeseed or canola, in full flower gives off a perfume that is delicate and honeyed. We pick up speed as we pass it. The sheep next door give us a curious stare.

Now it’s back down through more houses to the main road and home. We come to the roundabout where traffic flows from Evian to Geneva. Fumes of diesel exhaust are like grey ashes in the nose, an unpleasant reminder that the city is not far off.

To feel and to smell are two different sensations but in French they are described by the same word: sentir. Every time I go for a walk or a run around my village, there are so many things that smell wonderful, or simply memorable. Most importantly, je me sens bien – I feel good.

How do you feel?

 

Chez le médecin

IMG_2965I am blessed with good health, a gift for which I am more grateful with each passing year. (She says, knocking on noggin). This despite the fact that I have spent many long hours chez le médecin.

You cannot raise a family in France without becoming painfully familiar with the doctor’s waiting room. You are given a carnet de santé or health record book that tracks your child’s health from birth to age 16. There are checkups – visites obligatoires – at various ages and stages of development. There are vaccinations, height and weight charts. There are vitamins and prescriptions for every imaginable ailment. You don’t leave a doctor’s office in France without a prescription for something (more on that to come).

But oh, the hours spent in the salle d’attente! The unending, crashing bore of it. The dog-eared, outdated magazines. The stale air and germ-infested space with little to distract a child.

Le toubib, as the doctor is called in familiar fashion, tends to be a lone wolf. Most doctors practice under the category of ‘profession libérale’ which is a fancy way of saying self-employed. There is no receptionist or medical secretary to take calls or welcome you at the door. Le médecin généraliste, meaning GP or family doctor in French, runs his own practice, does the paperwork and answers the phone.

Another reason for the endless wait is that many doctors offer a daily ‘permanence’ or walk-in clinic. The advantage is that if you are suddenly ill you can get in to see the doctor the same day – provided you are well enough and willing to wait.

In our country village outside of Lyon there were two GP’s, each with his own cabinet on opposite ends of the main street. I saw both early on and quickly chose Dr. Fourré, a heavyset fellow (like his name, which means stuffed) with a calm, soft-spoken manner who actually listened when I spoke, and looked me in the eye. The other doctor was younger and more modern with a computer on his desk. He spent the whole time looking at the screen and seemed like a scared rabbit every time I tried to catch his eye.

How well I remember the long hours in Dr. Fourré’s small and shabby salle d’attente. The permanence was in the afternoon and the after-school rush at 4:30 was epic. Sometimes people would open the door, stick their head in to do a quick count, then disappear. I later discovered that some would literally run across the village to the other doctor’s waiting room and go where the queue was shortest. Later on the two doctors got together and coordinated their hours, so that one had permanence in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

I am not a patient person. I simply do not wait well. Which makes me a very poor patient indeed.

But I will always be grateful to Dr. Fourré as he was the one who sent me for the MRI that revealed my acoustic neuroma, a benign but mushroom-size tumor growing in my inner ear. It was removed by a specialist in Paris a few months later with no lasting consequence other than a total loss of hearing on the left side. But it was the simple country doctor who actually listened to my complaint about not being able to understand conversation – the specialist I’d seen a few weeks before had sent me away with platitudes about hearing loss and aging.

French doctors work long hours for little pay. They are the unsung heroes of the healthcare system.

Many GP’s in France still make house calls, surprisingly enough, although these are an increasingly rare species. There is also a service called SOS Médecins. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area covered by them, you can get a doctor to come to you within hours. Unfortunately, where we now live in the Haute Savoie, it’s either the nearest hospital or the waiting room of the local GP.

The first time I went to see a doctor in France, a couple of things surprised me. One was the complete lack of modesty accorded to the patient. In this case it was a gynecologist who had me undress for the physical exam without providing any kind of gown or sheet to cover up. Fortunately he kept up a steady stream of chatter with a lot of eye contact to cover any awkwardness.

Another surprising thing was the fact that the doctor is addressed as Monsieur or Madame rather than ‘Docteur.’ You can call him Doctor if you wish, but not doing so is not the blasphemy it would be in North America, where medical professionals are like gods.

What I found even more embarrassing than being à poil was having to take out my cheque book and pay the fellow (although I was dressed by then). This had never happened in Canada, or if it had I’d always dealt with a secretary. It seemed almost insulting to write a doctor a cheque. Especially for so little.

Unless you see a physician as a private patient, the amount you will pay for a basic medical consultation is 23 euros. Even my hairstylist charges more than this.

How do you feel about le toubib?

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?