L’heure bleue

Heure bleue

Blue was never my favourite colour. Perhaps everyone else just loved it too much. I preferred green — for nature, for hope and for something else, maybe the bit of Irish blood that runs in my veins. Also, it was my mother’s favourite colour.

Lately I’ve come to appreciate the vast talents of blue. I love its myriad shades that mark the seasons here in our corner of Lake Geneva. The skies, of course, but also the mountains and lakes. No two blues are ever quite the same. There are so many variations on its theme, from bright and promising to dark and menacing. It is steel and intensely teal and sometimes it is just impossibly bright.

Lac Léman

And then there is ‘l’heure bleue’, the blue hour. I only just recently learned what this expression means. That magic twilight hour before the sun sets in the evening and rises in the morning, when the entire horizon is somehow infused with blue. It is a light that highly appreciated by artists and has inspired songs.

Blue is also the colour of cold. It describes, at least in English, a quality of sadness that often accompanies these cold months. And what other colour has an entire genre of music named after it? Am I blue? Perhaps not, but I already feel the need for a fresh infusion of spring.

As winter reaches its snowy crescendo and the north wind blows at its coldest, we have some truly amazing blue hours. There is something about the light in January, especially when there’s snow, that is bluer than anything.

Yet during this coldest of winter months, I find myself thinking about those wonderful ‘blue hour’ sunsets over the lake in summer. That first one, when we sat outside by the lake one April evening, that convinced us that this was the place we wanted to come home to.

What is your fondest memory of blue? Or blues?

La bise

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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?

Boules de Noël

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It’s almost Christmas and around here that means a bit of sparkle. Here in France, our sapin takes pride of place by the window, hung with lights and garlands and boules de Noël.

One of the mysteries of the French language is why decorations are always called ‘boules’. Christmas balls is a decidedly unfortunate English translation of what we would simply call decorations, rather like the little lamb’s balls from this post of blog years past.

Not having much of a mind for history, I was nonetheless consumed by seasonal curiosity to wonder about the origins of ‘boules de Noël’. Wikipedia reveals that the tradition goes back to the 16th century when the first Christmas trees were decked out in natural bounty like fruit and nuts. One day an inventive glass-blower from Germany had the idea to create balls of glass to hang on the tree. When drought brought a shortage of apples one year, the tradition of ‘les boules’ came to France via the northeast region of Les Vosges.

Our balls are duly (and not dully, as a French colleague of mine used to write), dusted off and hanging in all their shiny splendour from the tree. They are not just pretty but provide a reminder of how fragile are such celebrations. They hang upon a thread of close-knit families, traditions and good health. They depend upon good will towards one’s fellow man and a bit of bounty to share with one another.

I love Christmas but struggle with what we put around it. The gifts, the decorations, the feasting. The squandering of time and money, the stress to get the right things and over-indulge.

And yet there is a core idea of purity around Noël that I cling to from childhood: a fresh field of snow, a star in the sky. A carol sung with joy, familiar faces at the door. A warm fire with a drink waiting inside. A full heart when a fond wish is granted.

I’m off in search of that holiday magic for a couple of weeks. May your days be merry and bright until we meet again next year!

 

Grimentz and grumbles

IMG_3089After my one-woman tribute to the 80s on the ski slopes last winter, I swore that this year I would get new gear. If only to keep up with my husband who is fully outfitted in the latest high-tech layers, skis and boots, including a set of seal skins for going uphill. I didn’t make it to new skis but did manage to get a new pair of boots, the most challenging part of the whole operation.

Let’s just say I have a rather substantial calf. A pair of gams that call up images not of limbs so much as tree trunks, or, as one (obviously former) suitor once said: “Your leg looks like something that should be put on a spit and rotated.”

Getting a ski boot I can actually do up without cutting off all the circulation in my lower extremities is a challenge. After terrorizing two salespeople and trying on at least six different models, I finally thought we had a good fit in a Salomon. Last weekend it was time to put them to the test.

Now that the spring is upon us, the Alps offer my kind of fair-weather skiing. We decided to make a weekend of it on the Swiss side, more picturesque and less crowded than France. On Friday night we headed for Grimentz, a cute little village in the Valais region of Switzerland where I’d been once before for a work event.

The trouble began the next morning when I tried to do up the boots. Either my calves had expanded in the weeks since we left the store or the altitude was playing tricks with my brain. We somehow managed to do them up but I was feeling pins and needles by the time we got to the télécabine.

The view from the top
The view from the top

My husband instructed me to wait while he got the ski passes. He has this habit of taking charge whenever we get near a mountain. He then directed me to the gondola lift and up, up, up we went – a full twenty-minute ride to the top. What the–? I tried to catch my breath as we got off the lift but the air was a little thin. This was not what I’d had in mind. I studied the map of ski runs. Where were all the blues? And the restaurant? Hubby looked at the map and pointed out that we were on the other side of the resort, its highest point. Seemed there had been two possible ways up and we had taken the wrong one. A few choice words were exchanged but I’ll spare you having to pardon my French. I admired the view while he did a few red and black runs. We took the next cable car down.

By the time we got down to the nice blue slopes it was almost lunch time. We got in a few runs before heading for a sunny spot on a terrace where, a sausage and a large beer later, I began to enjoy myself.

The boots were still a bit tight but at least I could feel my feet. We skied several runs and enjoyed the afternoon.

IMG_3092The best part of the weekend was being in Grimentz. It is a picturesque mountain village built almost entirely out of wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire hydrant

Which probably explains why there’s a fire hydrant on every corner.

 

Unlike the French, who so often let their ski resorts turn into concrete monstrosities, this place is nothing but old wood and cobbled streets. Lots of good places to eat, too, and the Valaisans make great wine and cheese.

 

 

 

Stay tuned for more adventures next winter!