Giboulées de mars

The sky grows dark. The wind picks up. The temperature drops. A few fat drops blow down at an odd angle, turning to freezing rain. Just as quickly, the sun pokes through the clouds. A few minutes later, the patches of wet are drying on the ground.

And then the cycle starts again. Sometimes several times a day.

March is famous for its ‘giboulées’, less thrillingly known as showers in English. They can happen anytime as we transition from winter to spring. I’ve even seen this unstable weather last almost until summer.

I don’t mind it so much. It reminds us that better days are coming. It brings needed water for the gardens. It seems, in a world gone mad, an entirely normal rite of passage in the change of seasons.

If, as the saying goes, April showers bring May flowers, it all happens a lot earlier in France. Some of the flowers are already out in the lower altitudes of the Haute Savoie, and things are much further along in the south.

According to Météo France, our venerated weather experts, the giboulée phenomenon is due to a contrast of colder air above and warmer air below, and the instability of the atmosphere in between. Here you go with the whole story explained in detail (in French):

As you can see we take our weather seriously around here.

This situation of instability strikes me as somehow fitting. As the Brits waffle over whether to stay or go, on what terms and when, as improbable skirmishes and political polarizations seemingly become more extreme around the world each day, I watch the skies above at their most turbulent and enjoy this meteorological drama. It seems safer and far more predictable than the human kind.

Just a few more days until it’s officially spring, mes amis.

What does the change of seasons mean to you?

Au printemps

Spring has been taking its sweet time in making an appearance. Normally the signs are visible by mid-March but this year Easter came and went with nary a blossom. It’s not surprising that the longed-for season of renewal is dragging its feet – winter came in with a bang far later than usual. But this week, enfin! The unmistakable signs of le printemps are here at last.

The birds are the first ones to announce that something is up. Even before we sprang forward by an hour, I could hear them twittering away in the predawn dark. Now there is a flurry of activity going on in the eaves and in the branches at all hours.

 

Hello yellow
Le jaune de forsythia

Forsythia is the first floral sign of spring. Hello yellow! I love it for its brief, joyful burst that heralds so much to come. Its intense yellow hurrah will only last a few weeks at best. It’s joined by bright daffodils and a softer yellow wild flower that grows around the base of trees. Wish I knew its name.

Next: the rain. It has been pouring on and off for the past couple of weeks. We had an actual thunderstorm yesterday. I could feel winter’s cold breath blowing madly against the warmer spring air. It’s colder again this morning so winter may have won the battle but spring will win the war.

Around town, all the signs are there too: the year’s first ‘braderie’ or rummage sale is coming up this weekend and – joy! – the local restaurant by the lake is open again. It closes from October to March as it specializes in local lake fish. Can’t wait to have the season’s first plate of filets de perche, the tiny fish that are cooked ‘à la meunière’ and served simply with a butter and lemon sauce.

Restaurant du Port

But first, there is the obligatory post-winter régime to rid ourselves of excess blubber. Signs have sprouted in the shops promoting ‘cure d’amincissement’, ‘détox’ and ‘minceur’. As for me, I find that it helps to eat less. So I’ve cut out my sweet and salty treats for now and am upping the ante with a bit more exercise.

Another sign of spring is the sudden onset of wardrobe renovation. I went down to the charity shop in the village and splurged on several second-hand finds. Someone who is just my size and has excellent taste must live around here. Then, given that I’d only spent a few euros, I splashed out on a brand new pair of summer sandals online. Oops. Can’t wait to take these babies for a trot.

Les sandales

Now the schoolkids are on holiday for another two weeks. Easter vacation is their last official break before the summer. There has been talk about reducing the (in my opinion, ridiculous) amount of vacation time between the Toussaint, Christmas, Winter and Spring breaks (each of which last two weeks). The mere mention of such a change in the sacrosanct French school calendar has various unions gearing up for action.

Speaking of which: across France, strike season is gaining momentum as the SNCF continues it movement, or lack of. More on that later.

What’s your favourite sign of spring?

La bise

640px-bise
Winds on Lac Léman by Calimo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Whoever decided to name the north wind ‘la bise’ had a good sense of humour. Certainly it puts colour in your cheeks and is perhaps a poetic metaphor for the double-cheek kisses – les bises – the French are known for.

But the wind that is blowing down Lake Geneva from the Swiss Alps to the Jura at the moment is not a kiss but a face slapping, chill-your-bones blast that has me swaddled in a huge wool scarf and cap pulled firmly down to my Canadian nose as I bravely step forth. And still my head aches as I make my way into its cold embrace.

La bise is just one of several winds that blow around le pays du Léman. For someone who grew up by the Great Lakes, this lake is not that big – although a quick Google tells me it is one of the largest in Western Europe. How many winds could one lake have? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the 12 different winds that regularly soufflent upon us, from the Joran to the Rebat. Surely this is why Lake Geneva is so popular for sailing.

I have always loved the wind. It stirs my romantic soul and makes me feel a bit more alive than when the air is too still and warm. But a lively breeze is one thing. The bise, and its evil cousin, la bise noire (the black kiss), are something else all together.

When we lived in Lyon, it was in horror of the wind. We also felt the bise there – although most people called it the Mistral. The worst was le vent du sud – the south wind – reputed to bring on terrible headaches. I thought this was a meteorological effect until I learned that it brought the foul smell of gases from the refineries to the south of the city. And then there was the hot, dry Sirocco, blowing all the way from the Moroccan desert to leave a layer of red dust on our car.

When the north wind blows as it has this week, rattling the roof and causing our wood-frame house to shiver its timbers, I remind myself how much I love living by this lake, sandwiched between two rows of mountains, riding on ferry boats and seeing the little kids out learning to sail in summer. They call their tiny sailboats ‘les optimists’.

I am inspired by their optimism to note that the bise often brings bright blue skies along with the cold. That the days are already getting longer. Soon winter’s icy kiss will be nothing more than a bit of colour in our cheeks.

How do you feel about the wind?

Un froid de canard

froid-de-canard

Suddenly, it’s winter here in France. Which means it’s cold enough for ducks.

One of the eternal mysteries of life is why winter always feels colder here than in Canada. Is it the damp, perhaps, or the fact that we are less prepared for the subzero chill? Could it be because the houses are not as well insulated or our coats not as warm?

All I know is that il fait un froid de canard and – pardon my French – we are freezing our tits off. My own personal theory is that we need some snow. All that bright white will soon have us feeling warmer. Take it from a Canuck.

The arrival of snow in France is an annual event that is almost as talked-about as the great migration to parts south and coastal in the summer. Not of ducks but of French holiday-makers.

I’ve posted before about how snowstorms will trump (pardon my French again!) just about all other breaking news. So far we’ve avoided that disaster but the mere suggestion that a few flakes might be falling this week has required live updates and lengthy analyses by meteorologists. When something happens in France, no matter what the cause, an explanation must be found, and if possible a guilty party. The weatherman shook his head and pointed with consternation to the cold front coming in over the Balkans from Russia. Aha!

To the other burning question: why do the French associate the sudden onset of cold weather with ducks? I am happy to be able to clear up that mystery: it seems that our quacking friends come out of hiding when the temperature drops, leaving the open waters for the hinterland and giving hunters a clear shot.

Poor ducks. Well, at least if they’re out flying they haven’t been confined and force fed to fatten up their livers for foie gras.

You have to look on the bright side.

la neigeAs I write this, snow has finally fallen and, conversely, my mood has lightened. Nothing like a bit of white stuff to keep the cold at bay. And the ducks.

What’s the temperature chez vous?

How do you feel about la neige?

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?